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I’d like to take a break from my usual socio-political commentary to ask a very important question: What would you do if you learned you had less than a year to live?
This happened to two friends of mine. And how they experienced – and answered – that question illustrates how faith in God can pull you through the toughest of times.
I met Cheryl shortly before the birth of her second son. Tragedy struck Cheryl when the baby was a year old. A sudden severe pain in her head was diagnosed as a brain tumor.
And not just any brain tumor. Cheryl had a glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) tumor, one of the most lethal of all types. (Statistics vary according to numerous factors, but the death rate for GBM is approximately 97 percent.) She was given three months to live. She was 33 years old.
With two tiny sons to fight for, Cheryl and her husband, Matt, battled that tumor with every ounce of determination they had. Through a mixture of diet, surgeries, chemotherapy and prayer, she survived.
Five years later I received a call from Cara, a dear friend. Her husband, Tom, had been diagnosed with – a GBM brain tumor. I tell you, what are the chances?
As with Cheryl, Tom and Cara had a lot to fight for. They had a young son and an adopted daughter from China. The children were 3 and 8 when Tom found his diagnosis was the same as Cheryl’s – death.
So what would you do if you learned you had less than a year to live?
In the cases of both these remarkable families, they poured their souls into what they knew were the critically important things in life. Spouse. Kids. And most of all, God.
The age-old question asks why bad things happen to good people. Why can’t brain tumors happen to people twisted in mind, morals and spirit – instead of wonderful people with loving families?
Do you recall last week’s column in which I discussed the apparent hypocrisy with which many politicians treat matters of religion? These are the types of people who use religion as a tool for self-aggrandizing or hoodwinking their constituents.
But in the case of Tom’s and Cheryl’s families, religious faith was used as the tool it was meant to be. Their faith was not an abstract concept or a photo opportunity. It was very real – and very close.
After a valiant fight, Tom died a year after his diagnosis. Cara and the children depended on God to get them through – not only during the year it took Tom to fight, but to deal with his absence after he’d gone. And unlike those weak in faith, their faith increased. They didn’t blame God. They relied on God.
Cheryl is still alive, a remarkable – no, a staggering – achievement. She is one of the rare long-term GBM survivors in the country, and perhaps the only one to survive so many multiple recurrences (four so far) of the tumor. Most people don’t survive even one recurrence because the tumor comes back so aggressively.
So why do bad things happen to good people? Shouldn’t we be angry with God when we face trials and tribulations? Doesn’t it seem like He’s a fickle God, one who throws lightening bolts of tragedy at whim?
For me, a glimmer of understanding of God’s role came from watching a corny Western movie about some pioneers. In the movie, a man’s wife had died, leaving him with a small daughter. A woman, pregnant with her first child, lost her husband on the trail.
The woman looked at the wreckage of her dreams and blamed God for her troubles. The man took her aside and said, “I know you’re mad at God. But God is not responsible for your problems.” He added, “When I go for a walk with my daughter and she trips and falls, she knows I didn’t push her down. But she also knows that I will be there to lift her up. To minister to her hurts, to support her on her journey, and if necessary to carry her home.”
This hit me like a thunderclap.
“The peace God gives me is the best medicine I could ever take to fight the brain cancer,” says Cheryl. “The doctors just smile when I tell them that.” In fact, doctors were inclined to dismiss her faith as a factor in her survival. Cheryl knows better.
I asked how different her handling of GBM would be without a faith in God. “I am sure I would have given up,” she replies. “Crawled into bed and hoped to die and be over with it. I’m sure Matt and I would have separated and our kids would have suffered. The moment I focus on God and His love for me, I am covered with peace and all my fear goes away.”
“When Matt and I focus on God, we can enjoy life and be filled with peace, no matter what happens,” says Cheryl. “That is what is so amazing. I know things don’t happen by chance. There is a purpose and reason why all things happen in my life. I see all events as an adventure, the excitement of life. Even when I go in for brain surgery, I look forward to the next day. It’s hard to explain how amazing that feeling is. Some people just look at me and wonder how I could be smiling and loving life while going into brain surgery No. 4 and having ‘terminal’ brain cancer. But I just try to look back at those people and pray that they will also feel that peace and surrender to Christ.”
Compare this to the photo ops and even mockery with which most politicians treat matters of faith.
Cheryl and Cara knew they had help nearby. All they had to do was ask. They “took the cancer as a challenge to grow and become stronger with God.”
Like Job, I’d say they’ve more than risen to the occasion.