I am in a coffee shop, one of my favourite places to be. Across from me sits a young married couple. They seem happy, casual and comfortable in each others’ company. Decently dressed; fashionable but not pretentious, they’re discussing something everyday-ish, perhaps going through the to-do list for the rest of the day. I can’t hear them and am not trying to, but it seems like that to me.
A large extended family is sitting at another table. They brought their King Charles Spaniels with them (I had to ask). Wonderful dogs. I think the people might be Jewish – it would make sense since I am sitting in a coffee shop in Greenpoint – an area in Cape Town known for a large Jewish community. Their attention is split between feeding the kids, ensuring they’re clean-nosed, minding the dogs, keeping an eye on the phone, making small talk with each other. They, too, look pretty happy.
And what about the waiters? Unless we call for a refill or order some food, we often forget about them. I often think of the movie As Good As It Gets, you remember with Jack Nicolson and Helen Hunt? She played a waitress in the film, trying desperately to take care of her asthmatic son back home. Will they have to go home after the shift and look after a sick kid? Or a drunken mother? Or a parasitical uncle, perhaps?
All these people have something that awaits them at home. Or something that awaits them tomorrow. You just don’t know.
I wrote these first paragraphs a few weeks ago, and little did I know that I wrote these to myself a few days into the future. Because there I was, sipping coffee and just enjoying the process of writing, some seeding material for a blog post I had in mind. Very different to this one, which I ended up writing. But at the time, there was something I didn’t know. I didn’t think we would hear those dreaded words in a few days:
Ronel, you have cancer
The news was pretty shocking. Just like that, my wife has joined the “very special club” of those battling cancer, as one of our cancer-surviving friends calls the group of people walking this journey. Stage IIIc Ovarian Cancer. Statistically, 39% of women who have this prognosis will be alive in 5 years.
We could feel God’s presence and his guiding hand right from the start, though. Ronel saw the right doctors at the right time, some of them colleagues, in a matter of days rather than the usual weeks. She got the scans, tests and doctors’ consultations in a way that could only have been because of The Father’s guiding hand.
Some good news is mixed with the bad; although the cancer is aggressive and has already spread beyond the adjacent areas, the cancer is not rare, and the medical treatment plan is a fairly well-trodden path.
As a matter of priority, Ronel will require a hysterectomy. Additionally, the surgeons will try to cut out whatever else they can during the procedure. Dubbed by one patient found via Dr. Google as the MOAS (mother of all surgeries) and euphemistically called a “debulking” process by the medical industry. This will be followed by chemotherapy of around six months after she has recovered from the operation. God willing, of course.
We have been looking into the cancer clubhouse through several windows over the years, but we have not been inside the club until now. We have seen it through the windows of a brother, a sister, a father, uncles, aunts, and friends. We could see, sometimes help, sometimes encourage, sometimes counsel. And, to our constant surprise, these windows also allowed us to be counselled, encouraged, helped, and provided with perspective by these special club members.
Insights from other C-Club members
Talking about “our” journey instead of “Ronel’s journey” is an example of giving perspective from a fellow club member. Chrizane du Plessis, who wrote about their cancer journey on our site, was such a help to us in these past few days. I have re-read her account of how they are dealing with Fanie, her husband’s “friendship” with this dreaded disease over the years. If you find it weird that she suggests you start a friendship with cancer, read her post!
I reread it through some new lenses this time, not only as a great blog post that blessed a large number of people but as a source of insight, advice, perspective. Who would have thought that in a little under a year after that post has been published, it will also be speaking directly into our lives as well?
Without counsel, plans fail, but with many advisers, they succeed. – Proverbs 15:22
The fact that the cancer journey is an “our” journey, not a “he/she” journey, was a helpful insight from her blog post. But, I’d say membership to the club remains exclusive to the cancer patient. No matter how much support there is for these brave souls from their travel companions, unavoidably, some aspects are like single tracks on a mountain bike trail – you ride it alone, albeit with The Chief Counsellor who never leaves our sides, for
The Spirit helps us in our weakness – Romans 8:26
The Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God – Romans 8:27
The process of grief
Being aware of the stages of grief is quite a helpful framework for us. These are:
- Shock and denial
- Pain and guilt
- Anger and bargaining
- The upward turn
- Reconstructing and working through
- Acceptance and hope
We find ourselves jumping around between these stages a little. Right now, I mostly camp out in stages 2, 3, and 7. And sometimes, we jump right back to step 1. For Ronel, it will be different. For each one of us, it will be. But my “pain and guilt” stage is not the same as Ronel’s. Our minds can be pretty creative and random sometimes. If I had to catalogue my stage two items right now, it would go something like this:
- Am I going to be able enough as a husband to help Ronel carry the load?
- How am I going to find a way to balance the nursing, the fathering, and the mothering that will need to be done by me?
- Am I going to be able to create the necessary mind spaces to properly pay attention to my work, which is crucial to help fund this journey and deal with the responsibilities at home?
- Since my kids are pretty mature and committed to their various school responsibilities, how will I refrain from becoming distant to them and not providing enough help and support when needed?
- Who is going to help them with their homework?!
- Who is going to cook for us every day?
Actually, this last one is not entirely true. We quickly learned that the default way people would like to offer help is via food donations. This gesture is much appreciated and is a blessing to the whole family. However, sometimes this can also be a bit of a mixed blessing! For one, I actually like preparing an evening meal – it is often part of my daily “shutdown” routine to wrap up the day’s work. Also, our ageing freezer can take only so much before it starts to rebel. And lastly, Ronel is not allowed to eat half of the meals because of the special diet she needs to follow as part of her treatment plan (but don’t worry – the rest of us can!).
Having said all of this, it is a genuine and practical way for people to show their love and support, and for that, we have deep gratitude as long as it does not cause unnecessary stress, feelings of guilt or cause people to spend money on something that they can’t afford to do.
Which we know sometimes happen as well.
Ok, off the food topic…
These are primarily practical things. But the mind also wanders to the more esoteric planes:
- What if this journey is prolonged into a multi-year one?
- How would life look like when there is a persistent illness in the house? Will I cope with it?
- What if this journey is a short one and Ronel goes to be with the Lord?
- What if this journey is a short one and the Lord decides to heal her, actually!?
- How would life look like if it is just me and the kids without Ronel? She is a great wife and mother, and we depend on her for so many things.
- What about all the financial burdens that typically comes with prolonged cancer treatments, even with good medical aids?
- Is our last wills and testaments sorted out and adequate?
- Being ridiculously bad with admin (both of us), do we know where to find the information needed in any of the many scenarios we might be living through.
The mind works in interesting ways. It can jump from the essential things on these lists to the most esoteric without any problems and in a matter of seconds, and without any warning.
Looking over these lists I’ve made, I am reminded of a recent message preached at our church. One can quickly develop an entirely inward-focused viewpoint, zeroing in on the “I”. Things “I” need to do”. Things “I” need to take care of. Things “I” need to think about. Things “I” need to cope with. Isn’t the Apostle Peter crystal clear when he writes:
Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. – 1 Peter 5:7
Didn’t King David go through much deeper valleys than I, and yet he expressly writes:
The Lord is my Shephard, I shall not want? – Psalm 23
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. – Psalm 119:105
In your strength I can crush an army; with my God I can scale any wall – Psalm 18:29
What is truly amazing is the messages of support and love we have received from both our Christian and non-Christian friends. We also have an incredible church community. Messages of encouragement, picking up on the Apostle Paul’s reminder to Timothy to
…exhort, with complete patience and understanding – 2 Timothy 4:2
helps us to keep an eternity-centred perspective.
When the news of cancer hits a family, it can cause an absolute whirlwind of activity, discussion, worry, tears, but also laughter, encouragement, love and a whole lot more. In this whirlwind, the questions people ask or the advice they offer help keep some perspective. Sometimes, the questions that they have about our journey makes us think in new ways, not considered before.
The purpose of trials
Sometimes the questions in our heads are pretty unpleasant (read my list earlier). But by grace, we have been spared some of them. For example, some people on this journey ask, “why me, why now?” or some derivative thereof. We can honestly say that this is not a question that popped into our minds. Well, I should clarify. Typically, these questions are directed at God in anguish, anger and incrediluity. From an individual standpoint and as a family, we can honestly say that we have first-hand experience in how God is present in extraordinary ways when he puts his children through complex trials. We know that when God speaks through the words of James in chapter 1, we know that these troublesome times will ultimately be good for us.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. – James 1:2-4
God designs trials to shape or teach us something, and he is with us every step of the way.
Another thing we have had strongly reconfirmed is that experience gives you credibility. In this case, walking the cancer journey gives you real credibility when talking with others who’ve been there before you. Credibility to help and love people in authentic ways.
Apart from shaping and teaching us, as James indicates, he also gives us trials and the necessary comfort to comfort others. Paul describes Yahweh as…
the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Although we sincerely appreciate everybody’s support and prayers, “club members” offer a unique perspective and teach us about the nuances that can only come with first-hand experience. And so I want to give special mention and thanks to those who’ve used their own shoes in which to walk this path, who have taken the trouble to reach out.
May I encourage you to keep advising, helping, guiding and supporting those added to your number? We have seen how the club members who can do this find so much joy, spiritual growth, and energy from using their condition to support others. They are truly helping to comfort those because they have been comforted by God.
The starting pistol has sounded, the journey has begun, and the club membership confirmed.
We have the Father, giver of everything good, the One who said that trials would come on earth, that everyone will die, and that everyone will be resurrected. Those whose sins are covered by His Son will live with him.
Perhaps Heaven is closer than we think, or maybe the earthly sojourn will last a while longer. Who knows?
And for that, we’re thankful.