On the path to the cancer ward

  • Jean Williams
  • 8 May 2015
Austin HospitalThere’s a chemical smell that hits you on the way to the cancer center. Some bright spark of an architect put the building’s main vents just near the entrance doors. Every time you walk up the path, the smell of chemotherapy hits you. Once you’ve been to an oncology ward, you don’t forget that smell.

Every two weeks we drive to Steve’s appointment in heavy silence. We drag our feet up that path while I try not to breathe in. We sit in the chairs in the hallway; he stares into space while I fight back tears and push down panic. A nurse shows him to a green vinyl recliner more suited to watching TV than to having poison pumped into your veins. We wait for the slow drip-drip! drip-drip! of the drugs.

The aim of Steve’s chemo is curative, they keep reminding us. I think it’s to help us “stay positive”. It doesn’t help much. Doctors are relatively confident about colorectal tumors, and that’s how they’re treating Steve’s small bowel cancer—but no one knows much about this rare disease.

Except God, of course. He knows every cell in Steve’s body, and he is not at the mercy of statistics or uncertain prognoses or rare cancers. And so we fight to trust him.

And it has been a fight. Steve grieves the half-life he’s forced to live. Days full of active ministry have turned into days lying on a couch and occasionally playing a game with the kids or going for a slow walk down the street. It might sound like a holiday, but if so, this is no Hawaii.

The side-effects of chemo—nausea, numbing fatigue, brain-fog, numb fingers and toes, and a throat spasm that turned out to be a rare reaction to one of the chemicals—are hard to endure and hard to watch.

The last few months have been easier. They took Steve off one of the two main drugs and the symptoms reduced. He’s had his last chemo. He is easing his way back into work, and is coping well.

There will be further tests over the next few years to check if the cancer has returned. We try to live as if we’re not waiting. The kids go back to school, and I start work on a talk. We plan a family holiday.

I’ve discovered that grief travels in three directions: past, present, and future. The trauma of what we’ve gone through; the struggle to accept our changed lives; the fearful anticipation of what is to come. Sadness is a backpack of rocks you carry: you forget for a while, stop and enjoy the view, but always it’s there, some days too heavy to bear.

In the dark times, when I can’t feel my way, I am often surprised by the strong light of God’s word. Here’s the passage that has lit my way recently:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:6-11)

Humble yourself under God’s hand. Cast your fears on him. Resist Satan’s attempts to undermine your faith. Remember you’re not alone. Remember this is just for a little while. Remember God will lift you up and restore you and make you strong.

To God be the glory. Amen.

Photo credit: Lachlan Donald