Our Cancer Year: Finding Purpose in Adversity

Our Cancer Year: Finding Purpose in Adversity

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“Our Cancer Year,” a book-length comic by Harvey Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner, and illustrated by Frank Stack, gives an award-winning account of a life suddenly interrupted by cancer.

“Our Cancer Year,” Revisited

Harvey Pekar authored the comic book series “American Splendor” in which he documented the day-to-day idiosyncrasies of his life and work as a file clerk in a Cleveland hospital. He and Joyce were moving into their newly purchased home when Harvey received the news: Lymphoma. At that point, everything changed. Fear, bewilderment, anger, conflict, and dislocation set in as the battle against the dreaded disease began.

I pulled “Our Cancer Year” off my bookshelf for a reread after experiencing a similar interruption. Unexpected, yet there it was on the surgical pathology report following what was to be a fairly routine surgical procedure. Final Diagnosis: Adenocarcinoma. Now the reading of “Our Cancer Year” took on a whole new meaning. 

Interruptions

Unexpected events fill our lives with interruptions. We make our plans, then something happens and the plans change. The phone rings. A knock at the door. A battery dies. Water seeps through the ceiling. Frustrating unexpected events that we learn to overcome and move on from until the next interruption.

Then suddenly one discovers that all the myriad inconveniences until now were mere rehearsals for the big one. The biopsy report. Cancer.

What Did I Do Wrong?

Often when bad things happen to us we’re compelled to associate the event with some misdeed for which we’re being divinely chastised. The disciples once asked Jesus what sin of the parents accounted for a man who was blind from birth. Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). If we received our due in accordance with our fallacies, our lives would be nothing but a series of calamities. “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Today the manufacturer delivered our storage shed—three days later than scheduled. The driver encountered a series of obstacles that interrupted our plans. His truck broke down, then after the installation of new parts, it broke down again. Finally, when his truck was operable, the ‘mule’ that offloads the shed and sets it in place developed mechanical problems. Following a long day of repairs, as Daniel, the driver, recounted it, he retired to his motel for some well-earned rest only to discover that the key card to his room didn’t work. After finally making it into his room, he laid down to relax and watch a little TV only to find that the remote control had no batteries. “I thought this would be a great week,” Daniel confessed, “but I must have done something wrong to bring all this on myself.”

I tried to assure Daniel that sometimes bad things just happen according to a higher plan. Another Daniel, who became a captive in Babylon in the 6th Century B.C., would have been hard-pressed to identify a particular failure in his life that would account for his misfortune. Instead, as the prophet Jeremiah recorded, the captivities were part of a divine plan that would work out for the ultimate good of the Jewish people.

“I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:10-11). 

God Meant It for Good

“Our Cancer Year” recounts a terrible interruption in the lives of two people. But the interruption proved to be for their ultimate good. Harvey and Joyce’s marriage came through the conflict-riddled days stronger than ever. Their collaboration on “Our Cancer Year” resulted in a best-seller and winner of the 1995 Harvey Award for the best original graphic novel. Elements of the story became part of the script for the 2003 film “American Splendor.”

I fully expect to look back on my cancer year and find that it all had a purpose, because “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Many years after Joseph’s brothers sold him to Midianite traders, he recalled the events that led him from slavery to the vice regency in Egypt. He told his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). 

A devastating interruption may at first appear to be a senseless harbinger of misery, but time may well reveal that God meant it for Good.