Lessons I Learned from Cancer
Updated: Dec 1, 2019
Five years ago this month I had colon cancer. And so, this month, I am celebrating being cancer free, and at the same time I am looking back and taking stock of what cancer has taught me. Here are 5 lessons I have learned along the way:
Lesson #1: I am stronger than I think I am and, by the way, strength is not measured like I think it is.
Nearly every time I get an IV, I faint. No lie. The first time I got an IV, I was in labor with our first child and rather than pass out I puked all over myself. (It basically went downhill from there.) The point is, I don’t do medical stuff. I don’t watch medical shows – even “McDreamy” could not entice me to watch Grey’s Anatomy. I couldn’t even handle loose teeth when my kids were little. But here I was with cancer. And cancer means lots of IVs and blood draws. And I passed out almost every time. Still do. But that doesn’t mean I’m not strong. It just means it’s hard. And I’ve learned that I can do hard. It may not be pretty, but I can do it. And I do it best when I am acutely aware of my weakness and desperately dependent on my Savior.
In 2 Cor 12:10, Paul says, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” This verse has always been a little confusing to me, but from what I’ve gathered it means that strength is measured by humble dependence, not stoic independence. Strength comes when I walk in the Spirit and I humbly invite others to walk with me. Strength is admitting I’m needy and I’m scared but I am determined to follow Jesus no matter where He leads because in my weakness His power is most evident.
I never felt strong during my cancer journey. But being strong was never the goal anyway.
Lesson #2: Waiting well takes work.
I was still in a groggy semi-conscious state when the doctor told me that he thought I had cancer. He had just finished my colonoscopy and had spotted a suspicious tumor. An hour later, we left the surgical center with assurances that he would call us as soon as the pathology report came back. And so began the herculean effort of waiting. Waiting for test result after test result, waiting for surgery day to arrive, and waiting to be declared cancer-free.
Here is what I have learned about waiting: There are a million ways to endure a wait, but only one way to thrive while you wait. I have endured a waiting season by keeping busy, by binge-watching TV, by pretending everything is fine, and by eating everything in sight. All of these methods worked in helping me endure the wait. But I was far from thriving.
I thrive during a waiting season when I deliberately and consistently turn my mind toward the goodness and sovereignty of God. I know that sounds all theological and theoretical and not-very-practical, but stick with me. This looks like constantly reminding myself of the truths of Scripture. It looks like carrying around 3x5 cards with memory verses on them, putting post-it notes in the car, and writing verses and prayers on my bathroom mirror. Turning my mind toward God takes work. My mind is naturally inclined to worry and obsess and devise contingency plans for every possible outcome. But I will not thrive that way. And I want to thrive. So I must work. But it is the best kind of work because it leads to peace and joy and gratitude.
Lesson #3: A cancer diagnosis can provide a seismic perspective shift.
When I found out that I had cancer, dirty floors suddenly don’t seem so important. Pants size seems trivial. All the things that had been stressing me out now felt like insignificant concerns that could resolve themselves. This is the gift of cancer. It clarifies priorities and redefines needs. It reminds me that life is short, life is precious, and life is about relationships. I tend to forget that last part especially. I tend to make life about achievement, or getting more stuff, or organizing the stuff I already have. But cancer made me rethink where I was investing my time and reevaluate what was truly important to me.
Sometimes when I am feeling stressed and overwhelmed with my life, I ask myself what would change if I found out I had cancer again. I ask myself what I would stop worrying about instantly and what I would start investing in immediately. And then I do those things. A little perspective can go a long way.
Lesson #4: Being a blessing blesses you.
My world can tend to resemble a very comfortable Christian bubble. As a homeschool mom and pastor’s wife, I mostly rub shoulders with other Christians. But cancer gave me lots of time with doctors, nurses, and waiting room neighbors, and I decided to make the most of the opportunity to bless those around me and be a witness for Christ. That meant being cheerful. Because people generally don’t feel blessed by grumpy people. So, on my way to each appointment I would pray and ask God to make me a blessing. I’d ask God to use me to cheer a discouraged soul or point a lost soul to their Savior. And then I did what I could with whatever He gave me.
In the process, I discovered that my heart was lifted while I was focused on lifting others. Looking for ways to bless others distracted me from my own fear (remember how I am with needles?) and reminded me of how much I had to be grateful for. Being a blessing blessed me.
Lesson #5: It takes a village to beat cancer.
Yes, a village of doctors and nurses and medical technicians, but also a village of friends and family. For me, beating cancer means more than successful medical treatment. It means not letting discouragement get the last word. It means winning the battle with fear and anxiety and trusting God even when it hurts. It means choosing joy when I’d rather choose crankiness. And while I need to lean on God and ask Him to strengthen me, I also need to lean on other people and allow them to lift me up in prayer, make my family a meal, and send me funny memes to lift my spirits. Left to my own devices, I am a pull-the-covers-over-my-head-and-eat-cookies type of girl, but with a village of support I am a let’s-kick-cancer-in-the-teeth kind of girl.
I’ve learned a lot from cancer. Lessons that I needed then and I still need today. I don’t know whether you’ve had cancer or not, but I bet you’ve had some hard stuff in your life. And I bet you’ve learned a thing or two from that hard stuff. May I challenge you to consider making a list of those lessons? There is something about the process of putting words to an experience that drives it home in a powerful way. It helps the lessons stick. And don’t we want the lessons to stick?
Thanks for “listening,”