How Cancer Taught Me to Pray

My mom was told she had breast cancer five years ago. Actually, I was told, because I answered her phone and told the nurse on the other end that I was my mother. My mom was not fond of this idea when I first suggested it several days prior, but I couldn’t stand the thought of her hearing such a terrifying diagnosis from a stranger. She finally realized that she wasn’t going to change my mind.

We had hoped for a weekend after her biopsy that we would hear instead that she had an infection. We would treat it, and move on. This kind of thing didn’t happen in my family. My brother and his wife had just separated. My husband’s grandmother had just died. That was enough, right? I was sure that things had to start balancing out all of the heartache we were already feeling. But I was wrong, and I heard the word “cancer” on the other end of the phone. I tried so hard to stay composed. I just wanted to ask questions, every question imaginable, to be able to get off the phone and give my mom some sort of hope.

I was still on the phone when my mother realized what I was learning about her fate and her future. Her broken heart broke mine too. An hour later we were in her doctor’s office, making plans to save her life by almost killing her with chemotherapy.

I have spent this anniversary tied up in knots, uncertain what to expect. I remember so many times with my mom talking about how important the five year cancer survivor mark was. At her second year with no recurrences, it began to seem attainable. I wish I had spent this time celebrating with her. I wish for a lot of things.

What I know is that I need this anniversary to be one that is not just a reminder of sadness and disappointment. There are so many heartbreaking days to remember in the last five years as it pertains to my mom, her cancer, and her death. It is not what I want this day to be about. I wish more than anything that she had never gotten cancer. But it taught me lessons. It changed me, and my family, permanently.

There was a moment, before my mom’s diagnosis, that I realized how I had never really prayed “the right way.” I caught myself praying, after her biopsy, that she didn’t have cancer. I begged and pleaded with God for anything else. But in that moment, it occurred to me that my pleading didn’t matter. Not because God wasn’t listening, but because He isn’t a magician that waves a wand and changes our reality. That’s not how it works.

So I stopped, and I prayed for something different. I prayed to be prepared for whatever was coming. I prayed for the right doctors, and nurses, to do whatever they could to save her if it came to that. I prayed to be who and what my mom needed. I didn’t really know what else to do. I think those are the moments we hear Him best.

I had conversations with my mom that are priceless to me. I would have never had them had I not feared losing her. Those conversations have given me peace since she left. I can’t say my mom’s cancer was a blessing. It wasn’t. But the lessons I have learned and am still learning are blessings. The times I took care of her throughout her illness were priceless, though they felt in the moment like my heart couldn’t possibly handle them.

The anniversary of my mother’s cancer diagnosis is no longer a day to celebrate survival. And ultimately, it is not a day to mourn. I think it is this for me now — I learned to pray when my mother got cancer. I learned how to love more deeply. My mom’s favorite song was “Shower the People” by James Taylor. She loved it because it’s about not missing a chance to unabashedly let the people you love know just how much you love them. To say it, out loud, for their sake, and for your own. She raised me on that idea, and it turned out to be invaluable when I feared I’d lose her.

And I pray differently now. Prayer is not to change the outcome. It is to change ourselves. To make our eyes and ears and hearts open to what God intends, even when we don’t understand. I pray now to be ready for what is coming, and to trust God better, which I’ll admit has been hard for the last five years. I’m still working on it. Thankfully, I think He’ll be patient with me.


5 thoughts on “How Cancer Taught Me to Pray

  1. Incredible Hannah. I am humbled and taught by your words. I love you so much and am so thankful for you. Your wisdom astounds me and honors God. And yes He will be patient with you, but I don’t think it will need to be for long. He has given you a gift, a healing gift, and I pray the healing will come soon. Keep writing! Always!

  2. Dear Hannah, I have not read something that makes such sense while touching my heart so deeply. My dear you are wise beyond your years! Thank you for teaching me to pray for being prepared on how to handle what comes my way. Meanwhile I need to have my eyes, ears and heart more open to hear God’s words. Thank you for your wisedom that came to you on the most difficult of ways but has not stopped you from sharing with others. You are an amazing woman. God bless you and your family.

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