I measure my life in six-month increments, and I am ok with that. Every six months for the past four years, I make a pilgrimage back to my breast cancer doctor's office to determine if the cancer has returned. This is standard operating procedure for cancer survivors. Screenings for some are every month, or every three months. The goal is to catch the cancer if it returns.
When I drive to the doctor's office, I feel like a pilgrim flocking to Mecca, who is praying in a heightened fervor. The pilgrim goes for a religious experience. My visit to the doctor is a religious experience too. Once I hear him say, "All is well, the cancer has not returned," the tiny examination room becomes a sanctuary and I shout "Thank you Jesus" at the top of my lungs. I am not ashamed of my exuberance. It feels good to be alive and I am giving God praise.
According to the American Cancer Society, a study from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that, "About 1 in 5 breast cancer survivors who have completed 5 years of adjuvant therapy (such as chemotherapy and radiation) suffer a recurrence within the 10 years after their treatment."
The word recurring haunts me and keeps me mindful of my six-month time tables. While I do not like the recurring nature of cancer, I do like the recurring nature of God. God is not only recurring, God is ever lasting, and wherever I am in the cancer battle, God is there too. I can relate to the words of the Psalmist, "I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence." (New Living Translation)
My doctor and I are a team. We are both believers in Christ, living off of the Word of God. During each visit he checks the area where the cancer showed up the first time with a physical examination. A mammography machine detected the cancer originally, yet my doctor does not rely on a machine to determine any reoccurrence in my body. A part of me gives credence to a machine that peers into flesh to detect a carcinogen. Another part of me understands that machines are not necessary all the time. God does not need a machine to look inside us and determine what is going on. Jeremiah 12:3 says, "But You know me, O LORD' You see me; And You examine my heart's attitude toward you." (New American Standard)
Examinations and machines aside, no one can be certain where cancer will return in the body. There are no rules when dealing with cancer. Cancer does not adhere to any standards or regulations. Cancer does not discriminate. Cancer comes to destroy. That's why faith has such a crucial role in survivorship. Who can endure cancer without God? I can't understand how an atheist battling cancer does it alone. Without God, I would have lost my mind during the uncertainties and horrors of this disease. Ultimately, cancer took away both of my breasts, but it did not take away my faith. My faith is now stronger because I have been through the fire of a major illness.
Nevertheless, every six months, fear creeps up. When it does, I struggle to summon up the entire God in me for those visits to the doctor.I try to suppress fear by praying and reading scripture. Fear comes anyway. I've learned that this fear has a God ordained purpose in my life. It drags me into a very vulnerable place that is located between life and death. It is a place between crushing depression and unspeakable joy. This is a place where I have nothing else to lean on but God. God wants me here in order to connect and get my unwavering attention. Can I learn to want what God wants? All the outer stuff that I enjoy is utterly useless. The only thing that matters is holding on to God's proverbial unchanging hand. Will I live or will I die? Only God knows.
This is not hyperbole. Only fools take cancer for granted. Only fools say to themselves, "I survived cancer, and it is gone forever." I am a realist who is happily living in the hollow of God's hands. My greater task is getting comfortable with either scenario—that will take some time.
For now, I am living six months at a time, praying that the tiny examination room will become a sanctuary of my praise yet again.