Chapter OneMy own story
"God, You are making a
really big mistake here."
HAD YOU SEEN me that late June morning in 1990, you would
have thought me the picture of perfect health. Dressed in soft
yellow, with my waist-length brown hair glistening in the
summer sun and my smile radiating the deep happiness I felt,
I was sure the colonoscopy test would confirm only a diagnosis
of ulcerative colitis.
After all, I was only thirty-six. I didn't smoke or drink. I had
exercised faithfully for several years, and I ate like a health nut. I
had attributed occasional blood in my stool to an old pregnancy
hemorrhoid and the occasional bowel irregularity to something
I had eaten.
But when the gastroenterologist came to my bedside in
outpatient surgery with the results of the procedure, both my
husband Ralph and I knew immediately that something was
"We found a tumor," he said, simply.
With those four words, my world turned upside down.
There was a pause that seemed to last forever. No one spoke,
and no one looked at anyone else.
"Do you think it's cancer?" I finally blurted out.
The doctor nodded affirmatively as his eyes filled with tears.
I can still see Ralph's ashen face as he stood at the end of the
hospital gurney. This was his worst nightmare revisited. Some
twenty years earlier, when Ralph was only a newlywed, a
doctor had diagnosed his first wife with amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), which is incurable.
"No!" I yelled, over and over, as if somehow the force of my
words could make this nightmare not true. I sobbed and sobbed,
eventually hyperventilating. The doctor motioned to the nurse
to give me more intravenous sedative. I kept thinking how all
the nurses would go home and tell their families about the
patient who "lost it" today.
But I didn't really care what they thought. After all, I was
the one with cancer. And my tears were the only way to
express my feelings at that moment-for me, for our three
daughters, and for my husband. Though as a journalist, words
were my business, no words could fully capture the moment.Shocked and devastated were too mild. It was as if someone had
hit me between the eyes with a brick and I was afraid to get
back up for fear they would hit me again.
I had never given cancer a second thought. No one in my
immediate family or our very large extended family had
battled the "Big C." Some of my friends seemed constantly
worried about getting cancer, including one who often called
me with her "lump of the month" story.
But not me. I had been confident it wasn't going to happen
to me. People with cancer look sick or at least feel sick, don't
they? And, after all that Ralph had endured already, could such
a serious disease strike another spouse? The odds were against
it. Weren't they?
"Do you have a surgeon?" the gastroenterologist inquired.
"No," I muttered. Do people have surgeons in the same way
they have hairdressers? "I've only been in the hospital to give
He said he would arrange a consult.
The half-hour ride home was the longest and quietest of our
sixteen years of married life. There was nothing my husband
could have said to make me feel any better, unless he could
have told me that the entire thing had been a terrible mistake,
the diagnosis a lie.
Five days later I had surgery to remove the tumor and resection
the colon. I was told that if the cancer had been caught in
the early stage, I would be considered cured and need no further
treatment. But if it had advanced to the lymph nodes or beyond,
I would have at best a 50 percent chance of surviving with the
help of chemotherapy and/or radiation.
I begged God for the former. I endlessly explained to Him
why that would be so much better.
Three days later, at 7 A.M., the surgeon and his resident
delivered the pathology report. I could tell from their body
language that the news wasn't good. They stood against the
wall at the end of my hospital bed, as far away from me as they
could get and still be in the same room.
"Cancer was found in five of twenty lymph nodes," the
surgeon explained matter-of-factly. "You will need chemotherapy
Again I cried, but no one moved toward me to comfort me.
"Have you ever known anyone who underwent chemotherapy?"
he asked, seeming to grasp for words in order to
continue the conversation.
I nodded, recalling a fourteen-year-old girl who had died
from bone cancer and a young mother who had died with a
brain tumor. Their images flooded my mind. Again, I
Still, neither doctor moved toward me, but instead the
surgeon called a nurse to help me breathe into a little paper
bag. How I wished the doctor had at least held my hand for a
moment or just patted my shoulder and told me that this was
not an automatic death sentence.
"Do you want me to call your husband?" the doctor asked,
still at the foot of my bed. I nodded between sobbing gasps
into my little brown bag.
Now I was really frightened. I desperately needed Ralph. But,
for whatever reason, the surgeon did not call him. So for three
hours I lay in the room thinking about what it was going to be
like to have chemotherapy pour through my veins. I had a little
conversation with myself as I tried to control my weeping.
Get a grip on yourself, my head told my heart. What are you
so afraid of? Nausea and vomiting? You were sick night and day
for six months with all three of your pregnancies. Mouth sores?
You've had them before. Needles? You're not afraid of them.
Losing your hair? It'll grow back. Don't be so vain, my head
stated matter-of-factly. But my heart didn't buy it. I just cried
harder as I stroked the hair that I desperately wanted to keep.
Yes, that's what I'm afraid of, I admitted. I don't want to look
sick for my children and my husband. I can't imagine watching
my hair fall out. I disliked the vanity of my feelings, but it was
how I felt.
I finally called Ralph at 10 A.M. I was shaking so badly my
voice was barely audible, and he kept asking me to repeat
"It's bad," I told him. "I need you right away."
I couldn't even get my lips to form the word chemotherapy.
The fear of facing that, for me, was worse than the initial
shock of cancer.
Ralph arrived shortly. At about noon the surgeon strolled in
and said he had just tried to call my husband but there was no
answer. "By the way," he added, "did I mention that you won't
lose your hair with the chemo?"
I didn't know whether to hug him or smack him.
Baldness or not, this nightmare was not going away. I became
consumed with thinking about dying. Almost any personal
question made me cry, especially anything that reminded me of
our daughters, then eight, ten, and twelve years old. Will I see
them grow up? How will they make it without me?
Lying in that bed, I had lots of time to talk with God,
whom I thought had made a big mistake in my life. I told
Him so in no uncertain terms. I knew the promise in the
Bible in Romans 8:28 that says He will cause all things to
work together for good, but I also knew that this promise
sometimes can take a while to happen, and I wasn't interested
in waiting that long. I told God I didn't want Him to
make something good come out of the nightmare unfolding
before my eyes. Instead, I wanted Him to take it away.
"You are making a really big mistake here," I fumed. "There's
absolutely nothing You can ever do to make up for this because it
is too awful. And don't think You are going to pull me through
this somehow and I'm going to go and minister to cancer patients,
because I won't do it!"
I think He must have smiled at me like a knowing mother
does with a rebellious toddler at bedtime.
Three weeks after surgery I started weekly chemotherapy
with Dr. Marc Hirsh, an oncologist in Hanover, Pennsylvania.
I had met Dr. Hirsh the previous summer when he had visited
the church my husband pastors. More recently, we had
renewed our acquaintance when I had done a feature story for
the local newspaper about a new cancer support group at the
hospital. I knew he was a Messianic Jew-a Jew who believed
in Jesus (Yeshua) as the promised Messiah.
I wanted Dr. Hirsh and his faith on my healing team. I had
no idea that I would one day end up on his healing team-but
that's getting ahead in my story.
I had never really minded needles, but the chemo needle
was a different story. My veins would move and the nurse
would fish around inside my arm. I felt sick before the drugs
even started. The drug combination I was getting was not as
toxic as most chemo regimes. It usually took weeks for
patients to feel any side effects, I was told.
Not so with me.
I felt sick from the onset, but the antinausea medicine made
me so sleepy I couldn't function, so I chose to be sick instead.
(Thankfully, antinausea drugs that don't cause drowsiness are
I developed mouth sores.
I was terribly fatigued.
My taste buds were shot.
I lost twenty pounds.
Even water made me nauseated, and the outside air smelled so
bad some days that I had to hold my nose just to walk outside.
On top of all that, I was allergic to the main drug. My nose
ran constantly and my eyes watered profusely. (The chemo
scarred my tear ducts so severely that my right eye continues to
water to this day despite two surgeries to correct the problem.)
The palms of my hands and the soles of my feet turned
flame red and felt like they were on fire.
My joints swelled so much that I could hardly bend my
fingers, and I had to walk on the sides of my feet some days.
Three times the skin peeled off my feet.
I experienced just about every possible side effect from the
chemo. All the while, I knew that hundreds of people in sixteen
states were praying for me. So, it seemed logical, at least to my
emotional self, to ask God why everything was so hard.
"Why aren't things going easier for me?" I cried out. "Would
it be too much to ask to feel normal again for just a couple of
hours?" But I heard only silence from heaven.
At that time, the treatment for colon cancer was weekly for
a year (with a break every few weeks). About five months into
my treatments, I was driving to my oncologist's office and talking
"I don't think I can take this anymore," I told Him. (I
figured that since He knew even my thoughts, I might as well
say them out loud and get them off my chest.)
"I've been praying to You and lots of people have been praying
to make this easier on me, but it's getting worse. I'm not a
quitter, so I'll keep going. But I don't know if I can take
another seven months of this," I said as the salty tears rolled
down my cheeks.
When I got into the doctor's office that day, he examined
my hands and feet and said, "I don't think you can take much
more of this. Let's get you through another month. I think if
the chemo is going to work, it's had enough time to do so.
Besides, I think the studies will eventually show that six
months is enough for this treatment." (He was right-standard
treatment for colon cancer is now only six months.) So I hung
on, finishing my chemo in February 1991.
When I returned for my first checkup in May, I was the
only person in the chemo room who wasn't there for a treatment
that day. I knew I should feel happy that I had finished
treatment, but I didn't. As I looked around that room of people
in recliners hooked up to poles with saline-solution bags, I
was overcome with sadness. Some of them looked so thin and
ill, and others looked so tired and afraid. I began to weep.
I wanted to take away their pain, but I couldn't.
I wanted to give them peace, but I couldn't.
Then God spoke to my heart: "But you know the One who
can, and you can tell them about Me."
"But I just want to put all this behind me and go on with my
life," I argued. "Besides, I don't want to hang around people
with cancer. It will be depressing and they'll die and I can't
handle it. I won't do it."
A few weeks later, however, I came up with an idea that I
figured would suit both God and me: I would start a cancer
support group, and God would have to let me live because
everyone in that group would need me!
But as I spent time each day praying to God, He reminded
me that He doesn't play "Let's Make a Deal." He wanted me to
get involved-no guarantees.
If you've ever sensed God wanted you to do something, but
you were reluctant, you probably also know you didn't have
any peace until you said yes.
Finally, like a pouting child, I gave in: "I'll do it, but I won't
like it," I told Him, temporarily forgetting that my primary
concern was to obey, and He would take care of the rest.
I started the Cancer Prayer Support Group in October 1991
with four people. My intent was to have a one-hour, once-a-month
meeting. That shouldn't be too depressing, I figured.
But almost immediately I could see that the people coming
to the group needed more support than that. Not only that,
but I found that I actually felt better after the meetings rather
than worse. So we started meeting twice a month and have
been doing so ever since. And guess what soon became a great
source of joy in my life-the support group! As the months
rolled by, I secretly began to pray that I would be able to quit
my job and volunteer with cancer patients full-time.
In July 1995, on the fifth anniversary of my cancer surgery,
I told our congregation how God had blessed me through my
cancer experience-through my friends in the support group
and through Marc Hirsh and his wife, Elizabeth, who had
become very close friends and prayer partners with my
husband and me.
I concluded with this sentence: "Someday I hope I can quit
my job and minister full-time, sharing God's peace and love
with cancer patients."
I knew it was an unrealistic wish-there was no way financially
that we could afford for me to quit my job and volunteer.
But less than a year later, my prayer became a reality when Marc
asked to meet with Ralph and me. He said he had been praying
about something and felt it was the right time to ask.
"Would you join our clinical staff, ministering to the
emotional and spiritual needs of our cancer patients and their
families?" he said. "I will match whatever you're making at
your present job."
I tried to sound very spiritual. "I'll pray about it," I said.
But Ralph gave me an incredulous look and said, "You've
been praying about this for a year.