Lessons Learned from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma
I am both proud and humbled to introduce my guest for this week’s Penning Pansies. Carol is my cousin, but usually we call each other “God sisters.” Her mom was my Grandma Helga’s sister. We share a Finnish heritage, a love for words, and, mostly, a passion for The Word–Jesus!
Because February is Cancer Prevention Awareness Month, it’s a fitting opportunity to hear another’s story.
I pray the lessons Carol learned from her battle with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma will speak to your heart.
Read them. Share them. Live them.
During this month 18 years ago, It was already there.
I didn’t know its name, but I knew something in me wasn’t right.
Cancer had taken up residence.
This wasn’t the slow, Creeping Myrtle type. Mine was more like Stormin’ Norman–the fast-growing, aggressive, “without-treatment-dead-in-a-year” variety. Those were the words I eventually heard.
It was lethal, and treatment was going to be War.
I share this because I can count on both hands the people I know who are currently dealing with a cancer diagnosis for either themselves or someone they love, and frankly, I’m mad. Sometimes I cry out, I can’t see how this can be good.
It’s not fair to be diagnosed with cancer during a pandemic, but cancer doesn’t play fair.
My diagnosis came only five months after my mom’s unexpected death.
And five months after my treatment concluded, our youngest sister joined our mom in heaven.
I found my face pressed up against the window of my own mortality, and I wasn’t allowed to look away. I left smudge marks on the glass.
I will say this, I learned a ton.
The lessons I learned during my journey through cancer helped define how I have lived these past 18 years–
Cancer-Free, though certainly not Cancer-Forgotten.
Facing one’s own mortality, or that of a loved one, can do that. It’s a teacher–though perhaps seemingly the cruelest.
It can settle some of those dangling questions of doubt that silently mock faith in our troubled hearts.
It can put it to rest.
It is a refining fire.
So let me cut to the chase and share “Twelve Takeaways”–key lessons from my journey. Perhaps you, or someone you love, may be in cancer’s throes, in need of breathing in renewed hope.
1. God is not surprised by this. We may be stunned, paralyzed, perplexed, or helpless. God is none of those things. He is on the move! And you will get to see Him up close. He is in it. Through it. Beyond it.
2. Each journey, treatment regimen, and experience of suffering is different. I do not presume to know the details of your experience, but I have been tempered by war. I have seen battle, and I have felt suffering. Those experiences bring empathy and profound, loving hope. So I extend my heart to you.
3. Life is terminal. We don’t get out of it alive. It’s not harsh; it’s truth. In 13 months, I buried my mom, I endured cancer and treatment, and buried my little sister. Mortality is a thing. But it’s not the last word. Some make it out of cancer alive. Others make it out with honors. When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know my outcome, so I determined–
If cancer is my Exit Ticket Home, I will talk Jesus and see His transforming power in my life until I see Him.
If cancer is not my Ticket Home, I will still talk Jesus and His transforming power in my life until I see Him.
How LONG I get to talk is up to Him.
I have also discovered that I am a Slow Learner and need lots of remedial help, so I am still here. (If you knew my little sister, you would understand why she was moved to the head of the class before the rest of us.) And I do not fear death. It is simply a Doorway. You don’t even need to have a conversation with a door! It is part of The Process of Homegoing.
4. Comparisons are frustrating and futile. Three months after my treatment finished, a missionary father of four children was diagnosed with my same kind of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. He could not endure treatment and his hammered immune system succumbed to pneumonia. He Graduated. Why? I had survivor’s guilt that was heart-rending. Jesus spoke to me from John 21:18-22–reminding me that the timetable of another person’s life was not my concern. (Read if for yourself!) Jesus doesn’t mince words here. He is very direct. My job is to keep following Him. So is yours.
5. Suffering is part of the deal. Your body may suffer. Mine did. But you and I are more than our bodies. We, the essence and spirit of who we are, are housed in those fragile, precious shells. And while our bodies may weaken or weary, our spirits can remain robustly strong. It is a mental and spiritual miracle I experienced firsthand. There was a startling distinction between what was done to my body and what was done to ME. You are much more than your shell.
6. Testing my faith?? When I would hear heroic stories of believers who had weathered great difficulty and testified of God’s goodness, I would quietly think, “Well, I’m glad for you, but I sure hope I never have to face anything like that! Yikes!” Yet I did. Let me tell you, EVERYTHING I ever hoped would be true about the sustaining, intimate, powerful love of God was Proven More Than True during my journey. In fact, there was not a single time that I felt like God was testing my faith or trying my character. All the while, I felt like God was declaring–
Test ME, try ME, and SEE if I don’t show up!!
The reality of God’s nearness was not dependent on the outcome. He was right then, right now, nearly palpable. And that was More Than Enough!
7. Keep your sense of humor. When my hair started falling out 12 days after my first chemo, on Mother’s Day, no less, I remembered my mom who had passed only 5 months earlier. She would give us childhood haircuts, and I was a wiggler. When I wanted to wail about the quality of Mom’s work, she would wave a dismissive hand and say, “Oh, it’s just hair, it’ll grow.”
What was cold comfort then was a warm whisper from her heart in Heaven, as I held my loosened locks in my hands. The Spirit of God also nudged, “Do you want the proof chemo is working? You’re holding it.” But I’ll admit, that passage about God knowing the number of hairs on your head–well, I’d smirk and say, “So do I. It’s 12… yep 12!”
And, on June 9th, I had a 3rd chemo treatment. June 10th was my 43rd birthday, and I was dry heaving into a trashcan–croaking out “Happy birthday to me”! It was a pitiful and profound pronouncement of life–seizing it and celebrating it amid difficulty.
8. You can’t do it alone. I had an army of prayer warriors, meal preppers, card senders, and warm encouragers. They “tore the roof off” in prayer and kept lowering me into the presence of Jesus, like those good friends of the paralyzed man in the Bible. My body endured the experience singularly, but I was never, ever alone.
9. Take one step at a time. Wars are won by battles. You will face the challenges as they come, and that, my friend, is enough. Do not worry about tomorrow. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34) You do not have to feel ready for what is ahead. God will give you grace and strength for the Now. He provides what you need when you need it.
10. If you can, take notes. You have a front row seat to the activity of God in your life and in the lives of those you love during this soul-wrenching crisis. The hardest classes are often the most rewarding, transforming ones. The grace notes of this song will be found in tiny details, that are mini-miracles in retrospect. I guarantee it, someone down the road will need to hear your story. God wastes nothing. Not our time. Not our tears. Not our trials.
11. Pay it Forward and Pray it Forward. If you are still here, there is more for you to learn, period. We learn by loving others and pouring our lives into their care. Life is the School. Love is the Lesson. Welcome to the Roof-Ripping Club! Intercede and feed those in need.
12. Every day is a Gift–even hard days, sad days, mad days, and no hair days. You might have to dig to find the buried treasure, but it is there if we look.
What a glorious gift to breathe in life, drink in beauty and love it all out!! Counting your blessings is not cliché; it is the rigorous discipline of a joyful life.
I still need lots of practice!
Carol Stratton is a retired career educator in American History. She has presented unique research in racial bias in the classroom in Washington DC, at the National Conference for the Social Studies. Carol is a songwriter, worship leader, and retreat speaker.
She chairs the Board of Directors for Hope Restored India, which is an anti-trafficking ministry that rescues women in the slums of Mumbai.
Her greatest joys are wife, mom of amazing adults, and follower of Jesus.
Carol can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to listen to Carol’s song Whatever It Takes, featured on her album Notes from the Journey.