Oncology chaplain Debra Jarvis writes about her own breast cancer diagnosis and her work as a chaplain at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance in her new book, It’s Not About the Hair: And Other Certainties of Life & Cancer.

When Debra Jarvis was diagnosed with breast cancer, a common response from people who knew what the ordained minister did for a living was, “But you’re the chaplain! You should be immune!” Debra’s response, as she relays it in her new book, It’s Not About the Hair: And Other Certainties of Life & Cancer (Sasquatch Books, 2007), speaks to both her deep-seated faith and her indomitable sense of humor: “So what if I’m the chaplain? I’m a Christian, the faith that’s all about the crucifixion of the guy who is considered the Son of God! I mean if the Son of God can’t get a break, why should I?”

It is the interplay of faith and humor, tenderness and wit that makes Debra’s memoir of her cancer journey and her experiences as a general oncology chaplain at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance so moving and so entirely human. Refreshingly, this is not a precious conversation about the pearly gates, wrapped in a pink satin ribbon and presented in a commemorative crystal box. Instead, Debra’s discussion of illness and death, love and life moves through the book as life does—it’s sometimes messy and uncomfortable and often beautiful; it’s real and transparent. And when you read about her experiences and those of her patients as she and they grapple with cancer and their inner lives, you are struck both by the authenticity of the encounters and by the genuine feeling that supports the moments that she records.

As Debra tells her own story—which includes a diagnosis of infiltrating ductal carcinoma, mastectomy, reconstruction, and chemo—and gives us glimpses of her dialogues with the patients she ministers to, we gain perspective about how cancer can change a life and how faith can transform a person in often-inexplicable ways. Sometimes it is Debra who is changed, and sometimes it is her patients; but in each encounter and experience she relates, there is the meeting of grace and humanity that allows us to see the way faith and the questions surrounding our spiritual life are inextricably tangled along the winding road of a cancer journey. And in the end, Debra acts as chaplain to the reader too, as we are granted the opportunity to reflect on our own faith and to ask our own questions through the experiences of the author and her flock.

Here, Debra answers a few questions about the meeting of faith and illness, her work as an oncology chaplain, and how her personal experience with cancer has affected her spiritual life.

W&C As a general oncology chaplain, what’s your job description?

DJ My formal job description is to “provide spiritual and emotional support to patients, family, and staff.” What that translates to is: holding hands, fluffing pillows, talking theology, laughing, drinking tea, talking about baseball, praying, talking about shoes/dog/kids, laughing, opening stubborn water bottles, holding babies, feeding babies, holding adults, offering tissues, reading scripture, looking at photos, blessing chemo, laughing, singing and, yes, crying.

W&C When you tell people that you are a cancer or oncology chaplain, what kind of reaction do you generally get?

DJ People associate cancer with death; and since Americans are pretty squirrelly about death, they usually get wide-eyed and say in a funereal tone, “That must be hard.” Then I say, “Yeah, you know what’s hard about it?” They brace themselves. “I have to wear close-toed shoes to work, and I really hate that.”

W&C In your experience, are there common themes in what people living with cancer are seeking when they engage in a dialogue with you?

DJ Yes, there are, depending on where they are in their cancer experience.

Newly diagnosed:
What did I do to deserve this? (Why did God do this to me?) I’m not ready to go/leave my kids/leave my parents.
It’s just not fair.But I’ve always been so healthy!

Living with cancer:
I sure don’t ______ [fill in the blank] anymore.
This whole experience has made me see ______ [fill in the blank, i.e.: how much I’m loved; how much I let other people walk on me; how much I do to keep my household together; how I really hate my job].
I’m grateful for ______ [fill in the blank].

W&C Did your own experience with cancer teach you anything new about the role of faith for people living with cancer?

DJ Two things come to mind. One is that on those nights when I lay awake, I had an ongoing conversation with Mr. Martha Miyagi (my name for God who is combo of Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid and Martha Stewart) in which I would listen expectantly as well as pray, “Please, please help me go to sleep!” Just knowing that there was something beyond and within myself was incredibly sustaining. The second thing is that although I was in deep water, I always felt as if I had a life preserver around me, keeping my head above water. So I never felt alone or that I was going to go under.

W&C Can you describe the role/importance of faith or spiritual practice for people living with cancer as you have observed it?

DJ My observation and my personal experience is that having cancer can make you amazingly self-absorbed. So if you have a faith or spiritual practice that encourages you to see the big picture and think of others, it can keep you balanced. It’s also empowering to meditate or pray for yourself and others at a time when you feel powerless and vulnerable.

W&C We tend to use those words—faith, spirituality, belief—interchangeably. How do you define them in your work?

DJ I think religion is simply the basket in which we carry our spiritual beliefs. So some of us have a Jewish basket, others a Buddhist basket, others a Christian basket or a basket with no label. The important thing is to not get hung up on the label but to focus on the contents of the basket, which are more similar than different. To me spirituality means how you view and experience life and death—where you find meaning in life and death and what binds your life together. So even if you tell me that you’re a card-carrying atheist, you still have spiritual beliefs.

W&C Your days must often be filled with heartbreaking interactions and also with incredibly uplifting exchanges. What does your own spiritual practice consist of that enables you to manage your work and your own inner life?

DJ I have a meditation practice called metta, or lovingkindness, meditation in which I visualize a person and pray, May you be happy and peaceful. May you be safe and protected. May you be strong and healthy. May your body serve you well. May you live with ease and joy. This way I don’t have to pretend I know what’s best for anyone. I just lift them up in this loving way. And of course I always pray for myself first. If you don’t pray for yourself first, you’re hosed! The flight attendants are right: “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.”