"I have seen personally what is the only beneficial and appropriate course of action for people: to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all their hard work on earth during the few days of their life which God has given them, for this is their reward." (Ecclesiastes 5:18, NET)

My testimony of suffering

As a 32-year-old wife, mother of two young children, ad agency office manager, and third grade Sunday School teacher, my plate was pretty full. I also managed to squeeze in time for a regular exercise program because I was dedicated to staying in shape. The only symptom I had of anything physically wrong was fatigue. It became so extreme that when I stopped for a red light on the drive home from work, I would rest my head on the steering wheel and wait for the car behind me to honk when the light turned green.

While working out with dumbbells in front of my bedroom mirror one morning, I noticed swelling in my left armpit. I examined the area and was surprised to discover a large lump. Facing myself in the mirror, I said out loud, “That’s cancer.” My next thought was of my unsaved family members and hoping God would use the situation to draw them to Himself. In that moment, the Holy Spirit was clearly in charge of my reaction and thoughts. He even brought me relief in knowing there was a reason for my fatigue.

After a couple of doctor’s appointments, which I downplayed to my family, I was scheduled for out-patient surgery so the tumor could be removed and biopsied. For some reason, I never doubted it was cancer. God prepared me for the diagnosis with complete peace and acceptance. But maybe I shouldn’t have downplayed it to my family so much. Maybe I should have helped prepare them. My husband at the time actually suggested that a sister-in-law accompany me to the hospital so his fishing trip wouldn’t have to be canceled. “No,” I said, “you need to go with me.”

I didn’t even pray that the tumor would be benign. Before going under the anesthesia, all I prayed for was that nothing would get amputated. When I briefly regained consciousness in the recovery room, without even opening my eyes, I felt to see that my arm and breast were still there. I smiled—satisfied that God answered my prayer in the way I hoped He would.

Members of my family, however, were devastated. My husband had the task of “breaking the news” to me. But all he could do was stand at my bedside, hunched over and crying. The fact that I had been moved to a private room instead of being discharged confirmed the malignancy anyway. I caressed his back and said that I knew it was cancer but everything was going to be OK because God was in control. Oh what amazing grace He poured out on me. I realized that I needed to be praying for my loved ones because they might not be doing so well.

My parents took it really hard. When my poor mom entered my hospital room, her eyes red from crying and her face seared with pain, I think she expected to find me in the same frame of mind, languishing on the bed. But by God’s grace—which all of this was so I’ll not keep repeating it—I was sitting up, laughing and talking with other visitors. Mom told me later that it actually bothered her. Maybe she was expecting the two of us to wallow together in misery. Maybe she wanted to be my comforter and was disappointed that I didn’t need her to be in that moment. My Comforter—the God of heaven and Creator of the universe—had me covered.

A woman my dad worked with called to introduce herself and say that she was praying for me. In a dire situation, even a lost person will go to a Christian and ask for prayer. The woman told me how Dad just knelt beside her chair and hung his head. She asked what was wrong, and after a long pause, the only words my strong, prideful daddy managed to get out were, “Pray for my girl.”

I relished the opportunities my illness presented for witnessing to Dad. For example, when he was driving me to a doctor’s appointment, he said that he didn’t understand how I could have such a positive outlook. I asked, “Daddy, do you love me?” He answered, “Baby, you know I do, with all my heart.” Then I asked, “If you had the power to do it, would you take my cancer away?” With a tinge of annoyance in his voice, he replied, “Of course I would.” I said, “God does have the power, and He loves me even more than you do. So I’m in good hands.”

Dad just shook his head. He didn’t get saved during my illness as I prayed he would, but perhaps it was a stepping stone to him receiving Christ at the end of his life. (Hallelujah for that!)

Through the initial tests, several small tumors were discovered in my neck and a large one, the size of a man’s fist, in my chest. My oncologist delivered the prognosis—stage 3 Hodgkins lymphoma. Dr. Campos said that it was curable and would require six months of only fairly aggressive chemo. Being young and vain, I immediately asked if I would lose my hair and was pleased to hear that I wouldn’t.

After more testing, including an excruciating bone marrow biopsy, a tumor was discovered in one of my lungs. Dr. Campos updated my diagnosis to stage 4 Hodgkins requiring a full year of aggressive chemo. We were standing in front of the X-ray showing the tumor. My first question was about how many stages there are. “Four” was the answer. My next question was whether I would lose my hair. Dr. Campos gave me an emphatic yes and told me to buy a wig because one morning I would lift my head off of my pillow and my hair would remain on it. I stomped my foot in response to the news—not the stage 4 part but the hair loss part. It was the first time I was mad about any aspect of my situation. (Whatever that says about me, it can’t be good.)

Later that night when I was alone, I knelt beside my bed with my Bible opened in front of me to 1 Corinthians 11:15. Taking the verse out of context, I used my long hair being my “glory” as the basis of my request. But also acknowledging that it was selfish, I asked God to let me keep my hair as a special favor. And why not ask? Who knows what my sweet, tender, loving Father in heaven might do if I just ask. While I had complete faith that He could do it, I didn’t know if He would, so I bought a wig just in case. I never had to put it on.

Throughout my year of chemo, as I would sit in the waiting room or treatment room surrounded by women wearing headscarves or wigs, with no eyelashes and drawn-on eyebrows, I continued to marvel that I still had all of my hair. It wasn’t as thick and shiny as it used to be, but the fact that I never lost it was nothing short of a miracle.

This was in the ’80s, which I consider a rather medieval time for cancer treatment. I felt like a guinea pig being experimented on to see what level of deadly chemicals could be pumped into my body without killing me. As my first treatment began, I was surprised at how much the liquid burned as it traveled through the IV in my hand up through my arm and down into my chest. But nothing could have prepared me for how my body reacted afterward.

My husband got me settled at home on the couch and placed a bucket on the floor beside me, along with the phone in case I needed to call someone for help. Then he left to get my prescription filled. It was for a drug to help with severe nausea, and the nurse warned us that not every pharmacy carried it. He was gone for quite a while.

It wasn’t long before I was grabbing the bucket. I threw up so violently and so many times that I ended up on the floor. When there was nothing left in me to come up, I started throwing up blood. I didn't think it would ever stop. Never before or since have I felt so utterly wretched. Thoroughly exhausted and miserable, I lay on the floor with a bucket of vile liquid, wondering how I could withstand a whole year of this.

Then an amusing thought entered my mind and I chuckled. I don’t remember what it was, but I vividly remember the thoughts that followed. You are just really wonderful. Here you are, in the deepest pit, and you’re thinking amusing thoughts. What a positive, optimistic person you are!

I was about to agree with the low-ranking demon buzzing around my ear (not being enough of a threat to the enemy for him to waste a high-ranking demon on). But then I heard the voice of God speak to my heart with the most amazing clarity—“I made you the way you are.”

Immediately humbled and grateful, praise flowed like a river. It went something like this: Yes, Lord, You did, and I thank you for giving me everything I need in every moment. Thank you for being with me always. For being here on the floor right next to me and my bucket. For taking such good care of me. For lifting me up. For being who You are. Thank you, thank you, God!

The phone rang, and I picked it up crying, which alarmed my sweet friend, Marilyn Gay, on the other end. After I explained what happened and that my tears were from joyful worship, we praised our Savior together.

Since my body reacted so violently to the first treatment, a sedative was mixed in with my chemo cocktail after that. It was strong enough that I couldn’t talk and had to be carted off in a wheelchair. I would pass out in the car and my husband would help me get in bed. I remained in a drug-induced sleep until the next day, when I would start throwing up. But it was never again as wretched as that first time.

Throwing up became part of my life. I remember walking outside with the kids to go buy school supplies and then telling them to wait in the car, that I’d be right back. I went inside to the bathroom, threw up, gargled with mouthwash, and headed back out. There just wasn’t always time to lie down.

With two kids to take care of and an office to manage, I never got to slow down as much as I wanted. And since my husband was out of a job, there was no question about me taking time off from mine. I had chemo every other Friday, so I would leave the office early and miss only the Mondays following treatment because I would still be too sick to get out of bed. Those Tuesday mornings sure were tough. On most days, though, I never really felt like getting up, but having to do it probably helped keep me going and my mind occupied. More importantly, I learned firsthand that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

Another verse in Philippians came to have special meaning for me. “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings” (v. 3:10). I was saved 11 years earlier, but I needed and wanted to know Jesus better. I didn’t grow up in church and was so ignorant when I started attending church after I got saved that I didn’t even know what those Baptist folks meant when they talked about being saved. Although I steadily took baby steps in my spiritual growth, my year of illness was like a crash course from above that could have been titled “I Am God and You Don’t Have a Thing to Worry About.”

I can truly say that it was worth every bit of pain for the privilege of getting to know Christ, to grow beyond just believing in Him to abiding in Him. And although I began the journey thanking God in all things, I came to the point where I even thanked Him for all things, including my cancer. It actually made me feel special that God would allow me to suffer so He could reveal Himself to me in such a powerful way and bring me into deeper fellowship with Him. That kind of bonding doesn’t come during the good times. If not for the cancer, I wouldn’t have gained such an intimate, experiential knowledge of God so quickly.

One of the many times I was kneeling in front of the toilet, I thought of how it would be if I were still a little girl. Mom would be kneeling beside me on the cold, hard floor, holding back my hair. Then she’d get a wet cloth for my face and whisper comforting words. For a moment, I wanted my mom really bad. Then I felt God’s presence so strongly, so sweetly, and I knew He was there, figuratively holding back my hair and internally whispering words of comfort. What a personal God He is! And how amazing it is that He humbles Himself to behold a sinner like me, even more so to get down on the floor with me.

After a few treatments, the chemo had burned the vein in my hand so much that I got phlebitis and could barely pick up a pen at work, much less write with it. I called the doctor’s office and was told to go to the hospital to have a catheter inserted in my chest so the chemo wouldn’t have to pass through the small veins in my hand and arm. They didn’t mention that I should have someone with me, so I just left work early and went by myself.

After I was all prepped on the table and about to get local anesthesia, I told them I had to drive myself home. They wanted to reschedule, but I insisted, so they did it sans anesthesia. It was extremely uncomfortable. I got through it by reciting chapters of Scripture that God had led me to memorize a few years earlier, perhaps in part to prepare me for that very moment.

It would take a book to tell of the blessings I received during this difficult but beautiful year and of all the opportunities for witnessing. I don’t know the outcome of how God used my illness as a witness to others, and it doesn’t matter that I don’t know specifically who or how. I trust that He glorified Himself not only to me but to people in my periphery as well. God has multifaceted reasons for the way He orchestrates the intricacies of our interconnected lives. He’s the Maestro!

I believe that part of the reason I got cancer was to strengthen me spiritually for the major trial I would face the following year, which involved extreme emotional pain rather than physical. It would be my “Goliath.” And like God delivered David from the “paw of the lion” (1 Sam. 17:37), He delivered me from cancer to build my faith for the trial ahead.

When the year of chemo was completed, I got a clean bill of health from the doctor and a bouquet of balloons from the nurses. They had written “Kiss me, I’m cancer free” on one of the balloons and tied them around my wrist. I drove home with the balloons still on, shared the good news with my little family, and then went in the garage to do laundry. It was there that I was overcome with tears of gratitude for God’s mercy and grace. He had given me my life back, and it was even sweeter.

I wanted to share the good news with the many people who had been praying for me, but this was before email and Facebook. I thought of how formal announcements were printed on nice stationery and mailed out to announce important events like a graduation, engagement, or birth. So I had announcements printed that simply stated I had been healed by Jesus Christ and quoted Psalm 34:3—“O magnify the Lord with me, And let us exalt His name together.”

It took a long time to recover from a year of harsh chemo, both physically and mentally. Just passing the freeway exit to my doctor’s office would trigger the smell of chemicals from the treatment room, and a wave of nausea would follow. As I gradually started feeling better and getting stronger, I was grateful to have experienced illness so I could truly appreciate how good it felt to feel good and I could value the tremendous blessing of health much more than before.

Even while I was sick, I could look around and see others who were suffering far greater. I truly had nothing to complain about, only to be grateful for. And every type of suffering a human can experience pales in comparison to the suffering of Christ. Not only did He suffer physical pain of such ferocity that only the God Man could have endured it, the spiritual pain He suffered is incomprehensible—being holy yet becoming sin on our behalf, being temporarily forsaken by, judicially separated from, God the Father. Jesus was utterly alone. Humiliated. Tortured. Murdered by those He loved and came to save.

I wonder if Christ’s suffering was made even worse by what He had to compare it to—the majestic glory of heaven and the fellowship of the Holy Trinity. What a contrast to His suffering! When I consider the horrific agony Jesus endured to satisfy God’s wrath against my sin, my own suffering is so miniscule, so insignificant. It bears mentioning only to give Him glory.

Especially in light of the eternity I’ll spend in God’s presence, my year of illness was indeed a “momentary, light affliction” (2 Cor. 4:17). It was, however, an important leg of my spiritual journey. I had trusted Christ with my eternal soul, but I had to learn to trust Him with every aspect of my life. The things He taught me then and over the years since led me to write my life motto:

As a Christian, I have nothing to fear, no reason to worry, and no right to complain—ever.

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