Nearly 20 years after Patricia and I were married, we faced the biggest challenge of our lives when she discovered a lump in one breast. We were just finishing a six-city speaking tour in Scotland— and rushed back home to Portland, Oregon. Yes, there was a problem. A biopsy was necessary. Then came the doctor’s verdict.
For a moment we sat in stunned silence, trying to block out his awful words. “The tumor is malignant and radical surgery must be performed immediately. We can’t delay.” Surgery was scheduled for the following Monday.
Pat had cancer.
When we got back to the house, I headed to my office in the basement. Somehow I had to come to grips with this terrible blow, I told myself. But a hundred emotions welled up inside me, and I began to weep. This was the sort of thing that happens to other people, but not to my wife. Not to Pat.
My thoughts were instantly interrupted by the strains of a familiar old hymn. Where was it coming from? Our four boys were all at school. No one was in the house except Pat and me.
Slowly it dawned on me—Pat herself was playing the piano and singing, “How Firm a Foundation.” As the bottom was falling out of our lives, the Lord reminded us both how desperately we needed to base our security and strength in Him alone.
No one in this life is exempt from struggles, heartaches, and difficulties, of course. I’d known that since I was a boy. My own mother had been widowed at age thirty-five. That she was even able to keep our family together was a miracle. I was reminded, God will see us through these deep waters, too.
After I broke the news to our four boys, there was a long moment of silence. Then my youngest son, Steve, who was only eleven years old at the time, blurted out, “But, Daddy, people die from cancer!”
“That’s true, but we believe God is going to make Mommy better again. She won’t be feeling very well for a long time, so that will mean some changes around here, for all of us. You guys are going to have to not only learn to take care of yourselves, but also to help Mommy every way you can.”
While Pat was recuperating at home after surgery, we carefully reviewed all our well-laid plans. Everything was up for grabs. Pat didn’t want me to cancel a huge speaking engagement in Los Angeles, but I was torn up inside. I ended up taking the two youngest boys with me on my next trip. They were used to traveling with me from time to time. It turned out to be a good decision, one that helped ease the turbulent feelings we all were experiencing. Yes, Mommy was sick. But we would take good care of her while she tried to get better.
Pat started chemotherapy treatment, at first every week, then every other week when she got too sick. We knew the current statistics of survival rates and all the rest. But we refused to play the “What if?” game. Pat’s life was in God’s hands. We also refused to give in to blasphemy. We dared not shake our fist in God’s face, no matter what so-called experts said about “the need to vent your feelings.” Third, we refused to second-guess the medical treatment she was receiving. Her doctor knew what he was doing.
You wouldn’t believe the amount of free advice people dished out to us. I waylaid most of the least helpful articles and books that arrived in the mail to spare Pat the grief of tossing them herself. At one point I had to tell someone, “Look, lady, you can cut people’s hair, but you are not going to give us medical advice!” That was the last thing Pat needed at that point.
What she did need and so appreciated were the calls and visits of friends who listened and shared an appropriate verse of Scripture with Pat. Jeremiah 29:11 became a favorite:
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
When Andrew, Steve, and I got back from Los Angeles, Pat and I talked again about my schedule. Hard decisions had to be made. That included canceling a trip in June to an international conference where I was scheduled to give a major address. Instead, after conferring with my colleagues, I decided to take the next year to focus more on media opportunities close to home.
The next year I did accept a speaking engagement in San Diego. It was delightful to have Pat join me. She spoke one morning to a group of 2,000 women about her struggles with cancer and the need to trust Jesus Christ to stand strong through life’s storms. I didn’t keep it a secret how much I admired her strength and endurance the past fourteen months despite repeated periods of weariness, sickness, discomfort, and pain.
Our two oldest sons, Kevin and Keith, flew out of the nest that fall, for their first semester at college. They returned home for the holidays a few days after a bone scan revealed Pat had no signs of cancer anywhere. We celebrated Christmas and New Year’s in a big way. We were all back together again. And Pat’s cancer was gone!
As a family, we couldn’t thank the Lord enough for sparing Pat’s life. In my heart, I also thanked God for using that time of adversity to give Pat a wider platform for ministry. Suddenly, editors were asking her for articles. She started receiving many more invitations to speak at women’s conferences and other events. With our four sons getting older, the timing couldn’t have been better.
Twenty years later, Pat and I occasion think back on those heart wrenching days while she battled cancer. The truth of Jeremiah 29:11 is more real to us than ever. We praise God for truly giving us a hope and a future.