The Theology of Cancer
For 16 years, Russ Connors has been teaching about community, compassion and suffering, concepts that took on new meaning last March when the 62-year-old theology professor was diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer. Now he and his wife, Patty, chair of St. Catherine's music department, and their two children, Elizabeth (13) and Patrick (11), are cherishing their days together.
Sitting in his office on the second floor of Whitby Hall while the fourth drug of his 16th chemo treatment pumped into the catheter port on his chest, Connors reflected on the past year — his undeterred scholarship, his unfinished business, his underlying gratitude. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and Ray Charles, closing his eyes and folding his hands.
Connors has extended last winter's sabbatical, but he's hoping to teach next fall. He was the featured faculty speaker at the Teaching Learning Network in January, and two prestigious theological journals will publish his work this year.
You became a dad at 49. Did fatherhood surprise you? It was a shock and a thrill to be married, and we didn't know if children would be possible. Fatherhood remains quite a blessing, even though this cancer now is one of the worst possible fears coming to pass. Am I going to die as these kids are teenagers? We're hoping for as many more years as I can get to carry them as far along as I can.
How do you come to terms with cancer? I think the best, most fruitful response to unfinished business is that we hope. I hope in big questions that are beyond me, I hope in powers that I can't control. I've learned to be flexible. You get a treatment plan and then it's altered. I write everything in pencil now.
If you're able to teach next fall, will you pilot a new course? The lessons I'd want to instill would fit in the courses I already teach. I think I could speak with a little more energy and experience than before my cancer. I've never in my life been so overwhelmed with the care and support of so many people — some in the form of compassion, literally meaning "to suffer with somebody."
I see that in the nurses. Yesterday there was a guy receiving chemo who was really pretty grumpy, and the nurses couldn't have been more gentle or respectful — even though he wasn't going to be able to return those things in kind. It was just beautiful to see.
Does singing in your wife's choir feel different now, since your diagnosis? It tastes sweeter. It feels better, the experience of how good it is to try to use your physical energy with others to do something beautiful.
Has your world become more beautiful? Oh, gosh, yes. Every morning at about 10 to eight, I'm driving the kids to school, and the sun is about six inches off the horizon, and today it was sparkling off the crusty snow. As we turned the corner, I said to the kids, "Wow!" I sometimes see in such things — the morning sunlight, the graciousness of life and the goodness of life — something more than just beautiful. It seems holy.
Have you felt compelled to press forward with your scholarship? Yes. I was already on sabbatical and about halfway through with these two journal articles. Then I was diagnosed with cancer, and it seemed all the more important to bring them to closure. I'm thrilled. I've never had one of my essays published in Theological Studies.
How has the St. Catherine community supported you? I might be feeling discouraged one day and then get a note from a student saying, "Dr. Connors, I just want to let you know you're one of the best professors I ever had, and the course I had with you changed me in very deep ways." I think, "Where did this come from? This is just what I needed today."
What else bolsters you? One of my favorite things in the world is playing catch with my son, Patrick, or shopping with my daughter, Elizabeth. I know it will be quality time. I'm savoring those experiences in a way I wouldn't have two years ago.
I'm trying to draw from Emily Dickinson, who wrote that we live between the hoped-for-but-not-yet and the possibility of today, trying to inch that forward. — Christina Capecchi