Whether you turn to the right or the left,
your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying,
“This is the way, walk in it.”
The day after Christmas my husband and I met for the first time with the surgeon. She was the one who would tell me what I needed to have done and what losses I would encounter in the process of treatment.
She told us a great many things that morning—more than I could absorb. The bottom line was that the treatment I needed was not yet clear. The path was uncertain.
To begin with, the surgeon ordered an MRI to get as much information as possible before making a plan. This meant a wait. First for approval of the MRI from my medical insurance provider. Then waiting to schedule the MRI. And, finally, it meant waiting for the results of the MRI.
We walked out of the surgeon’s office that morning without a treatment plan. We knew there were two basic possibilities for this kind of breast cancer. I might be fortunate enough to have a lumpectomy followed by weeks of daily radiation therapy, or I might need to have a mastectomy. The path ahead was not clear.
When we are afraid and the path ahead is unclear, we tend to want to take control. I certainly do. It is not easy to tolerate not knowing.
There are lots of things we can do when the path ahead is unclear. Sometimes collecting more information is helpful. So I started to gather information.
I looked at all the information I could find on the two possible options. And even though I did not know which option I would need to take in the end, I mentally and emotionally “tried on” these two possibilities. I knew that I was trying to prepare myself for what was ahead, even though I did not know what that might be.
It took a while, but I eventually realized that I needed to stop reading about lumpectomies, radiation, mastectomies and reconstruction. The plain truth was that I did not know what was ahead of me. I had more information than I knew what to do with. And the information I really needed, about my specific situation and options, was not yet available. I needed to stay in the place of not knowing.
Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book, Eat, Pray, Love, writes about her very first experience of prayer. She was in a time of great crisis, crying on the floor of her bathroom in the dark hours of the early morning. She found herself praying, “I am in desperate need of help. I don’t know what to do. I need an answer. Please tell me what to do. Please tell me what to do. Please tell me what to do.” After she stopped crying, she found herself in a place of silence. This is how she describes her experience:
I was surrounded by something I can only describe as a little pocket of silence—a silence so rare that I didn’t want to exhale, for fear of scaring it off. I was seamlessly still. I don’t know when I’d ever felt such stillness. Then I heard a voice….How can I describe the warmth of affection in that voice, as it gave me the answer that would forever seal my faith in the divine. The voice said: Go back to bed, Liz. I exhaled. It was so immediately clear that this was the only thing to do…True wisdom gives the only possible answer at any given moment, and that night, going back to bed was the only possible answer. Go back to bed, said this omniscient interior voice, because the only thing you need to do for now is get some rest and take good care of yourself until you do know the answer.*
I had learned in my years recovering from childhood trauma that I was usually given only enough light on the path to see the next step. My job was to simply take that next step, without knowing where all this was going.
So, as I sought guidance about my cancer, I knew the drill. Stay in the dark. Stay right where I was. Be still. Be silent. Pray for guidance. Know that the guidance I needed would come, and, as Elizabeth puts it, “get some rest and take good care of myself until the time when I knew the answer.”
Something the surgeon told us at that first consultation, the day after Christmas, stuck with me. She had told us that some women with this diagnosis opt for double mastectomies and breast implants. I remember being stunned when she said this. It didn’t make sense to me at the time. This breast cancer that I had was not life threatening. It was contained. But some women had double mastectomies with this kind of breast cancer?
A few days after hearing this story, I found myself reflecting on what the surgeon had told us about why a woman would do this. She had explained that some women make this choice, when all they might need is a lumpectomy and radiation, because they do not want to ever have to face this particular threat again. They don’t ever want to be told that they have breast cancer again. They don’t ever want to wait for results from a mammogram again. They want to take charge.
I understood this. I wanted to take charge in some way. I sympathized with these women who made such a radical choice. But I knew that for me, such a choice would be based in fear. And I did not want to let fear guide me.
Seeking guidance from God when the way is unclear is not an easy thing for me. It is something I try to practice in all kinds of circumstances, but it is not always easy. It means waiting. It means living with not knowing. It means not being in charge. It means trusting. It means surrender.
After all the testing and waiting was complete, the surgeon’s best advice was to start by doing a lumpectomy, wait for the results and then see where to go from there. I struggled with following this advice because the surgeon had told me the story of a patient who had gone back into surgery four times, trying to get clean margins all the way around the cancer, only to have to finally give up and have a mastectomy. This did not sound easy to me.
The other thing I wrestled with was that a mastectomy would offer a one percent chance of reoccurrence, whereas a lumpectomy with radiation would leave a five to six percent chance of reoccurrence. That difference may seem rather small, but I now knew what it was like to be told there was a ninety percent chance that I did not have cancer, only to find out that I did have cancer. Every percent seemed big to me.
I weighed all this. And prayed. And talked. And prayed. And sat in silence, listening.
In the end it seemed wise to follow the doctor’s advice. Have a lumpectomy. Take one small step even if there might be several more steps to follow. Don’t get out in front of the advice I was being given.
There was no brick from heaven with a note attached. There was no thunder. The sense of being guided was quiet, subdued even. Like a whisper in my ear, “This is the way, walk in it.”
I told my husband what I was thinking and asked for his input. “I think you are making a good decision,” he said thoughtfully, “you are following the doctors best advice, and that seems wise.”
I never dreamt that the outcome in my case would be so positive. I never imagined that the amount of cancer would be so tiny that I would be told that I did not need radiation. I never thought that I would come out of this so unscathed, cancer free, being told I had only a very small chance of reoccurrence. But I did.
I am grateful that I did not second guess the doctor or run ahead of God’s guidance out of fear. I am grateful that I was given the grace to take one step at a time into the unknown.
Scripture tells us, “When any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5) We often do not know the way. But God does. And God offers to give us the wisdom we need, and promises to give it generously. One step at a time.
When you don’t know what to do…seek guidance.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. What guidance have you sensed from God in this time of difficulty?
2. What guidance do you need right now?
* Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2007), 15-16.