First Person

Religion is an unavoidable topic for breast-cancer patients

 

Multimedia producer and reporter Andrea Torres chronicles her breast-cancer experiences in Tropical Life.

Graphic content: What breast cancer is and is not

atorres@MiamiHerald.com

When a cancer diagnosis hits home, the loaded subject of religion is unavoidable.

A breast cancer patient named Linda was angry about the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s since-reversed decision to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood in order to maintain its relationship with the Catholic Church. She uploaded a defiant video to YouTube earlier this year.

“I used to have two beautiful girls here,” she says, indicating the place on her chest once occupied by her breasts. “Now they’re gone.”

Opening her robe to reveal bilateral mastectomy scars, she looks straight at the camera and vents her fury: “Do you see religion on my chest? Do you see Christian? Do you see Catholic? Do you see Jewish? Do you see Hindu? Do you see Muslim?”

At the same time, religion can motivate acts of kindness. During chemotherapy, I received two Roman Catholic prayer cards of El Divino Niño, the Infant Jesus of Prague, to which believers attribute miraculous powers.

“Help us endure our afflictions and sorrows with patience and courage,” one of the written prayers reads.

If my maternal grandmother had been alive, she would have knelt before a statue of that infant and prayed for my health. After her funeral service in 2010, I held my grandfather’s hand as he wept. “I have lost the love of my life,” he said. “I’m not sure if I believe in God, but I believe that I will be with her again.” He died a few months later.

I thought about him last week when I attended a Passover Seder at the home of Jewish friends. Although both of my parents were raised Roman Catholic, I tested positive for the BRCA2 genetic mutation associated with breast and ovarian cancer that is common among Jews of Ashkenazi descent. That surprising test result raised the possibility that my grandfather’s father, who emigrated to Colombia from Germany during the Nazi period, was Jewish.

And so my religious heritage is somewhat muddled at a time when many women embrace their faith. Studies have found that breast cancer patients tend to increase their religious or spiritual activities after their diagnosis.

Reality TV star Giuliana Rancic, a Roman Catholic, appears to be one of them. The young TV host told People magazine that she and her husband have begun going to church every Sunday. “Now we pray together,” she said, “and you’ll never know how much that means until you do it.”

Yet while religious faith is a source of strength and solace for some breast cancer patients, it can be an impediment for others. A 2002 East Carolina University study found that the belief in “religious intervention in place of treatment” could help explain why some women were getting diagnosed at more advanced stages. The researchers suggested that clinicians and clergy “work together within the context of religious beliefs” to enhance early detection.

“There is a lot more in common than we realize between science and religion,” says the Rev. Aida Melendez-Diego, who offers bilingual, non-denominational pastoral care to patients at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Prayer and mediation help to reduce stress and anxiety,” said Melendez-Diego, who has an office at the Courtelis Center for Psychosocial Oncology. She gave me a booklet last week with instructions to download an iPhone app for daily meditations.

“Cancer is a temporary experience. It’s hard for our limited minds to understand concepts like eternity, so we complicate things, ” she said. I listened politely and smiled.

“It’s simple,” she added. “You exist in an infinite universe, and you didn’t create it. A higher power did.”

Talking to her made me feel like I was swimming in a lake of uncertainty. One thing I know for sure: Breast cancer doesn’t respect religion.

MY STORY

Part 1: At age 33, I’m dealing with breast cancer

Part 2: Cancer treatment complicates dreams of pregnancy

Part 3: Hanging in when chemotherapy gets rough

Part 4: Tough surgery choices: Mastectomy vs. Lumpectomy

Part 5: Silicone implans are not the only way to go in breast reconstruction

Part 6: Rebuilding the breast from body tissue

Part 7: Body fat can be used to build breast

Part 8: Facing my fears after mastectomy

Part 9: Taking control of the fear that comes with breast cancer

Part 10: Doctor knows about being a breast cancer survivor

Part 11: Radiation therapy gives her hope

Part 12: Finding strength from others

Part 13: Facebook, medication help breast cancer patient deal with depression

Part 14: A new outlook on 2012

Part 15: Breast cancer patient faces genetic mystery

Part 16: Using diversion to cope with harsh reality

Part 17: After radiation therapy ends

Part 18: Friend’s breast cancer journey is not as fortunate

Part 19: Anti-tumor meds come with scary story

Part 20: Reentry into the world after breast cancer treatment

Part 21: Too much fear, too little trust

Part 22: Chemo brain complicates return to work

Part 23: The Cancerous tumor is gone, not the fear

Part 24: Drawing strength from a singer’s defiant spirit

Part 25: A breast cancer message at Ultra Music Festival

Part 26: High hope for new drug

From the Editor: Journalist confronts cancer, takes readers along

Read more Health stories from the Miami Herald

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