Confessing Christ in the Middle of the Storm

by Laura Chase for GMC 8/04

Hi, I'm Laura Chase. My husband Phil and I have ten children, we live in DeKalb County, and our fourteen-year-old son, Johnny, has cancer.

I am a beginner at suffering, and the great temptation I have is to be silent until all the ends of this story are neatly tied up and satisfying. But you, my brothers and sisters, need to hear from the middle of my pain that what you and I believe is true. The Bible is more comforting, heaven is more real, and the comfort of Jesus more tangible than I have ever known before. I am in difficult, threatening territory. But if I'm paying attention, I can just make out the sweet aroma of Christ. He's already been here, preparing the way.

In January, John had been complaining about a sore knee and Advil and Tylenol no longer brought relief. My husband Phil is a family doc in Auburn and he took Johnny to the hospital for xrays late one night. A specialist who was never there on Mondays, let alone 9:30 at night, peeked his head in the door of the xray department and offered to read the xrays for Phil. They lifted the xrays to the ceiling light. Clear as a textbook case, it was osteosarcoma: a deadly, fast-growing cancer of the bone found in one in a million teenagers. John sank to the floor to keep from passing out from the shock. Phil remembers saying to him, “Aren't you glad we're Christians?”

Because the specialist was there, Phil didn't have to diagnose cancer in his own son.

When they came home, we cried and prayed together, and Jesus comforted us. After a sleepless night, Phil and John flew to Houston to a cancer center. They got the last two frequent flyer seats on that plane. Why Houston? My brother-in-law is an oncologist there and he knows one of the world's authorities on childhood osteosarcoma. Arrangements were made quickly, John was seen, tested, and sent home with a treatment plan. The large size of the tumor and probable spread to his lungs meant very aggressive chemotherapy, followed by amputation, followed by more chemotherapy. The harsh side effects had to be risked for any hope of saving John's life.

We didn't face this storm alone. I got the word out to our friends, and soon we heard from Christians across the country that prayer was going up for us. Prayer meetings gathered for us in India, in Brazil, in Africa. And you guys at Grabill Missionary Church were incredible. We'd only been attending this church for six months, but the Lord moved you to circle around us right away. You prayed for us; you spoke comforting words; you hugged us; you brought us meals, and books, and blankets, and cookies; you visited us in the hospital; you sent us notes and cards; you shared your own experiences with cancer; you offered suggestions for doctors and nutrition; and you reached out with love to our other children. You truly became the hands and feet of Christ to us.

The aroma of Christ led us step by step at John's amputation. The surgery John needed was European. God led us to a surgeon in Indianapolis who had exactly the right European training. God placed a Christian friend of mine in that surgeon's operating room staff. He knew the scheduling people, so it was no coincidence that the aroma of Christ filled the operating room that day because a Christian anesthesiologist, several Christian nurses and several Christian medical technicians were praying for Johnny as they worked on him. The Lord gave Johnny strength the first time he saw his short leg. He reacted not with horror, but with relief.

I am learning eight lessons right now. First, I am not in control. I have to remember that God's love is in my best interest, not for my happiness, but for my holiness, to make me more like his Son.

Second, my attitude is my choice. I tend to drift into fear, worry, and self-pity because I think I deserve those feelings. Instead, I must choose to turn to Jesus instead of my feelings, and he replaces fear with peace, worry with hope, and self-pity with praise.

Third, I choose to not anesthetize myself with distractions. It would be easy to run from the pain into too much television, movies, games, vacations, good fiction, or good food. Right now, it's better to face the fear and cry out the pain than to continually put it off and refuse to deal with it.

Fourth, time and dealing with it makes the pain lessen. Every time we had new bad news about John's condition, it was like a kick in the stomach. Cancer. Metastasis. Amputation. Low blood counts. Blood transfusions. More tests. Pressure sores. Slow healing. Probable mouth sores. Loss of hair. These took the wind out of me. I mourned. I couldn't eat or sleep. At John's first chemotherapy, I cried watching the poison run into his veins. I ached every time he vomitted. The first time he tried to walk on crutches after the amputation, he screamed out in pain and I felt it. But God is kind, and with time the pain grows less, like a callous. We have a “new normal.” Chemo and amputation problems are routine now. I can eat a sandwich while I hold a basin for John to vomit in. I can decorate around medical equipment in most every room. I don't fold John's socks in pairs anymore.

Fifth, God still answers many prayers “yes”, just not the big one. Phil and I cried out often, “Just heal John!” We begged for a spectacular miracle; that at the time of surgery, there would be no tumor. God said no. But it has been amazing how many little miracles he has said yes to. John hasn't suffered mouth sores when his immunity is down. His bones healed quicker from the surgery than his surgeon expected. Sometimes Johnny bounces back from chemo and can leave the hospital a day early. And the peace continues to bouy us up and give us joy. The scriptures are so comforting, even the boring stuff comes to life. Andy Crouch says, “When we go to the cruel edges of the world, we bring our lives closer to the text.”

Sixth, God's grace is given to the person who is going through the trial, not to everyone who has to watch. For weeks after the diagnosis, Phil and I slept fitfully. John? He slept like a rock. I get angry on and off at God for doing this to my beautiful boy. John isn't angry. He's got the grace he needs. You don't have the grace right now to have a child with cancer, but I do, because I need it.

When you say you can't believe God is good because kids get cancer, I tell you that God is with my child who got cancer, just like God will be with you when you need Him. Watchman Nee says something like this: Grace is like a train ticket you pick up at the station. It is for one person only. And it will be there when you need it, and not a minute earlier.

Seventh, it's OK to laugh. When John found out how rare this cancer is, he said, “It took an awful lot of bad luck to get this cancer, so I've probably used it up for a while. Hey, now's the time to buy a lottery ticket.”

He told his oncologist the reason he got cancer was because in November he broke a chain letter.

He was disappointed to find out Make-A-Wish wouldn't buy him an animal, a motor vehicle, or a firearm.

John has seven chemo treatments left. If all goes well, he will be done and be walking on a prosthetic leg and growing hair by Easter. You Tom Hanks fans will love this. He wants to call his new leg Wilson.

He has received a half-dozen blood transfusions. He knows many blood donors are very intelligent, so he's hoping these transfusions might improve his spelling.

Someone said, “When a pagan gets cancer, God gives a Christian cancer so the world can see the difference.” Johnny has seen the difference. He's been to cancer camp where a lot of kids can't smile. “Those kids need Jesus,” he says. He wants to go back next year and tell them.

Last, Jesus told us to live one day at a time, and I forget that. I am not promised that I will have Johnny tomorrow, or that I will be here. And you know what? I can bear one day of sorrow. It's the looking ahead that destroys me. I will trust Jesus for strength to bear today's pain. Christ holds me, John, and all of us in the palm of his hand. Cancer is here today, but it cannot follow us where we're going. Until then, I keep noticing the aroma, the sweet aroma of Jesus who walks through the valley of the shadow of death before us, preparing the way.