Cancer sucks. I could spend a few minutes stringing together eloquent words and phrases that convey just how awful it is. But cancer isn’t eloquent. It doesn’t deserve pretty words or elaborate explanations. It’s rude, and uninvited, and messy, and inconvenient, and meddlesome, and horrifying, and ugly. So yeah, cancer sucks.
My first experience with losing someone close to me from cancer was when I was in my mid-twenties. I was in college, and newly married, and the world was full of sunshine and roses and possibilities. Sure, I’d been through tribulations that almost broke me. But I’d never lost someone in my circle to the big C.
I met Tiffany in high school, and she quickly became one of my best friends. She was hilarious and cool and mellow, and she was fiercely loyal to the few of us lucky enough to be her friends. And she died when we were 24 years old, after a short six-month battle with cancer.
At the time I wasn’t what you would call very spiritual. I believed in God, but my Sunday’s were mostly dedicated to sleeping off the shenanigans of Saturday night instead of worshiping in Church. I was angry. I was not okay, not for a long time.
Then in my early 30’s my mother was diagnosed with terminal lung and liver cancer. I was living in Spokane at the time, and she was in San Antonio. The news hit me like a brick wall right to the face—everything stopped and changed and became fuzzy like I was walking in a dream.
For the next few months, as my husband and I prepared to move our family back to Texas to be with her, I watched through the periphery of Skype as the cancer took its toll on my mom’s face. Every day the shadows would be a little darker under her eyes, her skin a little more sallow and stretched across her features. I watched helpless from 2, 000 miles away as the hairs in her eyebrows thinned out and eventually became empty space above her dark hollowed eyes. She shaved her head, and it was a guessing game as to whether we’d see her short brown wig or a handkerchief wrapped tightly around her scalp through the computer screen.
We moved home, and I began to run two households. Two grocery lists, two homes to clean, two sets of bills to get in the mail. I took her to run errands, get chemo, and buy new clothes as her body became thin and boney. I had two young children at the time, and no family to help, so they often tagged along with me, and we endured temper tantrums and awkward naptimes in between doctor’s visits and ER trips.
I wish I could tell you I was grateful and humbled by the experience, honored to care for the woman who had given birth to me. But in all honesty, I was pissed. I was tired and I was run down and I was stressed out and I was sad. My husband worked long hours in the Air Force, and oftentimes we would fight in the evenings because I was testy and he was oblivious. And my mother was no saint—she was angry too and often took it out on me.
I didn’t reach out to God like I should have. I was upset with Him, and like I do with mortals that hurt me, I shut Him out. But here’s an example of how good God really is, even when we don’t deserve it. I remember sitting in hospice. My mom was toward the end, sleeping most of the time, and incoherently mumbling and moaning every so often. I had been by her side for almost a week, afraid if I went home she would pass while I was in the shower or napping and I would never forgive myself for not being there when she left this Earth.
I was beyond exhausted, catnapping here and there on the couch in her room, not eating much, no shower for several days, sitting in the silence in between phone calls and visitors. The reality of living without her was creeping in, and I had so much anxiety and overwhelming sadness that I could barely function. Out of sheer desperation and on the edge of lucidness myself, I prayed for peace.
“Maya. I’m here.”
It wasn’t the voice of God. It was the soft whisper of my friend Tiffany. With those three words, I felt a peace that surpassed all logic flood every cell of my body. I instantly felt comforted and safe and held. Over the next two days, as my mother drifted out of this world and into the arms of Jesus, I began to communicate with God over and over again. And He revealed to me over and over again the multitude of small blessings He had provided along the way, like breadcrumbs in the forest along the twisted and dark winding road.
And I looked for those crumbs as I navigated the process of grief in the months and years since she died. It’s amazing the ways in which He made beauty rise from the ashes of that dark, dark time. And I think that’s the key to finding peace while traveling through the viciousness of cancer—finding the breadcrumbs.
I remember telling my sister-in-law that when she had to travel the same road with her mother a couple of years ago—find the blessings, no matter how small, and cling to them. When you’re in the trenches and feeling lost and hopeless, those breadcrumbs lead you back to the only source of peace that’s lasting. Because cancer is wretched and soul-shaking and vicious, and those breadcrumbs are nuggets of hope and light, small offerings of promise and assurance that we are not alone.