“Living in the Shadow of Death,” Ensign, Sept. 2006, 27–31
“Your cancer has returned.” I was shocked at my oncologist’s words. It had been almost six years since I had had surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer, which had been discovered during a routine mammogram. Now I was at my oncologist’s office to learn the results of a previous routine blood test.
My daughter and I looked at the doctor, speechless, and then I lamely said, “Well, at least I have my will made out.” I knew that breast cancer can return 10 or even 20 years after an initial episode. However, I had had so many good checkups since my first bout with cancer that I had become rather complacent.
The first question I could manage was “How long do I have?” The doctor replied, “I can’t tell you that. No one can. You might have several months or several years.” We decided I would undergo drug therapy to prevent further bone damage and to help with pain management. Beyond that, the doctor told me, there was nothing that could forestall the progression of the disease.
What does a person do when faced with a death sentence? People often go through these stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.1 I felt I had dealt with the first four stages during my previous encounter with cancer, but I find that some of these feelings still emerge every now and then.
I am now working on the acceptance stage. However, I am not going to just lie down in bed, turn my face to the wall, and wait to die. Far from it! I intend to live my life as fully as possible as long as I can. I have renewed my passport in hopes of visiting an old friend in Germany, and I ordered more flowers for my garden. But I realize that ultimately Heavenly Father is in charge. I must rely on my faith and my knowledge that God is good, that He knows me, and that He is aware of my circumstances. He is there to help all of us bear our suffering, to listen to our prayers, and to give us peace.
After the diagnosis, I did not pray for a miracle cure. My first prayer was a prayer for strength to endure this disease to the end and for a feeling of peace. Heavenly Father has answered this prayer and continues to answer it daily as I continue to pray. And yet I have come to understand to some degree what Jesus meant when He prayed, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39).
In the past, I often said my prayers in a rather mechanical fashion. I have learned to pray with more depth. I have tried to understand better the meaning of the Atonement, and sometimes I have wonderful insights. And yet many times I feel a poignant sense of isolation and loneliness. I will catch myself saying, “I have no future.” But then I correct myself and say, “I have no future here on earth, but I have a future in the next life. I must work toward that future.”
At first I worried about what to say to people who asked, “How are you?” Should I say, “I’m dying of cancer”? Eventually I decided to just say, “I’m fine,” because basically I am still feeling pretty good, and grocery store clerks don’t need to know about my health problems anyway. All of us will have unpleasant or sad experiences in this life. This is in accordance with the scriptures: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (2 Nephi 2:11). Similarly, we read in Doctrine and Covenants 29:39, “For if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet.”
In fast and testimony meetings I have heard people say they are thankful for their trials. At times I think to myself, “I would like deliverance from mine.” But I know I really have grown from these experiences and that my faith has increased. Often it is life’s most difficult lessons that have the most to teach us.
I have learned so much about hope. Hope is a word we find often in the scriptures and use frequently in our prayers and daily conversations. Hope still exists for those facing death, but it is a different kind of hope. It is not always the hope for a cure but rather for a good day, a pleasant visit with family and friends, an uplifting sacrament meeting or time spent reading the scriptures. It is the hope of living the rest of one’s life in dignity and being remembered as a good and caring person after one’s death. It is the hope of peace and strength; a hope of faith to be fulfilled; a hope, ultimately, in the saving power of Jesus Christ.
I have adopted several mottoes that help me deal with my condition day to day. One is “You’re alive until you’re dead.” Another I found in an e-mail message: “It’s not the number of breaths we take in this life that matters, but rather the number of moments that take our breath away.” I have had many of these moments. One of the surprising things I have discovered is that I can be happy even when facing death.
I learned that one day in my garden last year. The sun was just coming up, and the flowers were covered with dew. Birds were singing in the trees and shrubs around me. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with a feeling of intense joy and happiness. I wondered how I could be feeling such joy at that time. But rather than question it too deeply, I just let the feeling wash over me.
Later, in my bedroom, I glanced at a New Era poster on my wall with a quotation from John 14:18: “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.”
Then I understood. The Savior had come to me figuratively in my garden, letting me feel His love and comforting me through the beauty of the world around me. I was so thankful! I have had many similar moments since then, such as when I saw two silver foxes slipping through the woods, watched the full moon set in the morning as I took my dogs out in the darkness, and admired the intense colors of the leaves on sugar maple trees glowing in the sunshine on an October day. I know the Lord will continue to send me such moments when I need them.
After my diagnosis, I knew I needed to assess where I was in my life if I was to make the most of the time I had left. I had repented of my major sins, but there were still areas that needed work. I needed to spend more time with the scriptures. I needed to mend some personal relationships. I needed to do my temple work. I had done baptisms for the dead, but I had hesitated to do my own work for fear it might put a wedge between me and my husband, who is not a member of the Church. However, my husband felt fine about my receiving my endowment. I had also promised myself that I would do the temple work for a family member who had gained a testimony before she passed away.
Some temporal items were on my “to do” list. I wanted to tie a quilt I had promised my daughter last summer, and I wanted to visit my relatives in the West. I have accomplished those things, but others are still pending.
I have become very aware of how I use my day. I used to spend far too much time playing computer games. However, on the day I got word that the cancer had returned, I said to myself, “Computer games are such a waste of time.” I have never been tempted to play a game since that day. I have also become careful about what television shows I watch and what I read. I want to spend my time in worthwhile ways.
I have found that I enjoy being around upbeat people. A sense of humor is more important now than ever. I try to find something every day that will make me laugh. I have also gained much joy from helping people. When I am feeling down, nothing helps me more than to write to a friend or to think of something nice to do for someone.
It is also important to have someone to talk to. I have been blessed to have tremendous support from my husband, other family members, and several dear friends. When we pray to Heavenly Father for help, our prayers are often answered through other people. I am thankful for the strength I receive through others.
I have come to find personal meaning in many of the words of our Latter-day Saint hymns. I have always loved the hymn “The Lord My Pasture Will Prepare,” and I have come to better understand these words: “My noonday walks he will attend, / And all my silent midnight hours defend.”2 It is often in the still of the night when fears and doubts rage most strongly. I also resonate to these words from “How Firm a Foundation”: “In ev’ry condition—in sickness, in health, / … As thy days may demand, so thy succor shall be.”3
As I face death, my scripture study has become more meaningful. I often find insights and interpretations that escaped me before. Many of the scriptures speak directly to me, and they help me to live with this disease.
Memorizing scriptures has given me strength. I often recite to myself, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). I find comfort in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
I also think of Romans 8:35–37:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
“As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
“Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”
When we face personal and family problems, even serious illnesses, we can be conquerors. We may be physically destroyed, but we need not be defeated.
I pray that I shall be able to endure to the end. We are all going to die eventually. However, from an eternal perspective, the most important thing is not how we die but how we have lived. Have we put our lives in order? Have we accomplished the really important things? Have we put aside that which is unimportant?
Yes, I am living in the shadow of death. But I find comfort in the gospel, in the eternal perspective it provides, and in the Savior. I echo the Psalmist’s words to the Lord: “Yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast” (Psalm 57:1).
“Uncertainty as to longevity leaves a balance to be struck by us all. We are to salute the Lord for the gift of life, for as long as it lasts, and yet, at the same time, to be spiritually submissive as it ends. …
“… When death comes to all of us, as a result thereof some things will be clearly missed. But these are small dunes of deprivation when placed alongside that vast Himalayan range of all our past and present blessings.”
Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (1926–2004), One More Strain of Praise (1999), 12, 14.