Murphys, CA…In the past year, since my cancer diagnosis and treatment began, I have experienced so much pain. Each encounter brings a separate opportunity to learn. What I’ve found is that the messages of pain are often in complete opposition to one another. That is, no matter how I am able to handle the pain of the moment, it teaches me something different about myself… or my future… or my God.
After surgery, I had large amounts of pain. I had eight incisions that needed to heal, and had my lung “deflated” so that two sections could be removed. (I use quotation marks there, because in my naivety, I had always pictured my lungs sort of like balloons. I came to learn they are more like sponges.) When I awoke from surgery, I was shocked by the stabbing pain in each breath. I actually said to my surgeon that he had not prepared me for this level of pain. He laughingly said, “Well, you had to have the surgery, so what would be the point in scaring you?” I agree.
But the pain in my incisions where skin tissue in my back was removed and where the scopes and tools were inserted to remove lung and to remove my adrenal gland told me something different than the pain in my lung. Where I had stitches or adhesive and skin was healing, the pain told me to use caution. If I bent or stretched too far, it would burn and tell me to slow down and move more carefully lest I tear something open that had not yet healed. But the pain in my lung told me something different. I was instructed to push that lung to its limit. It was my job to allow it to fully “inflate” again. In fact, if I didn’t do so, I would be susceptible to infection or even pneumonia from fluid collection. So, I had to use it. I was given a small breathing exercise apparatus, and I was to blow into it even to extreme pain. I could not damage anything. Only my fear or weakness could do damage.
Pain has also told me when something was wrong, as well as when things are healing. Before we discovered a treatment to which my cancer would respond, tumors were growing rampantly. My chest cavity looked like it was encased with bunches of grapes, that were in fact dozens of malignant tumors. These tumors stretched out down to my thighs and up to my brain, and easily numbered a hundred if there had been a reason to count. They caused me pain. The ones on the back side of my body made it difficult to sit, and particularly to drive. They brought me to the point of saying, “This is the last trip to the hospital I can endure on my own.” Those of you who know me, know that is a big deal. Not only do I love driving in particular, but I like doing things in my own way on my own time. There were also tumors growing between my ribs, which caused constant sharp pain as they pushed my ribs apart from one another. It felt like burning splinters. So, pain was clearly telling me, things were not going well.
We have now discovered that my body responds to the recently FDA-approved drug vemurafenib (Zelboraf). It causes side effects, like all cancer treatment does. I am plagued with extreme photosensitivity, which causes painful sunburns after only 10 minutes of sun exposure. I endure an upset stomach and extreme fatigue. But perhaps the worst is the joint pain. Some days, I cannot use my arms because of the pain in my shoulders, elbows, and wrists. Walking is difficult on days when my hips, knees, and ankles are affected. On really rough days, this pain reminds me that I am getting better. God has chosen to heal me through this medicine. My collection of a hundred tumors is now almost invisible on a PET scan.
Another dichotomy is if the healing is occurring on the inside versus the outside. By that, I mean spiritually as opposed to physically. For the first nine months after my diagnosis of malignant melanoma, no physical healing really occurred. After surgery, my tumors were deemed entirely excised. That means, the tissue they removed had cancer-free margins, giving us confidence that we had gotten the whole lesion. I knew further treatment was inevitable, because once melanoma spreads to multiple organs, there are microscopic cancer cells within your blood or lymph system that need to be attacked. In fact, at first they didn’t even want to do surgery. It had spread too much and the surgery was too extensive. After my oncologist met with me personally, and he discovered my fiery attitude and the fierce strength that I received from Jesus Christ, he changed his mind and felt confident that I could endure such a procedure.
By the time I was strong enough after surgery to begin treatment, just six weeks later, there were already several new tumors. My melanoma is extremely fast and aggressive. I did not respond to the month-long high-dose chemotherapy in the hospital at all. Then I waited for a trial to begin, because the Zelboraf was not FDA-approved yet. So during the course of waiting more than four months with no treatment at all, I healed spiritually.
I continued studying His Word, included large amounts of meditation and prayer to each day, and never failed to attend church even when it meant I needed a ride there. I considered paths in my life that had been unhealthy, and roads I desired to take in the future instead. I worked on my diet and addictions and spent even more time with my wonderful nine-year-old son. I began creating a more Christ-like woman, mother, and teacher. I’ve become a person who never hesitates to tell my friends and family how I feel about them. I view each day – each moment – as an intense blessing! I do not mean this as a cliché; I actually think every minute how grateful I am to be here. I cannot believe I am one year into this battle already! Every sunrise brings me to tears. Movies and poetry make me cry like never before. And I can’t even write about my love for my son without sobbing! I do all not with sadness, but with extreme joy. “Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17)
I think the last set of opposing lessons I have experienced are in regard to my fortitude and how I choose to deal with physical pain. Some days, I have had to ask for help. Why is this so hard? I believe in God’s Word wholeheartedly, and He tells us in Ecclesiastes 4, verse 10, “If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” But still I struggle with it. Having to ask for a ride somewhere, or a friend to bring me groceries or a meal, is not comfortable for me. But I am getting better at it, and always realize in the meantime that it is giving a gift to the people around me who love me, who desperately want to help, but don’t always know when or how. Also, sometimes I just need rest. Again, it’s never easy as a single mom and business owner. But if I want God’s healing to occur, I need to listen to the pain in my body.
On the other hand, I am constantly amazed by what I can accomplish with God’s help. Many nights, as I lay there hurting, I hear Satan working on my doubtful human mind. He tells me I can’t possibly get up in the morning. (He doesn’t want me to enjoy God’s glorious sunrise.) He assures me I can’t go to work. (He doesn’t want me to teach my students about God’s Word.) He says there is no way I can go toss the baseball around with my son. (He doesn’t want me to love!)
So I am in a battle. Not just with cancer, but with the evil forces we all have to deal with in this world. We desperately need the Light of Jesus, and you must consciously fight against everything that leads you into sin or self-destruction. Satan is a grand trickster and manipulator. He will use your weaknesses against you, and justify your mistakes. He will even use your own voice inside your own head to do so! Don’t stop fighting! Just as I will not stop fighting this cancer until I am cured (here on earth or in heaven), don’t give up against the cancers in this society: rage, selfish ambition, addiction, immorality, drunkenness, hatred, jealousy, just to name a few. Check out Galatians 5 if you need a reminder! Together we can infuse our failing world with His Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Memorize these fruits of the Spirit and guard them with His Word in your heart. He has given each of us the tool to conquer the pain in this world: His One and Only Son, Jesus Christ.
Editors Note…Catherine’s fight with cancer and the manner in which she has fought it publicly has been an inspiration to many. If you would like some context and a more personal look at her battle you can find it on the Caring Bridge Website Here! We would like to welcome Catherine as one of our contributors and we hope her story can help you along your journey in life.