Arlington Church of God Senior Pastor, [Rev. Dr.] Diana Swoope has been battling cancer for a decade and offers insight into fear, disease and hope. By Terry Pluto, The Plain Dealer
And a faith story.
It’s a story about a dream come true. . .
And about things that make you say, “Why, God, why? It’s not fair!”
It’s a story of grit, determination and dueling with doubt.
It’s also a story of the world right now, when many of us are feeling more than a little “fear and trembling.”
And finally, there’s a COVID-19 aspect to this tale.
PAIN & SUFFERING
Dr. Diana Swoope is quick to tell you she’s not the only person who has been dealing with cancer and pain for the last decade. She has been in and out of more than enough hospitals and medical waiting rooms to know better.
Many of us may be aware of people who have battled Parkinson’s, strokes, multiple sclerosis and other major, long-term medical conditions.
I called Swoope because she “knows what it’s like to get knocked down. . . more than once.”
In 2010, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Serious, yes.
But many women survive it.
That’s what Swoope thought, that she would beat this relatively quickly and be back at her new job.
In 2009, Swoope was named head pastor of Arlington Church of God in Akron.
“That alone was a remarkable achievement,” said Ronald Fowler, who had been the head pastor of that church since 1969.
Fowler had hired Swoope as an intern in 1981. She stayed on as an assistant pastor. Fowler received some criticism for allowing her to preach, as some people of faith have issues with women in the pulpit.
Fowler trained her. In 2009, Fowler wanted to retire and said the “mostly male board of elders” recommended she take over to lead the church. Then she received about 90 percent of the vote from congregation to be their leader.
“She was a pioneer in a male-dominated field,” said Fowler. “She is tough. She is a strong personality. She has faced so many challenges.”
But Swoope didn’t see cancer coming – not a year after taking over one of Summit County’s most prominent churches.
“She has been authentic during all of this. I tell leaders not to be afraid of showing some weakness.”
The breast cancer would seem to back off, then come back.
It spread to her lungs, her chest, her brain.
“How many surgeries have you had?” I asked.
“Four,” she said.
But then she started counting them and came up with five . . . she thought.
“I really don’t know," she said. “I don’t dwell on it.”
Right now, she is going through radiation. When that’s done, it will be more chemotherapy.
“This has been the most excruciating pain I’ve dealt with,” she said. “There is a law of diminishing returns when you go through different treatments like this over the years.”
“There is a lot of physical pain,” she said. “But there’s also a lot of mental anguish.”
WHERE IS GOD?
While we’re not close friends, I’ve known Swoope for 20 years. I know how she worked hard to become a head pastor, how she went from having a chemistry degree from Memphis and turned down a lucrative job in that field to start all over as a divinity student.
She paid her dues many times over to reach the spot as head pastor.
Then came the cancer. . .
And the cancer won’t quit.
“I won’t either,” she said. “It has taken me down, but not taken me out.”
Swoope said she’s had several “Why God?” moments in the last 10 years.
“If you’re human, you will ask that question at some point,” she said. “Even if you know you probably won’t get an answer.”
There are some people of faith who try to explain people becoming sick or enduring a tragedy as being punished for “unconfessed sin" in their lives.
“I admit, I’ve asked God, ‘What did I do?’ for this to happen,” she said.
Often the answer is . . . nothing.
It just happens. People who have never smoked, never used drugs or drank heavily come down with major health problems.
Swoope said through prayer, she has come to realize “God is asking me to trust him. He is telling me he will stand with me, even if he doesn’t cure me.”
Swoope rarely missed time in the pulpit until recently. She has been able to preach about the power of God even when her situation seemed hopeless and God was on vacation – at least to some of us on the outside.
THE LITTLE MIRACLES
“You grab on to the little miracles,” said Swoope. “Things happen almost every day that lift you up. It can be something someone says or does. Or it can be a day when the pain is not that bad.”
Her advice is simple: Look for the little miracles, see God’s hand behind them.
She said that has helped her through the cancer . . .
Even as it has come back . . .
And back . . .
And back seemingly worse than ever.
Her hair grows back, then she loses it because the next round of cancer and chemotherapy return. People with long-term conditions know this elevator aspect to the ups-and-downs of life.
“She doesn’t act like some kind of martyr,” said Fowler. “She has been authentic during all of this. I tell leaders not to be afraid of showing some weakness.”
THE POWER OF THE PSALMS
Swoope said she has been reading the Psalms more than ever before. They are the cries of suffering, the plea for faith, the debates with God.
She likes Psalm 116.
Verses 10-11 read: “I am greatly afflicted, and in my dismay, I have said ‘all men are liars.’ "
The author was indeed having a bad day.
But then in verse 12, he writes: “How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me.”
The emotions in Psalms fly back and forth, from complaints to gratitude, and from despair to hope.
Swoope has moved from questions of, “Why cancer?" to being thankful she has been able preach and lead her church over the last decade despite the disease.
But she admits, it takes some serious prayer to stay in the right mindset.
HERE COMES THE VIRUS?
Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Swoope came down with a fever. She felt the flu coming on. Fever is one of the first signs of the pandemic.
“I was tested,” she said. “It came back negative. But they warned me that I was not out of the woods yet.”
Swoope has a message for those dealing with the anxiety of these times.
“There is fear and being afraid,” she said. “It’s different.”
She said it’s “natural” for all of us to be afraid, just look at the news.
The virus seems out of control. The death toll rises, the stock market sinks and the jobs disappear.
“Fear is different,” she said. “Fear paralyzes you. Fear isolates you. Fear makes you want to quit.”
THE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Swoope talked about how she’s had Sundays where she’s walked into church in enormous pain. She was “afraid” it would impact her sermon.
“When it came time to preach, the pain was gone,” she said. “The Holy Spirits just takes over. I’ve dealt with a lot of pain in the last 10 years, but never while preaching.”
Fowler is pastor emeritus at Arlington Church of God and he often attends the services.
“I’ve seen it,” he said. “She will be in bad shape as she goes up there and she finds strength. The Spirit is on her. Afterwards, she is drained. But she did it, and did it magnificently.”
Swoope will be taking some more time off as she has some more cancer treatments.
HIGH RISK LOOMS
She also is in the “high risk category” of contracting the virus. She’s 65 years old and her immune system has been attacked by the cancer.
Anyone who is dealing with a long-term illness has to feel life piling up on them with the pandemic looming out there – the invisible enemy waiting to pounce.
Swoope has found herself praying for others who are afraid. She has learned through a decade of life in Cancer Land how to be more empathetic to those who are suffering.
She mentioned Psalm 30:6: “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”
Dark times like these can shake many of us.
But from people such as Swoope, we can learn how to be afraid but not held hostage to fear.