I love fall! It holds a lot of special memories for me through the years. It also holds the memories of one of the darkest seasons of my life. Five years ago, I was sent by a diagnosis into a vortex of medical terms, doctor appointments, hospital stays, and surgeries. I was forced to walk a journey of breast cancer.
I wasn’t invited to join. I wasn’t asked if I wanted to go. I wasn’t given a choice to decline, thank you very much. As I sat at a table in the tiny room waiting for my doctor my mind was racing over the events of the past month. A questionable mammogram, an inconclusive ultrasound, a suspicious biopsy, and here I was, waiting to hear the results.
The fear that gripped me felt like a boa constrictor squeezing the breath out of me. With my family by my side, doing their best to loosen the grip with their presence and their words, we waited. The word, CANCER, hit me like a stinging slap across the face, stunning me and sending my thoughts reeling. The tears flowed immediately and without restraint. Tears of shock, anger, disappointment, and fear.
With no family history, my mind was first filled with questions and then quickly filled with potential solutions. What was the quickest way to deal with this, get rid of cancer, and be done? Unfortunately, the answers to all of the questions were not ones I wanted to accept. That was it. I would have to face this, follow the plan, and do what I was told. I don’t like being bossed. I really didn’t like being bossed by CANCER.
I understand that I’m only one of hundreds of thousands of women who experience a similar diagnosis. There are many, many different types of breast cancer and just as many different prognoses and treatment options. But when the woman with the diagnosis is you, it’s very personal, and the present is completely overwhelming. I needed to occasionally unleash an emotional tantrum and be honest with myself about the tsunami of grief that was washing over me. I needed to learn to give myself that permission and ask for support both from God and the family and friends surrounding me.
I found that once I was able to give myself those permissions my heart and mind were more open to adapting to my new reality. I felt a surge of courage to face the coming days. Every Scripture I read was fiercely lassoed and taken captive.
A psalm of comfort
As He often does, God had been strategically placing portions of His Word in front of me to prepare me for this season. Psalm 16 was one of those. As I memorized the words months earlier, I had no idea how they would become wrapped around me like a warm blanket in the months to come. It was as if God said, “Here you go, my dear, this is my gift of love, peace and courage for you.”
As I would lie awake in the dark tormented by fears of what the future held with cancer in view, His Word would emerge from my heart and I would cry out, “Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in You.” “You are the Lord, my only source of well-being.” “Lord, You give me stability and prosperity; You make my future secure.” “I constantly trust in the Lord; because He is at my right hand, I will not be upended. So, my heart rejoices, and I am happy; my life is safe.” “You lead me in the path of life.”
This psalm and so many others comforted and calmed me. It reminded me of God’s great goodness and sovereignty over my circumstances. I discovered that His peace is truly one that passes all understanding.
God taught me so much about Himself, myself, and others during the months of my surgeries and treatments. I learned to expand my trust in God and experience His presence in the darkness but also in the ordinary moments that most might consider “coincidences.” I knew without a doubt that He was orchestrating people and places and circumstances on my behalf. It was unmistakable, and it gave me so much assurance.
Learning to be still
My hardest lesson about myself was learning to be okay with being still. If you knew me, you would know how hard that is for me. Surgeries forced me to sit still and let others tend to me. This was perhaps my hardest lesson of all but also the most valuable—to put aside my self-reliance and learn to accept assistance and care. It went against everything in me. But there was a sweet release in letting go and learning to accept the gift of nurturing and love from those around me.
I wrote these words in the week that followed my major surgery:
I’ve had one follow-up doctor appointment already. It did not go as well as I had hoped and revealed some faulty thinking on my part. Somehow, I always think I’m going to be the Super Woman exception to the norm. Reality check—I’m in the normal people pool when it comes to recovery protocol. It also revealed how emotionally fragile I am and that there is some emotional work yet to be done in my acceptance of the road I continue to walk. And so, I sit and wait for my resting to yield the recovery outcomes that will eventually come.
Here’s what I know that’s not new:
I don’t like to be on the sidelines, of anything, ever.
I’m much more comfortable serving than being served.
Helplessness is not a friend I can embrace easily.
I love my family and friends more than anything.
God is ALWAYS in control, and He is ALWAYS good.
I’m happy to say this is a lesson I’ve carried forward. First, being willing to be open to dependence on others when I need to. And second, the ability to truly be still and rest in both a literal and spiritual posture.
I learned so much about family, friends, and acquaintances and the unique God-given role they play in my life. So much of the time we’re not as mindful as we should be of being thankful for those around us. My family and close friends were there for me every step of the way, serving and praying and encouraging me. He gifted me a prayer army of friends all over the country that committed to bring my needs to God as I shared them openly and honestly.
Again, from that same message I wrote.
I will be forever grateful to my husband and daughters for their amazing support. They have stood with me with their presence, both emotionally and physically, and served me in a multitude of ways. My beautiful sister has worked her tail off caring for me, managing my home, wrapping gifts, serving me in every possible way. My brothers have called, texted, showed their love in so many ways. And each of you have been unbelievably faithful in reaching out to me with expressions of love. I continue to be humbled and overwhelmed.
Christmas is swirling around me, and I have a bird’s eye view of just how much LOVE drives what we do during this holiday season. And we are only able to love because God first loved us. He is present in our celebrations and busyness. HE is our Supreme Present, having written us into His story of redemption and salvation. A tiny baby. God with us. A miraculous wonder!!!
Be that person
My experience has been that in the midst of dark trials, there are always glimpses of God’s presence, His goodness, and His grace. May I encourage you today to be someone’s support during their season of need? You don’t have to look far to identify someone who’s in need of help and encouragement. Whether their diagnosis is breast cancer or something else, you can step up and be a parcel of what they need, what God is longing to provide for them in someone’s human flesh. Be that person.
For those who struggle with knowing the right thing to do or say, here are some things I found helpful and some that were not.
1) Don’t assume or state that you “know what they’re going through.” You don’t. Even if you’ve also had breast cancer. There is no way to know exactly what another person is going through.
We all experience hardship and grief in our own individual ways. It would be more helpful to say something like, “I’m sorry you’re having to walk this road. It’s got to be so hard. But I think you’re brave, and I’m here for you, whatever you need.”
2) Whatever you do, don’t diminish the impact of someone’s physical loss and resulting new image by making light of those changes she’s been forced to accept. I had someone flippantly say to me, “well it’ll be nice to have a new set of breasts” at your age. I wanted to hit her. Believe me, mastectomy and reconstruction are NOT in any way an “enhancement.” Enough said.
3) Always remember the caregivers. For every woman that’s walking this journey there are those walking alongside her, serving her, helping her, being her hands and feet. Being the person who’s watching the person suffer and fear has its own hardships. Reach out to them and speak words of comfort and encouragement. Offer to give them a “break.” If you’re taking something to the person who is sick or recovering, take something for the caregivers also, even if it’s just a card or treat. Let them know you’re praying for them.
4) Don’t pressure your friend to “praise God” for the challenge that’s been thrust on her. She will find her way through the delicate minefield of finding God during her journey. She needs to know she can fear and be mad and at the same time love God. It’s better to encourage her to continue to talk to God about her fears and what’s hard for her on any given day. Be available to listen to her expressions of grief.
There’s a pervasive feeling that cancer is a thief that has stolen from you what is precious: your time, physical appearance, focus on your loved ones, and so much more. Spiritual footing is often shaken at a time like this, so having comrades who understand and cheer you on is most important.
5) Show your commitment to carry her burden in prayer. Make a plan to connect with her regularly in multiple ways. I had a friend who committed to send me a verse by text every morning for months and months. I had some dear ones that contacted me in a different way each week—by text; phone call; email; sending a card, gift, or flowers; delivering a treat or meal; etc. Honestly, those who supported me in this way have a special place in my heart for their intentionality and persistence to hang with me for the long haul. But also remember, if you can only do something small, it’s enough.