“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!
I’m surprised by how far I’ve come.
Two years of healing. Two years of focusing on my own health. Two years of learning how to sit in the quiet with myself and be OK. Two years of believing God for good even when things felt not good at all. Two years of going home to an empty house and counting the...
Hearing you have cancer is never easy. I know I’m a survivor of 30 years and you will be too. Your list will get you through as well as family friends and a good support group Hang in there. God be with you
Lysa, thank you for your encouragement. I have been diagnosed with brain cancer and I believe these steps apply perfectly to my situation as well.
These steps could be applied to just about any life situation that might occur. Thank you for writing this survival tool.
Thank you Lysa for sharing that. My wife has been battling kidney cancer for 15 years now. She has lost a kidney, two-thirds of her pancreas, part of her liver, duodenum, stomach and lost her gall bladder. God keeps us both lifted up and has His arms around us but I know, at times, that her mind wonders in places that are not good. Usually it is in the middle of the night when Satan can get her attention. She still has cancer on her remaining part of her pancreas which is treated with daily oral chemo. She actually is a miracle of God and such a beautiful person and an amazing wife and mother. Please remember her in your prayers. Her name is Virginia. Thank you!
Thank you for your encouraging words, especially your article from last week on trust.
Sixteen months ago I had surgery for tongue cancer which was quite unusual as I was a non smoker and a non drinker. But God has been so good to me, and I am cancer free today. He has a plan for my life and I only need to keep trusting in Him, and in His words. May He richly bless and keep you today. Thrivers as well as survivors!
Thank you, Lysa. Your words are a strong echo of my own experience with breast cancer. It has changed me in ways I never could have dreamed. This article will be shared far and wide to encourage many others who are facing similar circumstances.
This is an awesome and encouraging post, Lysa. Thank you sincerely for what you do day-in day-out to encourage women and focus us on God’s wonderful, amazing truth. Hard yes, but wonderful. May our loving Father bless you and yours.
This post came on the same day a 32 year old family member is starting her chemo treatment for breast cancer. She has two very young boys at home and a husband in the military. Thankfully, we have a big family to love and support her. It was all in God’s providence that your words were in by in-box. Thank you for sharing!
This was a great post. We’re not going through BrCa but yet another pregnancy loss. While not 100% applicable, this fit pretty well for losing a baby as well. Thank you for having such comforting words when my heart is aching.
Lysa, the timing… God’s timing. While I know this article can help lots of people, it was like God reached out to you and had you write it specifically for me. I was diagnosed with breast cancer the very day you posted this article. It’s a complete shock – no family history, no risk factors, and very healthy lifestyle. Yet, here I am! I will take your words to heart as I navigate the road ahead. Thank you and God bless you. I am shaken but not moved, as I stand on the firm foundation of my healer and promise keeper.
Thinking of you, I am almost a year out of my diagnosis at 39 and I also had a very healthy lifestyle and no family history. It is getting easier day by day, but still have some hard days. You will get through this again, and this list is going to be a great asset.
Let me add my gratitude for this post, Lysa. It’s been 5 months since my diagnosis. Double mastectomy on 8/7 and now on Round #3 of 8 for chemo. Most days, I trust God but I need recalibrating often. This was a great reminder for me!
I have a scar from bypass surgery…and this helped me put it in perspective as survivor tool! All of these comments were so inspiring. God bless ladies!
Thank You Lysa for this invaluable tool for surviving with a winning attitude through your battles with Cancer.I just discovered a good old time friend has Cancer. As her friend i have offered to be practical in getting her the right help.Today, she is going for her first ever Oncology review after the devastating diagnosis a week ago.Iam amazed at how God is near to the broken hear-ted and is A true help in time of trouble.
Though the waters are unknown uncharted and fearful Iam so blessed that your tips to staying on top of the situation has never come at a better time than this.
Thank you for your willingness and obedience to share your story with us
Thank you, Lysa for these inspiring words. I think the hardest part here is acknowledging your feelings and that is why it is on your number 1 in the list. Most of the people who have cancer always had this smile and behind those smiles are emptiness the mixed emotions that you had to deal with every single day and you are right feelings are indicators, not dictators not letting your perspective in life be tainted by your own feelings.
Hello, thank you so much for all that you do. And for the very encouraging message to give myself wisdom, peace and strength to move forward and only focus on things that really matters on God’s eyes. And in only God’s way, is what really matters. Please pray for my family who are affected by the recent earthquake. Thank you so much and God bless.
Hello Lisa.. I hope this meets you in good faith…
I just finished your brief devotional on Youversion
Bible app name trust worthy.. and I must tell you it broke me to self thought.. recently I have been going through some academic crises at the moment. I have done some things I am ashamed of .. thank God for you… I really hope to hear from you personally someday in this to share this experience with you and the testimony I look forward to celebrating soon .
God bless you for being a vessel…
I loved it when you cited the sign in your office that said you are a survivor and that you said you get to choose your story. One of my close friends from high school was just diagnosed with breast cancer and doesn’t know what to do from here. I am going to visit her today and will pass on these words and see if she can find a good breast cancer treatment center.
This can be applied to so many things in life, not just a cancer diagnoses….. Life in general is all about scars. And, where there is scars, there has been pain & suffering in one form or another. Thanks for sharing!