Without a shadow of a doubt, I can tell you—I am now, and will forever be, grateful I was diagnosed with cancer. I used to pray that God would take this from me. Now I pray that he will allow me another day to fight. Another day to change for the better. Another day to prove to him that I am capable, strong enough, and able to handle this trial and endure it to the end.
I didn’t think I’d ever be able to say I’m grateful for cancer. It’s not the life I pictured. I didn’t ask for this, my husband didn’t ask for this, and my four year old daughter didn’t ask to have a mom who was sick 24/7.
But—and yes there is a but—this experience has changed me, and oh, it has changed me for the better. It has opened my eyes to so much good around me. To so many loving earthly angels that our Father in Heaven has sent to protect me, to lift me when I literally could not stand on my own two feet. I know with every ounce of my body that our Heavenly Father has a plan for each of us. He knows what he is doing. He knew how this trial would shape me and change me in a way that nothing else could.
“Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.”
Psalm 100: 3-5
Yesterday, I had surgery number 10. I sit here in the most comfortable La-Z-Boy, which my dad bought me after my first surgery. It was a nephrectomy (removal of my right kidney/tumor/and adrenal gland). I wasn’t able to lay flat after surgery. In the past three years, I have spent countless hours in this chair.
My journey with cancer began in January of 2014. I was pregnant with our second child. A perfect healthy baby boy. At 14 weeks my blood pressure reached extreme measures. Two weeks went by with me on BP medications and nothing changed. My OB was at a loss and had an ultrasound scheduled to see if something could be wrong with my kidneys. They found an 11cm tumor on my right adrenal gland.
I was quickly admitted to the hospital where a million different tests were run. At this point they were confident they could remove the tumor and keep our baby boy safe. Three days later, everything changed. It was a Sunday morning and I remember it clearly. Treagan (my husband) and I were alone. Some missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had just brought us the sacrament and a spiritual message in our hospital room. Not more then 10 minutes later, our OB resident sprinted through the door. Out of breath, she told us that if we didn’t deliver our 18 week old baby that day, neither he nor I would make it through the night. I had developed HELLP syndrome overnight and my body had started to shut down.
We were left with the heartbreaking need to deliver our healthy baby boy, knowing he wouldn’t survive at 18 weeks, in order to save my life. Treagan and I had some alone time as I waited to be wheeled back to the surgical room. We started second-guessing our decision to move forward with the delivery. We did not want to lose our baby boy. But, if we didn’t deliver him, neither of us would survive. It was a no-win situation and we didn’t know what else to do but pray. We sat in tears and prayed to know that what we were doing was right. I don’t remember the words my husband spoke in that prayer but I will never forget the overwhelming feeling of peace, comfort and complete love that filled that room. We both knew that we were making the right decision for our family and we had to move forward with the delivery.
I’ve never been more grateful for my faith in the Savior and his plan then at that moment. He is the only explanation as to how anyone can find that kind of clarity and peace during one of life’s hardest moments. I knew the Savior was sitting in that room, wrapping His arms around both of us and promising us that everything was going to be okay. We were not alone and we knew it.
After the delivery my body was extremely weak and we had to wait to schedule surgery to remove the tumor. The tumor was still a mystery to all the doctors. What type? Why was it so large? Why was it causing my body to act certain ways? Test upon test were not helping and after 11 days in the hospital they sent me home to strengthen me up for surgery. On March 12, 2014 I went in for surgery to remove the mysterious tumor. The one thing the doctors did tell us is they were 99.9% sure it was not cancer. The fact of the matter was is that it was cancer, and it was metastatic cancer.
I was diagnosed with stage IV adrenal cortical carcinoma. A one-in-a-million type of cancer. Most doctors have never seen it, if they have seen it only 1-2 cases and those patients are no longer living. My prognosis was, and I quote, “You’ll be lucky if you make it five years”.
My husband and I sat outside the hospital uncontrollably in tears. Not knowing what to say, how to tell our families I was dying, how to tell our 18 month old baby girl she was going to lose her mother. These are not things you are prepared to tell anyone at any given moment in your life. Why was this happening to us? I was the healthiest of six kids in my family, exercised my whole life, never did drugs, alcohol, took great care of my body, tried to be a good person, every question you can imagine floated through my head of why me, why now, WHY GOD?
Why do we tend to blame God when things go bad? It’s so interesting to me and yet so natural of us. I know he can prevent bad things from happening but if he did that then we would never be able to appreciate the good. We would never see the beauty because it would all become the norm.
The past three years have been filled with trips to Chicago, Los Angeles and different hospitals in Utah for treatment. Bad news followed us wherever we went. Every new scan brought new growth and more tumors. That five year prognosis was starting to look good and I was starting to hope I would make that mark. Maybe that doctor wasn’t just being a jerk with no bed side manner. Maybe he actually was telling us the truth. Either way, I was miserable. I spent many nights in the bathtub screaming at the top of my lungs about how angry I was, how unfair life was, how could you let this happen to me. Trust me, if you’ve thought it, I’ve said it.
I had a counselor tell me one time that Christ has experienced EVERY. SINGLE. THING. we have ever felt. And although I had already been taught that, in that moment it hit me. No one close to me knew the pain I was felling, knew my nausea, knew my depression, knew my fears, my hurt, but Christ did. HE KNEW and he understood. I learned Christ could handle whatever I needed to tell him. That’s when things started to change for me.
Christ became my friend, my confidant, my counselor. I knew I was safe with him. I could yell, I could scream, I could cry, I could say whatever I wanted and he not only could he handle it, but he felt it, he knew what I was going through and he was there to hold me, to lift me up and to get me to the next minute, sometimes the next second of the day where I could breathe again. He is the only one who truly knew what I was feeling and how to rescue me from it, and sometimes, rescue me from myself.
On June 24, 2016 we received the first good news in two-and-a-half years. After chemo stopped working and an angel of a doctor from LA took a chance on me, I started using an immunotherapy drug called Keytruda. After four treatments, my 40-50+ tumors were down to three. THREE? What? How is this possible? I had two left in my lungs and one in my liver. We could not believe it.
We spent this past summer spending every possible second making more memories than I think most make in a lifetime. From hiking, camping, day trips, lagoon, Disneyland, the ocean with our girl, knocking things off my bucket list left a right. We were not about to take my second chance at life for granted. I wish I didn’t need a terminal illness to make me realize I was walking through life on cruise control and not living it. It was a summer we will cherish forever and memories we will never forget.
But that couldn’t be the end of the story could it? No, things are not simple when it comes to me and I have learned to accept that. I am still battling for my life every day. On September 19, 2016, we learned that the tumor in my liver is now 18cm. Roughly about 7in. Since that day I have experienced some of the most touching, beautiful, testimony building moments of my life.
I wish I could say that my faith stayed strong and centered on Christ throughout this whole three year process but I have had my extreme ups and extreme downs. Moments of extreme sickness, frustration and completely being mad about my situation. I didn’t ask for this, my husband didn’t ask for this and my four year old daughter didn’t ask to have a mom who was sick 24/7.
It’s not the life I pictured. But, and yes there is a but, this experience has changed me, and oh, it has changed me for the better. It has opened my eyes to so much good around me. To so many loving earthly angels that our Father in Heaven has sent to protect me, to lift me when I literally could not stand on my own two feet. I would not be alive today without each and every person that has reached out to me, prayed for me and been there for me in more ways then one.
But above all, I would not be here without my faith, my love, and my trust in the Savior and his plan. My questions of why me have turned into why not me? Why do I think I should be exempt from suffering, from experiencing excruciating pain? The Savior was not exempt and he was perfect. I can without a shadow of a doubt tell you that I am now and will forever be grateful I was diagnosed with cancer.
Without cancer I would never have experienced things that I have, met people I’ve met and been able to see the person our Heavenly Father is trying to mold me into. I am stronger then I have ever been mentally, I am able to see and understand what truly matters, I am getting better at letting go of the small stuff, my faith in Christ has grown more than I ever thought possible and I know that it is only through this trial that I could be where I am today.
I don’t know what the future holds but I do know I’ve changed for the better. I used to pray that God would take this from me. Now I pray that he will allow me another day to fight. Another day to change for the better. Another day to prove to him that I am capable, strong enough and able to handle this trial and endure it to the end. I have faith that I am going to overcome this. I don’t know if that means one day I will be cured or if that means I will leave this life sooner then I had hoped. But I do know with every ounce of my body that our Heavenly Father has a plan for each of us. He knows what he is doing and he knew how this trial would shape me and change me in a way that nothing else could.
I love my Heavenly Father and his Son Jesus Christ so much for trusting me enough to take on this trial, for standing by me when I didn’t agree with them and thought they had no idea what they were doing. There were times I told them, “You’ve got the wrong girl”. But they don’t make mistakes. We just have to be able to find the beauty in our darkest moments and I promise you that when you find the beauty in those moments, it will be like nothing you’ve ever felt before.
Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks; Waiting patiently on the Lord, for your prayers have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and are recorded with this seal and testament […] All things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good, and to my name’s glory, saith the Lord.
D&C 98 1-3
Johanna is the Grow Your Faith Editor at The Small Seed and loves having this space to think about the things that matter most. Her goal is to honor Jesus Christ. You can read her online declaration of belief at mylifeasamormon.com.