Living with Cancer

November 16, 2013 Length: 18:28

Today, Dr. Rossi interviews a wife and mother of two small children who is fighting cancer and has gone through several surgeries, treatments, and procedures. What can be learned from such an experience and where does God come into the picture?

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Dr. Albert Rossi: Today I would like to do an interview on Becoming a Healing Presence, this podcast, for you who are listening, with, from one point of view, an ordinary citizen. There’s no such thing as an ordinary citizen, of course, but this is a person most in Orthodoxy don’t know, because she is a parishioner in an Orthodox church. It happens to be in— Doesn’t matter where it happens to be. Ordinary church someplace in the United States. Not the wife of a priest. She hasn’t written books. This is the first time on this podcast. The point I want to make is that I consider myself ordinary. Those of us who are ordinary are sometimes called to find Christ in extraordinary circumstances. That’s the way it is. We all have a different story.

So today I will interview Sarah Najjar and ask her to—she and I will converse back and forth—simply tell you her life as an Orthodox woman: married, two young children whom I met this morning, and—how do you say? Wife and mother. Sarah, tell us a bit about your current life.

Ms. Sarah Najjar: Well, as you said, my husband and I are blessed to have been married 11 years now. We have two young children, seven and five years old. And we, three years ago, had the opportunity to experience cancer in our lives. I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. We did what we thought was best. It was very overwhelming. We were very—I won’t say naive—but we were very overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. We were guided by our doctors to keep it very simple, so I had a simple lumpectomy surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Then at my two-year anniversary of tests, they found some abnormal cells. So in February of this year I chose to have a double mastectomy. They did not find any cancer when they did that, which we were very happy about.

Then after my surgery I began having some hip pain, and it just progressively got worse and worse. It turns out that my breast cancer had metastasized into bone cancer, and it had metastasized to my spine, to my bones, and most currently they have just found some in my liver. So since June of this year we have been on quite a journey. It’s been about four months. We have just been thankful and grateful for everything that has happened with it, including our church, our friends, our family, our priests. We are just grateful to God. It’s been a blessing. I always tell my husband I’m his cross to bear, and he takes it with stride, and he does a lot more work than [I do] as my caregiver, as our children’s caregiver. We just take it one day at a time, and we just pray that everything turns out okay.

Dr. Rossi: You know, it so happens that there is background noise. Sarah and I are sitting way back in a corner of a room that’s adjacent to a larger room where there’s a celebration, and everyone at the celebration is festive and having a great time. Sarah, sitting here, is a very attractive, nicely dressed young woman with the diseases that she just talked about.

Perhaps you as listeners—certainly I, as the blessed, honored interviewer—were astounded to hear her say the words “gift” and “blessed.” I’ll just say it: How can this be? Where is the gift? Where is the blessing? Of course, it’s a paradox, and of course it’s faith, but this is not from a book. This is not out of a theological discussion. Sarah’s living a life with two children, beautiful children, a seven- and five-year-old. Sarah, please say to the listeners what you were telling me this morning what your children had been saying to you.

Mrs. Najjar: Well, my daughter is five years old, and every night when we say our prayers she prays that Mommy has no more surgeries. I did have four surgeries this year in a matter of four months, and I think she’s tired of the hospital rooms, so she prays that Mommy has no more surgeries. And my son prays that Mommy doesn’t die. So I’m trying to do everything I can not to let that happen. I personally look forward to, God willing, entering the kingdom, but I know that my children would love to have me here. I know that my son—at one time we had explained to him that even when I’m not here, I will be here with them, and my son said, “But wouldn’t it be better if you were here with us for real?” Like he’d rather have me here on earth than with him from heaven, and I understand. I think that they understand death, they understand heaven, they understand that it’s going to be a wonderful place for me to be, without sickness, but they want me here, so that’s what they pray for every night. It’s very touching to me that they want me here, but they’re just innocents.

Dr. Rossi: Yes, Sarah, they want you here, and they are just innocents. In one sense, they know exactly what they’re saying, and in another sense they really don’t. They really don’t know what life would be like without a mommy. They don’t know. However, in their minds, as mature as minds can be at ages five and seven, these are statements of truth, faith, as they can understand it. Let me ask you a delicate question of a man to ask a woman, and you’re welcome to say, “Oh, I’d just as soon not say,” but I’ll ask. How old are you?

Mrs. Najjar: I’m 42 years old.

Dr. Rossi: 42 years old? I’m in my mid-70s, and by my standards that’s very, very, very, very young, and still a way… heading toward the fullness of womanhood, the fullness of femininity and the fullness of graciousness and life—but already afflicted so multiply: breast, bone, in the hip, spine, a little bit to the liver, and living in faith.

Say a word or two, if you would, how faith weaves into this.

Mrs. Najjar: Wow. Well, I’ve been in the same church my whole life.

Dr. Rossi: Let’s mention it.

Mrs. Najjar: Okay. I belong to St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Louisville, Kentucky. I had the same priest for many years, and ironically he’s going through metastatic cancer, and we were diagnosed around the same time. So our faith together, I feel like, has really just grown ten-fold, a hundred-fold. We have a priest there now when he retired who just watches over me. He is always there for me, and we pray together, we sing songs from St. Nectarios, my husband prays the Akathist for the Healer of Cancer, and we just… I have all my friends and family at church. My girlfriends—I have some very special friends at church, and during my last surgery—I had brain surgery, which turned out to be benign—but this last surgery my friends went to our chapel in Louisville and prayed the akathist for me while I was in surgery. To me, that’s just… the amount of prayers that are going around the world right now, the lists that I’m on, prayer lists, is just unbelievable.

That’s what strengthens my faith: to know that so many people are praying to God for me and want me to be here and are actually experiencing this with me, and they’re actually getting something out of it. I feel like I am witnessing right now, because even though I am the one who is sick, so many people are doing so many things to help me and my family—babysitting, dinners, raising money—all kinds of different things to help us out, and it’s just been unbelievable. To me, that’s faith. All of my life, praying to God, believing in God, and that Jesus is right there with me and holding me—that I’ve always had, but then to see it in action through other people has just been unbelievable to me and my family. I just can’t even describe how overwhelming it can be, but how much it deepens my faith that there are so many people out there who are so faithful that they would do things like this for us. So many good people out there.

Dr. Rossi: Yes, and again, frankly—I make my little podcast as personal as I can, mentioned Sarah’s first and last name and the church she goes to—the priest she referred to, Fr. Alexander Atty, frankly, I interviewed him earlier today. We all happened to be here for the same event.

I was of a different religion for 40 years, and of course I teach in a seminary and so on, but I’m still asking the existential question: What is Orthodoxy, really, really, really? And I know it’s a question I will never answer satisfactorily for myself, but, right now, for me, Sarah’s answer is as good as it gets. Orthodoxy—and I do know, for me, Orthodoxy differs—it really is, for a lack of better language, this delivery system. It’s people, but it’s people acting this way, sharing this common faith in the living Jesus Christ, as we find him expressed through the Fathers and then through our priests and bishops and hierarchs. This is Orthodoxy. This is attraction. This is the way God works, however God works, but he certainly is enfleshed. Orthodoxy is enfleshed, in weak, earthen vessels like us.

Sarah, this morning you mentioned to me that, in effect, your husband has two full-time jobs. Would you just elaborate that a bit?

Mrs. Najjar: Yes, my husband actually is a physical therapist for children during the day, and then he comes home and has to be my caregiver and the caregiver for our two children. His job is much harder than mine. He has to make sure that the house is running smoothly, that the children get to school in the morning, that I’m well enough to pick them up in the afternoon before he gets home, and then we have to get them to activities and things like that. Especially when I’m at my sickest or when I’m in the hospital or having treatments or anything, he has to be the one to organize caregivers, organize how we get the meals. That’s why I say he has two full-time jobs, because he has the job that pays the bills, but he also has the job, which, again, to me is the hardest job in all of this. I mean, cancer is very easy to me compared to what I see him have to go through. I think to this day that he still has the hardest job to the two of us. He calls doctors across the country. He is very determined that I get the best care that I can possibly get, and he really has to work hard at it to make it happen.

Dr. Rossi: Thank you, Sarah. I have no doubt that his attitude, and yours, is under-girded, sustained by a deep deepening faith. I would simply add that, in my conversation with you this morning and now, there is not a hint that I can detect of any self-pity. “Poor me, why me, look at the age of my children, how come God’s doing this?” I have heard that from others. I have even thought those thoughts myself when my wife was doing what she was doing. I have no doubt that those thoughts might cross your mind, cross your lips, but I haven’t heard them and our listeners haven’t heard them, and I’m grateful.

We’ll kind of wrap up, Sarah. Is there anything last you would like… I don’t understand how to say this. This is a little microphone and it’ll be broadcast at some point. A lot of people will hear it. And I get emails from all over, Orthodox and non-Orthodox people, Australia and the UK and so on. So God works in strange ways, and he really does use the weak, me and you, to do his bidding. Is there anything more, a last word you’d like to say to our listeners?

Mrs. Najjar: I would just say in response to what you were just saying, whenever I do feel down or get down, my husband just says, “God is doing this because he loves us. It’s all out of his love for us.” Then I just—that’s right. I just remember: that is exactly right. That’s the way we feel.

Dr. Rossi: That’s so confounding. It is so utterly confounding. “God is doing this out of love for us.” Scratch my head, go figure—it doesn’t seem like love. Certainly on the surface it doesn’t seem like love. Why should you and your husband, why should two lovely, healthy children, ages five and seven, go through the mental agony that they’re going through right now, knowing that their mother is so sick and has been in the hospital so many times? We don’t know. We just don’t know. And we don’t pretend to understand suffering. We don’t use cheap words. We don’t explain it away. It is what it is.

But we do believe, as you have said so eloquently, that God is love and he does love us, and everything he sends to us he sends us out of love. And then we do the next right thing. We try to retain our faith, try to support, encourage, give each other strength and hope, and then we walk on, alive and full of vigor. [Laughter] We’re at a wedding. I don’t doubt that later I’ll see Sarah out on the dance floor. I don’t know. I do know she took a meditation walk this afternoon here at Antiochian Village. So we choose life. We choose to live the life, the energy, the power that Christ gives us.