Trouble With Tribbles

by Joanie Butman

December 19, 2007 was an ordinary day crowded with mundane tasks and responsibilities. It’s funny, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast today, yet I can remember the smallest detail of that day. Honestly, I knew before I walked into the doctor’s office that there was something in my belly. Never being the proud owner of rock hard abs, I now found one side of my stomach quite firm while the other side remained the doughy mass I’d come to know and love.

I showed the doctor this phenomenon, and the look on her face confirmed that we were discussing something serious. Trust me, when you see your doctor panic, it is NOT a good sign. She immediately sent me for a sonogram followed by a catscan, which confirmed that I was the proud parent of what I affectionately named a tribble. For those of you who are too young or never were Star Trek fans, a tribble is a round, adorable, furry pet.

The "trouble" with the tribbles is that they reproduce far too quickly; and threaten to consume all the onboard supplies. The problem is aggravated when it is discovered that the creatures are physically entering essential ship systems, interfering with their functions and consuming any edible contents present. (Sounds eerily familiar to a malignant tumor.) The official diagnosis was a ten-inch malignant tumor called a retroperitoneal liposarcoma.

In any event, on that fateful day, after leaving the doctor’s office, I went directly to where most children go when they are hurt – to a parent. My favorite place to visit and talk with God is in the chapel of my church. It is quiet, peaceful, and you can almost feel His calming presence. I never fail to find comfort and rest there. We always refer to God as our Father, but I’ve always felt He embodies attributes of both a father and a mother. If, in fact, we are all made in His image, He must be a combination of both male and female traits. Either way, it was to this parent that I ran.

I prayed – not for a miraculous cure, but for the courage and strength to face whatever challenges lay ahead. It being the Christmas season, I looked to Mary as an example and let my prayer be, “May it be to me as you have said.” and “Jesus, I trust in you.” In the chapel there is a large portrait of Jesus with one hand on his heart, and the other appears to be blessing you. His heart is radiating, drawing you into His loving embrace. Underneath is the simple inscription “Jesus, I trust in you.” Whenever I find myself in difficult or unfamiliar circumstances (and this was certainly one of those), I use this picture as a visual and pray these simple words, “Jesus, I trust in you.” Though the prayer is simple, it embodies the essence of my faith. It’s not that I will only trust Him if I am healed or if things go my way; but, more importantly, I can trust that wherever I am and whatever happens, He can and will help me through.

We should all suffer from a serious illness once in life just so you can realize how much you’re loved and experience the miracle of being given a new lease on life. If I wasn’t so uncomfortable, I could have gotten used to all the attention. My kids were doing everything I asked, I didn’t have to yell, I didn’t have to cook, and I was getting mail, emails and phone calls from people who were not trying to sell me something. After I discovered I needed to have surgery and the surgeon assured me I would lose at least 15 lbs., I decided I might as well make the most of the three weeks before my hospital stay. So I threw caution to the wind and ate and drank anything I wanted. I felt like Queen Latifah in the movie Last Holiday.

During my illness and recovery, I received a number of cards and notes where people expressed what an inspiration I was to them. It’s funny, I’ve never felt like the type of person that could ever inspire anyone. I’ve often wondered why people describe those suffering from an illness as brave, courageous, or even inspiring. You’d think we actually had a choice in the matter. I suppose we do in that we choose how we face death the same way we choose how we face life: fearfully or joyfully. Why should we expect to be any different in death than we are in life? Let me tell you something. Dying is easy; it’s the living that’s a killer. The only option available to us is how we decide to do both, and it is that decision that defines us.

One of the many life-defining moments I had through this experience happened one night about five days after my first surgery. While I lay in my hospital bed praying for healing, God answered in an unexpected way. He gave me a job for which I am eternally blessed. I don’t relay the story to make myself look saintly, but to illustrate that God can use you even at your worst. It’s one of His favorite methods of healing and no more miraculous than making the lame walk or the blind see. Rest assured, there is always a reason in the situation we find ourselves, though usually not evident to us. Even in the most difficult circumstances, God will give you a purpose.

My assignment came in the form of my new neighbor, John. He was an elderly man suffering from Parkinson’s and leukemia. His particular ailment that night was some sort of blockage, which apparently is extremely painful. I heard him being moved into his bed late one night and couldn’t help but hear him moaning loudly in pain. Considering all the medications I was on, the clarity of purpose I felt at that moment could only come from the Holy Spirit. I knew God wanted me to go comfort this man. John and I spent the night together. The only thing I had to offer was a foot rub and a listening ear. So he talked while I rubbed. He told me about his life and his family while the lonely hours of night crept closer to dawn. When he thought it was a decent enough hour, I used my cell phone to call his sons so he could talk to them. During those hours John had me get the nurses quite a bit. He’d ring the buzzer, and if they didn’t come fast enough, he’d have me go rap on the window of the nurse’s station. Before she left for the day, the night nurse stopped in to gently chide us for being such a nuisance all night. Most of the time I spent with John was in the dark until sunrise. By early morning, his caregiver, Cecilia, arrived along with a battery of doctors. I knew my presence was no longer needed.

I returned to my room and took a shower and washed my hair for the first time in a week, signifying a major milestone for me. When I went to check on John later in the morning, he looked at me with a surprised expression and said matter of factly, “I didn’t realize you were so beautiful.” At that moment, standing by his bed in my new Costco pajamas, for one of the few times time in my life, I did feel beautiful, and not because of any makeup tricks they tried to teach me in the hospital. I thought of one of my daily devotionals from earlier in the week. “Nothing is more attractive than being like Jesus.” It goes on to say, “Christlike kindness can open the door for a heart-touching testimony. No we’re not Jesus, but we can try to be like him.” A servant’s attitude is the only beauty application I needed to learn that day.

I was only there for a couple of more days and checked on John often. He told me I saved his life that night. Whatever I did certainly wasn’t my doing, but John did live long enough to say goodbye to his children in person. We didn’t know each other long, but I know God put us together to get John through a long, lonely, painful night and to demonstrate that He still had work for me to do. It was a turning point in my recovery and the most effective pain reliever I could have hoped for because it didn’t cause nausea. John died on my birthday shortly after I left the hospital, which made our night together all the more meaningful. God didn’t want him to be alone or afraid as He approached the end of his life.

Though John had told me that he was a doctor, from his obituary, I learned that “he was a brilliant and world-renowned pediatric radiologist who authored over 150 journal articles and gave over 90 presentations throughout the world. A celebrated teacher, he inspired many students to become pediatric radiologists.” Even in death, God used him to teach me a valuable lesson on the importance and beauty of having a servant’s heart.

The other important realization I discovered through my illness was the answer to the haunting doubts that have plagued me over the years as to whether this faith I write about so freely could withstand a major challenge. It’s like reading a parenting book written by someone who doesn’t have kids or whose parenting skills you question. After all, I had yet to suffer anything traumatic, but have found my faith shaken at times under some pretty trivial things. Maybe that was the soul purpose of my cancer – to teach me that they aren’t just words and to remind me that my faith is a gift from God, so how could I question its veracity. My faith not only withstood the challenge but grew proportionately with each new obstacle. 

When all is said and done, I wouldn’t forego my ‘trib’ulations for anything. I consider it a privilege to be broken because only then can you experience the beauty and miracle of being made whole again. My cancer has brought me so many blessings, the best of which is an intimacy with God as I rest in the shelter of his arms.

Even so, there is no question that you approach life differently when faced with a terminal illness. You take out the good dishes, cash in your airline miles, wear the nice outfit you’ve been saving for a special occasion, and develop a sort of black humor. My motto after my 51st birthday was “Old Trumps Dead Every Time!” You also enjoy every minute of every day with a new appreciation for the most precious gift of life. The little annoyances of daily life don’t seem so irritating anymore, and daily dramas take on a little less importance. You develop a new mental barometer for measuring value. If I died tomorrow, how important would it be to have a clean house or all the laundry done? You’d be amazed how unimportant most things become when viewed in this light. The blessing with this new attitude is that you are left with so much more time to concentrate on things that do matter, though my family might disagree as to what those are. They might rate having clean underwear higher on the scale than I would.

I’ve often been asked, “Don’t you ever wonder ‘Why me?’” On the contrary, my response has always been “Why not me?” We are surrounded by people suffering from cancer in epidemic proportions. There were a lot of people worse off than me. Why should I expect to be spared? Does my Christianity guarantee a long and healthy life? Hardly. Furthermore, when God was showering me with blessings, it didn’t occur to me to respond, “Why me? No more please. Give it to someone else.” Well, I don’t look at cancer any differently. Strange as it seems, I view my illness as yet another one of God’s blessings, and one I gladly accept because I can use it to glorify Him.

When people ask me if I suffer from self-pity or a ‘Why me?’ attitude, I am reminded of a line adults used frequently when I was growing up. “You want something to cry about? I’ll give you something to cry about.” It was usually followed with a whack up the side of your head. The nuns were particularly fond of this method. Even the dullest kid learned quickly, whining wasn’t worth it.

Still, there is a legitimate time to ask “Why me?” Why am I still here while my Aunt Anne, who was diagnosed shortly before me, is not; nor any of the other thousands of cancer patients who do not survive? There is no answer. It’s a mystery. There are days I actually feel guilty for being the one that survived, but any day I wake up is considered a good day – a perfect day to celebrate the gift of life and the opportunity to share it’s joys and sorrows with others. I want to pay homage to those who have gone before me by using whatever reprieve God’s given me in a way that honors their memory and God’s decision to spare me for the moment. It’s why I’m telling this story.

Nevertheless, living with a timebomb inside you never knowing when or what will set it off can be all-consuming, as can any form of suffering. My own mortality is never far from my mind. It takes incredible discipline and determination to avoid drowning in self-pity or sadness when I think of not growing old with my husband, not seeing my children get married, or never holding my grandchildren. However, I choose to focus on the abundance of God’s blessings I’ve been given. I refuse to allow this disease to become who I am because my identity is defined by my life, not my death, by my Christianity not my illness. I want the “Big C” in my life to be Christ not cancer. That is my choice; and without a doubt, it is life-defining.