October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. It is a good time for advocacy, support, education, and remembrances of survivors and victims of breast cancer. For churches serious about ministering to the whole person, this presents a unique challenge and pastoral opportunity.
According to the American Cancer Society, one out of every nine people are diagnosed with breast cancer. It is the second leading cause of death for women, and the leading cause of death for women ages 35 to 45.
Thankfully, persistent research, greater awareness, and intentional education has garnered early prevention and more effective treatments. Yet, the effects of breast cancer can become so complex that churches still struggle to respond.
For one, since breast cancer deals with an intimate part of the body, any conversation about this type of cancer can be taboo. A majority of churches have male clergy so conversations about breast cancer may be avoided altogether.
Furthermore, breast cancer leads to, as chaplain Irene Henderson argues, two different areas of pastoral concern. One includes issues surrounding a loss of self or sexual awareness, as well as a shifting sense of femininity and stigmatization. This is especially true for people whose primary treatment is a mastectomy.
Irene Henderson tells one such story of a mastectomy patient who underwent chemotherapy. The chemo resulted in hair loss, and the patient lamented that only when she lost her hair did people begin to sympathize with her. Her pastor did not ask about grief over losing a breast, but was quick to offer help only after she came to church bald.
A second area of pastoral concern deals with the emotions of victims. Like victims of other tragedies, breast cancer patients ask the inevitable “Why me?” This is a question that communicates anger, guilt, and shame.
No surprise, then, that many victims feel guilty when they are diagnosed and question whether they are at fault. Victims question their level of self-care and wonder whether the diagnosis resulted from lack of dieting or exercise.
Nevertheless, Henderson says that a victim’s guilt should be neither ignored nor downplayed, but seen through to the end. This reminds me of Psalm 23, in which God walks with us “through the valley of the shadow of death.”
Since breast cancer brings to mind one’s mortality (whether it is detected early or not), churches, friends, and support groups need to walk through the various emotions with their loved ones in this precarious and fragile illness. One can only walk “through the valley,” not around it. If done intentionally then, churches can provide much-needed pastoral presence in the midst of questioning, doubt, and anger. This, in turn, can empower victims to take an active role in the disease’s treatment.
Other ways a church community can provide support is by listening to victims and acknowledging grief that occurs from losing a breast, sexual vitality, and any relationships.
If guilt is present, the church can foster reconciliation with God or loved ones. If anger is the overriding response to a diagnosis, the church can affirm that God is big enough to handle the pain and sorrow of any doubting victim.
The church also needs to be present for single women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as the partners of breast cancer victims. Single women who face a mastectomy, for instance, may mourn the fact that breast feeding may not be an option if childbirth is a future goal. Furthermore, a single woman can easily doubt her self-image and beauty, resulting in a decline of self-image and confidence. Such issues need to be handled sensitively and with a trusted adviser, counselor or friend.
Partners of victims also need to grieve in their own way. Some, for instance, need space to recognize that their loved one will not be the same after a surgery or treatment is pursued. In some circumstances, the partner may also realize that he or she may have to move into a caregiver role.
By taking steps to confront breast cancer head on, especially during the month of October, the church has a chance to prophetically confront the new reality that exists on the horizon for all victims and bear witness to the “year of God’s favor” to the brokenhearted and those held captive to cancer.
(Source: Irene Henderson, “Matters Close to the Heart: Pastoral Care to Mastectomy Patients,” in Through the Eyes of Women, ed. Jeanne Stevenson Moessner [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996], pp. 207-221.)