Cancer, Jesus in Scripture

#PartyTimeChumps

The text from our daughter Claire, this week, simply said, “Benign!” followed by “#partytimechumps.” And with that, eight months of cancer concern for our girl ended.

It all started in such a familiar manner: discovery and ultrasound, followed by a second ultrasound two months later.

While she never expressed fear, I know this all weighed heavily on Claire’s mind. We found some notes from a class Claire took. In the midst of the notes, there was some doodling. Do you see the ribbon and BCA?

There was enough concern in the second ultrasound to request authorization for a 3-D mammogram. A few minutes later, the tech informed us everything was fine, and no need to come back until Claire was 40!

Valerie saw the ultrasound results, and there was a jolting flashback to her own ultrasound before her cancer diagnosis. She too was told there was nothing to worry about, and as a result, the cancer wasn’t discovered until it became metastatic and had advanced to Stage 3B.

With Claire, we weren’t going to simply trust a diagnostic method that was anything less than 100% conclusive. This week, after consulting with a surgeon and undergoing  a fine needle aspiration, we knew for sure what we already had believed: Claire did not have cancer!

“What we already believed…”

That phrase is not used lightly, for “belief” is different from hope. There is a substance and weightiness to belief that gives foundation to an outcome. When Valerie was diagnosed after finding an enlarged lymph node, we prayed and felt peace in the midst of waiting for biopsy results, but hope for a desired outcome was all we had.

But now I say that we believed Claire was going to be fine. Maybe it’s not too strong to say we “knew.” What I will describe has changed my walk with God to a degree I’m not sure I can fully convey.

In Deuteronomy 4:9 we read, “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”

This drives me! What I (we) saw and experienced during Valerie’s cancer journey impacts us exceedingly! I must not forget! I will not forget. And so we share with our children, and others, the things God revealed to us. And we start with this: knowing God’s will, and living in a place where he can speak to you only comes from relationship; a deep, tight, walk that is nurtured through much time and much communication.

While there are numerous examples of how God spoke to me during Valerie’s treatments, three stand out distinctly. The first was a direct voice, while the other two came from reading scripture. I must add, that even saying God “spoke” causes me to pause. Growing up in the church, there are times I have seen that phrase used in a careless, nonchalant manner. I don’t use that phrase lightly, and it’s only after significant time has passed that I share it now.

About 5 days after Valerie’s diagnosis, a customer asked me how I was. I briefly shared the news and he began to tell me of his wife’s up-and-down journey with cancer. The doctors had surgically removed the cancer, but it had come back. There was surgery after surgery. They were still fighting the cancer several years after it was found. He pointed his finger at me and said, “This is what you have to look forward to.”

I was already dealing with so much fear and anxiety, that as I drove away my heart was crushed. I cried out to God, literally and figuratively, and then I clearly heard a voice say, “THIS IS NOT WHAT I HAVE FOR VALERIE.” And in that moment, I went from complete fear to total peace. So much so that I could not stop weeping in gratitude and thankfulness.

Out of a deep brokenness and a desperation to give all my fear to God, He spoke to me.  Indeed, Valerie has not experienced anything like what my friend went through. I never want to forget that! I cannot.

As dramatic as it was to literally hear God speak, I’m almost more excited when He shows me things in the Word. Again, I’m convinced that one cannot hear the whisper of his voice through all the white noise of our busy lives unless we, without remorse, close down the streams of data, news, and entertainment that each fight with each other over our affections.

This kind of relationship is not one to be picked up and put down at our leisure. It is a relentless pursuit with no finish line. And as I have most recently discovered, I really can live without the elective (and enjoyable) distractions that have consumed me.

I feel free to just be. Life simplified is Him glorified. Peace rules when the clamor fades.

The second time God spoke through His Word was startling. It came as our Pastor was preaching from Nahum. While I was listening, I was really broken inside, praying for Valerie as I sat.

I was asking God to kill the cancer, to remove this alien from her body, and to never let it come back.  And then, there it was…in the middle of the passage (Nahum 1:9) I heard the words, “This trouble will not come a second time! ” It was as if I’d been hit in the back of my head with a lead pipe.

As our Pastor was speaking from the outside, God was speaking on the inside. I didn’t realize until later that the context of the passage had nothing to do with the context of what I heard.

The passage was describing the ultimate destruction of the city of Nineveh, but what I heard were words of peace and healing. In Hebrews 4:12 we read the word of God is alive and active. Nowhere has that been more true for me than in this moment.

It was such a startling moment, I reached over to Valerie’s bible and wrote the date in the margin.

Perhaps the sweetest moment though, was the next time this happened. Valerie was through with all treatments and surgeries. We had several other very significant moments of God speaking to us (one of which is here).

It was the day of her post-treatment scans (full body CT scan, full body MRI and bone scan) and I was scared. In spite of everything I knew and believed, fear gripped me and I felt panicked.

After a year of treatment, the day we had anticipated for so long was finally here. What would all the treatments and all the surgeries result in? Had any cancer escaped to other parts of the body and grabbed a foothold?

As I pondered it all, I felt a strong presence urging me “get in the Word…get in the Word.” The beauty of it all is that I’m on a regular two year bible reading plan, I don’t choose the passage!

So I opened to the day and read:

Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways! You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord. The Lord bless you from Zion! May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children! Peace be upon Israel!” Psalms 128:1-6

Your wife shall be a fruitful vine… seeing our children’s children! My heart was again filled with gratitude. I couldn’t have randomly turned to such a passage in 1,000 years!

All these points of connection with God have some commonality. They all come out of a deep brokenness of heart and a desperation to hear from the One who holds our future!

So it was several weeks ago, regarding Claire. She won’t know this story until she reads it, but just before the consult with the surgeon, I again had tremendous anxiety and deep fear. It was a PTSD moment, reliving Valerie’s diagnosis all over again.

I wondered what God what was happening: Why? Why again? Why my little girl?

Again, the response “get in the Word.” And I did. This time it was two chapters from Job where Job was, in essence, asking God, “Where are you? I don’t understand all of this!” And then, the answer in the third chapter from my reading that day. From the book of John, chapter 5, I read the story of Jesus healing a man who had been an invalid for 38 years!

I knew what God was telling me: “I am here. I do hear. I’ve got your girl! I am the Healer even when you don’t see me! Don’t forget, the cancer will not come a second time, remember? Trust me. Claire is fine.”

As I was reading without, He was speaking within. Again. I knew! The white noise was gone. His was the only voice I was attentive to.

Are you desperate to hear His voice? Could too much clanging of life keep you from hearing His whisper? Pursue Him relentlessly! Settle for nothing less. His blessing of His presence will overwhelm you! God may not speak to you the same way He spoke to me. But He does speak, if you have ears to hear!

Two days ago was the three year anniversary of Valerie’s diagnosis. She’s just fine too!

I think Claire is right! It’s party time, chumps! 

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Cancer

Missing Cancer

“Ugh, I miss it”.

This was the headline in the Washington Post that caught my attention last night. The story presents a combat veteran who today finds himself living in a trailer three miles from Rock Springs, Wyoming, where the wind blows and the landscape is lifeless. I have been there. My sister lives in this town of 23,000.

With military service behind him, this man has a difficult time returning to civilian life. He can’t keep a job, and he has little patience with people who have no idea of what he’s experienced. If he could, he would go back to war, not because he misses combat, but because he yearns for camaraderie and brotherhood; the intensity of the moment. He misses those with whom he shares a deep bond. He longs for those who understand.

As I read the article, I found myself identifying with this man in ways that surprised me. Deep feelings welled from within.

I too, feel myself withdrawing from those around me. Activities that used to bring happiness no longer do so. Areas of service, which brought significance and purpose, now feel like drudgery.
I feel like I’m letting so many down. I don’t like it, but I can’t change it. Faking normalcy doesn’t work either.

About the only thing that makes me happy is spending time with Valerie and the girls, though various mundane exercises such as cleaning the garage or sitting by the fire are comforting.

When we were in our desert experience, the moment by moment presence of God was tactile. Each day was a new day, and we knew that if He didn’t show up, we were finished.

I don’t miss cancer… How could I?  But I do miss the intensity and urgency of that relationship with God. 

I’ve learned the value of walking where there’s no water, no shade, no escape. It changed me, and for that I’m thankful.

What about you? Are you in a desert experience? Will you embrace it and face it with Him? In the surrender of your will to His, peace will replace fear.

When he was in the desert, hiding from King Saul, David said 

“He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights.”
‭‭Psalm‬ ‭18:33‬

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God gave David the feet he needed for the path he was on. That encourages me when little else does.

While I am no longer in the desert, I am on a path that is unfamiliar. It’s not one of my choosing. But I rest in the assurance that while I am isolated, I am not alone.

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Cancer

In Her Own Words

March 27, 2014 stood tall for Valérie and me.

On this day, the doctor diagnosed Valérie with metastatic carcinoma breast cancer. I then accessed the American Cancer Society website and it described this type as “the most feared form of breast cancer…little in the way of treatment.” In bewilderment and shock, I thought I would lose my wife.

Little did the Alexander family know then that, exactly two years later, March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday, Valérie would give her video testimony to God’s healing and of His continued presence while she underwent bleak, challenging, devastating, painful and lonely times.

Except for Valérie’s closest friends and relatives, no one could possibly know how difficult this video task was for her. With the exception of a speaking engagement at a women’s retreat, this was the only time she had spoken publicly about her journey.

As you’ll hear in the video below, her testimony is accompanied by a powerful rendition of the song “It Is Well,” led by our dear friend Sarah Schoenherr.

Whether Valérie lived or died, her trust centered in Jesus.

“Through it all, through it all, my eyes are on you…

And it is well with me…”

With no reservation, I assure all that the words captured Valérie’s heart. Whether she lived or died was not her primary concern. Rather, regardless of the outcome, she simply wanted God to redeem her pain for the benefit of others.

It wasn’t until a most anxious of days, when we thought Valérie was going back into chemo, that I, too, released it all. And though all I wanted was to grow old with my wife, I told the Lord that whatever happened, it, too, was well with me!

Valérie, our daughters, and I share this journey with you now. In the midst of pain, in the middle of heartache and sorrow, stands the One who knows and sees.

His name is Jesus. And because our eyes are on Him, it is well…

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Cancer

If He’s Not Yours, Then You’re Not His

The last two weeks have been quite difficult. Almost daily somebody I know reports a new cancer diagnosis. I wonder why there are so many…
…Why now?

And with each one comes a flashback to our own diagnosis. It’s not hyperbole when I say I feel like I’m stuck in a hole.

I’m learning to deal with the remembering and the fear. It was more than fear though; the fear had a presence. The fear was like a pervasive odor that I couldn’t escape. With each breathe, a reminder that it was there.

After Valerie was diagnosed, I can now admit, with every ache and pain, I wondered if I too was going to be diagnosed. It seemed so shocking. There was nowhere to run away to. So we didn’t run away…we ran towards. We ran towards the One who let it all happen. We cried out to Him like a child to his father.

The hardest part was trusting that God knew. And not only did He know, but He allowed. And because of those two truths, I didn’t just want to trust – I had to trust. Honestly, that was the only thing that got us through. Regardless of the outcome, healing or death, we knew that we were held close.

 

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord. That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives. But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” 

‭‭Jeremiah‬ ‭17:5-8‬ ‭NIV‬ ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬


We had nothing else to do but to put this Truth to the test. We decided early that we would cast everything on the Lord. We pushed all our chips to the middle of the table and we trusted. I remember praying that if God didn’t heal Valerie, then we weren’t interested in anything else.

When I think about the “trust” spoken of in the passage, it’s not a relationship between co-equals. Rather, this relationship is with God himself! It is a lesser party crying out to a greater party for help, and then taking confidence in the outcome. When you’re going through the wasteland, where is your confidence? In whom are you trusting?

Even though our trust was (and is) rooted in this relationship, it doesn’t mean there was an absence of fear. In trusting, though, we continued to give away the fear that seeks to control and paralyze. And we had to continually release it to the One to whom the wind and waves submit.

So what happened to my trust this week?

I never said this was easy… Some of it is very much PTSD. I suppose the rest is a deep empathy and sadness for those I love because I now know what it all means. Moment by moment, though, I continue to choose to release. I continue to choose relationship.

As I try to picture this trust relationship within the context of Scripture, I’m immediately drawn to the story of Passover, which celebrates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. In Exodus 12, we see a picture of the Passover lamb, the perfect lamb that was the sacrifice for the sin of the people. It’s a picture of Jesus, who was the perfect sacrifice for the sin of the whole world.

In the Hebrew text, there is a wonderful progression:
“Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: ‘On the tenth of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the persons; according to each man’s need you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats” Exodus‬ ‭12:3-5
Notice the progression, from general to specific. Whether or not one is a believer, we can most likely agree that Jesus was a lamb; he was one who claimed to be the Savior. You see, in history, there are many who have claimed to be “a lamb”, or Messiah. Jesus, among them, also was a lamb. But he wasn’t just a lamb, or one of many, he was the lamb.

So you may accept that Jesus was one among many who have claimed to be a Savior, but do you know him to be the Savior?

There is a bit more, though, that is very important! Jesus was a lamb, and you may believe that he was the lamb. But is he your lamb? You may acknowledge that Jesus, the Son of God, is the Savior of the world, but is He your Savior. Here’s the thing… If He’s not yours, then you’re not His! But when you’re in that type of relationship, you can have the absolute confidence that your prayers are heard, considered, and answered! And whatever the answer, there is trust and confidence!

When life crashes in, and when the fear of death seemingly grabs you by the throat to where you can’t breathe or think, knowing that He is yours and you are His somehow makes whatever future you are facing seem doable!

I have realized again this week that it’s not a hole I am in. It’s a tunnel, and there is a way out. As I move through the darkness, there is a Light I am moving towards.

The Light is Jesus. I know, no matter the circumstances, I can trust Him. Do you know Him? Is He yours?

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Cancer

Juxtapositions in the Strong Tower

Yesterday was an anniversary of sorts. One year ago, September 10, 2014, my wife, Valerie, finished chemotherapy for Stage 3, invasive breast cancer.

The chemo lasted a little over five months and to say it was brutal would be an understatement. There were many days when Valerie could only get out of bed to use the restroom. And the pain…

…so much pain…

You should know right up front, even as I write this, I can’t help but think of the horror of it all. Yet I remember peace and the constant abiding presence of God throughout our journey. When Valerie was diagnosed, we weren’t expecting it (does anybody?). What was most difficult was that she had discovered the tumor as much as two years earlier, but it was attached to a cyst that neither mammograms nor ultrasounds showed. What should have been an early diagnosis and minimally invasive treatment turned into five+ months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and eight weeks of radiation.

Today, one year from the end of chemo, seven months from the end of treatment and almost two months from her first post-treatment scans, I find myself with a heart of wonder and thankfulness. Oh, those scans? They included a full body CT scan, a bone scan, and an MRI. Unfortunately, they did reveal one thing… Valerie has a little bit of arthritis in her left knee.

Other than that, everything was CLEAN!

When I read the Psalms, I am struck by the juxtaposition of the writers crying to God in despair and fear and then turning to praise God for his goodness and his faithfulness, for his protection and provision, for his shelter and his refuge. My wife and I know that juxtaposition because we lived it.

After we received the phone call that “the test results were positive,” we were in shock for several hours. When we finally could begin to start navigating again we discussed several things. While we had both the best oncologist and surgeon in town, we were not interested in doctors or medicine or treatments.

What we wanted was a “Jesus healing.”

It’s a simple picture really… When Jesus healed, it was complete. It was done and it was finished. There were no ongoing treatments. When Jesus healed the blind man, the blind man didn’t need glasses. When Jesus healed the deaf, they didn’t need hearing aids. And when Jesus healed the lame, they didn’t need orthotics. The healing was complete and it was full! That’s what we wanted! And so, from the very beginning, it’s what we prayed for.

Two weeks before receiving our diagnosis, God put Psalm 91 on Valerie’s heart, and she saturated in it day after day, wondering why. And then we knew… The first two verses read:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” (‭Psalm‬ ‭91‬:‭1-2‬ NIV) ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

The rest of the chapter is all about God’s protection and deliverance. And so, I sit here now, knowing those promises were for us, and I am full of praise and thanksgiving.

I’ve documented all of this well over the last 17 months at Valerie’s blog site. If you haven’t read it before, you’ll find it to be raw and very transparent. You’ll also see that in 17 months of specific prayer requests, everything we prayed for was answered, be it low blood counts, sickness, infection, tests, scans, etc. Every. Single. Thing! And so again, today, I write from a place of wonder and thanksgiving, having known the heartache and despair that preceded it.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned through this chapter of our lives is how different everybody’s story is, cancer or not. This hit us hard 14 days ago as we said goodbye to a dear young friend, Kari Karr, who was just a bit older than our girls. Some would say she fought a long, hard battle against Cystic Fibrosis since she was a baby. I wouldn’t disagree, but I saw something a little different. I saw a young lady who kept her gaze steady on Jesus, who was her strong tower, her refuge, her rampart. She focused on him, and he fought for her.

When Jesus called her home, he didn’t lose, and neither did she.

I don’t understand why it was her time, but it reminds me of the night Valerie was told she had to go back into chemotherapy. I didn’t understand this either, especially after her treatment seemed to be going so well. I accepted it, and though I went to sleep that night sure that I was going to lose my wife, I felt and knew the presence and peace of Jesus like I never had before. Valerie didn’t end up going into chemo, and, to this day, the story of why she didn’t is simply hard to believe, even for me.

As for our Kari, we know she is with Jesus now because we read about it in scripture. The apostle Paul wrote:

 “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord”. (‭II Corinthians‬ ‭5‬:‭8‬ NKJV). ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬ 

I think there is more, though, that excites me for her and for us. You see, scripture teaches us a couple of other truths. Throughout the Bible, we see our relationship with Jesus as that of him as the groom, and we (the Church) as the bride. And in the Day of The Lord, the rapture, we are presented to him whole and complete, ready for a honeymoon as inferred in the book of Daniel.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Confused? Stick with me and think with me…Paul also writes:

“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (‭I Thessalonians‬ ‭4‬:‭13-18‬ NKJV) ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Where others believe in “soul sleep,” we believe that when we die we go directly to be with the Lord. I also believe though, that all believers, dead or alive, are presented to the groom as one body, the Church! You see, God is outside of time. He’s in eternity, and time places no constraints on Him! And just as I cannot fully understand the idea of a triune Godhead, I also cannot understand an existence outside of time. Scripture though, speaks to both!

We live by the truth that scripture interprets scripture. Now the only way I can reconcile the scripture from 1 Thessalonians 4 (and others) with the truth of being with Jesus at death is that Jesus is outside of time and we are all presented to him at the same time. In other words, I believe we all get there together!

The Church has wrestled with these questions for thousands of years, and you may not accept what I believe. That’s okay! It’s not really the point. The real question is are you dwelling in the shelter of the Most High? Is Jesus your refuge, your strong tower? Do you seek shelter under His wings as Psalm 91 speaks of? When your day of trial comes, and it will come, will you be prepared?

What about Kari? Did those promises not apply to her as well? I absolutely believe they did. Over and over we saw God move miraculously in her life, confounding even the doctors when they told her there was no hope. In the end though, when Jesus beckons, will you be ready?

She was.

On the morning Kari went to be with Jesus, she married her fiancé, Brad, in the hospital room. It was a beautiful culmination of her desire to both marry her best friend and to fall pain-free into the arms of Jesus. And for her, I believe she entered the presence of Jesus with her husband at her side, surrounded by her family… a beautiful reunion with the One who held her tight all the years of her life! A close friend said it best: “Kari was the only person I know who was married twice in the same day!” Beautiful!

May God keep you and bless you! May you find your rest in Him. Let Him be your strong tower! And may His face shine upon you!

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