More out of politeness than genuine interest, I slowly turned the pages of the most bizarre photo album I’d ever seen: page after page of naked women, most of them middle-aged and sagging, shown only from the neck to the waist. Each “before” shot showed a breast on one side of the woman and only a thin diagonal or horizontal scar on the other side. The “after” shot showed the same woman with two almost matching breasts. I guess it’s an improvement, I told myself.
But my mind was in a fog. I thought I heard the nurse, in whose office I was sitting, exclaim about what “wonderful reconstructive surgery they’re doing these days.” As I watched her lips move, a few of her phrases droned in my ears like a radio commercial: “…Could stretch some of your chest muscles,” “borrow some skin from your leg,” “tattoo a ‘nipple,’ and even darken it….”
I’m dreaming, I thought to myself. This photo album isn’t real, this nurse and my husband sitting next to me aren’t real, and breast cancer is what happens to other women, not to me.
Every couple of minutes I tried to mentally peer through the fog and ask myself what I was feeling. But I felt either nothing or everything. It didn’t seem to matter, though. I wasn’t sure what mattered any more.
A few hours earlier, my husband, John, and I were told by my surgeon that the breast tissue he had biopsied because of an “atypical” mammogram contained a malignant tumor. Almost within the same breath, he told me he recommended a mastectomy, rather than a lumpectomy and radiation, because of the small size of my breast and the central location of the tumor.
I have breast cancer, I thought. And I may have to lose my entire breast.
But I feel perfectly healthy.
The next thing I knew, John and I were scheduling an appointment for that afternoon with the briefing nurse, who would talk to us about reconstructive surgery and show us the photos. Sometime between those two appointments, I remember sitting in our car, crying, with my head on John’s shoulder and his hands stroking my back.
At home that evening I was dismayed to realize I hadn’t prayed since hearing the diagnosis. A practice that for most of my life had seemed as natural as breathing was gone, and I had no idea why. God had always been good and loving and trustworthy to me. But right then God seemed far away.
God, help me to talk to you. The words finally formed a coherent sentence in my mind.
The next morning, as I sat quietly, trying to slow my spinning head, God answered that simple prayer. And the questions that spilled out surprised me:
- Why did you let this happen?
- Did I do something to cause this cancer in my body?
- Should I have exercised five times a week instead of four?
- Should I have eaten more broccoli and spinach?
- Am I hiding some stress so well that I’m not aware of it myself?
- Could you possibly have forgotten about me for a moment, just long enough that some cancer cells sneaked into my body?
- Do I really have to lose my breast?
- Will the cancer keep coming back and eventually kill me?
- Could you possibly have a purpose for me in all this?
I know, absolutely, that God is not disturbed by such questions. God handles “worse” questions every day. I also know that God wants to respond to each of us, not always by answering our questions, but by giving us what we most want, perhaps unknowingly, in the first place: God’s presence and love.
Facing the Feelings
Although my experience with cancer ended, medically speaking, only two months after it began, my life was forever changed. During that time and for several months afterward, I felt the full range of emotions that normally accompany a trauma: shock, fear, grief, anger, frustration, and guilt feelings. Of course, I didn’t deal with each emotion once and then lay it to rest. In twos or threes and sometimes all at once, they kept returning, just like the ants I always thought I’d gotten rid of in my bathroom.
I’ve heard some Christians say, “But all things work together for good. God can take away the shock, the fear, and all your other negative feelings.” Yes, God can. But then many of us wouldn’t have the compassion, the passion, that we have experienced about life and about God and about those we love. As long as God hates evil—including the evil of breast cancer—shouldn’t we hate evil? As long as God grieves, shouldn’t we grieve? When we experience these “negative” feelings and tell God about them, we can experience more of God. We also give God the opportunity to respond to our feelings. When we acknowledge that we’re afraid, we can receive God’s comfort. When we acknowledge that we’re angry, God can show us why we’re angry and how to respond to the causes of our anger. When we grieve, God grieves with us and helps us to fully understand the value of our loss. God is a “feeling” God who is very present with us in our strong feelings.
The experience of having breast cancer never ends, even if the cancer does. Although I was considered cured, I still face the cancer that is no longer there. I face it every time I look at the scar on my chest. I face it every time I have sensations of breast tenderness on my left side and then realize that my nerve endings—the ones that are still alive—are fooling me once again. I face it every time I lay my remaining breast on the cold slab of the mammography machine, and then again as I wait vigilantly for the results. I face it every time another friend hears the word “malignant” from her doctor. And I face it every time it kills another friend.
Yet, for all of us whose stories are told in Desperate Hope, facing the enemy of breast cancer has been a journey of desperate hope—not because there’s anything good about the disease, but because we have experienced God in the midst of it. Rachel remembers “desperately” needing to know that God was with her. Judy remembers feeling that she was hanging over a cliff but was being held by the firm grasp of God. And Bonita remembers feeling “absolutely desperate for hope.” Our God, whose power is far greater than all the evils in the world combined, has promised to be with us, to comfort us, and to help us throughout our experience of breast cancer.
Whether you have, or did have, breast cancer yourself or you know someone who does, may you find help by experiencing the God of our desperate hope.
Questions for reflection or discussion:
What was it like for you to be diagnosed with breast cancer?
If you prayed soon after the diagnosis, what were your prayers like?