What cancer has taught me about my baptism

Have you been born again? This was a question I received frequently from customers during my days as a Walmart cashier. I always gave a resounding, “Yes!” After all, I was baptized as an infant and thus reborn through water and the Holy Spirit, becoming a new little member of the Church.

The Catholic Church teaches that when we are baptized, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ that brought about our salvation. I do not know if this was the same theological viewpoint of being born again as my Protestant neighbors; however, I knew that we were starting from the same conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in the Gospel:

“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?’ Jesus answered, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’”(Jn 3:4-5).

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This passage from Scripture has been on my mind a lot lately. Over the summer, I needed to receive a stem cell transplant to combat the cutaneous t-cell lymphoma I have been living and fighting with for half my life. My brother, a perfect match, was willing to be the donor. In my medical chart, the day I received his cells is marked as Day 0. Every day of my life from now on is counted from that day. It is as if I have been born again.

As Catholics, while we only receive the Sacrament of Baptism once, we are invited to participate in the death and resurrection of Christ over and over again throughout our lives. Failures and new opportunities, illness and healing, loss and attainment, sin and forgiveness — all of these are ways God the Father encourages us to further imitate his son. Therefore, depending on how we respond to them, these experiences in our lives can also be invitations to start over, to be born again.

The idea of starting anew can be exhilarating. We daydream about the future and eagerly make plans. But it can also be very frightening! Further in their conversation, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). In other words, while we can sense the Holy Spirit whispering that a change is inevitable and necessary for our spiritual growth, we do not always know how or when that will happen. Over time, I could see that my cancer was getting worse and that the variety of treatments was getting more and more limited. But how my life would change and whether a transplant would work was (and still is!) only known by God.

Living in the unknown is daunting for every human being. Even when surrounded by people who love us, the midst of the unknown is where we feel most alone. Yet, our faith tells us that we are not alone, no matter how we feel. After all, we are participating in the death and resurrection of Christ with Christ himself. Baptized into his Church and guided through life so far, why would he abandon us now when we are on the cross with him?

We are blessed with the sacraments that make Christ present in our lives in a unique way. While we can tend to take them for granted during our everyday lives, when we are facing something big, suddenly we appreciate them all the more.

The medical field has lots of preparatory appointments for a big event like a transplant. I underwent dozens of blood tests, PET scans, x-rays, breathing tests, and of course intense chemotherapy and radiation before Day 0. I spoke with my doctor and nurses about the risks involved, with social workers about finances and health insurance, with my family and friends about quarantine protocols.

Likewise, I wanted to prepare myself spiritually for what was ahead of me. As I faced the unknown, whether it meant imminent death or a long recovery to renewed health, I was dependent on prayer, both my own and that of others. My rosary and Bible accompanied me to the hospital. But I also desired the grace of the sacraments before my transplant. I was aware that, if I survived, it would be a long time before I could receive them again. I wanted to be nourished by sacramental grace as I faced the unknown. So I was blessed to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist, go to confession and be anointed with the oil of the sick by my pastor before being admitted to the hospital. Thus fortified, I believed that I would truly be born again with a clean slate after the transplant.

Despite being a practicing Catholic all my life, I am continually amazed by how God uses all the events of our lives to draw us closer to him, if we let him. Even situations that seem insurmountable are just opportunities for him to help us grow in sanctity, to be born again and again and again. Christ never promised that it would be easy, but he did promise that he would be there with us every step of the way.

The Scripture passage containing Jesus and Nicodemus’ conversation closes with the following verse: “But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God” (Jn 3:21). I am still on the long, slow post-transplant recovery. I cannot do much, and I do not know what is ahead of me in my newly-born-again life. But God does, and I hope the work of God can be seen in my experience. I hope he can be seen in your own born again experiences as well.

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