The Chronicles of Cancer in the Life of C.S. Lewis

The chronicles of cancer in the life of C. S. Lewis are filled with contrasts: pain and hope, darkness and light, raw emotion and clarity of mind, and episodes of doubt that do not overcome a faith permeated with steadfast longing for the Creator of the cosmos to make all things new in Christ. What emerges from these chronicles is a beautiful picture of an ugly disease being overshadowed by a God big enough to turn water into wine, ashes into beauty, and death into life. It is a testament to the power of the gospel to take the pilgrim further up and further in. It is the story of a man who was surprised by joy.

“Well, at any rate, we now have less chance of dying of cancer,” quipped C. S. Lewis in response to learning of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, knowing that his own country was on the brink of joining the war. As a World War I veteran, he knew the ugliness of combat. And for a man seldom without a pipe or cigarette, he also understood the risks of cancer. His droll response to the Nazi campaign illustrates that his life was indelibly marked by both war and cancer. And it’s difficult to tell which had the greater impact.

In battle during the First World War, Lewis was hit by shrapnel, the injury from which would trouble him the rest of his life. But the wounds inflicted by the dark disease of cancer would prove even more painful and devastating. In one letter Lewis summarized this sad reality: “The disease is of course cancer: by which I lost my mother, my father, and my favorite aunt.” He would later add his wife to this list of causalities. Lewis had to grow up, seemingly overnight, at the age of nine, when his mother died. His father, struggling to cope with the loss, disconnected from his sons. Lewis and his older brother Warren were thus fated to spend many of the subsequent years in boarding schools. It seemed that cancer had taken from them both mother and father. And in time, it actually would.

Conversion & Cancer: The Vanaukens

Cancer chased Lewis through the years. The merciless malady left its mark on many with whom Lewis maintained contact, from distant fans to close friends and family members. Like a kudzu vine, it seemed to overtake the landscape of his life. On one occasion, a medical exam even suggested that Lewis might have cancer himself, though that proved to be a false alarm. But like his war wound from shrapnel, he would suffer indirect hits from cancer that threatened to cripple him throughout the rest of his life.

Though cancer never laid its cruel hands directly on the beloved creator of Narnia, many of his friends and family took the full impact of the disease’s fury. One American couple crossed paths with Lewis while studying at Oxford, and, like many others who met the personable scholar, their lives would never be the same. The wife’s conversion to Christianity was followed by resistance and even resentment from her husband. But the couple had struck up a correspondence with Lewis, whose pen helped bridge the growing divide between them, and eventually the husband also embraced the gospel.

This couple was Sheldon and Jean Vanauken, and their moving story is recorded in the best-selling book A Severe Mercy. Shortly after Sheldon’s conversion, his wife Davy was diagnosed with a rare disease that attacked her liver. The two were a joyfully eclectic couple who had once taken a vow they called the “Shining Barrier,” a commitment to share everything in life with each other without exception. But sickness laid down a burden that—though lightened by their love—could ultimately be carried only by one.

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