Kathy and Dan Russ, married 38 years, faced Kathy’s cancer diagnosis together. Here they take turns reflecting on what they learned along the way--about marriage, community, and the strange beauty of scars.
In January 2007, after an exhilarating Christmas vacation, I walked in the door of our house and poked the answering machine button: “Please call the mammogram clinic; the doctor wants to talk to Kathleen about the results of the mammogram.” And so began my nine-month journey through the organized and competent world of breast cancer treatment, thanks to the billions of dollars poured into breast cancer research and the millions of women (and men) who went before me. Gone are the days of finding out you have breast cancer, getting surgery, and waking up with two breasts missing--the horror stories of old. But I didn’t know all that at the time. All I knew was panic.
A few weeks later I sat in my office at Hendrickson Publishers--a Christian publishing house--my whole body tense, waiting for the first oncologist to call to let me know whether or not my biopsy was normal. At that very moment Dan called and asked how I was feeling. I said I felt like that soldier from The Lady and the Tiger who had to pick which door; would it be the beautiful lady or the devouring tiger? Dan replied quietly, “Kathy, the same Person is behind each door.” The phone call came. It was cancer, and after a few more tests it would be bilateral breast cancer--cancer in both breasts. Dan’s phone call had reminded me there were two dimensions to my cancer treatment: the medical care and the care of the soul. I trusted the medical community, but I enlisted the Christian community for the care of my soul.
Dan and I told everyone we worked with what I was facing. I emailed all my friends and told the church, which put me on the prayer list. The praying ladies of Gordon College knit a prayer shawl for me. We received loving cards, flowers and emails from our children, old friends, the church and our neighbors. Dan’s students sent a card signed by every student in his class. Dan and I asked for prayer from our church’s healing prayer ministry, and we regularly went to healing prayer at the end of church services. Before my first consultation with the coordinating doctor, one of our pastors anointed us both with oil and prayed with Dan and me; after his prayer, I was truly filled with the peace that passes all understanding.
I had one friend in particular whom I asked to be my prayer guide through the cancer; I called her “Strider” after the great hero in the Lord of the Rings epic. I trusted my care to her because she had suffered greatly--abandoned by her “prominent, Christian” husband, going through a terrible divorce; she had, as a result, a godly character refined by fire. She took her calling as Strider very seriously as I knew she would, and wrote me regular emails that included a prayer specifically for what I was going through at that moment.
I also had a very practical friend, herself an advanced-stage breast cancer survivor, who advised me to shave my head as soon as my hair started to fall out, get some good makeup, and have Dan buy me a flashy gift once I finished! I obeyed her, too, and Dan bought gifts--flashy earrings--throughout my treatment.
During this long ordeal of walking through the valley of the shadow of death--for this side of Heaven death always has a shadow--Kathy gave me the gift of accompanying her on the journey. We talked, cried, laughed and prayed together. While I could not make the journey for her, it was a privilege to shave off our hair together, sit, talk and read during chemotherapy together, and take that 6:45 a.m. trip every morning to her radiation treatments. While she underwent these treatments, I sat in the lobby doing my devotions. Before we knew of Kathy’s cancer, I had committed to writing a book on the humanity of Jesus--Flesh-and-Blood Jesus: Learning to Be Fully Human from the Son of Man. I will never know the ways that accompanying her on her journey informed the content and tone of this book. But allow me to share one obvious example of her influence, taken from the chapter “Scarred for Life: The Stories Our Wounds Tell”:
Scars are crucial memorials that mark our crises and turning points. As I type these words on my computer, I look down at my 58-year-old hands, which are slowly revealing scars that I had forgotten: the inch-long scar in my left wrist with the pencil lead color still visible. In junior high I stuck my pencil in my pocket and forgot that it was there until later, when showing off in front of my friends. I jammed my hands in my jeans pockets, and out came my wrist with a #2 pencil dangling from it! (I will not even discuss the pencil wound from when Jimmy put a pencil under me as I sat down at my desk.) When I look in the mirror, my face reveals the scar on my lower lip from when I slipped on the ice and my tooth bit through my lip. Recently I recalled my appendicitis operation when I was 10 years old; my appendix burst as they were taking it out. I spent two weeks in the hospital while they fought the infection and two more weeks at home recovering.
The reason I recently recalled that surgery is that I am accompanying Kathy through the difficult journey of early-stage breast cancer, two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. As I have watched her face this harsh reality with authentic faith in Jesus and with her amazing sense of humor intact, I have recalled the other scars she has borne during our 37 years together: the emergency D&C after Marie’s birth, when she almost bled to death as I drove to the hospital at over 100 miles per hour; her car accident--which she still does not remember--when she was cut out of the car and care-flighted to the hospital, spending 11 days there followed by two months of recovery; her hysterectomy five years later; and now the cancer surgery. All of these make her beautiful body a living memorial to God’s faithfulness and an offering as a living sacrifice to God. Her scars participate in the love of Jesus and transform painful experiences into grace-filled memories and signs of hope.
I do not pretend to understand what it means that our Lord’s scars from his sacrifice on the cross remained on his resurrected body, I assume for eternity. But I know it implies that our resurrected bodies may very well reflect our scars, our stories. Perhaps in Heaven, like children, we will want others to see our “boo-boos” so we can tell the story of how each of us embody God’s grace and love.
DAN AND KATHY
We want to share a final reflection about our ongoing journey of trusting God through gifted medical professionals and the gift of praying and loving people. We accept both groups as gifts from the God who gave human beings both the scientific imagination and medical skills to participate in the healing of the body, and the faithful imagination and spiritual skills to care for both body and soul. While we can never repay those medical professionals who still attend to Kathy’s ongoing healing, what we discovered is that it was the Christian community that could help us see and believe the whole truth. While the medical community barely acknowledged the reality of God’s grace and presence, our pastors, prayer team, friends and family were daily thanking God for those whose medical skills and scientific education served as instruments of God’s healing power. Even as we have come to know and love the doctors and nurses who attend to Kathy’s health, walking into those clinics and offices still makes us a bit nervous, and we are happy to be told not to come back for six months. By contrast, walking into the church each week--even though we are reminded there almost weekly of sin and death as well as grace and eternal life--brings joy, peace and love. For the God who created us, the Savior who died for us, and the Holy Spirit who indwells, created all of reality, and God is behind every door.
Kathy and Dan Russ live in Danvers, Massachusetts. Kathy is an advertising and production associate at Hendrickson Publishers. Dan directs Gordon’s Center for Christian Studies and is the author of Flesh-and-Blood Jesus: Learning to Be
Fully Human from the Son of Man (Baker, 2008). dan.russgordon.edu