“You’re done now, right?” That’s what my friends and family ask these days.
But breast cancer treatment isn’t like finishing a term paper or degree program or work project. You don’t take the final exam, throw your cap in the air, and then move on to something new.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November at age 39. Until then, my life had been medically uneventful. I’m healthy and health-conscious. I exercise regularly and eat my vegetables — even kale. I’m the type who takes multivitamins, preaches the importance of calcium, and reads magazine articles like “Ten Ways To Cut Your Cancer Risk” to smugly confirm that I’m already doing all ten, plus a few more. As a medical writer, knowing about health and medicine is my bread and butter (a multigrain loaf and omega-3-rich butter alternative, that is). I felt in control and ahead of the game.
Needless to say, the diagnosis was a horrible shock. The treatment wasn’t much better: three surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy in five months that left me bald, tired, and scarred. But just as I was feeling relieved to be done with these “big guns” of cancer treatment, the surgeon announced that it was time for my 6-month mammogram.
That’s when it hit me: I’m never really done. Cancer recurrence is a possibility I’ll face for the rest of my life. I’ll be taking tamoxifen for the next five years to lower my risk, and every six months I will be screened for new abnormalities.
My pre-diagnosis self would hear this and cue the anxiety. She would wake up in the middle of the night imagining malignant cells taking over her body, organ by organ. She would obsessively swallow more vitamins and read more cancer prevention articles and beg her doctor for full-body MRIs every few weeks, just to be sure.
But my post-diagnosis self saw first-hand the beauty of giving up the control she never really had and simply resting in God.
Anxiety is a funny thing. We hoard up worries the way we hoard money and material goods. In some eras and cultures, people live hand-to-mouth and rely on each growing season to make it another year. I’m grateful not to live in a culture like that, yet I realize we’ve lost a certain perspective it fosters: our eyes no longer look to God to provide for daily needs. Instead, we take bread for granted and borrow trouble ahead of schedule, focusing on the adequacies and inadequacies of our insurance policies and savings accounts. We have so much less to worry about but worry about so much more! We get distracted by the constant barrage of media headlines about random violence, obscure medical anomalies, aberrant weather patterns, and the economic downturn. Suddenly, we’re a mess, worrying about our health and safety and families and careers and possessions. How can we possibly feel secure? In my case, how can I possibly live with the threat of cancer recurrence looming over my head?
The answer is simple and yet such a hard thing to do: give up control and trust in the Lord with all my heart. God says over and over again to trust him with fears and anxieties. Some famous examples:
- I Peter 5:7, “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.”
- Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
- Matthew 6:25–27, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
These are not mere platitudes from a God who is too busy for my trivial problems. The entire Bible tells the story of God’s faithfulness through the ages, proof that he is present and trustworthy. Plus, each of the above verses not only instructs me to not worry but also tells me why: God cares for me. He cares enough to lavish his grace and mercy on me; it’s only through his grace and mercy that I can overcome my anxiety-hoarding human nature and rest in the knowledge that he will provide.
And he will provide. I have first-hand knowledge of this. Only through God’s grace could I, a severely needle-phobic person, have made it through chemotherapy with a peaceful heart. Only in his perfect timing could I have been sitting with my prayer group both times the surgeon called with bad news. As I wondered how to handle the logistics of another doctor appointment, someone would call offering childcare. God surrounded me with an abundance of friends and family who encouraged me, prayed for me, and helped in so many practical ways that it was almost overwhelming. After this beautiful lesson, how ungrateful and unreasonable I would be to worry about cancer recurrence, as if doubting God’s ability or willingness to provide for whatever my future holds or as if hoarding his blessings against future troubles in case he doesn’t come through next time.
And yet. And yet, I am an imperfect person with an imperfect heart. This is not a lesson learned once in a lifetime. One of the challenges to the Christian life is that anxiety has a much, much higher recurrence rate than cancer. Perhaps that is why so many Bible verses remind us to trust our fears and anxieties to God: it’s a recurring theme for a recurring problem.
Consider the Israelites, newly freed from slavery and heading toward the land God promised. When they worried about their enemies, God parted the sea to give them victory. When they worried about food, God made manna fall at their feet in the desert. When they worried about water, God caused it to flow from a rock. Yet, despite God’s miraculous provisions again and again, the Israelites’ hearts wavered with fears and doubts again and again, never fully resting in the knowledge that God will provide.
I resemble the Israelites in this respect. Although I have experienced tremendous proof of God’s steadfast care and his blessings beyond my imagining, my ability to rest in God wavers between instances of his care. I constantly need God’s grace so I can entrust him with my fears and doubts.
I cannot know if I am done with cancer, but I know how good it feels to drop my guard now and then and rest in God by trusting him with my worries. I also know that I am at a higher risk of anxiety recurrence than of cancer recurrence. My prayer each day will be for sufficient grace and faith to put my trust completely in God today, to let go of the control I never really had.