“You keep her in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because she trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock. (Isaiah 26:3-4, ESV)
I was told to expect that the side effects from my weekly chemotherapy treatments and daily radiation treatments, which began in January of 2012, would be minimal at first. However, I was warned that the side-effects would increase exponentially as the weeks wore on. This piece of information from my doctors proved to be very accurate. At first I experienced nausea from the chemotherapy only on Wednesdays and Thursdays; just two days out of seven. However, by the fifth week of treatment, I was experiencing nausea for five, and sometimes six, days of the week.
The second of the three prescriptions which Dr. Hayes, my medical oncologist, had prescribed for nausea helped me a great deal. However, this medication came with its own side-effects – lots of fatigue and constipation. So as my need for it increased over the weeks, so did the side effects from it. Having to deal with side-effects from multiple sources is common for patients being treated for cancer.
Furthermore, I had underestimated how the loss of my taste buds, due to the radiation treatments, would affect my ability to eat. I assumed that food would still be edible, even if it had no taste. But I was wrong about that. First to go was my ability to taste sweetness and saltiness. Potato chips simply tasted greasy and chocolate tasted like dirt. But soon I lost the ability to taste anything accurately and the dissonance between what I expected food to taste like and the distorted sensation I did taste was so great that there was not much I could bear to eat. I did find some foods that were somewhat tolerable – ones that were naturally bland, and which had an interesting texture, like scrambled eggs, hot dogs and vegetables. Although these didn’t seem quite right, either, at least I could consume them in small quantities without gagging.
Also, by the end of the third week of treatments, I developed a condition known as “thrush.” Thrush is a yeast infection of the mouth and tongue, which commonly occurs in head and neck cancer patients who are undergoing radiation treatments. The radiation kills off healthy bacteria in the mouth (as well as taste buds) creating a condition in which yeast bacteria can multiply. My tongue felt like it had hundreds of paper cuts all over it and my gums were sore.
There is a prescription pill to treat thrush, but it, too, comes with side-effects, chief of which is nausea. However, none of the anti-nausea medications I had been prescribed were effective in abating it. I was supposed to take this pill for the duration of my treatments – which at this point meant three and a half more weeks – but I could only manage to take it for five days before I was just too overwhelmed by nausea to continue.
Since I had already experienced a great deal of healing from the Lord in answer to prayer, I decided to email several friends and ask them if they would pray that I would be delivered from the thrush and that God would keep it at bay through the end of my treatments. From that point on, I did not take another pill for the thrush – and by God’s grace, it subsided and did not return – an astounding answer to prayer!
An additional side-effect due to radiation was hair loss. By the end of January, the hair across the back of my head had fallen out. Some also fell out from the right side of my head, but not nearly so much as across the back. Fortunately, the hair loss stopped about two-thirds of the way up from my neck, so the longer hair from on top of my head covered the area that no longer had hair. Since I was being given a low-level dose of Cisplatin, which is the name of the chemotherapy drug with which I was being treated, I did not experience any comprehensive hair, eyelash or eyebrow loss, for which I was grateful. However, the radiation treatments increased the level of fatigue I was already experiencing from the chemo and from the anti-nausea medications. This condition of pervasive fatigue was something that would continue for many weeks after the treatments ended.
As the side effects became more and more debilitating, I turned to the Lord in prayer asking, “Please don’t let me go through this without learning everything you have for me to learn in the midst of these trials. Please help me to receive everything you have for me to receive at this time.” I prayed this way because God had taught me during pervious times of adversity that the Holy Spirit can use such moments to conform me more fully to Christ.
For example, several years before, when undergoing a time of financial hardship, the Holy Spirit taught me the importance of “giving thanks in all circumstances,” as Paul instructs in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:18). By giving thanks I focused more on what I did have and far less on what I perceived I did not. I don’t think I would have learned to practice this vital spiritual discipline of giving thanks if my circumstances had been more favorable.
Furthermore, it was after a miscarriage when I turned to Scripture with a hunger I had not known before. During that time, I grew to know the truth in the reply which Jesus, when tempted, gave to Satan: “…‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4) I began to live on God’s word and I began to memorize passages of Scripture that spoke to me – a habit I continue to this day. I was amenable to learning such disciplines because I was desperate – and very open to the Lord – and in my desperation and openness I was “teachable.” Much spiritual fruit was produced in my life in the midst of trials and grief.
So I knew from past experience that the suffering I was experiencing as I went through my treatments also presented me with an opportunity to learn something very important from the Lord – something I probably couldn’t (or wouldn’t) learn any other way. So I elected to see all that I had to endure as an opportunity for spiritual growth – and I didn’t want this time to pass without gleaning all I could from the Holy Spirit. Suffering can lead to greater faith, greater trust in the Lord if we allow Him to use it for good. (Romans 8:28) It can teach us how to stand firmly on God’s promises.
So in January and February of 2012, I spent my days with my eyes and ears trained on the Lord. Like a newborn with his mother, I was totally dependent upon God for everything: for the strength to get up in the morning, for the courage to eat something despite how awful I knew it would taste, for the resilience I would need to go through my treatments, for protection from harmful and painful side-effects, for the ability to look to the needs of others, especially my fellow cancer patients – and for the words to say to them, which would give them hope in a God who can make a way out of no way.
Lastly, I depended upon the Lord to grant me peaceful sleep every night despite the constant temptation to be anxious about my future. I don’t ever remember a time of being so attuned to God – and so blessed by seeking to keep my mind stayed on Him (Isaiah 26:3-4). He was everything to me – as He should be at all times. And as I look back on this period in my life, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.