We are both cancer survivors, my husband and I.
Like many people, I had always feared hearing that diagnosis. My father, a non-smoker, had lung cancer, passing on at age 68 just three months after being diagnosed. My mother had bladder cancer in her 80s that required a long and difficult treatment plan. And then one day, we found out my husband had prostate cancer, and on another day, 15 years later, after a routine annual mammogram, it was my turn.
“Breast cancer.” Hearing those definitive words as I stared at a computer monitor zoomed in on the irregularly-shaped spot in my right breast, I felt all the feels. My first thoughts, of course, were for my then 16-year-old son, wondering if he would be left without his mother at so young an age.
Walking through cancer with my spouse, with both my parents, and then on my own journey, what I discovered is that while experiencing cancer is not easy, by any means, it has a way of teaching you important things about God, yourself, and others that you may not learn any other way. These lessons may sound basic and simple, but somehow, when you are in the midst of the uniqueness of the crisis of cancer, they are so profound and become graces and miracles. Here are a few of them:
God’s presence is real and palpable. Many times I have felt the nearness of God and have experienced the work of the Holy Spirit in my life in 50 plus years as a Christ-follower, but never before or since have I experienced the presence of Jesus as I did when on my own cancer journey. I remember the day I was in the breast cancer surgeon’s office, shivering in my little pink gown, waiting for another ultrasound exam to determine possible treatment plans. Biopsy? Surgery? Chemo? Radiation? Oncologist? It all seemed so surreal.
I was praying and suddenly visualized and knew without a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was sitting right next to me on that exam table. It was so tangible—I could feel the warmth of his perfect love and knew in a crystal-clear way how much he cared for me. I was enveloped in such a sweet comfort and filled with a bright hope that is unexplainable. The Prince of Peace knew exactly what I needed and was there to miraculously provide it for me.
God’s Word is truly alive and active and is your moment-by-moment sustenance. I have always loved the Psalms, and they became particularly precious, but the Bible is full of promising, encouraging, uplifting, life-giving verses if you look for them, and, desperate for those things like never before, I did. Along with some, I’d committed to memory growing up, I made a list of these verses on my phone, and if I began to feel anxious or fearful, I opened the Bible app and filled my mind with thoughts of God’s love, power, presence, and my eternal hope. Isaiah 41:10 became my go-to verse: “So do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I AM your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” Every time, I could feel my soul being filled to overflowing with his amazing peace—even in the darkest moments pre-surgery, or while under the beam of the radiation machine, or in the still of the night. My anxiety turned into worship, and I found myself praising God for his goodness. To me, this is miraculous in and of itself.
You can do things that were previously unimaginable. I was very grateful that my post-lumpectomy surgery treatment plan was only for a month of radiation treatments (every morning/5 days a week). They took place during the weeks of what they called “the 2014 polar vortex” that happened in February here in the Chicago area. Record-breaking low temps were in the -20 below range with even lower wind chill temps every day for weeks on end, with huge amounts of blowing and drifting snow that would not loosen its grip, causing school-closings and road-closings. I almost despaired, knowing how very much I disliked winter driving, sure that I didn’t have the courage to navigate myself 10 plus miles each way to and from the cancer center in such conditions without ending up swerving off the road and stuck in a snowdrift. I know there are worse things, but this was my fear. Somehow, I made it through. Only one treatment had to be rescheduled due to road conditions, but otherwise, I never missed a treatment; God prepared the way each day, and I bundled myself up and got behind the wheel with the promise of Deuteronomy 31:8 echoing in my mind: “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”
They thoroughly inform you about the side-effects of cancer treatments, and having cared for my parents when they went through them, I knew this information to be true. I wondered how I would face it all. God’s strength upheld me when weak with profound fatigue and the extraordinary discomfort from my radiation burns. Leaning on him was what sustained me to the end—another grace. Tears of gratitude and relief rolled down my cheeks (freezing on their way down!) as I left the cancer center after my final radiation treatment. It was all God.
God can use you to glorify him and provide opportunities to share the gospel. There are a lot of spiritually hungry people at a cancer center. You can see it in their eyes and on their faces—all the pain, anger, and sadness. From the moment I was diagnosed, my prayer was that I would remain joyful, hopeful and positive so those around me would see the hope I have in Christ and my life would point to him, giving purpose to my suffering.
This posture was not a reflection of anything exceptional in my character but was a pure and undeserved gift of faith from God, built upon the foundation of his unfailing faithfulness in my life. As I eagerly looked for opportunities, he answered that prayer so many times—not only with other patients, but also with doctors, nurses, technicians, and even with the kind young valet who parked my car each morning. He became a father for the first time during my treatment and seemed so burdened down by the new responsibilities of parenting, tight finances, and trying to do his outdoor job, made so difficult in the frigid temps, while completely sleep-deprived. I showed my appreciation for his help with daily words of encouragement, some gifts for his new baby—wonderful Christian children’s books and some money—and shared God’s love for him as often as I could.
It can strengthen your marriage. I can never adequately describe how my husband supported and cared for me (and for our son) during my cancer experience. He was close by my side emotionally, spiritually and physically through it all, and did so with much-needed humor, light-heartedness and joy, and never once complained. Watching this big 6-foot 2-inch man doing funny things every day, like fake-pirouetting across the kitchen, or singing a silly made-up breakfast song as he delivered my tray in bed kept me laughing. I always knew of his strength and devotion, but my eyes were opened to the depth of them. Facing such a challenge together bonds you closer in fresh, new ways.
God’s people are ministering angels. Meals, flowers that filled my room, cards, phone calls, emails, texts, prayer, help with rides for our son, goodie baskets—it seemed like every day a friend, a neighbor, a Bible study sister, a Sunday school class member, and of course, family provided for our needs. This was the body of Christ being his hands and feet to us, and I will never forget every one of those blessings.
Learning you or a loved one has cancer can be devastating, for sure. It’s a word you never want to hear, and it’s very scary. But, I know it’s absolutely true that God can redeem anything—even something as unwelcome as this terrible disease—by opening our eyes to the amazing wonders of his love and care for us, and growing us, instructing us, and even using us in unexpected ways. He can be glorified in and through us when we look for them and welcome them as the miracles they are. This is the goodness that can be gleaned in the suffering.