Cancer Journey Seasons
How you can find hope in every season of your cancer journey.
by Chris Lawrence
The experience of cancer is not often as simple as diagnosis, cure and return to “normal” life. Often the cancer journey winds and twists ahead, seemingly never reaching the horizon.
To bring some definition to an undefinable road, a person facing cancer typically goes through three or four seasons or phases (not to be confused with stages) of the cancer journey: initial diagnosis, treatment, post treatment and sometimes, end of life. Each carries different physical and emotional challenges. The beginning is often the most shocking, the middle the most grueling and post-treatment the most surprising. And then a recurrence can complicate an already complicated path, forcing a person to repeat phases.
The good news is that there is hope in every phase of the cancer journey. Rapidly advancing breakthroughs in cancer care are giving people new hope to people. And even if the medical fails, there is another hope that can’t be defeated. Indeed, God’s hope rises like the morning sun, piercing the darkness and clouds of the cancer experience with his light and good every day for those who choose it.
You are here
Even with hope, the cancer journey often feels daunting and disorienting. Like getting lost in a network of hiking trails with no GPS, it’s helpful to stop, pull out the map and check your destination and especially your “you are here.”
Here are some common experiences and feelings in each of the four phases, along with how you can find God’s hope in each.
The discovery of a cancer diagnosis is devastating and shocking. The emotions that people often feel during this phase are fear, disbelief—even anger. But fear is the most acute. They wonder, will this disease cut short my life? And if it doesn’t, how will it change my life?
It can be nearly impossible to think clearly in this phase, as the diagnosis hits a person like a hammer—disrupting their life and ramping emotions into overdrive. Meanwhile, there is so much info to gather and critical decisions to make—choosing a doctor, clinic, type of treatment—decisions that could literally mean the difference between life and death. Regardless of the medical outlook, the start of the cancer journey often feels the most overwhelming.
People in this phase of the cancer j0urney need support from family and friends—maybe more than they ever have. If they have a job, they need understanding from bosses and coworkers. Some may need privacy and space from others to process the experience initially, or even for a long period. Others will openly discuss their health from the beginning with people they trust. Regardless, everyone needs to know that they are not facing the challenge alone.
They also need wisdom to choose the best care. Not every diagnosis has a good outlook—some are incurable or terminal even—and so those facing this part of their cancer also need to know about treatment options and especially the latest breakthroughs. A person needs confidence that they are choosing the best care and have a support system surrounding them.
How God can help…
In the midst of our shock, God is not caught off guard. He knows all the details of our lives, past, present and future. “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”1
Whatever we experience, he promises to walk with us. “He will not leave you or forsake you.”2
Not only that, he promises us hope—no matter what circumstance we face. “And as for me, I will always have hope.”3
He also provides wisdom. God has given us a mind to think but how do we know we are headed in the right direction when facing such a mountain of info and choices? Wisdom isn’t just knowledge, it’s discernment to make the right decisions. God is wise—wiser than anyone who has ever lived. He promises to help those who ask him. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”4
For more about how to pray for wisdom, read this article (link to prayers of hope in Strength and Peace).
Treatment is where the rubber meets the road. In this phase of the cancer journey a person has accepted, or begun to accept, the diagnosis. Some are able to resign themselves to endure treatment like radiation, chemo or surgery. Others are paralyzed to make decisions. Fear is still a huge factor in this phase—even more so. They wonder, will the treatment work? Will my body handle it?
The normal routine of life is often replaced with a flurry of doctor visits, scans and treatment. They must also take time for recovery, for the treatment often effects energy and causes nausea as well as a host of other side effects. They may also need to adjust their lifestyle, as person’s immune system may also be compromised.
In this phase of the cancer journey, a person needs strength and resiliency. People have different thresholds to endure treatment, both physically and emotionally, and many will be pushed, depending on their type of cancer and treatment.
They need strength.
They need courage.
More than anything, they need hope—an ongoing experience of good that helps carry them through the difficulties of the present. Hope is critical for every part of the cancer journey, but especially this one.
For those who have a spiritual belief, it is time to lean upon those beliefs, or revisit them, to find hope like never before. For those with no religious background, it’s a great time to consider faith and spiritual belief, the possibility of being able to know God and rely on him in times of trouble.
How God can help…
In critical times, God equips his people with strength. “He gives strength to weary and increases the power of the weak.”5
He gives this vitality not just to those facing cancer, but for people facing whatever situation—whether depression, PTSD, you name it. With God, there is always hope. He is a constant help for those who seek him. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”6
God also gives people courage. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”7
What is the reason a person should have courage? Because God will be with them. They will not have to fight merely in their own strength. And we will never be alone; God will be with us.
While there are a lot of good things in this phase of the cancer journey, there are also some surprising challenges. People who have endured treatment feel like they have entered into springtime after a long, brutal winter. The desire to live and live life fully may be as strong as they have ever felt. Even though a person may have completed treatment—even just for a season—that doesn’t mean the journey is over. In some ways, it is just beginning.
After cancer, there is an awareness that life has changed and returning to “normal” can be difficult. In some ways, the life as they knew it is gone forever, and we must find a new normal.
Many people experience physical effects from treatment and cancer, as well as emotional—a form of post-traumatic stress that is not easily overcome. During this phase of the cancer journey, trying to enter back into some relationships and social experience can be challenging, isolating even.
Even so, as this phase shows, there are elements of survivorship that can be incredibly positive (see The Upside of Having Cancer).
As part of the healing process, people in this phase of the cancer journey must acknowledge the what they have come through, as well as embrace the uncertainties ahead. The reality is that everyone lives with uncertainty; cancer survivors just acknowledge it more!
Survivors should celebrate the accomplishment of treatment. This is a great time for friends and family to help them do this. They should seek to enjoy life as much as they can, despite lingering physical and emotional effects, like neuropathy or fear. This is also a good time to re-enter some parts of life that they may have had to put on hold.
They often need the people around them to be understanding and patient. Fear is often diminished in this phase, but not absent. In some ways, they may live with fear for the rest of their lives.
How God can help…
In this phase of the cancer journey, it is encouraging to know that God sees them, and knows what they have walked through. The people around them may not fully understand their pain. But God does. There is no experience outside of his knowledge. In the book of Psalms, the writer says, “Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll—are they not in your record?”8
Indeed, he knows our pain and remembers our tears.
Not only that, God helps people navigate survivorship, all of the emotions and challenges. He provides perspective and experiences vital to healing.
God also provides unconditional love. Even if their body or mind has changed as a result of cancer, God still loves them completely. He has a plan for their life. He promises to walk with you, no matter what.
End of Life
This phase of the cancer journey involves saying goodbye to life and the people we love as well as preparing for what comes next: eternity. Whether or not cancer is the cause, everybody will go through this stage at some point in life. People often feel a lot of fear, regret and even dread for what is ahead. This is a daunting and painful stage, not just for the cancer patient, but for the people around them.
Anytime we face the end of life, it’s natural to be afraid. We want to keep living and be with those we love, and it’s difficult to imagine life beyond that. The unknowns of eternity can feel strange and daunting.
People in this phase need the support of friends and family more than ever. They need good medical care and especially courage. They need trusted people to help them navigate end of life choices, even decide for them.
In this phase, a person needs to know they are not alone. Our experiences with others are the most important gift we have in this life. And so, the end of days needs to be filled with many of these, with people who will patiently walk through this phase with us.
Above all, we need hope—a kind of hope that lasts beyond this short life.
How God can help…
God provides hope for the dying. Nothing that happens to us on earth—not even death—can extinguish this hope! Part of that hope is understanding eternity. Hope in God gives us confidence that when we die, we won’t just be absorbed into the cosmos, we will be with Jesus in heaven—the place he has intentionally prepared for us. As he said,“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”9
Peace that surpasses understanding
Beyond knowing where we are going, God also gives us a peace—peace that defies what our finite minds can comprehend. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”10
This peace surpasses understanding. And through it, we can accept what comes next.
One of the reasons we need not fear death, is that God defeated it through his Son, Jesus. “’Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”
We are victorious, and there is hope, because God will be with us. Death is not the end, it’s the beginning. There is more—much more. When we die, we will spend forever with Christ in heaven—the one who knows us and loves us perfectly.
There is nothing more hopeful than that.
Whatever phase you are in on your cancer journey, hope is what you need most. Your road doesn’t have to be a hopeless one. Reach out and take ahold of the hope that is waiting for you.
I want to invite you walk with me on The Pathway to Hope, a 7-day series about how to find hope.
Note: We are not doctors and we cannot answer your medical questions. However, we welcome your questions about finding hope and knowing God.
Footnotes: (1) Psalm 139:16 NIV (2) Deuteronomy 31:6b NIV (3) Psalm 71:14 NIV (4) James 1:5 NIV(5) Isaiah 40:29 NIV (6) Psalm 46:1 NIV (7]) Joshua 1:9 NIV (8) Psalm 56:8 NIV (9) John 14:1-3 NIV (10) Philippians 4:7 NIV