'What I tried to do was use cancer to evolve into love'
A chaplain at a Halifax cancer centre — who's had cancer 4 times — shares his spiritual journey with disease
David Maginley is an interfaith spiritual counsellor for the cancer centre at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax. He's also survived pheochromocytoma cancer four times. He first got the cancer at 17 and now, at 53, he's helped thousands of people through their cancer journeys, supporting the person and their family.
On Friday he launched his first book, Beyond Surviving: Cancer and Your Spiritual Journey. The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
CBC: When did you start thinking this was a book? You've dealt with cancer yourself four times and many, many times professionally.
MAGINLEY: For 17 years I've been supporting cancer patients at the hospital. That tends to erode you — you're immersed in suffering day after day. While it's a profound privilege, it wears you down. I realized I was beginning to burn out and decided I needed to take care of myself. Writing the book was a form of purging the emotional cholesterol, processing this suffering. It started one night with a very difficult case involving a very young patient. I got up at four in the morning and started writing that story and kept on going for almost three years.
CBC: How did you feel when you finished?
MAGINLEY: I felt astonished. I felt surprised about what the process had done to me. It really helped not only unclog that emotional cholesterol, but it integrated and transformed and focused my theology and my philosophy of practice.
CBC: Can you talk about your four experiences of cancer? We hear a lot about the physical toll it takes. What was the spiritual journey for you?
MAGINLEY: The spiritual journey happened on two levels. There was the unconscious level, where I wasn't sure what it was doing to my soul. It's all tied up in love because love, I've come to understand, isn't an emotion — it is an entire state of being. And it's the ultimate state of being, because God is love. I wasn't aware of how my spiritual journey through cancer was evolving me, and shaping me, in love. Because from the inside, it just felt hard.
Then there's another level. I've had a road with several mystical experiences. Moments that seem like interventions. They were gentle and surprising and sneaky and absolutely perfect. They got me through some life and death moments.
There would be a peace, or a strength, that would fill me. One time I was code blue. My heart was arresting, my blood pressure was collapsing, but I felt perfectly calm. The medical staff were naturally stressed — they were trying to save my life — but I was calm as a cucumber and enjoying their company. It didn't feel like a mystical experience. It just felt like I was OK.
The big one was the second round of cancer in 1988. I had a near-death experience and that really changed me. That's a very big spiritual event. It took me years to figure that one out, because your consciousness shifts from this reality to a completely different one, and then back again.
CBC: You spoke about love. You're a Christian and Jesus ultimately expressed that love by facing his death and sticking to love. Was that something of what your realization was?
MAGINLEY: My image of Jesus really changed, my awareness of how he embodied divine love and how that's a state of consciousness, not just a choice or an action or a feeling. To me that gives a new understanding of him as the full incarnation of God, for God is love. It's widened my appreciation for how that is expressed in all religions.
When you connect with it, you're coming home. You're connecting with the truth of your real identity because the soul, or consciousness, continues after death in a realm of unfiltered love.
You get a diagnosis of cancer and it cranks up the volume on that homework. How do you love? How are you loved? When a person gets a diagnosis, their No. 1 concern is the people they love. That's where the homework is. That's the biggest burden on their heart.
From the inside, it doesn't feel like you're doing spiritual work, but when you engage with that task of loving deeply, of feeling the gift of your fragile, beautiful life — because cancer's cranked it up — when you're doing that, you are doing the most noble, spiritual thing you could ever do.
CBC: When you look to someone like Job and the tests he faced, did you ever feel that God has it in for you?
MAGINLEY: No. There were people who said, 'Well there must be a reason for it.' They see my ministry and say, 'This was the reason.' I don't know what to do with that. I don't think God inflicts these things to say that's your path, this is what you have to do. But I do think there is nothing that can happen to us that will derail the agenda of divine love.
Why did I get cancer? We don't know. What am I going to do with cancer? That's a better question. What I chose and tried to do was use cancer to evolve into love. I'm very fortunate that I happen to have a job where I'm paid to do that.
My cancer is not treated by chemotherapy and radiation. The only way to get it is surgery. If that works, over 90 per cent never come back. Mine kept coming back. It turns out 90 per cent of my kind are benign. Mine were malignant. Mine are dangerous because they are a time bomb. You've got this tumour that's a bomb inside you.
I'm really lucky to be here. If I was supposed to learn something from this, I figure I must be pretty thick-headed because I had to get it four times. When we're trying to look for those ultimate reasons, we'll all find out one day. But for now, what are you going to do with the crisis?
CBC: Can you talk about your professional side of it? Every day you're dealing with people who hadn't planned to go on any spiritual quest and were just living their lives and suddenly they may be facing death. How do you frame this quest that you've been on to someone who maybe isn't even religious and has just run into this and they've come to you?
MAGINLEY: It is the hero's journey. This is the archetype, the monomyth, that Joseph Campbell talked about. This is the inevitable course through life. You have your ordinary life and your ordinary world and then there's a call to adventure. It's usually a dangerous call.
A diagnosis does not feel like a call to adventure, so you refuse it. You reject it and say this can't be so. But it's inevitable and you move into treatment, you meet your mentors, cross the threshold, treatment starts. You are tested. You meet allies and enemies — those [allies] are other patients, and enemies like nausea, or vomiting, or hair falling out, or mortality and pain.
Then you approach the ultimate challenge and that could be death.
You survive, and you come back to your ordinary life, but it's not ordinary anymore. It never feels the same. You have been tuned through the experience.
There's a saying: adversity introduces a person to themselves. It is inevitable and it must involve danger. I was talking this morning with a fellow who has been going through cancer for months. Two years ago he never would have imagined he could do this and he wouldn't want it in his world. And yet here he is, doing it with such a noble character. He doesn't see that. He's just doing what he has to do.
This is going to change you. I think if you face a crisis well, your whole consciousness, your character, evolves into something that's even more beautiful and vulnerable and strong — and ultimately immortal.