When we’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, we face an avalanche of feelings. We may feel like young children who need to be held and comforted by a loving parent. We begin to grasp how fragile our lives are. And we may become more aware of how much we need God. And yet, at a time that we need God most, we may find it difficult to turn to God with our feelings.
But we are invited to go to God with all our feelings. And unlike parents who are displeased with their children, God welcomes us to be honest about what we’re experiencing and feeling.
Gerry turned to God with all her feelings after she was diagnosed.
I felt like a little child, nestling in God’s bosom or sitting on his lap and saying, “I’m so scared. Help me!” It’s pretty basic. I wanted so much to be a very spiritual person going through this, and I don’t know what that’s like. I don’t know how we are spiritual, going through it; there’s no code for that. All I could do was be real.
Gerry took her feelings to God with the trust and honesty of a child, which is exactly what God invites us to do. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, is made up of people whose hearts are like those of little children (Matt 19:14).
Three of the feelings we commonly face following a diagnosis of breast cancer are fear, anxiety, and sadness. When we identify those feelings and take them to God, we are invited to receive God’s compassion and comfort.
Our emotional state immediately following our diagnosis may be one of numbness and disbelief. We may be so overwhelmed by feelings that we unconsciously shove them aside and don’t know what we’re feeling. We perhaps tell ourselves that the diagnosis isn’t real, that it didn’t happen, that it couldn’t happen to us. Everything within us shouts “No!”
Sherin, a single mother, didn’t talk with anyone about her feelings after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Aside from the fear that she wouldn’t live to see her younger son graduate from high school, she wasn’t sure what she was feeling.
I felt I was walking around in another dimension. It was like knowing a deep, dark secret that I couldn’t tell because I couldn’t put it into words and no one would understand what I was feeling. I had this secret that I couldn’t wipe from my mind and I couldn’t go back, and that depressed me. I didn’t think I was depressed at the time, but I was carrying my feelings inside, and I gained weight and didn’t care a lot about how I looked. I functioned every day without anyone knowing how I felt. Even though I had “let go and let God,” I still had to accept the fact that my life had changed and that it would never be the same.
Although we might fool our conscious minds for a while, our bodies are never fooled. They soon begin to show signs of stress. Gerry found that she often couldn’t finish a sentence. She would stop in the middle and then ask, “What’s wrong with me?” And Connie lost twelve pounds in about ten days, because she didn’t feel like eating.
When we begin to accept the reality of the diagnosis, our feelings can come crashing down on us. Feelings such as fear, anxiety, and sadness. And maybe anger, or disappointment, or a sense of guilt. But we may not want to acknowledge such “negative” feelings to God or to others. A widespread belief among Christians is that the only emotions that are acceptable to God are the positive ones. If we’re afraid, we’re not following the scriptures that say, “Do not fear”; if we allow ourselves to feel anger, it has to be “righteous anger”; if we’re sad or depressed, we’re not allowing the “joy of the Lord” to fill our hearts; if we’re anxious, we’re disobeying the command to “not be anxious about anything.”
Some of us have no problem accepting “negative” emotions. We might believe that all emotions are a gift from God, and so we have learned to be honest with him and with close friends about all that we’re feeling. We might think of the Psalms, in which David felt free to cry out to God with such painful questions as, “Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (Ps 88:14).
But when our lives are suddenly threatened by breast cancer, we may find it difficult to face the depths of our emotions, and we may not see them as a gift. We know we can’t make the fear, anxiety, sadness, and other unpleasant feelings go away simply by praying more or trying harder or “claiming” a scripture. And yet we need to know that God accepts us in the midst of what we’re feeling.
Our feelings about our diagnosis are probably mixed. Fear may be the predominant feeling. Anxiety and sadness may be tied for second place one evening, and by the next morning one or the other may have displaced the fear. Somewhere inside us may lurk some anger, or disappointment, or guilt feelings. Our mixed feelings can even fluctuate from hour to hour. We need God to help us identify what we’re feeling and help us respond to those feelings.
Facing Our Fears
Chief among our fears is that we’re going to die and that it may be soon and it may be painful. Because we all know people who have died of cancer, we tend to associate cancer with death. So the moment we’re diagnosed with cancer ourselves, we wonder if we’re next. Margaret, for example, describes the fear of dying that she used to experience: “It’s that initial response that stops everything cold; it goes into suspended animation, and life just stops.” Gerry wondered, after hearing her diagnosis, if she should plan her memorial service. And Connie, who was told she had a virulent form of cancer, was concerned about having time to “get things in order. I know I’m going to go to heaven,” she says. “But wondering how I was going to get there made me fearful, because of the pain and the unknown.”
No matter what we believe about life after death, we tend to fear death itself—or specifically the process of dying. We’re afraid of how the intense, ongoing pain might feel when our bodies break down and quit functioning. We’re afraid of being confined to a bed and having to depend on others to take care of our every need. We’re afraid of having to say good-bye to those we love. Our fear of dying is useful in one way: it motivates us to do everything possible to survive. But it’s also an all-consuming power that only God can help us face. We need him to walk through that fear with us.
It’s almost impossible to ask ourselves, Am I going to die? without also asking, What will happen to my family? Margo’s biggest fear when she was diagnosed was that her children would be left to grow up without their mother. That’s not an unusual fear among mothers, but Margo had already seen with her own eyes what it could be like. Her husband, Wally, had lost his first wife in an automobile accident when his children were young, and Margo had helped Wally raise them through adolescence and into adulthood. Remembering how they had been impacted by their mother’s death, she was frightened that the two children born later to her and Wally may have to suffer the same loss.
Our kids were the same ages as two of Wally’s kids when their mother died, and I thought, This is unbelievable—the idea of the kids not having a mom; I couldn’t deal with it. I knew that Wally would suffer, but the kids—. The pain for them would be indescribable. The loss, the abandonment, the emptiness, the absence of a role model, and the ages of those kids—that’s what my fear was. It’s not right; it’s not fair; it’s horrible to lose a mom. How could this happen to me, not once, but twice?
While it’s difficult for us to think of all that we would lose—particularly our close relationships—if we died, it’s even more difficult to think of what our young children would have to endure in losing their mother. But we may also have deep fears about what our older children, our husbands, and other family members would have to endure.
Our fear about what would happen to our families is just as real as our fear about dying. And we have a God who wants to help us with all our fears.
Facing Our Anxiety
We may become anxious after our diagnosis because we suddenly have no idea what will happen next week or next month or next year. Questions constantly swarm around our minds like mosquitoes at a warm river bank. Will I have to lose a breast? If I need chemotherapy, will I lose my hair and feel sick all the time? How will I look? Will I still be attractive? How many of my normal activities will I have to give up, and for how long? Will my family be OK while I’m trying to get well? And perhaps most importantly, Will my treatments save my life? Suddenly our “normal” lives screech to a halt and dreams are put on hold while our minds spin in a frenzy of uncertainties.
Viola, who has had several recurrences of breast cancer, remembers how she responded the first time she was diagnosed.
I cried with the doctor when I found out I probably had cancer. Then I went to a phone booth and called my friend Diane. I cried with her, and she prayed with me over the phone. My mind was racing from, Am I going to live? to, I’ve got to get the laundry done, groceries bought, and so on, before I go to the hospital.
Viola felt ill-equipped to face all the uncertainties that loomed in her future. But acknowledging her anxieties to a friend helped Viola to do the same with God. And soon her anxieties diminished.
Our anxieties about having breast cancer may so overwhelm us that we can barely function. Maybe we can’t even pray. When that happens, if we can acknowledge our anxieties to a friend who is willing to pray for us, we can be greatly helped. God understands those times, and God is ready to comfort us.
Facing Our Sadness
Sadness settles into our hearts when we’ve begun to accept the reality of our breast cancer. We may experience deep sorrow over all the ways that our lives—and our perspectives—may change as the result of our diagnosis.
As with any major crisis, the experience of breast cancer can make us more acutely aware of how little control we have over our lives, and perhaps how much we need God. We know that life is short and that horrible things can happen to good people. But whether that knowledge is a sudden revelation resulting from our diagnosis or simply a reminder of what we’ve long understood, we grieve over the possible loss of our dreams and hopes for the future.
Rachel grieved over those possible losses, including a loss of innocence about the future:
I had always thought, I’ll live to be ninety-five years old; I have all these long-lived people in my family. I think I was a pretty practical person, but I loved to dream about the future and think about the future as wonderful. Well, all of a sudden, at age forty-five, I’m brought up short, and I’m thinking, My gosh, will I be around next Christmas? Those are hard things to think about when you’ve been a person who’s lived life pretty much in a fun way—in lightheartedness, in those little-girl feelings. I realized that I couldn’t live that way, knowing that I was now living with something that made me vulnerable and that would always be there. I knew that my life was forever changed—that it would never, ever be the same again.
After Bonita was diagnosed, she experienced a deep sadness that turned into depression. In fact, she became too depressed to take proper care of herself. When her husband left for work each morning—on the days that he couldn’t work at home—he drove Bonita to her parents’ house so that she wouldn’t be alone. “I was basically eating and sleeping,” Bonita says, “and trying to smile for my children and trying not to let them see me sad, because they were young. But that was all I could really do.”
God understands our sadness about having breast cancer. The psalms are full of expressions of sadness: “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Ps 13:2a); “My soul is weary with sorrow” (Ps 119:28a); and “My eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief” (Ps 31:9b). When we acknowledge our sadness to God, we invite God to comfort us.
Expressing Our Feelings to God
Margaret’s face went hot, and her hands and feet were tingling. The doctor’s verdict was sending shock waves through her body. On the way to her appointment, she had tried to imagine the worst, based on the tests she had undergone and the back pains she was experiencing. Gall bladder surgery, she had hypothesized. She hated having surgery, so she had asked God to prepare her for the news.
But it wasn’t her gall bladder. The breast cancer that supposedly had been wiped out eight years earlier by chemotherapy was back, and it had spread to her liver and spine. Her doctor guessed she would survive no more than five months—maybe a bit longer with chemotherapy. “Help me, Jesus!” were the only words Margaret could utter. She had prayed the same prayer after her diagnosis eight years ago.
In the midst of Margaret’s shock waves—about ten seconds after she heard the news from her doctor—she felt a peace and an acceptance of the diagnosis settle over her that she knew was from God. And she realized that God was answering both her simple cry for help and her earlier request that she be prepared for the diagnosis.
God knows what we need even before we ask for it; “Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely, O LORD” (Ps 139:4). God didn’t need Margaret to spell out the intricacies of her fears and needs. “Some of the words never came to my lips, because I was incapable of finding them,” Margaret says. “It amazes me that when we are so inarticulate with God, he understands our needs anyway and goes ahead of us.” Even when the best we can manage is a heavenward groan, we can be assured that God hears us.
Sometimes we don’t turn to God because we’re afraid of how God will respond. It’s ironic that although the first question on our minds after our diagnosis is usually, Am I going to die?, that question is one that many of us don’t want to ask God. While the question looms like a dark cloud over our heads, we fight with all our power to make the answer become no. For Margaret, it wasn’t a question. She had just been told, implicitly, that she was going to die. And she turned to God with a general request for help. But she was able to do so, she said, because God was already responding to her fear of dying.
Margaret became unafraid of dying, she said, after she found out that she was going to die of breast cancer. And the peace that she received from God immediately after hearing the diagnosis has continued to this day. She does sometimes fear the process of dying, however.
Every time there’s a fear, I have to ask God to come and help me with it. And I’m learning to remember that he is totally present, in his entire essence, not only indwelling me, but right here with me. And that I don’t have to be afraid, but he’s going to go through this with me. I believe that with all my heart. He’s going to be with me through the whole thing, and he’s not going to allow me to go through anything that he knows I can’t bear or that my husband can’t bear.
By asking God to help her with her fear of the unknown each time she experiences it, Margaret finds that she regularly experiences God’s peace in response to her request.
God offers us peace in response to our anxieties as well as to our fears. How many times have you heard someone—maybe yourself—say, “I know I’m not supposed to feel anxious, but…”? Many of us of us feel guilty when we hear or read the scripture “Do not be anxious about anything…” (Phil 4:6). We tend to assume that it’s our responsibility to get rid of our anxiety, and until we do so, God is displeased with us. However, the remainder of that verse is an invitation: “…but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” We might reword the beginning of the verse to say, “Instead of trying to manage our anxiety by ourselves….” God is urging us to bring all of our anxieties, all of our overwhelming fears and sorrows, to God, who cares for us (see 1 Pet 5:7). God may take our anxieties away or may help us endure them, but God promises to respond to us. And God does not reprimand us for feeling anxious.
One of the psalmists wrote, “I believed; therefore, I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted’” (Ps 116:10). The psalmist believed in a God who was good, merciful, loving, attentive, gracious, righteous, full of compassion, strong, faithful, responsive, and worthy of praise. Because he believed in this kind of God, he boldly cried out to God about his affliction, knowing that God would hear him and respond with compassion and love.
We also can boldly cry out to God because God wants to listen to our fears, anxieties, sadness—all of our feelings—about having breast cancer. We don’t need to be afraid that God is displeased with our feelings or has better things to do than listen to us “complain.” Because we have a good God who is deeply interested in each of us, we can say to God, “I am greatly afflicted”—by our fear that we’ll die, by our anxieties about the unknown, by our sadness over how our lives will change, or by any other feelings.
Receiving Help from God
Elena was scheduled to have a CAT scan, and she was afraid. Her doctor suspected that she had cancer in her liver and in other areas besides her breast. A few days before the appointment, Elena visited a local church that her sister had recommended. After the worship service, Elena told one of the church leaders about her diagnosis and upcoming CAT scan, and he gathered a small group of people to pray for her right then. The group’s prayers had a significant effect on Elena.
When we were praying, there was something so beautiful I felt. I felt that God was with me at that moment. I felt like a lot of energy came into my body. And I said, “They are not going to find cancer in my liver or under my arm or in my neck. Whatever they find, they’re going to find it only in my breast.”
What Elena believed that she was hearing from God turned out to be correct. The scan showed no cancer anywhere except in her breast. God had responded to Elena’s fear even before she had the scan.
Margaret believes that the peace she experienced immediately after hearing her doctor’s diagnosis was only the first of several gifts she received from God. Driving home alone from the doctor’s office afterward, she was reminded of Romans 12:1: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” Margaret knew immediately what God was saying to her. “He wanted to do something new in my life, and it was going to require that I give up everything I have, including my life. And I agreed with him. Now, that’s a miracle.”
God doesn’t always give us immediate peace. Sometimes God allows us to feel the depths of our fears, anxieties, and sadness. And sometimes God seems silent, in spite of our persistent pleas for a response. But God does promise to respond. And we can expect, through that response, to experience more of God’s presence.
Although Gerry reacted with shock when she found out that the walnut-size lump she had discovered was malignant, her spiritual reflexes pointed her in a helpful direction.
I thought, What do I do, and how do I come to grips with this? But my next thought was, I will go to the Rock. So I was looking for psalms that spoke “rock language”—God’s strength—and those were the psalms that comforted me. I wanted something immutable and immovable. Something I could push against that would not give way. I wanted strong reminders of God’s power and strength and protection.
Sometimes it helps to search the Scriptures—especially the Psalms, which are rich with expressions of feeling—to find a passage that specifically describes our sadness. Joan, along with Gerry, found the Psalms helpful.
When I found out that my bones were affected, I related to Psalm 34, which talks about the bones. Verse 20, “He protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken,” was one that I was really hanging onto. I thought, Well, maybe he might think of healing me yet. That was a hard one, because I thought, What does that really mean —”And none of them will be broken”? But that psalm also says, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” [v. 18] and “I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips” [v. 1]. So I said, “Yes, Lord, I will praise you, no matter what.”
Joan has had special prayer services on her behalf at various times, and she has always featured that psalm as one of the scripture readings, because of its emphasis on praising God for his goodness no matter what is happening to us.
The shock of being diagnosed with breast cancer might paralyze us so that we can’t even pray Margaret’s simple prayer, “Help me, Jesus.” However, we need not feel guilty. We’re told that the Holy Spirit “helps us in our weakness” by praying for us, with “groans that words cannot express” (Rom 8:26). When we’re unable to pray, we can also ask others to pray on our behalf. The Apostle Paul says that we need to carry each other’s burdens (Gal 6:2), and that includes allowing others to help us carry the burdens that are too heavy for us to carry alone. When our feelings are so deep that we can’t pray, we can ask other people to do the praying for us. And if we’re able at last to talk to God ourselves, we can feel free to express to God all our fears, anxieties, sadness, and other feelings.
We have a God who accepts us as we are and wants to embrace all our feelings and experiences. God understands our fear, anxiety, and sadness: “The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow” (Ps 116:3). (The Good News Bible translates the last phrase “I was filled with fear and anxiety.”) And God promises to help us: “For I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you” (Is 41:13). Whenever we turn to God with all our feelings, we invite God to respond to us and to be toward us the same compassionate God that the writers of the Bible experienced. And God promises to respond to us with compassion.
Here are some suggestions for responding to your fear, anxiety, and sadness:
- Talk with some compassionate friends about your feelings, even if you don’t want to. Doing so can cause the fear, anxiety, and sadness to diminish.
If you can, share all your concerns with God. For some examples of prayers from the Bible, turn to the Psalms; the third psalm is a good place to start. Look also for verses in the Psalms that describe God with such words as refuge, strength, hope, mercy, and love. Be alert to God’s possible responses.
Find an oncologist you can trust—one who stays up-to-date on the latest treatments. Having good relationships with your doctors can lessen your fears and anxieties.
Avoid reading articles that include statistics on the chances of surviving breast cancer. Remember that your life is in God’s hands.
Educate yourself about your type of cancer. Go to a medical library, and ask the reference librarian for help.
Ask friends to pray for you and with you. If you find that you can’t pray, be assured that God will respond to their prayers for you.
Do at least one thing each day that nurtures you—listen to music, read a good book, take a walk. Expect to receive some comfort from God through these activities.
Questions for reflection or discussion:
What has helped you, or what might help you, respond to your fears, anxieties, and sadness?
How do you feel about sharing your fears, anxieties, and sadness with God? If you have difficulty sharing these feelings with God, what do you need from God that might make it easier for you?