“The Lord brings death and makes alive, He brings down to the grave and raises up.” These are the words of Hannah, mother of Samuel the prophet. Hannah struggled with infertility for years before conceiving Samuel, and so these words reflect her personal encounter with the power of God in her life.
Unlike Hannah, I have been spared the pains of infertility. In ten years of marriage, our 3 beautiful daughters were each conceived without difficulty. We have always wanted a large family, and until recently felt we were well on our way to realizing this dream.
Although we have cherished having children, my pregnancies are always difficult, with 3 to 4 months of nausea and vomiting. My last pregnancy seemed to push me to the edge of what I felt I could handle, morning sickness coupled with extreme weakness and fatigue. But there was anotherl complication in this pregnancy as well – a hard lump in my left breast. My midwife reassured me that breast lumps are very common during pregnancy and that upon examination it did not seem concerning to her. When it did not resolve after delivery, my midwife sent me for what she thought would be a routine mammogram, perhaps to discover a cyst or fibrotic tissue. Unfortunately, the mammogram led to an ultrasound, which led to a biopsy, – which ultimately led to a diagnosis of breast cancer.
It is hard to describe what it is like to be diagnosed with cancer when you are 30. I have never known fear so relentless, so paralyzing. I slept and ate very little in the days leading up to the official diagnosis. I would watch my children play while I sat crumpled in a corner crying, or I would anxiously pace around the house, calling anyone who would talk with me. I would stuff a small Gideon Bible into my shirt at night and beg God to make the lump benign.
I found in those early days and weeks that my fears would run through cycles – In one moment, gripped by the fear of leaving my precious children to grow up without a mother. I knew many breast cancer survivors, and so eventually this fear would give way and a new one would take its place – the fear that I would have to endure one – or maybe two mastectomies – and never breastfeed again.
I also had to grapple with the possible ramifications of cancer treatment. If a lumpectomy was all I needed, it would be paired with radiotherapy, which could damage my heart and lungs and even destroy my breast’s ability to produce milk for future children. Chemotherapy also carried risk to the heart and brain, but the hardest pill to swallow was the significant risk that chemotherapy had for my could destroy my fertility. Just one round of chemotherapy can wipe years off of a woman’s fertility, and some women are thrown into permanent early-onset menopause by the end of their treatment.
In these early days of my diagnosis, words of encouragement and comfort poured in from friends and family. They sent me prayers, Bible verses, and a few told me of a sense of peace they had about everything I was going through. I hung on to every word sent to me as a way of staying afloat in my emotional chaos. I was particularly drawn to Isaiah 43:2 which reads:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.
When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned,
And the flame shall not consume you.”
Passing through the fire? What better way to describe cancer treatment – Chemotherapy indiscriminately kills healthy cells along with cancerous ones. Radiation often leaves skin and tissue swollen, scarred, and burned. Passing through the fire – This became my verse for the year – I prayed at each step that God would lead me through treatment while saving my body from its damaging effects.
I am nearly a year out from my original diagnosis. And I have passed through the fire – an extensive lumpectomy, four rounds of chemo, and 7 weeks of radiation. God has met me in so many ways through the entire experience. I learned to lean on the intercessions of the saints–particularly St. Therese of Liseaux, St. Gerard, and the venerable Fulon Sheen. And I learned to offer up my suffering on behalf of others.
Now I am entering a new phase – that of being a cancer survivor. It is not a term I am particularly comfortable with. I don’t like to think that I had something that I needed to survive. And there is the fear that perhaps the cancer is dormant and could reassert itself in the coming years. It is a hard period to adjust to. My doctors continue to monitor me for signs of recurrence, and I take a daily hormonal pill to prevent the cancer from coming back. I wait and hope that it doesn’t. And I pray for my body to heal, for my fertility to return, and for God to give us another baby.
As I meditate on the story of Hannah, the most astounding part for me is not that God answered her prayers for a child. It is what she does in her period of waiting. In her darkest moments, Hannah’s grief is so profound that the prophet Eli mistakes it for drunkenness. When she explains her circumstance, he responds to her: “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.”
The Bible records that Hannah “went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.”
Through my cancer journey, I have also experienced moments of darkness. Times I was overwhelmed with fear, grief, even rage – But the suffering I have experienced, and the ways God has met me in my suffering, has changed my prayers. Recently I brought a petition to the Lord, and initially felt that familiar desperation. But it was as if I heard a small whisper in my heart: “The Lord knows.” And my heart quieted. I felt peace.
Perhaps that is the point of so much of our suffering, our longing. I long to experience the fullness of Isaiah 43:2 – to walk through the fire and not be burned. I long to defy the death sentence so often associated with cancer, to once again bring forth life through my body, to nurse a baby with milk from a breast that was once diseased, cut open, and irradiated. I long to say with Hannah, “The Lord brings death and makes alive.”
But I am learning, ever so slowly, to be at peace with the knowledge that God knows. That He knows what I have need of before I even ask. That He knows the deepest longings of my heart, the dreams I have carried since I was a child. Like Hannah, I am learning to bring my longing to the Lord, and then to go in peace. Because the Lord knows, and I can trust my longing to Him.
Melissa is a homeschooling mom who lives with her husband and three daughters in Western Illinois. She graduated from the University of Florida with a Masters degree in Religious Studies in 2013 and joined the Catholic Church along with her husband in 2016. She currently works as a Peer Breastfeeding Counselor at her community WIC office, where she helps to educate and support local mothers in their decision to breastfeed their babies.