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What You Do After Cancer

I drive to the medical center trying my best to distract myself with a podcast I’d saved just for the occasion, but once I check in and sit down it’s no longer possible to forget that it’s time for my yearly mammogram. And once you’ve had breast cancer, you’ve lost the illusion that such things don’t happen to you. And so, even though you don’t feel anything is wrong, of course it COULD be. So I feel quite anxious each year as I sit in the waiting room, and the brief wait between the scan itself and the results is even worse.

Thankfully, the staff at the medical center understand this feeling. They don’t even ask me to leave the room where the mammogram is performed. Instead I just wait right there for a few minutes until they come back with the results from the radiologist.

I bring along the lightest, fluffiest library book I have to try to distract myself, but I just read the same lines over and over, one thought churning through my head: What if I have to do it all again?

And then a few minutes later, the tech returns with the welcome news that everything looks good. I am FOUR YEARS CANCER FREE. And every time I still tear up with tears of relief and joy.

When I told my spiritual director my good news, we talked about how important it is to bring some kind of redemption out of something like a cancer diagnosis, to see the truth of the words of Romans 8:28, “For we know that all things work together for good in those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

One of the things I realize now, four years out from the sheer disbelief and terror of being told I had breast cancer when I was pregnant with our daughter, is that the whole experience equipped and prepared me for a particular kind of ministry, to those facing new diagnoses. Something that sustained me throughout the early days of being diagnosed, and all the decision-making about doctors, surgery options, to chemo or not to chemo, was talking to other women who had already been through it and were on the other side. These experiences I had with breast cancer, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation were not for nothing. They equipped me to help walk with others through these same experiences.

So I planned ahead of time to take a meal the night of my scheduled mammogram to a friend who has just started chemotherapy. At best, I could share my four years milestone with her. At worst, we could commiserate together. Either way, I know the incredible value of the hope that comes from talking to and seeing someone who has already walked that road you’re on. Of having a companion in this journey you never wanted to take.

God was present with me in my mom who was there when I received my diagnosis in a phone call, in my husband and children who offered me unconditional love and support, in all the people from my church and community who showed up with meals and baby clothes and pink teddy bears and flowers, in the friends who celebrated every treatment completed and sent constant texts just checking in. Through all of this, it occurred to me that this is God’s most usual way of being present with us, through the people around us, even though it’s not always the first way we think of God showing his presence in our lives.

God was perhaps most present to me through the women who told me their stories and experiences. And now it’s my turn. Because of what I’ve gone through, I can serve as God’s hands and feet to other women who are as terrified and overwhelmed as I was. And instead of asking God “Why me?,” I can instead be grateful for the opportunity.

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