Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

As Streams Renew the Desert: A Journey through Breast Cancer

  • Mary J. Nelson Author
  • Updated Apr 30, 2007
As Streams Renew the Desert: A Journey through Breast Cancer

Restore our fortunes, LORD, as streams renew the desert. Those who plant in tears will harvest with shouts of joy. They weep as they go to plant their seed, but they sing as they return with the harvest. — Psalms 126:5-6

One phone call on August 18, 1999 changed my life forever. One phone call sent me on a journey of spiritual awakening that eventually led to the throne room of God. Here, at the feet of His Son, I came face to face with His holiness and my own brokenness. He was no longer Lord of my Sunday mornings or my current crisis. He was my precious Savior, the Lord of my life. And by His grace and mercy, every tear I planted was transformed into a beautiful harvest of blessing.

Cancer? That’s Impossible…

At 47, my life was rolling along smoothly. I had a good marriage, well-behaved kids, and a successful career. And I had mastered control of it all. A few self-help books and a couple of classes on life balance were all my naturally perfectionist personality needed to keep all the balls in the air at once. With careful planning, I could lead a meeting, write a client proposal, do six loads of clothes, clean the house, pick up a few groceries, entertain guests for dinner, take in my daughter’s dance competition and not miss a beat.

When a new doctor I visited for a routine yearly exam discovered a suspicious area on my left breast, I was stunned. Surely, this was a big mistake. I had a negative mammogram and no family history of breast cancer. Besides, breast cancer was not in my life plan, and certainly not on my busy calendar!

During the next few weeks of testing and waiting, I was determined to research my way out of this mess. But all the scientific information I uncovered and all the perfect doctors I investigated couldn’t change the truth in that phone call. You have invasive breast cancer.

What followed was a blur of phone calls, doctor visits and decisions. I was whisked into surgery for a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy. The surgeon confirmed the cancer was Stage 2 and had reached two lymph nodes. Still in a daze, I began to prepare for 24 weeks of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation, several months of baldness and an uncertain future.

More than a "Drugstore Jesus"

It was during these next several months of treatment that my relationship with Jesus Christ became personal. Oh, I thought I knew Him before. I went to church every Sunday. But God was more like a “drugstore Jesus” to me — a bottle of aspirin sitting on the shelf in my medicine chest. I would think about Him on Sunday mornings or during the occasional crisis, then put Him back on the shelf again until the next ache or pain.

In my pride, I thought I understood everything God had to show me. I didn’t need a small group of believers to hold me accountable, and I certainly didn’t need to bring my Bible to church every Sunday like those “religious” people did!

But our God is full of mercy. His love knows no boundaries. On the day the phone call came, He tenderly reached out His hand and gave me two choices; I could face it on my own or I could trust Him. From the moment I invited Him into the center of my cancer, He covered me with the peace that surpasses all human understanding. From the disappointing pathology report to the day my husband shaved my head, from all the needles, blood tests, and chemo treatments to wig shopping and the challenges of painting my eyebrows on straight, He never left my side. My occasional Bible dabbling turned into a deep hunger for the Word of God. Jesus Christ had won my heart.

A Harvest of Blessing

In 2 Corinthians 1:4, Paul reminds us that God comforts us in our trouble so we can comfort others. As I reached the other side of breast cancer, the Lord placed a burden on my heart to be a blessing. I was eager to share what He had done for me, and what He can do for anyone facing a breast cancer diagnosis.

I started by sharing His Word. For many women, breast cancer can be the spark that ignites her desire to grow spiritually. As I prayed for and mentored women with breast cancer, I soon found myself writing devotional messages to comfort and encourage them with God’s promises.

Eventually, as a five-year survivor, I wrote Grace for Each Hour (Bethany House, 2005), a daily devotional for women traveling through the breast cancer journey from the time cancer is suspected, through the diagnosis and treatment, and then living on the other side of cancer as a survivor. The short devotional readings share the hope of the Gospel and speak the Word of God into the typical emotions and fears a woman experiences, helping her grow, not just cope during this difficult time.

I also wanted cancer sufferers to experience the amazing power of healing prayer.  When gifted intercessors in my church laid hands on me early in my cancer, their prayers spoke directly into the deepest unspoken fears in my heart. I stood in His very presence, soaking in His unfailing love.

While many churches don’t offer this type of prayer ministry, its powerful effect should not be surprising. In James 5:14-15, the sick are instructed to call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. We were created to communicate with God through prayer. When we are suffering and our heart is breaking, our inward spirit longs for Him. Prayer is the only way to come into His presence and feel His healing touch.

I was so blessed by the experience that, with the help of our prayer pastor, I started Pray for the Cure, a prayer ministry specifically for people struggling with cancer. Each month, they share their hopes and fears with other cancer sufferers, listen to personal testimonies from cancer survivors, are comforted by God’s Word through a devotional message, and receive love, healing prayer, and anointing in a confidential setting.

The Greatest Challenge

People often ask about the unique challenges women face when suffering from breast cancer. Dealing with hair loss is certainly the most traumatic side effect she encounters through the cancer journey. But the greatest faith challenge is staying focused on God and His Word in the midst of the steady onslaught of information — information that instills fear and doubt throughout treatment and living life as a cancer survivor — information that seems to change everyday. Through the media and well-meaning friends, she will likely hear the latest survival statistics, new drugs, and new treatments; treatments she didn’t receive. News about someone suffering a recurrence or passing away can send a woman into a downward spiral of despair.

Her peace is found in staying focused on God and keeping Him in the center of her life — because in the midst of everything that changes around her, His Word never changes. When she clings to Him, her greatest challenge becomes a powerful testimony to the Gospel. People notice something different about her. When they see His light shining through her, they are drawn to the very heart of Christ.

A Promise of Hope

More than 260,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. If you are one of them, know that your God is a restoration expert. His ability to restore is beyond our human understanding. He restores broken bodies, broken relationships, broken homes, and broken hearts. Through His Son, He removed your sin and restored you to Himself. He promises our tears can be seed that will grow into a harvest of joy.

Right now, hope may seem beyond your reach. It may even feel like God has abandoned you in the middle of the desert. But you have a choice. You can call out to Him and invite Him into the center of your breast cancer. As streams renew the desert, this devastating diagnosis can become a precious blessing that will transform your life forever.

About the author:
Mary J. Nelson is the president and founder of Soterion, a healthcare communications consulting firm, and serves on the vision board at Hosanna! Lutheran Church in Lakeville, Minnesota. She is currently vice president of the 5,000-member congregation, where she also leads the Pray for the Cure cancer care ministry and serves as an intercessor and mentor for women with breast cancer. Mary and her husband have two adult children and make their home in Minnesota.