A battle with cancer isn’t easy to forget, hard though I’ve tried. I no longer go to meetings at Gilda’s Club or attend After Breast Cancer programs at the YMCA because I would rather do just about anything other than share war stories. Life is too short to dwell on unpleasant memories. The memory is refreshed, though, with every annual mammogram, as is the question of why I got cancer in the first place.

I wasn’t healthy growing up. I was born with a twisted foot and wore orthopedic shoes my first few years. I missed weeks of school due to mono, and then pneumonia, in first grade; measles, in fourth. Many bouts with the flu and strep throat. Surgery to remove ovarian cysts at age seventeen; rheumatoid arthritis that same year. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in my thirties.

Around age forty, I made up my mind to be healthy. My arthritis was in remission and I had recovered from Chronic Fatigue. Detoxing, nutrition, and exercise became my friends. I planned on staying in good shape through middle age and old age. I even canceled a cancer insurance policy I had carried for more than twenty years, knowing that cutting (surgery) and killing (chemo and radiation) were not cures for cancer. Besides, as healthy as I had become, there was no possible way I would ever get cancer. I became a student of natural health, ultimately earning a doctor of naturopathy degree. I felt invincible.

At age forty-six I had a routine mammogram and learned that I had micro-calcifications, indicative of cancer in the milk ducts. Cancer? Nope. Not buying it. Another look at the x-rays by the doctor, however, confirmed that things were not as they should be. I tried to explain and justify this unexpected turn of events to myself: I had only been healthy since age forty; six years of healthy eating must not have been enough to counteract the preceding thirty-nine. Surely, if I pressed on with my current lifestyle and ate cancer-fighting foods, I would be able to lick this. I just needed some advisers to guide me, starting with the gynecologist who had ordered the mammogram.

She said flatly that an all-natural approach would not work.

Seriously? I wanted professional guidance but was apparently going to have to do some searching to find it. It seems the average medical doctor knows very little about nutrition and its relation to health.

I had acquired lots of knowledge but was so flustered by this challenge that I scrambled to remember what I had learned. I wanted someone older and wiser to take me by the hand. The only ones I knew, though, advocated cutting and killing. Which doesn’t even sound healthy.

Oh, God! God, help me! What should I do?

“For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 NIV

I wasn’t feeling much hope, but I believed God was wise enough to know what to do. So my husband, George, and I prayed for His direction.

What we heard Him say was that I should have a lumpectomy. Surgery. Killing.

I took a deep breath and had a chunk of me cut out. A hurdle crossed. I could move on. But then my surgeon sent me to an oncologist who said surgery wasn’t enough; I needed radiation or more micro-calcifications were likely to show up.

Okay, God. What now?

What is the definition of medicine anyway? I always connected it to the word health and thought medicine should be healthy for the body if it’s to bring healing to the body. I learned, though, that chemotherapy poisons the body; the medical community hopes the poison will kill the cancer before it kills the patient. Nice. Radiation isn’t much better and limiting the exposure to only cancer cells is impossible. In zapping my breast, my heart, lungs and ribs would be affected. In other words, my ribs would be more susceptible to fracture, my heart would have diminished capacity to pump blood, and I could get inflamed lungs. Sound healthy to you?

God, what should I do? Doctors are suggesting harmful things for my body. Completely illogical. Should I follow their advice? Should I expect them to approach this disease in ways that make sense to me? Find another doctor? Find an alternative medicine practitioner?

I was a confused mess, trying so hard to hand the decisions over to God, but still unsure of what step to take next.

“Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.” Isaiah 65:24 NIV. Once again, we felt God’s direction. I said yes to the radiation treatments.

Radiation requires a simulation prior to beginning treatment, where extensive measurements and adjustments are made to ensure that as little healthy tissue as possible is affected. During the simulation, I had to lie perfectly still, not talking and taking only shallow breaths to avoid movement in my chest. Shirley, the technician, chatted away while she worked, explaining every move she made and trying, unsuccessfully, to ease my anxiety. When she finished and while I was putting my shirt back on, Shirley stood directly in front of me and said, “I know you’re afraid.”

“I’m not afraid!” I exploded. “I’m mad! I’m just so mad!”

She reached towards me and quietly said, “Remember, we have a Savior.” Her words before then had had little effect on me, but upon hearing the truth, my heart broke. Shirley held me as I sobbed.

I suspended all my other activities to spend the next six weeks, Mondays through Fridays, driving to St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville. Ginny Owens’ song, “If You Want Me To,” gave me the words to pray over and over again: though the way is rough, Lord, I will walk through this valley if You want me to. He obviously did, or I wouldn’t be on this path. So, I walked, one step, one day, at a time.

In the middle of this, I learned my mother, who lived in another state, needed surgery to have a heart valve replaced. She had undergone similar surgery in the past, so I wasn’t too concerned about her procedure or the fact that I couldn’t be there. I was surprised, then, when my sister called and said, “Pray, Karen! Mother’s surgery isn’t going well.” So, I prayed.

God’s sweet mercy was to take my mother to be with Him.

My mind kept replaying one of our last conversations. When I told Mother I had breast cancer, she said she wished it were her instead of me. As always, she loved me and wanted to carry my pain. I suspect also that she knew her remaining days were few; all the more reason for her to have the disease rather than me.

The morning after my mother’s failed surgery, I went for my regular radiation treatment. Shirley, whom I had not seen since my simulation, called me from the waiting room. As we walked down the hall, I mentioned her reminder to me that I had a Savior.

“I need another reminder today, Shirley. My mother died last night.”

We stood in the hall for a few minutes with our arms around each other, crying together. When we walked into the treatment room, Shirley gathered the other technicians, who joined hands and prayed for my family. After my treatment, I was shown to a small exam room where my kind, Jewish doctor held my hand and talked with me about my mother.

How did I feel through all of this? I felt loved. I knew my mother’s heart had finally been made healthy and that she wasn’t getting out of breath as she climbed the stairs of heaven. I knew that in the great musical of life, my cancer was insignificant, a mere eighth-rest in a sixteen-page concerto. I had experienced God’s love not only through my mother, but also through radiation technicians and doctors. I had gone through cancer, yes, but that journey had enabled me to experience the love of Christ through people not so different than me.

Six years later, I got cancer again and had a second lumpectomy.

I’ve now made it into my sixties with no recurrence of the disease. I don’t know what future mammograms will reveal, but I choose, this moment, to no longer think about the why of my cancer. My life is, quite simply, in God’s hands. If fighting this battle has given me empathy and understanding for people who are hurting so that I can encourage them and share the love of Christ, then that’s enough for me. I may not attend meetings with cancer patients but I meet plenty of other struggling, suffering people every day who need to be encouraged and loved, who might simply need someone to sit quietly with them.

And that is something I can do.






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