May 13, 2017

What My Wife’s Cancer Taught Me

Mark Eaton, Indiana Conference

A little more than three years ago, my wife, Betty, went in for a routine colonoscopy. Neither of us thought much about it. She was due for one. Insurance would pay 100 percent. The worst part was drinking the brew they prescribe to “clean you out.” The actual procedure was entirely painless and uneventful.

A week later, we went to the doctor to hear the results. He called me into his office. “Mr. Eaton, I have bad news. Your wife has cancer.”

It was a deer-in-the-headlight moment. I couldn’t speak; I couldn’t move; I couldn’t think. The doctor, sensing my shock and disbelief, pointed to the scan of the 2.5 cm tumor. “She will need radiation, chemotherapy and surgery.”

To me, it was the worst news possible as I had seen what those therapies had done to others. In a moment, my whole world collapsed.

Thus began a three-year journey of hope and high expectations followed by tears and despair. It did not end as we had hoped and prayed for; nevertheless, both of us held fast to the promise of healing in the resurrection.

When passing through such valleys of life, I believe one learns lessons that one would not learn otherwise. It was true in my case. Please allow me to share a few of them.

Church Matters

Betty was born to devout Seventh-day Adventist parents. Both were deaf and severely handicapped in speech. Consequently, the State determined that they were unable to fulfill their responsibilities as parents. She was placed in a Seventh-day Adventist home in Battle Ground, Washington, United States. While it was very gracious for this Adventist couple to accept her, she, nevertheless, felt unloved by them. The members of the Meadowglade Adventist Church in Battle Ground sensed Betty’s need for love and support and abundantly supplied it. She often told me that the church became her real family.

The lack of family love left an emotional scar that Betty carried with her the rest of her life. She continually sought to fill her emotional and social needs with loving relationships in church. Sometimes she was successful, sometimes not.

When Betty and I moved to Indiana five years ago, we joined the Cicero Church. Betty immediately sensed the same love and caring that she had grown up with in Meadowglade. In her struggle with cancer, the blessing of that love cannot be overstated. She told me many times, “Mark, I love this church. They love me. I never want to leave it.” She died in the arms of a loving, caring and compassionate church family.

Our Witness Matters

We little realize our influence upon others. I have a sister who, with her husband, enjoyed very successful careers in the federal government. She chose early in life not to join my journey of faith. However, she has watched Betty and me and our life of service to the church over the years. Nothing seemed to change her attitude until Betty was diagnosed with cancer. She observed closely how we dealt with this tragedy. And what she saw profoundly impressed her. “Mark,” she commented time and time again, “it is your faith that has sustained you through this.”

She also was deeply impressed by the love and support we received from the Cicero Church. She attended the funeral service and observed, “Mark, you have tremendous support from your church.”

It has changed her attitude toward my Adventist faith from one of disdain and indifference to one of profound respect. The lesson here for me is that we witness in much more profound ways in tragedy than we do in normal times.

Our Words Matter

Betty was a teacher, and she loved teaching. Several years ago, Betty was teaching in a church school, using peanuts in her class as an illustration in arithmetic. Unknown to her, one of the students had a severe allergy to peanuts. When Betty discovered this, she apologized profusely to the parents. No harm came to the student. The parents accepted the apology and all seemed well.

Some church members, however, learned of the mistake, posted it on social media and portrayed it as a deliberate attempt to harm the student. It received so much exposure that Betty was deeply humiliated. Around that time, I had an invitation to accept the position of secretary-treasurer in another conference. She begged me to accept it. I did.

Several years later, a physician friend of mine commented, “Mark, it was that experience that probably caused your wife’s cancer.”

Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of tongue.” This experience reminded me of the profound impact my words have on the well-being of others.

Faith Matters

This is my first close-up experience with death. I was with Betty in the hospital room when she died. I was at the gravesite when they lowered the casket into the ground. Watching her die overwhelmed me with a sense of finality. I felt like this was the end—that I would never see her again.

But faith looks beyond the appearance. It grasps the promise that Jesus will return and restore our dead to life. This was the faith of Job when he declared, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25–27).

Betty had that living faith. Just a couple of months before she died, she told me, “Mark, I just hope I feel better in the morning.” Then she paused and added, “Or maybe that grand morning.”

Betty went to sleep on Thursday, January 5, at 5:38 p.m. I do not know the day or hour when she will wake up but the promise found in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17 is sure: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

An original version of this story was published in the Lake Union Herald.