In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

(This is another excerpt from “I’m Still Standing” which deals with my journey through the battle with breast cancer.)

It was a normal Friday evening as I prepared for bed, gratefully anticipating the weekend ahead.  Whatever pleasant hopes that existed for the next two days were quickly dashed as a quick breast self-exam revealed, to my horror, a walnut-sized lump.  Though I worked as a registered nurse in a medical office, it was too late to call any of the doctors; there was nothing to do but wait until Monday morning.

The ensuing weekend was miserable, with thoughts of potential breast cancer looming in my mind—all of the “what-ifs?” were there, all of the fears of pain, loss, and the effect on myself and my family if I were to become seriously ill or to die.  There was never a moment when such thoughts were far away.

Monday morning finally arrived, and I doubt there was ever a time that I was so anxious to get to work in my entire life.  As soon as a doctor arrived I pulled him into an exam room to get checked out.  He was appalled and immediately called for an appointment with a surgeon and ordered a mammogram that same morning.  Filled with fear and dread, I walked over to the surgeon’s office and waited for the dire diagnosis that would surely come.  Imagine my relief when he was able to tell immediately that it was just a big cyst, which he proceeded to drain on the spot.  His diagnosis was quickly confirmed by further tests.

Thus started a pattern that lasted for more than ten years—cysts that appeared on my mammograms, generally causing enough concern to the radiologists that they performed ultrasound exams to rule out tumors.  Eventually I became complacent about it, never worrying when a lump was discovered, and never getting too excited when further tests were required.  So complacent that I finally skipped my regular mammogram for a year or so, thinking it was no big deal because it was always the same story.  Besides, not only did I reject the idea that I could be at risk for breast cancer, but life was very busy.  We had moved and it was a hassle to locate new doctors; numerous other health issues had overwhelmed me; and surely I was just too young for all of this and enough was enough.  Wrong.

It was another Friday.  I had finally gone for a regular mammogram and had been called back for another view.  No big deal.  I’d been through this before.  Besides, there wasn’t even a lump that could be felt manually.  The extra pictures were taken and it was no surprise when the technician said the radiologist would like to do an ultrasound.  But this time was different, for when the tech left the room to get the doctor to come and look at the results there was an air of trepidation in her manner that was unsettling.  Sure enough, the doctor was not pleased with what she saw and wanted to perform a needle biopsy on the spot.  I eventually walked out with her assurance that she would call me on Monday as soon as the biopsy result was received, but that she was sure it was cancer.

For the second time in my life I faced a weekend of not knowing, a weekend that could have been filled with the same fears as before, but this time it was different.  In the intervening years God had been at work in my life—teaching me to trust him in the most difficult circumstances.  I had been irritated when I turned 50 and needed an “overhaul.”  During that year I had two surgeries within one month, the first for kidney stones and the second for gallbladder removal.  I figured that since the maximum out-of-pocket expense on our insurance had been met and it was paying 100%, it would be a good idea to just get everything possible done during that year.  So I did—physical exams, colonoscopy, mammogram—even a long-term ingrown toenail finally got fixed.  By the time all was finished I figured I was good for another 50 years.  Wrong again.

Two years later I endured, from out of the blue, a frozen left shoulder for no apparent reason, a perforated colon with peritonitis that required a short-term colostomy and two surgeries, and (just when I thought it was all over) a fractured hip that also required two surgeries.  Added to this was the stress of fixing-up and selling our house, remodeling and downsizing to a condo one-third the size and an hour away; all of which contributed to a tremendous strain on my marriage.  Then, a couple of years later, an attack of diverticulitis threatened to perforate my colon again and required another hospitalization, seven days of IV fluids, and several weeks of recovery.  But God was faithful.  No matter how traumatic; from the words of a surgeon, “This is as bad as it gets.  There’s a team on the way in and we have to operate.  You may not make it;” to the frustration of being incapable of helping in any way with our move and having to depend totally upon others to make it happen; God was there, teaching me one small, painful step at a time to just trust him—no matter what.

So, again, this weekend of facing the threat of breast cancer was different, as was receiving and dealing with the dreaded diagnosis on Monday.  In my journal I recorded the following entries…

…Today I had a breast biopsy—today I was told it’s almost certainly a cancer—today I have been given another opportunity to live my faith.  Nothing can happen to me unless God allows it.  I am his and I am here to bring him honor—it’s all about him, not about me.  I submit to the hand of my Lord—yes, I ask for healing, but ultimately, cancer or not, I trust that the purposes of my Lord will be fulfilled in me…

…As I contemplate faith, I wonder how strong is my own.  I should find out today if I do, indeed, have breast cancer.  At the moment I have faith that God will bring me through it—that it will not bring me down.  But at some point we die—at some point I will die if I’ve heard correctly (as opposed to being alive for Christ’s return).  The time that was appointed before I was born will arrive.  I’ve faced it before when my colon perforated, but how would I handle the certain knowledge that I had a given amount of time?  How well would my faith hold?  Would I give into sorrow, or fear, or worry?  Or, would I embrace the moment with joy? God knows and he’ll never give me more than I can handle.  So, for today, for everyday of my life, I look to him—and Lord, while I certainly hope for a benign result, if this is something you’re allowing I’m determined to go through it in faith—to be a witness and to draw attention to your goodness—to your ability to see me through.  I trust that what the enemy means to destroy me will be used by you to make me stronger.  I have a destiny I know I will fulfill—I have a destiny, and as long as I hold on in faith it cannot be thwarted by the enemy.  So, my Lord, help me to hold on to you—my rock, my solid rock—my redeemer, my teacher, my friend, my strength…

…So, breast cancer it is.  How do I really feel about it?  The reaction of others ranges from shock, sorrow, or pity to calm acceptance.  It’s interesting that the calmest reaction came from a woman who expressed her faith in God.  She commented that she and I have it settled, and the worst thing that could happen in the long run is that we die and go home.  The most shaken was one who exhibits no apparent faith in God.  But again, what of my own reaction?  I say to others, “no big deal;” I claim faith; I sleep well; while I’m not thrilled with the idea of surgery and radiation, I have no need of a support group.  Yet I found myself on the verge of tears several times yesterday.  Lord, help me be honest with myself, with you, and with others.  This is happening with your permission.  My life is yours.  My body is yours.  I trust you to bring me through this in victory, with opportunities to share your love with others that I would never have otherwise.  I pray for good that is equal to sevenfold in damages against the enemy for this attack on my life.  Deliver me from fear for I choose to trust in you.

Again and again, in my journey from fear to faith, the cries and praises of the psalmists, the prophets, and Job have comforted me.  How I thank God that, as Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 1, there is nothing new under the sun—how I thank him that the comfort he provided to those Old Testament believers is still available to me today—how I thank him that I, too, can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil.

A Message of Hope

(Excerpt from “I’m Still Standing” which is a series of essays that were born out of my struggle with breast cancer in 2006-2007.)

Every time I think of Enid’s I hear a phrase from the old hymn, “There is a place of quiet rest near to the heart of God.”  So what, you may wonder, is Enid’s?  And, surprisingly, this place of refuge is not a church or chapel or ministry center—it’s a wig store.  Labeled with a cancer diagnosis, it’s where I went when I was struggling to cope with the idea of losing all of my hair.

Years ago, in the days when nurses wore those perky, white, starched caps, I had a short, curly, red wig.  Keeping my long hair neatly up and under my cap was quite a challenge so I would hide it under the wig—much easier and quite a time-saver.   But it’d been a very long time, and now it wasn’t for convenience—it was a necessity, unless I wanted to go around bald or wearing a scarf, thus branding myself as a cancer patient; and that idea just didn’t work for me—I wanted to look and act as normal as possible.  I wondered if I could even find a wig that would look natural, so off I went to find the store.

Five minutes after I walked through the front door of Enid’s I felt like I’d entered some other dimension where it was party time.  All around me were women with no hair, laughing, talking, and trying on wigs and hats, browsing through lingerie and swimsuits, checking out pretty pieces of jewelry and selecting make-up.  Enid, a cancer survivor herself, and her staff were more like cheerleaders than sales ladies; encouraging everyone, patiently helping us try on style after style and telling us how good we looked, teaching us how to cope, answering questions, sharing their own experiences—they’d been where we were now.  I can’t imagine a support group that would have been more helpful—it was as if everyone had checked their diagnosis at the door and entered an arena of hope.

Hope—an intangible orientation toward the future, expecting something that is not yet a reality—a belief that there can be a positive outcome even when all evidence says otherwise.  Hope that is not seen is no hope at all.  Who hopes for what he already has?  But, if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:24b-25)  Hope is often what keeps us going in the face of adversity.  It may motivate a rescue team searching a mountain for a missing hiker, a teacher working with a learning-disabled child, an unemployed man searching for a job so he can provide for his family, a terminally-ill patient looking for a cure, a lonely person looking for a friend—or me, looking for relief in the midst of my pain.  There were times during my treatment when I identified with Job as he cried out to the LORD, “What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient?  Do I have the strength of stone?  Is my flesh bronze?” (Job 6:11-12)  But I knew I could trust God’s promise that, those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint, (Isaiah 40:31) so I held on.  And God did not disappoint me.  One morning as I awoke I saw a vision of a blank sheet of bright yellow paper floating before my eyes and I was comforted, for I immediately knew without a doubt that this was him telling me that the next page in the book of my life was before me, a page full of hope.

The LORD also encouraged me with a living example of His love, described in Psalm 147:11, the LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love, as I observed the joy of my son, Kevin, as he anticipated his wedding; and the look on his face as he watched his bride, Rachel, walk down the aisle to become his wife.  Her hope was evident too—that of the bride preparing herself for her bridegroom, fully confident in his love; knowing that he would be there to welcome her into his home; to love her; to honor her; to protect her—and I remembered that we, the church, can rest in that same kind of hope because we are the Bride of Christ.  And once again, instead of crying like Job, I was able to rejoice like David; I could find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. (Psalm 62:5-6)

I still go back to Enid’s.  I use the excuse that I need to pick up some make-up or a scarf; but the truth is that there are a lot of places I could buy those things, and I really go back because I love to be there.  I love to visit those amazing ladies who probably don’t even realize what a wonderful blessing they are.  I love to see hope in action!