Wow, what a time. COVID season has been really interesting, and I wrote on some of what I’ve been processing through the other day and hope to publish it soon, but my first foray back into publishing my work here is on a different subject (though one which may still resonate amidst this strange time of illness, fear, and isolation). My mom just reminded me that today, May 14th, is the anniversary of my finishing chemotherapy. Maybe it’s the COVID craziness of days running together or maybe it’s that enough time has finally passed that every single cancerversary isn’t acutely seared into my consciousness, but it’s almost 5:00 p.m., I’ve been working since 6:00 a.m., and I just now realized the significance of May 14th.
I’m inclined to think it’s the former because cancer has actually been on my mind often lately. Still Waters has been at the forefront because of coronavirus, given that our retreat is scheduled for the end of June and our “target audience” is an immunocompromised population. Some would say that’s problematic against a pandemic, so it’s been occupying a lot of mental energy. Beyond that, I’ve had some great conversations with a friend in cancer ministry lately, discussing the heart we have for what we do and for the cancer community to know Jesus, while at the same time finding solidarity together in the fact that the subject matter weighs heavily and has led to burnout in some ways for both of us in the past year. Additionally, this week we learned of the painful loss to cancer of a 13 year old daughter of some family friends and a 4 year old daughter of some of our work family.
To top it off, one of my dearest friends and I talked for two hours on Friday about her cancer diagnosis and the fallout from that. She’s a little over a year out of treatment and a year and a half from her diagnosis—coincidentally, she was diagnosed the same day as I was but 10 years later. I met this friend a couple months after I finished chemotherapy, and her friendship, encouragement, and wisdom were an integral part of my healing process after I finished treatment and processed what the heck had just happened. We talk here and there, comment on each other’s social media often, and see each other when we’re in the same state, but we don’t talk about cancer all that often. When we do, though, everything comes flooding back because I remember being where she is and processing through what she’s feeling and thinking.
If you’ve ever read any of my blog or my book or know me, you know I’ll bring up cancer—or joke about working in the “cancer card” for effect—and am not shy about the topic. But contrary to what many might think, it’s not always on my mind, and I’m grateful for that. In my call with my friend last Friday, we talked about the long-term effects of cancer, some of which can be physical but for us have been more mental and emotional. I’m so grateful to be able to talk with her and encourage her 11 years from the end of treatment, but I also hate that we have this new thing over which to deepen our friendship. I hate cancer and how it leaves no one untouched; cancer’s fallout is widespread and long-lasting.
Every time I think things have quieted down for a while, cancer pops back up and I’m reminded of my heart for people with and touched by cancer. The past 7 days have been a great example of that phenomenon. I don’t have any sage words or even anything new to add to the topic; I stand by what I wrote in my book and what I’ve written here before. What was true 5 years ago is true today, even if I process things with a different perspective and think about cancer slightly less frequently these days. But this I know and still believe, 11 years from finishing treatment:
God is still good, life is still complex, and we are still living in the tension between sorrow and hope, between the rest, healing, and wholeness promised to us eternally and the reality that life is hard here on earth. I’m convinced more than ever about this fact, and life is no less complex today than it was 11 years ago—on the contrary, it’s probably more complex now as names get added to the list of those whom cancer has touched, and I know that list will only grow as time moves on.
Today I celebrate being cancer-free—and especially being chemo free because that stuff healed me but was also the worst. And yet, I celebrate cognizant of the reality that I can say “God is good” because I’m here to write about it. Survivor’s guilt (along with PTSD) is a real phenomenon with cancer survivors, and I’ve always been aware of the fact that I get to celebrate cancerversaries like this while others do not. There’s another point for my conviction that life is complex, lived in the tension of celebrating healing while mourning loss.
On the call last Friday, my friend and I were talking about cancer’s impact, about how my friend hoped that by not talking about it too much and with the passage of time, she wouldn’t think about cancer. Yet, she thinks about it often and it haunts her in some ways. We reminisced about how, five months after my treatment ended, I sat with her and she prayed for me to have hope and remember God’s goodness because, having made it through treatment to the other side, I had this haunting sensation that more bad things were in store, as if I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
What was my prayer request 10+ years ago has become her challenge now, and as we talked last week, we said how crazy it was that my concerns and prayer request would become her reality years later. She asked me some questions around healing and timelines and moving on, and I told her that I really hated what I was going to tell her and didn’t want to frighten her, but those kinds of things still haunt me in some ways today. They don’t haunt me to the same degree, and time has definitely turned those wounds into scabs and then scars, but we concluded that cancer isn’t really something you ever fully “move on” from.
I have moved forward for sure, and life today looks really normal (outside of running a cancer nonprofit, but that’s of my own volition and calling). But cancer is a paradigm-shifting diagnosis. In some ways it’s expanded my capacity to mourn with those who mourn, to minister to a broken and hurting world, and to use the bonus time I’ve been gifted through no merit of my own more intentionally than before. I can go on, but the point isn’t that cancer has forever haunted and broken me; the point is that cancer has forever impacted me, and I don’t think that’s going away.
With each new diagnosis I hear about, my heart will break and I will remember the terror of hearing the words “biopsy,” “cancer,” or anything else related to what most people fear above all else actually becoming my reality, now knowing what another friend or family is wading through. Cancerversaries like today will come, and it may take me all day to remember that I should have milked the opportunity to celebrate, but celebrate I will (because, hello?!? it’s cancer and that’s allowed. Fight me.). It may feel like strange territory to celebrate healing when so many I’ve known and loved don’t get to do the same, and I think I’ll always be sensitive to that in this complex, living-in-the-tension world we inhabit.
There’s a ton I’ve learned in these 11 years, a ton I believe about God’s goodness and faithfulness deep in my soul, and a ton of questions I may never have answers to. But today I’m thankful amidst so much sorrow to have the undeserved gift of healing, aware of the story I’m called to steward (which is really God’s story of working in my life anyway), and grateful for the healing He’s done in my life since treatment ended 11 years ago.