The Art of Suffering: Part One

The Art of Suffering…is there such a thing? 


Each one of us will face difficulties, pain and hardships of many kinds in our lifetimes. For some, these are trials of affliction and distress. Others face trials of unbearable agony and torment. I can’t speak to the latter; the kind of trauma some have suffered at the hands of others in times such as war and imprisonment. I do believe that none of us will live a life free from some form of suffering, however. So, this is the kind of adversity I am pondering and wondering, “Can we learn how-to suffer? Can we suffer with more skill, grace, and know-how?” I am discovering the answer is, “Yes.”

Part ONE: Transparency

Last September, completely out of the blue or so it seemed, I discovered a lump in my breast. It was a large lump and I knew immediately that it was cancer. I just knew. What I didn’t know was how invasive it was. Within just two months time, I had been through several diagnostic procedures, a double mastectomy, and a PET/CT Scan.

As I sat in my oncologist’s office listening to him review the results of my scan, I was very aware that what he was saying was very bad news. I was also aware that my husband didn’t understand what my doctor was saying. I wanted to stop everything and explain it to him. I think I wanted to prepare him so he could be ready to help me…but I couldn’t stop anything. I knew my life was about to change forever and I couldn’t stop it from happening. I felt all of the energy in my body being sucked out of me - the way a Tidal Wave sucks the water away from shore before it rushes back and explodes against the land. Without notice, there was a break in my doctor’s explanation - a telephone call he had to respond to. I looked at my husband of 23 years and whispered, “Do you realize what he is saying? He is telling us that I am Stage 4.” I felt I had to get him ready, I guess. So, I transferred this knowledge to him…and then it hit. My doctor was back again and telling us both that my cancer was metastatic, Stage 4, and incurable. That word: INCURABLE. I exploded with the intensity of a tidal wave wailing, “Oh God, Oh God, I can’t do this!” Even now, I feel sick at the memory of that day. That moment was the turning point for the rest of my life.

I’m not sure I can fully convey the despair I felt at this diagnosis. Despite all the trials I have faced in my life; despite my faith in God and my trust in His love toward me; despite the support of my husband; I was completely devastated. Telling my three children (ages 23, 21 and 18) of my breast cancer were my first difficult conversations. I did not want them to feel fear or despair. No mother wants her own children to suffer. So, I was tempted to cover over my own feelings or even the graveness of my circumstances. Somehow, I think I managed a healthy balance between honesty and bravery…and this was when I began to consider how I was going to “suffer.” Would I suffer in silence? Is that brave? Would I share every awful detail? What about healthy boundaries? Although these questions and their ultimate answers was the result of gradual processing, these are the kinds of questions I was ultimately making decisions about.

By nature, I am generally a very open person. I have often joked about the fact that, “My life is an open FACEbook.” I also have a somewhat public job as the President and CEO of a local non-profit in my small community. (Not to mention, going through chemo and losing my hair are not exactly easy things to hide, either!) So it didn’t take me long to decide I would be very public about my cancer. This proved to be a good decision for me and an important lesson in The Art of Suffering…The lesson of transparency. 

For those closest to me, it was easy to share everything in real-time. I processed out loud with those who know me best. (And I can’t imagine not having an inner circle with whom to both celebrate and grieve!) I also shared publicly. I posted about everything from treatments and side effects to pictures of my daughter shaving my head. I wrote about my emotional struggles and told people about my faith in God. I posted prayer requests and even “what not to say” to the cancer patient. I felt that by gifting others with the details of my cancer journey, they in turn would gain a better understanding of cancer, of those living with and battling cancer, and how best to support those of us with cancer. (I was personally shocked by what I hadn't known about cancer before being diagnosed myself!) I made a promise to myself that I would be honest about my experiences, real about my emotions, and sensitive to context so as not to be “weird” or share too much. My goal was not attention or coddling. I wanted to give whatever insights I had about the cancer journey to others. I also wanted to receive the encouragement and insights others had for me about suffering. Not to mention, I wanted people to pray for me - very, targeted, specific prayers. So I needed to be honest about what I needed. My goal was transparency…the art of suffering.

Once the news of my cancer became public, I realized more fully the benefit of sharing my cancer journey (or any journey of suffering) with others. But the reason for this has less to do with me, I think, and more to do with what I received back from friends and family near and far. These blessed people became #TeamChristine and they have given me so much more than I could ever give them. Oh! How we need one another! I was flooded with messages of comfort, encouragement, prayers and hope. Each time I shared a struggle or a bit of good news, “my team” would respond with an outpouring of messages in response. But it didn’t end there. People made meals, baked pies, ran errands, walked our puppy (yes - get a puppy if you get cancer!), cleaned my house, and even decorated my house inside-and-out for Christmas. Friends came and sat with me and we talked about life. As I shared my life with cancer, I was given love and companionship in return. I learned from this that everybody wins when we support one another through suffering…but first people have to be given the chance to support us. This comes through transparency.

Not surprisingly, I have met or talked to many people over this past year who told me they had decided to hide the fact they had cancer. As they watched me - the degree of openness with which I shared my journey and the response of others to that transparency - these souls realized that hiding their own suffering had done nothing but make them more miserable and lonely. They revealed a grief over having made the decision to hide their suffering. I learned from them that it is harder to suffer alone.

Each time I share openly about my journey I am told how much I inspire others. I confess, at first I wondered what was so inspiring about the ugliness of cancer?! But then it began to sink in. Just as The Soul Collect is a place for people to share their lives and stories with one another, I began to see my journey with cancer as a journey that could be inspiring. When I think about all the stories I’ve read from others who have suffered, I do find it inspiring. We learn from one another through our transparency about the difficult stuff in life. This is The Art of Suffering.

Author: Christine Vatuone | CEO Informed Choices 

All Photos: Christina Whittaker | Whittaker Portraits