If you want to read a book about a brave woman with an incredible sense of humour in the face of deep suffering, Kate Bowler will deliver. Her memoir is a powerful retelling of her battle with Stage IV colon cancer that she was diagnosed with at 35. She tells it like it is, bringing her questions and heartache, her humour and love at a time of darkness and unknown as she faces the prospect of only a few months to live, wrestling with the thought of leaving her husband and miracle son behind.
‘I thought this life was only getting started, but now I am supposed to contemplate its sudden conclusion.’ (pg. 12)
She takes the reader on a journey sharing the difficulties of trying to conceive, disability, her diagnosis of cancer and coming to terms with dying – at times, feeling as if she was on her own in this experience:
‘I keep having the same unkind thought – I am preparing for death and everyone else is on Instagram. I know that’s not fair – that life is hard for everyone – but I sometimes feel like I’m the only one in the world who is dying.’ (pg.65)
Kate offers a helpful list of things not to say to people who are suffering and provides alternatives towards the end of the book. It brings to light things that well-meaning people say in difficult times that can do more harm than good such as: “Well, at least…”, “In my long life, I’ve learned that…”, “It’s going to get better. I promise…”, “Everything happens for a reason…”, “I’ve done some research and…” and “So how are the treatments going? How are you really?” plus others. She suggests to try the following: “I’d love to bring you a meal this week. Can I email you about it?”, “You are a beautiful person.”, “Can I give you a hug?” and even offering silence. There are others to consider to and it definitely makes you think about the words you use in these most difficult of times.
I found the book resonate with my own experience of having cancer and the thoughts and feelings that I went through. My heart reached out to Kate in her vulnerability and I admired her honesty throughout, especially about leaving her husband and son behind. When suffering strikes, how will we be ‘gospel’ people? Can we still cling onto the promises of God in the middle of our worst experiences?
‘It is at moments like this – when I feel everyone’s eyes on me, watching my progress and my attitude for signs of the gospel – that I am gripped with fear. If I hear the news – if the scan comes back and the oncologist says that my days won’t be renewed – will I scream or sit quietly? Will I feel peace or will I beat the ground? God, will you make a fool of me?’ (pg. 113)
At times, I found it hard to follow as she would talk about her experiences of churches in the prosperity gospel tradition – the author studied them in depth as an academic – and I have little understanding of the churches and televangelists, except the negative aspects of them. I couldn’t figure out what her views were on the prosperity gospel; she was also once a part of the Mennonite church and I struggled to see what her position was in the Christian faith. The video below explains more about how she sees the irony of studying the health and wealth message of the prosperity gospel and then getting cancer.
Nonetheless, Kate’s faith has been an anchor throughout her suffering. It is a memoir that is real and authentic and I feel many would benefit from her lived experience of deep pain and her wrestling with some of the biggest issues we can face. This book is an important read for anyone who has been in the depths of despair and for those walking alongside them.
Kate Bowler is the author of Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I’ve loved). Her first book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford) was a comprehensive history of the American prosperity gospel.
She is a historian who teaches at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. She grew up in the Canadian prairie city of Winnipeg. With degrees from Macalester, Yale, and Duke, she maintains her unhealthy interest in megachurches, televangelism, and learning to be truly happy in a #blessed world.