Deanna Thompson is going to die. She knows this in a very real way, not in the vague yes-we-will-all-eventually-die reality that most of us live with every day. She has stage IV metastatic breast cancer and is fully aware that the disease will be her demise.
That said, Thompson leads a hope-filled life. Since her diagnosis, she has grown into a more grateful person, she says. “I’m definitely more conscientious about being thankful for every day. I’ve seen God’s grace through the gifts of others and have experienced what unfathomable love looks like.”
But she’s also honest: “Cancer sucks. I’d go back to a pre-cancer state in a minute if I could,” she says. “But I can’t, so I’m trying to make sense of it.”
Thompson recently published a memoir, Hoping for More: Having Cancer, Talking Faith, and Accepting Grace. It’s an unsentimental, reflective look at living with cancer while preparing to die. Above all, it’s about hope and faith in the everlasting promise of salvation.
Three and one-half years ago, Thompson was living what she calls her “ideal” life: happily married with two young daughters, living near family and friends, and teaching Christian theology at Hamline.
“I was aware that, relative to so many people, I had known little suffering,” she says.
Thompson’s life was radically altered in the fall of 2008, when a nagging soreness in her lower back became a burning sensation. After learning her L2 vertebra was fractured, she spent seven weeks in a back brace and began to feel better—until she stepped out of her car to searing pain. “I could barely walk,” she says. “That’s when I discovered my L4 vertebra had broken.”
After a biopsy, Thompson got the news: She had stage IV metastatic breast cancer. She hesitates to call it that, however, because her experience doesn’t follow the typical breast cancer narrative of lump, mastectomy, chemotherapy. She hadn’t known that fractured vertebrae can be a cancer indicator. By the time Thompson was diagnosed, the cancer had spread to 12 places in her bones, and she immediately began monthly chemotherapy treatments, which lasted for two years. She went into remission in July 2009, but recently saw an uptick in metastatic activity, which led to surgery to stabilize the fractured vertebrae. “The cancer’s not going away,” she says. “It’s hanging out in my bones.”
Thompson acknowledges that having cancer has created a stark “before/after” dividing line in her life. “I went from being a healthy person to having stage IV cancer. I went into the hospital and nearly died,” she says. “It was so radically different from everything I’d known.”
Thompson’s cancer diagnosis stole her words. Suddenly, she didn’t know how to talk about any of it: her faith, cancer, what lay ahead. An extroverted college professor, she uses words regularly. “I get paid to talk about God, specifically,” she says. “Yet suddenly words just went away. I didn’t even know how to pray, so I stopped talking to God.”
She eventually found her voice through CaringBridge, an online site that allowed her to write about her experience. As she shared her story, Thompson discovered what she dubbed the “Virtual Body of Christ”—the overwhelming feeling of grace in her life.
“There have been times when I have nothing in me to sustain myself, but I know other people will carry me. I believe that human beings tap into God’s sacred power when they pray, when they worship, when they conduct rituals of healing. I’m learning to accept these gifts of grace.”
The gifts have come from Christians and non-Christians alike, opening Thompson’s eyes to the church universal. There have been practical gifts—food and laundry services—and spiritual offerings. A group of Hamline students, on a visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, said prayers for her. A Native American colleague conducted a sage blessing in her honor. She has had Mass dedicated to her by people around the world. An agnostic Jewish colleague prayed to Jesus for her healing.
As a scholar, Thompson says she’s interested in examining this idea of what it means to have people outside of Christianity participate in her healing and salvation. “It pushes the boundaries of what Christians have understood as church. I believe it’s got to be part of the church universal,” she says.
Another lesson she’s learned: No one knows how to have cancer and no one knows how to talk about it in the context of faith, a topic she addresses in the book without proclaiming to have all the answers.
“I want to give myself and others permission to muddle around in talking about these things that are so hard,” she says. Thompson doesn’t believe God caused the cancer. “I believe cancer happens. I don’t believe God wills it, or wants it. But I believe God is present, and that God can open up possibilities in hoping for more.”
She chose that phrase as the title of her book because it reflects her journey from fractured to hopeful. “Hope is more than just being positive and optimistic,” she says. “I know that this journey is not fully in my hands. I hope that the promises of God are true and that there’s more. I hope there’s more for me in this life, and I hope there is more beyond.”
Deanna Thompson’s book, Hoping for More: Having Cancer, Talking Faith, and Accepting Grace, is available through amazon.com and Cascade Books at wipfandstock.com.
To hear more about Thompson's story watch the video interview below from October's Piper Report, interview starts at 1:35.
by Marla Holt