Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Lessons from Surgery"

I had surgery last week to remove a “low-grade, non-aggressive” malignant tumor and a few lymph nodes for testing to determine further treatment and prevention.  Thank God, my surgeon “got it all” and lymph nodes tested negative, so radiation looks like a wise follow-up to prevent recurrence – chemo isn’t warranted in my case. And, being incorrigibly inclined to find “spiritual symbolism” in almost any situation :) - of course, I saw a number of “life lessons” in each part of the process…

Some of us put off routine medical tests, even or perhaps especially when we think something is "not quite right," as if ignoring something could make it not really so. I kept hoping, as I went from mammogram to sonogram to the surgeon's office and biopsy: first, that it would be a cyst and not a tumor; then, that the tumor would turn out to be benign instead of malignant; then, after prayer at some really good healing & revival meetings, I honestly hoped it would supernaturally disappear before the MRI... but it didn't.

As the facts were gradually revealed, I dealt with a variety of feelings: I had to push away anxiety, fear, self-pity, also some anger, resentment, sort of a "why is this happening to me?" - even a little, "hey, God, why did You let this happen to me?" But you know what? when there's something unhealthy that needs to be removed, it doesn't make a bit of sense to be angry at anyone for seeing and discussing it honestly, for the purpose of healing. If disease is there, it needs to be dealt with.

Diagnosis is a good thing. I was honest with myself & God about feelings, but there's no point in resisting truth - when something needs to be fixed, knowing what's wrong is the first step toward real healing and genuine good health. This applies in many areas of life: pretending isn’t healthy, and things can't really get better unless we first get some accurate facts about what the problem is.

Waiting, not worrying
I've watched other people wait for biopsy results, and considered how challenging it might be to have to endure not knowing such an important piece of information ("do I have cancer or not?") for a period of weeks. Pathology reports can take various lengths of time, depending on the lab and the urgency of the situation, and I knew mine would not likely come back "overnight." In fact, I saw my surgeon a few days before leaving on a mission trip to Nicaragua that I'd planned for a year, and she agreed that I shouldn't cancel the trip. As it turned out, she wasn’t able to discuss the results with me until 4 days after I got home - almost two full weeks after she did the needle biopsy.

I had prayed with a friend before that trip, and her words "lay it aside" stuck with me, helping me to do just that. The past few months taught me a lot about taking one day or one step at a time - not wasting emotions, thoughts and (especially) pointless worrying over information I didn't have yet - just dealing with specific facts, decisions, or actions I needed to take right now. Jesus said not to worry about tomorrow, because each day has enough trouble of its own! [Matthew 6:34] You can't let fear and worry drive you - those things aren’t helpful, and they do not come from God.

As I walked through this process, I hoped for the best, but I also realized that God is with me every step of the way, no matter what. Sigi Oblander ( http://www.sigioblander.com/), a wonderful Christian minister who spoke at our church women's retreat (which took place between my MRI and the next appointment with my surgeon), reminded us that He’s God on the mountaintop and also the Lily of the Valley. God is with us in the every day, not just when things are “great” or problems are resolved, but all the way through the storms of life as well.

Avoiding negative thoughts while waiting for the next appointment actually taught me to "fall sleep in the boat" [Mt 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41 & Luke 8:22-25]: Jesus not only calmed the storm, He rested right in the middle of it.  Scripture says that He is our Peace [Ephesians 2:14]. And to be joyful always. [Phil. 4:4 & I Thess. 5:16-18] Wow, what a way to live! Why not?

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
[Matthew 6:27 NIV]

Facing uncertainties generated by the word “cancer” also forced me to consider that “worst case scenario” for a Christian is… heaven?? That is freedom from the ultimate fear [Hebrews 2:15].

Decisions, Decisions
Once I got biopsy results back, there were decisions to make - when to schedule surgery, what type - and many other options to be determined later. I have good health insurance & a great surgeon, whose opinions are based on lots of experience, current research and state of the art technology - I trust her. She speaks “life” (not death) – her conversation is straightforward, but not discouraging.

Oncology is kind of a numbers game: doctors have lots of statistics regarding recurrence & survival rates, risks & side effects of various treatments. I’m thankful my lymph nodes tested negative, because I wasn’t interested in sacrificing my immune system and enduring chemotherapy for a low-grade early-stage cancer – I’m not motivated by fear, and I don’t feel compelled to use the most powerful weapon around “just to be sure,” if safer treatments are sufficient & effective. And it's important to remember that every case is different - each patient needs to process their doctor's advice and make an informed decision that is right for them.  I appreciate the lifesaving aspects of modern medicine, but there are definitely plenty of options & lots of choices to make.

I listen to the experts and pray for God's perspective in how to apply this knowledge. The Book of Proverbs (I was reading Proverbs 1:26-33 this morning) reminds us of the importance of wisdom. James 1:5-8 encourages us that God will freely give His wisdom to all who believe & ask Him for it.

Office Staff
Communication with my surgeon's receptionist isn't always as clear, positive or trustworthy as I’d like. Sometimes she gets it wrong, misinforms, or speaks impatiently. I know this doesn’t reflect the surgeon’s attitude – the doctor is aware of what patients go through with a cancer diagnosis, and is planning a new practice that will reduce patient stress by consolidating various phases of testing & treatment together in one office. She even gave me her cell phone # in case I ever need to speak to her directly. But I have to deal with her receptionist sometimes in the course of treatment, so I try to make the best of it. When she “misses the mark,” I shake it off and thank God for a wonderful surgeon. (Imagine how grateful I was to find out the radiotherapy staff treats their patients like visiting royalty!)

This reminds me of how God works through human beings to heal and save lives: pastors, leaders & everyday Christians aren’t always perfect representatives of God's heart either, but He still uses us to get His work done. Sometimes we have to shake off an offense on the way to our healing.

Accuracy & Anesthetic
A good surgeon doesn't use a chainsaw or even a steak knife to cut anybody - human beings are delicate, so a doctor's tools are much more accurate and precise. And even with a scalpel, they don't normally cut you without anesthetic. They're trained to fix what's wrong, not hurt you.

I've often thought of this in terms of how God deals with us: yes, He addresses things that don't belong in our lives, cutting away what hinders or could destroy us if not removed... but He always operates in Love. He comforts, even as He prunes our lives [John 15] - perfectly.  May God help us, as we interact with others, to speak accurate words of truth that are bathed in His beautiful love.

After surgery, 2 small incisions were covered with soft, clean, white gauze pads to protect wounded areas while they healed. My discharge papers said I could remove the bandages after 24 hours, but I kept them on until Friday, because I still felt a little bit sore and didn’t want pull or tear anything by moving around too much too soon. After a few days, I felt “normal” enough to take them off.

During this vulnerable time, it also seemed good to protect myself from unnecessary stress or entanglements that tax my energy. I was careful who I told about my situation at first, so I wouldn’t feel pressured by other people’s emotions, advice, or troubling personal stories. I shared with a small circle of friends who pray, then immediate family, then – as I felt more peace & clarity on God’s direction – I was able to tell others, less concerned that their spiritual or emotional issues might affect me negatively. It’s OK to protect yourself sometimes, especially while you’re healing.

Resting in God’s Grace
Protecting yourself while you’re healing also requires REST. A friend who’s been through this type of surgery before said, wisely: “You can use your energy to heal, or you can spend it on a lot of other things.” That stuck with me, and I began to jealously guard my time & energy for things that matter, especially restoring and establishing health. I couldn’t run around in “overdrive” like I used to, working all day without a lunch break, or driving back & forth to church meetings several times a week. I had to listen to God about what to do or not do. There’s nothing like a season of weakness to remind us to “keep it simple,” stay in step with God’s grace, & lean on His strength.

I’m less likely to take on undue burdens than I was when I felt stronger - in fact, God is teaching me through all of this to set better limits, and manage my time & energy more wisely than before.

A visiting minister (who didn’t know anything about my health condition) gave me this timely and appropriate scripture verse as a personal prophetic word at church last weekend:

And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
[2 Corinthians 12:9 NKJ]

He also spoke the phrase “beauty for ashes” over me in prayer, which God offers in Isaiah 61:3.

To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified."
[Isaiah 61:3 NKJ]

It’s been over 3 months now since the original mammogram, and it’ll be 2 more months before I finish those radiation treatments. After that, there will be follow-up appointments every 6 months or so for routine tests over the next few years. I’m making lifestyle changes that support good health – paying more attention to my diet, rest, exercise, stress level, etc. I notice I treasure my family, friends & the simple joys of life, in ways I didn’t fully appreciate before.  Awareness of my own mortality has definitely changed my perspective on life, health & relationships for the better.

So “it is well with my soul,” and I’m looking forward to the future. I’ll keep you posted.  :)


  1. Not specifically about this post - but I discovered your blog by accident (there's no accidents in Jesus' world!) and have spent an hour or so reading.

    Thank you for your transparency - and inspiration! God bless you on your journey.