That’s what people asked us a few weeks ago when we shared the news that my wife’s breast cancer had spread to the brain. A tumor the size of a quarter had been discovered in her right frontal lobe.
It’s easy to understand their question. My wife had endured so much. The original diagnosis was followed by chemotherapy and all of its side effects, then surgery, then radiation. Having recovered from that, she had complications from attempted reconstructive surgery, including a blood clot and an infection that were both scary and required hospitalization and/or more medication.
She had just reached a point of relative stability when the symptoms started showing up. She experienced regular headaches, the inability to close her left eye independently and some other things. All cancer survivors know about this. You want to believe that little symptoms are minor and can be explained by something simple. But you are always looking over your shoulder. You always have that haunting question lurking: Did the cancer spread?
The confirmation that it had was a big blow.
It was especially hard since we were so close to a meeting with the plastic surgeon to see about continuing with reconstruction, which would be a step forward. A new emergence of cancer was a huge setback. The fact that it had spread to the brain was particularly daunting.
All of this no doubt prompted that question from some people who know our story. How can our hearts not break?
And yet, our hearts did not break.
I often tell my students, in the context of organizational leadership, that your responses to the situations in life are more important than the situations themselves. That can also be true of our personal lives. It was for us.
Our response to the situation of a newly diagnosed brain tumor was to rely on God to lead us, and to trust that we are in His hands, no matter what. Having done that, we were able to see multiple blessings in the middle of the dire uncertainty of looming brain surgery. Paradoxically, the Thanksgiving with brain surgery was the one during which we felt the most thankful.
The blessings were abundant. Our families of course have been so close to us through this. We cherish those relationships even more.
With my wife’s brain surgery scheduled for the Monday after Thanksgiving, we savored the holiday even more. My wife’s siblings and nephews were over to our house to help us decorate for Christmas, something we have not done in a few years. Our neighbors organized a schedule to bring us meals every single night after surgery, a gesture of love that brings tears to our eyes. Our church family — the one we currently attend and several we have attended previously — have overwhelmed us with prayers, cards and messages of support.
Then there are past friends, and friends of friends, praying for us. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, praying all across the United States and even in other countries who bring our needs to God regularly. We pause and think of that, and draw great strength.
We also have great hope and joy as we enter this Christmas season.
For all the uncertainty that comes with a brain tumor, we are reminded of the fact that Christmas is about bringing certainty to an uncertain world. As Christians, we celebrate God sending His son Jesus into the world. He is the savior that was promised, called Emmanuel, meaning "God with us." He eventually died to pay for our sins so that, when we die, we can live eternally with God in paradise.
With a brain tumor, it’s hard not to think about death. My wife and I have talked about it. It’s not really a pleasant thing to talk about. But we also know that we all die one day.
We pray that my wife has many years left on earth, but if not, we know she will be cancer-free and living with God eternally.
This earth is not our home; it is only temporary. Something better is yet to come. This is the joy of Christmas. This is the hope of everyone who struggles —whether brain tumor, financial difficulties, broken relationship, or anything else that makes this life hard.
Meanwhile, we have experienced Emmanuel, "God with us," through this brain tumor situation more than ever before in our lives. That’s what my wife calls the blessing of a brain tumor.
On Dec. 2, the Monday after Thanksgiving, she had her surgery. We went in feeling the peace of God and quiet confidence that He knew the outcome.
It went well. She will need some therapy to regain strength and full function as a result of the surgery, but she is already making progress.
We go into this Christmas following a brain surgery, dealing with recovery, and with more treatment and uncertainty ahead. But for all the reasons I mentioned above, and especially the primary reason for this Christmas season, we have a ready response for people who ask us how our hearts don’t break.
We just turn the question around: How can our hearts not sing?
A collection of Tim Penning’s columns is available in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.