Have you ever felt like life is going well and then, suddenly, something awful and unexpected happens?
The reality of the situation knocks you for a loop.
A vise-grip of fear begins to take hold of your thoughts.
Where do you turn for help?
What follows is an amazing story of faith from a woman who graciously allowed me to share her testimony. I hope her story touches you as it did me.
For all accounts and purposes, 2016 had been a great year so far. After an enjoyable career teaching young students for 29 years, Rita was looking forward to retirement.
She and her husband decided to move back home to Memphis to be near family. Rita couldn’t wait to create some new memories.
A devoted husband, grown kids nearby, eight grandchildren and many longtime friends would keep her social calendar full.
Newfound freedom also meant that she could pursue her dreams. Painting and art are her passion. She could start her own business and sell her artwork.
There were occasional challenges, but life was going well.
And then the unthinkable happened.
A routine mammogram in late March resulted in a surprising order from her doctor that she needed a diagnostic scan the following month.
For someone who is rarely sick and never had surgery, Rita felt blindsided. Doctors recommended a core biopsy.
Was the core biopsy as awful as it sounds?
That was scary because they stick a needle in your breast to remove fluid. It was surprisingly painless. They found a papilloma, which could be pre-cancerous, so it needed to come out, and I needed surgery—my first ever. The papilloma itself was negative, but when I returned for the post-op visit, I was told that the surrounding tissue contained cancer cells. They scheduled a second re-excision to take out more tissue. At this follow-up appointment, I was told that they were unable to get “clear margins”, so I could either have a third re-excision or a mastectomy. Whoa. I had gone from grade 1, stage 0, to the possibility of a mastectomy.
Looking for Answers
Five different specialists advised Rita that, with her multi-focal cancer, a mastectomy was the right thing to do. A third re-excision would probably not result in clear margins, and most likely, a mastectomy was going to happen.
The choice was clear: one operation instead of two.
When you first heard those words, “breast cancer”, what thoughts ran through your mind?
I thought the little lump was benign. I guess I was numb when I heard the words “breast cancer.” The actual words they used were “Ductal Carcinoma in Situ”. I remember replaying those words in my head, and then thinking, “Oh my gosh, they’re saying I have cancer!”
It hit me like a brick wall. I didn’t know how to respond. I just sat there in shock. The nurse practitioner gave me all sorts of information, went over my lab report, even drew some pictures. I didn’t ask questions. I just sat there, in the office, not speaking. Their recommendation was another re-excision to take out some of the surrounding tissue. So that meant another surgery, and it was scheduled.
Trusting God Through The Storm
Were you ever mad at God?
I wasn’t ever angry at God because I’ve never thought that God sends bad things to us. I did question things in my mind. “Why me?” was a recurring theme. I just couldn’t understand how it could happen to me. Did I do something to deserve it? Was I going to die?
I did get very tired of appointments, procedures, gearing up for surgeries, writing out my lists of questions, etc. It seemed like a downward spiral, and all the results kept getting worse, and more serious. I didn’t want any of it, and I certainly wasn’t in a good place mentally or spiritually. One of the doctors, a radiology oncologist, said: “Thank God for your papilloma.”
I didn’t understand why I should be thankful about any of this, but she explained that my cancer had not shown up on the mammograms, and if they had not gone in and removed the papilloma, the cancer would have been in there for probably another year at least. It could have grown, metastasized, and I probably wouldn’t have known it till my next regular mammogram, if it even showed up then.
Breaking the News To Those You Love
I sort of avoided other people for awhile. Where in a conversation do you insert the news, “Oh, by the way, I have breast cancer”? It was almost embarrassing, and I didn’t want to deal with it.
How did you cope with the devastating news?
I leaned on my family. My husband of 44 years and my grown kids were amazing. They seemed to know instinctively if I needed to talk about it, or take a break from it, or go somewhere, or hang out and laugh with the grandkids, or just sit and cry. Here in town, I have one daughter who is a doctor, and a son and daughter who are nurses. I peppered them with questions, and they took me to appointments and helped me figure things out medically. They are super busy parents with tight schedules, but they were always, always available for me. Eventually, word got out to non-family, and I became less reticent to tell others.
Recognizing God’s Gifts
Was it hard to pray during this time?
I found it very hard to focus when I tried to pray. That was hard. I knew I wanted to pray and needed to pray, but my mind was all over the place when I wasn’t busy doing something active. I could barely sit quietly. My younger sister recommended reading the psalms, and my older sister gave me a book of psalms that had belonged to my grandmother. So, in a way, I think I was gently nudged toward the psalms when personal prayer eluded me. I also reached out via social media and was floored by the response from people. People are so good! I asked for prayers one day on Facebook and was overwhelmed by the huge number of people who promised to pray. I even posted a comment that there were so many people praying God was probably saying, “Okay, okay, I’ve got this!”
The Beauty of God’s Grace
During this long five months, did you experience God’s grace?
I have experienced God’s grace and blessings in so many ways. I believe that medical people who choose to work in the field of oncology are just special people. I can’t even count the number of times a doctor or nurse took my hand, hugged me, looked me in the eye and said, “We’re going to take care of you. We will be here to help you. You’re going to get through this.”
I had to go to a pre-surgery appointment before my mastectomy. I was, of course, crying, and this nurse, said, “I know this is so hard. Would you be offended if I prayed with you?” I shook my head no. She took my hands and said such beautiful words, asking for God’s favor, asking for God to be with my surgeon and nurses. Then she gave me a book, “Power Prayers for Women,” and an adult coloring book with positive thoughts and prayers on each page.
The morning of her mastectomy, Rita says she felt like a “train wreck”. Hers was the first surgery of the day. That meant an anxious drive to the hospital at 5:30 a.m. followed by surgery two hours later.
During Pre-op, Rita couldn’t hold back the tears.
“I was crying, praying desperately, trying to answer all the nurse’s questions sanely, talking to the different doctors—just in a panic. A nurse tried to stick the vein in my hand, and it “blew”. Another site near the wrist was better, but they couldn’t get enough blood for lab work, so they stuck me in the other arm.”
Grace Always Shows Up at Just the Right Time
My husband Doug was there, holding whatever hand they weren’t sticking at the time. He had my cell phone. It rang, and he handed me the phone, saying, “It’s for you.” Hmm. Talk about timing. It was my dear friend Rachael, who is a missionary in Uganda.
We said a few words, and then she asked if she could pray for me. As she prayed, I suddenly felt washed in peace and calmness. The next thing I knew, there was a beautiful nurse standing over me, telling me it was all over.
Rising Above Deep Waters
Besides prayer, Rita sought out comforting verses from the Bible. One verse in particular that sustained her through her breast cancer journey is from the book of Isaiah.
When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.
–Isaiah 43:2, from the NLT.
That is such a comforting verse!
The Bible tells us many times not to fear, but no one ever said it would be easy.
When difficulties come into our lives, that’s not the time to give up.
Never Giving Up
Rita is a fighter. A sucker punch from breast cancer was not going to hold her down.
Family, friends and a caring medical team went beyond the call to walk with her through the storm.
Isaiah 43:2 later became the inspiration for a beautiful painting she created for her surgeon.
What is next for you, treatment-wise?
I had my post-op appointment after my mammogram and lymph node biopsy over a week ago. The nurse practitioner came into the room with a big smile and said the sweetest words, “Good News! You are cancer-free!” I burst into tears, and we hugged and hugged. I have more healing to do, but in the future will start a medication to suppress the hormones, since my cancer was hormone receptive. No radiation, no chemo, diagnostic mammograms from now on, since I’ve had breast cancer.
Paying It Forward
This journey was life-changing for you. What are your plans?
I think I was taking way too much for granted. We had moved back home after I retired from thirty years of teaching. I finally had the time to paint as much as I wanted, and spend time with family. My paintings were selling well, and that was super exciting! I was involved with doing occasional good works, like helping with “Room at the Inn” to feed and house the homeless. I still felt like I needed to be more involved, but had not actually put myself out there too much. My life has changed because of this. I have plans to be more involved in helping those in need, pray more, encourage others more. There are so many ways to be a blessing to others.
When God Takes Over
For other newly-diagnosed patients, what encouragement would you give them?
Allow yourself to have feelings of sadness, to cry, to be scared. It’s okay not to be strong sometimes. That’s when God takes over. Don’t wait as long as I did to ask others for their prayers.
This diagnosis can be all-consuming. You need breaks from it all. Go to a movie, make something or paint, take a walk, laugh at your grandkids. You will know when you just need to think about something besides CANCER. Be sure to allow yourself to do that.
Humor is a big help. Yes, in our family, we can even joke about cancer. I remember going to an appointment, and saying, “If anyone comes after me with a pink ribbon, I’m going to scream.”
In all seriousness, I think asking for prayers is key because people are so willing and ready to help in that way. Knowing good people were and are praying for me was extremely comforting. Reading and finding out your options is important because even the specialists want you to be a part of your plan. That was hard. I wanted to say to them,”Tell me what to do, I don’t know what we should do, what kind of surgery should I have . . . etc.” I was blessed to have medical people in my family who did help me make the tough decisions.
Thank You, Rita!
Many thanks to Rita for sharing her story, a powerful witness to her remarkable faith and courage.
We don’t always know the reasons for the “deep waters” in our lives, but God promises to be with us through them all. Please don’t miss the evidence of His grace in your life.