5 Spiritual Lessons I Learned Battling Breast Cancer . . . Twice

I resolved to surrender control and allow God to have His way — in and through two cancer diagnoses.

At the age of 25, I was newly married and working at my local church. I loved my job. My husband and I were connecting with a new community our age. We were thoroughly enjoying this new season of life. My life was just beginning.

September rolled around, and I was due for an annual female exam — should have been routine. But while I was at the appointment, I asked the doctor to look at a lump I had found in my breast. Diagnosis: breast cancer.

After a lumpectomy the doctor confirmed the cancer had already started to spread. The surgeon recommended a double mastectomy, so that’s what I opted to do. I had been married for a year at this point. A cancer diagnosis would be taxing on any relationship, let alone a new marriage. My husband, Steve, was an amazing support during the healing process. He was continually attentive to my physical needs and was present through all of my emotional ups and downs.

It was overwhelming to wake up every morning to see the scars staring back at me in the mirror. It was a constant reminder that I wasn’t a whole woman anymore.

A year after my mastectomy, I found myself struggling with depression, self-image, and intimacy issues. Cancer seeks to steal our femininity by stripping us of our hair, breasts, fertility, intimacy, and ultimately our identity. It was overwhelming to wake up every morning to see the scars staring back at me in the mirror. It was a constant reminder that I wasn’t a whole woman anymore.

Steve relentlessly searched for someone to help me, and finally we found a psychologist who was a breast cancer survivor, too. She worked with Steve and I, educating us on the grieving process survivors go through. I learned things like how to identify my emotion, how to articulate to Steve what I was feeling, and how to give myself permission to feel all the ups and downs this journey would bring.

Once we got our feet back on the ground, my husband and I started a non-profit called Project31 as an effort to embrace, equip, and empower other women battling breast cancer — and life after. Proverbs 31:30 says, “Charm is deceptive and beauty if fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to praised.” We named our organization Project31 because we wanted these women to know that their true beauty is internal.

As Steve and I continued our journey, we were blessed with two kids. We thought we’d already made it past our big struggle in life. Fast-forward eight years later. I was 34 and going in for a routine MRI. Over the years, I had continued to do self-exams, and during one of the exams I found a lump on my skeletal wall. The cancer had returned. However, it wasn’t the same form of breast cancer. The first tumor was not estrogen induced, but this one was. I was one of those “unlucky” people who happen to get cancer twice.

Daily dependence on my Heavenly Father in prayer, worship, and community with fellow believers carried me through those two diagnoses.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. After I got over the shock, I dug my heels in and had another lumpectomy and followed up the surgery with 48 treatments of radiation. Since I had already experienced this once before, I was better equipped and wiser, and by grace only God can give, I was able to handle the situation without falling apart.

Despite all the changes and trials that overtook my life, body, and family over the years, I remained anchored in Christ, my ever-present help. Daily dependence on my Heavenly Father in prayer, worship, and community with fellow believers carried me through those two diagnoses.

Two years after my second diagnosis, I had complications due to radiation and underwent a very invasive surgery called a latissimus-dorsi flap reconstruction. Still, I was determined to see God’s glory revealed through my life, through my pain. That was the driving force, pressing me forward one day at a time.

Because of these experiences, my relationship with Christ has grown more intimate. This has been an evolving process of growing to deeper levels in my relationship with God. I resolved to surrender control and allow God to have His way — in and through the cancer. Here are five spiritual lessons I learned that I hope will change your life:

1. Fully surrender to God.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

God tells us our lives are not our own, yet we spend day after day trying to conform ourselves into the image of the world through our busyness and personal agendas. Before cancer I thought I had fully surrendered my life, but it wasn’t until I was faced with something completely out of my control that I realized how little of myself I had truly surrendered to Him.

Once I was able to admit I had very little control over anything in my life, I was able to let go and let God do what He wanted to do. In order to live restored lives, we must allow God to consume every part of our hearts and minds. His way is the only way to truly live.

When we admit we aren’t in control, we’re free to fall back into the arms of the Father who spoke the whole world into existence. He knows the whole picture; we only see a small part. If we learn to trust Him and his perfect plan, He can begin to restore our brokenness through His word. It’s a conscious choice to give our worries, concerns, and fears to Him. Sometimes it’s a moment-by-moment effort at first until we learn how to trust.

2. Love God with your whole being.

Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

As we grow in our intimacy with Him through spending time in His word, in worship, and in prayer, He begins to speak to our hearts in life-changing ways. He awakens our souls to our God-given purpose. When I fully gave Him all of my attention, His voice became clearer. I was able to discern His whispers and have confidence to follow His leading.

3. Love yourself well.

“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Matthew 22:39)

You’ve heard it before: you can’t love others well if you first don’t love yourself. This is not a selfish love, the kind the world might dictate, but an acceptance of the Father’s love for us and the ability to embrace our God-ordained purpose.

We are all fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Even with our battle scars, this is still true. He has created us all in His image. It’s okay for us to love who we are because we are children of the Most High God.

4. Love others well.

“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:39)

As He continues to transform our hearts and minds as we’re drawing close to Him, we become overwhelmed with His goodness. Our hearts become so full that His love begins to overflow into the hearts of those around us. We are able to be a reflection of His glory through our love for others.

5. Live abundant life.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)

We are only given one life. God didn’t die a sacrificial death for us to live bound in fear, hurt, pain, or brokenness. Believe me, two cancer diagnoses could have easily turned me to a life of fear that each routine exam would reveal another battle to fight. But I was able to see that He is trustworthy, He is for me, and He has good things in store for my life.

Jesus died to give us purpose and destiny. He died to give us freedom, restoration, and power. Rise and walk in your God-given power.

He restores the brokenhearted.

Read more about the author’s journey of healing in her book, Pink Is The New Black.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Sarah McLean
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