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How I survived my first Christmas as a cancer patient

12.04.17 | Inspirational | by Beth Stavinoha

How I survived my first Christmas as a cancer patient

    Everything was different. But what could have been a Christmas filled with self-pity due to recent events, was not. Quite the contrary, I experienced a level of gratitude that day I never had before. I felt closer to my Savior than ever before. I was in awe of the gift of life that so often we take for granted, until we are faced with our own mortality.

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    Four years ago, I was preparing for a Christmas like none I had ever experienced.  

    I had just finished eight rounds of chemo for breast cancer, undergone a major surgery and would have my final surgery the week after Christmas.  It was also the first Christmas I would spend without my 13-year old twin girls.  

    Never, ever, did I expect to be alone at Christmas, much less recovering from treatment for cancer at the age of 46. I had no idea how this holiday would play out, but I did know that I was determined. Determined to create a home filled with joy and anticipation for Christmas Day and normalcy for my daughters. Determined not to let recent events cloud what is the most wonderful day of the year. Determined to feel grateful and express that gratitude to my Savior. Just like I was determined to beat cancer, I was determined to find my Christmas mug half full, not half empty… and definitely not bone dry!

    My sweet parents in Tennessee called and asked if, since I would be without my girls at Christmas for the first time, I would like for the three of us to go to New York City. I jumped at the chance! I didn’t know what it would be like to wake up in a hotel room on Christmas morning; I’d always been at home. But I did know getting out of town was an excellent idea.

    Looking back, no one could have prepared me for how my heart and mind would feel on that Christmas Day in 2013. Certainly not me.

    Christmas morning I woke up in the hotel with Mom and Dad and saw that they were still sleeping. I rolled over, began to stare at the ceiling and found myself getting teary-eyed. They had worked so hard to plan the perfect trip, with Dad spending a great amount of time researching restaurants, shows and everything else New York had to offer. I was overwhelmed with their generosity and love. I lay in that bed and began to pray.

    I thanked God for my cancer, which had brought me so close to him. I thanked God for sending us Jesus, without whom we would have no salvation, much less Christmas Day. I thanked God for my blessings, like a job, health care, and a small-but-perfect condo the girls and I shared.  I just thanked God. I knew how blessed I was, and I was ready to get up and celebrate the day at church and with my parents.

    We went to the early service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was as beautiful as I anticipated. We sat down, and I found myself next to a gentleman who was alone. It breaks my heart to see people alone at Christmas. When it was time to stand and greet the person next to you, he and I began to visit, and he told me he traveled hours every Christmas morning just to attend this service because it was where he and his wife worshiped when they lived in the city until her passing. Now, he came alone. She had passed from breast cancer.  

    Hearing that took my breath away. My eyes filled with tears as I listened to him talk about her. Then I said, “I think God sat us next to each other on purpose. I am finishing up my treatment for breast cancer right now. I understand how difficult cancer can be.”  

    He looked as emotional as I felt, and I knew immediately, just as it is with each cancer patient or spouse of a patient I meet, that we shared a very special bond.

    It was a Christmas laced with change; there was no staying up late to prepare for Christmas morning. I did not wake up with my family in our PJs and open gifts or eat our traditional Christmas breakfast. My parents and I chose not to exchange presents that day, but to wait until we were with the girls.

    Everything was different. But what could have been a Christmas filled with self-pity due to recent events, was not. Quite the contrary, I experienced a level of gratitude that day I never had before. I felt closer to my Savior than ever before. I was in awe of the gift of life that so often we take for granted until we are faced with our own mortality.

    As we left the church, the gentleman I’d sat next to hooked arms with me, and we walked out of the sanctuary together, talking and smiling. He shared some more about his late wife, and as we neared the doorway, he turned to me, and I noticed a peace about him that I had not noticed before. I felt it as well. He thanked me for talking with him, for sharing, and said he would pray for me and my recovery. I thanked him and wished him a Merry Christmas. I knew I’d never forget this day, this encounter.

    Obviously, to this day, I have not. Looking back, I know God intended it that way.  

    He sat the two of us next to one another with great intention. Corinthians 1:3-4 says, “Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”  

    I think of this gentleman every year about this time and wonder if he remembers me. I wonder if our encounter stayed with him the way it has stayed with me. I wonder if he will be at St. Patrick’s Cathedral this Christmas. And secretly, I sometimes wonder if he was just an angel sent by God on that holiest of mornings.

    Often, I speak with cancer patients that are struggling to make it through each day, much less the holidays.

    My advice is always the same: let God handle this for you. Drop to your knees, pray all that is on your heart and mind, and then (as best you can) let it go and allow Him to fill your Christmas mug. Sometimes it is when we are the most vulnerable that God is able to do His best work.  

    I could never open a gift on Christmas again and not miss that part of the pageantry. The intimate experience I had with God on that particular day in 2013 taught me that only He can fill our hearts, our emptiness, wipe away our tears and fears, and do what I thought was the impossible—make the seasons we are most afraid to go through the very seasons that can impact our lives immeasurably.

    Praise God for teaching me how big He is when I feel so small. I look forward to His next lesson of dependency and gratitude. I also know that no matter the fear, no matter the pain, no matter the struggle, He is sovereign. May your holiday season be as raw, sweet, beautiful, blessed and full of deep joy as mine was that year.  

    May your Christmas mug overflow with gratitude.

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