Fistulas, Cancer and the Cross

eve ensler

Eve Ensler speaks at KPFA event in Oakland

A fistula is a hole that shouldn’t be there. It is a hole that forms between two organs in your body or between an organ and your skin. It can happen when women’s birth canals are too small, childbirth goes on too long, and adequate health care is absent – like in many places throughout the majority world.

There is another cause of fistulas. It is found in places where women experience severe violence to their vaginas – like being gang-raped, or raped with a stick or the gun barrel of an AK-47. That violence creates a fistula, a hole.


While most known for writing The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler is the founder of V-Day, an organization committed to ending violence against women. Having gained fame for her provocative play about the female genital organ, Ensler traveled the world and found women who wanted to tell her the stories of their own vaginas. She sat with women, countless women who have been raped, abused, molested, and beaten. Woman after woman, she listened to their stories. Story after story she heard, she wept, she responded with love.

After years of traveling and story-listening, Eve Ensler thought she had heard it all. No story of violence or abuse would surprise her. Then she went to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a place wrought by civil war, and heard the stories of their women. The level of violence many women have experienced there is unimaginable.

Eve Ensler writes, “So many thousands of women in Eastern Congo have suffered fistulas from rape that it is considered a crime of combat.” (In the Body of the World, 44). There are clinics and hospitals in Eastern Congo that specialize in fistula surgeries. Women walk with bags attached to their bodies to catch the feces, urine and blood leaking out of the hole between their vagina and bladder or rectum.

Ensler’s book, In the body of the World is a memoir, more about her life than the women of the DRC. She reflects on her own experience of sexual violence and a life disconnected from her body. It is a book about cancer, Eve’s cancer of the uterus, and the way the cancer re-connected her to her body, to the women of the DRC, and to the suffering world. It is a painful, beautiful reflection. One scene offers a picture of compassion that goes far beyond most Christianly kindness to the very heart of the cross of Christ.

You see, the cancer in Eve’s body did something unexpected. “Cells of endometrial (uterine) cancer had created a tumor between the vagina and the bowel and had “fistulated” the rectum. Essentially, the cancer had done exactly what rape had done to thousands of women in the Congo.” (41)

Eve’s doctor reflected on her fistula, “These findings are not medical, they are not science. They are spiritual.” (42)

Suffering With

We often think of compassion as taking a break from our busy, competitive lives to give charity to someone who can’t compete. When I volunteer for a few hours or sponsor a child in India, I’m showing compassion, right? Well, compassion literally means: “to suffer with.” It requires us to move past pity and sympathy to join others in their suffering, to be truly in it with them.

This, it seems, is what somehow – in someway – happened to Eve Ensler. Years of hearing the stories of rape of women, of being in it with them, developed a cancer in her body. Like the women in the DRC, that cancer fistulated and created a hole in her body. In compassion, she literally suffered with them.

In the life of Jesus we are told of his compassion – for the man with leprosy and the hungry crowds. Henri Nouwen explains that the words used to describe Jesus when he is “moved with compassion” mean Jesus was moved in his guts – in the place where his most intense and intimate feelings exist (Compassion, 16).

In Jesus’ greatest act of compassion, we discover a radical love for a suffering humanity that led him to Golgotha. In Jesus we see a God who participated with the suffering of the world, who submitted to the religious and political authorities, who was nailed to a cross and who somehow – in someway – took all the cancers and fistulas, and loneliness and depression and anger, the stories of rape and the stories of war and the stories of injustice that God had seen and heard and ingested throughout all of history, joined humanity in its suffering and suffered with us.

In this I find hope. Because the victims of violence need a God to know what it feels like to have holes. Holes in his hands. Holes in his feet. A hole in his side. Fistulas, maybe. And I hope, I pray, I long for a resurrected Jesus who redeems their suffering and restores their bodies and their souls.

photo credit: Steve Rhodes via photopin cc


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