Your Dad has Stage 4 Cancer
It was two days before my Internal Medicine exam in medical school when I heard those six words that turned my world upside down. I still remember it like it was yesterday, crying and screaming on the phone: “I cannot live without you… I cannot live without you... I cannot live without you...”
His treatment course was a road filled with breathtaking suffering, involving a high-risk surgery and a bone-crushing regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. As I stood by his side, my heart was shattered, repeatedly, and I was personally confronted with the #1 reason people walk away from God: suffering. There are many sophisticated writings and talks on the meaning of suffering. This essay is simply a personal account of what suffering did for my walk with the Lord, written in the hope that it will help others when their walk with Him becomes difficult.
1. Who the heck do you think you are?
Many times, I asked God that question in tears (such a brat, I know). I thought I had fully given my life to God and made Him the Lord of my life but I realized I hadn’t really. I had drawn certain lines where He wasn’t supposed to cross, e.g. my family. Then through this suffering, I came to a raw, decisive moment: I had to decide who this God really was in my life. Is this a god who I will trust and give lordship over the biggest treasures of my heart? Is this a god who I will worship at all times, or abandon in bad times? Is this God really the God of my life?
So, I made the choice to still declare Him as my Lord. I wish I could say it was because I was oh so holy. It wasn’t. It was a real-life Pascal’s wager, guided by His grace. My life had nearly crumbled and I had nowhere else to go, no one else to run to, nothing to lose. So I wagered my life, my family, my everything on Him. And God, in His divine humility, took my wager and drew me further into Himself, into His love. It was and will be the best wager of my life.
2. Where does my hope lie?
“50/50,” they said. There was a very real chance that my dad – this man who was my world – would die. If I was “hoping” for his cure and he were to die, would I then be “hope-less”? But I knew in the depths of my heart that hope was eternal. Then, if not in a cure, where did my ultimate hope lie? In suffering, the meaning of hope was no longer a lofty philosophical question, rather a real-life question that demanded a real-life answer.
Sure, I do hope for my dad’s cure. We all have these greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But my ultimate hope had to lie in something or, rather, someone who surpassed all things: it had to lie in Christ. The hard part was that I didn’t know what that hope looked like or how it would play out in earthly terms. But as Paul says in Romans, “Hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.” And I knew I wanted to struggle for the true hope I couldn’t quite see than settle for a false one I could.
3. Uniting my suffering to the Lord
I was often told to “unite my suffering to the Lord.” As a concrete, task-oriented person, I had no idea what that meant. Frankly, I didn’t feel all lovey-dovey toward God anyway to do this uniting business. So I did what I knew how to do: simply remain with Him. When the last thing I wanted to see was His face, I forced myself to go to church. When the last thing I wanted to do was speak to Him, I forced myself to pray. When the last thing I wanted to do was reveal all of my fears, desires, and brokenness, I poured myself out to Him.
Looking back, I think that’s all that the phrase meant and all that the Lord wanted from me. There was nothing fancy or heroic about it – it was simply collapsing at the foot of His cross in all of my tears and mess. The Lord didn’t take away the suffering but my suffering was united to the Lord and He made my tears His, my broken heart His – He made me His.
4. Broken bread for others
Even with all those good and noble things, I wondered what purpose this suffering could possibly serve. What purpose could it possibly serve, trembling in tears as my Dad underwent a 15-hour-long, high-risk surgery? What purpose could it possibly serve, watching my dad puke and not be able to even open his eyes because of the nausea from chemo? What purpose could it possibly serve, my heart breaking into pieces for my parents as they struggle with standing at death’s doorstep?
Just as Jesus was the broken bread for us, we too are called to be broken for others. As a result of my suffering and being a witness to my dad’s suffering, I realized I was no longer afraid to step into others’ suffering and stand by their side; I could speak into the crushing loneliness and hopelessness in suffering because I was once there. I realized God intended for me – even my brokenness – to be completely spent for Him and His people. Suffering broke open wide this selfish servant of His.
One day, I was working in the ER and had to tell a family that their child had cancer. This was an immigrant family, who felt terribly alone in this sterile ER room, in this foreign land – just like my parents – as I delivered the worst news of their lives. I could not give them a promise that their child would live or that this road would be easy. But from one broken person to another, from one child of God to another, I could give them a promise that they will never, ever be alone. At that moment, as I held the mom’s hands, I felt like the room was truly on fire with the Holy Spirit. In our mutual brokenness, in our mutual suffering, it made room for the Lord to enter. A few months later, I ran into the mom, who gave me a big hug and told me, “Every time we come to the hospital, we think about you. Thank you. Thank you for that day.” The worst day of their lives was made holy and good by the Lord’s presence. Through suffering, He makes us capable to stand with others in their suffering and make room for His presence, which is the ultimate answer to suffering – not a thing or an idea but God Himself.
This is my humble story. Now, I’d like to end with a few words for those experiencing the peak of their suffering at this very moment:
You are probably wondering how this valley of death will end, when it will end, or if it will ever end. I’m so sorry that I don’t have an answer for you. But let me testify as someone who walked it and has seen many others walk it: God’s love for you is greater than anything – mark my words, anything – you should ever fear. He knows you, He loves you, and He has a plan for you. Remain in Him and I promise you, you will see Him in His glory.
Dr. Jane Lee specializes in pediatric emergency medicine in Detroit. She loves international mission work, art and architecture, red wine, nonsense banter, sleeping, and Harry Potter.