What Cancer Cannot Do

Why did I get Cancer?

After I was diagnosed with cancer, I had no idea why I had got the disease. The interesting thing I soon discovered that everyone else seemed to know. They showered me with suggestions on how to fight it, ways to improve my health, and above all, why I had it in the first place. And it all seemed to be my fault!

I became so overwhelmed by all the free advice and not-so-free treatment suggestions I didn’t know where to start. As I read about the disease, I learned that the cancer cells were actually weak and confused – not at all the giant enemy I had visualised.

I soon decided, “It’s not a case of what caused my cancer, but rather how am I going to deal with it.”

It's not a case of what caused my cancer, but rather how am I going to deal with it. Click To Tweet

How will I deal with it?

Perhaps the cruelest advice I received, at intervals throughout that terrible year, was the best intended.

“Shirley, put your trust in the Lord!”

The words TRUST THE LORD can cause hurt in the person who IS trusting the Lord. We need to watch our words. Click To Tweet

I am a committed Christian, so why do I say this was cruel?

It implied to my over-sensitive mind that people thought I wasn’t trusting Him. It made me feel that perhaps, if I really had faith, I would not subject my body to all this treatment. Is my faith at fault? I often wondered.

Trusting the Lord

One day when I was reading my Bible, I came to the well-known twenty-third Psalm.

Next time someone asked me about why I didn’t stop treatment and trust the Lord, I opened to that passage.

“David says ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,'” I read. “‘For thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.1‘” I pointed to the verse so my friend could read with me. “Lynne, where will I find the rod and the staff?”

“In the valley of the shadow of death?” she read the words slowly, doubt creeping into her voice.

Thy rod and staff they comfort me. And where are they found? In the valley. Click To Tweet

I nodded. “I have no idea why the Lord wants me to go through this valley,” I said. “Nor do I understand why He needs me to pick up a rod and a staff. But, Lynne, I trusted Him with my life many years ago, and there is no going back. He wants me to go through the valley and collect the rod and staff. Then He will comfort me. He will go with me.”

I hoped I appeared more confident than I felt, yet I knew that what I said was true. I had to keep my eyes on the Lord. Then I received these beautiful words from my daughter’s mother-in-law.

I remembered those weak, confused cells my doctor had described to me. They were indeed so limited.

Yes, the war against cancer was beginning to hot up, but I had a wonderful family, many dear friends, and a countless army of prayer warriors throughout, not only South Africa, but overseas as well. Most important, I had the Lord on my side. The enemy might appear threatening, but “Greater is he that is in (me) than he that is in the world.”I drew a deep breath, and prepared to move into the unknown.

Cancer is so limited. It is made up of weak, confused cells. See a list of things it can't do. Click To Tweet

[1] Psalm 23 verse 4
[2]  1 John 4 verse 4

World War III Weapons

This entry is part 20 of the series Victory in the Valley

Start at the beginning of the story

Now read on . . .

Surgeon taking notes

Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

World War III entrance exam

Toward the end of our session together, Dr. Meiring took me through to his examination room, and for the first time examined my breasts. He prodded and poked with big warm hands on my extremely tender breasts. I think he probably tried to be gentle, but my right breast was extremely painful. The scarred tissue at the site of the tumor bed was still raw and my breast felt bruised.

Each time he probed with his fingers I wanted to cry out. Then came the moment I was dreading. He asked me to put my left arm over my head.

“I can’t do it completely yet.” I searched his eyes anxiously. “Every day I get a bit further. I am really working hard at it.”

Dr. Meiring stepped back from the bed with an expression of annoyance on his face.

“That’s no good!” he exclaimed in disgust. “We can’t start yet. Make an appointment for next week, and get that arm up by then.”

Failed exam

Before chemotherapy commenced, I had to deal with radiotherapy. And I had to get my arm up over my head. I saw why the physiotherapist hated me having my arm in a sling. 

Why do some surgeons make their patients wear an arm sling after breast surgery? Click To Tweet

One step at a time! I can do this,” I chanted to myself aswhen I got dressed.

He told us to go home via his rooms at home and collect a supply of Tamoxifen so I could at least start that part of my treatment. “Remember,” he told me again. We’re fighting World War III here. I have no time for World War II weapons. So get that arm up!”

Rob phoned a friend, Flip, who worked in central Johannesburg, and asked him if he would please go via Dr. Meiring’s rooms and pick up the tablets, so he could take me straight back to our house.

I battled tears all the way home. I had failed. Now I would probably die because I couldn’t start treatment yet. I had let Dr. Meiring down before we’d even started. I knew I could do no more. I felt discouraged and incompetent.

“I’m never going to be able to do this in one week,” I moaned tearfully at Rob, returning to my position in front of the wooden door.

That evening Flip arrived with his wife Karen and brought the tablets for me. There were other visitors there too, and a buzz of conversation filled the lounge. 

Meeting God?

I was still somewhat subdued from the disappointment of the afternoon when I overheard Flip saying enthusiastically, “I just walked into the room and it felt as if I’d come face to face with God!”

My eyebrows shot up in astonishment. I hadn’t been following his conversation.

“Oh? Who was this?”  I had never known Flip to gush about anyone before.

“Your doctor that’s who!” he exclaimed. “You can just see God’s love shining through his eyes!”

“You can?”

“Yes you can. Shirl, this has to be the right man for you. I am quite sure of this.”

So everyone was sure. Except me. I felt as if I was facing World War III with only a sling shot in my hands. 

I remembered a joke I had just read in Sue Buchanan’s book, Love, Laughter & a High Disregard for Statistics.

There was a lawyer standing in the queue outside the gates of heaven. He noticed a certain doctor walking right past everyone, nodding at Saint Peter as he entered heaven. The lawyer felt this was wrong, so he complained to Saint Peter.

“Who does that doctor think he is, going to the front of the line and walking right in?”

“That’s not a doctor,” Saint Peter replied. “That’s God. Sometimes He likes to play doctor.”

A week later we phoned to confirm the time of appointment for my first radiotherapy session at the Oncology Unit of the Rand Clinic in central Johannesburg. I could get my arm over my head . . . just. The war was about to begin in earnest.

Please leave a comment, and if you leave a live URL in your comment, I’ll get back to you.

These events occurred between 17 and 20 years ago. I have tried to recreate events and locations as accurately as possible, but in order to maintain their anonymity, in some instances I have changed the names and identifying characteristics of individuals and places.

Decisions about Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy

This entry is part 19 of the series Victory in the Valley

Start at the beginning of the story

Now read on . . .

When my youngest, David, came home, he came straight to the point, with the impulsiveness of youth.

“He’s a Christian. You like him. Dad thinks he’s the right guy. This is the right man!”

His elder brother Stephen responded gently. “Mum it’s your decision. We only want what is best for you. But he sounds good to me.”

Why am I not convinced? I was still uneasy. His practice is so small – why? I like the man. Lord, he’s one of your children; and yet …?”

Eventually after much agonizing, I concluded that I would probably not be happy with any other Oncologist either. I was launching into a totally unknown area. I didn’t know enough about the subject to make an informed decision. My husband was sure. I decided to be guided by my family, and nervously agreed to return to Dr. Meiring the next day.

Drive to Johannesburg

The following morning, we made the one-hour trip through heavy city traffic, to the smart new private hospital in the center of Johannesburg. As we walked into Dr. Meiring’s other consulting rooms on the third floor of the impressive new hospital, I felt much more at ease. In some strange way, this felt more like a “proper doctor.” Little did I know that within two months he would close these rooms, and move exclusively to working from home.

“I have spoken to three colleagues,” he eventually said, having spent the past half hour talking “Church” with my husband. Why do I resent this? I wanted to get on with the matter at hand. After all—I was the patient. The sooner he dealt with me, the sooner we could get out of this room. 

He meticulously wrote out for me, in a beautiful script, the three options of chemotherapy that the other oncologists had suggested. As I was to learn, no two oncologists ever seem to see things quite the same way. Dr. Meiring presented me with three possible chemotherapy regimes. Well really, it was four. He took some things from each suggestion, altered one of the drugs completely, and then doubled the recommended period of chemotherapy.

“This is not the traditional treatment.” I can see that! “But I believe it is the best possible treatment for you.” He explained that he believed I needed an entire year’s chemotherapy, divided into two full courses of six months each.

More than I wanted to know

The one course of chemotherapy comprised of the drugs Carboplatin and Navelbine, both drugs not normally given for primary breast cancer. The second  would be made up of CMF – a combination of Cycloblastin, Methotrexate. and 5 Fluorouracil.  He elected to give me Methotrexate in place of the more usual because of my history of Rheumatic Fever, as he said it could aggravate my heart damage.

When I indignantly told him my heart was just fine, he retorted, “No it’s not. You take medication for arrhythmia. There is something there. The medical profession just hasn’t found it. But I don’t want us to find it during chemotherapy.”

I couldn’t think of a suitable answer so wisely kept quiet.

“The Carboplatin regime will definitely cause your hair to fall out,” he continued cheerfully. “But not to worry—it will grow back better than ever. Sometimes it even comes back another color.” 

The choice I didn’t want

All my life I had complained about my deep auburn hair. I had never appreciated being a ‘red-head’. Suddenly I liked my hair very much, and I really didn’t want to lose it.

“The CMF might not take your hair out,” he continued, “but it will make you very nauseous. We will obviously give you something to counteract this, but you could still have some unpleasant effects to cope with.”

He leaned back in his chair. “First we need to get the radiotherapy behind us, then we will decide which formula we will use first. You can think about this.”

Whoopee! What a choice. Do you want to lose your hair first, then get sick? Or would you prefer to get sick first—then lose your hair? It didn’t seem like much of an option to me.


In addition to the radiotherapy and chemotherapy he also prescribed Tamoxifen tablets daily. Initially he said this would be for twenty years. Later he changed it to “at least five.”

Tamoxifen is an anti-estrogen, which is normally prescribed to people whose tumor have a positive estrogen receptor. In other words, starve the cancer cells of estrogen and they will die.

Goliath however had been estrogen and progesterone negative, meaning that removing estrogen would not have any effect on it. However this was the one thing which all the consulted Oncologists agreed upon. I should take Tamoxifen, as a prophylactic measure, to discourage the growth of an estrogen positive tumor in the other breast.

I found it unnerving, to say the least, to read in the tablet’s insert that under no circumstances should this be used in the case of an estrogen negative tumor. Many times during my treatment I queried this with the ever-patient Dr. Meiring. Each time, he would reach for his big blue Oncology text book and make me read for myself what the latest research said.

Next on the agenda was radiotherapy which absolutely terrified me. As a student nurse I had cared for patients with horrific burns from this practice. Even though Dr. Meiring assured me this should not happen in my case, I remained unconvinced. Meantime, I faced an impossible decision. Really, which chemotherapy regime did I want first? Did I want to lose my hair first? Or did I want to get sick? How about I didn’t have it at all?

Have you ever faced an Impossible Choice?

Which of the two would you choose to have first?

Please leave a comment, and if you leave a live URL in your comment, I’ll get back to you.

These events occurred between 17 and 20 years ago. I have tried to recreate events and locations as accurately as possible, but in order to maintain their anonymity, in some instances I have changed the names and identifying characteristics of individuals and places.