Heather King never cared much for doctors. It's an attitude she partly inherited from her mother, “who classified ginger ale as a medicine, considered Novocain a snobbish extravagance” and somehow managed to avoid a visit to the doctor’s office for almost 30 years. After years of relatively good health despite a 25-year stint as a functioning alcoholic, King had always taken her physical health somewhat for granted. She viewed her body as a “dependable tractor” that simply required exercise and a balanced diet to function, and considered nutritionists, chiropractors, acupuncturists and their ilk “to be a bunch of overpaid quacks.” So when she dutifully showed up to Mercy General Hospital for her yearly mammogram, squeezing the appointment in on a Friday after several other errands, she shook with fear when the technician came back from the lab asking for a second picture of her left breast. “Immediately right then I just thought 'Cancer! Cancer! Cancer!'” King told CNA. Although she'd have to wait two weeks for the final word, King immediately made her way down to the chapel in the Catholic hospital after her appointment. A devout convert after years of drinking and promiscuity, King attempted to piece together a prayer amid her anxiety. “I'm pretty sure I really heard Him that afternoon because after a while, there in that sterile chapel, I experienced a moment of peace such as I never had known before and never have quite known since,” King recalls in her new memoir, “Stripped: at the intersection of cancer, culture, and Christ.” At that moment, she had a deep sense that whatever happened to her, even if it was death, Christ would be with her. That moment of peace and surrender to Christ was what she clung to in the subsequent moments of fear and panic — the actual diagnosis, deciding what further treatment she would accept, a struggling marriage that further crumbled under the stress. Throughout her immersion in the world of the oncology ward, King was struck by what she saw as a very militant response to cancer from the medical world and the culture at large. “What I object to is the implication that when you get a cancer diagnosis, right away you're supposed to put on your fatigues and pick up your gun and do battle with it,” she said. “And that's the word we use, a 'battle' with cancer, and it’s always in obituaries, it's odd.” Despite her tumor's small size — and her cancer's stage one, grade one diagnosis — a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation were all recommended to her as courses of treatment, as well as five subsequent years of a heavy-hitting estrogen medicine. But after doing a lot of research and soul-searching, King opted to forgo most of the traditional treatments. She had the tumor removed and spent not even one night in the hospital, returning to her normal life the next day. It's not because she had a death wish, King insists. It's not because she was expecting some radical, miraculous healing from God. It's not because she distrusts doctors and the medical field. Rather, she said, it was about how she wanted to live and offer the rest of her life, and death to God. “It's not really a book about cancer as much as it’s a book about what master do I really want to serve?” she said. “My point is I want to surrender in a way, and that doesn't mean lying over and playing dead, it doesn't mean being a doormat, it doesn't mean having a sublimated death wish,” she said. “It means fighting the battle that St. Paul fought when he says 'I have stayed the course, I have run the race.'” That race, she said, is being able to love life without clinging to it through extreme medical measures out of fear. It means coming to some sort of peace with the ultimate mystery of life, with the paradox that good people suffer and die, with “the deepest questions of human existence.” It means not being afraid to die out of the fear that you haven't fully lived. For King, it meant resting in the peace that she had “ordered her life to true North.” Earlier in life, King was looking for answers and thought they could be found in the world of law. As a functioning alcoholic, she made it through law school, passed the bar, and went on to a high-paying but ultimately unfulfilling job as a lawyer. She'd recently kicked her salary and benefits to the curb in order to pursue the life she felt God was truly calling her to — a quiet life centered around the sacraments, silence, and plenty of time devoted to the vocation of writing. In a way, she'd already surrendered much of her worldly security to God. The fact that she had the presence of mind to call upon faith during the diagnosis, and the tumultuous aftermath, came as somewhat of a surprise to King herself. “I always thought if this happened, I'd be so scared that I wouldn't bring my faith to it,” King said. “But there's always an element of surprise, like the woman at the well who runs back to the town yelling 'People, people! I think I've met him! I've met the Messiah.'” It's been 15 years since King's original diagnosis, and she's still doing well. “I had a mammogram for the first time in a long time, it came back normal, so everything's been fine,” she said. King said her advice to anyone facing a new cancer diagnosis would be to not be afraid to listen to their own bodies, hearts and souls when it comes to making the big decisions, despite outside pressure from family, friends or even doctors. Having faith in something bigger than yourself, even if it's simply in the power of love, is also invaluable when facing something so drastic, she said. “The word accompany and the word companion come from the Latin 'com panis,' or 'with bread'” King said. “And if you’re already a follower of Christ, this bread, he accompanies you, he walks with you. You're not alone.”
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