To the Young Adult Diagnosed with Cancer
Stephanie Anderson is 32 years old, wife of Dan and the mother of two adorable and delightful daughters. (We raised two of them ourselves so I know them when I see them!)
Stephanie has worked for Eternal Perspective Ministries for over 12 years. Among other things, she manages my blog and Facebook and Twitter feeds, helps edit my books, assembles and designs our magazine and graphics, produces beautiful covers for some of my books, and responds very thoughtfully to questions we get on social media.
In addition to being a wholehearted follower of Jesus, Stephanie is one of the most creative, skilled, and wise people I know. Her thoughts about her experience with cancer will help young and old alike. Coming off Nanci’s and my “year of cancer” in 2018, I encourage everyone to read this article and pass it on to others! —Randy Alcorn
I vividly remember what it felt like to hear my doctor say, “Your x-ray shows a mass between your lungs.” Shock. Disbelief. Fear. Panic.
Somehow I held it together long enough to get through the rest of my appointment and drive home. But when I walked through my door, I collapsed, both physically and emotionally. What was going to happen to me? I was just 23, and a wife and the mom of a seven-month old baby. How could I possibly have cancer?
“Cancer” is a frightening word but just a theoretical one until it’s used in reference to you or someone you love. When it is, everything changes. The world shifts. Even those of us who’ve mentally acknowledged our mortality have a hard time accepting evidence of its existence. I never dreamed that my symptoms, no matter how severe, indicated I had Stage 2B Hodgkin's Lymphoma—after all, how many twenty-somethings did I know who had been diagnosed with something so serious?
Everyone’s cancer experience is different, but I wish there had been (or I had sought out) another young adult survivor who loved Jesus—someone to talk to who could have helped me through this process and told me what to expect. Recently I heard about a teenager just beginning treatments for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and it made me think about advice I might have to share with others. So looking back over the past nine years, here is what I would say to a young adult who’s been diagnosed with cancer:
Let others support and help you. Cancer treatments are hard and there will be times you aren’t feeling up to a lot physically, mentally, or emotionally. There will be days when you need to rest and not do a whole lot else. Be gracious with yourself, and don’t be afraid to share what you need with those who love you. It’s not weakness to do so. You can’t do this alone.
I’m so grateful that my husband and I had friends and family who understood what we needed even if I didn’t always. Friends brought us meals and offered childcare. Another anonymous friend dropped off a large bag of thoughtfully chosen gifts for me and our family on our front step. My mother in law watched our daughter during my chemotherapy treatments. Our church stepped in to help us with bills when treatments made it difficult for me to work and because my husband was in school. It wasn’t always easy to accept help and realize my physical limitations, but knowing that so many others cared about us and were willing to help made it easier to say “yes” to their offers and to rest when I needed to.
Take advantage of good resources, and possibly even professional counseling, to help your heart and mind. When you’re undergoing such trauma, it’s hard to think straight through the stress and anxiety—not to mention the treatment side effects. Your body is receiving medicine to fight the cancer, but your mind and spirit require daily medicine, too, to fight the cancer of fear and unbelief.
We all need a healthy dose of truth each day. Our best and most important resource is God’s Word. We need to dig deep into His Word and focus on God and His character. Nothing could be more important or perspective-giving.
There are also many excellent Christian resources specifically on suffering that can help you as you work through the “Why’s?” of your cancer. Though it was hard for me to read at the time, John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Cancer is thought provoking and deep. I also read Randy Alcorn’s book If God Is Good? while I was undergoing chemotherapy, and it helped me solidify some important things about my suffering: God was good. He was with me. He was working all things together for my good. I could trust Him.
One thing I really wish I had done during or soon after my treatments was seek professional Christian counseling. When I was experiencing anxiety while waiting for test results after finishing my treatments, my oncologist explained to me that was to be expected. “It’s PTSD,” he said. “You’ve had bombs going off inside your body.” Before he explained it in those terms, I hadn’t connected my cancer experience with such trauma, but it made sense. It’s taken several years post-treatment and some wonderful counseling over the last two years to see how this experience, along with some other life experiences, have impacted me and how I can move forward and deal with my anxiety in more productive ways.
Stay away from searching the internet about your cancer. I remember spending hours online reading stories about other young adults who had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. When I read about survivors who were several years post-treatment and still cancer-free, I felt great hope. When I read about others who had relapsed and ultimately died, my anxiety raged.
I’ve heard doctors say, “Have you been staying away from Doctor Google?”, and there’s a good reason why. While there’s a place for healthy support groups, both online and in person, your mind is vulnerable during this time. Reading stories about others with your cancer and Googling every single symptom you’re experiencing can cause unnecessary stress. Not only is there much misinformation, but you’re also likely to misinterpret what you read. If you have concerns, talk directly to your doctor. Stay away from the internet!
Be honest with God, and others, about your fears and struggles. Don’t carry your burdens alone. I was able to share some of my journey through an online blog, and it was a great form of therapy and a good way to keep friends and family updated. But I still found it hard to speak honestly about my fears and worries with others, even my husband and close friends. I felt like if I acknowledged them, it made it more likely I would never get well and would die. In reality, this just made me feel more anxious. By sharing my fears, I wouldn’t have had to carry the burden by myself. My counselor recently told me, “You can’t fight anxiety alone.” I’ve found she’s right. We need others to pray for and intercede for us when we’re struggling.
It was also hard to be honest with God about my worries. Even though I knew that physical healing wasn’t dependent on my faith, it felt like giving voice to my fears was acknowledging that death was a real possibility. But in reality, God was and is intimately acquainted with me and already knew my struggles. He knows your struggles too, and you can be honest with Him.
Trust that God is using this—even this—in your life for your eternal good. When you’re in the middle of something so terrible, it’s hard to see how God could possibly bring good out of it. But that’s exactly what He promises about every single difficult thing we face in life: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). You may not see it at the time, but one day, even if not until eternity, you will.
I remember searching the Bible, wishing there was some assurance that I would get well and go into remission. Of course, there is no such promise. But there were, and are, plenty of promises that God would be with me and never forsake me, no matter what. This was solid ground for me to stand on when everything else was crumbling, and it will be for you too.
Yes, there are still some things that are really hard related to my cancer. Sometimes I’ll have a symptom that will remind me of that time and stir my anxiety. While I don’t need to worry about a relapse as much anymore, I have to be concerned about other types of cancer I’m more at risk for because of the chemotherapy and radiation. But mostly, I look back on my cancer experience and see God’s faithfulness. He was faithful to me during my diagnosis and treatments, and I can confidently say He will be faithful to you too.
Stephanie Anderson is the communications and graphics specialist at Eternal Perspective Ministries.