I never considered myself pretty. While I didn’t think I was particularly ugly, I simply thought I was ordinary, if I thought about it at all. I never was the type of girl who cared too much about how she looked — or so I thought. My experience with cancer has shown me that I can be self-conscious about my physical appearance. It has also shown me how I need to trust in God’s unconditional love and care for me, regardless of what other people think about what I look like on the outside.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but after that can do no more” (Lk 12:4). He wants us to know that death itself is nothing to fear if we hold steadfast in our faith in him; he will be with us through death into eternal life. However, Jesus is not saying that our bodies do not matter. Of course they do — God created us and became incarnate himself, after all! But he is pointing out that we are more than skin deep. We also have souls. A dead or deformed soul is worse than a dead or deformed body, because that is what separates us from him. What we need to fear is the evil that causes us to turn away from Christ forever in despair. Unlike the rest of the world, Jesus does not only see us on the outside. He sees us on the inside, too. For him, the inside and the outside compose one, whole, beautiful person.
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The type of cancer I have, cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, is quite visible on the outside. It first makes itself known by an itchy rash-like appearance on the skin. I was at this stage when I was diagnosed 16 years ago, and for a long time, topical and oral treatment kept it from getting worse. But sometimes, the cancer progresses to the higher stages, and the plaques on the skin develop into raised oozing tumors.
During the COVID pandemic shutdown, like many others, I had limited access to doctors and treatment, and that was when my cancer grew more aggressive and reached the tumor stage. And those tumors were messy! They were on my arms, legs, torso and even my face. I tried to keep them clean and bandaged, but that was difficult when they were continually bleeding. The tumors also made me feel self-conscious. If I hadn’t thought it before, I definitely thought I was ugly now! I hated the looks of shock and pity on people’s faces when they saw me. The sight of the tumors or bandages frightened people sometimes, and they tried to avoid me as if I were contagious. I felt unclean, like one of the lepers in the Bible. However, Jesus did not avoid those lepers. He embraced them. Likewise, he embraced me and used my suffering to purify any remnant of vanity within me. I clung to him in faith. While the cancer was raging throughout my body, it could not destroy my soul if I stayed close to Christ.
Once I saw a new doctor, she had me try a regimen of intravenous chemotherapy. When that one did not work, we tried another. And another. My feet swelled, and I could barely walk. My hands swelled, and I could barely use my fingers. Nausea and diarrhea caused me to lose a lot of weight, and dark circles shadowed under my eyes. But the cancer was stubborn. Eventually, we had to admit that chemotherapy was not working, and my last resort was a stem cell transplant. My brother was a perfect match and generously donated his stem cells. I underwent more heavy chemo and radiation to deplete my immune system in preparation for the transplant.
That was when I lost my hair. Even though I expected it, finding thick brown clumps on my pillow was still upsetting. There is something precious about a woman’s hair. We style it to make a statement about ourselves, whether with an elegantly braided chignon or a simple ponytail. Even nuns cut their hair as a physical statement of their vows.
Mournfully, I stood outside, brushing my hair off my scalp into the wind for the birds to build their nests — a thought that made me smile instead of cry. In the same Gospel passage, after asserting that bodily death is not the worst that can happen, Jesus again encourages his followers to have courage. He compares us to little birds:
“Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins? Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God. Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows” (Lk 12:6-7).
Every hair on my head had been counted. And I had a lot of it! Now that I was bald, it was significantly easier for God to count them, but that did not mean I was cared for any less. If anything, I depended on him even more. And as always, he can use everything for good. That summer, we had a family of sparrows build a nest under our deck. I wonder if they used some of my hair?
Jesus understands pain, fear and humiliation. He is human, as well as divine. But he also knows unconditional love, which he shares with us. No matter what kind of scars life brings us, he thinks we are beautiful. In fact, knowing how the scars have drawn us closer to him, Jesus probably thinks we are more beautiful with them than without! Every hair, every cell in our body has been seen and counted by him and loved for who we are.