Gaining a New Understanding of Cancer Commentator Debra Jarvis is no stranger to cancer. She's a chaplain for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. And she's also been a patient there since May, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She says that it's brought her new ways to minister to her patients.

Gaining a New Understanding of Cancer

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As a chaplain for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, commentator Debra Jarvis speaks every day with cancer patients. Together they talk about spiritual concerns and fears and doubts about the disease. This past April, Jarvis herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, she chose to be very honest about her own experience, but her ability to be candid was tested one day last month.


There is nothing like losing my breast to give me street cred with the cancer patients. Recently, I was talking with a young patient when she lowered her voice and said, `My nurse told me you had breast reconstruction, an implant. Will you tell me about it?' `Oh, sure,' I said. I recounted my whole experience, even including the phrase, `hurt like hell.' `Wow,' she said, `thanks for being so honest and open about it.' She paused and then leaned forward, `Would you show it to me?' `What?' `Your breast, could I see it?'

I couldn't believe she had the guts to ask me. I was wearing a long dress that had neither buttons down the front nor a zipper up the back. I had no choice but to hike it up over my shoulders so that I was in nothing but my underwear. I hoped nobody would come bursting through the curtain, catching the chaplain half-naked with a patient.

She stretched her hand out toward me. `May I touch it?' Twenty years of ministering to the spiritual need of the sick and dying, three years of seminary, an internship in the parish, an internship in the hospital, board certification and my whole ministry had come to this: Letting a stranger touch my breast. I looked up at her and her eyes were shining with tears. `Thank you,' she said. And suddenly I remembered. I remembered the Scripture I chose for my ordination. It was from the Book of Isaiah where God asks, `Whom shall I send?' And the prophet Isaiah answers, `Here am I. Send me.' But, of course, there was nothing in that ordination or any of my training about exactly what I'd be sent to do. But then that's my task, to be open to serving in even the most bizarre ways.

After she was done examining my breasts and I settled back into my clothes, we talked a little more, comparing notes on chemo and nausea. When I stood to leave, she said, `I'm so glad you came by. There's nobody else I could talk with about this.' `Well, I was sent,' I said. `Oh, you mean by my nurse,' she replied. `Yeah,' I said, because I believe God speaks through nurses all the time.

BLOCK: Debra Jarvis is a board-certified chaplain and patient at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. She's currently receiving chemotherapy in Seattle.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.