Every October for Breast Cancer Awareness month, I share this photo. I suspect it’s more for myself than for anyone else. It reminds me of how far I’ve come and how good our God is, but it also takes me back to the very moment this photo was taken—a time of complete hopelessness.
I was six months into treatment for Stage 3, Triple-Negative Breast Cancer and two days into a hospital stay with chemotherapy complications. The redness on my face and around my eye was the outward plea from my body to stop with the insidious chemotherapy poison. Over six months, I received thirteen rounds of chemotherapy and was scheduled to have three more, for a total of sixteen.
I couldn’t do it, not physically or mentally. I was done.
During a moment of what I can only assume was complete madness, I pleaded with my oncologist to give me one massive dose of chemo rather than three more individual weekly treatments. He warned me that this much chemo would put me in the hospital, but I insisted. In hindsight, it was not a smart decision, and I have no idea why anyone was letting the mentally shot, physically depleted patient make this call, but they did.
After my triple dose, I experienced a level of illness and pain unlike any other, and it brought me to the point of begging God to take me home. I wanted to die. I’m embarrassed to say that I wasn’t concerned about anything else, not my husband, my children, or my life; I needed this misery to end.
I prayed to die the day this photo was taken, and God said, “No, fight.”
I hated everything about myself. The chemo was wreaking havoc on my body and also my brain. I couldn’t remember words or have a fluid, thoughtful conversation. My body was bloated and bald, and my nails were all falling off. I felt disgusting.
I didn’t believe I could ever fully recover, and I feared I’d never return to the “old me” again.
And I was right – I was never the “old me” again.
Cancer changed my life for the better. If you had told me that day that cancer was a blessing, I would have caused you a great deal of bodily harm for saying such a ridiculous thing. Nothing about cancer felt like a blessing.
But time is a beautiful gift. It heals, and it gives you a big-picture clarity that you can’t feel when you’re in the throes of pain.
As the chemo fog cleared, I saw the precious gifts this vile cancer beast brought.
The gift of closer relationships.
Craig, my husband, was deployed with the Navy to Bahrain during the first five months of my cancer. He returned during my most challenging and weakest time. Even though we’d had many Skype conversations, I was scared for him to see the physical woman I was, imagining that no man could love what I had become. But instead, God gave me the gift of seeing the purest love. Craig loved me so intensely during my weakest time. He’d clean up my vomit and diarrhea from the chemo. He’d shower me, wipe me, dress me, and still tell me I was beautiful.
I’ll be honest; I’m not sure if the tables were turned, I would have been so gracious. There’s a good chance I’d have been doing a lot of gagging, running out of the room, and calling for help. He was an incredible caretaker, and I would never have seen this side of him except for the gift of cancer.
The gift of seeing the goodness in people.
The extraordinary kindness of strangers and friends was enough to bring anyone to their knees in gratitude. To see God use the unique gifts of people around me was humbling. People prayed for me, cooked for me, cleaned my house, sent cards, and so much more. Friends helped me care for our four-year-old little girl while Craig was gone so that her world remained happy and safe. They carried my world and allowed me to be on the battlefield of my bed. Seeing the unique gifts of others was a magnificent sight to behold.
The gift of the most profound, most precious relationship with God.
This was the greatest gift of all. I believe that there is a deep relationship with God that we can only experience in the deepest valleys. In the highs of life, it’s easy to see His blessings, but it’s in the trenches of pain and sadness that we experience Him in a life-changing way.
I’ve experienced tremendous tragedy in my life with the loss of my second daughter, a rape by a man that broke into my home, and the case that went to a full jury trial. My mother had a brain aneurysm that burst, my sister lost her life to breast cancer, my husband battled the addiction of alcohol, and so much more. I know pain, and because of it, I know unstoppable joy and love.
I got to experience all of this.
I got to fight to live.
And through it, I even got to laugh a lot, and I learned that joy is a choice, even in the depths of pain.
If you are where I was in this photo, emotionally or physically, I’m so sorry for your pain, but there is more good to come, I promise.
There is more to you and your story. You are stronger than you think and braver than the most fearless warrior, and you can bear more than you ever thought possible.
God is with you in every moment of every day, and if you let it, your test will be your testimony, and your mess will be your message. What may feel like unimaginable, never-ending pain today, may be the story He uses to bless others tomorrow.
Check out Dawn Barton‘s book, Laughing Through the Ugly Cry: And Finding Unstoppable Joy