Award-winning author Anthony Maranise takes us through the various perspectives of the cancer experience in Cross of a Different Kind. Maranise is a cancer survivor himself and drew on his experiences as a survivor, theologian, and chaplain to create this inspirational field guide. I was able to get some time with Maranise and discuss his personal experiences with cancer and how this aspect of health plays into the mental and spiritual.
- At what point of your personal story/experience did you decide to write a book about cancer?
Though my personal experience with cancer (a form of leukemia) began at age 5 with diagnosis, I actually wanted to share my insights about it in commemoration of my 20th year in remission. That would’ve been 2017 – the year I researched and composed the manuscript that led to the book’s rollout by early 2018. I’m often questioned as to how or if I can accurately remember my cancer-experience so many years later having been so young when I went through it… and that question honestly always kind of astounds me. I remember ALL of it, vividly. You don’t forget or foggily remember something like that.
- Cross of a Different Kind is split into three unique sections each showing a different perspective of the cancer experience. What led you to touch on all these various viewpoints? Did you find it particularly difficult to write from any one of them?
I am a bit biased, of course, but what I love about this book is its practicality. I chose to write for three different audiences impacted by cancer (those who have lost loved-ones to the illness, those currently in-treatment, and survivors) because there is a rather stark and unfortunate reality in cancer-encounters: Most persons who do have a cancer-encounter rarely experience it only in one sense. That is, for example, survivors often lose friends or other loved-ones along the way to the illness; and sometimes survivors even develop subsequent cancers later in life. So, I wanted to write a book that includes all three perspectives in one treatment of the subject so the book could be used over and again, if needed. Naturally, there were sections of this book that were much more difficult for me to write than others. The first section (for those who have lost loved-ones to cancer) was especially difficult for me as I lost both of my grandfathers to cancers, but also some friends along the way. Add to that the fact that I had lost two persons very dear to me within 5 months of the composition of that section – granted, their losses were not to cancer and only one was even a loss to a passing into the next life, but still, the weight of those losses made the content of that first section even more poignant for me personally. The silver-lining in that is writing that section also significantly helped me process and heal from my own grief; I only hope it helps those who come to read it too.
- Cancer can be a harrowing experience for all involved, but you chose to write about your experience to encourage. What encouraged you during your diagnosis?
There is a concept in scholastic Jewish & Christian theologies known as imago Dei, or the reality that human persons are created “in the image and likeness of God.” Without a doubt, this reality was the most significant encouragement for me, even at so young an age before I knew the deeper and more intellectual theology that underpinned the concept. I have always been a believer in God, and as I’m sure many a cancer-sufferer would agree, when going through cancer, you’re sort of always “teetering” in the in-between of life and life to come. In that way, your “sense of the sacred” becomes incredibly heightened. In my most difficult moments, I was able to “see” and experience the very image and likeness of God so beautifully reflected through the loving concern and care of my family, friends, doctors, nurses, and even supportive donors to the hospital that saved my life. So, to say what encouraged me would be wrong… rather, it’s a matter of Who encouraged me.
- This book deals heavily with theological and spiritual concepts, and you’ve also written a book on sports and spirituality. How do you view spirituality being involved with physical aspects of life?
This is actually one of my favorite questions to answer. In fact, this past semester, I designed, implemented, and taught a course at my university that is at the heart of this question. It was called “Religious Perspectives in Health,” and addressed the ways in which spirituality often serves as a useful adjuvant to modern medical intervention methods. Innumerable studies have concluded that patients who pray and/or meditate regularly tend to heal at a more successful or swifter rate than do those who do not. A lot of that, scientifically speaking, has to do with the ways in which prayer, meditation, and various spiritual practices alleviate stress and anxiety which otherwise exacerbates illnesses in many ways, but I also believe whole-heartedly in “Divine assistance” that comes from prayer and communication with the Divine beyond our perceptible senses. At the most basic level, then, spirituality undergirds physicality and impacts it explicitly as a source of interior motivation. When, for example, a marathon runner feels as if though they are becoming exhausted and they are “hitting the wall,” s/he can pull from the deeper well of spiritual strength where and when physical, emotional, and intellectual strength has already been exhausted. In my tradition, as a monotheist, I draw strength from spiritually relating to, communicating and interacting with the incarnate God. In moments of emotional or physical adversity, my faith in the incarnate God’s compassionate help and the recognition that He suffered through the worst of human trials Himself fills me with a sudden energy, strength, dare I even say, power – animated by His own Spirit living in me. These valuable intersections – those of spirituality and sports as well as spirituality and health – are everywhere pregnant with possibilities to enhance and make our human experiences more dynamic. By merging the spiritual with the physical, we tap into the deepest and most profound facets of our existence. After all, we are not merely bodies (physical), but bodies which are only made animate by a soul (spiritual).
- What do you want to tackle next as an author?
One of my dearest friends actually asked me this recently. This latest book makes 5 for me, now – and at only 29. I was accepted not too long ago to a doctoral program at Creighton University in Omaha. Since I will begin that in August (2019), much of my writing and work for the next three and a half to five years will likely be solely academic journal publications and papers for coursework, though I hope to one day publish my doctoral thesis. These forthcoming papers and projects will likely also focus on my expertise areas in spiritual theology and sports or spirituality and education.
- You work as a professor at The University of Memphis, you’re a certified life coach, and you’ve worked as a hospital chaplain. Can you tell us how you came to those career and life choices?
I feel as if though I have known I was meant to educate since I was a sophomore in high school. Prior to then, I wanted to be a mixture of things ranging from reporter to priest to meteorologist to chef. It was definitely during my time in high school, however, that I felt the calling to be a teacher. I taught high school for a little while right out of undergrad and quickly was promoted to Dean of Mission & Identity. I’ve always enjoyed education because I am able to positively change and impact the lives of the learners entrusted to my care. My long-term goal is to continue to be a professor so that I can have the best of both worlds in both teaching and in writing for publication. As for my roles as both life-coach and chaplain, I took these on at various stages in my life because I enjoy giving people reasons in which to have hope. Hope is so difficult to hold on to in this day and age. But it’s the single virtue that keeps pushing all of us forward beyond our adversities. Truth be told, I’ve experienced in my life thus far a number of situations unknown to many (because I just don’t like to open up about them to many persons) that have left me in a pervasive hopelessness of my own, but somehow, I am always “zapped out” of that hopelessness by someone or something in which to hope. As a chaplain, I have been there for cancer-sufferers on their best days, when they learned of their remission and armed with that new hope, they call on me to help them praise and thank the Divine beyond our perceptible senses. I have, conversely, been there with them in the darkest moments—on several occasions—to offer a “final blessing” or to lead persons through their transition from this life to the life of the world to come. Their fear, like any of ours, in those moments is so palpable. But, even in such sorrow and fear, the hope of what is to come whispers, “all will be well.” Life coaching was a choice I made purely out of observing so many of my own friends as well as the learners I work with. Many times in this life, we may well have an idea or a direction in which we’d like to go with a project or a purpose, but we just don’t quite know how to begin or continue through to making our goal a reality… again, for me, helping persons maximize that potential is all about fostering hope where it seems to have dwindled.
- Physical health can deeply impact mental and spiritual health, how have you seen these two aspects of health interact?
It’s merely elemental of our human condition that when we feel physically negative, we tend to also not think clearly. Have we not all experienced those days when we could feel a head-cold coming on and we simply felt as if though our work was shrouded in a fog? Similarly, when we experience great physical adversities (like cancer treatment, a limiting disability, or even a mood disorder than physically manifests), so many of us are inclined to ask that age old, “Why me?” question. Our physical realm is so strong and overpowering because it is something tangible. We can see it, hear it, smell it, touch it, and taste it. These senses work to “confirm” realities for us. It’s much harder in the midst of physical adversity that can be “confirmed” by the senses to engage positively or upliftingly so with the mental and/or spiritual dimensions of our existence. That said, physicality often acts as a cloud to mentality and spirituality which are rays of sunlight. When we are physically ailing in some way, the thick clouds block out the sun’s pleasant, warming rays. In these times, it is all the more important to be intentional and to deliberately cultivate positive engagement with the mental and spiritual facets of our being for if those are built-up and solidified, they can be great helps in the process to returning us to physical health as well. Physical adversities, if nothing else, most commonly provoke spiritual and existential questions. Unfortunately, we live in a very superficial (that is, primarily exteriorly image-conscious) culture and the limits of a person’s physical abilities are often negatively perceived. However, we must always remember, acknowledge, and assent – unhesitatingly – to the fact that our physical selves are not “us.” We are who we are only because of what animates our physicality – that is our mind and our spirit.
- You’re a 20+ year cancer survivor and an advocate for the advancement of cancer research. What change have you seen in the way we as a society interact with cancer since your diagnosis?
While cancer treatments have improved by leaps and bounds in the last two decades, what has regressed is the societal treatment and/or acceptance of persons with cancer. As our culture becomes more hurried and fast-paced, we consequently become more stressed and hyper-competitive. Stress and the mindless urge to out-perform the other fosters greater health consequences stemming from hypertension to lack of rest to anxiety disorders to simple burnout. All of these health consequences can and do exacerbate unknown, but present health conditions in others – sometimes even culminating in the discovery or rapid spread of cancers. Environmental factors apart from these such as rampant air, soil, and water pollution are also significant factors for the development of cancers. As advanced as cancer treatments have become, the world of today sees more diagnoses of cancer (and yes, more cures). Nevertheless, the vast prevalence and wider occurrence of cancer seems to have led inevitably to desensitization on some level. I can’t count the number of occasions I have overheard persons in social settings remark, “Seems like everybody gets cancer nowadays.” This view of cancer as a commonplace occurrence – while possibly factual – should not harden our hearts to those who must suffer through the illness itself; but, it seems as if though it has. We, as a society and culture, would do well to remember the vulnerable in our midst and see, in the cancer-affected, those in need of our care, attention, and help.
- All your proceeds of Cross of a Different Kind are being donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. What inspired you to do that? Can you tell us what you hope to see come from your donations?
This is true. I chose to give all proceeds from the sales of this newest book to St. Jude because St. Jude gave me my life back. Without St. Jude, there would never have been a book like this because I would no longer have been present to write it. They, without doubt, deserve every cent from it. The children, teens, young adults, nursing staff, clinical staff, physicians, and support staff of St. Jude are the bravest and best of humanity gathered under one roof and united for one cause; namely, to make Danny Thomas’ (St. Jude’s founder) dream a reality – that “no child should die in the dawn of life.” If that isn’t enough of an inspiration to donate these book proceeds, then I would easily be a monster. I hope these proceeds are utilized however St. Jude sees fit in their wide-reaching mission. I want to know, when all is said and done, that not only did St. Jude saved me, but because they did, I at least had the smallest hand in saving someone else. These children deserve not just life, but the fullness thereof; and St. Jude helps give them just that. I am living proof.
- What advice would you give to someone recently diagnosed with cancer?
Take a moment, in stillness, silence, and in prayer (or meditation if you aren’t particularly religious) and breathe. Focus on your breathing and then “dig deep” into your mind and your soul. Locate at least one reason to persevere through the excruciating days of treatment and procedures; and cease upon that at least one reason to persevere. Viktor Frankl in his Man’s Search for Meaning calls that reason the “will-to-meaning” and argues that a person with a “will-to-meaning” can and will learn to deal with any “how.” In other words, Frankl argues that if we have a reason to keep living, we will find a way to do so no matter how bleak the prognosis may be. He has yet to be proven wrong.
Cross of a Different Kind is out now; all proceeds from this book will go to St. Jude Children’s Hospital. For more information, visit Anthony at http://amaranis.wixsite.com/amjm.