This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.
In the spring of 2012, I got very confused about prayer. I had been praying my whole life up until that point—beginning with prayers at meals and before bed in my childhood, more conversational prayers that often steered toward a litany of requests in my teens, and moving into prayers of gratitude and confession influenced by my what I learned at my Quaker university. Through the progression and growth of my prayer life, a few beliefs held true: I knew God heard me, I knew he cared about me, and I knew my prayers mattered.
But in 2012, a lot of my prayers went unanswered. And they were the most desperate prayers I had ever prayed.
My sweet mama and best friend had been battling breast cancer for eight years. Myself and literally thousands of other faithful souls had been praying for her every step of the way. We had seen tangible, goose-bump-inspiring answers to hundreds of our prayers through those years. But by March, 2012, I could see that she was not going to win this battle against cancer here on earth. And I started being shy and unsure in my prayers.
Then in June, I found a lump in my breast. I was twenty-eight years old with three boys, my youngest only six-months and still nursing. Mama’s health was rapidly failing, and I couldn’t let my mind wonder what this lump could mean, so my husband and I prayed for a quick resolution.
On July 26th, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. We prayed it would be contained in my breasts, and I had an emergency double mastectomy.
On August 2nd, we found out that it had already spread to my lymph nodes, and I would need six months of chemo therapy. We prayed that the scans would show it hadn’t spread anywhere else and that my mama’s new treatment would be the miracle we had still been stubbornly praying for.
On August 18th, my sweet mama died while I held her hand. I didn’t know what to pray.
On August 19th, we found out the cancer had spread to my liver; I was a stage IV metastatic breast cancer patient. Liver surgery, radiation, and several other surgeries along with the chemo were my best hope. Technically my cancer was terminal, but my doctor had hope this treatment plan could work. My prayers became something like, “I love you. I know you are good. Hold me close.” But every time I tried to form a hope or a request, my words faltered and nothing came. I still believed that God heard me and that he cared for me, but I couldn’t find my belief that my prayers mattered.
Three months into treatment, I went in for a scan to show if the treatment was working. I had the scan on a Friday, and I knew I would hear the results by that Monday. On Sunday night, I couldn’t hold still. Although weakened by chemo, I put on my dusty running shoes and set out into the cold fall night for a run of desperation that would change my prayer life forever.
My run that night was supernatural. Running faster than even on my healthiest day, I practically flew across the wet pavement into the sunset landscape. I couldn’t breathe, because I was sobbing. I couldn’t fill my lungs, yet my feet moved forward faster and faster. I wasn’t praying or thinking, but I could feel God. I saw the vibrant colors in the sunset. The hard ground under my feet gave me confidence in my presence in this moment. I could smell the crispy fall air heavy with coming rain. My tears found my lips, and their salty trail connected me to myself. I was here, seeing and feeling all of this with God. I was not running in my own strength. I was held and carried by God who heard what I was not able to say.
I finally stopped, suddenly, and my breath came back. My sobs slowed. My thoughts caught up to me, and I said out loud into the night the words I had been scared to admit: “What if you hear me and you love me, but my prayers don’t matter? What does it mean to want your will more than my own like Jesus did in Gethsemane? If I submit to that idea, can I still pray that my scans show the treatment is working? Or are my prayers supposed to stick to the I-love-yous and your-will-not-mines? I want to live, Lord. I want to raise these boys you gave me and love this husband for many more years. Can I ask you for that?”
On my walk home, I recognized a shift in my whole body and soul. Although embarrassed for admitting to God what I wanted, I also knew that relationship building had happened between the God of the universe and me in that crazy run.
I wrote about my run on my blog. My mentor and writing hero from George Fox, Melanie Mock, commented: “That run was your prayer, Caitlyn.” Reading those words released me into a new and liberating way of talking to my Savior. Their truth still takes my breath away.
On Monday morning, I got the call I had asked God for: my treatment was working! Now, five years later, I do monthly treatments I will continue for the rest of my life that have been keeping the cancer at bay. My prayers today are full of gratitude.
My life is my prayer and my way to talk to God. Since being diagnosed, I have become so aware of how integrated I am with my body and soul all enmeshed and entwined. So God often communicates to me through what is happening in my body. One of my treatments has given me advanced osteoporosis, and movement had been painful for four years. But recently, I was running and noticing that my bones weren’t hurting anymore. My bone treatment was working! Yet I sensed God wanted to show me more than just a reason to be immensely grateful, so I thought about how different it felt to run with strong bones again and listened to what that meant. God showed me that my bones are the perfect example of how he works in me. What was broken and fragile is now strong and capable. What hurt before feels like a solid foundation enabling me to move forward and do more. Yet it took time. I ended this run convicted I need to let pain and healing take the time they need. Then I must recognize and praise Jesus when healing and restoration have taken place. I hadn’t said any official sounding prayers, but God and I had communicated just the same.
Now I know these things to be true about prayer: God hears me, God cares about me, and my prayers do matter. I also know that my prayers extend beyond my words. They happen as my lips gratefully touch my sweet boys’ heads at night, when I stretch my body and feel my scars pull, and when I close my eyes in trust at night.
Practice: God speaks to us and invites us to speak back in ways that don’t necessarily fit into our typical prayer practices. When I’m not sure what to pray, I ask myself these questions no matter what I’m doing: What does this feel like? Taste like? Look like? Sound like? Smell like? Even washing the dishes turns into a prayerful experience when I do this faithfully. Finally, reflect on what the answers to those questions reveal about the God who knit you together.
Caitlyn lives in the East Bay with her wonderful husband, three sons, one of her two amazing brothers, and her Golden Retriever, Harper (who is the only other girl in the house!). She is the Pastor of Kids and Family Formation at her church and loves to read, do anything outside, and watch movies with her family and friends. Connect with Caitlyn at everydayglimpses.com. "I love to help women who find themselves dealing with cancer. Please feel free to email if you need someone who has been walking this path for five years. :-)"