"What you have is called invasive ductal carcinoma." The rest of the doctor's visit was a bit of a blur. I remember his kindness as he discussed possible lymph node involvement and surgeries and treatment plans. He told me the size of the tumor and my options. My daughter Melissa sat there faithfully taking notes for me, knowing that I wasn't absorbing much. Fighting tears and panic, I made it through the remainder of the appointment. Then the breast care coordinator came in, holding a white box tied with a pink ribbon that she handed to me along with instructions and a list of appointments that she had already set up with an oncologist and other doctors.
When I got home, I carefully opened the white box. Inside the pink tissue was a DVD, a scented candle, a lavender sachet, some chocolates, a package of tissues, a small booklet, and a list of local resources for cancer patients, including where to get special undergarments and wigs. Drawing in my breath, I quickly shut the box. Tears came again. It was too much to think about.
A few days later and following some other appointments, I sat on the bed and ventured into the box again. This time I removed the booklet that described what a mastectomy was like and the at-home follow-up care. The booklet explained that I would need help for a little while with some things, including care of a drain tube that would be inserted during the surgery to rid the chest area of excess fluid. The booklet included line illustrations of a woman demonstrating the emptying of the tube. Simply drawn, the picture was not offensive, yet the impact was tremendous. There she stood, with one breast and a straight line where the other one used to be. It looked for all the world to me like the "forbidden" symbol: NO smoking! NO dogs! NO breast! Fighting nausea, I closed the booklet, put it back into the pink tissue in the box, and wept. "Lord, I don't want to be that woman! I cannot be her! I can't go through this!"
Sobbing, I sought for comfort from the Lord. I had been through so many things in the past and had always found Him faithful. I knew that He had permitted this, but it didn't make any sense to me. What was I supposed to learn? Why now? He seemed to be so silent. I put the box with the pink tissue under the bed, hating even the sight of it.
When I had first begun having pain in my breast, I had ignored it for several weeks. I had had a normal mammogram just months earlier. Besides, I had just been helping my little sister, who is going through chemotherapy for breast cancer, and I was certain that I was having "sympathy pains" or heightened awareness or something. But then I discovered the lump--very noticeable. How had I not found it before? I made an appointment with my doctor and tried not to think the worst. "Casting down imaginations...." Wasn't that what 2 Corinthians:10:5 said? But my doctor was concerned. His assistant gave me a hug and scheduled another mammogram. Still not too worried (what were the "chances" that my sister, who is ten years younger, and I would both have this thing at the same time?), I went for the test. It didn't look good. Afterward, I was told, "We're getting a room ready to do an ultrasound." That being done, the radiologist told me the lump was "worrisome" and explained why. But I was trying not to worry, "casting down imaginations..." and all. That had become my watchword. She scheduled me for a biopsy that very afternoon and an MRI the following day. I went home to wait--and to pray.
And then I was thrust quickly into the whirl of doctor's appointments and decisions and preparations. Some days after I had put the box away, I ventured onto the internet, boldly viewing post-mastectomy images. I pulled out the white box from under the bed and watched the DVD, with its stories of other women who had cancer. Again, the nausea overwhelmed me, and the feeling that this was not real. Shaken and afraid, I called my friend. I told her what I had seen and of my fear and unwillingness to go through with any of this. She gently reminded me that the Lord gives us strength for this day (Mt 6:34), and that along with casting down imaginations and taking every thought captive (2 Cor:10:5), we are to "Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God, and the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (Phil:4:6-7).
I knew all of this. I had been trying to incorporate these things all along, but for some reason I had been unable to grasp the real meaning as it applied to my circumstances. Didn't I already have cancer? It was no longer a vain imagination but a reality. The upcoming surgery and all that I had seen of what would follow were imminent. But suddenly, with her words, my friend had reminded me of something that I had forgotten. I couldn't just apply Scripture as a formula, denying what I knew to be true. These events were coming up, but they were not here yet. I couldn't grab onto the grace of God that would be poured out for those moments until I was in those moments. I needed to remember to live in the "now" with the Lord. And suddenly, I had peace. I could rest in the place where the Lord had me right then, not looking to what lay ahead. God had finally gotten through to me.
On the morning of my surgery, the Lord directed me to Romans:12:1: "Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service." I had always taken that verse to mean "present your life, your works, your goods." On that particular morning, the words struck a different chord: "Present your body...." Could I do that? Could I go into this operation as not being taken there by force or circumstance but trusting that God was leading me in this? Could I willingly give my body to Him, no matter what might lie ahead?
Sitting in the preparation room before surgery, my two daughters and I made small talk as various nurses and attendants came in and out, performing different tasks. We prayed together, and then the anesthesiologist escorted me to the operating room. I had to walk, dragging my IV pole, and as I did I pictured Abraham and Isaac, trudging up the hill to an unimaginable event, yet full of confidence in God's goodness. In the surgery room, I climbed up on the table and lay down. For a brief moment, before all my perception dissolved in drug-induced darkness, I pictured myself lying on an altar before my Father, whom I trusted and loved beyond measure at that very moment.
Afterward, I was amazed to discover how deep and wide is God's grace. The panic I had felt beforehand, looking at images and thinking ahead to this very moment, was nowhere to be found. Discomfort? Yes. An unsightly scar? It goes without saying. But on top of these "light afflictions" was a peace so unbelievable that I am still in awe of it. The gentleness of the Lord in His care for me, in His provision of the perfect doctors for each situation, in the offer of my friend (an RN) to come and stay with me for several days after the surgery, through the love of my children as they called and visited, in the prayers and meals of my friends, and above all, in the realization that I knew with all of my heart that I belonged to Jesus, body and soul. I had found that His grace is sufficient for every need and that He provides it moment by moment. His purposes are His own--I need not question what He is doing.
Am I cured? I don't know. The prognosis is good, but the oncologist said that the disease can return at any time somewhere else. So I take the medicine that's supposed to help prevent that, but I don't trust in medicine or in doctors or in myself. I trust the Lord that no matter what lies ahead, His grace and strength will be there for me at exactly the moment that I need it! And beyond all of that, this "light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor:4:17). Who could ask for better than that? I'm going to add that Scripture verse to the white box under my bed.
Barbara Lay is TBC's Senior Editor.