After cancer

[Thank you to my friend for allowing me to post this and for correcting some of my timeline and medical errors. Any errors that remain are completely my doing!]

For the last nine months, I have led a mothers’ Bible study at my church. I have been touched and blessed by each of the women in this group in different ways, but this post will focus on one woman in particular.

This woman is currently in remission from lymphoma–a particularly deadly form of lymphoma. She has undergone experimental chemotherapy, radiation, a bone marrow transplant and has come out the other side, a cancer survivor!

Our bumper-sticker-and-meme mentality (and my own naivete) would say, “Great! She doesn’t have cancer anymore! All is well; move on.” And that is exactly how I thought until this past year. People like to mock fairy tales for ending at the wedding and not telling us what the marriage is like; it turns out that cancer fairy tales end at the cure and don’t tell us what the recovery is like.

Recovery, at least in this case, has been a bitch.

This particular friend was pregnant with her third when she found out about the cancer (her older two were one and three), and she decided–after considerable research with a variety of doctors–to try a safe form of chemotherapy. It was safe for herself and her baby; it turned out to be safe for the cancer, too. Her cancer was alive and well when her son was born (also alive and well) five months later.

As soon as her baby was born, they began radical treatment. What the cancer, and the treatment, did to her body, I’m only now beginning to understand.

I was just getting to know about her ordeal when she had her transplant, so I read her email updates as someone trying to piece together all of the missing information. As far as I could tell, after the transplant, she was given a cautiously-clean bill of health. She sent one of those mass emails, talking about all of the things she hoped to do with her family: vacations, birthday parties, and simple things like movie nights that she hadn’t been able to appreciate in years. Her tone in this email was optimistic and excited and full of faith, love, and gratitude for her Savior who had sustained her through this trial.

When I finished reading, I thought, “Great! Glad that’s over!” It was as if I’d drawn a big box around “cancer” and now I could put a check mark through it. I–to my shame–kind of stopped paying attention after that.

***

Fast forward several months: I am leading this Bible study, where this woman is a faithful and consistent participant, and every week she is asking for prayer. We pray for her hair that is not growing back, her fingernails that are peeling, her skin that is prone to rashes, her immune system that makes her as susceptible to colds, and worse, as a newborn in Target. We pray for her wits every time her husband goes out of town on business, and she’s left to care for three young children who all sleep in their parents’ bed and can’t easily be left with a baby-sitter. We pray for her parents and for her in-laws, who come in from out of town several times a year to help when and how they can. We pray for her husband, who recently–and miraculously–survived a car accident that no one should have survived, without a single scratch; we pray for his leadership and for his encouragement, and we praise God for blessing their family with a man like him at the helm.

We pray, we pray, we pray.

And still, things are not better.

She has gone from Roanoke to New York to Durham to Charlottesville and back and back again so many times, it makes my head spin, and I’m not even the one doing it. Every trip requires plans for childcare (usually that means one set of grandparents coming in), lodging, time off work for her husband, extra prayers, sleepless nights, waiting rooms, and finally sitting face-to-face with yet another expert, all of whom (so far) have told her the same thing: “I have never seen anything like you before. I have no idea what’s going on.” No one can agree on how to safely treat these issues, and no one knows why any of this is happening in the first place–why, when she’s never had health problems before, and the cancer is gone, would she have all of these problems, months after chemotherapy ended and years after her transplant?

***

There is always the temptation in a situation like this to lose faith, isn’t there? Yes, she’s technically in remission, but she is not well. We’ve prayed for her to be healed and she isn’t healed, so God must not be hearing our prayers. If He isn’t hearing our prayers, how can we believe He would hear any prayers? And if He wouldn’t hear any prayers, how can we believe He is a good God?

And yet, we know that He is a good God.

So what do we do with what feels like a contradiction about God’s character? Why did she get cancer? Why was the cancer healed, only to have all of these new problems crop up? Why can’t anyone give her a definitive answer?

Here’s the secret:

I have no idea.

Nobody knows. People have written really beautifully on this question, bestowing their wisdom, and it is helpful, but it is not an answer. God lets crazy things happen sometimes. Scratch that. God lets shitty things happen sometimes. Really good people are screwed over, and really really bad people are glorified. I don’t get it. I don’t have an answer for you. I do have a few tidbits I’ve picked up from watching my friend:

Cancer is not of God. Ongoing illness that doesn’t show any sign of resolving itself is not of God. Chronic pain is not of God. Respiratory problems are not of God. Confusion in the face of terrible circumstances is not of God. Fear and instability in a child’s life are not of God. Impossible choices are not of God.

Yes, He sometimes lets them happen, but: He. Does. Not. Cause. Them. 

Sometimes, God uses something He hates in order to bring about things that He loves.

Some things He loves that come about: Surviving a cancer that very few people survive. Surviving a full-on bone marrow transplant, which (as I understand it) consists of emptying out your body of all its stuff and then putting new stuff back in and hoping you don’t die in the process. Walking away from a car crash that leaves state troopers and bystanders shaking their head in wonder. Knitting a family together in the midst of illness, travel, uncertainty, and fear. Clinging to faith when doctors are giving you numbers and statistics. Deciding to focus on positivity and optimism in a world that would tear you down without skipping a beat. A community that goes beyond sex, age, religion, geography, and race calling for–no, demanding–a miracle that will make people’s mouths drop open and their hearts turn to God. For Pete’s sake, hosting a Pampered Chef party in the midst of trials, medications, tests, ER visits, school field trips, and business trips!

All that junk from two paragraphs up? That’s what the Enemy does (I know, I’m one of those freaky-deeks who says things like ‘the Enemy’).

You want to know what God does?

God restores.

God clarifies.

God loves.

God laughs.

God holds.

God shows.

God guides.

God listens.

And, absolutely, without a doubt, God hears.

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