On Suffering Well -- My Journey with Cancer

I’m 21 years old, and I’m a born and raised southern girl.  I love dance, fitness, chemistry, coffee, baking, and travel. Oh, and over the past six years,

I’ve had cancer three times.

We’ve all heard the saying before, “Life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”  I agree, it is much like a marathon.  To be successful, you have to push yourself to your limits.  You must train and prepare in order to reach your goal.  There are times you might want to give up, but you have to muster up the strength to keep going.

So, yes, life is a marathon.  I think it is also appropriate to say…

Life is not a sprint, it’s an uphill decathlon where you have to crawl through mud, jump over fire, swim across a sea of sharks, never know what’s around the next corner, and sometimes fall flat on your face.

There. I think most people would agree to an extent that this saying is more accurate to describe life.  It’s full of pitfalls and setbacks and hard times.  As you run your race, you are faced with these obstacles, and you have to determine if and how you’re going to get over, under, around, or through them.  You have two options at that point: overcome it or let it overcome you.

I guess this would be a good time to tell you a little about the race I’ve run.

Gather Information

My diagnosis with leukemia when I was fourteen was the first obstacle in my way.  After the initial shock had worn off, a few questions crossed my mind.

 “How am I going to finish school?”
“How am I going to keep dancing?”
“What is my life going to look like?”

At first I didn’t know how to go about getting past this.  After all, this was not what I had in mind for my freshman year of high school, and I figured I was pretty invincible overall.  In order to defeat an obstacle like this, I had to find out what I was working with.  I was going to lose my hair. I was going to lose weight. There was going to be surgery and chemotherapy, and it was going to last about three years.  Even though the mountain seemed to grow taller as I gathered my answers, I had to know my enemy before I could overcome it.  There’s only one way to eat an elephant—one bite at a time.  This “elephant” of a problem I was presented with was not an impossible one, but I had to start somewhere.

Accept It

My mom always told me growing up that when you’re backed into a corner, the only way out is to run straight at your enemy. 

The unfortunate truth sometimes is, “It is what it is,” no matter how bad “it” is. It takes maturity to accept problems in life that you cannot change.  The reality is this:  you are in this situation, you can’t change the situation, so you must deal with said situation.  The next step in overcoming your obstacle is accepting that it’s there, and you have to move on from it. 

To refer back to my story, I was diagnosed a second time as a freshman in college.  Admittedly, it was a little more medically dramatic than the first time.  A brick-sized mass in my chest was preventing me from breathing and, immediately following diagnosis, the medical staff induced a coma in order to stabilize me.  When I awoke a little over a week later, I found that my strength was gone.  I had danced competitively for 15 years by this time, and suddenly just rolling over in bed took all my might.  I felt trapped in my body.

It was devastating, but it was the truth.  Wallowing in it wasn’t going to give me my strength back.  I had to accept it and recognize it would be a long road of hard work, but to get there, I had to start with my mindset.

Set a Goal

I began seeing physical therapy.  The first day, I was rolled in on a wheelchair to meet my physical therapist, Angela. The dialogue went something like this:

“Okay, before we get started, let’s talk about some goals.”
“I want to get back to dance.”
“Welllll, let’s start with some short term goals. We’ll get there eventually.”
“I want to walk.”
“Alright, to get you walking, first you have to stand.”

It dawned on me at that point that keeping your eyes on a long term goal was good, but more often than not, reaching your ultimate goal requires setting and reaching smaller milestones along the way.  First, I learned to walk.  Then, I mastered getting up off the floor.  Before too long, I was climbing stairs.  A lot of hard work and a year later, I was on the sidelines of a college football field, dancing, just like I had hoped. 

When you come upon an obstacle in life, no matter the size, you have to set goals and come up with plans to reach them.  Set smaller, more reasonable goals along the way to keep from getting discouraged. 

Put Down Your Crutch

Everyone deals with different struggles in life, and each struggle has affected them in one direction or another.  Whether it’s family problems, financial problems, academic problems, or medical problems, I would bet that there is not a single person on earth that hasn’t been through something.  The dividing line lies in what you do with your something

Benjamin Franklin once said,

He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.
— Benjamin Franklin

Making excuses for laziness, failure, or a bad attitude because of something you’ve been through is not a productive way of handling a hardship. You can be upset for a while, but you can’t stay there.  You cannot make a crutch out of your problem.

When I was in high school, I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my chemistry teacher, Mr. Mac.  I approached him after lecture one day because I had been doing poorly in his class. This was during my first diagnosis, so I was missing class often due to illness or treatment. I was generally a straight-A student and was, understandably, unhappy with the “C” average I had in his class. I came to him with all my excuses about my illness and why my performance was sub-par, partly hoping he would cut my some slack because I had cancer. Mr. Mac smiled at me, and he said something to the effect of—

“I’m sorry, Hillary, but if you want to make good grades in my class, you’re going to have to get your act together and earn them.”

At first, I was mortified. How can you say that to a girl who has cancer? I soon realized he said it because he knew I was capable. I was subconsciously using my illness as a crutch. I realized that going through life expecting handouts because of a hardship only devalued achievement. I began meeting with Mr. Mac before school twice a week, and in no time, my grades improved. I had to put down my crutch to earn what I wanted.

Now, I am a chemistry major in college, and I love it. I don’t know if that would be the case if Mr. Mac had handed me the grades instead of teaching me that valuable life lesson.

Keep Your Eye on the Finish Line

I would like to add one more element to this thought, though.  Attitude is important when it comes to facing challenges, but I do realize that sometimes that this optimism is hard to muster.  God not only has a lot to say about trials and suffering in Scripture, but His Word also offers great hope and perspective for those who are His children.  In the hardest moments of whatever you’re facing, the Lord offers hope in the future glory of His return.  The verses below are some a few of my favorites that got me through the hard times.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
— Romans 8:18 (ESV)
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.
— 1 Peter 4:12-13 (ESV)
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
— Romans 5:3-5 (ESV)
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
— 1 Peter 1:6-7 (ESV)

All in all, every single person to walk this earth has to endure suffering, regardless of its magnitude.  These verses not only call for the sufferer to rejoice, but also equip the sufferer to rejoice.  C.S. Lewis once said,

Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.
— C. S. Lewis

Not only is there a glorious end to our suffering in eternity, but almost never is suffering in vain.  When endured well, suffering holds the capacity to both mature and strengthen.  So, no matter how high the hurdle, how hot the fire, or how long the hardship, you don't have to be overcome by it--just keep your eyes on the finish line.

Hillary Husband is a lover of science, travel and Jesus Christ whose repertoire includes baking, dance, and defeating cancer three times before turning 21.  She hopes to make an impact for Christ by loving others genuinely.  Recently, she drove cross-country to do chemistry research at Notre Dame.