The Silver Lining to the Cancer Cloud

By Julia Whitfield

This is a true story. On an October night ten years ago, we sank down on the couch to continue watching The John Adams Story. Our three small children, including the eight month old baby, were tucked into bed for the night. The episode dealt partly with Adams’ oldest daughter, Nabby, who contracted breast cancer as a young woman and later died of it. Watching the depiction of 18th century surgery in sympathetic horror, I instinctively raised my hand to my chest. At the top of my right breast, my fingers felt something hard. Instantly, the thought. “Is that what people mean when they say they felt a lump?”  
I continued watching TV in silence. No one does breast self exams during pregnancy and nursing, so it  had been over a year since I last checked. Had the doctor given me a breast exam four months ago at my regular physical? I couldn’t remember. The lump wasn’t painful; was that a good or bad sign? Maybe it was just a blocked duct. I would wait and see for a few days.  
During the next week, I surreptitiously checked the lump. No change. Finally, I mentioned it to my husband, a physician assistant. “Um, can you check this out? I thought maybe it was a blocked milk duct, but it’s not going away. What do you think?” Nate palpated my skin, his face serious. “ I think you need to call our doctor and get this looked at right away. Don’t wait anymore. It may be nothing, but with your family’s history, you can’t take chances.” I called that day.
A few days later, in the doctor’s office, she examined me carefully. “Well, it could be a cyst. You’re pretty young to have it be anything else. Is there a family history of cancer?”
Here we go. “Yes, actually, there is. My paternal grandmother died of breast cancer, as did her mother.  Also, a great aunt developed breast cancer, and another had a preventive mastectomy at age 40. She passed away last month of a brain tumor. My dad and his brothers have all had skin cancers removed.  My other grandmother also died of breast cancer in her eighties.”
The doctor typed furiously on her computer, charting my information. “I see. In that case, I want you to have an ultrasound as soon as possible. Then we’ll know what we’re dealing with. Again, it could be a cyst, but let’s get it checked out.”  
The next day I headed into the hospital, along with our eight month old son. “You will want to nurse him right before the ultrasound,” the technician told me. “Here’s a room where you can have privacy.” I snuggled his small body against mine as he drank, then wheeled the stroller into the exam room. Later, lying on the table as the scope moved over my chest, I watched the screen. I could see the lump – sizeable, with spiky, irregular edges, like a deformed crab. A warning bell rang deep in my mind.  
After the scan, I was left alone while the technician presumably took the results to be processed. I wheeled the stroller up and down the halls. There were few patients about. As I passed staff rooms, I could hear low voices which, (was it my imagination?) became lower as I walked by. Finally, I paused, my baby asleep. Looking out over the hospital parking lot, at the lowering gray November sky, my heart sank. Something was coming that I could barely bring myself to name and could not control. “God,” I prayed. “I think I can get through this, but only if you help me. Help me.”  
A few days after the ultrasound, I was back in the hospital for a biopsy and first ever mammogram. I don’t remember much about this, except that the mammogram was cold, and the biopsy needle large. The worst part was waiting over the weekend. By this time, I had already met with an oncologist. A tall man with dark hair and kind brown eyes, he discussed my family history. A nurse coordinator, Kim, was at that appointment too. She gave me a packet of information as I was leaving. “Here,” she said. “You are someone who will go home and look up your symptoms on Google, and there’s a lot of bad information on here. This packet might be more helpful.” No one said I had cancer at that point, but we all knew the signs were there. I read the packet. It was helpful and unnerving - stages, treatment, options, cancer drugs, and chemotherapy side effects.  
The next week, my husband and I went back to get the biopsy results. Someone showed us into a small conference room, and in a few minutes a young doctor walked in. She sat down and looked at me in some surprise. Then, tears sprang to her eyes. “I’m sorry!” she burst out. “I wasn’t expecting someone so young – my age. And you have children, too? Young children?”  
“Yes.” Wait for it. This is it. What is she going to tell us?
She cleared her throat, looked down at my chart. Then, she leaned across the table, looking at me. “Your biopsy did test positive for cancer.”  
I gripped Nate’s hand, but couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t look anywhere.  
The doctor continued talking. “It looks as though it’s at stage 2A. You are young, and it’s still at a comparatively early stage. We’ll get an appointment for you right away to begin setting up your treatment. There are a lot of things we can try, a lot of treatment options. Do you have any questions for me right now?”  
Will I see my children grow up? Will I lose my breasts and my hair? How on earth do I tell my family? What is chemotherapy like?  
“No,” I answered. “Not right now.”  
She gave us a few more bits of information, then tactfully left us alone to process this together. “Nate,” I whispered. “I can’t make the phone calls. Please, can you call my mom?”  
He called. He made all the phone calls – to our parents, our pastor, close friends. He swallowed his own fears to be strong for me in that moment. Then, somehow, we left the hospital. I had an appointment for an oncology visit. They would need to schedule a lymph node biopsy to see if the cancer had spread.  We’d discuss chemotherapy, radiation, surgery. “Should I stop nursing?” I asked.
“Yes,” the nurses told me gently. “You won’t be able to breastfeed during chemotherapy of course, and we’ll want to start that right after Christmas. You will be having a number of tests before then, so it would be a good idea to stop as soon as you can.” Soon after, they left us, alone with our fears and the ashes of our previous life.  
If you live long enough, your life will one day “jump the tracks.” One minute you are moving along through familiar, if dull, territory, the next minute you will be looking over a cliff, down the rapids, or through a wilderness. It may not even be your life that derailed, but the life of someone close to you.  Either way, all the systems you put in place suddenly shift, and become inadequate. Chaos opens the door and looks in. Now what?
First, I would say, face and acknowledge the chaos. This doesn’t mean liking, minimizing, or ignoring it. Disruption, confusion, turmoil and muddle are stressful places to be. But a basic step in dealing with a painful situation is to face the fear, and admit to ourselves that it exists.  
Cancer. Say the word. Divorce. Drugs. Infertility. Depression. Discouragement. Anxiety. Illness. Fear. Anger. Naming a problem doesn’t make it worse. In an odd way, it can make it better. The Bible writers are  honest about the reality of pain and suffering in our lives. Listen to David in Psalm 143: “The enemy pursues me, he crushes me to the ground; he makes me dwell in darkness like those long dead. So my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed.” Or in Psalm 6, “Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony.  My soul is in anguish. How long, O Lord, how long?”
David writes many songs of praise and love for God, but he doesn’t hold back when things are going wrong. He writes with the assurance of a man who loved God, and also knew that God’s strength and power was more than equal to any problem we face. The pain is real, but so is the hope.
There is one silver lining to the cancer cloud: you know right away that it is too big to handle on your own. What a comforting thought that God was the “rock that is higher than I (Psalm 61:2).” All the verses about God being a fortress and strong tower began to take on new meaning, and prayer was a lifeline to that strength. My church organized a prayer meeting for our family within a week of diagnosis. As people began to gather, I felt awkward and nervous. This was way outside my comfort zone, and I told our pastor so. He responded kindly, “You know, they’re here for you, but they’re also here for God. Let Him be your focus now.” That refocus was what I needed … this wasn’t so much about imperfect, embarrassed me as it was about God and what He could do in this circumstance. When our hearts are faint, He is indeed our rock. As people prayed for us, the reality of God’s love and power felt more real and present than I had ever experienced before.
A few days later, driving in the van, I made the now familiar motion of checking the lump. Wait. Was it my imagination or was it a little smaller? But I had no treatment yet, so how could it have shrunk at all?  This was an aggressive, fast growing cancer. Still … could it be? We checked it again that night, cautiously hopeful. Several days later, at the next oncology meeting, I said, hesitantly, “It feels as if the tumor is smaller. Is that possible?” The oncologist palpated the lump, in some perplexity. “I would say it is definitely smaller,” he said. “Let’s measure it to make sure.” The result? Although there was no “medical explanation” for it, the tumor had measurably shrunk since the prayer service.
I left the office on cloud nine, thanking God for His healing touch. Through the months of chemotherapy and surgery that lay ahead, I would remember that moment, and rest in the fact that God was working in my body.  As it turned out, when they took tissue biopsies during surgery (following eight rounds of chemotherapy), there was no evidence of cancer anymore. I had achieved “complete pathological remission.” God chooses to heal and work in many different ways, and I don’t always have answers as to why one situation is different than another. Still, I am convinced and can testify that in my case God worked through a healing prayer service and modern medicine. I am forever grateful for His power and healing in my life.

Julia enjoys reading, drinking tea, and traveling. She has learned to like exercise, which surprises her as much as anyone. Currently running a taxi service for her three children, she lives in Lancaster County with her husband and attends a local Mennonite church.


PA-Renee' said…
Thank you for sharing part of your journey! ��
Unknown said…
Memories of that time came back as I read this. I remember feeling angry at the cancer and asking God for healing in your body. My mind had raced to think of things I could do to help and I felt so helpless. I then remembered a note you wrote me several years later as I was going through test after test for my unexplained abdominal pain (that ended up not serious) and what a comfort that was. Last year when I was called into the doctor’s office to discuss the results of my recent imaging, I knew it couldn’t be good. It wasn’t. As I lived through non-invasive treatment after treatment and continued to get worse, as I instinctively knew surgery was needed, I thought of that note, of you in my Bodypump classes, your healing, and it gave me HOPE. Thank you, Julia.

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