“Yea, Though I Walk through the Valley …”


Cancer: I needed the Lord’s help to cope.

“Mother! You aren’t listening to me!” complained my ten-year-old daughter, Kimberly, with a look of exasperation. Slowly my mind came back to the present.

“I’m sorry, Kim,” I apologized. “What were you saying?”

I tried to concentrate on my daughter’s words, but it was a struggle today. I kept hearing Dr. Whitlow saying, “The nodule we removed from your neck is Hodgkin’s disease.” Hodgkin’s disease! It must be a mistake! I had thought.

But he had gone on, telling me about the treatment plan: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy—each word sounded uglier, and I stopped hearing what he was saying.

“Mrs. Baker, are you all right?” he had said. “Let me call your husband.”

Dazed, I had whispered, “No, I’m OK. I just want to be alone for a minute.”

“Of course.” His hand had been gentle on my shoulder. “If you need to talk to someone, I’ll be right next door in my office.”

My mind had gone back to the weeks before—the fatigue, the bruises, and finally the knot in my neck, which I had shown to my husband, Carl. He had encouraged me to see a doctor right away. “I’m sure it’s just a swollen lymph gland from the sore throat I’ve had,” I had said, trying to sound matter-of-fact. To keep busy, I began folding the clothes that I had just taken out of the dryer. Like Scarlett O’Hara, I just wouldn’t think about it today.

But I had thought about it, and somehow I had found the courage to make an appointment with my doctor.

Kimberly’s words brought me back to the present again. “Mom, are you OK?”

“I don’t know,” I sighed. “I really don’t know.”

The next day Dr. Whitlow referred me to an oncologist, a tumor specialist. I felt much better after talking to him. He told me that 90 percent of such lumps are benign and are simply lymph glands swollen from infection. My mind hung onto his words. That’s exactly what it was, I thought—infected lymph glands. There was no need for me to worry. I felt relieved.

But when the test came back we learned that the lump wasn’t benign. It wasn’t something I could think about tomorrow; it had to be dealt with now.

As we made plans for surgery and consequent treatment, I felt as if I had “willed my body to science.” As a nurse myself, I was aware of what was involved in the treatment of Hodgkin’s disease. Memories of former patients came into my mind. There were no alternate decisions to be made—to neglect or delay treatment was to choose a path to quick and painful death.

With the help of my husband, Kimberly, and my son Mark, I somehow got through the days. My extended family was also a real source of strength. My eight sisters and one brother, scattered from Virginia to California, were very supportive.

I was referred to a cancer specialist at a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. Carpenter was kind but firm in his treatment plan. He gave me some pamphlets that discussed the diagnosis and treatment of Hodgkin’s disease. I took them home, but I didn’t read them. I couldn’t accept the fact that I had cancer. I did what my doctors suggested only because I felt I had no control over my life any more.

A staging operation was planned for me. My spleen would be removed, and biopsies of the liver and the pelvic lymph nodes would be performed. In addition, the doctors ordered body scans, X rays, liver scans, bone marrow biopsies—and so many other tests that I lost count.

I entered the hospital for surgery numb and drained, feeling that the surgery wouldn’t help. Two days after my operation, the surgeon came to my room to give me the pathology report. I was alone because I had insisted that Carl attend his stake clerks’ meeting. The report was not good; the disease had already invaded my spleen. Hodgkin’s disease has four progressive stages, and I was already at stage three.

I felt hostile and betrayed. Why me? I thought. What had I done to deserve this? I had always tried to live a good Christian life. Was this my reward? In those few minutes, every emotion that I had bottled up for the past month surfaced. I was so angry that I lost control. I was given an injection to help me calm down, and the nurse called Carl, who left his meeting to come to the hospital.

Alone in my hospital room, my anger gave way to frustration and then feelings of helplessness. I cried and moaned in anguish. A maid, who was cleaning the hall, heard me crying and quietly came in. “I have cancer,” I told her, through my sobs.

It was the first time that I had acknowledged that I did indeed have cancer. She sat with me, held my hands, and comforted me. Afterward I felt drained, but I also felt a quiet, sweet spirit—and a sense of peace that I had not felt before.

I now felt a helpless acceptance of the disease. There was nothing I could do, I thought. I was going to die. My strong belief in immortality made that outcome seem almost acceptable.

I agreed to six months of chemotherapy. “Why not?” I thought. “Perhaps my death will help someone else.” Filled with self-pity, I accepted the side effects of the chemotherapy as part of my martyrdom. I slipped into a deep depression, and began disclaiming any responsibility for myself and my family.

I had difficulty sleeping. I often got out of bed around midnight and wandered through the house until dawn. One of these sleepless nights I was sitting in my rocker staring into space when a strange feeling came over me. Events of the past few weeks went through my mind. Suddenly I saw my children—Kimberly with her arms reaching out as if she needed my help, and Mark with a sad look in his eyes. What was he trying to say to me?

“O Lord, please help me,” I prayed. “You know how much my family needs me. Don’t let me die!” I was on my knees beside the rocking chair, tears streaming down my face, begging my Father in Heaven to help me live to finish the work he had given me to do.

I asked forgiveness of my sins of selfishness, of being self-absorbed, and of turning from him in my fear and devastation. I don’t know how long I prayed, but afterward I felt calm and peaceful. I knew now that our Father in Heaven was with me and had been from the first.

From then on I asked for and received his help daily. My whole attitude changed. I was able to believe what my doctors had been trying to tell me all along—that Hodgkin’s disease is potentially curable. I read everything I could find on Hodgkin’s disease. Dr. Carpenter believed that I could be cured. And finally, I believed it too.

With the help of my counselor at the clinic, I made a list of realistic goals and read them every day. I asked for strength to live each day as it came. The following scripture became especially meaningful to me: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1.)

I began to share my feelings with others, especially with my sister and with another dear friend. Their encouragement helped me through many difficult times.

I set goals with my housework—listing the tasks and tackling them one by one, slowly, with rest periods in between. I avoided getting overly tired. My family did the big jobs, and the help that the Relief Society sisters offered gave me encouragement.

At night, when I had difficulty sleeping, I used the time to pray and plan. I felt a real closeness to my Father in Heaven, and gradually I was able to sleep for longer periods.

Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep, I read—the scriptures, poetry, and other good books. Articles from the Ensign were especially helpful.

Gradually, I came to understand and accept the fact that adversity is a necessary part of human growth and development. My disease was not a punishment from God. Many great and faithful men and women have suffered. I thought of President Spencer W. Kimball and the great work he did after he was afflicted with cancer of the larynx. I reread the book of Job and thrilled to his “I know that my redeemer liveth.” (Job 19:25.)

I began each day by committing my thoughts to my Heavenly Father. Whenever I felt sorry for myself or was inclined to complain, I asked the Lord to help me control my feelings. Of course, there were times when I failed. When I did, I tried not to be too hard on myself. I recognized this as a time of great vulnerability.

I especially enjoy crocheting, and during this time I crocheted several beautiful afghans for family members and friends. After weeks of giving no thought to how I looked, I started to take pride in my appearance again. I had lost most of my hair because of the chemotherapy and now I began wearing my wigs—even around the house. I started exercising and walking regularly. Instead of hiding at home, I started going out with my family again.

Three years have passed since I first learned that I had Hodgkin’s disease. I am a far different person because of this experience. Each day I am grateful for so many things; I take time to enjoy life. My struggle isn’t over yet, but the future looks good.

[illustration] Illustrated by Cary Henrie

Robbie R. Baker, a registered nurse, serves as cultural arts specialist in the Birmingham (Alabama) Second Ward.