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Finding life in the face of death

Kate Bowler tells Claire Brine how a cancer diagnosis helped to shape her belief that everything does not happen for a reason

I thought I was going to be dead by the end of the year

‘ONE moment, I was a regular person with regular problems. And the next, I was someone with cancer,’ says Kate Bowler, a wife, mother and theology professor at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina. ‘I just couldn’t believe it was happening to me. It felt impossible.’

In 2015, after months of seeing doctors for an unexplained jabbing pain in her stomach, Kate was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer. Almost immediately, she underwent surgery. Fearing the worst, she didn’t expect to live.

‘In that moment of diagnosis, my world became incredibly small,’ Kate recalls. ‘It felt as though a bomb had gone off. My mind couldn’t even form thoughts around what the doctor was telling me – because words didn’t make any sense. No one in my family had cancer.

‘Then the doctor said a zillion impossible things. He said I had a 30 to 50 per cent chance of survival – and survival meant just two years. At that point I thought: We’re not speaking the same language any more. I don’t know what you’re talking about, because my life is durable and permanent.’

As Kate waited to go in for surgery, she couldn’t help but think about her life and the possibility of death. At the time, she was 35 years old. She had a husband and a two-year-old son. The thought of dying and leaving them behind was almost too much for her to bear.

‘I felt that my life was only just getting started, and yet suddenly I was having to contemplate its conclusion,’ she says. ‘When I thought about my husband and my kid, everything felt impossible. I knew that my loss would tear their lives apart.’

Despite her fears, Kate survived her surgery. Nearly two and a half years later, she is back at work and once again able to play human aeroplanes with her son. She is also undergoing continual treatment for her cancer, having moved ‘from crisis stage of the illness to management stage’.

She says: ‘Every few months I have a scan to see how my cancer is doing and, if all is well, we take a deep breath and book another scan. Moving from the terminal into the incurable phase is exhausting. “Terminal” is about knowing what the ending is. “Incurable” means we are living in the “in between”.’

While Kate has grown used to juggling family life, her career and a diary full of hospital appointments, there are occasions when she finds herself reflecting on another kind of life. Not that long ago, there was a Kate before cancer.

‘That Kate was climbing ladders,’ she laughs. ‘I was always on my way to something else. I was certain that everything I was doing was an investment for my future. It was as though I expected my hopefulness, hard work and kindness would earn me some kind of future reward.

‘In my own hilarious version of that expectation, I imagined being an academic in my beautiful neo-Gothic tower, surrounded by a harem of graduate students, and I would be an author of a dozen books. And, of course, I would be wise and benevolent too! I thought there had to be some kind of resonance between having a Christian faith and a life well lived. I couldn’t imagine that this life would be one in which I’d suffer.

‘But what an arrogance to assume that things would always work out for me just because I tried my best! I’d always thought, as an academic in theology, that I was above thinking in such a way – but no. It turns out I was all for the boomerang idea that every good thing you do will come back to you.’

Today, as Kate learns how to live with cancer, she finds that the weight of the word has changed since her initial diagnosis. Her focus is to get on with life, rather than wait for death.

‘The things I love get me through,’ she says. ‘The love that I have for my gorgeous kid and my beautiful husband means I want to try to be indestructible. They help me. So one day I might be having a scan, but then two hours later I’m on the floor playing with Lego. Suddenly I’m a world away from white blood cell counts.

‘These days I find that my brain has to operate on two very separate tracks. One part of me is the fully operational, regular Kate who plans for invincibility. I do meaningful work where I forget the time, and all that helps me not to feel eclipsed by a disease that I did not choose.

‘But then there’s another part of me that cannot speak in the future tense. I plan for contingencies and think about saving money because one day my husband might be a single parent. So if someone says “cancer” to me at 2 pm, I’ll think I can beat it. But say it at 2 am, and I’m feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders.’

In her darkest moments, Kate ponders her death and the life that will continue for her family after it. She confesses that the thought of dying scares her. The fact that she sees herself as ‘the bad thing that happens to other people’ also makes her desperately sad.

‘After my diagnosis, I thought I was going to be dead by the end of the year,’ she says. ‘So I stopped imagining myself in the future. I stopped buying clothes. But what I didn’t expect was the sense of comfort that came when God filled in the cracks.

‘It was during my time in hospital, when I was preparing to let go, that I felt intensely loved. I had a beautiful sense of calm and the feeling that I was full, as though I wasn’t starving for anything any more. It felt bright and clear. I have never seen things in such Technicolor as in those moments. Everything else felt dumb and petty. Getting cancer really did crystallise for me my best loves. I’m grateful for that.

‘But moving beyond the crisis stage into the management stage of the illness, I was almost reluctant to give up that calmness, because I knew I’d start to become hungry for life again. And normal life can’t stay meaningful 100 per cent of the time. There’s road rage and boring customer service calls.

‘But I love something that my friend said to me: “Pain digs out of you something which joy can fill.” That makes sense to me. The closer I get to terrible suffering, the more I’m increasing my capacity for joy. I’ve found that the highs are much richer in my life now, because the lows have been so deep.’

The insights Kate has gleaned from her experiences with cancer formed the inspiration for her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. In it, Kate explores how to cope with illness without resorting to clichés or other statements that she has found unhelpful such as, ‘A door has closed but God will open a window’, and, ‘Just think what you can learn from this experience’.

Kate explains: ‘I really want us to find better language for how to talk to suffering people. We need to simmer down with the clichés and step forward with love.

‘People come out with sayings like, “Everything happens for a reason” because they are looking for the spiritual formula that helps everything to add up. People want God to be good and fair. And if God is good and fair, then we should be able to do the math around suffering and come up with a reason why it happens. Personally, I’ve given up trying to explain the math which already adds up to what I know about God: that he is love and profoundly invested in the details of our lives.

‘Having said all that, there is a part of me that wishes the Kingdom of God was slightly more obvious than it is. Sometimes, in the cancer clinic, it’s just too hard to see the goodness of God. It’s too much work, and my heart breaks.’

After the publication of her book, Kate received countless letters from people experiencing all kinds of suffering and those facing bereavement. It became apparent that many of them were longing to talk to someone about death.

‘I think people feel exhausted by their own helplessness,’ she says. ‘There’s a moment of realisation when you learn that you could be a breath away from something that takes your life apart. And the idea that some things can’t be fixed is terrifying.

‘When we accept that life is finite and we can’t snack on pleasures for ever, we begin to ask ourselves whether or not our current loves are worthy of what we are paying for them. What is worthy of our time and care? Are we choosing wisely?

‘Being a Christian with cancer who has started to think about death, I’ve got the time to try to start loving my idols a little less. I’ve learnt that life is so very fragile, so my perspective has changed regarding the things I love but that don’t transform me.

‘I can also spend time working on the plot lines of my life. For example, I used to picture myself having a big family. But I have just one child. And so I am determined to say: “This is my one kid and we’re going to do some serious high-fiving while we work on being good and kind.” My focus is on helping my son to become the kind of person I always wanted him to be, whether or not I have cancer.’

While Kate has come to an acceptance of her diagnosis, she reveals that she prays for healing.

‘We are allowed to ask God for anything in prayer,’ she says. ‘So I ask for everything. But if I receive healing, I don’t really know what form that would take. Is healing an answer to a prayer that I get better? Maybe. Is healing the release of a new drug that happens to work on me? Maybe. Or is healing that I might stay alive for a reasonable period of time?

‘Also, I don’t know what completeness looks like. Who’s to say that living till you’re 80 years old is a complete life?

‘While I do believe that God can heal, I can’t give up on the life that I have in the meantime by searching for healing as though it’s some kind of “secret formula”. If God wants to make me better, he knows my address.’

At the end of her book, Kate relays a conversation she had with a medic whose words had a profound impact on her. After she shared her thoughts with him about life and its finiteness, he urged her: ‘Don’t skip to the end.’

‘That’s the secret,’ she says. ‘Plans are made and plans come apart. Life is full of terrible and exhilarating seasons. My world now is one in which I have to fight like hell and at the same time learn how to let go. But that’s all part of the great human experiment.’

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