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We don’t remember much of what the doctor said. The c-word obliterated everything else.
We thought it was just a lesion. After all, Aaron was 15. Yeah, some kids develop cancer, but not ours. That happens to other people. Add to this the fact that Aaron’s biological father died of Pancreatic cancer and you can imagine what we might have been going through our minds.
The next three months were a blur. Phone calls. Emails. Appointments. Exams. Scans and blood work. More-extensive-than-expected surgery. And, because of where we live, all of this was two hours away. Back and forth, over and over.
Then there was all the usual stuff. Our other kids. School. Work. Church. Relationships. We tried to keep things as “normal” as possible, while in our hearts and minds life was anything but routine.
One day, Aaron was having his teeth cleaned, and then a month later he has a hole in the roof of his mouth a little larger than a golf ball.
Three weeks after surgery we got the official “all clear.” Tumor gone. No evidence of cancer anywhere else. No radiation or chemo. Just vigilance and regular follow-ups over the next five years.
We began to breathe again, and to relax a little. Then we crashed. The months of hyper-alert, adrenaline-laced living had taken its toll. Our minds finally began to process all that happened.
We learned a lot. None of these lessons were new, but this brush with cancer caused them to sink in at a deeper level.
1. Trust is the Key
From the beginning, we sensed God whispering to us, “Trust me.”
The timing was awful. The tumor was discovered the week before the school year started.
The oral surgeon we knew well referred us to a more specialized surgeon whom we had never met.
There were times we didn’t get information as promised. We asked questions that no one seemed to know the answer to.
We wondered, “What does all this mean? What are we facing? How is this going to play out?”
How much is this is going to cost? Where are we going to get the money for this?
Proverbs 3:5-6 kept coming to mind. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Trust. Trust, Trust.
2. Be Kind, No Matter What
Immediately after the diagnosis, we began coaching ourselves to breathe deeply and remain as calm as possible. To keep our minds from going less-than-helpful places, we made a conscious effort to get out of our own heads. We focused on seeing and observing those around us.
This turned out to be huge. We decided to be kind in a more focused way than ever before. We set out to treat everyone we met the way we wanted Aaron to be treated in this process.
Kindness. Respect. Compassion.
Vital information didn’t come when promised. Information fell through the cracks. Things were missed. We got frustrated repeatedly. After all, our emotions were running high. Deep down, we were scared.
“Trust me. Be kind.”
We breathed deeply. We vented to each other privately. When we spoke, it was with kindness.
And that kindness came back to us, many times over.
3. Pray For Favor
In this cancer battle, we continually needed the guidance and expertise of others. We prayed for favor constantly – with the surgeon and his team, with office staff, with our insurance company, with nurses and hospital staff, and with billing personnel.
At the end of Nehemiah chapter one, Nehemiah prays, “Grant me favor today in the presence of this man.” This short sentence was the culmination of months of fasting and prayer. God had called Nehemiah to a seemingly impossible task. He was cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia and he knew he needed the king’s help and resources to accomplish his mission.
“Grant me favor,” he prayed.
And God did.
We too prayed for favor and God answered. At each step, doors swung open (though sometimes not immediately). Who we needed showed up. What we needed was given to us.
We’re in this together. None of us travels alone.
4. Expect Surprises
Life is full of surprises, and not all of them are pleasant or good.
Obstacles flew at us like a sideways rainstorm. We were hit from every direction, every day. Nothing was smooth. Hiccups were frequent. With every bend in the road, new stuff we had to deal with appeared.
We kept coaching ourselves. Breathe. Be calm. See others. Be kind. Above all, trust.
We leaned into the wind. Honestly, we had no choice. We had expectations, but we tried to hold them loosely, knowing that more surprises would come. Nothing worked out quite the way we would have scripted it.
King David’s words in Psalm 62 were a great comfort. “He is my rock and my salvation. He is my fortress. I will not be shaken.” And even if we shake, he does not.
Surprises will come. God knows. He can and will handle it. Breathe. Trust.
5. See the Invisible People
Some people tend to be invisible. They blend in. They’re there, but we may not notice them.
Janitorial staff, housekeepers, and receptionists. Food service workers, toll booth cashiers, supermarket stockers, etc.
As part seeing the people in front of us, we deliberately made “invisible” people a part of our cancer-battling mission. We spoke to them. If they had name badges, we called them by name. We thanked them for their service and were as specific in our encouragement as possible.
Their responses bordered on extraordinary. One janitor stopped, looked at us with a stunned expression, and then broke out in a wide grin. Food service workers ceased to be robotic, smiled, engaged with us, and even laughed. One receptionist even teared up. The stories go on and on.
Life is about relationships. We all long to be seen – and appreciated. No one should be invisible.
6. Get Rid of Guilt
Guilt is not our friend, yet he is familiar to most of us. Some of us know him well. When he speaks, we hear his messages in our own voice.
“If we had…” “If we hadn’t…” “If only…” “What if…”
We wonder, then worry. Worry nurtures guilt. Guilt is a prison. It keeps us stuck.
When we sensed guilt speaking, we confronted him. “You are not my friend. Go away.”
Over 3000 years ago, King Solomon said, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the spring from which everything else flows.”
Our heart is our most precious possession. Daily life is a battle. In order to love well, hearts must be protected from things that threaten to damage them. Guilt is a heart-squeezer. It can choke out our life over time.
We can’t keep guilt from knocking, but we don’t have to let him take up residence in our hearts.
7. Avoid Emotion-Based Decision-Making
Life can be overwhelming at times. In Aaron’s cancer journey, overwhelm seemed to always be just around the next corner.
We were on an emotional roller-coaster. We experienced denial, sadness, anger, frustration, confusion, anxiety, and fear. We also experienced joy and great gratitude. The constant emotional assault was exhausting.
We knew our emotions were real, but not necessarily reality. We focused on acknowledging our feelings, without making them the basis of our decision-making.
In Psalm 46, God tells us to, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Be quiet. Be willing to pause. Re-orient. Breathe. Listen.
He is God. He is sufficient. He loves us. He works in all things for our good.
When we were unsure, we waited. Each time, the road ahead became clear when we took the time to listen.
God never seems to be in a hurry. We don’t have to be either.
8. Be Real With God and a Few Other People
When we’re in tough situations, the tendency is to hold things in. We try to “stay in control.” The problem is that we were never in control in the first place.
All through this cancer journey, we challenged ourselves to risk and share. We didn’t share everything with everyone, of course. But we intentionally shared honestly and deeply with some of the safest people in our lives.
We strove to be open books before God. With the goal of holding nothing back, we talked to him constantly, both silently and out loud.
If we want to heal and grow, sooner or later, we need to be real – honest and authentic about what’s going on inside us – with God and a few other people. This can be scary. Most leaps forward in life are a bit unnerving.
9. Pray Big, Live Large
Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. Take heart, I have overcome the world.”
Aarons’ cancer was trouble. We needed peace – Christ’s peace – so that we could live as overcomers in the midst of this.
We prayed big.
“Use this cancer, Lord. Use us.”
Opportunities were everywhere. We were surrounded friends, family, co-workers, and medical personnel. In the larger scheme of things, many of the spiritual needs around us were even greater and more urgent than Aaron’s physical needs.
When we make things about us, life shrinks. Our vision becomes skewed. We go into fortress mode and focus on not losing. When we do this, we cease to win.
God is able. He can do it all. Pray big. Live large. Walk in faith. Trust, trust, trust.
10. See the Big Picture
Before Aaron’s surgery, we sat in the waiting room at Texas Children’s Hospital surrounded by kids of all ages, accompanied by nervous and concerned parents. The vulnerability in the atmosphere was stunning.
After surgery, the recovery room gave us even more perspective. Dire situations everywhere. Some parents rejoicing at good news, while others looked somber and crestfallen.
It was sobering.
A verse from Psalm 121 came to mind. “I lift my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
Much of this world is broken. The needs and challenges are stunning. We must lift our eyes. Often. Constantly.
A better day is coming. Suffering will have an end.
In the meantime, He shares our suffering. He invites us to lift our eyes and see the bigger picture.
We cling to this life as if it’s all there is. Thankfully, there is so much more. We’re grateful for what we learned in this cancer battle. We’re more committed than ever to living in the moment, one day at a time.
Be kind. Pray for favor. Send guilt packing. Get out of your own head. Serve. Lift your eyes, pray big, and live large.
He shares our suffering and our loneliness. He knows.
Guest post by Gary Roe. Award-winning author, speaker, and grief specialist Gary Roe is a compassionate and trusted voice in grief-recovery who has been bringing comfort, hope, encouragement, and healing to hurting, wounded hearts for more than 30 years. Click here to get a free excerpt of his latest award-winning book, Comfort for Grieving Hearts. For more information visit www.garyroe.com.