“Scars are not imperfections. They are heroic and holy survival stories waiting to be told!”
In 2017, right in the middle of a deeply devastating season of my life, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My diagnosis felt like one more thing to add to the stack of heartbreaking circumstances I was facing. I’ll never forget sitting in a pink chair hearing the words, “I’m sorry, Lysa, you’ve got cancer.”
I got up from that chair and thought to myself, “Where do you go after hearing news like that? How do you just get in your car and drive away from an appointment like that? How do you keep living and doing normal things when a word like cancer has just become a new reality that will make so much not normal for a long while?”
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m sharing ten things to help you emotionally and spiritually when you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. If we were having coffee today, I would take your hand and whisper these things from my heart to yours.
1 – Acknowledge your feelings. You don’t have to pretend to be okay. There will be both tears and fears you have to wrestle through. Just be sure you don’t stay stuck in a place of fear. Remember feelings are indicators not dictators. Your feelings indicate there are important things to process. But they don’t have to dictate your perspective or taint your outlook on life. One of my mantras during this process has been “I never wanted this to be my story. But now that it is, I’m going to make it a story I’ll want to tell one day.” How you view your journey on the front end will determine so much about your recovery on the back end.
2 – Ask a fellow survivor. Talk to some women who have been through your same treatment plan. Ask them to tell you about the procedures and healing so you aren’t caught off guard. Also see if there’s anything they would have done differently or a perspective shift they made to help them handle all of this. Have them make suggestions of what supplies and equipment they found especially helpful during recovery. And have them make recommendations of what kind of help they received from others that was most beneficial.
3 – Get your team in place. As you head into this battle adventure remember these two phrases: Don’t isolate. Don’t hesitate. This isn’t a journey to take alone so don’t hesitate to ask for help. Surround yourself with people who will really be there for you and who are willing to help meet practical needs. Designate a point person who can navigate those offering to help. Give the point person a list of practical things people can do for you. She can speak on your behalf and speak frankly about what is and is not helpful. Type out a general thank you note to have ready to go so you can sign them before surgery and then your point person can send them out for you as needed. Or, just give yourself grace to not send thank you notes. Be honest about what you can and cannot do.
4 – Forget the old saying that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Not only is that saying not in the Bible, it’s not true. The world is filled with people who have been given more than they can handle. In the midst of this overwhelming diagnosis, know that God doesn’t expect you to handle this. He wants you to hand this over to Him. He doesn’t want you to rally more of your own strength. He wants you to rely more on His strength. Have a playlist ready with your favorite praise music. Write out favorite Bible verses in a journal to keep with you and quotes that people send you and that you discover that encourage you.
5 – Tell yourself the right story. Cancer is affecting some cells in your body but only you decide if it has access to your thoughts and your heart. We’re all living out a story, but then there’s the story we tell ourselves. It’s easy to see this diagnosis as an end of life as you knew it. But, despite your circumstances, you get to choose how this story goes from here. I remember seeing a sign in one of my doctor’s offices that said, “The day you were diagnosed, you became a survivor.” Even if I can’t choose my circumstances, I get to choose my story. And since I can’t hold up the banners of victory and victim at the same time… my battle cry is VICTORY!
6 – Focus on what you know. A cancer diagnosis comes with a lot of unknowns – unknowns that can stir up panic. Instead of focusing on all of the things you don’t know, focus on what you do know. I do know I live in a day and time where medical help is available. I do know I have family and friends who love me. I do know I’m alive today and I’ve got good things to contribute to the world. I do know God’s love for me is unwavering even if I don’t understand this part of my life. I do know where my beauty comes from and no cancer or scalpel or radiation or chemo can touch that sacred place within me. I do know I’m strong, I’m a fighter, and my life is worth fighting for.
7 – Anchor your hope in truth. I must anchor my hope in something that is certain. I can’t anchor my hope in all the things and people around me that can change in an instant. Truth from the Bible is unchanging so that’s where I’ve chosen to tie my hope to. There are three filters of truth through which I process all life events: God is good. God is good to me. God is good at being God. This is my starting place when looking at circumstances both wonderful and hurtful. These truths help me consider good things God might be doing, even with realities that don’t feel at all good. They bring me back to the goodness of God as the starting place for my continued trust in Him. These truths help settle my runaway fears and chaotic emotions when feelings beg me to question, “Why would you let this happen, God?!”
8 – Remember there is a difference between your news and your reality. My friend Shaunti Feldhahn taught me this. What the doctors have given you is news. Honest news based on test results and medical facts. However, your reality is something you get to determine. Cancer is a word on your medical chart, not your new identity. When I heard my doctors confirm my cancer, it felt so big like it might swallow me whole. But then I realized it was a word written beside my name but it didn’t suddenly become my name. This doesn’t change my identity, my dreams, or my destiny. This news is a detour not a destination. My reality is that I’m still the same person I was before I got this diagnosis, only slightly different, with a few more scars, and way stronger.
9 – Press in when you want to pull away. There will be days you question why this happening. There will be days you feel like you pulled the short straw and got a more rotten deal than other people. There will be days where you wonder if you’re asking too much of those around you. These are normal questions. But don’t let those questions cause you to pull away from people. You may not have answers but you can have comfort in the midst of it all. Keep positioning yourself where encouragement and help is. Welcome friends in. Go to church. Spend time with people who you feel better when they are around. Give your people honest, specific ways to pray for you. Memorize verses. And keep talking to God. None of this will change your diagnosis but it will elevate your perspective. A key to survival is to stay on top of this so it doesn’t sit on top of you.
10 – Celebrate and recalibrate. Before changes to your body occur due to surgery or other treatment options, make a point to celebrate what has been your body up until now. Then have another marked moment where you decide to recalibrate your thinking and embrace the new normal that’s coming. I chose a reconstructive surgeon with an incredible attitude who told me exactly where my scars would be and together we decided how I wanted to first see myself after surgery. He cared about what I cared about. And though I had some complications that made my outcome different than what I expected… I embraced even these differences. I am unique. And unique is gorgeous. Scars are not imperfections. They are heroic and holy survival stories waiting to be told!
Do you ever find yourself replaying and reliving the details of the deep hurt in your life? I understand. I’ve been there. And whether you’ve experienced pain through an event or a collection of hurt that built over time because someone wasn’t who they were...