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Four women take resourceful approach to living with breast cancer

By Michael Sims

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  "In a sense sickness is a place," Flannery O'Connor wrote, "more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow." Karen Leigh Stroup quotes these lines in the sad but stirring new book, Speak the Language of Healing: Living With Breast Cancer Without Going to War. That an illness, of whatever magnitude, can be instructive is one of the recurring themes in this remarkable book.

Stroup is one of the book's four co-authors, but for the sake of simplicity, she alone discussed Speak the Language of Healing in a recent interview. Her collaborators--Nashvillians all--are Susan Kuner, the director of Vanderbilt University's Virtual School in Tennessee; Carol Matzkin Orsborn, author of such books as The Art of Resilience; and Linda Quigley, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated features writer for The Tennessean. Stroup herself is the former minister of Central Christian Church in Nashville.

The four women were friends before they were collaborators. Early on, they discovered that one thing they had in common--besides breast cancer itself--was their attitude toward the disease. This point of view is nicely summed up in the preface by Joycelyn Elders, the former surgeon general: "Disease is not the target, death is not the enemy, and life is for celebrating, in all its brilliant, surprising, and complex fragments."

"Approaching cancer in a spiritual way," Karen Stroup explains, "is what we were writing about." Each woman refused to embrace the battlefield terminology of the "cancer culture"--"a world," as Carol Orsborn writes in her introduction, "in which people who die are 'losers,' and the 'winners' are those who emerge from illness unchanged.... To create the optimum environment for my healing--body, mind, and spirit--what I most needed was not a mighty sword but rather a mighty heart: a heart that could hope, love, and remain faithful in the shadow of mysteries that were beyond my comprehension."

The authors' attitude is hard-won, achieved through facing difficult facts head-on. As a result, their book wallows neither in head-in-the-sand denial nor in bitter fatalism. "Of course we want the scientific facts," they write, "the medical research, the latest technology--not to mention the inspirational stories of women who beat the odds. But we want something more. Regardless of the outcome of our illness, we want a quality of life that reflects our deepest values."

"All four of us are baby boomers," Stroup explains. "All of us grew up in a time when the Vietnam War was a big controversy. And our slogan was, of course, 'Make love, not war.' So then when we were diagnosed, we were thrust into this system that talks about 'battling' our disease. We're peaceful people, and we're asked suddenly to become 'soldiers.' Not only that, but the enemy that we're asked to fight is ourselves.

"I don't want to call that metaphor wrong," Stroup adds. "If it works for some people, that's great. But it is limiting."

The authors emphasize the story of Odysseus' wife Penelope, who kept her world together while her wandering, combative husband was off at war. As Stroup says, "There's a lot to be said for perseverance, for quiet determination, for attending to the tiny details of everyday life."

Stroup herself has developed a rich appreciation for everyday life. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 1994. She underwent surgery, radiation treatment, and chemotherapy, but by that December she was diagnosed as terminal. The following spring, doctors told her that so far no treatment had made much headway against the illness, and that if nothing else helped, she had perhaps six months to live. Six months later, still hanging on, Stroup began hormone treatments--and since that time her cancer has neither grown nor gone away. But she is still diagnosed as terminal. "Nobody knows what to do with me," she laughs. "I'm just living too long."

Of course, these four women are not the first writers to suggest that there are ways to grow through adversity without denying the magnitude of the tragedy. "But you never hear that talked about with cancer," Stroup says. "Oh, when you talk to cancer patients you do, but not in the wider world. It's just so horrifying that people couldn't imagine there could come any good out of it. Until AIDS, it was the most horrifying diagnosis." The authors reject the notions that they somehow caused their cancer or deserved it. What's more, they reject the idea that they should be defined by its presence.

At the back of the book, readers will find a list of resources and a group-study guide. Resources range through the expected options, including C. S. Lewis and Sherman Nuland. But also included are some wonderfully apt but surprising choices, such as the spirit-renewing poetry of Rilke, Mary Oliver, and the Sufi mystic Rumi. The surprising tone of this book is summed up in one of the resources listed--James Brown's classic move-your-ass song, "Get Up Offa That Thing (Release the Pressure)."

Obviously, the authors of this remarkable book have taken to heart Merlin's observation in T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, which Linda Quigley quotes: "The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails." Speak the Language of Healing is about learning to be your best and truest self under the most challenging circumstances life can offer.

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