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Christian author breaks silence, shares horrors of breast cancer battle

Margaret Feinberg's books have sold nearly a million copies and she speaks to tens of thousands annually, but the popular personality couldn't find the words to talk about breast cancer. Now she is sharing the horrific details of her battle. - Photo credit: Audrey Hannah

Margaret Feinberg’s books have sold nearly a million copies and she speaks to tens of thousands annually, but the popular personality couldn’t find the words to talk about breast cancer. Now she is sharing the horrific details of her battle. – Photo credit: Audrey Hannah

(RNS) Vertigo. Anemia. Depression. Receding gums. Early menopause. A double mastectomy.

These are just a few of the many terrors that Margaret Feinberg hid from the public after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis in 2013 before age 40. While the popular Christian author’s books have sold nearly a million copies and she speaks to more than 80,000 people each year, she couldn’t find the words to share this part of herself.

“I felt shame after the diagnosis, wondering if I had somehow brought it on myself,” she said. “And I felt a little embarrassed since it involved my female body parts.”

With the weight of her secret mounting, Feinberg sought the advice of Matt Chandler, the prominent pastor of the 11,000-member Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, and a recent cancer survivor himself.

Chandler said she had two options: Round up the wagons and tell no one, or invite her readers into the journey. She decided to test the waters of the second option, but the results were not what she’d hoped for.

Image courtesy of Worthy Publishing

Image courtesy of Worthy Publishing

“Many people were supportive and prayerful, but then there were those who filled our inboxes with unsolicited medical advice, stories of everyone they knew who had died from cancer, retribution theology and accusations that I had brought the cancer on myself because of a hidden sin or lack of faith,” Feinberg said. “Those kinds of comments are devastating when you’re in the fight of your life.”

The responses taught her “the church isn’t always a safe place to be when you’re sick.”

With half a dozen trade books and numerous Bible studies published for the popular “Women of Faith” network and LifeWay Christian Stores, Feinberg continued to tour the country to teach at churches and conferences — darting back to her home in Denver for chemotherapy in between trips. But she continued to conceal the cavalcade of agony from her readers and fans.

Feinberg has now decided to break the silence and share much of her battle in a new book, “Fight Back With Joy.”

In it, she shares dreadful side effects of treatment known all too well by cancer survivors:

“I had anemia, fatigue, rashes, irritable bowel syndrome, mouth sores, itchy eyes, ringing ears, vertigo, chest pain, receding gums, drilling headaches, even nerve pain that felt like electrocution coursing under my skin. They poisoned me until my toenails fell off and somewhere in there I experienced an early menopause. There was so much torturous pain.”

At her lowest point, Feinberg admits struggling to maintain the will to live.

“Once during treatment, I caught myself thinking, ‘I’d rather be dead,’” Feinberg said. “In those moments, if God would have let me die, I’d have been more than okay with that.”

Many Americas can relate to her struggle, and not just women. An estimated 1.66 million people in the U.S. received a cancer diagnosis in 2014 alone. Approximately 66 percent of them survived five or more years after the diagnosis.

But even those familiar with the disease may be surprised by the spiritual lessons Feinberg said she learned. The experience, she said, revealed the “crappy theology” and “tired teachings” held by many Christians that promise prosperity and a clean bill of health to the faithful. As a result, many Christians aren’t equipped to face such crisis.

“She’s always been a gifted Bible teacher,” said Christopher Ferebee, Feinberg’s agent for nearly a decade. “But there’s a new depth to her writing now that she’s faced this trial. When you can see God’s face in the abyss, it changes you.”

Feinberg decided to see the experience as an opportunity to rediscover a cornerstone Christian virtue: joy. Through participating in an ancient Jewish grieving ritual, she found joy in mourning. She attempted to impart joy to others by gifting red balloons to other patients in the hospital cancer ward and baking brownies for nurses. She even sang cheerful songs in CAT scan machines.

Through the experiment, she realized that Christians have misunderstood the Christian quality. While many Christians teach that joy is better than the circumstantial emotion called “happiness,” Feinberg says the two are inseparable.

And though it is tough to muster in times of suffering, deep joy is almost always accessible even if it looks different than we expect.

“Joy is far more than I ever thought or been taught,” said Feinberg, recently named by Outreach Magazine as one of the top young leaders shaping the American Christian church. “It’s a more dynamic, forceful weapon than most of us realize. When we fight back with joy, we lean into the very presence of God — the one who fills us with joy, even on our most deflated todays.”

She said she believes joy can be an effective armament to fight diseases such as cancer because it reduces anxiety. But she doesn’t think it is a replacement for proper medical treatment, which she credits with the success of her fight.

After more than a year of treatment and a double mastectomy, doctors have told Feinberg that she’s cancer-free. But she is well aware that it could return at any moment.

“I live in fear, but I’m not controlled by fear,” she said. “I’ve found my capacity for joy expanding against all odds.”

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

21 Comments

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  • “the church isn’t always a safe place to be when you’re sick”

    Well, neither are hospitals when you consider the alarming increase in drug resistant bacteria that often result in serious hospital acquired infections.

    So where is a safe place, assuming there are any left?

  • Having seen this sort of thing up close and personal, I’d say the woman had quite a run of bad luck with the side effects to various treatments (or she’s given to histrionics).

    Chandler said she had two options: Round up the wagons and tell no one, or invite her readers into the journey. She decided to test the waters of the second option, but the results were not what she’d hoped for

    Or she could have just told friends and family like normal people do and written about something else. Except, of course, she’s a writer and this is ‘material’.

    I’ve seen perfectly ordinary people (not pillars of the evangelical gauze machine) get through this without a portfolio of complaints about others and without strange emotional strategems. Maybe much of the ‘battle’ is self-generated.

  • Thank you Margaret for being a voice to people pain but also being a voice of hope. Too often in church we want everyone to be well but the reality is this world is broken and plenty experience pain someway or another. However God has equipped us! Thank you for pointing that out and bringing it to the forefront with your gift.

  • Art Deco (I’m guessing that’s not your real name)…Have you read this book in it’s entirety? Have you personally suffered any grave illness? I have. I’m not famous, but I’m all too familiar with the family & friends that aren’t there when you need them the most. Those who say stupid things or those who act like the crisis doesn’t exist. Church people who say you’re sick because of unconfessed sin or a lack of prayer. Friends who eventually don’t even take the time to check on you. All the while, your life continues spinning out of control. You need help but you’re not even sure where to begin.

    Margaret is a writer. It’s only natural that she would write about her experience. She has shown great courage in sharing such intimate details of a very personal crisis. Hopefully her words will help others who find themselves in the midst of crisis! She continues to honor God with her life & work!

  • Yikes! You mention twice you’ve “seen” this sort of thing. Indeed, seeing is different from experiencing. Forgive me, but your calloused and unkind words are repulsive. I only hope you don’t have to ever suffer like Margaret has.

  • When will we learn that the “prosperity Gospel” is one of the true Gospel’s vilest enemies?

    Deeply grateful to Margaret for the courage she exhibited in sharing her difficult journey.

  • Margaret is the real deal. She doesn’t wear the cancer like a big “C” around her neck. Rather it’s a “V” for victory. She is genuine. SIncere. And JOYOUS. The book is a delight.

  • Just wondering to myself if you’d utter such callous words to Margaret if she were sitting next to you, Art Deco. If not, this is cowardly. If so, you could do with some help.

  • From the disgusting perversions of European paganism to the sickening stardom idolatry of American culture, it is a miracle that Christian life has survived the onslaught of European influence and the sickness of American materialism.

    But then again, the wheat from the chaff shows a lot of chaff and little numbers of wheat kernels.

    I’m joyful she still found Jesus through all of this.

  • No, I read the brief squib here and it’s summary of her account. I’m not interested in her memoirs.

    And, no, I do not believe the mass of ordinary people need instruction from the helping professions or from writers of the ‘inspirational’ genre (or from you, while we’re at it, sister) about how to treat others. She insisted on publicizing this to perfect strangers who are not acquainted with her various facets and who did not and have not interacted with her one-on-one (with all the non-verbal signals such interaction incorporates). Then she complains about the quality of the feedback she got.

    Have you seen online fora on breast cancer? Those women discuss medical problems. I’ve seen breast cancer patients up close; they discuss some of the aspects of their treatments, their doctors, the side effects, &c. That’s their deal. Well, here she is beefing about ‘unsolicited medical advice’. If she did not wish to have those conversations, converse about something else to people who know you and can see you as you converse.

    And, of course, there are a certain number of rude cranks in this world. You solicit their attention (without your vulnerable human form in front of them), you get what they think. Tough break.

    Suffering is not coterminous with personal virtue and does not preclude harboring bad attitudes.

  • They are repulsive, ma’am, to people who have a problem understanding the reality of personal agency and who do not recognize attention-seeking behavior and gracelessness when they see it.

  • The people I associate with have the sense not to write trade books about their medical problems or to expect exquisitely calibrated attention from perfect strangers.

    In domestic life and among your friends, it’s never a pleasant task to tell someone their emotional experience and display is undignified or has at its source unreasonable expectations of their world. You have to do it sometimes, even though it is usually unsuccessful.

  • She doesn’t wear the cancer like a big “C” around her neck

    If I can purchase a memoir of her cancer treatments on Amazon.com, yes she is.

  • I’m joyful she still found Jesus through all of this.

    She’s a professional author and lecturer on the evangelical circuit. I think she supposedly ‘found Jesus’ a while ago.

  • The ‘prosperity Gospel’ is a signature of charismatic and pentacostal circles. It is alien to Christian teach of any kind just about anywhere else. When will who learn?

  • It seems to me that Ken is not referring to the original, “conversion” sense in which we find Jesus, but in the sense that we can “find Jesus” anew each day, for instance, in the caring and loving expressions of grace and mercy with which He calls us to minister to others.

    Art, I’m praying that you will “find Jesus” (in this latter, and possibly in all other senses as well) through the graciousness with which your comments have been received in this dialogue.

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