Journeying the Unknown
Facing a troubling future with Jesus.
by Kathleen M. Barrett
My recent diagnosis of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) has been an exercise of greater faith regarding my health. But that’s not the only challenge. I’m also caring for my husband, Dennis, in the mid-stage of dementia.
When I consider what is ahead and how to navigate it all, my pillow is often wet in the silence of the evening. However, God grew me and knew me in my mother’s womb. How could He not know what my condition would be in the seventh decade of my life?
It all began with itching arms. I awakened during the night and scratched my forearms. In the next few weeks, the sensation moved to the back of my neck.
My dermatologist prescribed an arsenal of creams and gels, but to no avail. The demon of annoyance persisted for another couple of months. I learned to live with more restless nights.
I face an added stressor. Out of love and concern for Dennis’ mental well-being, I am careful not to share details of my diagnosis with him. Scheduling medical appointments for myself and him simultaneously must be handled with more attention.
More recently, having the strength to get up in the morning to nourish my body with the protein it craves is a new chapter in my faith walk. However, for the sake of Jesus, I am honored to embrace this part of my journey. Honored, but a little afraid.
In the meantime, my love for the craft of writing increased. More opportunities to write came my way. Spiritual and emotional growth held me pleasantly captive. Jesus, my rock, anchor, and joy, was doing a new thing in me. I was to forget the former things in my life.
But how could I? Red, itchy patches now decorated my upper torso as well.
I saw the nurse practitioner at my primary care doctor’s office. Her solution didn’t work either – a course of famotidine to balance stomach acids, and an antihistamine.
I began to feel like a guinea pig. Then that ugly Oh no! thought popped up. What if this persistent itching is associated with cancer?
I pushed the thought away and scheduled another dermatologist appointment. A skin biopsy was taken, a cortisone injection given, and blood work ordered. Hives were eventually diagnosed. “But the root cause?” I asked.
“I’m not running a bunch of tests and going on a witch hunt,” the doctor replied. He increased antihistamines, morning and evening doses, symptoms or not. As a result, I cried irrationally or slept all day.
He wasn’t going on a witch hunt, but I would.
Jumping on the Internet, I typed in cancer/itching. Sure enough, there was the rare symptom of itching related to cancer.
The Holy Spirit was directing my steps, not in fear but in resolve. Next, I researched my blood work on MyChart. As I perused the lab results, my white blood count, absolute lymphocyte count, and monocyte count had steadily increased over the past four years.
I didn’t know exactly what this could mean, but I knew enough. My counts were out of range. How did my doctor overlook this fact?
At the time, I was taking online college courses for an associate degree. Had I taken on too much? But that couldn’t be possible, because the itching began almost a year before.
I scheduled an appointment with my primary care doctor to discuss my blood work findings. I welled up in tears when I began explaining my results. After eleven months, the heebie-jeebies were now popping up on my shoulders, back, and midriff.
I was irritated and hurt when my doctor advised me to calm down. She finally conceded, “Yes, there is leukemia that presents with itching. I will refer you to an oncologist.”
Is this just me? I wondered. Have I become a Nervous Nancy, a hypochondriac, delusional?
I’ve been told by a few in the medical profession that my diagnosis of CLL is the best kind to have. Why do those words not console me?
Because they remind me that this is not my first challenging season. Four months after my husband and I said our wedding vows (in sickness and in health) 53 years prior, a construction project went haywire. My husband plummeted five stories from a twelve-story condo building onto a pile of cement blocks. Our honeymoon year began with my nursing him back to health.
With so many unanswered questions and swirling emotions, it helps me to reflect on the proximity of Jesus — that He’s much closer than I think He is.
On the road to Emmaus, He suddenly appeared and walked and talked with two men who had witnessed His trial and crucifixion. Bewildered and saddened, they surmised that Jesus was a visitor in their city and thus had no idea of the tragedy they had seen. They grieved.
I can relate. Jesus isn’t a bystander or a heartless acquaintance, a visitor who doesn’t acknowledge my grief. He shows up and walks with me.
I have refrained from asking, “Why me? Why now? What next?”
Why shouldn’t it be me? Suffering happens now because God knows when I can best embrace His grace for the journey. What comes next is in God’s plan with my life in His hands.
Walking in courage
I know God does not bring about suffering to His children. But in a most profound empathy, He allows it. I have learned to walk out my personal Via Delarosa’s with surrendered courage, like Jesus, leading me closer to a kingdom free of suffering.
Throughout other unwelcomed events, I realize that I have been on a path of spiritual and emotional growth. This present health concern may be my last.
With that profound thought planted in my mind, I desire to finish healthy — in my marriage, with my sweet family of eleven, in my work life, in my closest friendships, and in my church.
I lean into the strength of Jesus in this regard, recalling His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39, NIV).
Over decades, a more Christlike character has become a worthy personal goal. I now find that I am better equipped to face tomorrow. If Christ Jesus endured the onslaught of the world’s sin, why shouldn’t I expect to experience “light and momentary” troubles, as the apostle Paul spoke of (2 Corinthians 4:17)?
I also love the perspective Paul gives: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
I researched a little more into why my kind of CLL is the best kind to have. I have the B-cell version, slow-moving instead of the aggressive T-cell. And although a more recent PET scan shows suspicious cells on my spleen, which my oncologist will monitor, I have no evidence of swollen lymph nodes.
I can only point to the Divine Physician, who heard me whisper at bedtime in the early weeks of my diagnosis, “Thank You, Jesus, for healing my body.” To the extent that He has healed me, and for whatever my or my husband’s health future may hold, I desire to finish well, acknowledging that God’s presence is genuine on my Emmaus Road. He will let His presence be known at the moment I need it most.