Book of the Month: July 2017

Cancer: A Pilgrim Companion By Gillian Straine

I was going to write that this is a book about beginnings and endings: the impact of cancer on health, confidence, identity and faith. But the great gift of this book is its confidence that endings always contain the seeds of beginnings; this book is as much, if not more, about hope as it is about cancer.

You may think that’s not easy given the subject matter, but Gillian Straine has found a way: including some good, practical material about what cancer is – and is not – which provides a useful medical and social context. Moreover, she has been able to place her pilgrimage within the liturgical and spiritual context of Holy Week: contemplation of Christ’s passion provides insight into her own suffering and of Christ’s compassionate companionship within it. We sense His presence wherever the eyes of those who give and those who receive meet.

I suspect Gillian would not thank me for describing this as a brave book: she is (rightly) unhappy with the military metaphors which so often surround serious illness. Bravery, she says, usually involves an element of choice – and so often choice is the first thing to go after diagnosis. But she did have a choice about writing this guide for others on their pilgrimage, deliberately revisiting some dark and difficult places en route. Personally, I think that was brave. Brave, too, to acknowledge that recovery and remission are not necessarily a fairy tale return to the status quo; but if we are to help pilgrims, we can’t make assumptions about how they feel. We need to understand that there is a new normality: a quest narrative which neither lets the cancer be ignored nor allows it to overcome.

I’ll be honest, initially this wasn’t the easiest of books to read, but I have come to see it as a psalm to read prayerfully. And I do recommend it whole heartedly. If you find yourself accompanying someone on their pilgrimage through cancer or other serious illness, it will help you both.

Reviewed by the Revd Norma Fergusson, Volunteer Chaplain, Dorothy House Hospice

Cancer: A Pilgrim Companion is just £8.99 until July 31st 2017 (RRP £9.99) and POST FREE from the shop or £6.49 from our online shop + £2.50 postage. Order by phoning 01722 326899 or by emailing bookshop@sarum.ac.uk.

Author Gillian Straine will be running a day course at Sarum College on Saturday 7 July 2018 based on her book Cancer: A Pilgrim Companion. See the course page for full details.

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