Ritual Ways to Tame Breast Cancer

Reverend Dr. Donna Schaper

When I got to the other side of the surgery, the fear, the doctors' appointments, the drain tubes, it would have been too late to say good-bye to Lola, the name my sixteen year old daughter gave my now-missing left breast. I had to find a way to say good-bye earlier and to ritualize what would become a life long absence. Reconstruction or not, Lola was not returning. We might get a facsimile, even a good facsimile, but Lola was gone.

One of the ways I ritualized my loss was by giving Lola the name. My daughter dealt with it by making jokes. "If I ever have to lose one of mine, I'm going to call it "Lolita."

My husband gave me the gift of another ritual. The day before the surgery we went to the nude part of North Miami Beach. We took pictures against the sea, "just so we can prove to our grandchildren that I used to have two." (The fact that he can't figure out where to get these pictures developed without being called a dirty old man is another matter entirely.)

As a personal ritual, I came up with a walk on my favorite pier at Davie Beach in Fort Lauderdale as a place to go after each doctor's appointment. A long walk on this long pier gives me the air and the sea as either comfort or joy. I then swim and let the ocean hold me. So far I haven't had to go to this pier with bad news. So far my news is good. On the day that it is not, however, I have something to do. I have memories in my bag of tricks. Ritual gives us memories. Ritual gives us repetitions that we can use when the going gets tough.

When cancer comes, every doctor's appointment matters. We never know if we are going to leave with good news or bad news. We never get to used to saying, "my oncologist." Cancer is like being a swimmer in a beautiful, big pool - and swimming all life long - with a sense of freedom and abandon. When cancer comes, it's like someone put a shark in the pool. The shark hasn't found you yet but you know it is there. You don't swim with abandon any more. But you still swim! Ritualizing the fact that we still swim is a way to swim beyond the fear that has now been deposited into our body.

For me, prayer was also an important part of the rituals - and I was deeply blessed by my congregation and my staff there when my cancer was discovered. As I went into surgery, my staff gathered in our small chapel and prayed for me. I knew they were there, holding me up, and I was not afraid. I was with them and through them, with God. Likewise the congregation ministered to me in amazing ways, putting a dozen orchids in the tree outside my office for the day I returned, adding deck chairs(!) to my office porch, at one time sending ten dozen yellow roses left over from a fancy event. I was blessed by the rituals of others - the prayers, the cards, the flowers. These things seem so small and fragile in the face of cancer, but they bear the weight.

I know that not everyone prays. Some people have been hurt by God. And I know that not everyone has a congregation and a staff to bear them through troubled times. But everyone can develop rituals - if not prayer or meditation, then of repeated walks to favorite places, of jokes and names and ways to be silly in the face of horrible things. These rituals tame the beast of cancer and help us stay in the great pool of life, instead of sitting out our days on the sidelines. Breast cancer takes plenty away from us already - we must not let fear take any more! Customized personal rituals tame fear, breast cancer's worst feature.

© Donna Schaper

Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper, Senior Pastor at Coral Gables Congregational Church in Miami, Florida, is the author of seventeen books.

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