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Chapter 1, The C-Word

Ever been alone with a doctor in the starkly-cool, formal setting of his office and heard the C-word? Whether it was in regards to your own body of that of your loved one, it always comes as a shock. One friend who had this experience said she didn’t hear another word said after the c-word and had to call the doctor back later to have his advice repeated.

I was probably better prepared than most and my faith in God is strong, but if I’d been strapped to an ECG machine, there would have been clear spikes on the graph! My heart started pumping wildly as I fought to keep my body’s reaction under control (I understand this is normal), but I only succeeded to a degree. Remembering my friend’s words, I forced myself to concentrate on the doctor’s words. After all, I had gone there because I suspected the lump in my right breast did have the possibility of being malignant.

Years before, I’d had a lump the size and texture of a soft chestnut removed from my left breast. Before the surgery, I’d done a biopsy as the lump was not small and was rather uncomfortable, but a few days later, I went ahead with the lumpectomy before finding out the results. My family and I would soon be heading to Vietnam and we had no idea about the medical facilities there, so I promised the Lord that we’d go ahead as planned no matter what the results of the biopsy. We also agreed that I might as well have the lump removed there, in Thailand, so as not to have the pressure of having to find a doctor, hospital, etc. in our new country.

As it turned out, the lump was benign. It had been an abscessed cyst which had healed, but left a lump of hardened pus, which was then easily removed and I healed up quickly. Of course, I hoped the lump in the right breast was due to something similar.

Twelve years later, in September 2008, as my awareness of the new lump’s presence and size grew, I did not grow alarmed. I assumed it was also benign and went about my business. One of my Vietnamese friend’s sister had a lump which she was concerned about, went to a doctor, and had it removed. It was benign. The daughter of another friend also had a couple of lumps removed; also benign. About that time, I began to feel a growing sense that my case would be different. It wasn’t a strong feeling, but I started getting little nudges in the spirit that I was about to enter a new phase in my life.

Funny how these benign cases did not ease my mind. I thought more about getting my lump checked. However, it was nearing the time when I planned to visit my family overseas and I preferred not to have to think about it on the trip or to have to hide any bad news from family and friends during the short time I’d have with them. So, I postponed getting examined.

One thing I did do, though, was to take it to Jesus. I had that nagging feeling that this time it was cancer.

“But how could it be?” I asked myself. My husband and I had for many years been eating more healthily than most people and had, 1 ½ years earlier even upped our standard fare following a bout with viral gastritis. We rarely ate out and at home enjoyed lots of locally grown fruit and vegetables, brown rice, moderate amounts of meat and fish and rarely indulged in processed foods. We brisk-walked for 45 minutes to an hour almost daily. I had no history of any kind of cancer in my family, was not overweight and couldn’t think of any good reason why I should become a cancer victim.

Later I was to find that age alone is a big factor: I had just turned 60. My life-long craving for sweets was a factor. The very unhealthy environment I lived in (badly polluted Ho Chi Minh City) was a factor. The chemicals used to grow, artificially ripen and preserve food were all factors. No wonder so many people get cancer!

Well, when I asked Jesus about my lump, He didn’t say anything like, “No, My child, it isn’t cancer”. But neither did He tell me loud and clear that it was. He did, however, make it very clear to me that whatever He did, He always did it or allowed it because of His great love for me. I accepted that and made a decision then that I will always believe is the best decision one can make at any point in time under any circumstances—I chose to take Him at His word and trust Him utterly and without reservation. I have never regretted my decision to trust and have always regretted it when I didn’t!

I went ahead with my plans to visit my family and friends in the US and Canada. I hadn’t been back for 2 years and really looked forward to seeing my nearly 3-year-old granddaughter, my parents (88 and 92), and other family and friends.

What a surprise I got when I checked in for the first leg of my flight and found out I’d been upgraded to business class! Yippee! I was so thankful. What a treat to sit in comfort for the price of the economy ticket! But an even bigger surprise came next.

When I was settling into my middle-of-the-row economy-section seat on the second leg, the great 12-hour leap from Hong Kong to San Francisco, a sweet little grandmotherly-type lady came to the aisle seat and spoke softly across me to the young man on my left who was sitting in the window seat. She was speaking Spanish, so I paid no attention. But a minute later, the young man asked me politely if I’d mind swapping seats with his grandmother who wanted to sit by him. Of course I said I’d be happy to. As we moved forward in the plane from our seats near the tail, I was not at all expecting what came next. She led us all the way to business class. AGAIN! Unbelievable! She must have realized the lop-sided deal she was making. All I could do was thank her and watch, with my jaw still on the floor, as she and her grandson returned to their cramped seats in economy class. WOW!

I was nearly in tears in my joy and thankfulness to the Lord Who had blessed me with such pampering. I knew I was loved. Later I got the impression that Jesus had engineered all that so He could give me that special treat of a comfortable flight of so many hours (and many other such blessings during those months before my cancer diagnosis) to not only encourage me for my many years of loving Him and sharing His love with others, but also to build my faith for the impossible and to give me some tangible, fresh evidence of His power to take care of me no matter what. He is truly my doting Husband.

One of the first get-togethers I had shortly after arriving in my hometown was a lunch with family friends I’d know since childhood. Our 3 families had grown up together and lost loved ones together over a period of about 50 years. Some had stayed in the area and others had moved far away, so it was more like a reunion as we tried to catch up in the short time we had together.

That’s not remarkable in itself, but the topic turned to cancer and one of my old friends took the time to share her non-smoking husband’s ordeal with lung cancer 14 years earlier and his miraculous healing. The doctors apologized that after surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and whatever other therapy they did, there was nothing more they could do for him and “sent him home to die”. She mentioned that she believed his life was saved largely due to their conscientiously following the advice in a book called, “A Cancer Battle Plan” by Anne E. Frahm with David J. Frahm.

The conversation moved to my sister-in-law’s case, lung cancer due to smoking, as she was still struggling to recover from chemotherapy and having had one lung removed. Then it shifted again to another friend who was doing some pro-bono work lobbying for breast cancer research. All in all, it was quite educational, to say the least. But most of all, I was definitely interested in getting a hold of that book.

As it turned out, I spent several days with my brother and sister-in-law before leaving the states and mentioned that I was interested in that book. One of my Japanese friends in Vietnam had confided to me about her breast cancer and I wanted her to read it, but I was also seriously interested to know what secrets lay between the covers that had benefited my friend’s husband so much that it literally brought him back from the dead.

My brother said they had it…somewhere. That was inspiring to hear, but where was it? They were both readers and had lots of books on lots of bookshelves, and many boxes of books as well.

I spent maybe 30 minutes looking through the bookshelves without success when my brother offered to help. Lo and behold, he more or less went straight to the bottom of one of the bottom boxes of books stacked by a bookshelf and pulled up the prize! Voila! He surprised himself as well, I think.

By the time I arrived back in Vietnam, I’d read the book through and picked up another “Eating Alive” by Dr. Jonn Matsen N.D., at a garage sale on the importance of the digestive system on overall health, I was now “enlightened”. I (sort of) understood the underlying principles of helping the body heal itself through proper nutrition allowed and aided by proper digestion. Exciting!

Now it was late August 2008 and just 10 days after my return from the US, my husband was heading to Europe for 5-6 weeks. I wanted to delay getting a check-up until I was alone. I wanted to deal with the news, especially if it was bad news, by myself. But I didn’t have a doctor yet, so I conceded I still needed help from my husband and God bless him, he was very willing to be there for me in spite of his own distrust of all-things-medical.

One of my biggest dilemmas was deciding where to go to get my lump checked. I knew some doctors, but didn’t really have peace about seeing any of them under these circumstances. I rarely need medical assistance and am not in the habit of going to the doctor for every little thing, so this was a new situation for me. Plus, it’s Vietnam! I asked various friends for more information.

There are a number of big, expensive hospitals that foreigners usually go to here and I was familiar with a few names, Columbia, Family Medical Practice, International SOS, International Medical Centre, etc., but knew next to nothing about them.

There are also lots of good Vietnamese hospitals and probably plenty more not-so-good ones. I had a little experience with a couple of Vietnamese hospitals. I’d visited one when my husband had finally, after about 15 years, had a large lymphoma removed from his back in April. I ruled out going back there. It wasn’t so bad, but just not the standard I could accept with the prospect of cancer.

I’d also had an endoscopic exam done (GAG!) in another hospital that specialized in diagnostic testing when I had viral gastritis in 2007. There were so many sick people waiting in the various testing areas for their turn to be checked that the chances of catching something else were very high!

I felt relieved when I prayed about where to go and Jesus brought to my mind a hospital that several acquaintances had recently been to and a close Vietnamese friend’s relative had been taken to when the doctors in another international-standard hospital felt the case needed some special expertise available only there. I hadn’t heard of it before and didn’t know at the time that it was one of those expensive foreign hospitals. I found that out later!

My husband took me to my first appointment. I was pretty “prayed up” and things went more-or-less as I expected. FV Hospital is French and Vietnamese and located in a newly developing area outside of the polluted city. My new French doctor sent me to have the standard tests done: ultrasound and mammogram (my first ever and also my last! That was horrible!)  I have since read that there are some definite dangers with mammograms and that they can increase both the risk of cancer (by the radiation used to take the picture) as well as, if the lump is already malignant, the possibility of spreading the cancer cells to the surrounding tissue through the crushing pressure used. YIKES! What did I let them do to me?!?!

While waiting for my turn to see the doctor for the results, I was told that he was in surgery and besides, he was leaving the next week, and returning to France. “Would you like to see the head of the department, instead? He specializes in breast cancer,” I was told. I see. Mixed feelings.

Half an hour later, I was sitting opposite a friendly, young, French doctor. He introduced himself and looked at my test results. With a still-friendly, but now more serious face, he advised me to have a biopsy done. He didn’t say so, but I could see that both the tests showed the tumor had an irregular shape, not round and smooth like the one 12 years ago. He seemed to think the odds were that it was cancer. This was not good news, but I was upbeat.

I insisted that I had no history of cancer, led a pretty healthy life and ate a very healthy diet (especially since the gastritis!) I exercised regularly and didn’t smoke, rarely drank (and never swore—ha!) Well, I didn’t say that last bit, but I wanted him to know that his suspicions might be wrong. Besides, I told him, I had faith in God. I’m not sure what my point was at that time, as my connection with God had actually led me to believe that it very well might be cancer. But I said it anyway.

The biopsy was scheduled for the next morning, so we paid my bill, went to do a blood test and then returned home.

When I researched about the risk of doing a biopsy if the tumor is cancerous, I found information supporting both points of view. One side said there’s absolutely no risk. The other side said that if the capsule containing the cancerous growth is punctured, as happens when a biopsy is done, there is a large possibility that some of the cells will leak out into the healthy tissue and start new tumors or metastasize to another area of the body through the blood stream.

Of course my doctor strongly assured me that the latter was absolutely impossible. I wanted to challenge him on it, but on what authority? “I read it on the Internet”? I had just begun my journey into the very complex and often contradictory world of cancer and he was a “pro”, literally. I went ahead with the biopsy, over my own trepidations. I believed it was the only way to find out for sure whether or not the tumor was malignant.

For some reason, the hospital forgot to notify me, as promised, when the results had arrived from the lab in Malaysia. (The first indication that the details of patient care weren’t necessarily a top priority.) When I called to inquire about it, they didn’t seem to recognize it as an oversight. Surely they must understand the torment most patients suffer while waiting even a short time to know the results. The unnecessary extra week of limbo could have been avoided. But this was not the last slip.

When I sat down with the doctor again, the first thing he said was that God hadn’t done a miracle. I was a little taken aback at the implication: “your faith in God failed you”, but since I hadn’t expected the doctor to understand the never-failing power of the Creator of the universe, I brushed it off. It’s God’s power I have faith in, not my faith in God’s power. He can never fail. I can’t say the same about myself and my faith!

Then I heard the ghastly C-word. It is unbelievable how much weight that little six-letter word has. It falls like a ton of bricks with the resounding thunder echoing in your mind while your heart tries to escape from your chest! My hearing was being dimmed by the pounding of my heart.

I detested how I was feeling. How could I get control back so I could focus? I needed to hear what else he had to say, but fear was seizing my faculties. I had to overcome that fear.

Just recognizing it for what it was, quickly diminished some of its power over me. That was a good beginning.  Then I remembered the quote, “Fear is the opposite of faith and almost the Devil’s total power is in fear.” I also knew the Bible verse that says, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7. That really pulled the plug! I knew both who and where the fear was coming from and that God had given me something much better that I just needed to access! In fact, I knew many quotes and verses for fighting fear and was very pleased at how quickly the Devil gave up when I just “turned around” and went on the attack! Thank God!

My hearing quickly returned to normal and although my heart was still beating more rapidly than usual, I was more or less back in control! It wasn’t an easy topic to talk about under most circumstances and would remain a volatile issue in the months to come, but without the fear attached to it, it was something Jesus and I and my loved ones could deal with.

It still amazes me that one little word can have such self-defeating power!

The doctor continued describing what the diagnosis meant and what my options were. Mostly he talked about 2 choices: 1. lumpectomy followed by radiation or 2. mastectomy, which would not necessarily need to be followed by radiation. Mercifully, he repeated himself to give me time to let it all sink in. I had time, he said, so there was no need to rush to make the decision.

He didn’t know it yet, but from the researching and praying I had already done, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be doing either radiation or chemotherapy nor would I go the hormone therapy route. I wasn’t as sure about the surgery, though. I just didn’t know enough about the “nature of the beast”—breast cancer, yet to rule out surgery. But what would I do?

In contrast with most of the foreigners living here, we weren’t connected with any big corporation and didn’t have health insurance. We had enough to live on and our volunteer work kept us busy helping others with bigger problems than ours. We didn’t have a lot of money and the doctor needed to know that. He seemed sympathetic, but only mentioned one package deal if we chose to have surgery done at FV Hospital. The price was the same, whichever surgery we decided on. He gave me some material about the hospital to look at and I left. He had spent 45 minutes with me—more than twice the usual, I imagine.

I was still pretty shook up when I left the office and was thankful that I didn’t have to talk to anyone about the results. In fact, I had a class shortly and forced my mind to stay blank while I robotically got my motorbike from the hospital parking area, drove the distance to my student’s apartment, parked there and made my way to the lobby where I could sit in a quiet corner for a few minutes. I’d promised to let my Vietnamese friend know the results right away, otherwise she had wanted to accompany me to the office, to pray for me and give me moral support. As much as I needed and appreciated her support, especially since my husband was now on the other side of the world, I just didn’t want to have to talk with anyone.  As I said, I had a feeling it would be cancer.

I had told her I’d just send a short message. Either, “PG it’s not C” or “PG it’s C”. (Praise God it’s not cancer or Praise God it is cancer.)  I knew God wanted me to praise Him either way and I was sure He would give me the grace to trust Him and praise Him even if it was cancer. So I wrote, “It’s cancer. TYJ! (Thank You Jesus!) I’m OK. Don’t worry.”

Just looking back in my cell phone at the message I’d sent brought a slight repeat of the emotion of the moment I first heard it was cancer. That was 6 months ago, but that word still packs a punch.

My class went well and I was able to focus on the business at hand. I again headed to the parking area. Just minutes later, as I drove away, my emotions suddenly welled up out of control. I had to let it out to release the pressure. Fortunately, here in Vietnam, when we drive motorcycles, we usually wear a mask to protect our faces from too much sun and hopefully to reduce the amount of pollution and dust we inhale. So, behind the dark glasses and under the shelter of the mask and helmet, I cried. I could hardly hear myself over the noise of the traffic and at that moment I couldn’t care less if anyone else heard me.

It was kind of like one of those, “My God, My God! Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” kind of moments. I strongly objected to being burdened with such a heavy disease and complained that I wasn’t up to it. I knew God had trusted many of His greats with heavy burdens of loss of loved ones, disease, persecution even death by horrible methods and I believed that it was part of  the tests that come with a life of great service, great love, great humility, great obedience or great accomplishment. I also knew that I was not one of them. I wanted to be worthy, but knew I was not.

I began to understand that if I handled this challenge well, I could actually be a help and blessing to the many people like me, who are not so “great” but also suffer from these same heavy burdens. The “greats” were not the only ones who suffered, by any means. All of humanity suffers and all of humanity has the capacity to relieve the suffering of others. This was my challenge. How would I handle it?

As I cried, the pressure was released. It actually felt very cathartic. I accepted my situation with no more struggle, no anger or fear. In fact, I felt comforted and loved. Imagine! I was being challenged to use this opportunity to be a blessing to others. I desperately wanted to be worthy and became excited at the thought of the battle ahead.

What an extreme range of emotions in the space of less than 5 minutes! I began to look at my cancer as a blessing, an honor even.

Whew. Does that sound crazy? Crazy faith, maybe, but I trust that God knows what He’s doing and what He allows in each person’s life and it’s up to each of us to find out what our role and attitude should be.

My next step was two-fold: 1. Find out what I should do (or not do) about this invader in my body; and 2. Inform my family and other loved ones about my situation and plan.

Comments»

1. Steve - July 11, 2010

Hi,

my wife and I are in Ho Chi Minh city.

I am interested in having a chat sometime.

We are also trying to live healthily in Ho Chi Minh – maybe we can share ideas? We have also tried a lot of different natural treatments.

Take care

2. Deena - May 7, 2014

love your faith! Mine has also been challenged, The Lord will use us for his glory.


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