What I Learned…
Cancer is a terrible disease. It is a betrayal by parts of one’s own body which, left unchecked, can threaten death. Oftentimes, the treatment for cancer seems as destructive as the disease itself. Medically speaking, there is no silver bullet for cancer.
Thankfully, some of the treatments available for cancer have proven to be effective for many people, and I’m always pleased to hear when someone has overcome. But sadly, there are no guarantees.
My Personal Experience
As a cancer survivor, I want to share with you some of what I learned through my year-long journey in 2016. I’ll share the questions I asked, the struggles I had, and what I learned about God, both from Scripture, and from having been forced to rely on Him.
My particular cancer was a squamous cell carcinoma in my nose. It was painful to the touch and behaved in an abnormal way, which alarmed my medical team. Their recommendations included a seven-hour face-deforming surgery, along with simultaneous radiation and chemo therapy. Essentially, I had the kitchen sink thrown at me with the hopes of delivering a decisive kill-shot to the cancer.
Today, by God’s grace, I’m fine. But along the way, I experienced much of what many other cancer patients have to endure. I’ve had the purple-burned skin from radiation. I’ve lost my hair, my dignity, and on several occasions, my lunch as a result of chemo. And, I’ve had pain that nothing would relieve. To be sure, it was a dark time.
But through it all, God was there, giving me the strength, not for the next day, but just for the next moment. And that was enough. God brought me through it all, having come to know Him in a way I’d never known Him before.
If you or someone you love is facing cancer, my prayer is for you to be encouraged, comforted, and healed. Whether or not that healing is physical in nature, I pray that you will be drawn closer to God.
Why Did This Happen?
It is natural in difficult circumstances to wonder why it happened. While medical science has formed many theories about what causes cancer, at the end of the day, they’re not really sure.
But the bigger question is, why did God allow this to happen? Of course, I cannot know or understand God’s specific reasons for bringing cancer into your life, but Scripture does show us a number of general reasons. Let’s take a look at some of them:
So That His Strength Can Show Through Our Weakness…
This notion may sound spiritual or romantic, but the reality can be gritty and painful. Speaking personally, I found myself unable to do many of the things that I had once thought defined me. But God used my experience to show Himself strong, even when I felt weak.
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
God doesn’t always remove the thorn, but He provides the thorn so that we will be motivated to rely on His grace. And I did, because frankly, I didn’t have any other choice. Yet, God did indeed show Himself to be faithful and strong in ways that I never would have known if I’d been able to rely on my own strength.
So That Good May Result…
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.
This can be for our own good, and also for the good of others as they witness our suffering and our response to it. Indeed, other people often benefit from our suffering in ways we never even see.
So That We May Experience And Share God’s Comfort…
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4
One who suffers from a particular illness or circumstance is uniquely equipped to comfort others with similar difficulties. I can personally attest to this. Before having cancer, I felt sympathy for cancer patients, but I couldn’t really understand their plight. Having now had cancer, I am not only able to sympathize with other cancer patients, I can empathize!
Moreover, I can far more effectively minister to those who have cancer, sharing with them the myriad of ways in which God comforted me and showed Himself faithful. This, in turn, encourages others.
So Others Can Pray For Us
Think about this: Praying is a form of worship. So, when people are praying, even about you and your cancer, they’re worshiping God.
He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.
2 Corinthians 1:10-11
Did God Give Me Cancer?
To put it bluntly, yes.
That’s offensive, isn’t it? Please don’t be angry. Truly, we don’t like to think of it that way. We prefer to blame Satan for such calamities as cancer, or to say that God merely ‘allowed’ the cancer to happen.
Yet, God is sovereign over all things. Nothing can happen without His allowing it. So, whether God actively brought cancer upon you, or whether He allowed it, God is still ultimately responsible.
We don’t like to think that way, because we think that it is somehow wrong for God to inflict suffering on us. But God is right. And God is love. And, with both of those things being true, God does indeed inflict suffering on His people, and He does so for right and loving reasons.
He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.
“Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.
When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble? When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
Beyond our understanding
God’s plans, purposes, and reasoning may be unknown to us, but that’s when we have to trust Him. We have to trust that, even amid our difficulties, God’s ways are not our ways:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
Right, just, and loving…
Recognizing our afflictions as being from the hand of God, we might struggle to see the goodness and love of God. But when we consider all of the good that God does indeed do through these afflictions, it starts to make more sense.
God does indeed, in love and righteousness, afflict us, but why? For His glory and for the benefit of others.
For God’s Glory And For The Benefit Of Others
How can cancer, in myself or in a loved one, bring glory to God? What kind of God would do that?
The actions of Jesus give us our answer. He bore our sins upon Himself and died for us so that we could share in God’s glory. His horrific suffering was endured for the benefit of multitudes of souls. The suffering of One brought others closer to God.
We’ve explored a few of the ways in which God can use cancer to draw you and other people closer to Himself. God is working to show Himself, both to you and to onlookers, so that their eternal souls may benefit. And so, as you work through this cancer, you are also a vessel for God to work, both in your own life and in the lives of others.
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.
1 Peter 4:12-15
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
So, if it’s for God’s glory, then our job is to work for His glory!
How Should I Feel?
Suck It Up, Buttercup?
When facing such an immense challenge as this, we might be tempted to put up a strong front and “be strong.” But that is actually unproductive. Our strength is not enough for getting through challenges like cancer. We must instead rely on God.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.
“Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord.”
As previously mentioned, God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, when we rely upon Him.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
It’s Okay To Feel Sad About The Circumstances
In the Old Testament, Job was afflicted with great pain and suffering, and he made no secret of his anguish, even while giving glory to God.
Job expressed his sadness and pain freely, and his expressions were not counted as sinful until he began to question God’s righteousness.
At [the news the death of Job’s children], Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised.”
22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.
Similarly, David often expressed complaints in the Psalms, sometimes asking God why certain painful circumstances existed, but in the end, David always expressed trust and love for God.
I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy. I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell my trouble.
Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
1 Peter 5:7
But It’s Never Okay To Speak Angrily, Accusingly, Or Disrespectfully To God
As we’ve examined Job’s response to the suffering that had been brought upon him, we previously saw that Job did not sin in being honest about his grief. But then, Job went too far and began to accuse God of doing him wrong. Job quickly learned from God’s response that this was sinful.
“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.”
If cancer brings suffering upon you, you don’t have to pretend you’re okay. It’s okay to be honest. But in your heart, be careful to remember the holiness and the righteousness of the God who brought this calamity upon you.
Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.
Don’t Complain In The Whiny, Ugly Sense
While it could be accurately stated that we can respectfully “complain” to God, we should not become angry, whiny complainers! Let’s take a look at Philippians 2:14, which famously commands against complaining. Let’s look at a few different translations of this verse:
Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe.
Philippians 2:14-15 NIV
Do all things without murmurings and disputings:
Philippians 2:14 KJV
Do all things without grumbling or disputing,
Philippians 2:14 ESV
Remember, we’re told to shine like stars in Philippians 2:15. That means we should be working for God’s glory. We can’t do that if we are grumbling, whining, and complaining all the time!
How Should I Deal With This?
See This As An Opportunity
If you respond Biblically, [cancer] is also an opportunity to grow in your perseverance, maturity, and faith in God.
And now for some guidance from God’s Word about dealing with cancer. To be sure, cancer is not pleasant, but when viewed as an opportunity, it takes on a new light. Your ordeal will open up opportunities for you to be a witness to others, to show God’s strength through your weakness, and to empathize with others who are similarly suffering, If you respond Biblically, it is also an opportunity to grow in your perseverance, maturity, and faith in God. There are good works to be done, and doing them will be therapeutic to you!
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.
Pray For Others… And Serve Others
Truly, I was never more keenly aware of the suffering of others than when I was suffering myself. I found it very helpful and therapeutic to pray for others, even as I prayed for myself.
When I was able to serve others or benefit others in some way, it helped me. It got my mind off of my own discomfort and blessed others at the same time. That’s not to say that you should ignore your own physical need for rest so that your body can fight the sickness, but as you’re able, serve!
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
Share God’s Comfort…
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4
As we previously mentioned, comfort others with the comfort you’ve experienced. Once again, this will turn your focus outward, which will be beneficial to you as well as to others.
Let Others Help And Bless You
Your value is not tied to what you do. Your value is Christ in you!
If you’re not feeling well, you may have to step back and allow others to step up. It can be a humbling experience, and you may be tempted to question your value to your family and to the Kingdom as you find yourself physically unable to do all you used to do. But your value is not tied to what you do. Your value is Christ in you!
When others want to help you or bless you, it is important to let them. They want to help you. They want to participate in your journey, and they want to show their love for you. Don’t deny them this opportunity.
In Exodus chapter 17, Moses needed help. It wasn’t the first time Moses humbled himself enough to accept help, but in this instance, the outcome of a military battle hung in the balance:
So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.
What if Moses had been too proud to accept help from Aaron and Hur? What if he hadn’t been willing to let his two friends hold up his arms?
Sometimes, you’re going to need help. And to be sure, others are going to need to help you. Let them.
Don’t Worry Or Be Anxious
The fear of what might happen was worse than what actually happened.
During my cancer journey, one of the most profound lessons I learned is this: The fear of what might happen was worse than what actually happened.
Don’t get me wrong; cancer was no picnic. But the actual surgeries, radiation and chemo side effects weren’t nearly as bad as the ever-present worry over what could happen. Would I be in pain? Would I die? What would happen if I didn’t fully recover? What if?
It didn’t take long to realize what a waste of time that was.
Don’t worry! To worry is to fret about things that have not happened. It is like standing outside with a snow shovel when it has not snowed. Maybe it will snow, but you can’t shovel it unless or until it actually happens. Don’t try to shovel the snow that hasn’t fallen yet! Don’t worry about tomorrow. It hasn’t happened yet.
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Recognize The Blessings
It may be hard to believe, but there will be blessings. Maybe you’ll get a good report from the doctor one day. Maybe you’ll feel better than you expected. Or maybe, you’ll become aware that your situation has somehow touched or ministered to another person. There are always blessings, and it is therapeutic to recognize and take note of them.
From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.
Celebrate And Commemorate The Victories
Several times in Scripture, men set up monuments, such as the pile of rocks set up after the Israelites crossed the Jordan river after God had dried it up. These are to commemorate great events that proved God’s power and faithfulness. They remind us of His past faithfulness and assure us of His future faithfulness. So, if you make progress, or get a good report, or feel better, take time to celebrate and praise God!
While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the Lord thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites. The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Car. Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the Lord helped us.”
1 Samuel 7:10-12
The Best Medicine
Don’t make God small! He is fully able to heal you, whether by making use of man’s treatments and medicines, which He allowed us to discover, or by supernaturally healing you. Or, He may ask you to hold on and wait. But if your body is not healed, it’s not because God is not able, but because He has a purpose for your suffering.
During my own cancer journey, these verses kept circling in my head.
A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cured of his leprosy.
The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.
But of course, God is not a genie. He answers our prayers, but He does so according to His will, to accomplish what He, in His sovereignty, knows is best.
Prayer–For Yourself, And For Others
How often do we underestimate the value of prayer? And yet, during my cancer, I found it to be one of the most helpful things that I could do.
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
Thankfulness And Contentment
This is not to say that it is wrong to want to be cured (I certainly wanted that!), but we must learn to find our contentment in God, not in our health or circumstances.
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
But godliness with contentment is great gain.
1 Timothy 6:6
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
A Cheerful Heart
Another verse that was always present in my mind throughout my cancer journey was Proverbs 17:22…
A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
Let me tell you, this verse is true. When we have physical pain, there’s not much we can do about that. But we don’t have to let our physical discomfort pull us into the mire of depression or anger.
Complaining simply doesn’t help. It doesn’t make you feel better (quite the opposite) and brings others down. Find reasons to be cheerful. You’ll feel better–at least in your spirit!
If you can find reasons to be thankful, and if you can see the humor and the beauty that remain present through your battle, you will feel better.
Oftentimes, I was asked by nurses and doctors why I was so cheerful during my battle. I explained that a cheerful heart is good medicine, and they fully agreed.
Going further, I was even sometimes asked how I could be cheerful. I explained that this battle, however it ends, was not the end of my story, because Jesus had died for me. Indeed, I was able to share the gospel!
Cancer may bring you face to face with things you never wanted to do. Radiation. Chemotherapy. Surgery. Months or years of continuous discomfort, doctor visits, and unpleasantries. But we must be willing to do whatever God asks of us.
That’s a hard thing to do, and some of the Bible’s greatest heroes struggled with it, including none other than Moses:
Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The Lord said to him, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” But Moses said, “O Lord, please send someone else to do it.“
Because of fear and possible suffering, Moses was initially unwilling to do what God had asked, despite God’s reassurances. Although Moses eventually relented, Moses’ initial unwillingness incited God’s anger against him. By contrast, examine Jesus’ response in the face of immense and certain suffering:
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.“
Be A Victor, Not A Victim!
Make the choice not to be overcome in your spirit. Your body may become a victim of cancer, but your spirit doesn’t have to! You can choose to be a victor instead of a victim by holding on to the promises and practicing the principles of God’s Word!
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Cancer is hard, and although I can truly say that I’m thankful that God brought cancer into my life, I also pray I’ll never get it again.
Today, when I see my face in the mirror, I see the battle scars that remain; a mis-shapen nose and a large forehead scar. They’re the marks of God’s grace upon my face.
Perhaps one day, you’ll overcome the physical battle with cancer. I hope you will. But regardless of what happens to your body, there’s a victory for you that cannot be taken away.
If you belong to Christ Jesus, you are a victor! And however the story ends for you on this earth, your destiny is to walk in eternity with your dear Savior.
Where cancer can never reach you again.