…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.
By Kimberly Lester
I always knew my mom was a survivor. After all, she and her siblings had survived the trauma of several years rotating through foster homes. She survived the hell of raising 3 kids on her own, living in low income housing projects. She survived an abusive marriage, and several significant health issues. She managed to pull us out of the projects by riding her moped to school; first to take GED classes, then going on to community college and eventually earning her Master’s Degree on a full scholarship.
So when she told us that the suspicious area on her lung was cancer, at first I wasn’t that concerned. After all, the advances in cancer treatment have been considerable, and everyone knows somebody who has survived a cancer or two. Instead of reacting emotionally, I decided that I would react intelligently – I would simply do the research, find out the facts about lung cancer, and the treatment options, and I would present this information along with the encouraging statistics that I would find. Certainly this would calm the irrational fears riddling our family.
Unfortunately, as I researched lung cancer, there was precious little that I found to be encouraging. It seemed that there was no good news at all. It turns out that all of the advances in cancer research had been happening in other cancers. I looked hard to find survival rates for lung cancer, but when I did, I dismissed them and looked again. There was something wrong with the numbers; surely those survival rates were outdated. I needed to know the current lung cancer survival rates. But no matter how hard I looked, the statistics did not improve. As unbelievable as it seems, the truth is that only 15% of people diagnosed with lung cancer will be alive in 5 years.
Those odds are pretty low. If I were to place a bet on any given event that had a 15% chance of happening, I would feel pretty comfortable betting against it. As much as you want to believe that the people you love can overcome astounding odds, let’s face it—the odds are against it.
Contemplating the possibility of losing my mother, who had been my best friend for most of my adult life, seemed unthinkable. My siblings and I had lost our 52-year old father to a heart attack two years before, and the pain from that was still unexpectedly raw. After Daddy died, I had found myself emotionally distancing myself from my mother, at least a little bit. The loss of my father seemed to fuel my fears of losing her, and it was just easier to put a little bit of space between us. Now, here that fear was again, ambushing me.
After the diagnosis, there was surgery, followed by chemo. I was able to leave my job in Virginia for about a month to stay with her after the surgery. I’m not sure how much I helped her, but it helped me immensely to be able to fix meals for her, and help out around the house. It was also just nice spending time with her. After treatment, there was not much to do but hope and pray and wait to see which statistic group she would fall into. There are different types of waiting—watchful waiting, waiting patiently, waiting with bated breath…I think I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I found it best not to think about it too much.
Meanwhile, life went on, mostly as usual. Except that now that her eyes had been opened to the disparity in research and funding for lung cancer, mom was on fire to make some changes. She formed close bonds with her local lung cancer support group, and helped coordinate and organize several awareness events, such as walks and a 5K. She contacted politicians, and did interviews for local TV stations.
But God had given her a bigger vision and mission, and so, with help and support from friends and family, she created the Dusty Joy Foundation. The mission of Dusty Joy is to increase compassion for those touched by lung cancer. That’s a tall order, for a disease with such a stigma. Balloon releases are the signature DJF event. We use balloons to lighten the subject a little bit, and get people to open up and be willing to talk about this tough subject. Most of the time, people are shocked when they learn that lung cancer is the number one cancer killer. If we can get them to be open to a few of the basic facts, most people become more concerned and willing to hear more.
At a recent cancer survivor event in Charlotte, I was working the DJF booth. As a way to generate some interest, we were holding a raffle for a beautiful wall hanging. It was an artsy embellished plaque, with simply one word—Hope. But a funny thing happened when people saw it. So many of the attendees—the vast majority of them cancer survivors—would stop, bring their hand to their heart, their eyes would light up, and they would tell me why they should be the one to win that plaque. Each one of them seemed to feel a special connection to the idea of hope.
“Hope is so special to me! That is what got me through when I was going through 4 months of chemo…”
“Hope is my word, look here, on my necklace, see, I’ve got it right here. I keep it close to my heart.”
“Oh- that’s the word that God gave me to hold on to while I was fighting…”
“Let me tell you about hope, and what it means to me….”
The stories went on, almost non-stop, for hours; some of them laughed as they shared their stories, and some had tears in their eyes. At first I thought that it was a little silly how each of these women felt like they had some special claim on the word hope. Didn’t they know that everyone needs a little hope? But then it slowly began to dawn on me, as survivor after survivor opened their heart and shared their story with me. That’s the whole point—each of them did have a special claim of hope. And I believe that God gave it to them—individually. Because He’s a personal God, who even cares about sparrows and lilies of the field. A God who holds a hope and future for us even beyond this life to the next.
This month we celebrate my mom’s 5-year survival anniversary. Of course, we are so thankful that she is still with us; five years ago it seemed like too much to hope that we would even have another year with her. The realization that we were approaching this milestone opened a floodgate of emotion for me. I opened closet doors in my heart that had been closed for a long time, and found dusty boxes of hope that I had forgotten I even had. I realize now that I also have my own story of hope, and it starts now, as I learn to let go of the fear that I have been clutching, and accept the hope that has been given to me. I always knew my mom was a survivor, but I’m starting to think that maybe I am, too.