I hate cancer.
I really, really hate cancer so much. Today I read that someone I don’t even know received a breast cancer diagnosis, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. And there’s no real reason why, because it doesn’t impact me personally at all. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that I feel sad.
I just feel sad – maybe that’s for me and maybe that’s for her family, who I also don’t know at all. Their situation is not about me at all, and yet I can’t seem to rein in my feelings about it. Their situation conjures up this fuzzy memory I have of what it’s like to be processing that word for the first time when it’s in relation to someone you love. It’s like you’re underwater but floating and stationary, and you can see people above you talking to you and giving you guidance about coming up, and you look around and can see other people swimming around you pointing to the people above to ensure you listen carefully to the people talking, but all you really process is that one word in your head over and over and over again. Cancer. And you wonder why everyone around you continues to talk and point because nothing matters in the same way anymore.
It seems like yesterday, and yet it seems like another lifetime. Almost like it happened to a whole other person sometimes. And maybe that’s really a truth and that it was a whole other person, because the me before Audrey and the me after Audrey are kind-of two different mes.
In 2011, I was 8 months into a healthy pregnancy with my second child. Like most Moms, I was the biggest I have ever felt and I have ever been, and I was convinced that I might be having the Guinness Book of World Records most giant baby ever. So I went to a regularly scheduled appointment and convinced a young girl who was filling in for my real doctor to do an ultrasound and see how big she was going to be, with secret hopes that we could induce early and I could just not have to be pregnant anymore. And what that ultrasound showed was two things. First, Audrey was going to be over 10 pounds. And second, she had a tumor in her abdomen. And while many doctors couldn’t initially agree on what exactly was happening, the one certainty on which they all agreed is that she would be born with cancer.
Audrey’s birthday is on June 21 – the longest day of the year. She was a cuddler and she was hot-headed and some of her hair stuck straight up like Alfalfa and she was just comically bigger than all of the other babies in the NICU. And it was a really good thing she was so big because she was better able to deal with and recover from the major abdominal surgery that was to come on day 6 of her life. Finding out my child had cancer really threw me off balance, and so in those early days I stoically put on and held on to control-Beth, who I know from experience can manage in a crisis. I developed one plan after another and made bulleted lists of to-dos for each one.
Here’s what will happen: We’ll get a test result that she’s been miraculously healed.
OK, next plan: the cancer will be in one tumor in one area, so we’ll get it out quickly and this will all be over in a few weeks.
During the surgery we learned that the cancer that was supposed to be removable was not contained – and not only that, it had spread to her lymph nodes and was manifesting in skin nodules we couldn’t even see or feel. And basically what that meant is that we weren’t going to be able to get it all out no matter what we did. Time for plan 3.
As Audrey recovered from that surgery over weeks and months, she had a series of radioactive injections and full body scans that showed us where the cancer cells were active in her body. And for someone who likes a plan, I thought those scans showed me exactly what I needed to be focused on. And I started to focus all my energy on research and trials and hospitals with the best cure rates. I read journal after journal and test summary after test summary and trial summary after trial summary. I joined online groups to compare research with other parents all over the world, and to just read their opinions about everything.
I focused all my energy into information, because information made me feel in control. And with information I could build and stick to a plan. But you know what the research showed? That Audrey had the right number of chromosomes and she didn’t have the super aggressive cells and the tumor make-up fit the type of some cases where the cancer could eventually go away. And so her doctors suggested something that was almost as scary as chemo. They suggested that we do nothing for a while – that we watch and wait and see what happened.
And that went against every instinct I had. That did not seem like a plan at all. And in fact, that was maybe a plan for really dumb people. I just wanted the bad stuff out and gone, and how hard could it be really, because we knew where it was and we could see where it was. The whole thing was so frustrating. I didn’t want her to have cancer at all, and I didn’t want her to have to have chemo, and yet I didn’t want to just sit around and do nothing.
And you know what was in an equal state of shambles and frustration? My relationship with God. While I’d like to say that I was a person filled with faith in those early months, the truth is I was not. I did not want to leave the life of my child to chance or fate or faith or anything that did not have firm statistical odds.
During that time, I stopped going to church. I didn’t stop praying and talking to God, and in fact I talked to Him all the time – but I did stop worshipping. The one thing I did do in church that year was have Audrey baptized. And I actually really struggled with my motives for doing that. Ultimately I did it because I still believed in God, but the truth is I also did it because I had become very superstitious. I wanted to cover her with some sort of protection shield – I was clinging to hope that if I had her dedicated, that baptism would provide a protection, which meant that nothing really bad could happen to her and that she wouldn’t die. And even as I had those thoughts, logical me knew that people much more faithful than I had sicker children. People much more faithful than I had lost a child.
And then I started to think about all kinds of people – people with no faith at all, and people who had the “wrong” God, people whose children got a horrible diagnosis but they were healed – and people who had healthy children who were never even sick! And I started to wonder who did something right and who did something wrong? Why were some people’s children healed and some not? Was it luck? Was it something the parents did or did not do? I was frustrated trying to figure it all out.
I mean, I was a pretty good pregnant person – I didn’t eat junk all day, I didn’t smoke, etc. Yet people who treated their bodies horribly were having healthy children while Audrey was in the NICU with tubes and wires. People who didn’t even want children were having healthy children. So what the hell happened?
And what caused this? Did I party too much in college? Perhaps I was being punished for that. Was it the cheese I ate, the water I drank from the tap, the chemicals in my lawn?
Or here’s the really scary stuff. I have been a Christian my entire life. Not that anyone deserves a cancer diagnosis, but I felt angry – like “really, THIS is what I get?” Aren’t I owed something a little better than that? And when I wasn’t feeling so outraged I felt ashamed of that anger, like a bad child. I wondered if maybe I was not really as good of a Christian as I thought. Did I not have enough faith to please God? Was God disappointed in me? And if so, was THIS the punishment? Was my child having cancer my punishment?
The answer, of course, is no. The answer is pretty simple. We live in an imperfect world, and sometimes really crappy things happen. It just is. Some people lose their children and some people don’t. Some people have children with medical issues and some don’t. We all experience the unexpected bad stuff and we have to find the good when it happens and we have to find the lessons when it happens. It’s our job – and it’s our blessing – when we find the gift in the bad things that happen in our lives.
For 377 days, from the time of Audrey’s birth to the time she was declared No Evidence of Disease, I rode a roller coaster. (If you know me at all, you know I absolutely detest roller coasters.) Some of those days were long and slow climbs as we waited for weekly or monthly test results. Some of those days were fast and thrilling days as we got news that Audrey was stable or she’d hit some milestone that was good. Some of those days it felt like the roller coaster broke down mid-ride as we got unexpected test results.
For 377 days I tried really hard to lean on God more and lean on statistical facts and my feelings less.
For 377 days, I wanted so badly to hear she was healed.
For 377 days, I worked to let go of my attachment to my life plan and the life plan I had for Audrey.
For 377 days, I proclaimed out loud at least a dozen times a day and sometimes maybe a hundred times a day “I thank you Father that Audrey Grace is cancer-free.” Or “Audrey Grace is cancer-free.” I was going to speak it into existence.
I’d like to say I handled that year of uncertainty and waiting with grace and patience and trust. But the truth is I combined my praying and my out-loud-claimings and my faith with doctor recommendations and the consumption of thousands of pages of opinions and data that made me feel like I could have faith.
I am soooooo flawed. And maybe the truth is that hearing the word cancer just reminds me of how little faith I did have, and it makes me ashamed. And angry at myself. Maybe that’s why a stranger’s diagnosis brings me down.
One thing I *can* say is that I learned something important as a result of that roller coaster ride. I learned a lot more about who God is. He is a healer. Sometimes He heals through a miraculous event and sometimes He does it through medicine and doctors (and sometimes He does it in the next life).
And you know what else? God made me a Type A planner. He knows exactly who I am, and I don’t think any of my questions or frustrations or doubts or even my spreadsheets! surprised Him or disappointed Him. He’s a parent just like I’m a parent. He loves me anyway, just like I love my girls anyway.
Ella: Do you remember the name of the kind of cancer you had?
Audrey: Yeah, Dr. Owen fixed it.
Ella: Yes, he did.
Audrey: You know what? Actually, God fixed it.
Ella: God fixed it through Dr. Owen.
I hate cancer. And cancer makes me so angry and cancer makes me so sad. And yet, I smile when I think of the story of a brave little girl with a very big scar. I smile when I think of the faith and understanding that already dwell within that brave little girl with the very big scar.