Meet my friend Brooke. Brooke is an an adoring wife and a loving mom. She works at Purdue University as a Lead Instructional Specialist. I've taken Crossfit with Brooke and she is much more dedicated and hardcore than me. She and her family pour into their church family and community. She comes alongside those suffering and walks through their private pain with them. I respect Brooke for all of these reasons.
But much deeper than that, I truly admire Brooke because I know her path has not been easy and yet the light of Christ shines so brightly in her. She has had to make really challenging choices about what she is going to believe about God, and then has stepped out onto the water in faith that He would not let her drown.
Cancer is not a word anyone is thrilled to hear from their doctor. The chances of being cancer-free after a diagnosis varies based upon so many different factors (type of cancer, treatments, general health of the body, genetics, etc.). We've walked the road of cancer in our family, and I have spent many nights crying out to God to take the cancer away from us. Sometimes God does, and sometimes God doesn't. But for those who ask, God always says "yes" as the healer of souls. He will always remove the cancer of enslavement to sin. When we go to the cross of Christ and lay down our arms, God heals. There is no set of variables we have to bring to the table. God heals the spiritually sick not because of the "stage" of our condition, but because of the perfect atonement of Jesus Christ. And so if you are a reader who is desperate for physical healing, I am praying for you today. Truly, I am. But I want to encourage you to seek a deeper healing, a healing of the soul. God will ALWAYS forgive, cleanse, and redeem those who humbly approach the throne of grace and ask for Him.
I am so thankful Brooke is willing to share her story publicly. I have been encouraged as I've watched her story unfold and see her worship Christ in her words and actions. And I hope you are encouraged too! Please consider sharing her story with someone who needs to hear this today.
T R U T H
God is real. In good moments. In bad moments. In moments when I don’t know good from bad. He’s there. And He’s real.
B A C K G R O U N D
In February 2017, when we had been married for almost 13 years and our biological daughter was three-and-a-half, my husband and I felt that God wanted us to adopt a child. Through prayer and research, we decided to adopt a boy from China.
I raced through the paperwork. (It’s a largely useless talent that got put to good use for once!) It’s supposed to take six months to complete a dossier from scratch; I did it in three months. We were so excited. Our families were so excited. Our daughter couldn’t wait to be a big sister. On May 11, 2017, I sent our final forms to our adoption agency.
On May 12, 2017, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
China has lots of rules about who can and cannot adopt. My understanding was that our adoption journey was over (or on hold for ten years, minimum) because of my diagnosis. Losing the son we were already totally in love with and telling our daughter that she didn’t get to be a big sister were the hardest things about my diagnosis; my grief over the loss of our adoption was the reason for my one and only cry during my diagnosis and treatment. (So as not to misrepresent the Chinese adoption laws, you now have to wait three years, not ten, after a breast cancer diagnosis. This change is relatively recent, though, and I didn’t know about it at the time.)
I’ll spare you most of the technical details, with the caveat that, if you’re diagnosed with cancer and want to talk to someone, please contact Alexandra to get my info. Honestly, one of the ways God redeems situations like this is letting me help people who enter the trial of cancer after me. I have been blessed to see the truth of this verse lived out towards me and through me, and I’m always willing to chat: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Basically, I had Stage 3b, ER+, HER-, breast cancer (no BRCA gene!) in my left breast. Because the cancer was found in my breast and several lymph nodes, I had to go all in for treatment: full left-side mastectomy, eight rounds of chemo (once every two weeks), 31 rounds of radiation, full hysterectomy, and ten years of hormone blockers. So we attacked eight full months of treatments and appointments and tests and procedures and surgeries and complications and more. It was grueling, but I learned a few really important things during this time.
L E S S O N S
1. “Do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13b). We are not a people without hope. Praise God! My husband frequently reminds me (and our children) that the things that happen to us are either for our good OR will be redeemed by God. Our world is tarnished by sin and imperfection, even at a cellular level, and sometimes hard things happen. But holding on to the promise that God would redeem this was an incredibly hopeful thought for me. It was beyond me; I often didn’t know how it would look. But God did.
I was also the recipient of incredible, tangible hope from my family and friends. Gifts (including a lavish gift-a-day project headed up by my incredible mom), meals, massages, rides, texts, prayers, everything. I felt loved and supported every moment of my journey. And my husband, oh goodness. He seamlessly took over my responsibilities around the house. (There’s a two-month period where I don’t know what he and our daughter ate for a single meal.) He did it without complaint or (observable) weariness. He did it with a solid love that is a clear glimpse of heaven. Receiving that love from him and from our tribe was a blessing I can never repay. And it was a source of incredible hope during what could have been a very dark, hopeless time.
2. “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light to my path” (Psalms 119:105). Turns out, God and I had different understandings of “a light to my path.” When I got my diagnosis, I wanted to know everything. I wanted to know how each step was going to look. I marked on my calendar when I thought I’d be finished with treatment (I was wrong). And every time I looked to what was ahead, I felt overwhelmed and scared and anxious. When I looked at just the next step — the next test, the next treatment, the next surgery, the next appointment — and no further, I was fine. Weirdly fine. Calm, hopeful, at peace. I wanted the whole path lit up in neon. But God was giving me bright, life-giving light for the very next step.
Once I got on board with that plan, everything got manageable. I still had anxious moments; it’d be a lie to imply otherwise. But during this time, my life continued to be filled with joy. Unspeakable, undeserved, unexpected joy and light.
This is one of my biggest recommendations to someone who is facing something difficult and long and life-altering. Look at only the next step, the next event. The next day, the next hour, the next moment. I truly believe that God will provide what you need for the very next thing. It’s a hard shift to make in some ways, but it is so worth it. Feeling God’s full care each moment is an incredible experience.
3. “And do not call anyone on earth ‘father’ for you have a Father, and He is in heaven” (Matthew 23:8). I am not the ultimate answer for my family. This one might have been the hardest lesson. Fully working through what my daughter’s life would look like without me as her mom was some of the hardest wrestling I did. But I came out of those hard moments a better mom.
Even though I’m still here (and have every reason to believe I will be until a ripe old age), I now spend more time pointing my kids to their Heavenly Father. To their true source of hope and peace and strength and bravery. I am not their ultimate source. I love taking care of them, but they will face things that put me out of my depth. They need a limitless God. Walking through the trial of cancer allowed me to come to grips with that truth in a way that I know will benefit my children throughout their lives.
4. “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but the good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (1 Timothy 2:9-10). Well, this one got through to me. Few things will strip you bare the way cancer treatments do. During this trial, God gave me a new focus on what actually matters.
Hair doesn’t matter. Truth is, I’d always had amazing hair. Thick, a little wave, looked good at any length. And it was gone. But my daughter loved my bald head. (My biggest concern was her comfort with it, so that was a huge blessing.) One of my brothers shaved his head repeatedly until my hair started growing back. My sister-in-law cut her hair in a pixie and grew it back out with me. And now, over two years after my diagnosis, I’m learning to embrace my new curly, unruly, darker hair!
Size doesn’t matter (outside of healthy, doctor-approved boundaries). The treatments for breast cancer often actually cause weight gain, instead of weight loss like I had assumed. (That was a disappointing surprise.) But I’ve learned to be strong and healthy at my new size.
Joy matters. Peace matters. Kindness matters. Grace matters. By removing these little vanities, God has put my focus squarely on my testimony and witness as his beloved daughter. While I still struggle to do this perfectly, it’s been very freeing to have my value shift from anything about who I am to who He is.
And for those of you facing more mundane (but still draining) seasons, I totally recommend working through all of these truths without the whole cancer thing! I am so thankful that God redeemed my darkest moments with life-giving truths because now living my ordinary, wonderful days fully immersed in God’s presence is truly an experience of heaven here on earth.
A D O P T I O N ?
During my treatment, my husband and I talked about whether or not we would continue to pursue adoption one day. I wanted to call it off. The idea of enduring that loss again felt like too much to bear. The idea of seeing my daughter grieve the loss of a little brother again was heartbreaking. The easiest thing to do was to make a definitive decision. To take control in the only way I could. To end the process for good.
But while God was using His Word to teach me incredible truths, He also used circumstances and other people to light the path He had for our family.
I wanted to call off the adoption entirely because that seemed more manageable to me than dealing with the uncertainty of whether or not we’d ever be able to continue the process. But one day God caused me to stumble on a quote from Elisabeth Elliot, “Don’t dig up in doubt what you planted in faith.” It was a gut punch. In the very best way. We had started the adoption process in faith. I decided then not to end it in doubt and fear and worry and the desire for control. I would live with the uncertainty, holding on in faith. We may never be able to adopt, but I wouldn’t be the one who ended the process.
From the time I had told people that our adoption was, at a minimum, on hold for ten years, my husband’s dad wouldn’t accept it. Honestly, it bothered me a little bit at first. He’s an incredible man of prayer and faith, but I felt like he wasn’t listening to me. I tried to explain that China didn’t care about my particular situation. Chinese adoption laws were bigger than me and our family. (I can literally hear him chuckling and saying that our God is bigger than some international regulations.)
My father-in-law was steadfast, and he said he believed we would have our son. He was praying for my healing and for our son, and he would continue to do so. The prayers of this righteous man mattered. Never underestimate the power of being the person who will not quit knocking and praying on someone’s behalf.
I was so blessed to have many friends and family praying without ceasing on my behalf, including some dear friends who even prayed and fasted for me every Friday. If you have a friend going through a difficult time, letting them know that you are a consistent, faithful prayer warrior on their behalf would probably be an incredible comfort to them.
Right at the end of my treatment, our adoption agency called to see how I was doing. In the course of this conversation, they explained that I had misunderstood them from the start. They explained that because my dossier was out of my hands before the diagnosis, we would be able to pick up the process as soon as my doctor cleared me. We would have to be re-approved on the American side (which didn’t have the same mandated waiting periods), but not the Chinese side.
Friends, God had the timing down to the day on this one. If I had gathered any of the many, many forms (from governmental agencies spanning three states) one day later. If the six-month dossier process had taken me even four months, instead of three. If I had noticed the spot that lead to my diagnosis a week earlier. We would have had a full three-year delay. Instead, our agency said we would need to wait only for a doctor’s note saying I was now healthy enough to adopt and that I had a really good prognosis. And they said doctors often won’t write those letters for a year after treatment ends. But this information was still really encouraging. Our potential wait time had been cut from ten years to maybe a year!
My fourth encouraging, path-illuminating moment come when I went in to have this honest conversation with my doctors about when they might be willing to write a letter clearing me to pursue adoption again. My doctors had been very honest with me through the entire process, which was a huge blessing. They gave me the full picture. All the info I needed. They treated me with kindness and truth. In fact, I never googled my diagnosis. Dr. Internet doesn’t know about my particular cells better than my particular doctors, so why would I listen to him? (For what it’s worth, I highly recommend this route. It got me the best info and saved me a lot of unnecessary worry.)
God had graciously dealt with so many of my fears about continuing to pursue adoption by pointing me to the truth in Elliot’s quote, but with this new hurdle, more fears surfaced. If my doctor wouldn’t write the note, we couldn’t get re-approved on the American side, and the process would stay stalled until she got comfortable writing it (if ever!). I had already given my heart over to adoption... again. What if it got stopped, again? Also, if my doctor wasn’t comfortable writing the note, did that mean my cancer was likely to come back? (It didn’t change the stats, of course, but a reluctance to write the letter would make me feel like my future was more uncertain.) As I went into my appointment with my doctor, I decided to stand on God’s promises to put orphans in families and Elliot’s words about continuing in faith. I explained the situation, and I will never forget my doctor’s reply.
“We’ll write the letter. Don’t let cancer stop you from living.”
Her words reminded me that nothing is guaranteed. We have the time we have, and we will be accountable for what we do with it. In her opinion, there was no reason to make my diagnosis any bigger than it was. Would I get cancer again? Anyone can, but probably not in my case. I was diagnosed, treated, cured. I could now move on.
This was one of the most encouraging (non-Scripture) truths I encountered during this process. A hard thing had happened, but God was already in the process of creating beauty from ashes. I didn’t want my fear of the unknown or my distaste for uncertainty to stand in His way!
A D O P T I O N !
In February 2018, about a month after I completed my final radiation treatment, but before my full hysterectomy (which was scheduled for March), our adoption agency called again. A child’s adoption file had been sitting on a bureaucrat’s desk in China waiting for some form for a year. The file was for a little boy whose orphanage had a partnership with our adoption agency — a program that had been disbanded a year earlier. But because this child’s file had been prepared before this disbanding, our agency still got his file. And they wanted to know if we wanted to see it.
We went from thinking we had to wait ten years, to three years, to suddenly being able to choose our wait time (we thought maybe six months for things to settle down), to just as suddenly being presented with a file a month after treatment ended! Did we want to see it? Yes? Yes!
A lot of stuff happened really fast at this point. Lots of updated paperwork, a hysterectomy for me, international travel plans (which now included my brother and sister-in-law who rocked the bald look with me!), preparing our daughter for big changes on the heels of a hard year. And, oh the praising! So many prayers answered! So much joy granted to us! (So much telling my father-in-law he was right... again!)
We brought our sweet son home in June 2018. Just five months after my treatment ended. Writing that, even now, brings me such joy!
Would I have picked this path if it had been presented to me at the start? No way. Would I pick it now? Yes, every time. Because do you know when our son became eligible for adoption? February 2018. One month after I completed treatment.
Our son’s file wasn’t ready in May of 2017 when our process was put on hold for my diagnosis. His file had been created around the time we started the adoption process initially (January/February 2017), but he had a wait ahead of him. His file was stalled and lost in a pile on a desk, until his orphanage followed up to see why no one had adopted him yet. That got his paperwork going again. Right at the end of my treatment. The eight months of treatment that seemed like the scariest, worst sort of derailing of my plans was exactly what we needed to complete our family. The God of the universe, the One who puts orphans in families? He knew. While I didn’t know the ending when the journey started, I was clinging to the One who did.
And for those of you who have met our son, you know that he is the sweetest slice of joy. The perfect cap to our family. And our precious daughter got to become a big sister after all. It seems God made her to be one; she is encouraging and kind and gentle and fiercely protective. Their beautiful faces are worth every chemo treatment, every two-hour round-trip drive to Indy (daily during radiation), every foggy moment at work when I barely got through the day.
And your detour? Your derailing? The moment when you think your story will never be beautiful again? Hang on. Cling to Jesus. God’s not done. But He is Real. He is Present. And He will redeem your story.
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