Of cancer, gifts, and gratitude

Colleen Elisabeth Chao is an editor and author. She enjoys dark-dark chocolate, side-splitting laughter, and half-read books piled bedside. She makes her home near Boise, Idaho, with her husband Eddie, their son Jeremy, and Willow the dog. 




Of cancer, gifts, and gratitude

Of cancer, gifts, and gratitude

Of cancer, gifts, and gratitude

Yesterday felt heavy and strange as we closed the door on 2018.

What a year.

Twelve months ago today, I was recovering from the first of several surgeries and staring chemo in the face. I’d already spent five months hopping from one doctor’s office to another, being jabbed, smashed, scanned, diagnosed, and told what my chances of survival were.

I’ll never be able to fully describe those last months of 2017. They were the deep end of the pool, that’s for sure.

So when we woke on January 1, 2018, Eddie and I completely forgot it was New Year’s Day. It was Life-and-Death Year, so everything else felt trivial, superfluous.

But somewhere along the way, 2018 became The Year of Joy. Every dark day was marked with beauty and kindness and community, and even laughter. (There is no way to laugh through chemo unless a great God is with you.)

It was the year when this Shadow World lost a little more of its hold on me. When I cared a lot less about what people thought of me—and a lot more about how I could love them better.

It was the year I could not give anything but learned to receive everything. (And if you know me, you know that was painful in the best of ways—and necessary.)

It was a year of sitting on my butt in a recliner for hours at a time. So I wrote a book. A work of fiction, of all things. Here’s the description I wrote for the back cover:

Pax Griffin, a nine-year-old boy with cancer, and his best friend Jayni, venture into a magical realm where Pax seeks healing. Befriended by three beautiful nymphs, a wooden-legged Hobblechaun, and a bumbling bellbird, Pax and Jayni face down evil forces and discover that healing may not come as they’d expected—but a far better treasure awaits them.

Writing this story was the sweetest gift. It helped me to process this complex journey creatively and to speak about suffering in a way that a child might understand. (I’m praying that it will deeply care for some families who find themselves on this same journey.)

Finally, 2018 was the year that our hearts overflowed because you, dear friends, walked with us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. You poured out your very selves, your time, your food, your money, your compassion, your resources, your prayers (I’m starting to cry writing this)—and showed me what Jesus looks like in the flesh.

I love him more than ever because you loved us so well. I wish everyone could be so lucky, to experience what I did through you all.

(On a side note, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never ever catch up on writing thank-you’s for the thousands of ways we’ve been blessed in the past 17 months. It would take a decade and a small fortune in postage stamps. Ha! But I think often of the myriad ways you have held my hands—and Eddie’s and Jeremy’s—and strengthened us to walk through the unthinkable.)

And now 2019 is suddenly upon us, and while I’m still in the thick of recovery, still fighting off infections and exhaustion that are part of the long healing process—still sorting through a lot of emotions, along with the keen awareness that this may not be the end of my cancer story (recurrence is all too common)—I feel more than ever before that I’m living out of the heart Jesus gave me, and that is a beautiful thing.

I still marvel at the strong and tender word the Spirit gave me in the summer of 2017, when I first discovered a lump in my right breast:

“This is a gift,” he said.

And oh has it ever been. A gift so good it makes my head spin. God is never a debtor, is he? He always out-gives us.

Isn’t it crazy how suffering (not just cancer! …a broken marriage, a special-needs child, long singleness, financial angst, death of a loved one, etc.) can become the conduit to our greatest blessings and joys?! Only God is smart enough and strong enough to do that. Man, I love him so much.

I’ve lived just long enough now to know that 2019 won’t be Easy Street. Jesus loves us too much to let us coast or get comfy here. We’re made for Another World, and until we cross over to it, this one will be hard. But…

“I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33)

Friends, I love you all so crazy much—and I’m entering this new year thanking my God for you!