The Wilderness of Cancer

I don’t know what it feels like to have cancer. For some its short, for some its long, for some sadly its terminal. Observing my dad, family, and others in hospitals over the last 18 months has taught me a lot.  One thing I’ve learnt is that the journey can be long and lonely.

Even in my own journey of being the ‘daughter’ there have been times when it’s felt long and lonely.  My relationship with God means I have this promise that I’m never alone, and I know that, but there can be times when you’re physically alone with God and you’re aware of that.   It’s been in those times that I’ve dug deeper than ever into God and my Bible.

Back in March I was having a ‘down week’. We all have them right?  Everything feels too much, life feels like a drag, you try to lift yourself up but you can’t.   My husband Mel was going out to speak at a youth event that Friday evening.  He really wanted me to go with him.  He just wanted me to get out of the house, be in a different place, do something different.  I love how he’s cherished me during this time.  I agreed with him that it would be good for me to go out, but for that night I’d already planned to have a devotion time with God.  A devotion time with God is when I set aside time, and it’s just me, my Bible and an expectation to hear God speak to me.  That might sound strange to some, but it’s become a normal thing I do in my life, something I look forward to.  On this particular evening Mel was going to be out with Malachi and I intended to put Judah to bed early, so I could make the most of the time I had.  I lit a candle – only because I like candles and started reading Isaiah 43.  As I read, some words literally popped out at me.  I love it when this happens!  This is how God speaks to me, it’s happened many times before.  I knew those were the words I needed to focus on that night.

Isaiah 43:19

I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.

That word ‘wilderness’ just grabbed me.  That was what I felt cancer was like, it was like a wilderness.  It felt like a wild, uncultivated land we were in, like a desert.  There weren’t always clear roads. There weren’t always lots of people around.  The beginning of the journey looked very different to the middle of the journey.  Its often in the middle of your journey that you feel most alone.  It can be the messiest, and most painful time.  Lovely people may begin the journey with you but because the journey is long they can’t always stay with you.  The middle can be the most frustrating part because you long for the end.

This doesn’t necessarily just apply to the journey with cancer.  It could be the journey of marriage.  That wedding day, the start of this new adventure begins with beauty, extravagance, fun, laughter.  But for so many within a few weeks of marriage, the middle of that journey can look so very different.  There may be conflict, differences of opinions, clashes, and again you find yourself in a wilderness, a place you’ve never been before.  More than anything you just want resolve, you just want to get out of that wilderness into ‘happier’ place.

The funny thing is, it’s in your ‘wilderness’ where you learn the most.  As I read that night I sensed God say ‘I will ALWAYS make a way in the wilderness.’   That was it, that was all I needed to hear.  In those nine words, He had me.  He had my full attention and the heaviness I felt that week just lifted.  He was always going to make a way in the wilderness for me.  The next morning I called my dad and told him, ‘Dad, God’s going to make a way, He always has and He always will.’  Next I called my brother and I told him the same.  ‘We don’t need to worry about the future’ I told him ‘God’s going to make a way.’  In my heart there was this confidence that rose, as I began seeing all the ways God had made a way for us already.

The time mum and dad were feeling lonely and their friends called and said they were bringing over breakfast for them – God made a way!

The time dad needed fluid drained from his stomach but the hospital had no beds available.  We prayed and within 10 minutes a bed was ready – God made a way!

The time friends from New Zealand ordered fresh scones to be delivered to my house because they heard my pain – God made a way!

The countless number of people who have turned up at my parents house to pray with them, to encourage them – God made a way!

The friends and family continually asking how I’m doing, the encouraging songs, messages, verses people have sent  – God made a way!

The 76 year old man who woke up and prayed ‘Lord send me someone because I’m lonely,’  but then thought of my dad  and decided he’d been the one to make the home visit that day – He walked into the house, barely able to walk properly himself, but sat with dad, encouraged him by reading from the Bible and praying for him – God made a way!

The time I sat at Colour Conference with 10,000 ladies, yet feeling alone and heartbroken with what was happening around me and then I got a text from a friend saying ‘where are you? Are you here? I need to see you and pray with you.  She ran towards me, baby in tow and we just sobbed together and cried out to God!  It was messy, there was snot everywhere 😂, but there was unity – God made a way!

He always makes a way.  In that middle of the journey, He makes a way.  Sadly instead of looking at all the ‘ways’ God provides, we focus on the result.  The result of resolve, the result of healing, the result of completion, the result of ‘happiness’.  Could it be that the ‘middle’, this wilderness is more about revelation?  It reveals who you are.  It may reveal insecurities you have that you never knew you had.  It may reveal deep hidden fears.  It may reveal a real need for God and community, and in turn you may see God revealed to you in ways you never imagined.

Could we be someone’s way in the wilderness?  If we know someone experiencing cancer, or some other kind of wilderness, maybe we could make a huge difference in their lives.  Here’s some ideas I thought of that most people could do:

• An encouraging phone call

• Visiting that friend or family member and just listening them.  Your presence can be worth more than you would imagine

• Baking them a cake or any other type of food   – food does bring happiness!!  Find out what their favourite food/ drink is!

• Offer to help in practical ways

• Don’t wait for the person to tell you what they need, try to think about that yourself.  They have enough to think about

• Take the person out for a coffee, or a night out, or even just a walk in the park.

• Bring laughter into their life – a funny card, watch a funny movie together, tell them a funny story

Whatever we do, we need to do something. There are too many lonely people out there that need us to be used by God to make a way in their wilderness.

Deep Calls to deep

It’s not easy writing about something so personal.  I initially thought it would be straightforward but it’s not.  This blog has taken me so long to write.  There’s been times when I’ve felt motivated to write but then sat in front of the lap top not wanting to type the words you’re about to read because it was too painful to process.

The last six to seven months have been tough. Towards the end of September dad’s health got worse.  He’d just had a great 6 weeks of good health, riding the buses in London, going to fruit and vegetable markets, riding a bike at Center Parcs.  It seemed like everything was going so well.   But then in a matter of 7 days we began to notice that some things weren’t right and dad began to feel really unwell.  He had noticed his stomach begin to enlarge and it felt heavy to walk around.  It soon began to affect his breathing too.

Upon a routine visit to see his Oncologist, she noticed how much discomfort he was in and sent him straight to A+E.  Those calls are the worst.  When you’re far away and you can hear that someone you love is in pain and struggling to breathe.  I can’t begin to describe how I felt.  Sick, is the only descriptive word I can think of.  I felt sick that my dad was suffering, sick that there was nothing I could do to help.  I felt like every recent call had indicated that dad was deteriorating, quickly.  While at hospital they drained 7 litres of fluid from his stomach.  Can you imagine carrying 7 large Evian bottles of water in your stomach?  All of us were shocked that dad had been carrying this much fluid.  The cancer was now causing irritation in his stomach causing this accumulation of excess fluid and it needed to be drained.

The next day after work I crashed on the sofa. I’d had enough, my head was full, my emotions were frazzled, I couldn’t function. My eldest son, Malachi (12) came over to me and just held my hand.  He didn’t say a word. In that moment he knew, mum didn’t need words, she just needed someone to hold her hand.  His sensitivity to my needs during this time has been unbelievable.   That weekend we had been praying together with dad and Malachi told dad that as we were praying he saw a picture of an umbrella.  He said he sensed God was saying to dad that He would protect Him from the rain.  He even picked out a verse from the Bible about God’s protection and told his Grandad ‘you see, this is what God is saying to you.’  I’m seeing this adversity shape my son into a young man who is confident in God’s love for him, regardless of the circumstances.

For a few weeks it felt like wave after wave of sorrow and despair.

Psalm 42:7 

Deep calls to deep

    in the roar of your waterfalls;

all your waves and breakers

    have swept over me.

Deep within me I knew I needed God and that was what my daily conversation with God sounded like.  I need you God, I need you God, I NEED you God!  It was crystal clear to me that I couldn’t walk this journey without Him. From the depth of my heart – I hoped it would connect with the depth of God’s heart and cover the depth of my family’s pain.

I’ve seen mum and dad cry out from the depth of their hearts.  I think sometimes when we cry out to God we also become sensitive to hearing his voice.  I’ll never forget the very first appointment we had with Dad’s oncologist.  They had told us to come prepared with questions.  That morning was a sombre one.  We were still just getting our heads around what was happening.  As I put breakfast together Dad walked in and said, ‘listen, I’ve got something to tell you all.  This morning I was praying and I asked God whether I should ask the doctor how long I have to live.  God told me ‘ I’m the one who breathed life into you, so I’ll decide when its time for you to come home. Why ask the doctors?’

We all stood there amazed with what dad was saying. He spoke with such confidence, trusting in the words he had just heard.  The depth of God’s heart had reached the depth of his heart causing a deep courage to rise. This meant even if wave after wave was to crash against our hearts, there was an impenetrable connection with God that kept us anchored in hope.

Deep calls to deep.

CONTROL

When tough times come do you run from God or do you stay and discover how you could grow as a person in those times?
The desire to run is so real though, especially when you feel broken.  When we initially heard the news that my dad had cancer, I found it so difficult to pray.  I knew it was the right thing to do but I just couldn’t do it.  The pain of what I was experiencing was just too much.  For me to pray meant that I needed to speak those words out.  I needed to speak about those things with God.  But I just couldn’t.  Instead I got people around me to pray.  To pray on my behalf, to say the things I was too hurt to say.  As I did that, the burden lightened but deep down I knew I needed to pray about this myself too.  It was like I was avoiding a conversation that needed to happen.  But still the pain of it stopped me.

One night I sat with my parents and we prayed together before they went off to bed.  ‘You pray’ said mum.  ‘Me pray?’  I thought.  This was the very thing I had been trying to avoid.  Caving inside I went for it.  You know when you’ve got to have that conversation you really don’t want to have and your heart starts beating really fast because you know you’ve got to say some things you’re going to find difficult to say?  That was where I was at.  That night I asked God to heal my dad.  I asked Him to strengthen him and us from the inside out.  I prayed God could do what only He could do – a miracle!  As I spoke to God a heaviness lifted off me.  The pain wasn’t mine to carry.  As I went to bed that night I felt relief, relief that I could talk to someone stronger than myself who could carry the weight of what was upon us.

That heaviness though, very sneakily took residence in my heart again so quickly.  Some days I would try to carry it all by myself, it would seem easier that way.  Or I would get so busy with life that I didn’t realise it was building inside me.  When I say heaviness I mean the weight of my emotions and the constant traffic jam of thoughts and questions.   Seeing dad in discomfort post chemotherapy can be horrible.   I wish I could take away the pain, I wish he didn’t have to suffer, I try to make sense of it all and then I go back and forth in conversations in my head.  I just wish it could all be different.

One week at church we sang the words to this song…..

I lift my hands to Heaven

Here my heart surrendered

I tell myself again

You are Lord of All

And though the seas are raging

You will speak and tame them

In you I find my rest

You are in control

As we sang that song the first time I stood, not singing along but just looking at the words, feeling so full of this heaviness.  I couldn’t bear to say those words to God, so I quickly went off to the toilets as I felt tears well up in my eyes and I became aware that I wasn’t going to be able to hold the tears back.  In that cubicle I cried my eyes out.  I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t give control to God.  I wanted control.  I wanted to make everything ok.  I wanted to do something so my dad would get better.  I wanted to make everything ok for my mum.  But the truth was I couldn’t.  I couldn’t take control.  I sobbed until I got to the point when I was ready to hand it over.  When you hand something over you literally surrender it.  When someone surrenders themselves to the police they lift their hands up as a sign of surrender.  When we were kids and we used to playfight, we used to have to shout ‘ I surrender!!’  to indicate we wanted to give up and we wanted the pain to stop.  There and then in that toilet cubicle I chose to surrender.  I lifted up my hands to God and asked him to ‘TAKE IT.’  From that day on I needed to make surrendering to God a daily thing, not just when it got too much or wait for it to get too much.  I had to surrender my pain, emotions, fragility, and brokenness to then rest in His promises to shine through me even on the darkest days.  Sounds easy but it’s crazy how real the resistance was in me to hand it over.  Probably because I like to take control, I like to fix things.  Only thing is there’s some things in life that are not for us to fix…….

 

The Day after Diagnosis Day

Just before I opened my eyes I wished it was all a dream.  I hoped the last 24 hours hadn’t happened.  Despite my best efforts to wish it all away, the harsh reality was that Diagnosis Day  did happen and I needed to face that.  My dad had cancer.  Sadness was what I felt but I knew it was a feeling that I needed to give to God.  I knew God could exchange that sadness for hope and He could lighten my heavy heart.  I’d experienced it before so I knew I could trust Him.  Whilst talking to Mel and unloading my feelings, he said something that made me think.  ‘Sadness is a place we all visit but you don’t have to live there.’ That’s so true I thought. If I lived there all it would do is depress me further and immobilize me.  I needed to live in the hope that God gives me.  So that morning I decided I was going to call my dad, hold back the tears and speak life and hope into this situation.  Before we talked I texted him the verse from Isaiah 43 again

‘ hey dad this is a promise from God you need to hold on to….

1 But now, this is what the Lord says—
    he who created you, Jacob,
    he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned;
    the flames will not set you ablaze.

As me and dad spoke he told me something that totally amazed me.  He told me that the night before’ diagnosis day’  he couldn’t sleep. So he got up and read his bible. He said he literally just opened his bible and it fell onto the story in Daniel about the three men in the fiery furnace.  A king had ordered that these men be thrown into a fire because they refused to worship him or his gods .  The King was so angry with these men that he ordered that the furnace be heated up seven times hotter than usual!!!  That was HOT!!!!  The three men amazingly and miraculously walked around in the fire and were unharmed, no single burn on their bodies.  They walked out of the fire completely untouched by it all.

Here was my dad totally unaware that the next day he’d be facing a fire of his own, reading a story about three men who were miraculously protected by their God.

Some might call that a coincidence.  I don’t.  Could it be that God, the Beginning and the End, the one who knows everything before it even happens, loved my dad so much that He would want to prepare him for what lay ahead?  Could it be that He wanted to speak with him, and reassure him that no flames could touch him?  And then for me to go and say the same words to him today!!! Wow well that just blew me away.

When you call on God and you do it in truth, He really is so near to us.  So near that you can hear Him.  So near that He’ll repeat himself.  So near that He’ll pour His strength into us to make us strong from the inside out.