Cancer Updates 2021

Colleen Elisabeth Chao

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. 

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Cancer Updates 2021

Cancer Updates 2021

Cancer Updates 2021

Dear readers,

Below is a collection of emails I’ve sent to friends regarding my second, and terminal, cancer diagnosis. I’ve edited out the more personal information so that these updates can be passed along freely. My prayer is that the beauty of Jesus shines brightly into many hearts out of our family’s present darkness.

He is better than life itself—

Colleen

May 12, 2021
Hello, dear friends!
Just four months ago, we had no idea we’d be moving out of state—nor that we’d be facing a second cancer diagnosis. So much has changed in such a short time, yet as John Snyder so beautifully puts it, God remains our unaltered environment.
For those of you who appreciate the cliff notes version, here it is—
On April 28, five days after moving into our new house, we got the results of my biopsy: cancer in the lymph nodes. We immediately looked into two reputable cancer institutes here and chose to transfer my care from City of Hope in Southern California to an esteemed medical center in the heart of our capital city—and just 25 minutes from our new home. What a gift to be so close to my care this time around!
Within the next week or two we should know more conclusively what stage the cancer is (how far it’s spread in my body) and what my treatment plan looks like. At this point it seems likely we’ll begin with chemo—so I’m enjoying my hair and eyelashes and eyebrows more than you can imagine.
For those of you who like the unabridged version, read on.
Yes, it’s crazy to be back here. To hear the words “it’s cancer” again. To know in gritty detail what all this means. The first several days after diagnosis were dark and full of tears. I wept because my body is not a healthy and strong body, and much physical suffering is ahead. I wept even more because I could not bear the grief of what this means for my dear husband. But I wept the most—out of deep and unspeakable places of my soul—because I’m a mom of a 9-year-old boy and there are no words for what goes on in a mama’s heart when faced with her mortality.
The first night of my diagnosis, my son laid in bed next to me and wept, “I don’t want you to die, Mom.” And “Why did God let you get cancer a second time?”
And this might sound strange, but those are sacred parenting moments. Moments so painful yet so utterly precious, you can almost feel God’s breath on you as you gently walk your child through grief to hope, reminding him of what you so desperately need to remember yourself: this life is just a blink, whether you die at 20 or 95, and none of us is promised tomorrow. Today is a gift, and if God fills it with suffering, it’s because he loves us too much to let us waste our lives on pathetic little earth-pleasures. He wants to give us breathtaking treasure that lasts forever—and suffering is often the means by which he gives it.
After those first few weeping days and nights, I’ve experienced a peace and joy and calm-down-to-my-bones that just doesn’t make sense on a human level. God is with me, he is with my husband, he is with my son and—as I told one of my doctors—that is our hope.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me and rescued me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant with joy; their faces will never be ashamed.” Psalm 34:4-5
Thank you for standing with us and praying for us. I’ll keep you updated as we know more. We love you so so much, friends–
Colleen (for Eddie too)


May 29, 2021
Friends, thank you so much for your outpouring of love these past few weeks! We have felt so cared for—not only by you long-time friends but also by our new friends and neighbors here in Idaho. We are so grateful. I’m behind in responding to your messages, but please know how much your words mean to this words-of-encouragement girl. I feel strengthened for the journey through you!
Okay, for you cliff-notes folks:
On May 14th I met with my new medical oncologist. She is incredibly knowledgeable and compassionate, and she listened with concern when I described what the last 12-week chemo cocktail did to me. Because my cancer is classified as “advanced” (as it is a recurrence), she hopes to get me approved for a stage-4 clinical trial that hopefully will behave less like a wicked stepmother and more like an annoying coworker. Ha!
Like last time, insurance issues have pushed back our timeline by a couple of weeks, but my doctor is expediting everything she can on her end so that we don’t waste time in beginning treatment. While I won’t have my first test results till this Wednesday, we do already know that my treatment plan will begin with chemo, followed by surgery then radiation. (We still won’t know what stage the cancer is, how widespread it is, till the third or fourth week of June. They are scanning EVERYTHING. I mean, we will know if the cancer is in my left pinky toenail, okay?)
Now for those of you who can hang with the verbose version….
The first time around we were shocked to discover that cancer is a full-time job—and that the normal stresses of life don’t sit on the bench just because cancer is playing first string. To look into the future even two weeks can feel completely overwhelming. So I’m working at staying present and grateful in the moment: I remind myself to stop and feel the cool breeze on my skin, quietly soak in the sight of E and J, or enjoy the taste of my hot black (albeit, decaf) coffee. I’ll admit, some days it’s arduous work for me to look for and appreciate the good things. But regardless of how I feel at any given moment, the truth is, each day is full of so many mercies, and there are countless gifts to be found even in the darkest places.
And while I’ve experienced so much peace as I thank God for his good gifts, I’ve also found comfort in being ruthlessly honest with him about the pain. In the past few weeks, my heart has been strengthened by the raw language of Psalm 73, 2 Corinthians 4–7, and the book of Job.
The psalmist Asaph said he was “afflicted all day long.”
Job said, “Anyone born of woman is short of days and full of trouble. … You [God] destroy a man’s hope” and “completely overpower him.”
And Paul said he felt “perplexed”—the Greek word aporeo, which means I “have no way out; I am at a loss; I am without resources and left wanting and don’t know which way to turn.”
I’ve definitely felt all of those things lately. But the beauty of being raw with God about our pain is that not only can he handle the full weight of our wrestling, he can also tenderly take our bleeding heart and make it stronger and more hopeful than it was before the pain.
Asaph said he was bitter about his nonstop affliction until he entered God’s presence. Then he was able to say, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart. … The nearness of God is my good.”
Job said that God does “things too wondrous for me to know. … I reject my [former, bitter] words and am sorry for them.”
And Paul said that although he did feel perplexed, he didn’t despair. He was experiencing Jesus’s life in his suffering. “Therefore,” he wrote, “we do not give up.”
I know I’m on the cusp of much more beauty, much more Jesus, because of this newest suffering. And that sustains me and keeps me pressing on!
~ ~ ~
A special thank you you to those of you who are praying for and supporting my amazing hubby. It means the world to me. The cancer patient so often is the center of attention and care, while the spouse quietly bears an indescribable burden without the same level of support. I have been crazy encouraged by those of you who are his good friends, who have messaged and called him, come to visit and hang out with him, and understood the enormous weight of what he’s carrying right now. I’m so grateful for you!
~ ~ ~
I’ll try to send out a brief update once I hear my first test results Wednesday. With so much love for each one of you….
Colleen


June 3, 2021
Dear friends,
This is a difficult email to write so I’ll keep this brief and succinct for now.
Yesterday I had my PET/CT scan in the morning and then met with my medical oncologist in the afternoon to discuss results. The cancer is stage 4 and, besides my lymph nodes, it’s in my spine, ribs, and hip. It is not curable, but chemo can control/slow its growth for a time. My brain MRI is tomorrow, and those results will determine even more of my timeline and treatment.
I know this is heavy. Words are clunky. These are indescribable moments to be sure and we are running the gamut of emotions around here. Ultimately we know God holds our days and has the final say on things. I’ll leave you with the hymn I sang aloud in my doctor’s office as I waited for results (and the hymn I have sung over my son since he was a newborn):
Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief and shame.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change he faithful will remain.
Be still my soul—thy best, thy heavenly friend,
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
So grateful all this pain is leading to an immeasurably joyful end,
Colleen
P.S. — Thank you for your amazing offers of help. What a gift they are. I have a couple of friends and family who are organizing meals, etc. for us and have asked to commandeer my email in the near future so they can communicate directly with you. I’m so humbled by all the ways we are being loved and surrounded right now.


June 9, 2021
Dear friends, we are praising God for merciful news from my doctor’s office yesterday: there is no detectable cancer in my brain. What a precious, precious gift of “a little more time.” We are unbelievably relieved and thankful.
We are also deeply thankful for your messages of compassion, encouragement, faith, and love. It pains me to not be able to respond to each of you individually and express how much your words mean to me, but please know how deeply I feel loved by every single one of your messages. And you’d be amazed at how timely they always are—God knows exactly when I need your encouragement.
I’m convinced that God alone determines the number of my days. No doctor or statistics or treatment can dictate the time or quality of life I have left on earth. Because this prognosis is so complicated, the cancer is so aggressive, and the decisions are so excruciating, we have to rest in the fact that God is guiding us and is with us and is working infinitely beautiful things out of the worst of circumstances. Our hope is in him, and we see him so clearly in this journey, we believe none of it is a mistake.
But I will admit that this past week the sorrow and grief have felt consuming, almost unbearable. Every time I look at my husband or son, I experience pain as I’ve never known before. But 2 Corinthians 4 keeps holding me fast:
We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that Jesus’s life may also be displayed in our mortal flesh. So then, death is at work in us, but life in you. … Indeed, everything is for your benefit so that, as grace extends through more and more people, it may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God. Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Thank you again for your prayers—they are sustaining. Thank you for walking alongside us as you are. Thank you for reading heavy emails that must be difficult to read. We thank God for you.
Colleen


June 26, 2021
Friends, your love for us these past weeks has been absolutely stunning. I’ve been eager to update you, to somehow quantify this journey even as it’s so quickly and dramatically unfolded—but words have failed me till now.
I think maybe I can make some sense of our processing, and what is unfolding for us, if I begin with an account from the book of Daniel (chapters 8 through 10).
As many of you well know, the Jewish exile and prophet Daniel was without equal in his faith and knowledge and wisdom. He was a man of unparalleled courage and integrity and prayer, so much so that for 10 years now I have asked that God would raise up my son to be “a Daniel in his day.”
God entrusted Daniel with phenomenal dreams and visions. One of these visions came when God revealed to Daniel that 70 years of horrific desolation were in store for his people. In response, Daniel wrote—
I set my face toward Adonai Elohim, to seek him by prayer and petitions, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:
Ah, Lord – the great and awe-inspiring God who keeps his gracious covenant with those who love him and keep his commands – … God, hear the prayer and the petitions of your servant. Make your face shine on your desolate sanctuary for the Lord’s sake. Listen closely, my God, and hear. … For we are not presenting our petitions before you based on our righteous acts, but based on your abundant compassion. Lord, hear! Lord, forgive! Lord, listen and act! My God, for your own sake, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your name.
While I was praying, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the first vision, reached me in my extreme weariness. … He gave me this explanation: “Daniel, I’ve come now to give you understanding. At the beginning of your petitions an answer went out, and I have come to give it, for you are treasured by God.”
Daniel knew God so intimately, trusted him so implicitly, that when confronted with a devastating reality (which he knew came from God’s hand), he immediately banked his prayers on God’s compassion and grace and faithfulness. But he also suffered deeply from the knowledge of what was to come. Look at how his heart and body reacted to the news:
“I was overcome and lay sick for days”
“I was greatly disturbed”
“No strength was left in me”
“My face grew deathly pale”
“I was powerless”
“Anguish overwhelms me and I am powerless”
“I have no strength, and there is no breath in me”
I’m so grateful that a mighty man of God like Daniel was wholly human, wrecked by bad news even while fully convinced of God’s abundant compassion. One of my best friends, Nina, encouraged me early on to be okay with the consuming pain and grief, to be gentle with myself in the sleepless nights and the constant tears and the physical stress of it all. This was the word I most needed at that point, and it’s what I see Daniel modeling for me: it’s okay to be wrecked by news of ensuing death and destruction.
So our family has taken a walk in Daniel’s shoes this past month. We’ve cried out in grief, we’ve banked on God’s compassion and faithfulness, we’ve felt overcome and physically sick and emotionally weary beyond anything we’ve ever known.
We’ve also keenly sensed that we are treasured by God even in the midst of the grief, and we have seen him begin to answer our constant prayers for wisdom as we make incredibly complex decisions.
As Eddie and I have prayed and processed together, one thing has become crystal clear: I want to FULLY LIVE the days I’m still alive. And so we have decided to use integrative interventions and therapies that will work in tandem with standard medical care, with the hope that this wedding of protocols will allow my body to be stronger and will help to mitigate the side effects of chemo. (I shocked doctors last time with how violently I reacted to chemo—and that was with just a 12-week curative cocktail, not a perpetual palliative cocktail to the end of my days. Those of you who hung with me during chemo last time have agreed that my body probably wouldn’t make it even one year on full-time chemo.) Instead of constant chemo, we are going to limit chemo while working with doctors who use therapies that work with my body, not just poison it. We are resolved to make faith-filled, life-giving, and somewhat unconventional decisions at times so that I can still be a wife and a mom for whatever time I have left—and not just a bed-bound cancer patient slowly wasting away. If God chooses to give me more years than doctors predict, we will accept them with joy! And if my days are cut short, I hope to live them to the fullest by his grace and power.
In the midst of the grief and the overwhelm, we have grown hopeful—not necessarily for health and longevity, but for LIFE in ABUNDANCE. (After all, that’s what we’ve been given in Christ, and nothing can take that away!)
At the end of Daniel chapter 10, Daniel says,
Then the one with a human appearance touched me again and strengthened me. He said, “Don’t be afraid, you who are treasured by God. Peace to you; be very strong!”
God may entrust me (and you) with devastating news, but when we are treasured by God, we have all of his infinite resources at our fingertips. Peace is ours (even as we quake). Strength is ours (even in great weakness).
We love you dearly, friends. Thanks for being on this journey with us.
Because of his abundant compassion,
Colleen


July 30, 2021
Dear friends,
I’m taking a break between giving myself a coffee enema and administering my own viscum injection—while fighting through lingering nausea from last Friday’s chemo infusion. We are knee-deep into our allopathic-naturopathic union of treatment, and I’m so grateful for the variety of doctors and resources we have at our fingertips. This is a full-time gig, but we’re not going it alone.
Once again, it’s been difficult for me to find words for this journey, but I keep asking God to give them to me in his timing. I’m a slow processor, an equally slow writer, but there is beauty-in-this-darkness that I so badly want to put into words. I know I’m not the only one walking through hard stuff, and “a timely word—how good that is!” (Proverbs 15:23).
So, God, I ask you again to give me the ability to write this update.
It feels as if we’ve lived a decade since I last emailed. Weighty decisions are made at hyper-speed, plans change often, and time seems to have taken on an alternate identity. I’m amazed at how casually we humans talk in terms of years and decades—and these days I catch my breath every single time someone projects life beyond a year or two. For as long as I can remember, I’ve prayed “Teach me to number my days carefully so that I may develop wisdom in my heart” (Psalm 90:12), but now mere seconds and minutes (not just days) feel indescribably sacred and weighty.
We are so fragile, aren’t we? We subconsciously live as if we’re invincible—till death knocks on our door and reminds us that “all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like a flower of the grass” (1 Peter 1:24).
So I’m keenly, constantly aware of how unspeakably precious today is—not because it’s an end in itself but because I get to do two things in it that will matter for all of eternity:
I get to love God and
I get to love people.
That’s everything. The whole reason I’m here. But it’s so hard to keep this front-and-center in my heart. It’s far too easy for me to get self-absorbed (or just plain ol’ overwhelmed by the hard stuff). This week I found myself grieving the impending loss of my hair and eyebrows/lashes. (Did it once—don’t want to do it again. Especially when I’m not sure I’ll get them back in this life.) It’s so easy for me to fixate on what is seen, on what is temporary, and to forget what is far more real than a full head of hair. What is infinitely weightier and of much more substance than what I see in the mirror is the reality that
Those who look to him are radiant with joy;
their faces will never be ashamed. (Psalm 34:5)
Chemo can’t rob me of the kind of beauty that lasts forever. As I lift my eyes to Jesus, my face radiates with unashamed joy, joy that actually increases with suffering. Age and disease and ultimately death steal our outward beauty, but nothing can take away the kind of beauty that comes when we “look full in his wonderful face.”
Okay, enough about my inner processings. You all keep stunning us with your love and generosity. We’ve had a deep freezer delivered to our doorstep, flowers and grocery giftcards and kid-crafted packages arrive in the mail, kindness upon kindness from our church family in SoCal and our new church fam in Boise, and money given to help summit Medical Bill Mountain. Many of your kids and teens are praying for me, even daily, which brings me to tears every time. Gifts arrive just for J. I wake up to texts and emails of encouragement that help me face another day with hope and courage. And I wonder—how do people walk through terminal illness without an army of love and support like this?
Thank you with all my heart, friends. We. Are. Blessed.
I’ll leave you with a quote that’s meant so much to me over the past few weeks, from Octavius Winslow’s book Christ’s Sympathy for Weary Pilgrims (thank you, Terrie!):
It is I who formed your burden, who carved your cross, and who will strengthen you to bear it. It is I who mixed your cup of grief, and will enable you to drink it with meek submission to your Father’s will. … I have sent all in love! It is I who ordered, arranged, and controlled it all! In every stormy wind, in every darksome night, in every lonesome hour, in every rising fear, the voice of Jesus shall be heard, saying, “Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.”
What a privilege to experience the love of Christ in this particular suffering. I pray you are experiencing him in your own suffering today as well.
With a heart full of love and appreciation,
Colleen
P.S. – One specific prayer request: Cancer of the bones is a beast, and some days pain is a bully. There are times when it’s a bit grueling to simply walk across the room or open a door or turn over in bed. I’ve been so grateful for the “good days” though—and I covet your prayers for joy and strength on the bad days.
P.P.S. – I began writing this update a couple of days ago and then just finished it during Infusion #2. I sat here in my chemo chair with all of you in my heart and, as CoVid dictates no visitors are allowed in the oncology ward, I wanted to thank you for coming with me to chemo today.


August 15, 2021
Friends,
One of the stranger things about a terminal diagnosis is that there’s no one ahead of me on this journey to talk to, ask questions of. There’s no support group or wise seasoned saint to offer me counsel—because (gulp) they’re all dead. Curable cancer is a lonely enough journey, but terminal cancer makes you feel like someone snatched you up and dropped you on the far side of Mars.
But whadya know? Covid is here on Mars too! And it honestly could care less if you’ve got cancer in your bones and chemo pumping through your veins. It’s just happy to keep you company. On the day of my second infusion, I came home to find Eddie with a badly sprained ankle, unable to walk. So we sat there, the gorgeous pair of us, me sick in my recliner, him laid up on the couch with his foot iced and elevated. And he coughed a time or two that day and the next, but we thought nothing of it because we were in survival mode. As soon as Eddie suspected Covid, he quickly quarantined himself till we got his test results back. But by then we’d already efficiently incubated together, so all three of us ended up sick with The Delta. I’m not sure how we would have survived the past two+ weeks if it hadn’t been for so many of our family visiting and helping, and my sister and parents taking daily shifts cooking, cleaning, and shopping for us. We are so grateful!
All three of us have tested Covid-negative this weekend (woot!), but my body’s slow on the rebound. (That or I have a codependent relationship with this recliner.) So in an effort to not lose my sanity with all the sickness and sitting, I’m seizing the opportunity to write to you all instead.
Back to wanting to talk to someone who has lived through this stuff: This morning I woke up remembering my friend Heidi, who passed from metastatic breast cancer in February 2017 and who kept a blog during the early years of her cancer journey. She was a mom of three little girls, and even though she didn’t blog after her diagnosis turned terminal, it was so good to reread her gut-honest take about the harder parts of this journey. And it inspired me to keep writing honestly to you all too, even though I worry that my updates are too heavy and raw and painful to read. I continue to wrestle with how to put this journey into words, but I’m reminded of an F.B. Meyer quote my friend Nancy recently sent me:
The grave may be dark and long, the frost keen and penetrating, but spring will come, and the golden stalk shall wave in the sunshine, wearing its crowning fruit, and men shall thrive on the bread of our experience, the product of our tears and suffering and prayers.
Heidi’s not around for me to ask the tough questions,
How did you make it through the long, dark nights?
How did you handle the layers of grief with your girls?
How did you fight for hope in the face of death?
But because Heidi cared to write through the initial pain and uncertainty of those cancer years, I’m strengthened in a particular way today, feeding on “the bread of her experience.” (How I wish she’d written even more, through the worst months, so I’m determined to keep writing no matter how hard it is.)
In other news, my scalp was being a punk—hurting me and beginning to throw the hair out—so I chopped off my locks again. The deed is done, and while I briefly shed a few tears and I’m not particularly happy with my reflection in the mirror, I’m thankful I don’t have alien ears or a cone head or worse.
There is always, always something to be thankful for—no matter how deep and dark the pit. I just got lots of extra time with my boys because we were trapped at home together for over two weeks. Also, we’re in a house not an apartment this time around(!!), I have a little pad of patio where I can sit and watch birds in my backyard, and we have a kitchen stocked with good food (while too many around the world don’t even know where their next meal is going to come from). We have been loved on by you all in ways that STUN us (and leave us weeks behind in thank-yous!). Even though the journey can be inherently lonely and isolating, you have not failed to make us feel constantly and beautifully surrounded by your love.
And more than all these things (which are already extraordinary), I have this Book full of hope and precious promises, and this Savior who tells me that he is my portion and my cup of blessing and my very great reward. And so if he chooses to take from me my health and hair and hope of watching my son grow up and my desire to live a long life full of ministry, he wants me to know to the marrow of my bones that “I have no good thing apart from him.” He alone must be enough for me. He alone must have my heart (or the pain and the grief will consume me).
I should quickly add: The fact that I’m processing the realities of a terminal diagnosis does not mean I’ve given up hope! I’m still fighting with every fiber of my strong-willed being to stay here as long as I can, to be a wife and mom and daughter and sister and friend for as many days as God will give me. I work crazy-hard every day to eat well, carry out a complex health protocol, exercise, and jump through all the medical hoops. I’m as stubborn as I am surrendered, so don’t worry—I’m not going easily.
Thanks for walking with us, friends. I know each of you is also processing this journey of grief in your own ways, and it’s heavy and hard. I don’t take it for granted that you still want to walk with us for the long haul. We love you dearly and thank our God for you,
Colleen (for Eddie too)

August 30, 2021
Hello, dear friends!
Today was supposed to be Chemo Round 4, but due to some physical complications (I’m all kinds of special, people), my medical team decided to give my body a few extra days to get stronger. I’ll be back in The Chair on Thursday instead. Jeremy started school today, so I find myself with time to tackle some of the tasks on my to-do list—from the comfort of my trusty recliner. Ha!
But first, an update.
After a week of navigating more of chemo’s rigorous side effects and layers of physical pain, getting a molar extracted due to an infection in my gums, shaving my head down to the nubs, missing Jeremy’s back-to-school activities and teacher meeting, and postponing our anniversary dinner because I was too sick to get out—there’s a not-so-sneaky temptation to despair, to nurse longings for “normalcy” and relief, or to kick into sheer survival mode. But at the beginning of this new week, I’m looking over my shoulder and I can so clearly see that a strong and gentle king saw me in my weepy heap of weariness, pushed through the masses to get to me, took my hand, drew me close, and slowly danced with me through the week, speaking words of hope and promise and goodness to me. All week long he has been with me. All week long he has had merciful words to sing over me.
On Saturday he sang Psalm 55:16 over me, reminding me that he loves to save his children. It’s what he does. “How he will save me I cannot guess; but he will do it, I know” (Spurgeon). My heart grew ten times bigger to remember that he will not give me over to despair and darkness and a grievous end. That’s not what he does. Even though cancer most likely will take me, he will rescue me from this affliction in his perfect way, and it will mean life and joy and freedom for many others, not just me.
Midweek he was singing over me truths from the gospels as I meditated on Jesus’ ministry on earth, specifically the throngs who came from miles around to touch him and be healed. These were people who had suffered horrifically for years and even decades, some with terminal illness, some with incurable disease, some with pain that kept them up every night, some with handicaps that brought about their destitution. But when they heard about The Miraculous Healing Man, they pushed through every pain and limitation to get to him, desperate as they were for relief and wholeness and normalcy, for freedom from social stigmas, for the hope of becoming a functioning member of their family and community again.
And Jesus healed them. En masse. He had compassion on them.
Which begs the question: Is this Jesus who healed the multitudes two thousand years ago, the same Jesus who may not choose to heal me, his beloved daughter? Will the Jesus who showed compassion to the crowds allow a young boy to watch his mom slowly waste away—then grow up without her? Allow a husband to lose his wife and suddenly find himself a single dad?
Even while Jesus was showing the world what his kingdom would look like—healing! restoration! power over dark forces! forgiveness of sins!—he was promising his followers that they would suffer greatly. That would be the way the kingdom would fully come—through faith-filled, joyful, suffering saints. It wasn’t comfort and security and ease he was selling.
So he came in this beautiful kind of juxtaposition: to both introduce us to his breathtakingly good kingdom by mending broken people, and to be the suffering servant, knowing agony in all of its layers and grief in all of its stages—so that we would know how to suffer in his footsteps, and the world would look at us and marvel, “They have more joy and more peace and more purpose in their suffering than I have on my best day of ease and security. What’s their secret?!” And more people would be forgiven and freed and swallowed up in joy, and the kingdom would grow and grow and grow until one day King Jesus brings it in all of its fullness, and we see
…a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away.
Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new.” (Revelation 21:1-5)
Wouldn’t you just love to opt out of the suffering and skip to the good stuff of Revelation 21? I’m constantly and keenly aware of how “soft” I am. I think of the many biographies I’ve read of saints past, who suffered unthinkable losses and crosses (and didn’t whine but counted it a joy and privilege). I think of our brothers and sisters around the world today who are choosing to remain in hostile places, risking life and limb and loved ones in order to share the love of Jesus with people who have never heard his name. And I look at my insidious bent toward first-world comforts and securities and expectations, and I cry out to God to increase my capacity to suffer well, with more and more joy, and to toughen me up while keeping me tender, and to help me relinquish the treasures I have on this earth (that oh-so-quickly become idols in my heart).
I’m so grateful for God’s gentleness with me. He is happy to be with me in my weakness, and he will finish the good work he started in me. He is patiently teaching me how to look death in the face and say,
Time, how short!
Death, how brief!
Eternity, how long!
Immortality, how endless!*
And so today, because of his kindness, I have a new supply of strength and courage and hope so I can take up this cross, deny myself, and follow him down a path I never would have chosen—but a path that ultimately leads to perfect bliss.
And oh, friends, there are so many mercies along this way, including the ones that come through you. Again we had all manner of goodness arrive at our doorstep and in our mailbox and inboxes and Venmo accounts this last week. And the way you pray for us…! It is a gift beyond all others. We could not face these days without you: we continually feel so deeply loved, so strengthened, so cheered on for this journey.
I am on the verge of tears as I think of you all and the incomparable gift you are to me. To all three of us. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Colleen
P.S. – I have a tangible prayer request for you prayer warriors: Chemo makes it so difficult for me to string words together. I’m already a painfully slow writer, but “chemo brain” makes me feel like a turtle in wet cement. Mercy. But here’s the deal: Moments after I heard how extensive my cancer was back in the spring, I heard just as clearly from the Spirit that I needed to write–that one of the reasons he was entrusting this suffering to me was so that I could encourage others through words. I’ve been gunshy of traditionally publishing a book (wanting to make sure I was old and wise before I put something into permanent print), but it appears that now is the fullness of time. So I’ve been praying for weeks that God would supernaturally give me the right words, increase my sloggy brain’s capacity to think clearly, and allow me to write something that will deeply care for others. I appreciate your prayers on my behalf as I work out of great weakness and urgency. Thank you, friends!
*C.H. Spurgeon (of course).


September 19, 2021
Hello, dear friends!

Today has been a beautiful one. I may be 45 years old, but this will be my very first time experiencing Fall, and I’m a little bit giddy. (I’ve only ever known the four seasons to be Summer, Summer the Sequel, Fallspringish, and Summer’s Revenge.) Already trees are beginning to change color, cooler temperatures are blowing in, and this afternoon the sky was filled with puffy white clouds after a stormy gray morning.

Okay, but you didn’t open this email for a weather report, so in other news…. 😉

We’re now four chemo infusions down, eight to go. At the end of these twelve rounds, I’ll take a break and hopefully return to Utah for a two-week clean-up at the holistic clinic that worked such wonders for my body in June. I also continue to meet virtually with a naturopathic oncologist in Vancouver and my beloved integrative medical doctor in Newport Beach (who has walked me through so many health issues and is a gift beyond words). I’m so grateful to be using a variety of methods to attack this aggressive cancer and to strengthen my body.

Have I already mentioned that I had a full-body bone scan last December, and not a smidge of cancer was detected? Just a few months later, it was all over my bones and lymph nodes. Isn’t that crazy? This truly is a wildfire cancer we’re dealing with, which is why we’re trying to address it from every possible angle. Honestly, if this were a less aggressive cancer, I’d probably skip chemo altogether and use natural measures alone. I. Hate. Chemo. I’m already feeling super beat up and weary, but I realize that this is an effective tool that is keeping the cancer from even more quickly overtaking my body, and for that I’m grateful—and I can gird up my loins for another round tomorrow. 😉

(On that note, my neutrophils and WBC levels were low this last week, so I’m praying they’ve bounced back so I can press on with tomorrow’s Round 5. I’m continually grateful for a doctor who cares deeply about my quality of life. This past week he reduced one of my drugs by 10% [I’ve already been at an 80% dose] so I wouldn’t be as severely nauseated and exhausted. It was a much better week overall, and today I made it to the very end of our church service and even had a little energy for some household chores when I got home. So thankful!)

~ ~ ~

Yesterday was a “grieving day,” and the tears flowed silently but freely over a lot of little things that felt weighty and precious and therefore painful. And yet, even as the tears were streaming down my face, I sensed Jesus so close to me, sensed his heart bursting with longing to bring me home to himself. He is an eager bridegroom who adores his bride, and I have sensed him saying again and again, “I love you.” And out of a heart that hurts to leave here too soon but longs to finally see him face to face, I say back to him, “I love you too.” I have no idea when he will call me home, but I know that all he does is out of his infinitely perfect love.

~ ~ ~

On the heels of a grieving day, I can quickly put things back into perspective when I read about what my brothers and sisters around the world are facing: they’re being imprisoned, fleeing for their lives, losing their loved ones—because they believe in Jesus. What I’m experiencing is a form of true suffering, yes, but tonight I’m sipping on a hot cup of herbal tea and writing to you from the comfort of a recliner, and not wondering if the enemy will pound down our door and take my husband off to prison. This week I’ve prayed through tears for Ahmad, Morteza, Ayoob, Hamid, and their families as they have suffered such intense persecution in Algeria and Iran. I cannot imagine their reality, and it helps to keep my own from becoming all-consuming (or an excuse for self-pity).

~ ~ ~

One last note: If you’d like to see pictures of our journey, I’m trying to post on Instagram every week or two (colleen.chao).

I love you friends. So much. You are a gift beyond words.

Colleen

P.S. – A couple of months back, one of my besties suggested I record a list of the songs that are ministering most deeply to me right now. I loved the idea—and finally got around to it (and limited myself to just 12!). I’m so grateful for these artists who have put the deepest parts of my soul to song and ushered me into the presence of Jesus on even the darkest days of this journey:

  1. My Portion (Shane & Shane)
  2. Abide (Aaron Williams on The Worship Initiative)
  3. What a Beautiful Name (Hillsong Worship)
  4. It’s Always Been You (Phil Wickham)
  5. Psalm 90/Satisfy Us with Your Love (Shane & Shane)
  6. The Garden (Kari Jobe)
  7. Dawn (Rebecca St. James)
  8. My Soul Waits (Bethany Barnard)
  9. King of Kings (Hillsong Worship)
  10. When We See Your Face (Sovereign Grace Music)
  11. Song in the Night (Shane & Shane)
  12. I Will Sing (Kari Jobe)

October 11, 2021
Hello, sweet friends—

I’m writing to you, not from my recliner or chemo chair this time, but from Indianapolis, Indiana. (!!) I kicked off my Bucket List this weekend by attending the Revive Our Hearts women’s conference, thanks to my amazing hubby and my precious friend Nancy Wolgemuth. I’ve been wanting to get to an ROH event for years now—and Eddie and I continue to be resolved to LIVE FULLY every day (and do things that might even take a toll on me physically but are life-giving emotionally and spiritually). Nancy and the entire ROH Team took such beautiful care of me and showed me every possible kindness, and loved on me till my heart was bursting. As if that weren’t enough, Shane and Shane led worship all weekend and one amazing speaker after another brought messages that cared deeply for my soul.

Gift upon gift.

And while I’ve been gone, one of Eddie’s good friends flew in for a guys’ weekend, and my parents came over for game night, and my brother David and sis-in-law Heather and kids came to visit, so Jeremy and Eddie have been well loved and encouraged too. My heart is full.

Isn’t it true that no matter how much we give God, he always out-gives us? Last week felt almost unbearable to our family, with one difficulty stacked upon another, till I was crying out to God for mercy and relief. Little did I know all the goodness he had stored up for me, for us, this weekend. And while his goodness doesn’t always show up in such tangible ways, he is storing it up for us nonetheless, and the wealth waiting for us on the other side is going to make even the best gifts here look pale and paltry.

“How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you. In the presence of everyone you have acted for those who take refuge in you.” Psalm 31:19

~ ~ ~

What I didn’t know when we booked my flight a few weeks ago was that a short film ROH made of our family would debut at the conference. The film crew did an absolutely beautiful job of capturing the heart of our story, and while I was way out of my comfort zone in some ways—exposing such vulnerable and tender places of our lives on camera in my less-than-attractive state and with a bad case of chemo brain, ha!—we’re convinced that the story God has written for us is one that needs to be shared. I’m constantly aware that cancer doesn’t have a corner on the market of suffering. There are so many others who need words of hope and comfort too. (2 Corinthians 1:4)

We gave Jeremy the opportunity to “opt out” of the film (we didn’t want to force him to share just because we were compelled to), but after some thought he said that while it was out of his comfort zone too, he wanted to help other kids who are suffering in similar ways.

So here is our family’s “sacrifice of praise” to a good God who writes unexpected and often painful but always beautiful stories: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPna0-rljE0.

Welp, I’m functioning on 2.5 hours of sleep and my words are feeling a little janky to me right now (ha!), so I’ll save a newsier, more detailed cancer update for later. 🙂

Love you so much, my friends. More than you know.

Colleen

P.S. – I wrote this yesterday, so I’m happily back home with my boys now. Chemo Round #7 happened bright and early this morning. My white blood count (WBC) was so low that my doctor once again reduced my Taxol dose a smidge. I need that WBC to improve so we can continue next week! But I’m soooo grateful: almost all of my other troublesome bloodwork issues (especially super-cranky liver levels) have greatly improved! Also, a recent PET scan shows that the chemo is doing its job and the cancer is being held at bay for the moment. We are incredibly thankful for each day of good news.

P.P.S. – Twelve years ago tonight, under a full moon in a beautiful park, Eddie asked me to be his girlfriend. I walked on clouds that night. We were blissfully unaware of what these years together would require of us, but I love this man more today than I did back then. Babe, you are the best man I know.

October 18, 2021
It’s a strange thing—writing of “suffering” in our first-world American context. What really qualifies as suffering? In your own life, what would you categorize as merely a “difficulty” and what would you consider full-blown suffering?

I feel like I know so little of suffering when I think of people like Helen Roseveare, Madame Guyon, and Olaudah Equiano—or when I hear about modern-day victims of persecution, trafficking, and torture. I’m tempted to despair over my “softness.” So when people tell me they’re amazed at how I’m handling stage 4 cancer, I’m deeply encouraged, but I also squirm a little at the compliment. I know myself far too well to be impressed with ME. I’m constantly, keenly aware that GOD is sustaining me, HE is pouring out his Spirit on me (in equal measure to the pain he’s inflicted), HE has been working on me little by little for many, many years.

Last night I lay in bed thinking back on my early to mid 30s when I thought I might end up in an asylum, I felt so crazy with anxiety and depression. I recalled the many times I’ve curled up in the fetal position and wept and wailed before God, “I can’t do this one more day!”—through long years of singleness; through Jeremy’s worst years of illness when he struggled to breathe at night or he lay limp in my arms with unrelenting fever and pain; through my own twelve years of chronic pain and illness….

And here’s the thing about suffering (at least in my own limited experience): none of us are good at it. None of us have the capacity to suffer well with hope and joy. But the secret to slowly becoming a hope-filled, joyful sufferer has been shockingly simple: I go to God. Again and again and again.

I go to him when I’m angry at his will for me.
I go to him in the middle of the night when grief threatens to undo me.
I go to him when I’m weary to the bone, or when I’m throwing myself an epic pity party.

And by “going to him” I mean I turn my thoughts to him and tell him exactly what I’m feeling, all the nitty gritty gory details. I “pour out my heart like water in the Lord’s presence” (Lamentations 2:19)—and with the smallest mustard seed of faith, I believe that he’s listening to me and that he will be able to do something about my suffering (Isaiah 64:4).

That rhythmic act of going to him softens my heart to listen to him, to hear his voice, to end my self-absorbed monologue and begin a beautiful dialogue with him.

And here’s what I’ve become increasingly convinced of through this process over decades now: I cannot hear from him or dialogue with him (and thus cannot suffer well) apart from his Word. Through the pages of Scripture he speaks exactly what my heart needs to hear. He reveals himself (sometimes in ways I don’t immediately recognize), and those revelations change everything—my thoughts and desires and perspective and all. And herein lies one of the most sacred gifts of suffering: the sufferer has a unique capacity to experience God through his Word in ways that cannot be experienced through days of comfort and ease. Spurgeon put it this way:
Prosperity is a painted window that shuts out much of God’s clear light. Only when the blue, crimson, and gold tinge is removed will the glass be restored to transparency. Adversity takes away the tinge, the color, and the dimness, and then we see our God. In the absence of other goods, the good God is better seen.*

And Robert Hawker put it this way:
Your words are sweet and perfect for my weary soul, and my sense of nothingness makes your fullness even more precious.**

I know I sound like a broken record, but I’ll sing this song to my last day: in the hands of a good God, suffering is a gift. It’s the “cords of kindness and ropes of love” that bind us fast to Jesus (Hosea 11:4). It’s the acetone and rag that clean the painted window blocking our view of him. And there is nothing on earth more precious than seeing and knowing and loving Jesus more through our suffering (Philippians 3:10). Slowly, awkwardly, over time, our joy and hope and peace grow deep and wide because we are pressed into his presence, into his Love, and it ruins us for all other substitute comforts.

Over the past several months our family has been hard pressed on every side, with cancer being only one of many stressors and heartaches. (Jeremiah Burroughs so aptly wrote, “It is very rarely that one affliction comes alone; commonly, afflictions are not single things, but they come one upon the neck of another.”*** Mm-hmm. Get it, Jeremiah.) Yesterday I was both sad and angry over the unrelenting hardships, and I felt weak, desperately needy—but I went to God again and again throughout the day and he spoke to my hurting heart and revealed his nearness and goodness for the millionth time.

So from one weak person to another, here is my strong encouragement, especially if you feel like today’s sufferings are far beyond your capacity: Keep going to God. Tell him everything you’re feeling, raw and unedited. He can take it. Pray through Psalm 40 or Isaiah 35 or Lamentations 3. Trust that he never belittles us for our kindergarten capacity to suffer (or for our struggle to get to the place where we can “consider it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds”). He never says, “Well, Susie could handle this so much better than you!” On the contrary, he is compassionate and tender and infinitely forbearing, happy to be with you and me right where we’re at today—and happy to continue his good work of making us more and more like his Son.

~ ~ ~

On a totally different and more technical note, today my WBC was high enough to continue chemo (praise God! Thank you all for praying!), so I got to tackle Round 8. Four more rounds of Paclitaxel and then I’ll continue with only my monoclonal antibody infusions, herceptin and perjeta. These still take a toll on my body, but my hair will begin to grow back (again, ha!) and the side effects should be lessened overall. :)))

I’m hoping to return to the Utah clinic after the holidays to get “cleaned up” from these months of chemo. We’re not yet sure what we’ll do after that. With my particular prognosis, the cancer is so aggressive that it eventually figures out a pathway around the chemo/antibodies and continues spreading, and then we form a huddle with our allopathic-naturopathic medical team and ask God for great wisdom and take the next step.

~ ~ ~

As always, friends, thank you thank you thank you for your encouragement, generosity, kindness, prayers, and love. As I continue “going to God,” he smiles big and says, “Do you see who I’ve put around you to love you through this? You are not alone.”

Thank you for being our friends, for loving all three of us so beautifully even in the midst of your own sufferings. We are forever grateful—

Colleen

*C.H. Spurgeon. Beside Still Waters.
**Robert Hawker. Piercing Heaven. Page 48.
***Jeremiah Burroughs. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. Page 15.

November 8, 2021
Do you remember the Ukrainian tale of The Mitten? While collecting firewood in the dead of winter, a boy unknowingly drops his warm woolen mitten in the middle of a snowy forest. Soon, a small mouse discovers it and burrows into it, taking shelter from the biting cold. Not long after, a frog happens upon the mitten, and he squeezes in beside the mouse. Then, in frigid succession, an owl, a rabbit, a fox, a big gray wolf, a wild boar, and a bear discover the mitten and squeeze themselves in as well. Finally, a little old cricket with creaky aching legs happens upon the mitten and says to herself, “Now that looks like a nice warm place. I’ll just hop over and see if I can squeeze in, too!”

“But ah me, that was all that was needed to finish off the poor old mitten. The cricket had no more than put her first scratchy foot inside when, with a rip and a snap, the stitches came apart, the old leather cracked, and the soft red lining split in half, popping all the animals into the snow!” (from my favorite version of this tale, written by Alvin Tresselt.)

For the past six months since my diagnosis, there have been weeks on end when God has given us a supernatural mitten of seemingly endless capacity to hold rabbits and owls and foxes and wolves and bears, to stretch and flex and expand in ways that truly seem miraculous. But then, every month or two, along comes Little Old Cricket Week, and, with a rip and a snap, the stitches come apart and the lining splits in half and everything comes spilling out. On those weeks, I’m overwhelmed by the myriad sorrows and stresses and tasks of this journey—“animals” that just moments before I was able to accommodate with grace and joy. But the ripping and the splitting is a good and necessary part of this process because it reminds me of how fragile I am apart from God holding me together. If I perpetually bore up under maximum capacity with joyful strength, I’d begin to think there was something inherently amazing about me. Instead, on Little Old Cricket Week, I see clearly again how extraordinary it is that God is sustaining me (and my boys) through what is utterly impossible to bear up under ourselves. On my own, I am tragically weak and limited, constantly living at the edges of my undoing. But it’s at those very edges where I experience the power of God in and through me.

(It’s still so crazy-amazing to me how suffering can convince us that God is both good and powerful.)

~ ~ ~

Four years ago yesterday, November 7, 2017, was the day I received my first cancer diagnosis (invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 2B). Nearly every aspect of our life has changed since we sat in my doctor’s office that afternoon and heard the news. And yet, what God first spoke to me back then is still true now: Cancer has been a gift. It has been the key to unlocking deeper, more breathtaking places in Christ; it has been the sacred invitation into others’ suffering; it has been the way to experience more freedom from Self; it has been the secret to seeing a little more clearly through the shadows of this present world into the substance of eternity.

God, thank you for this weighty, terrifying, beautiful gift. You are so good.

~ ~ ~

I’m just twenty minutes from wrapping up my Monday infusion, and it’s been a sweet morning with my friends here at St. Luke’s. (I love my team of nurses and doctors!) Today is Round 12, which means it’s my final weekly dose of Taxol (at least for the time being), but I’ll continue with the Herceptin and Perjeta drugs every three weeks—while also beginning hormone therapy. This therapy will be two-fold: it will force me into menopause and then block the estrogen that’s driving the cancer growth. (I did this last time too so it’s nothing new.) Again, my doctor is all about quality of life to the end. He knows I did not tolerate hormone therapy the first time around, so he’s resolved to make this as tolerable as possible this time around. However, if I absolutely cannot tolerate it, Eddie and I will then need to make some tough decisions about whether or not to continue with Taxol. For now, I’m so grateful at the prospect of more hair and a little less sickness and exhaustion.

~ ~ ~

Last thing: I recently asked Eddie if he would take over a future update and give you all a break from hearing from ME and MY perspective. (Ha!) You need to hear from him! This hubby of mine is one heck of an extraordinary man. What he endures on the daily with tenacity and humility is such a testimony to God’s work in his life (and proof that I am one spoiled woman). One of the ways I feel most loved right now is when people love my husband well—so thank you to those of you who continue to reach out and support Eddie. It means the world to me.

~ ~ ~

Friends, so much of the joy and strength and endurance we’re experiencing as a family (even the grace to make it through the Little Old Cricket Weeks)—as well as the fruitfulness that’s coming from our suffering—are the result of your prayers. God is saying a huge “yes!” to what you’re asking him on our behalf, and I only wish I had something more meaningful to say than just “thank you.” You seriously are “the excellent ones in whom is all our delight” (Psalm 16:3).

We love you so!

Colleen (for Eddie too)

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