walked up to Diana’s doorstep with her cousin and my best friend, Emma, beside me on a blustery Friday night. It was September 27th. We had planned a surprise bash for Emma’s 30th birthday with her closest family and friends; Diana and her husband, Beni, were very kind to host the celebration. The 28-year-old slender brunette who is typically chatty and cheerful just didn’t seem quite herself that night, however. I sensed something was amiss, but assumed that by the time all the guests appeared, Diana was just exhausted from a full day of preparation for the occasion. What we didn’t know was that Diana and Beni received upsetting news earlier that afternoon.
It began one week prior to the birthday celebration when Diana had an appointment with her primary care physician. She was scheduled to discuss stones in her tonsils. In passing, she mentioned a lingering cough that continued for six months. Dr. June prescribed Prilosec; a tablet used to alleviate gastric reflux, and intuitively ordered a chest x-ray as well. An experienced respiratory therapist herself, Diana was surprised that her doctor referred her to radiology without waiting to assess potential improvement with Prilosec alone. Still, Diana headed to the imaging department as soon as she was released from her appointment.
The following Tuesday, Diana received a call from her physician. The x-ray revealed a shadow in Diana’s chest but there was not enough information on the radiographs to determine what the shadow indicated. Consequently, the radiologist recommended a CT scan. It was during this particular exam when Diana began to feel uneasy. “That’s when I started thinking things might not be good. I didn’t know what it was, but they found something.”
Several hours later, Dr. Phillips, a veteran pulmonologist, phoned Diana at home. Dr. Phillips explained the CT scan demonstrated a 6cm mass on the right side of Diana’s chest and enlarged lymph nodes in her neck. The presence of lymph nodes is typical on a normal CT exam, but when they are enlarged, there is cause for concern. “He was kind of beating around the bush with me for a while, but then he finally used the word ‘cancer.’ [‘It looks an awful lot like cancer…’] Doctors don’t really say ‘cancer’ unless they REALLY think that’s probably what it is,” Diana clarifies. Upon hearing the devastating news, Beni shook his head in disbelief. “I remember Beni just giving me a kiss on the head and just kind of hugging me while I was still on the phone with Dr. Phillips.” She sat at the bottom of the stairwell, their two-year old son nearby, and cried in Beni’s arms as her mind processed the shocking results. Naturally, thoughts began to fill her mind. “I can’t believe it. I’m so young! Wow, this means that I could lose my hair – I was thinking I’m losing my hair – I wasn’t thinking that I could die. I didn’t think about that until much later.” That night, she slept very little – maybe two hours at most.
The next morning, Friday, September 27th, Diana, accompanied by her husband, was scheduled to see Dr. Wilson, another skilled pulmonologist. Her experience as a pulmonology patient brought a whole new dimension to her career as a professional. “I feel for the patients so much more. I really understand what they’re going through. Now I think to myself, Oh, wow! They have that kind of cancer? Wow! I’m so sad for them. I know what pain is and I know what they’re going through.” Dr. Wilson assessed the CT images with the pair explaining in detail the abnormalities found on Diana’s scan. He maintained the findings could be nothing less than cancer.
Tears filled their eyes as they slowly came to the realization of what this diagnosis meant. Unquestionably, Diana felt despondent and uncertain about her future. “I was thinking about my son, Noah. What am I going to do with my son? I have to go through cancer. And then Beni – I’m so glad he was there – he just kind of held me, held my hand quietly telling me we’ll get through this. He’s been my rock this whole time.”
To confirm the diagnosis, Dr. Wilson ordered a biopsy of one of Diana’s lymph nodes in her neck. During the biopsy, the pathologist insinuated it could be Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. “It was nice to just know something about it,” Diana explains. “Looking back, that was the hardest day for me – just finding out I have cancer. That was really difficult to swallow.” She would not be notified with a definitive answer as to which cancer she had until the following week. “The hardest part was not knowing what kind of cancer it was,” she recalls.
As they grappled with the news, Diana and Beni determined they would try to keep things “as normal as possible” for as long as they could beginning with hosting Emma’s party. Below is an excerpt from Diana’s journal regarding that day:
As much as I wasn’t in any mood for a party, it was too late to cancel and we thought that it would be best for us to carry on as usual. The party went well other than the fact that it was soo late and since I hadn’t slept well the night before, I was really tired. And my neck was sore from the biopsy that morning. I was relieved when everyone left. This was a dark, dark day.
In an effort to continue their daily lives, Diana remained an active vocalist on the worship team at her local church, continued leading a young couple’s fellowship group with Beni, and reported to her part-time job as usual.
While Diana contemplates the symptoms she was initially experiencing (chronic cough, night sweats, itchy legs, and shortness of breath upon exertion), she didn’t consider them serious enough to be addressed urgently. She certainly didn’t believe they could be a result of cancer. As was established later, her lymph nodes, upper spine, pelvis, and spleen were affected by cancer. Because she presented with symptoms and the fact that other regions were involved outside of her lymph system, Diana was officially diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma 4B – essentially, stage IV cancer. She would be required to undergo chemotherapy once every two weeks for approximately six to eight months.
…We kept thinking, God is in control and His will be done in our lives. Lord, help us to continue to say that,even when it gets tough. Anyway, we prayed together facing each other with our knees touching. I’m so grateful for my husband! I love being able to share all my thoughts and worries with him. And I’m glad that we can still smile and laugh even during this time! Lord, thank You for giving us peace and even joy during this time…
With a name to match the illness, Diana began the painful process of informing her family and friends. She was mostly nervous about sharing the news with her mother. Eighteen years ago, Diana’s father was diagnosed with stomach cancer and doctors gave him a 40% chance of surviving. After sixteen chemotherapy treatments and a very critical surgery, the abundant prayers of family, friends, and fellow Christian believers were miraculously answered. Her father still lives today. Nonetheless, Diana just couldn’t bear to face her mother and tell her that she now had cancer. “That word, cancer, I think for my mom is very scary.” Just as Diana had expected, her mother took the news very hard. Diana tried to comfort and reassure her mother that Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a very treatable disease and that medicine has improved drastically in the last twenty years.
Diana expressed her long existing desire to share a deeper relationship with her father. “Now, it is not like what it used to be. He can say ‘I love you’ without reservation. He always gives me hugs and always has something encouraging to say to me.” Unless a friend or relative attends chemotherapy with Diana, her father is always beside her, lending his moral support. Whether he reads a book aloud or imparts an encouraging passage from the Bible to her, she feels a stronger connection with her father like never before. “He knows more than anybody what I’m going through. If this is the only benefit from all of this, I’m happy. I’m closer to my dad because of it.”
In addition to her father, Diana has a large group of supporters. Two of her younger sisters voluntarily cut several inches off of their long locks to support their big sister and her cause. (Diana strategically cut her hair to chin length first and eventually trimmed it down to a buzz cut, intending to avoid the possibility of her son being frightened by her new appearance. It was an answer to her prayers when he wasn’t affected by her outward changes). Beni, her biggest fan and the love of her life, even buzzed his hair short just minutes before her second haircut since learning of her diagnosis. It was his way of helping her determine how short she wanted to clip her hair. She has also welcomed many friends who wished to join her during her chemotherapy treatment. Numerous prayers have been lifted on her behalf and with tear-filled eyes, she describes how extremely proud she is to be a part of her church, an extension of a family, who has overwhelmed her and her family with kind and generous support. Diana has also found comfort and consolation through a co-worker’s daughter who is a recent breast cancer survivor. She feels each positive person has notably contributed to helping her cope during this difficult time.
But mostly, she gives the greatest credit to God for coaching her well in advance for her hardship. “God always put it on my heart to pray that if I ever go through a trial or a tribulation, He would help me endure the way He would want me to. And I was praying this for a long time and I didn’t understand why until I got the news about cancer. Then it totally made sense. God prepared me more than I ever could be to go through this.”
Naturally, she experienced days when she would wrestle with uncertainty. She didn’t always feel so strong so she would remind herself of God’s assurances throughout the Bible. “I believe God is with me. He has come to give life and to give it abundantly. He’s not going to leave me or forsake me. That’s what His promise says in the Bible. I would remember those verses every time that I felt a little bit of doubt and a little bit scared – I’d say, ‘No. I choose to believe that You have life for me, God – that I’m not going to heaven yet, and if I do have to go to heaven, it’s to give You the glory. I know and trust that You hold me in Your hands and that You’re here with me.” Scripture passages like Job 23:10, (“But He knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold), and 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, (Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal), have been especially reassuring to her throughout this journey.
One day in particular, however, she experienced a meltdown. On December 17th, she was in the restroom at work. She noticed in the mirror that the lymph nodes in her neck appeared inflamed again. Her cough and itchy legs still had not resolved. She was petrified. “I freaked out. I was thinking, Oh my gosh! I’m not responding to treatment. I can’t believe this! I was 100% sure that I hadn’t responded to treatment. That was the second day, I can say, was one of the worst days I’ve had since learning of my diagnosis.” In her anguish, she prayed intensely. In a sermon she randomly selected on her phone from an app called OnePlace , Jeremiah 29:11 was the text on which the message was founded on: “For I know the plans I have for You,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Diana remembers being very encouraged by the message but she was still fighting with doubt. “I was thinking, Ok, God, I don’t understand – I think this was the first time that I ever used the word why? I don’t understand why You want me to go through this and it’s bad enough that I have cancer, but You want me to go down this road? Where I’m not responding? And I will have to do more: a bone marrow transplant and I will have to be hospitalized for a month and You just really want me to go down this road – not just cancer – but not respond to treatment, too?” On her lengthy drive home from work, she had time to continue her discussion with the Lord. “Ok, God, if this is what You want me to go through, then this is what You want me to go through. And I know that You’re not going to give me more than I can handle. So I trust that and I place it in Your hands.”
The next day, on December 18th, after completing four sessions of chemotherapy, Diana had a PET scan scheduled to determine if her body was in fact responding to treatment. The following morning, on the 19th, the oncology nurse called with results from the PET scan. Diana’s journal entry depicts her emotions best after she had heard the latest information:
It’s completely clear. There is NO CANCER anywhere in my body! This is the BEST news I have ever received! Better than a pass on a board exam or finding out I’m pregnant… I can’t describe how happy I am!! I called Beni at work and told him and I texted everyone else… It’s amazing how one day you can be SO LOW and the next, so high! Thank You, God, for Your faithfulness! And that You’ve answered our prayers. I thank You that I don’t have to do extra treatments or a stem cell transplant since I’m responding so well! YAY!!!
The personal battle was a significant milestone in her walk with the Lord. Even though things didn’t appear in Diana’s favor two days prior to hearing the exciting update, she decided she would trust God, believing He was in control of her situation. “It made me so happy that I actually resolved that with God before I found out the good news because I just feel closer to Him now.” That bleak afternoon on December 17th, her faith, perhaps the size of a small mustard seed, began to flourish once again.
Even though Diana’s PET scan doesn’t show any indication of cancer left in her body, she is still advised to continue chemotherapy for another three months to ensure the disease doesn’t return.
Ultimately, Diana feels this was a trial to draw her closer to the Lord. Her prayers often requested that the Lord would reveal Himself to her. At first, she was unsure how cancer would do that. But she is now confident that it worked. “Because when you’re broken, there is nothing else but God’s Word and me and Him. I have nothing else. I have nowhere else to turn. Why does it take suffering for us to actually do what we have to do and pray more and read the Bible more and really do what we should be doing in the first place? Why? Why can’t we be like Joshua where he’d stay in that tent after Moses left just simply because he wanted to know more of God?”
I asked Diana to share some words of advice for anyone who is currently affected by cancer or even a reader who has a relative or friend living with cancer. Her pearls of wisdom: “Really try to get close to the Lord. Read the Bible if you can. That’s what has really encouraged me a lot. Remember that God will never leave you or forsake you during this time. That’s what He promises to all His children. And He will never give you more than you can handle.”
I personally had the privilege of reading each carefully typed journal entry, a practice Diana doesn’t normally engage in. But her diary serves as a record to remind her of how close and near the Lord has been to her through this difficult time. Her little light shines so brightly in the simplest of ways but speaks volumes to believers and unbelievers alike. Her victorious smile illuminates pictures of herself as she sits in her seat before or after receiving chemotherapy. She continues to passionately worship the Lord with her voice, heart, soul, and mind, knowing that the God of the mountain is still God in the valley. Just as her intimate prayers are neatly inserted on the pages of her journal, she has the Lord’s promises inscribed on the tablet of her heart.
“It really encourages me to think that in some way, I’m making a difference in someone else’s life. It makes me so happy. I would pray about that. God, I don’t want to just be the one that is called for something. I want to be chosen because I’m ready to do something for You. And it’s amazing to see that He used someone that I feel is a nobody. I’m in awe that He could use me.”
– – –
Note: Each physician’s name has been altered to protect their identity.