Christ in the Face of Cancer
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)
We either take that at face value or leave it behind. One path will grant you salvation; life forever in the kingdom of light with the one who died to save you. The other condemns you to an endless future set apart from God, rejected because you left him and his promises in your wake. I picked the first one and that was the easy part. Sticking to it has, and will be, a lifetime of battles lost and won, dark alleys and bright rays of sunshine, sleepless nights and peace like nothing I’ve ever known before.
In January 2014, when I was 18, my Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was 61. He was also my best friend, biggest fan, one of the godliest men I knew and the only other Christian in my family.
The first year was relatively easy. Nothing much changed; my brother carried on with school, I went on my gap year and then started university and my Mum kept her job. Dad and I continued doing Pilates on the kitchen floor at midnight when neither of us could sleep, arguing over how outspoken I am and listening to country music on full blast whenever we made bread (most days). Chemotherapy came and went. We prayed together, went to church together and asked God to somehow prepare us for the black hole of unknown we knew awaited us one day. The doctors gave him between two and ten years. We prayed it would be ten.
Jesus was faithful. He kept his promises. The first Christmas was the happiest I can ever remember, celebrating Jesus’ birth with my best bud. We repeated 2 Corinthians 9:15 over and over to ourselves: ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’
He gave us time, he gave us memories and, towering like a Christmas tree above all the tiny blessings, he gave us hope. The Jesus who loves me, my Dad and every single one of the 7 billion people who tread this broken world today is the same as he was 2000 years ago when he gave himself up and hung, bruised, battered and pierced to a cross. The King whose death drove the light out of the day, split a curtain in two and rose, defying the kings who put him there, is the same one who lives and walks beside me now.
Last May, just over a year after Dad was diagnosed, I got a phone call at university. ‘Come home,’ was the message relayed. Within days, the tumours that had been steadily mounting in his back had begun pressing on his spinal cord and he went from fully mobile to confined to a hospital bed, unable to walk without a Zimmer frame. His hair that had been thick and dark, even after growing back following weeks of chemo, became grey and limp. The strong brown hands now shook with fear and weakness and he struggled to hold a conversation.
Still we prayed together, this time through streaming tears. The doctors told us he had days, weeks at most. What does a mother with two children who are supposed to be adults do with that information? More importantly, what does a father who is given days to say goodbye to his family do with those words when he can barely see straight? Good question.
Exodus 14:14 became the verse of the week: ‘The Lord will fight for you, you need only be still’ were the words we repeated through countless MRIs, radiation sessions and bad news.
The rest of the year is patchy in my memory. There are huge chunks of it that I can’t remember now. Things got better and then they got worse. Dad came home from the hospital eventually but was confined to an armchair and I stayed home from university for the year. We prayed and read the bible together more than we had ever before. Dad’s faith transformed from a school boy’s right having attended chapel for years on end, to a complete surrender at the foot of the cross.
He had his moments - so did I - but he clung to Jesus’ promises with a fortitude that was so absent in his physical body it was hard to see where the strength came from. As he became weaker, his faith grew and grew.
People who came to the house were in awe of his attitude and asked us where his peace came from. I said, ‘Jesus.’
The last verse we ever prayed was Romans 8:38-39. He couldn’t speak but he tapped my Bible that was lying on the hospital bed and when I picked it up this page fell open:
‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Jesus cannot be encased within the pages of a dusty book that sits in the unopened drawer of a TravelLodge night stand. He isn’t confined to the walls of the church you go to at Christmas and Easter. He lives and breathes within every human being who invites him to be Lord of their life, guiding them each stumbling step of the way.
The Jesus who revealed himself to me aged 15 and gave me an eternal perspective beyond this worldly life is the same Jesus under whose wings my Dad and I sheltered when the world crashed down around our ears nearly three years ago. The Jesus who was human enough to beg God to relieve him of the searing pain of the cross, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46), is the same Jesus who knew the depths of my heart when no words would come and I thought I’d never pray again. The Jesus who endured sorrow like nothing we can imagine at bearing the past, present and future sins of the world is the same Jesus with whom we can live forever, if we believe he is who he says he is - the Son of God.
Dad died in February this year and the last seven months have seen me at my worst. But I either have to take Hebrews 13:8 at face value or leave it behind.
Every day is a struggle, a battle to put one foot in front of the other. My stony, wretched heart pushes away the one who loves me most and yet, because he is the same today as he was yesterday and will be tomorrow, he picks me up when I fall, carries me when my knees give way and rejoices with me that my Dad has gone home to heaven forever, and one day I will join him.
Ellie has recently moved to London to start a second degree at UCL and can’t wait to see what opportunities God has in store for her there to tell people about her great friend Jesus. A Cambridge girl at heart, she loves Chelsea buns, cycling everywhere and early morning runs to Granchester!