Dark night of the soul

Photo by Angie Staples

Photo by Angie Staples

” I had a crisis of faith … a dark night of the soul. I had had a strong faith most of my life. But now I doubted the existence of God.” – Linda MacRunnels


It was no big deal when she found the lump. Linda MacRunnels was used to lumps in her breasts. There was even a name for it-she had cystic breasts. The lumps never amounted to anything, so she didn’t think there was anything to worry about. Neither did her family doctor. MacRunnels had an appointment for something else, and she mentioned the lump to the doctor in passing. The doctor’s response was just as casual. It was December 2004, and MacRunnels was due for a mammogram in February. It’s just a couple of months, the doctor told her. There’s no cancer of any kind in your family. Why don’t you wait? MacRunnels agreed without a second thought.

The first hint of trouble
Like many women, she was a little late scheduling the procedure. February became March before she got in. Because of the lump, she was sent to have the procedure at Regions Hospital.

After the mammogram, she was asked to wait. “You have to have an ultrasound, and we need to do it right now,” the technician said.

The procedure was actually an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy. “They had a hard time getting a piece of it,” MacRunnels recalled. “I said to the technician, ‘I had a mammogram last year and so it can’t be something really big.’ She just let me talk. It consoled me.

“When I was leaving, I mentioned to the nurse that I was going out for dinner with my husband that night. She said, ‘Maybe you should order a glass of wine.’ I said that I thought wine was linked to breast cancer. She said, ‘Have a glass of wine.’

“I cried all the way home.” MacRunnels said she has often wondered if the nurse advised her to have the wine because she already knew MacRunnels had cancer.

The diagnosis
Two days later MacRunnels’ family doctor called with formal diagnosis. “I’m going to die,” MacRunnels thought. “I’m going to die. How long do I have to live?”

MacRunnels remembers her doctor’s words as though it were yesterday. “She said, ‘I am sorry. I am so sorry. We are going to walk with you the whole way. We will get you through this, Linda.’ I thought, ‘I’m going to need that.'”

By her side when she got the news were MacRunnels’ husband, Gary, and younger daughter, Katie, then 22. Sarah, then 25, was snowboarding in Colorado.

“I didn’t want to spoil her vacation, but everyone said I had to call her,” said MacRunnels. “She said, ‘I can come back, Mom.'” MacRunnels started to cry as she remembered telling her daughter, “No, you stay. Have fun for me.”

Some people who receive a diagnosis like MacRunnels’ call on faith in a higher power for strength. That seems like a natural way for MacRunnels, an ordained Lutheran minister, to cope with being told she had breast cancer. But her faith failed her at the time she needed it most. “I had a crisis of faith … a dark night of the soul. I had had a strong faith most of my life. But now I doubted the existence of God. I said, ‘I know you’re there, but where the hell are you?’ I think it’s OK to get angry at God. I think God’s big enough to take it.

“I was crying so much, hours every day. I got headaches from crying. I thought about all the things in this life that I love … sunrises, sunsets, my garden. I thought, ‘Oh, my garden’s not done this year, I can’t die.’ I wept for all the things I would have to say goodbye to. I didn’t want to leave this world, my relationships, the people I love.”

MacRunnels had a lumpectomy. Tests showed she still had the markers for cancer, and the recommendation was a bilateral mastectomy (total removal of both breasts). She knew that if she had the bilateral mastectomy, she would have almost no risk of breast cancer. Her words express what many women with her diagnosis feel: “I just wanted it out. By that time, I was saying, ‘I never want to go through this again. I want it over.'”

“Say goodbye”
“The doctors kept telling me, ‘You’re not going to die from this. We’re going to help you,” she recalled. But she still had a hard time with the removal of the breasts she had loved. She and Gary went to Florida for a week. She remembers telling him, “This is your time for saying goodbye to this part of me.”

When she got back from Florida, MacRunnels told both daughters, “Say goodbye to the breasts that nurtured you as babies.” She remembered, “Sarah asked to see them one last time. Katie said, ‘I don’t have to see them-bye bye.’

“And then I had to say goodbye to them. I loved my nipples, I wanted to keep them on me, but they were also breast tissue and susceptible to cancer.”

After her diagnosis, MacRunnels started seeing a therapist. “I have found it really helpful,” she said. “I was terrorized by a fear of the unknown; I learned to focus on the present, because thinking about the future was too much for me.”

Like many survivors, MacRunnels found chemotherapy the hardest part of her treatment. “I was phobic,” she said, “about throwing up, about having nausea.” And she hated taking medicine of any kind. “But chemo was pretty much required.”

A killing cure
As it turned out, MacRunnels’ fear of chemotherapy was justified. Along with the normal effects of chemotherapy, such as severe fatigue and the loss of all body hair, the chemo nearly killed her. It was obvious to her family how sick she was, and MacRunnels’ daughter, Sarah, insisted that her mother had to go to the hospital. “Sarah probably saved my life,” MacRunnels said. Her blood count was so low she had to be hospitalized for five days.

Two and a half years after her initial diagnosis, MacRunnels has survived the surgeries, the chemotherapy, and the dark night of the soul. Though her faith is back, she no longer ministers to others in a traditional sense-though you might say that in her own way, she does. She has started a business so that she can focus on the beauty that helped pull her through her diagnosis and treatment. She plans but mainly maintains others’ gardens. Her business is called All Organic Garden Care.

“I started right before chemo, right before my [mastectomy]. I wanted to be in touch with the earth, focusing on beauty.” She couldn’t garden during chemotherapy, though; because the drug killed her resistance to germs, she couldn’t work with dirt and plants without wearing protective layers that made her too hot to work. Instead, she took botanical art and illustration classes at Como Park. “The painting and color helped me.”

Recovery and beyond
Today, MacRunnels mostly feels good. She takes tamoxifen and will for a total of five years. She is able, once again, to open her Bible. She has recovered from the effects of chemotherapy. She does, of course, still think about the cancer.

“I wonder if a couple of months would have made a difference,” MacRunnels says of her former family doctor’s recommendation that she delay getting a mammogram. “I wonder if having it earlier would have made a difference in the [tumor’s] size, so I wouldn’t have had to have chemo.” She says of the doctor, who has since left the practice, “I still hold her in the highest regard.”

MacRunnels says the hardest part of the experience has been “definitely the emotional adjustments.” She is still working on some of those. “Sometimes I have survivor guilt. I feel guilty that I’m still here. So many women have gone through so much worse than I went through.

“I’m thankful for all the women who went before me, who participated in studies, and to those who lost their lives, so that my life could be extended, so I could be healthy.” And then she remembered something.

“During the chemotherapy and after, I slept in a bedroom downstairs, with sliding glass doors to the deck. I could look out and see birdhouses on the plum trees. And we had planted, years before, wisteria on the garage. It blossomed for the first time when I was going through chemotherapy. I thought that if there was a God, this was a message for me.

“And it’s blossomed every spring since.”