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Written by: Rev. Bruce Krause, C.M.

Cancer: From “Catch 22” to the Calculus of Faith

Editor's Note: The following is the opening address given by the Rev. Bruce Krause, C.M., at NU's Relay for Life, held March 19 on the Niagara campus. This annual event raises money for the American Cancer Society. Father Krause had undergone chemotherapy and shared his journey with the relay participants.

Have you heard of a book entitled "Catch 22" by Joseph Heller? It tells the story of John Yossarian, an Air Force bombardier in World War II caught in a "no-win situation." To avoid dangerous bombing missions and save his life, he had to request an insanity hearing. Yet, the ability to make such a request was viewed as confirmation of his sanity. Thus, he would be sent on missions. The title, "Catch 22," became a cultural catchword for one caught in a "no-win situation."

Life is full of many seemingly no-win situations. I experienced this last summer when my oncologist told me that my colon cancer had spread to my liver. Advised by my oncologist to have a liver resection (a surgical removal of a section of the liver), he advised me that the liver would regenerate itself. After surgery came six months of chemotherapy.

"Catch 22" became real to me when the oncologist explained the odds: a 70 percent chance of cancer returning if I elected not to do chemotherapy, and a 50 percent chance of cancer returning or spreading even if I did go through with chemo. By my own estimation these did not seem very good odds. I am not a gambler, and I usually only bet on a sure thing. But this was definitely not a sure thing. In this "Catch 22," I had no choice but to play the game. My life depended upon it!

On my better days, I envisioned Pac Man or some other electronic game figure devouring the cancerous cells in my body. However, I realize the meds coursing through my veins are eating both good and bad white blood cells. Their effects have been tough and included chronic fatigue, nausea, dizziness, blurred vision, shortness of breath, vomiting, dry skin, and pain in my fingers and toes. There were many times I wished I could have high-level negotiations with God as to how I might more easily extend my life. Yet, my own calculating comes up way short!

Someone who has kindled a renewed faith for me in this experience is John Carmody, a theologian and fellow cancer sufferer. In his book, "Cancer and Faith: Reflections on Living with a Terminal Illness," he tells it like it is, without syrupy sayings from someone not in the trenches of illness. Carmody's meditations are compelling and evoke within me a call to a deeper faith. He reflected on just how short his own life was and calculated his future. Yet he quickly realized his efforts were futile. How can one finite negotiate with an infinite God about one's future?

A couple of years ago, I visited the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Against the backdrop of amazing galaxies and unfathomable distances between them, I felt incredibly small. Yet, when I view my life within God's infinite design, I gain a very different sense of my future. It gives me a profound reason to have hope. It is for this reason that John Carmody's insight really hit home. John writes:

"The Word of God is unlimited. It exists at another level, from which we enter when we try to imagine the reaches of the galaxies, the time or extent of the Big Bang. We measure some of these natural things, using reason to make sense of infinity, but we ourselves are not the measure. All our final measuring is negative. The best we can do with ultimacy is to imagine no bounds, no hindrances, no death. If we are the measure, the world is mortal and joy does not reign. We die and there is no hope for happiness. But if Jesus, one of us without limit, can be our measure, then humanity is more than death and suffering, humanity can be the primal sacrament of God."

It is easy to feel like a small fish in a vast ocean when pondering God. Being ill and quite uncertain about my future, as I am, makes the comparison even more difficult. Yet, the Scriptures speak of the beginning of wisdom coming with a profound sense of awe before the Lord. There is amazement before God who has fashioned the heavens, the moon, the stars, and even each of us! These mighty works defy our human imagination and intellect.

But God is truly mindful of you and me! I have seen this in the numerous expressions of concern, prayers and well wishes I have received here at NU and beyond. It is a source of great consolation, and I thank you from the depths of my heart. My belief is that your lives and mine are in the hands of One all powerful and all loving. Through his son, Jesus, God has gone through the trenches of life in the unspeakable suffering of the cross for us.

My faith gives me a different calculus on life. I need not conclude that I am in a "Catch 22" situation. I can live my life, and I hope and pray that you and those you know who suffer from cancer and other illnesses can do the same.