Three words changed my life: “You have cancer.”
I can still feel my doctor’s steady gaze as he presented the pathology report. I was blindsided. How could this be? To say it was a shock is an understatement. I had just moved to Maryland, started a new job, and was settling into a new life. A lingering cough and a routine wellness exam led to a bevy of tests culminating in that moment. Upon hearing the diagnosis, friends and family offered encouragement: “Treatment options are excellent now” or “Don’t worry, you’re young. You’ll be fine!” While I heard these words, they didn’t bring any peace.
I remember one stressful cycle of coming home after a full day at work, getting on the computer and searching for hours, looking up every word from the test results and pathology reports; reading research about life expectancies, survival rates, and various treatment options; and the stories of other people. I learned that in the United States, one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer yearly. Globally, the disease represents one in four cancers, surpassing lung cancer. In women under 45 years of age, breast cancer is more common in Black women, who are also more likely to die from the disease. A person’s risk doubles if he or she has a first-degree relative (a mother or a sister) who has had breast cancer. For 85 percent of the 2.3 million who will be diagnosed globally, though, there is no family history. As a Black woman under age 45 with a strong family history of cancer, I checked several boxes.
I became obsessed with reading the stories of others. I remember diligently following one particular blogger as she navigated her diagnosis. Her candid stories, upbeat and captivating, sparked hope. For several months her words gave me courage until I came upon a final post, written not by her but by a family member, thanking all of her followers for their concern and prayers. She had succumbed to the disease. I was crushed.
Inundated with scans, biopsies, blood tests, surgeries, treatment options, and volumes of information on the Internet, I could not shut down the worry, anxiety, and stress. As a result, I couldn’t sleep or be at peace. I needed to find a way to continue to trust God. And so it was during this dark, uncertain period that I replaced the three words that scared me, “You have cancer,” with three words that encouraged me as I moved through this difficult time: prayer, praise, and promises.
THE POWER OF PRAYER
One evening, I confided in a dear friend that I was having difficulty concentrating while praying. I would begin to pray, and all these worries and worst-case scenarios would flood my mind. She said, “Don’t worry. I’m praying for you,” and proceeded to offer a heartfelt prayer over the telephone. It might seem like such a simple thing, but her prayer shifted the atmosphere for me. I remember listening to her words and realizing that all I had to do at that moment was agree with her words as she interceded on my behalf. There is power in intercessory prayer, and on that evening, I experienced it firsthand. Matthew 18:10 records the words of Jesus saying, “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you.” This is a powerful promise from the Intercessor Himself, Jesus. We learn in Romans 8:34 that Jesus “is at the right hand of God interceding for us”; in 1 John 2:1, we learn that He is our “Advocate with the Father”; and in Hebrews 7:25, that He lives to intercede for each one of us. He extends to us this same privilege to pray with and for each other.
Writing down my prayers also helped me focus my thoughts. My sister reminded me, “Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend. . . . Prayer does not bring God down to us, but brings us up to Him.” She said, “Listen to me, you need to shut down that computer and write a letter to God.” So, I turned off my computer and began writing my prayers in a prayer journal. Some journal entries were long, some short. Some were hopeful, and others were angry and filled with frustration. The writing process allowed me to put the dark thoughts down on paper and clear them from my mind. Reading these many years later, I can see God’s hand at work in a very tangible way during that dark period. Many of the things I worried about never happened. However, this is not always the case: sometimes, our worst fears come true. What do we do when this happens? How do we, as Christiansliving in a decaying, sin-ravaged world, face the challenges and crucibles that are sure to come?
PRAISE THROUGH SONG
We are encouraged to praise and reminded that in everycircumstance, God is with us: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isa. 43:2). We have confidence in Jesus’ words: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).
Sometimes, words like “praise” and “give glory” are used so often that they lose their meaning. What does praising God and giving Him glory look like in tough times? Cultivating a spirit of praise is not easy when things go opposite to what we anticipate. One author, Gavin Anthony, offers a practical suggestion: “Write down a short list of what [we] know to be the truth about God. Go through the list and praise God for each item.”And, as we reflect on these truths, we’re encouraged to consider how our feelings may change about our situation.
It was uplifting to thank those around me--the chaplains who sat and prayed with me after that first three-hour surgery and the follow-up 10-hour one; the hospital and oncology nurses; and the various physicians who managed my care.
For me, music and singing had always been a big part of my praise experience. I love music—playing, singing, listening—all of it. But as a music lover, I found it difficult to sing or even listen to music: when I did, it triggered bouts of sadness. Sitting in silence was not an option either since my mind would just gravitate to my worries once more in the quiet stillness. So I had to make a conscious decision, moment by moment, to praise God for what He would allow; in line with my prayers or not, I had to decide to trust God’s will. I found that listening to energetic, upbeat music kept me hopeful. J. Carl Laney, in “Cultivating a Spirit of Thankfulness,” says that to cultivate a spirit of praise, one must “acknowledge the sovereignty of God, appreciate everyday things, maintain proper perspective, and recognize that God has given us more than we deserve.”
Psalm 100:4 says, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name!” In addition to thanking God for being God in the situation, it was uplifting to thank those around me--the chaplains who sat and prayed with me after that first three-hour surgery and the follow-up 10-hour one; the hospital and oncology nurses; and the various physicians who managed my care. Writing notes and delivering them was cathartic. This spirit of gratitude was also extended to family members, friends, and co-workers who prayed, called, and visited since each encounter provided an opportunity to praise and thank God for His care during a difficult time.
Within a few months, I rejoined my local church choir and resumed singing with a community of believers. Researchers from Oxford University focusing on the mood-boosting effects of choral music found that full-throated joyful noises (specific reference to amateur, non-professional singers), can do so much for the immune system. Within a choir setting, a rich social bonding takes place and increases feelings of well-being; singing with others also improves breathing, posture, and memory. In some studies, the act of singing releases tense muscles and can reduce pain by increasing positive neurochemicals such as beta-endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. Singing significantly improved my healing journey.
Yet, as the psalmist asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land” (Ps. 137:4)? As exiles on this earth, we face sickness, both physical and mental; death and loss; economic crises; increased crime; global and national conflicts; and a host of crises. Like the exiles of Israel, we only know this crumbling world. We must place our hope in a future that we can only trust exists.
The truth is that we can engage in many practical activities to help guide us through difficult circumstances; we can steel our minds and make conscious decisions to trust and praise God. These are all excellent steps, but ultimately, it is God’s supernatural power that gives abiding peace, the courage to face trials, and confident assurance through each circumstance. We must exercise faith beyond what our eyes can see: “Now faith is the confidence in what we hope for and the assurance about what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1). We must believe that God is and that He is true to his word.
STANDING ON HIS PROMISES
The promises in God’s Word are a sure and constant source of strength. There are two guarantees in this life: First, we will face difficult times, and second, we can stand on God’s promises to walk us through it all. In Psalm 23:4, we are reminded that, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me; and, in Isaiah 41:10, we are told, “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isa. 41:10).
PEACE AND STRENGTH FOR THE FUTURE
Throughout my bout with cancer, prayer, praise, and God’s promises helped me find peace in the assurance that Jesus has conquered sin and its many consequences. Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). What a great comfort and reminder!
We can also participate by strengthening each other as God strengthens us: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor. 1:3-6). I pray that we find opportunities to strengthen each other and those who cross our paths—in the grocery store, at the gas station, or wherever we may find ourselves—with words of encouragement, the simple act of presence, or by “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Eph. 5:9).
Faith-Ann McGarrell is the editor of The Journal of Adventist Education. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.