This Breast Cancer Awareness month author Kate Nicholas shares the lessons she learned as she 'battled' breast cancer.
What does the phrase "battling against cancer" mean to you? Over the past decade of living with stage IV cancer, I have encountered many war-like metaphors in relation to the disease — in the media, conversation with secular friends and even, occasionally, in Church. The comparison with battle is no doubt seen as a galvanising one, conferring a sense of agency and control over the disease; as if we had the power to eradicate our own errant cells, and the idea is attractive, providing a sense of hope in the face of seemingly overwhelmingly bad odds.
As Christians, of course, we are aware that this power can only come from God, and that the weapons we wield are not of our own making but his. I was first diagnosed with advanced breast cancer back in 2014. The prognosis was not good – the cancer had spread to the pericardial sac around my heart and mediastinal area – but I would begin each day by mentally strapping on the armour of God (as described in Ephesians Chapter 6) so that I could take a stand against cancer.
On one of the toughest days of my journey, I began to sink beneath the waves of consciousness.
I would buckle the belt of truth around my waist remembering that he is Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals and would put in place the breastplate of righteousness, won through Christ’s sacrifice and remembering Isaiah’s prophecy "by his wounds we are healed" (Isaish 53:5). With my feet fitted with "the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace", I mentally picked up the shield of faith and put on the helmet of salvation, praying for protection against fear. Finally, I took up the sword of the spirit which is God’s word.
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When I was ill I was given a passage from Psalm 118:17: "I will not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord", and against all odds I survived. During the seven glorious years of remission that followed, I dedicated myself to this mission as an author, preacher and broadcaster. Then in 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, the cancer returned with vengeance. Within weeks of starting chemotherapy I became desperately ill, and on one of the toughest days of my journey, I began to sink beneath the waves of consciousness. At first I fought to stay afloat but as my strength ebbed away, I was taken down into the depths; to a liminal place where I was forced to simply be, surrendered and be still. And there I had an unforgettable encounter with the mystery of God, who I experienced as something ancient, vast and unending, uncontained and eternal, magnificent and kind.
Rather than going into "battle" against the cancer, my new approach required me to simply be still and know that he is God.
As I began to recover I was left with a powerful nostalgia for what I call my "ocean floor" experience; a yearning for the that deep intuitive connection I had felt. And as I sought to recapture the intensity of that experience. I began to explore a contemplative practice that dates back to the dawn of Christianity, to the Apostle Paul, Desert Fathers, Celtic Christians and Medieval Mystics and has been take up my modern spiritual masters such as Bede Griffiths and John Main. Rather than going into "battle" against the cancer, this approach seemed to require me to simply be still and know that he is God (Psalms 46:1); to say, "Thy will be done" and really mean it; to pray like Charles de Foucald, "Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you. I am ready for all; I accept all" — and to simply trust.
For most of my life I have been a bit of control freak and a rationalist, but through cancer, God taught me to be me to be still and to embrace the mystery; to recognise that his power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9) and that the greatest weapon against cancer may be our surrender to the will of he whose healing transcends our understanding.
Kate Nicholas’s new book To The Ocean Floor: A second cancer journey and a gateway to a profound connection with God is available at Christian bookstores and online. For further information visit www.katenicholas.co.uk.