The Current

'Does cancer not care I have plans?': Terminal diagnosis forces author to grab hold of life

Kate Bowler spent years studying the Christian belief that everything happens for a reason. When she was diagnosed with incurable cancer, it was a belief she had to face head on.
Kate Bowler was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer two years ago; her new book looks at how the disease forced her to take control of her life. (Franklin Golden; Penguin Random House)

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Bowler was in her office, working hard one day, when a woman called to tell her she had cancer.

"It sounded like she had a lot of phone calls to get through," Bowler remembers.

"She just told me, really flatly, that the test came back and that I had stage 4 cancer and that I needed to come in."

"All I said was: 'But I have a son.'"

Bowler is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. She spent the years leading up to her diagnosis studying the prosperity gospel — a belief held by some Christians that God will grant health and wealth to those who have the right kind of faith.

The belief is not just driven by a desire for material goods, she says, but a need for certainty, that God offers a "guarantee that everything would work out."

She had just released a book called Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.

The irony was not lost on her.

"The second I got sick, that was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind."

"I was on this stage of the life I had built — this Duke University moment," she says, "And I was like: 'Oh crap, I just wrote a book called Blessed.'"

"I spent years going to healing rallies and traveling around with televangelists and doing interviews and sitting with people in pews and in hospital rooms," she says.

Her intention had been to explain and understand the nature of their hope, but faced with cancer, she realized she had become "a little more invested in thinking everything was going to work out" in her own life.

Bowler was 35 when she was diagnosed with incurable colon cancer, married with a young son.

The "randomness" with which it challenged those beliefs outraged her.

"Does cancer not understand that I have plans," she remembers thinking, "that I have things I love, and hopes?"

"Does cancer not care about the fact that like I've really tried to be a good person?"

"That was really hard to wrap my mind around — maybe who I am doesn't really matter in the face of that much terrible."

Now that this certainty is being challenged in her own life, she sees the desire for it more acutely in everyone around her.

She struggles when people tell her 'Everything happens for a reason,' or 'This is God's plan.'

"It's not that I want to take away anyone else's certainty," she says. "There's a real beauty in feeling like there's a good explanation."

"Sometimes I just want to like stand on a mountaintop and look down on my life and say: 'Show me the way this adds up, show me the matrix by which I can see these invisible causalities at work.'"

But she says there is also a cruelty at work and a minimizing of the situation, as if people are trying to convince her that life after her diagnosis is just as good as life before.

"Trying to force those platitudes… it dishonours the nature of love," she says.

"Love is so particular; love loves the little granular things."

"In my life, I love one particular kid, and one particular man, and one particular life."

"And I might lose it. And that's terrifying."

'Lies I've Loved'

Bowler's own faith has changed; she feels that now she doesn't have to try so hard.

"Maybe faith wasn't about me trying to be better, or working to achieve God's nod of approval."

"There's no earning in faith," she says, "there is just trying to be attentive to the love of God and open to the pain and joy of other people."

"The overwhelming fragility of everyone's life is so obvious to me now that my life is just so ridiculous."

Bowler has a new memoir and podcast, in an effort to make sense of her experiences: Everything Happens for a Reason — And Other Lies I've Loved.

"Cancer made me feel like I was just inside out," she says.

"I just had to be more honest about who I really am, and how much I'm struggling, and then hope that that leaves me in a place where other people can say: 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, me too.'"

Brave and big, and also small and snuggly

Bowler is living scan-to-scan, in the hope that treatments will continue to be successful, but she doesn't know how much time she has left.

"I mostly try to think about the day," she says, "what, in the course of a regular day, is brave and big and also small and snuggly."

"I try to slow things down a little more, and then find a place where I can like intellectually sprint a little and do something interesting and then just try to realize that my life was already full of beautiful things, and just not to take that for granted."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Julie Crysler.