Gina Graham has been a great friend and volunteer at Heartwise for a number of years. Last year she began a new journey and has had the courage to share it with us. This is her story:
On May 1, 2013 I received a call from my ENT saying I had “the good cancer” – papillary thyroid carcinoma. “If you’re going to have to go through cancer,” he said, “this is the one to have.” No worries. No chemotherapy. No traditional radiation. No problem.
I remember thinking that his words were strange. Surely there is no good cancer.
I was almost relieved. My thyroid had been acting up for 20 years. Time to have the pesky thing out. I would finally feel better – no more racing heart, panic attacks, weight fluctuation, or fatigue. Surgery was scheduled. My mom, newly retired, bought a plane ticket and cleared her schedule for the next 6 weeks.
On June 4 my thyroid was surgically removed. No problem? No. Problems. My voice sounded tight and gravelly. I couldn’t talk, sneeze, hiccup or even cough normally. “You’ll regain function in a couple days,” I was promised. Days turned to weeks. Weeks turned to months.
It’s hard to even write about it now. Swallowing food, liquid, pills – anything became a source of panic. Would it go down or get stuck? I prayed a million times a day. My throat closed in the middle of the night a couple months into my healing. I woke up with a start – couldn’t inhale. I lunged for the bathroom and gulped some water and forced it down. My throat somehow opened.
I clung to Jesus every minute I was awake. I told myself what was true about Him. That is how I kept the panic away . . . one minute at a time. Eventually my throat healed and loosened. In a little over two months I sounded more like myself.
During this time I went through a radioactive iodine treatment to remove the remaining cancer cells. For weeks they starve your body of thyroid hormone so when you take the radioactive pill any remaining thyroid tissue will want to soak up the chemical – killing the cancer. I was told I could gain up to 20 pounds during this time. I lost 5. My body went miles beyond exhausted.
Six months later the glands in my face stopped circulating fluid correctly and infection set in. This infection wouldn’t give up! I took all kinds of antibiotics. I slept, and prayed, and slept, and prayed, and prayed some more. I had significant nerve pain in my face. My jaws, fluid filled, couldn’t chew much beyond a boiled egg. This lasted for over three months.
I was done in.
Through trial and error and medical help, I slowly found ways to minimize the pain. But pain was my constant companion. Even in my dreams I was in pain.
I tend to draw and doodle A LOT. Since 2006 I’ve been working hard to start a career as an illustrator. I’ve also made a practice of reading my Bible most mornings though those years. I’ve always used journaling in my quiet time, writing down what ever speaks to me as I read though different parts of the Bible. Sometimes I draw around what I write down.
I found and claimed this verse. It’s counter-intuitive to a person in great pain. “There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!” Romans 5:3-5 – The Message.
I began to find creative ways to shout praise to GOD, focusing on positive things, no matter how small. If I had lessened pain for an hour, I praised the LORD for it. If it was sunny, I thanked Him for the sun! I decided to praise Him for the creative solutions that were on their way to ease my pain. Some days all I could pray was “Have mercy!”
I used my artwork to distract myself and focused on the WORD of GOD even more than before, starting a visual ministry called “Good Morning GOD” to share the doodles and scripture that were helping me day-to-day. That link is https://www.facebook.com/GoodMorningGodbyGinaGraham A sweet connection beyond description was my reward.
I have a “new normal.” I still have some very bad days with my health. My throat and left vocal chord will never be the same. My face and jaw still have flair-ups. I’ve changed my lifestyle – the way I eat and sleep. I still pray through panic most every day. Sometimes it gets the best of me and I don’t leave my home. Fatigue has never left me. But I don’t battle any of this alone. I have GOD, the One who has creatively comforted me through it all. I’ve found that He’s more than enough.
A most tender gift is now mine. Because I suffer I am more tuned into the suffering of those around me. I see it more. Feel it more. I don’t always do the right thing or say the right thing but I’m not afraid of someone else’s pain now. I have an open door to enter into the suffering of others. It’s messy and brutal and . . . a sacred space.
GOD is big. I don’t have to know all the answers to defend him to my hurting world. He can defend himself. All I can do is enter into the mess with someone, weep, and share my daily connection with GOD – my comfort.
GOD used something as ugly as cancer and it’s complications to be my tender teacher. There is something worse than pain. It is pain for no reason – unredeemed.
It sounds strange, but I’ve personally found my pain filled year to be in many ways, surprisingly beautiful. I don’t want to go through it again, but I wouldn’t trade what I’ve seen and learned. In tears I acknowledge that perhaps I had “the good cancer” after all.