Life with Cancer: One Year Later
One year ago this week, I received a phone call I’ll never forget. I was sitting at my desk when the phone rang. I saw on the display that the call was from my wife Tricia. I answered the phone, and I could hear her crying as she spoke the words: “The doctor says I have cancer.” I felt physically sick, but I had to keep it together in order to comfort her. We talked for a few minutes, and she gave me more details. I hung up the phone, shut my door, and I prayed. I told a few of my colleagues and asked for prayer before leaving work to go be with my wife.
Those who have had cancer or who have had a close relative with cancer know that such a diagnosis can turn your life upside down. Most of those first few days are a blur to me. Tricia’s doctor immediately made an appointment for her with one of the best breast cancer surgeons in our city. She had a lumpectomy exactly one week after getting the diagnosis. The good news was that they had caught it early. We were then told that the next step would be another surgery to remove lymph nodes in order to determine whether the cancer had begun to spread. Numerous other tests were run as well. We saw the doctor who would be in charge of the radiation therapy Tricia would receive every day for seven weeks once she had recovered from the lymph node surgery. We saw the oncologists. Again, most of it is a blur.
Most of it is a blur. But not all of it. There is one thing that I remember from those first few chaotic days with vivid clarity. Because the doctor said on the day my wife called me that he was 95% sure she had cancer and because we knew we would be going to a lot of doctor appointments over the next week, we decided we had to go ahead and tell our two children what we knew and what we didn’t know. I couldn’t take my wife to have surgery and not tell my children why. We wanted to be completely honest and open with them. Tricia asked me if I would do it, and I decided I needed to talk to them separately. I talked to my then 18 year-old daughter first. She wasn’t surprised. She told me that she had suspected it. She had probably overheard Tricia and me talking when we received the letter telling us that the mammogram had revealed something and that more tests were required.
Then I went to Joey’s bedroom. Our 12 year-old was his usual exuberant self. “Hi Dad!” he said. I don’t really know how to explain what the next few minutes were like other than to say that they were the only thing worse than the phone call. It was one of the most painful half hours of my life. I sat down on the floor where he was reading and told him that I needed to talk to him about something important. He looked at me expectantly but still with a smile on his face and in his eyes. As I spoke over the next few minutes, telling him what the doctors had told his Mom and me and what we were going to be doing in a few days, his face lost its color. His eyes widened and welled up with tears. And the smile disappeared. He became very quiet. I sat with him and continued to talk to him, telling him that the doctors were all very optimistic. I prayed with him. I asked him if he had any questions. He just looked down and slowly shook his head.
I know now that he had a lot of questions, but he wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. My wife would later tell me that he finally came and snuggled up to her, and after a few minutes asked the one big question he wanted to ask: “Mom. Are you going to die?” Of course, she couldn’t tell him what the future held for her and for us with certainty. But it was a teaching opportunity. He needed to be reminded that all of our lives are in the hands of our sovereign and loving Father. Tricia reminded him then, and we both reminded him repeatedly in the following days and weeks that our Father in heaven loves his Mom infinitely more than anyone else loves her, and that we were trusting Him, no matter what. It was just one of many tearful conversations in those first few days. My wife held our son in her arms trying to comfort him as he expressed his fear that he would lose her. I would later hold her in my arms when we were alone, trying to comfort her as she expressed her fear saying, “I just want to see my babies grow up.”
The first few days after the diagnosis were a roller-coaster of emotions. Then we entered into phase two of life with cancer. Phase two is doing everything the doctors tell you to do. Tricia bore the brunt of this, and it was brutal. One week after the diagnosis, she had a lumpectomy surgery. Before she had fully recovered from that, she had the lymph node surgery. After a couple of weeks recovering from surgery, she began daily radiation for seven weeks. The radiation sapped her of her energy and burned her skin. And this was all on top of the ongoing pain from the two surgeries.
I share all of this because until we went through it, I had no idea how much a cancer diagnosis takes over your life. In the past, any time I had read in our church bulletin of a cancer diagnosis, I prayed for the person and the family of course, but I didn’t really have any idea what they were going through. I have a better idea now. It’s emotionally and physically draining for the person undergoing all of the treatments and visiting (almost daily it seems) with a different doctor or lab. And Tricia, thankfully, didn’t have to go through what many others go through, with chemotherapy and all of the side-effects that brings. That is even more draining. A cancer diagnosis can also be very draining for the family. The spouse of a cancer patient has to watch the person he or she loves suffer all manner of pain and indignity. He or she also has to pick up the slack around the house and do all of the chores the other spouse had been doing but is no longer able to do. He or she has to be twice as diligent in taking care of his or her children’s needs because they are frightened and respond in different ways. All of the needs your children already have grow exponentially during a time when one of their parents is hurting so much.
I do not know how non-Christians deal with cancer or any other serious illness. I have some idea that they do not handle it well because in all of the waiting rooms Tricia and I sat in during those months, I saw hopelessness in the eyes of many. I saw loneliness. Tricia and I did not have to experience that kind of hopelessness and loneliness because we both knew that she and our entire family are in the sovereign and loving hands of our Father in heaven. Through all of this, He brought us closer to each other and closer to Him. But there’s a mission field in those oncology waiting rooms, in those radiation waiting rooms, in those chemotherapy waiting rooms.
Our Father in heaven not only drew us closer to each other and closer to Him, He also blessed us abundantly through our fellow church members, my students, and my colleagues. After Tricia’s diagnosis, I asked our church to pray for her and for our family. They did more than pray. Without our asking, people at our church arranged to bring meals. They sent encouraging cards to Tricia. They cleaned. They showed us how much they cared. One dear lady at church, who knew from firsthand experience the avalanche of bills that result from such a diagnosis, sent us a generous check that helped us pay off a major portion of those bills.
And then there are my students. I work at Ligonier Ministries and teach at Reformation Bible College, and in my first class following Tricia’s diagnosis, I asked the students to pray for her and us. They, too, did much more than that. These young men and women not only prayed for my wife, for me, for our children, they came and visited us at our home. They hugged my wife. They didn’t treat her like a contagious leper. They cooked. They brought meals. They were patient with me when I showed up to class exhausted from being up with my wife all night because her pain was preventing her from being able to sleep. Two of my students who worked at a local restaurant asked their manager if they could organize a fund-raiser at the restaurant to help pay some of our medical bills. He agreed, and on the designated day, that place was filled not only with my students but with my colleagues from Ligonier Ministries and Reformation Bible College. Our church, my co-workers, my students, they all demonstrated what it means to bear one another’s burdens. They demonstrated the love of Christ. The “frozen chosen”? Hardly. They all mean the world to me because of the love and compassion they demonstrated toward my beautiful wife and toward our family. We are forever grateful to them. We are forever grateful to God for them.
Do you know somebody suffering from cancer or some other serious illness? Then bear one another’s burdens. Don’t wait for them to ask you for help. They may be too exhausted or too caught up in the chaos of doctor appointments and treatments to even think of asking. Just do it. Send a card. Come over and tell them you’re going to mow their lawn, clean their kitchen, do any laundry that needs doing. Ask them if you can take their little ones for ice cream. And unless hugging physically hurts them, give them a hug. Let them know you love them. It will mean more than you can ever imagine. It will bring them joy, and it will bring you joy. And it will please our Father in heaven who commands us to love one another as Jesus Christ loves us.
Dr. Keith Mathison is professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College.