Via dolorosa: Walking the Stations of the Cross while on chemo

By Janine Denomme| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Saints, Feasts, and Seasons Spirituality
When you're on chemo, the Stations of the Cross take on a whole new meaning. 

Growing up Catholic in the 1970s, I remember the older women in our parish staying after Mass and praying before the Stations of the Cross. They would walk silently and slowly, stopping to pray at each of the 14 depictions of Jesus' final hours. I learned to think of the stations in the same way I thought of the rosary: They were for old people, a throwback to a pre-Vatican II time, and they held no meaning for me.

Today I know that the stations began as pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the centuries not long after Jesus lived. Over time believers built shrines in other places, eliminating the need to travel so far. In the 17th century, the Franciscans brought the shrines into their churches, allowing Christians to meditate on the suffering and death of Jesus indoors, in one place.

Historically Christians meditated on the scenes portraying the Passion narrative as penance. They believed their prayers helped compensate for their own and others' sins. Today, however, many turn to the stations to find meaning and hope in their own suffering. To my great surprise, since being diagnosed with cancer, I have recently done just that, connecting to the broken and wounded person of Jesus, the human Jesus, and finding solace there.

Station I: Jesus is condemned.

As I lay on the stretcher, surrounded by nurses, technicians, and machines, I began to weep. Perhaps it was the drugs getting me ready for surgery, or the kindness of these strangers. More likely it was the slow realization of why I was there: Two weeks earlier, a colonoscopy had found a tumor. More tests revealed that it had spread throughout my liver. Stage IV colon cancer. I have an oncologist now. An oncologist. He talks about "managing" my cancer, not curing it.

I was in pre-op so a surgeon could install a port and I could begin chemotherapy the next day. Three weeks before, I was in the midst of Holy Week, immersed in the words and rituals of Jesus' final painful hours but with the promise of Easter at its end. Today I could barely recall the Resurrection.

Station II: Jesus carries his cross.

On chemo days, a friend or family member drives me through morning rush hour to the hospital. When I arrive, I check in at the front desk, get my paperwork and ID bracelet, and wave hello to Hugh, who performed my intake when this all began. His smile warms me, and I remember how he looked up during the intake and said to me and my partner, Nancy, "You two are beautiful."

Next I go to the "drip room," where the oncology nurses greet me and draw several tubes of blood. They're testing to see if it's safe to give me chemo. While I am waiting for the results, my favorite nursing assistant checks my vitals. "Hey, baby," she says with a hug, "How you feeling today?" She sits me down to take my temperature, blood pressure, and pulse. I stand on the scale for her; they're always checking my weight.

I then join the growing crowd in the waiting area. We are from all walks of life: young, old, black, white, brown. Some come dressed to the nines, perhaps going to work following their appointment. Others arrive much more casual and comfortable. Bald heads, hats, and turbans abound. Some of us sit staring at the walls or the unturned pages of our magazines. Others chat quietly with a friend or family member. Occasionally we interact, our eyes conveying an implicit understanding. We smile kindly, bravely. And we wait.

Station III: Jesus falls for the first time.

The night following my very first treatment, my temperature spiked, and I ended up in the E.R. at 2:30 a.m. They pumped me with antibiotics until the veins on both my arms were sore and bruised. Three more nights passed while they tried to control my fever, uncertain of exactly what was causing it.

The infectious disease doctor insisted I was having an allergic reaction, while my oncologist swore it was no such thing. Once my temperature was stabilized, I lay in a chemo fog while Nancy fought for my release and got me back home. Each chemo day now carries the anxiety of having a repeat hospitalization.

Station IV: Jesus meets his mother.

I remember the night I got the results of my initial CT scan, confirming the spread of the cancer. I called my mother, dreading the pain and fear I was sure to hear in her voice. I wanted to apologize, feeling like I had somehow failed. Me, the high achiever, her child who lived so independently away from the family, her only daughter, her confidante.

Surely I would be disappointing my mother. I could not have been more wrong. We cried together 300 miles apart. The next morning she drove to Chicago, determined to make all things better.

Station V: Simon helps carry the cross.

I cannot imagine walking this road without Nancy. In the early days and weeks of my diagnosis, she and I clung to each other, shaken and shattered. A natural caretaker, Nancy began accompanying me to appointments, cooking all our meals, walking the dog by herself, screening calls, and holding me when waves of sadness rolled over me.

My own sense of loss engenders much of my sorrow, but I also carry a pool of tears for Nancy. We did not imagine this. None of us do. Call it the price of love. And so each day is a gift. Unbending in her love and commitment, no matter how this all plays out, Nancy walks beside me assuring me I am not alone.

Station VI: Veronica wipes Jesus' face.

When my blood results reveal that it's safe for me to receive chemo, the pharmacist mixes the drugs for me. I then go back into the drip room, a large, bright space lined with windows, and pick one of the 16 recliners.

On a good day, the sun pours in. The nurses begin pushing the drugs. Once the chemo begins to flow, I can feel my body change. Foreign matter has entered my veins. The first drug is the one that causes my neuropathy; within a short time my fingers and mouth become sensitive to anything cold. I am both tired and buzzed. The nurses drape an oven-warmed blanket over me and I try to rest.

After three hours of pushing and dripping drugs into me, the infusion nurse comes and finds me. Her warmth helps me forget that she is hooking me up for another 48 hours of treatment. We chat while she attaches a tube of chemo to my port. I keep staring down at what she is doing until finally she says gently, "Let me do this." She doesn't want me to breathe any germs onto the connectors. And so I look away until she finishes and I can tuck the tube into my fanny-pack.

Like Veronica for a moment, she relieves me of my hypervigilance and inserts human emotion into our sterile exchange. I say my goodbyes. They send me home. I walk back through the waiting area, where it has grown even more crowded than it was early this morning, and I make my way to the elevator.

Station VII: Jesus falls the second time.

I come to chemo not because I want to be here, God knows, but because I am desperate to fight this cancer. Originally scheduled to get chemo every two weeks for six months, I have had to reschedule every single time because of that damn blood test.

Either my white blood cells or my platelets are too low, putting off my treatments for another week or two.

So I sit and wait for my doctor, knowing that there's a good chance he'll tell me that I can't get chemo today. And every time he does, my heart sinks. Ridiculous, right? I mean, who wants chemo? Because with my chemo comes fatigue, mouth sores, nausea, constipation, acne, bleeding, neuropathy, and loss of appetite. And less cancer. A classic Catch-22.

Station VIII: Jesus consoles the women.

I do not look like Stage IV cancer. My type of chemo has not caused significant hair loss. And the weight loss initially caused by my cancer and maintained by the chemo actually looks good. I needed to lose some weight.

I am also not the despondent type. Or at least not for very long and not with people I do not know well. I mostly grieve in private. All this results in people coming up to me, asking how I am and then saying, "Well, you look great!" I think when they see me, they feel consoled. I look good; how bad can I be?

Station IX: Jesus falls the third time.

One recent Sunday evening while home alone, I reflected on the fear that my loved ones must live with. What's it like to be my mother? My partner? My friend? How do they live day-to-day with the knowledge that they might lose me in the not-so-distant future?

As I lay there contemplating others' fear, my own terror surfaced. The unknown loomed large. The threat of annihilation overwhelmed me. When Nancy returned home, I shared my fears of growing sick, wasting away, and dying. We cried deeply for all we might lose. The tears broke through fear's stranglehold, and I had my answer of how one lives day-to-day.

Station X: Jesus is stripped.

I have lost what I never really had: the assurance of a long life. I have given up my job and with it a daily structure and purpose. I have lost the protective layer that used to insulate my heart and keep me from feeling vulnerable.

I have lost the polite boundaries we keep between ourselves and others; bodily fluids and functions now riddle my conversations. I have lost the lies I told myself about my incapacity to love and be loved. I have lost control over my body. But not my soul.

Stations XI, XII, XIII, and XIV: Jesus is nailed to the cross. Jesus dies. Jesus is taken down from the cross. Jesus is buried.

It's not time to write about the rest of the stations. Nearly a year has passed since this journey began. Lent has begun, and the Paschal Mystery moves me in a new way. I know how closely sorrow and joy reside and that neither lives without the other. And I know how beloved I am to God and to so many. And so for now, I am still walking, falling, weeping, loving, and carrying my cross. 

Janine Denomme passed away in May 2010. This article appeared in the March 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 3, pages 36-38).

Image: The 4th station of the way of the cross on the Matyska in Radziechowy/Żywiec/Poland. Photo cc by Kokorik