The Gift of Radiation
Begrudgingly I walked into the Breast Center for my annual mammogram on April 1. “Why am I such a rule follower,” I asked myself as I waited my turn on the mashing machine. No family history, no risk factors. “Maybe I should do this every two years.” Four days later a phone call from a cheerful voice saying I needed to return for higher resolution images. “But it’s probably nothing,” she said. More smashed flat pictures taken, more waiting. Then the doctor came in with his summary. “It’s not the worst, it’s not the best. We need to do a biopsy.”
My husband and I gave thanks and moved ahead into the unknown. Scheduling proved a challenge, but I wanted this over with so I could move on with my life. I took the first available slot, the 18th. We were out of town when the next phone call came. I had just lifted my fork with my first bite of breakfast when I saw the hospital number on my cell. Anxious pleasantries exchanged; then the bomb fell with three words I did not understand ending with an unmistakable fourth. Carcinoma. Appetite gone, shock filled my stomach instead.
In the Providence of God our days were so full I could not sink into self-absorption easily. The wedding of a delightful young woman, her parents our lifelong friends, Easter Sunday joys, and a tornado that ripped through our neighborhood on Monday night the 25th kept my eyes outward. Our yard, fences, deck, and porch were buried and broken under the branches and trunks of thirty trees. Of five entrances to our house only one was not blocked. We were elated to be alive, not fearing the possibility of death.
Four days later I was under the knife due to the great kindness of a surgeon friend who reserved me a time slot on his surgery schedule before he left on vacation. And then finally a phone call with good news. Cancer cells are gone and the margins were clear. “Go on with your life,” which for us was a long planned first ever trip to Israel, “and we’ll talk more when you get back.”
Early June found us back at the medical complex. Recovery good. Prognosis good. “But let’s look at radiation to be sure no stray cells remain.” Radiation is every day for 33 days. That’s six weeks and 3 days. And it needed to begin now, not this fall, not in January when it appeared more convenient. Another decision. Another adjustment of life to the unexpected.
This time I did not give thanks. Instead I chose to open my hands and receive this interruption, this unforeseen plan, this path as a gift. All I had scheduled had to be cancelled so that all my days could revolve around daily trips to the radiation therapy facility. Another kind of numbness set in. Cancer is an equalizer. Sitting with other women in a waiting area, all shrouded in ugly shapeless gowns, clears the lenses. Who are they? Who am I? What is God up to?
After the first ten sessions I found a rhythm to my daily drive to the city. Walking into the doors with cancer radiation therapy in block letters at eye level ceased to feel like an assault. It wasn’t a time to be endured until normal returned. “More than conquerors” described me now. This new normal was good. Incomprehensibly it was becoming a gift.
An older woman was in the ugly gown room when I returned from my daily dose one day. I had noticed her several times walking slowly, cautiously across the parking lot with a man always holding her hand. He seemed so attentive to her, so unencumbered by her slow pace on steaming asphalt. Was he a son or her husband? When I asked, this one-breasted woman, aged by her 20 years of battling cancer, spoke gratefully of a husband’s tender love. Reverence. Patience. Image of the Father’s tender care for those He loves. A gift to her. A gift to me.
The days of my gift gained speed. Then the last week dawned. Anticipating the arrival of all our children and grandchildren on the day after my last treatment kept me busy with grocery shopping and cooking and organizing for the arrival of the 27. Unexpectedly I was surprised by two days of sadness. How could I be mourning the end of protons and neurons invading my body? Impossible.
Angie and Deanna walked in after giving me my final daily dose on Friday, one ringing a little bell, the other bringing a photocopied graduation certificate. Silly little ceremony on the surface, but surprisingly meaningful to me. I hugged them both, grateful for their kindness to me day after day. And instead of walking out jubilant I felt that sadness again.
The gift had ended. Overcomer was going back to normal and it felt odd. Acknowledging the interruption as sacred welcomed the Holy One into my days of treatment. I had learned the truth before that the trials God brings are always for my good and that He is more near than in the normal I love and worship. But I forget so quickly.
It has been difficult to put all of this into words. Explaining the mysteries of God’s work? Describing the unseen? My attempts seem feeble, shallow, child-like. A rude interruption over 33 days became an experience of freedom and even joy as He lifted me above simply enduring to become an overcomer. And I am grateful for the miracle of grace, grateful to belong to the Creator who still works wonders to behold. Most of all I am grateful to have experienced the presence of Mystery Himself.