When 2015 comes to a close, an estimated 292,100 women in the United States will have heard the words, “You have breast cancer.” You will know some of these women. You may be one of these women. Breast cancer does not discriminate. But you already knew that.
In 2006, at the age of 40, I heard those words.
I was proud of my initial reaction. I don’t think I hesitated more than few seconds before I asked the surgeon, “What do we need to do?” in a tone that implied – I’m ready, let’s get busy. And the bravado lasted all the way through the end-of-the-season soccer party I was hosting later that evening.
That’s when the mental assault began. Doubts. Fears. Not at all once, but coming in waves. At night, when getting the children ready for bed, when methodically putting away the toys and shoes and jackets and backpacks, worry flooded my soul.
Soon I discovered that cancer was not the enemy – my flesh and Satan were. I wasn’t fighting breast cancer so much as I was fighting myself. And, although I wouldn’t have articulated it this way at the time, my theology was going to determine the outcome.
By theology, I mean the type of practical theology that doesn’t always take the form of a chapter and verse memorized just for the time of need. I’m referring to the accumulation of things learned about God over time. It’s the impression, the viewpoint we have about our God. It frames the way we think and the way we react to everything that happens around us and to us.
And cancer forced me to apply that theology in some unexpected ways.
Theology and Letting Go
It takes time to get a full diagnosis of the extent of one’s cancer. That time was a gift. I needed it to battle my biggest fear: Is this terminal? When I entered the PET scan machine, I wasn’t thinking happy affirmations that everything was going to be okay. No, I was letting my mind go to the worst possible outcome. I was thinking about dying. And who would take care of my husband and my children if I did die? Who would know their favorite foods, how they liked to be tucked in at night, their favorite hymn? Who would help them with their homework, plan their weddings, or get them to soccer practice? Didn’t God know they need me?
The Lord, by His grace alone, was bringing me to say with Job, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15). I will trust that God is good. That He loves my family more than I ever could. That He will take care of them. That I am not my own. That my family is not my own. That I am God’s to do with whatever He deems best. And, yes, I actually had to say these words out loud: “It’s okay if I die from this, Lord.” As hard as it may be to imagine, blessed peace settled into my soul even before I received the test results.
And although the doctor delivered a relatively good diagnosis, the events to follow were hardly a spiritual “walk in the park.” Any thoughts otherwise were quickly dispelled.
Theology and Treatment Plans
Humans exercise God-commanded dominion as we plow, plant, and water. We pull weeds. We treat for harmful pests. We can control these things. But any farmer can tell you that without sun and rain, the crops won’t grow. The most necessary elements are left to God’s control.
I am thankful for the dominion man has exercised in studying disease and developing new methods of treatment. The master deceiver, however, began to turn these good things into idols for me. Instead of depending on God, I started to depend on effective treatment. The sheer amount of information and studies is overwhelming. Suddenly I was faced with percentages. Lots of percentages. Percentage of recurrence if you treat with A. Percentage of recurrence if you treat with A & B. A & B, but not C. A & C. Percentage if you do not treat. What about natural, alternative medicine choices? It was consuming. It was suffocating.
The darkness, the confusion, and the sheer weight of it all was so heavy that one evening I broke down. Where was my practical theology then? I had to start all over with the most basic question: Where did my cancer come from? Genes? Environment? Diet? No. The primary source was God. God had allowed it for my good and for His glory. If I believed that, then I also had to believe that any recurrence would be in the good hand of our sovereign God, not so much because of my treatment choices. If recurrence came, it would be because God again allowed it for my good and His glory.
Cancer treatment is a very personal and difficult choice. Please do not think that I am advocating a reckless abandonment of medical advice. I’m not suggesting presumption anymore than I would tell my own children not to wear their seatbelts in the car because God is ultimately in control. Wearing a seatbelt isn’t necessarily a lack of faith, but it can be. It’s all about the heart – isn’t it?
What I had to realize is that God isn’t a God of percentages. Yes, there are laws of nature. Should Jesus tarry, 100% of us will die. Christians, nevertheless, are to be good stewards of the bodies that God has given us. Our bodies are the temple of God wherein we seek to honor Him with our choices. But to agonize over another 2%, 5%, or 10% in increasing my life span – to frantically search for better odds wasn’t Biblical … especially in the case of my early-stage cancer. (Matthew 6:27; Psalm 139:16). God is still the provider of the sun and the rain. My dependence should be on Him.
I wanted to make treatment decisions that matched my theology. When I looked at my doctor and told him that we decided to do A & B, but not C, I had to explain that it was for those very theological reasons. I wasn’t on a crusade to prove a point. I wasn’t trying to test God.
Theology and the Unknown
After the decision was made and the path was charted, then what? Never a doubt, never a fear? Never a rethinking of the decision? I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t. There were. But God gave victory – and after a relatively short time, I never looked back.
Until September 23, 2015.
The day of another breast cancer diagnosis. It is early. All signs point to an excellent prognosis. But the flesh rears its ugly head and conjures all those old doubts that I thought were buried long ago. Decisions still need to be made. My theology has to quiet the fears once again. And, as I type this I feel more sure in my God and what He has revealed about Himself than I was 9 years ago. That’s what trials do for us. For you. For me. By God’s grace alone.