I am not forsaken – Bec’s Story
In September 2012, I was 35 years old and a busy mum to five kids. After an intense season of hands on parenting I was looking forward to having four of our five children at school the following year. I would finally have time for some long overdue coffee catch ups and a bit more thinking space. A new season of greater freedom lay ahead, or so I thought.
It was during an extended family get together that same month, that my husband’s step mother commented on a lump on my neck. I hadn’t noticed it before, but with her prodding I took a closer look in the mirror and saw what she was talking about. She insisted I have it looked at by a doctor so the following week I made an appointment to see my local GP.
My doctor did not seem overly alarmed but arranged for blood tests and an ultrasound so that she could rule out anything sinister. When my blood tests came back clear, I was relieved but not surprised. I had been praying about the situation and felt God say, ‘I will never leave you, nor forsake you.’ When I attended my ultrasound appointment a few days later I had a real sense of peace. We were actually leaving on a family holiday that afternoon so my mind was well and truly on other things. Truth be told, I was grateful that it would be my husband’s responsibility to pack five children and their various belongings into the car. Having an ultrasound was definitely the more relaxing of those two options.
My sense of peace was unsettled however, when the radiographer seemed to be taking a lot more images than I anticipated. When I asked if everything was okay she responded, ‘There seems to be a lot of nodules on your neck. I’ll just go check I’ve got enough pictures.’ She left the room and was gone for what felt like an eternity. I began coaching myself to keep my emotions intact. When she walked back into the room accompanied by a specialist, my heart sank.
That was when I heard the word cancer for the first time.
More testing was required but they believed that I had a type of aggressive thyroid cancer. I began to cry. All I could think of was my children and my husband and the future that I had always assumed we would have together. After I left the room I texted my husband Graham in the hallway of the hospital, ‘They think I’ve got cancer!’ As I continued to walk down the hospital corridors I heard God’s voice for the second time ‘I’m going to show you what I’ll heal you of.’ What was amazing to me was how quickly a sense of peace and comfort came to me. Despite the diagnosis that had just been spoken over my life I knew God was with me and I wasn’t alone in that moment.
The next few weeks involved more tests and more waiting. One morning as I was hanging clothes on the line, one of the few places in my home where it was actually quiet, I asked God ‘What is it that I’m facing?’ His response was so clear, ‘This is going to be different to what you ever imagined and you are going to need my strength like never before. Your journey will strengthen & grow other people’s faith and people will come to know me because of it.’ I remember thinking at the time, ‘so many people go through cancer what’s so unique about this journey?’
A few days later, it was confirmed. I had an advanced case of Papillary Thyroid cancer. Two weeks later I was on a plane from my hometown in Nelson, to Christchurch, to have surgery. November 26th, 2012, is a day that is now etched into my memory forever. Although I had some anxiety that morning, I went into surgery with a very clear sense of God’s peace. I knew that He was in control and accepted that the surgery was part of the healing process, then it would just be the recovery. Unfortunately, it was not quite that straight forward.
I opened my eyes after the surgery to discover I wasn’t in the room they had originally told me I would be in. I was in the ICU, with what felt like a small nation of medical staff looking over me. I remember someone asking me if I could I hear them. I could hear them, but I couldn’t respond. That’s when I heard the news that I was definitely not expecting.
‘Rebekah, the cancer was more advanced than we anticipated, which meant the surgery was also more complicated. The expected 3-hour operation actually took us 9 hours. While we are fairly confident we removed all of the tumours, we’ve had to place a tracheotomy in your throat to assist your breathing. Other complications that we didn’t anticipate are that your swallow reflex has been damaged, as have both of your vocal chords. One has full paralysis, as there was cancer in it and the other is very damaged. We are hopeful that one will recover, but there is a chance you may not speak again!’
It was so surreal. As I lay in bed in ICU, hooked up to all manner of machines, unable to speak, I struggled to process what I had just heard. Yet in that same moment I remembered what God had said to me weeks before.
‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’
I was not alone in this. That knowledge didn’t take away the feelings of uncertainty, but it did take away the fear. The next day I was transferred into another ward where I had my own room and began my recovery. It was not pretty. Before the surgery I had imagined that my recovery would be relatively straight forward, basically a four-day hospital holiday from the kids. Oh, how wrong I was.
I have never experienced anything like it. I had tubes for feeding, tubes for breathing, tubes in my chest from the op, lines in my arms for medication, and of course, the convenient one for peeing. I had so many tubes, that I was totally bed bound. I spent the first few days rotating between coughing fits, my tracheostomy oozing pus that needed to be wiped off my neck, uncontrollable vomiting, and saliva dripping down my face. It was awful. Not only was I in excruciating pain and discomfort, I was ‘Nil by Mouth’ which meant I was unable to eat or drink. To top it all off, I couldn’t talk! It was so strange. No matter how desperately I tried, I could not utter a word.
It was certainly a defining moment in my life. I had heard it once said that, ‘life is 10% of what happens to you & 90% how you respond to it.’ I knew that I had choose to hold onto to God, to draw my strength from Him and to trust Him even when the odds were against me. I knew I could trust what God said and I could draw comfort from Him.
‘Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So, let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.’ James 1:2-4 (NLT)
It was not an easy path but I knew that this thing I was having to endure, was also a new opportunity to choose to believe that God can use anything for good. During my extended hospital stay the song, ’10 000 Reasons’, by Matt Redman became my anthem. To be honest, I think I may have played it 10,000 times; so many times I even heard a nurse humming it in the hallway one night. These lyrics helped me to draw near to God and His strength. To give me hope, to calm my thoughts and fears and to know that no matter how alone I felt, I was not alone.
Bless the Lord oh my soul
Oh my soul
Worship His Holy name
Sing like never before
Oh my soul
I’ll worship Your Holy name
The sun comes up
It’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass
And whatever lies before me
Let me be singing
When the evening comes
Each morning the surgeon and medical team would come to see me and each morning I would use my mini whiteboard, my only way of communicating, to ask, ‘Will I be able to eat or drink today? Will I be able to speak today?’ Each time they would reply. ‘We’re not sure yet. We will do some more tests.’ I was desperate for any indication that things were improving. It was so frustrating.
On day eight of my hospital stay, what the doctor said may never happen, happened.
My speech therapist came into my room and tried yet another test & attached yet another new end onto my tracheostomy. All the other tests had been disappointing but this time a tiny, wee, version of my voice came out. It was as quiet as a strained whisper. But it was a sound. I cannot begin to describe the joy, the overwhelming relief and gratefulness that was in my heart. I felt an enormous weight lift off me. I had never really considered before, how radically the loss of my voice would have affected my life and my dreams. Although eight days doesn’t seem like such a long time, trust me, it felt like an eternity.
This was by no means the end of the healing journey but it was a very significant milestone. I remained in hospital for another eight days and had a feeding peg placed in my stomach. For the next 2 months, I was only permitted liquid foods that I received directly to my stomach. How I missed the taste of food! After I was sufficiently recovered from the impact of the surgery I began radiation treatment. It is amazing how something that is silent and seemingly innocuous can make you feel so violently ill and tired for such a long time.
From diagnosis to finishing treatment was a 17-month journey, and what a journey it was. I learned so much about myself and my faith along the way.
I learnt the value of a faith filled, supportive community. When it became obvious that my recovery was going to be a lot longer than anticipated my mother in law committed to move over from Australia and help out our very busy young family, until I was strong enough. A friend from church lead a team of people to turn part of our garage into a room for her. It was built and funded by friends, family and strangers. We were absolutely blown away by the love, generosity & kindness of people in our community.
I learnt the value of saying yes to help if it was offered! This was something that I’d never been good at and I suspect that I’m not alone in that. I am a strong independent woman but I realised people actually wanted to help and we needed help! There is nothing like that feeling of utter helplessness to remind you of how fragile and precious life is. What limited reserves I had I wanted to invest into my family. The kindness and generosity of others enabled me to do that.
I learnt the value of having honest communication with my children. Our kids were aged between two and 10 years when I was diagnosed and to be honest, they were amazing. We told them all together in our lounge right when it was confirmed that I had cancer. From that point on we did our best to keep them informed, but in a way that was age appropriate and not based in fear. My husband and I were both trusting God to heal me and so our focus with the kids was to remind them that God was with us on this journey as a family.
I learnt that it was a choice to look at the very difficult parts of the journey and still believe the truth of Gods words of life, faith and hope. I know first-hand how important it is to cultivate gratitude and thankfulness; to find the treasure in the midst of the trial. Most of all I have learned that when God says that he will never leave us or forsake us, we can trust him at his word.