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.
Part 8: Facing my fears after mastectomy
Part 11: Radiation therapy gives her hope
Part 12: Finding strength from others
Part 14: A new outlook on 2012
Part 17: After radiation therapy ends
Part 21: Too much fear, too little trust
Part 26: High hope for new drug