Miracle Moments

by Joanie Butman

Do you believe in miracles? I do as I witness them everyday. Just this week my 19-yr-old daughter called me from college for advice – THAT is a miracle, and I’m not being facetious. I just had to smile and offer up my thanks for an obvious answer to an on-going prayer since my cancer diagnosis five years ago: “Please just let me live long enough to get my children settled in college and for them to realize: 

  • I’m not as stupid as they originally thought
  • I’m not an embarrassment (that might be a stretch)
  • I’m not the enemy

The first part of that prayer He answered as my son will be graduating high school this year. The cancer may not have killed me, but going through the college application process with a 17-yr-old boy nearly did! The latter items may take another ten years, but I saw a glimmer of hope in my heartfelt conversations with my daughter this week.

I think the reason most people don’t believe in miracles is because they don’t recognize them. I’ve heard ministers preach that miracles no longer exist. Are they blind or just too jaded to see what’s right in front of them? Witnesses abound that can testify as to how God worked miracles in their lives - miracles of healing, reconciliation, restoration, redemption, transformation. Here’s a funny thing about miracles. If you don’t expect one, chances are you won’t recognize it when it arrives. Being open to the possibility of divine intervention is the key to recognizing God’s handiwork. That being said, just because you believe they exist doesn’t guarantee one will be forthcoming. No one knows the why, when or how they are divvied up. Furthermore, when the miracle is not the one you were praying for, it may only become obvious in hindsight or if someone else points it out.

The second miracle I experienced was last week at my biannual checkup at Sloane Kettering where we monitor the progress of a slow-growing recurrent liposarcoma. My pet name for it is a “tribble.” It’s so much easier to pronounce than the long scientific term. It is the offspring of two larger, more aggressive tumors I evicted five years ago and one smaller one a year later. This one is a clingy thing that refuses to leave the nest. I have a chart plotting its progression that reminds me of the doorjamb where I marked the growth of my two children. I even have a pictorial album not unlike the sonograms of my kids in utero. Given that the original tumor was the weight of a newborn, I often think of the tribble as my third child. And just like all children, it has provided blessings I never imagined and a certain amount of pain.

Back to my appointment. First off, I got the harmonica-playing conductor on the train into the city. I always seem to get him on my way to Sloane. In fact, I’ve never seen him any other time. The appointment offered no surprises as the tribble seems to be on a predictable growth pattern. Unless something changes, I am going to be around a long time. It will involve more surgery at some point, but I will die of something else long before this is allowed to become life threatening.

As I’ve mentioned before, the wait-and-see approach to my cancer (and many others) can be excruciating, but waiting on God’s timing frequently is. When I used to pepper the doctor with my irritating “How long, low long, how long?” he finally got exasperated and said, “You should know better than anyone that only God knows how long. Just go live your life!” Wise words, and ones I remind myself of frequently. By its very nature, life itself is a terminal disease. No one else knows how long either!!

Since my first diagnosis, I have never prayed for healing. In addition to the one I already mentioned, I’ve prayed for: 

  • Strength, wisdom, guidance and peace
  • Patience as I wait for His timing to unfold
  • Opportunities to use my situation to glorify Him

This first one is the most important as the wise choice in deciding on treatment is not always black and white but can also determine your outcome. Steve Jobs didn’t have to die. By choosing not to have the initial surgery, he sealed his fate. There was no going back. If I had listened to the doctors that second time, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing.

Though the medical community has made enormous strides in the cancer world, what they don’t know still far outweighs what they do – especially with sarcomas, as drug companies have no economic incentive to fund studies to treat them because they are considered rare diseases. If you have to get cancer, this is one instance where you definitely want to be in the ‘popular’ group. True to form, even with cancer, I ended up an outlier.

Regardless, answers to my prayers came and continue to come in abundance. This week’s development is that I have finally been given the opportunity to take a more proactive role by joining a trial. This provides two things: 

  • Satisfies the urge to be DOING something without having to undergo an invasive surgery, which is always an option.
  • Provides the privilege and honor of being part of the creative process, and by doing so, providing hope for who knows how many.

When I wrote to my family explaining the results of the appointment, my mom responded, “We can live with the diagnoses even though it’s not the miracle I was hoping for.  We will just keep on praying.” It may not be the one she was looking for but that doesn’t make it any less of a miracle. Targeted Drug Therapy offers new hope and a new direction for cancer treatment. Not too far in the future many cancers will no longer come with a death sentence but will be considered a chronic condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure, which can be controlled simply by taking a pill. THAT is a miracle.

The other aspect is one that answers my frequently asked question, ”Why am I still here when so many other cancer patients are not?” Mark Twain once said, "The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why." It may not be why I was born.I’m still trying to figure out my purpose in life, but being part of this trial is definitely the tribble’s purpose. I’m no scientist, but from what I’ve been able to determine, this rare tumor has a genetic makeup which makes it the perfect specimen on which to experiment with these new drugs. Plus, aside from getting funding for research on something so rare, one of the roadblocks to the study is recruiting enough patients to participate in a larger trial.

I am a creative person. God knows that. As such, I feel closest to Him in the midst of any creative process, whether it be writing, designing, gardening or crafting, so it’s a perfect fit for me. What a gift He’s given me to be part of this exciting and promising trial. I don’t have the smarts to find a cure for cancer; that’s not my gift. However, I can be a willing lab rat.

Ironically, the person involved in the development of this new drug is the fellow* of the oncologist I sat across from five years ago who predicted my impending death. In fact, he was sitting next to him at the time. Won’t he be surprised when I walk into his office next week? I have to laugh and think of another of Mark Twain’s witticisms, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Perhaps I will greet him with that line.

There is another reason he may remember me. Following my visit with Dr. Doom, I wrote a scathing letter to him regarding his lack of compassion and his flippant attitude in meting out my death sentence. I sent a copy to his fellow, the doctor conducting the test in which I am about to participate. I ended the letter with this comment, “Despite your brilliance, if the fellow in that room learned anything, I hope it was how not to treat someone facing a life-threatening disease.” Oh yeah, I think my name might ring a bell.

That letter is a perfect example of choosing wisely and of God saving me from myself. It wouldn’t be the first time He used the Holy Spirit to intervene on my behalf. It is the only explanation I can think of as I know the way my brain works. Not that I’ve ever needed an excuse to speak my mind; but if I didn’t think I had long to live, you can bet I would have used that as a license to let loose on that arrogant, condescending oncologist (not the word that comes to mind whenever I think of him, but I'm trying to choose my words wisely). At any rate, I can’t explain why, but at the time I made an extremelyuncharacteristic choice to wait until I calmed down to revise the first version of the letter, tone it down, remove all the expletives and confirm I did not employ any ‘christianese.’ For those of you who have never been privy to this particular form of aggression, it is an extremely ‘unholy’ method of passing along gossip or couching an insult as a prayer offered up on someone’s behalf: “Dear God, please help Dr. Doom stop being such a pompous ass.” I hadn’t, but I did end the letter with an offer to pray for him. Surprisingly, it was sincere and heartfelt. "Since you already have the wisdom, I will pray that you be renewed with patience and compassion for your patients." Thank goodness for divine intervention, as I will now be putting myself in the hands of one of the recipients of that letter.

When I was researching the trial and read the name of the doctor, I knew it would behoove me to go into the file and review what I wrote before my meeting with him. It was firm but much gentler and more mature than my standard tirades. Honestly, it didn't sound like me at all - probably because it wasn't. Thank you, God.

As I have often mentioned, it’s nothing short of a miracle I survived my youth – never mind the cancer. Regardless of what anyone claims, I am living proof that miracles still abound in life. If there is one thing I know, it’s that "What you cannot see in the world is far more powerful than anything you can see." T. Harv Eker  To whom or what you attribute that power is a choice that only you can make. I think it's obvious what my choice is. What's yours?

"Trusting God completely means having faith that

He knows what is best for your life.

You expect Him to keep His promises,

help you with problems,

and do the impossible when necessary."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Rick Warren

*Fellow: a young physician who has completed training as an intern and resident and has been granted a stipend and position allowing him or her to do further study or research in a specialty.