"It's cancer," Shirley said.
She'd carefully performed monthly self-examinations and had yearly mammograms. Shirley knew she had breast cancer before the doctor confirmed it. She discovered the lump herself, but the mammogram didn't detect it. A month later, she felt intense pain in her right breast. A further visit to the doctor and an ultrasound confirmed she did have stage IV breast cancer.
Shirley reminded me that her father, and more recently her only sister, had died of cancer. So had a number of cousins and an aunt. That placed her in the high-risk category. Years earlier, she'd tried to make a joke out of it by saying, "In our family, we grow things—internally."
After she finished telling me the details, both of us cried, hugged, prayed, and talked a little, but neither faced the real issues that troubled us. Her cancer was invasive and had spread into the lymph glands. Shirley would have to undergo a radical mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy. But what if …? I stopped myself from finishing the thought, even as I fervently asked God to spare her.
I tried to be supportive—and that meant I pushed aside my emotions. To face my fear of losing Shirley seemed selfish. She was the one who hurt, the one whose life was in danger, and I needed to focus on her.
I tried to come across as brave and self-assured. I didn't realize that I cheated Shirley out of the opportunity to see my turmoil and to share that with her.
"You have to open up to her," my best friend said. "She needs to know you're also hurting. She needs to know you're scared, and she needs to see your vulnerability."
I agreed. Although it wasn't easy, I determined I'd let her know how I felt. On August 30, 1999, four days before the mastectomy, I finally said to Shirley, "We need to talk."
We went into the bedroom and sat down side by side. I took her hand and gazed into her blue eyes. "I'm scared," I confessed. "I'm afraid of losing you." Tears slid down my cheeks, and I couldn't push out any more words.
I slipped my arm around her shoulders. For several minutes we held tightly to each other in silence.
"I'm scared too," Shirley finally whispered. As she talked, she paused several times to wipe away her tears.
While it seems inconceivable, until that moment I had no idea that Shirley had been afraid of dying. I'd been so focused on being strong, I was unaware of her feelings.
Our fears didn't vanish, but I'd finally said the words aloud. If not consolation, at least I felt relief.
"Let's talk about all the possible outcomes of your surgery," I said. "Suppose the surgeon finds nothing and says that all the tests were wrong."
One by one I laid out the possibilities from, "There's nothing wrong," to the physician saying, "The cancer has metastasized. You have only days to live."
As we discussed our emotional reactions to each scenario, new tears coursed down our cheeks. Each time, both of us explored how we'd react.
After we reached the end of the possibilities, Shirley said, "Whether I live through this or die, I'm now at peace."
I wasn't anywhere near that level of tranquility, because I couldn't get past the sense of loss I'd feel if she died. "I don't know how I'd cope without you," I said between tears. "You've been God's greatest gift in my life."
After I said those words, peace trickled into my heart. As I continued to hold her in those moments of naked emotion, comfort erased our fears. Because we'd looked into the face of each possibility, we knew God would enable us to cope. Even when we considered that she might not come out of the operating room alive, I could say, "Shirley belongs to God."
This was no false bravado, but a genuine work of grace that the Holy Spirit did within us. We'd faced our biggest enemy—fear—and we knew God's peace would sustain us no matter what happened.
Four days later, Shirley underwent a radical mastectomy and the surgeon removed all of the axillary lymph glands on the side of the cancer.
Today, Shirley's in her seventh year of recovery from breast cancer.
The lasting effect has been a strong appreciation of life—especially our life together. Each morning when I awaken, I lie quietly in bed and list the things for which I truly thank God that day. Those blessings can be anything from a kind word from a friend to praise for sending needed rain. At the top of my daily list, however, are these two items: "Thank you for Shirley. Thank you that we have another day together."
Cecil Murphey is author or co-author of more than 100 books, including The Immortality of Influence (Kensington).
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.