I don’t know about you but growing up I believed that old people and other people got cancer.
My gran passed away from cancer when I was in my early teens. So I knew cancer existed. I just didn’t think that cancer would be part of the story of someone young, or of someone I love.
I guess that’s the first thing I’ve learnt about cancer. It doesn’t discriminate. It will attack rich or poor, young or old, dark or light, male or female.
To be honest I never wanted to learn anything about cancer. But it’s hard not learn when eight months into marriage your husband is diagnosed with lymphoma. All of sudden instead of “love”, “dinner” and “honeymoon phase” our vocabulary was replaced with “chemo”, “oncologist” and “white blood counts”.
We were in our late twenties and fresh off a plane from a seven-week backpacking holiday across South East Asia when we heard “cancer” used for the first time to explain a series of everyday illnesses my husband had.
At first we thought, like the naive, young newlyweds we were, ‘It’s 12 chemos. There is a 75% “cure” rate. It’ll just be a hiccup’. Yes, the oncologists went there, they gave a cure rate not a remission rate. How hard can this be we thought? Six months and then we’ll have our lives back.
Six months of my husband throwing up at the sight of the nurses who administered the chemo. Six months of me having to coerce him into “just one more session”. Six months of waking up in the middle of the night to make sure he was still breathing and sleeping with thermometer in the bedside table to check his temperature never rose above 38 degrees Celsius.
Six months passed and it was over. But it wasn’t. Because the second thing I’ve learnt about cancer is that it never completely goes away.
Even once you think you’ve beaten it, it hangs in there like a child clinging to its mother’s leg, asking for attention every 6 months to one year when the calendar reminds you it’s time for that scan.
The results of the first round of chemo came the same day as my grandfather’s funeral. The chemotherapy hadn’t worked. Xylon still had cancer. So we re-adjusted our schedules to more intensive chemo, four days a week in hospital this time, and a month long in-hospital bone marrow transplant procedure.
While Xylon lay in hospital for a month I learnt that cancer comes only to steal and destroy but Jesus came to give life, life and more life. I learnt that prayer is more than a nice idea, that sometimes it means praying the unthinkable and other times it means using worship as an act of war against the enemy of our souls. I discovered that even on my worst days I am never really alone and that even in the darkness God will find me. And I learnt that Jesus is still reckless with hope.
Cancer sucks. I hate it. There is not getting round that. I wish almost daily that cancer isn’t part of our story. We’re almost one year on from his first clear scan and I still get angry about all that cancer stole from us.
Yes, it’s taught us some things I hope we never forget like how not to take time with loved ones for granted. Or how to grab hold of the life you dream of and not wait for “someday”. It has reminded us to hold possessions lightly.
And it has helped put most of our petty problems in the right perspective.
And it’s taught me that God cares about us. I don’t know why he allows cancer. And I get pretty angry about death (and then I have to remind myself that God hates death too). But somehow while I’ve held my husband’s hand through chemo and fevers and blood transfusions I’ve felt that God is holding me.
Don’t get me wrong; there have been days when I’ve wondered if God exists. God hasn’t appeared to me in a vision or whispered in my ear. But I’ve felt held, buoyed up by a hope that is not my own. I can’t really explain it but it’s been real to me.
I guess this is maybe the most important thing I’ve learnt in the almost four years since Xylon’s cancer diagnosis: when the rest of the world is saying there’s no hope, Jesus is standing there saying, “They’re wrong.”
When everyone else is questioning if Jesus really cares about the hard things we’re going through, I listen for his voice declaring, “Don’t listen to them; just trust me.”
Sometimes that’s all I have. And the longer I walk this road with Xylon’s hand in mine and Jesus by side the more I’m learning that is enough.
[Wendy van Eyck writes at ilovedevotionals.com for anyone who has ever held a loved one’s hand through illness, or believed in God despite hard circumstances or ever left on a spontaneous 2-week holiday through a foreign land with just a passport and a backpack. The various links within this post are back to articles she has written on those specific aspects of her journey]