I call the story ‘ours’ because cancer is not something that you can go through alone. It affects the people closest to you and also introduces you to many caring and suffering people that you would otherwise never meet.
On the 7th December 2013, at the end of our church service, the Pastor read out a list of specific people that may want to come for prayer. The invitation was, “for a lady who had discovered something that had shaken her and that she needed courage to face it”. I remember that the previous night, I had said to my husband that I really should get these lumps seen to. I had noticed some thickening in my breast tissue a few months previously, but I was fit and healthy and active, so thought it may just be fibrous tissue. I put off going for a mammogram (because I thought I had had one last year)…. and then we went on a family holiday …..and then our daughter had her tonsils out ….and then our son was graduating and then…..and then…. (Sounds like a typical middle class busy family life.)
This specific invitation for prayer jolted all the excuses aside and so I went up to a couple at the front of the Church for prayer. I told them my situation and they blessed me and asked God to open all the necessary channels for the quickest outcomes and that I would feel His presence with me all the way.
After the service I had a pre-arranged coffee date with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. She happens to be a radiographer and so I told her my story. She insisted on checking the lumps herself. (Not in the coffee shop!) And she agreed that these needed to be seen to and so it was arranged.
She picked me up at 7am that Monday to go to work with her. We filled out all the forms; had the mammogram ,which came up clear, and the sonar, which showed up some irregularities. By the 11th Dec I had a biopsy and by 17 Dec –after delays because of end-of-year office parties and public holidays, we were quite anxious for the news.
It was our son’s graduation day and we wanted the focus to be on him and celebrating his achievement. I called the doctor early and told her that I did not want the news yet, but I made an appointment for that afternoon to see her anyway. Somehow this made me feel more in control, as opposed to the suspense of waiting.
Better the devil you know….
Our local GP was very calm and asked us if we knew the results. I said I suspected that it was not good and she compassionately confirmed that it was breast cancer. She explained and answered our questions and gave us the details and pre-arranged appointments with the surgeon, oncologist and plastic surgeon. We felt like there was a team of people waiting to help us on this unexpected journey. The news was such a shock, it was difficult to take in and realise that our neatly planned year ahead had been shrunk to the here and now. We broke down when we realized that we had to tell our family and we couldn’t make any promises of the outcome.
Meanwhile back at home…..
We live near a school and unbeknown to us, a handyman had found a little bird that had fallen from a broken nest. He thought that our daughter Rebecca, a student on holiday, would have the time and gentleness to raise the bird. Later a group of dancers went to practice in the school hall and found another chick and had the same idea. So by the time we got home at the end of an emotional day, we had 3 new situations: A graduate son; a mom with breast cancer and two new wet-feathered dependants. What a memorable day.
My only experience of trying to rescue little birds, was finding them very still in a shoe box on the morning after. Rebecca was so excited about the birds, and I was so scared that she would get her heart broken, so, I told God , in no uncertain terms , that if they died He should be very , very scared of me …….as how could He let this gentle girl have a mom with breast cancer and 2 dead birds!!!!
As it turned out, these little grey rump swallows became a centre of hope in our family. Becca researched their diet and nesting habits and woke up in the night to feed them and clean their nest. They squealed for her and the only restful place they enjoyed, was being held on her chest whilst she watched TV.. They were given names: Dora explorer and Mr Claws. They learned to respond to her bird twitters and opened their mouths widely when they heard her coming. It was a beautiful thing to witness and I began to hope that they would live instead of fearing that we would be broken hearted. Rebecca reminded me of the scripture from Matthew 6, which says ‘You are worth more than many sparrows. ‘I also looked up the symbolic meaning of swallows and it refers to supernatural provision.
On the cancer side, we saw the surgeon before Christmas and were more at peace that he would be able to surgically remove all the cancer, but it was a shock when he suggested that a double mastectomy would make more sense, considering the type and spread of cancer cells
As we were only seeing the oncologist and plastic surgeon in January, we had the whole Christmas and New Year holiday to deal with our FEAR!! It seemed such a long and cruel waiting period, but in hindsight I got to come to terms with saying goodbye to my ‘little birds’ on my chest and we as a family got to live with a heightened awareness of the present, being grateful for each moment. Our son David came home with big sheets of coloured card and Koki pens so that we could write out encouraging thoughts and sayings. In a time like this one is forced to look beyond human ability and hold on to a firm truth. In our experience, the only steadfast words we knew came directly from scripture. I decided that, more important than being alive, was knowing that I would live to fulfil a purpose. If I wasn’t to live to love others then why bother fighting for life.
Anchor for the thought life
We wrote out placards of verses and stuck them all over the cupboards and doors.
Only call to me and I will deliver you and you will honour me. Psalm 50.15
God is my refuge and my strength, my ever present help in times of trouble therefore we will not fear. …………..though the mountains give way (I thought of my hills) ………Be still and know that I am God.Psalm 46
Because you are my help I will sing in the shadow of Your wings my soul clings to you. Your right hand upholds me . Psalm 63.7
Fear not for I am with you, be not dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41.10
…… and many more!
What a privileged time we had to deal with the Fears in our minds and to focus on the joy and purpose for living. We chose to focus on hope.
The Christmas gift
My wicked step--mother –in –law() was out on a 3 month visit from the UK. Earlier in the year her mother had passed away at the age of 95. In October she had picked out a memento of nana’s to give to each family member. Rebecca was given a bracelet that had two flying birds on it. We were amazed at the coincidence of this being the ‘bird’ Christmas.
The week of the 6th – 9th of January was when the relevant medical people would be back at work (this is Cape Town) and my surgical plans and procedures would get under way. It was also the week that the birds were old enough to fly. So on the 5th of January we went down to the school field to attempt the launch of the birds. These swallows were pretty useless at flying when we tested them out and they seemed to crash land and face plant as if they had no innate landing gear. We contacted a bird expert and she told us that we were to throw the birds up as high as possible and when they flew, they would only land when they needed to nest next season. They would also need to feed whilst in flight. We were fascinated and concerned as the birds were so dependent on Becca.
In the middle of the school field, the birds each had a crash landing, but another swallow had flown over us and circled back as if to see what we were doing. As Rebecca was about to launch Dora (round 2) my husband cried out, “look at the swallows”. ‘It was so emotional and overwhelming. A whole flock of birds had come to collect their own. Dora was launched and the birds came around her – she narrowly missed the fence and a nearby tree, but it seemed as if the other birds were coaching her over the obstacles. Claws also had a dramatic first flight, but once again the flock helped and guided him safely into the sky.
As the birds flew off we were crying and laughing and amazed at the miracles of nature. To top it all there was a rainbow in the sky towards the east. It was like a sign of a promise of life and hope and provision.
My own 36 C ‘little birds’ flew off on the 20th January 2014 . My family and friends cared for me with the same dedication and care as the bird handler. My husband was amazing and rallied and said Yes to all people who offered to help(I would have said,” thank you but I’ll be Okay”). I found a whole community of women who came around us, supported, taxied and brought meals for the family. Being a very independent person, I had to let go and learn to receive the care of others. I even got to make friends out of acquaintances.
I have had a few glitches in the healing and treatment process, but crash landings and trial flights are part of a journey of recovery.
There is no rainbow without rain.
Cancer has been the background for us to experience the promise of God’s presence, and the beauty of community love.