a joyful affliction

two person doing surgery inside room
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This is Part 4 of a four-part series. Click to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

From the time I trusted in Jesus, about age 24, I had a nagging feeling that I would die at age 40. That’s morbid, I know. I never lived in fear under it, rather in a spirit of curiosity. What should I anticipate? I’m older than 40 today, so obviously I didn’t physically pass on. But something in me did die, and a large ovarian cyst proved to be the catalyst.

I’d had cysts before, but they ebbed and flowed and I never felt an impact. But this one . . . this one meant business. It grew from nothing to 22 centimeters and 10 pounds in just two months. At that size, I looked pregnant. Very pregnant. 

While Micah lived with us, I had an ultrasound, followed immediately by a CT scan, to investigate the cyst. After Micah, at the appointment to receive the results of the scans, I could not avoid the fact that I needed surgery. When I coupled this with the furrowed brow I had watched settle on the radiology techs, the ever-increasing pain, and an elevated cancer antigen number, I instinctively knew something nefarious lurked within me. 

My husband and I consulted with a gynecologic oncologist in August of 2018. Being our age, she surprised us with her conservative approach to my surgery. She planned to do a laparotomy, as opposed to a less-invasive method. Her reasoning? She wanted to remove the ever-growing mass in one piece. That way, she noted, in the off-chance she did discover cancer, the dangerous cells would remain encapsulated—and not free to metastasize in my abdomen. 

Despite her wisdom, I shook in my proverbial boots. I’d never had surgery, and I have never dealt well with the unknown (or medical procedures in general). I’ve never liked to be caught unaware, which is a fancy way of saying I have a heart that desires control. I don’t think I’m unique in this. When deep into the woods of anesthesia, obviously you have no control—and this bothered me deeply. I wrestled with God—rather, He wrestled with me through His word, to perform spiritual heart surgery—and He reminded me of a few truths:

  • He fully controls everything at all times. This included the anesthesiologist’s calculations, the surgeon’s hands, my body’s reaction to anesthesia, and what my surgeon discovered when she made the 9-inch incision in my belly. What a comfort!
  • The entire experience, while quite jarring for me, did not surprise God at all. And He had prepared my heart for this for over a year. 
  • If, by chance, I died during surgery, I won. I would be free of pain and sin. If I woke up (which, of course, I did), I also won. In that case, I would be free of the cyst that had wreaked havoc in my body. 

Since my surgery, we have thanked God for giving Dr. T. such wisdom in her surgical plan. Because she found what she hoped against—I had ovarian cancer. Clear cell adenocarcinoma, to be precise, the most aggressive sort of it. I left the hospital on my 40th birthday, and received my official staging on my dad’s birthday: stage 1C3. 

If I thought I feared the unknown before my surgery, it pales in comparison to the distinct “I have to lie down” feeling of a cancer diagnosis. I still wrestled with the loss of Micah, only to be told a month later that I would need six rounds of chemotherapy, and that, even still, all of the cancer might not be eradicated. It takes a single Google search to find horror stories about chemo side effects and how much it hurts for your hair to fall out. (I chose to shave mine to avoid that as much as possible.) Would my stomach accept food? Would I look gaunt like cancer patients in the movies? Would I spend my days throwing up? Would I live in excruciating bone and muscle pain? Which of the listed side effects would impact me? Would I need the dreaded white blood cell shot that I had heard about?* So many what ifs rained down on me.

My husband lived 7 hours away in another state, which compounded my sense of disorientation; he moved to Georgia from Kentucky two months before I did, to start a new position, and so that I could recover from surgery a bit and start treatment under the care of my surgeon. I gave him my diagnosis over the phone. My sweet mom had committed to living with us during my surgery recovery; but now we looked at a much longer ordeal. 

As anyone who has received a life-threatening diagnosis will tell you, the first thing you have to deal with is your mortality. Since I had mostly dealt with this before my surgery, praise God, the Lord instilled in me a sense that I didn’t want to waste this suffering. I wanted the Lord to change me through it, sanctify me through it. By God’s grace, I wanted nothing more than to suffer well. 

As I walked through the dark valley of cancer, God put to death my spirit of self-sufficiency and taught my heart to sing a new song. Do I perfectly rely on the Lord every single day? Of course not. I’m still human. I’m still a sinner. But God used trials and hardship to tune my heart to a different key. Before this season of chemo and hospitals and delivered meals, my heart was hard in ways that I didn’t realize until He had softened it.

I didn’t realize how impatient I was until God forced me to slow down and learn to sit quietly before Him, absorbing His word more fully and ceasing to strive for my own way—because there was no way around this hard thing I had to do.

I presumed upon His grace until I became aware once again that by that grace I continue to draw breath and to see the sun high in the noon sky.

I’ve learned that circumstances seem unfathomable before they happen, because He gives the grace you need in the moment you need it, and you find yourself putting one foot in front of the other, confident that the Lord carries you.

I’ve tasted the sweetness of His nearness in suffering, something I think the Spirit illuminates most brightly when the valley looks darkest and overwhelmingly grim.

I’ve seen that His love expands beyond our full comprehension, in breadth and depth, and He pours it out for His children. God really does bind up the brokenhearted and intimately knows our crying out.

He works for His children, not against us, even when our earthly circumstances would cause us to question that beautiful truth.

Through losing my hair, God reminded me that He isn’t concerned with the outward appearance, but with the heart. He tutored me in how to cultivate the gentle and quiet spirit that stems from communing with Him.

Because of all of these things, a bit of sadness brushed over me when I finished chemotherapy. A wonderful season came to a close—one in which I found joy in watching God work and using his comfort to comfort others. I used to think cancer survivors were nuts, when they would say, “Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me,” but I understand now. For me, cancer was a joyful affliction. God used it and the loss of Micah to teach me joy—joy in Him alone, joy in the face of adversity, joy when the world would expect me to despair, joy in the mundane things of life. 

Has the Lord ever given you an affliction you would deem joyful, whether in the midst of it or in the rearview mirror?

If you’ve read all four parts to my story, I’m thankful that you stuck with me! My prayer is that we would see the hand of God at work and praise Him for His faithfulness to use our circumstances–especially the tough ones–to conform us to the image of Jesus. His grace is indeed sufficient.

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*P.S. — The answers, if you’re interested, are yes, I could eat well; no, I actually gained weight; no, I never threw up; after the first round, no, the pain wasn’t intolerable; and, actually, the shot wasn’t that bad. 🙂 Overall, my six rounds of chemo were much better than I had imagined they would be!

2 thoughts on “a joyful affliction

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  1. Ashley- thank you for sharing your heart & your journey. I am so glad you were protected from many of the nasty possible issues that come with chemo and that you have gained so much. His grace is truly sufficient.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a blessing to read this! You articulate your emotions and fears so well. And I can imagine these being my same emotions and fears whenever I might be faced with such trials. I read these words and think, “What is just around the bend in my own life? What will I face that will prompt me to remember all that has been said in these posts?” May these words continue to work in the hearts of all who read them! To God be the glory!

    Liked by 1 person

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