By Sarah Emanual
I grew up in a loving, Christian home. My mom chose to follow Christ when I was pretty small, and my dad not too much later. I made the choice to follow Christ one night when I was about 4 or 5, mostly out of fear of not going to heaven. From the time that I was small, fear was a constant companion. It gave me nightmares, and it made me say no to a lot of things- out of fear of not fitting in, not being good enough or being made fun of.
In high school, I spent a year eating my lunch alone and hiding at a new school because I was afraid of sitting by myself in the lunchroom. I strived to follow Christ though, and my youth group became a huge part of my life. I was there every chance I got and became good friends with my youth leaders. My high involvement, and desire to follow Christ, soon gave me the title of ‘the perfect youth’. I took a couple years off of school after high school, working and volunteering in our church and denomination. But by the time I went to university I was ready to shake off some of that ‘perfect youth’ title. I had been living by this title and doing what everyone expected of me, afraid of letting my family and friends down. When I started university, I desired to figure out who I was apart from who everyone expected me to be. I still attended church, but I also made many poor choices as I struggled to figure this out. One day, as I was struggling between living for Christ, and living for the rest of the world, I felt God asking me to choose. Enough was enough, and it was time to stop this balancing act. I needed to make the choice between following Christ or following the world. In that moment I knew that the choice I needed to make was to follow God. He really was my everything, and I knew I could not live my life without Him.
That still did not erase all my fears, though. I still had many, and shortly after the birth of our second child I began to struggle with postpartum anxiety. My body experienced anxiety attacks, and my mind struggled with new fears. I kept trying to shake my fears, and give them to God, but they kept coming back to haunt me. Then a change started. I was on a girls’ trip with a couple of my best friends. We had taken a day to go on a mountain biking tour in the mountains of Oregon. One of the stops on the tour was a natural water ‘slide’ down a waterfall. That old familiar fear rose up. I didn’t want to take the risk and jump off the side to go into that waterfall. But in that moment, I began to question that fear. Was my decision to skip out on that experience based on the true desire not to go? Or was my decision to skip out based solely on being afraid to go? I was about to let fear dictate once again, and if I did, I would regret not going. So, I went. I slid down that waterfall and took the first step into letting go of my fears. That first step in giving them over to God.
Fears still haunted me, but I began the process of looking at them differently. The verses in Philippians 4 began to take on new meaning. “Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again- rejoice! …Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank Him for all He has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4, 6-7 NLT) With God, fear no longer had the same grip on my life as it had. It was still there, but it wasn’t the same.
In February 2016, I was faced with my biggest fear. For over six months I had experienced changes and pain. The doctors could not figure out what was the cause. As I was still nursing our youngest child at the time, one of my doctors brushed it all off at ‘nursing problems’ and strongly advised me to stop nursing my 6-month-old immediately, suggesting that as soon as I stopped all my problems would stop. I was not so convinced. Things kept getting worse and worse. Finally, I was sent for another routine ultrasound to try to figure out what was going on. On February 12th I first heard the words inflammatory carcinoma. I send out an urgent prayer request and I was filled with a peace that could only come from God. On February 15th, I learned that I had not only one, but two types of aggressive breast cancer. Over the course of the next 10 days, I would also learn that it had spread to multiple parts of my body, making my case Stage IV breast cancer. Things were looking very grim indeed. I was facing my worst fears- that of dying from cancer and leaving behind those I loved. In this time though, God was there in many different ways, one of those being through my oncologist who told us that “there is always hope.” I had my port placed and started heavy duty IV chemotherapy on February 26, 2016.
A couple of weeks into chemo I was sitting at home, alone on the morning of Palm Sunday, when my fears sent me spiralling. I hadn’t experienced an anxiety attack for a couple years, but I was headed into the worst one I had ever had. I asked my family and a couple of close friends to pray for me in that moment. I was so fearful that this would be the end. That cancer and chemo were it. I was chained to fear, a slave to it. I doubted God. I doubted that He was in control and had the final say. In those moments though, I knew I had to give all to Him, and let Him take care of it all. I was not strong enough to deal with this on my own. The fear that held me captive my whole life started to be stripped away. The chains were broken. God had control of the past, present and future. He was my hope.
Over the next few months I finished chemo and went on to surgery and radiation treatments. I started on a targeted therapy. I heard the words ‘no cure’ many, many times. And though I continued to struggle with fear getting its way back in, I felt God’s peace guarding my heart and mind. A year after I started chemo, I ran and finished the Disney Princess Half Marathon. Me, a self-proclaimed non-runner. This journey with cancer being a marathon, not a sprint. A year after I finished my last round of IV chemo, I was told that there was no evidence of active disease! Then, less than a month later, they found new disease. Surgery and radiation all over again, and areas of cancer we thought were gone, came back. My faith was being tested again and again. During this time, we also prepared for a big move. We had been living in Arkansas for four years, and were preparing to move back to BC. A big move, radiation treatments, changes in medical systems-—God carrying us through it all.
Shortly after our move, the doctors started to question whether or not the targeted and hormone therapies I was still on were working the best for me. So, we began changing and adjusting my medications. In amongst all of this, I continued to learn what it meant to rest in God and to thrive despite my circumstances. We homeschooled and lived daily life. Celebrating life two, then three years past diagnosis. Each day and year being a gift. Figuring out what it meant to live with cancer. Then, in September 2019, things really began to change. My body was not handling one of my medication changes well, and the spots in my liver that we had been monitoring carefully, began to grow more quickly than what my oral medication could take care of. My oncologist said the next step would be to go back on IV chemo. I had my first dose, and then things quickly went downhill. My body reacted to the chemotherapy badly. My liver numbers increased rapidly, and within a few days I was told my body was no longer strong enough to continue on with chemotherapy, or any kind of treatment. I was sent home with the news that I probably only had a couple weeks left. While we were deeply saddened over this, I was not fearful. I was at peace knowing that I would soon be with my Saviour and King. I was set up with home care, and friends and family quickly arranged travel to come say their goodbyes. I grew weaker and weaker. I could feel myself slipping away. Each time I fell asleep I wondered if that would be the time I would meet my Jesus face to face. And then things changed again. I started getting stronger, and reaching medical milestones we didn’t think were possible any more. And within just a few short days, my bloodwork levels began to look good enough to try chemotherapy again. There is no earthly explanation for this, though we’ve certainly tried to find it. We are still surprised and confused by all of it. The only One that is not surprised or confused is God. He knows, and He’s in control.
It’s been months now, and the fall all seems like some sort of dream. I’ve been able to go off of IV chemotherapy and have started on chemo pills. I feel stronger and have been able to do many things I did not think would be even possible a few short months ago. I can go for long walks instead of barely making it from my room to the front porch. I can climb the steps three floors to the chemotherapy unit at the hospital. I was able to go on a much-needed vacation with my husband to Mexico at the beginning of March, and I’m able to ride my bike up the hill in front of our house. We also got to celebrate another year of life on February 12th, making that four years since my diagnosis, despite all the odds being against such a milestone.
In October I was told I was going to die very soon, but strangely enough I was not fearful. I knew that I could trust God in ALL things. That He is in control. I was at peace. Does this mean all my fears are gone? No. Living with cancer, and this current world situation with COVID-19, has brought to surface many fears I thought were long gone. It’s not easy living in a world of ‘what ifs’. I’ve been struggling with doubt and fear a lot over the past few weeks. When I stop looking to God, and start looking at everything else, I start to lose sight of His promises, and start to let fear haunt me again. My battles with anxiety resurface. Then I remember the verse that comes after Philippians 4:4-8, “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:9 NLT) Fixing my mind on Christ, and on God’s Word. I don’t know what the future has. But, He does! He is in control, and He has already won! “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:8 NIV)
Larry and Sara Westnedge at Sara’s Induction service in Nelson, BC.
David Dawson and his family’s farewell from Emmanuel Baptist, Victoria.
This regional newsletter is published quarterly within the CBWC’s monthly newsletter, Making Connections. Have a story idea? Want to tell us how great we’re doing? Or how terribly? Email our senior writer, Jenna Hanger: email@example.com