Reckoning With Illness and Death

by Alina Sato
This post is Part 2 in a series entitled Blessed are Those With and Without a Cancer Diagnosis. Part 1 can be found here, and Part 3 will be published next week.

In the first post of this series, I shared the story about how I received a breast cancer diagnosis just a few minutes before my friend Susan announced her benign results from her own recent biopsy. I confronted the reality that sometimes, God says no to our prayers for things to go well, even extremely tender and important things like our health. From that painfully honest space, we have to reckon with how a woman in her mid-40s with a husband and young children, with dreams and ministries and a still-blossoming career, must think about the truest substance of her life, and also the truest substance of her death. This is not only my reckoning; it is all of ours, if we dare dig deep enough, speak honestly and bravely enough. The beautiful truth is this—at the end of the reckoning, we can still find solid hope. We can find salvation.

Reckoning with Grief

I have to start by saying, having Jesus does not invalidate the grief of suffering and painful losses in this world. Getting a cancer diagnosis for anyone, Christian or not, is difficult and scary, and going through treatment for it is incredibly disruptive and painful.

It’s too simplistic to say, “I know Jesus is with me, so I’m all good.” To say that we need hope is to acknowledge that we live day-to-day in a world where real despair exists. To say that we need peace is to acknowledge that a plethora of external and internal voices feed our anxieties and insecurities. To say that we need salvation is to acknowledge that we live in a world where fear of death can threaten to sink our souls. In other words, hope matters because despair is real. Peace matters because reasons for insecurity in this world abound. Salvation matters because death is devastating if it really has the final word.

To voice hope in Christ is not to deny that cancer threatened significant components of my existence. I grieved the possibility that cancer might take me down a harsh road of suffering and ultimately rip me away from my family before any of us felt ready. My cancer diagnosis shed light on how much it means to enjoy quality time with loved ones, a life free of pain, and simple pleasures we take for granted. But it also shed light on how all of these things, as precious as they are, can also be wiped away in a day, a month, a year. A cancer diagnosis is intensely bittersweet in the way it simultaneously highlights both the beauty and the shockingly temporary nature of the most precious gifts in our lives. We love these gifts for so many good and right reasons; when we lose them, our suffering and grief are real. He knows our hearts, and He is compassionate towards us in our lamentations (John 11:17-36).

Reckoning with Death

Before I got the call about my cancer, I was busy with my life, coordinating my family’s schedule, preparing for upcoming speaking engagements, and starting to think about the usual summer plans.

I remember holding onto a chair in my living room as I took in the nurse’s words, “I’m so sorry, but it’s invasive ductal carcinoma.” I immediately felt my world come to a screeching halt. As a nurse myself, I’d grown accustomed to being the strong caregiver for so many patients over the last twelve years. Now I was the patient, trying to wrap my head around what it meant that I had a very serious disease. I remember waking every night at 2:30am the first week following my diagnosis, terrified by the uncertainty of what was happening with these cells insidiously looking to take over my body without my permission or my control.

As I lost a sense of normalcy and physical wellness for a few months with surgery, radiation, and the initiation of hormone therapy, I got a taste of how the decline of our bodies can feel scary, sad, and hard. What if I got more bad news through the course of treatment and my health trajectory didn’t improve? What if I couldn’t enjoy time with my young daughters much longer? Was cancer my turning point from life to death? When we are confronted with the sobering finitude of even the most beautiful gifts in our lives, we have to ask what really holds us up.

The real good news in my bad news of a cancer diagnosis is not simply that I have a good prognosis. At the end of the day, a good prognosis still isn’t a guarantee of a meaningful life now or eternal life to come. When this world shows itself to be unfulfilling, when I acknowledge my own inability to be the ideal version of myself, and when physical death really comes for me one day, one good health prognosis alone is not enough to save me.

The real good news is that Jesus has already brought my once-dead soul to life by freeing me from my slavery to sin and the oppressive ways of this world (Colossians 2:13-14). He has given me a whole new identity, a whole new purpose and way of living in His kingdom, so that my days and pursuits are not in vain (Colossians 3:1-4). He has given me a life that has nothing to do with the presence or absence of rogue cells in my body, but rather has everything to do with being intimately known and loved forever by the Maker of the Universe (Romans 8:31-39).

Before this starts to sound too lofty, I have to state that it is unfair and dishonest to anyone who suffers from serious illness to suggest that the decline of our bodies is negligible. It’s not. Thoughts of physical death are still full of sobering mystery. But how much more brightly, then, does the absolute promise of an unshakable life in Christ shine, in its ability to hold up through storms of suffering and the impending vale of death. Because of Christ, cancer will never really be my turning point from life to death. I am already, and forever will be, alive in Him. What a hope, what a relief, what a salvation.

Reckoning with Eternal Life

As I write this, I am presumed to be cancer-free. The surgeon said the tissue surrounding the tumor he removed had clean margins, and there was no spread of cancer to my lymph nodes. I completed my four weeks of radiation. I have started long-term hormone therapy to lower the levels of estrogen and progesterone in my body as much as possible, since my tumor type fed off of those hormones. Any lingering microscopic cancer cells in me should have very little to feast upon if they want to grow. I have returned to work, and for the most part am able to enjoy and contribute to my family as before.

To be where I am with my cancer journey is an indescribable gift of mercy. I have a deeply renewed appreciation for physical and circumstantial wellness, but I have no guarantee or entitlement that I’ll remain cancer-free forever. It could return, despite me following all the doctor’s orders. And just like every other human, I’ll still physically die someday.

But God has already raised me from death to eternal life. Even as I suffered in the first half of the year, He met me with His nearness, comfort, and greater clarity on the true source of my wellspring of hope. As I have recovered for now, I enjoy my loved ones and I enjoy daily simple pleasures anew, but I enjoy Him even more. Cancer may one day return and overtake my body, but it will never kill my soul. In the final fade of my life here on earth, my spirit will go on to the greatest, unencumbered encounter of being fully alive in the presence of my Maker, my Rescuer, my Greatest Eternal Love.
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