Yesterday, I woke up feeling the inside of my lip with my tongue. I had bitten the area while eating steak with my parents on Sunday, but yesterday, I realized that I actually have a cold sore there. I examined it in the mirror, determined there was nothing more I could do about it, and was about to turn away to get ready for work when I paused.
I looked myself right in the eye and realized that I was looking at a fragile woman. Cold sores usually mean stress for my body; the last couple of weeks were certainly taking a greater toll than I had realized. I felt tears swell up in my eyes and felt deeply sorry for myself.
“I don’t want to go through this,” my reflection and I recited together. “I don’t want to.”
We looked at each other a few seconds more, tears starting to run. This is how others see me, I thought. This is why people look at me with sad eyes and say things they don’t realize. They don’t want me to go through this either.
“Pull it together,” I said out loud, to the lady there crying in the mirror. She mouthed the words, too. If we were going to make it to work, if we were going to keep living and growing and enjoying life, we couldn’t stand there looking all weepy at each other. We had to move.
Seeing myself as others see me was eye opening in those dark, lonely moments of yesterday morning. I didn’t really know what to say to myself; I understood that speaking to me at all is surely difficult for people. When I tell them I’m sad, they want me to feel better. When I tell them I am not that worried, they don’t want to downplay my illness.
Most days, people say things to me that lift me up and feed my hope. Some days, no matter what people say, I feel scared and lonely. Occasionally, people have said things to me that make me cry, like salt to wounds.
I know what they really mean is “I don’t want you to have to go through this.” But instead, they say, “My cousin died of the exact same cancer.” Or, “It could be worse.” Or, “If you don’t stay strong spiritually, you will never be healed physically.”
It’s hard knowing what to say when people are struggling. I understood this looking at the crying woman in the mirror, myself. I felt compassion for all those people looking in trying to bring comfort with their words. I understood, again, how important it is to use my own words carefully when I am encouraging others.
Getting the news of my cancer recurrence left me sobbing last Tuesday. I cried from a deep place of pain most of the day, and even for the next two days. My mind went to those places where I saw myself suffering through great pain and weakness, then laid out in a coffin. I imagined my family sorting through my things, and overheard my sisters talking years from now about their sister who passed away in her 40s.
I know that the word Cancer takes us those places. My cancer has taken you to some of those places for me.
But then I met with my doctor, and heard him tell me that I’m actually doing pretty well, that it’s good that it took three years for the cancer to come back, and even better that it’s just in the one spot. I listened hard when my nurse said to think of this as a chronic illness and then told me stories of other patients who are still living 12 and 15 years after their diagnosis, having treatment now and then, but still living.
And on Saturday, I finally swore off for good all of those websites and Google searches and research findings that quote statistics and five-year-survival rates but have absolutely nothing to do with me.
When Jesus says that I can bring my anxieties to Him and he’ll swap them out for peace, He means it. But he doesn’t want me to go sabotaging His work in my heart by reading worst case scenarios or taking every awkward comment the wrong way. He means for me to believe what is true about my situation.
I hate cancer. I hate what is does to us physically. I hate what it does to us mentally.
But I am not my cancer. I am more than that. And right now, I need to keep hearing stories of hope, survival, creativity. I need for you to tell me about your mom who is still living after cancer; I need to know that it’s good and right to have hope; I need to know that the healing is in God’s hands.
Friends, thank you for breathing life into me with your words.