What we would call ‘loss,’ she called ‘gain’ because of what she learned of God
In our Bible study’s discussion of our bodies as the temple of God, one woman shared her struggles to view her body that way. Literally. She had had a mastectomy and breast reconstruction many years ago, and only now – and by singing praise songs for strength as she did – was she able to look at her naked body in the mirror.
It was a raw moment. I could only imagine what she felt. I had worn a necklace 24-7 perfectly aligned to cover a scar on my chest. I maintained bangs to camouflage another on my forehead. Some say scars are just tattoos with better stories. But I’ve tried to hide mine. And these are so insignificant in comparison to what she must see.
But then, a different woman spoke.
“I had breast cancer, too. I had to have a radical mastectomy of one breast,” she said, quietly. “I love my scar. It reminds me how much God loves me.”
I love my scar, she said. It reminds me how much God loves me. What? I wanted to know her story. So I asked and Elsie Hahs said yes. This is my attempt to convey her unwavering trust in God and joy in her journey.
On Saturday afternoon, Elsie was sitting at my kitchen table with her 17-year-old daughter, Hannah, a plate of freshly baked, homemade oatmeal cookies in front of them. The teen had shifted her chair to be close to her mother. They were a beautiful pair.
I barely knew Elsie and had never met Hannah. Cookies and coffee had seemed a good segue to conversation. As it happens, the conversation was equally sweet and satisfying.
In 2013, Elsie had what her doctors thought was an infection in her left breast. Her left breast was almost twice the size of her right one and painful. Rounds of antibiotics failed to resolve the supposed infection, however, and she was sent to a specialist who sent her for a biopsy.
“He said, ‘If I’ve ever seen cancer before, this is cancer,’” Elsie remembered.
To her, cancer was a death sentence. At the time, she and her loved ones had been touched by cancer multiple times with no happy endings.
“I thought, ‘No, no, no! Not cancer!’ and when the biopsy results came back negative, I thought I was healed.”
But the painful, swollen breast and whatever was causing it remained. Doctors fought it with IV antibiotics. Elsie traveled every single day for treatment for weeks – and the infection didn’t improve. The infection specialist insisted she go back for a second biopsy, and this time she received the results she hadn’t wanted.
She had inflammatory breast cancer.
Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare form of cancer that develops rapidly, making the affected breast red, swollen, and tender. It doesn’t appear with the tell-tale lumps found in other breast cancers. It is often mistaken for a breast infection, which is more common, and treatment includes chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.
The battle – and God’s peace
“That’s when it got real,” Elsie said. “I thought I had five years to live. So I went to God and was honest. ‘I thought I was your girl,’ I mean I was heartbroken. ‘I thought I was your girl! What happened?’”
God’s response came to her three days later, when she heard him say this:
“Cancer is so small to me.”
Not that it was small and didn’t matter to God. On the contrary, He was communicating how much He cared – and how big He is. Cancer is small to God.
“And that turned me around,” she said. “That message got inside of me, and people saw it all around me. They were like, wow! What happened? You’re so joyful and you’re going through this?”
The cancer didn’t disappear. Elsie still had to go through chemotherapy, which was brutal. Then she had surgery to remove her entire breast and lymph nodes, followed by radiation treatment. But she went through the harrowing process with joy.
Her cancer was Stage III. The treatment had to be aggressive.
“OK, put your skates on,” her doctor had told Elsie when the chemotherapy began. “We’re going for it. We’re going to throw even the kitchen sink in there.”
The treatment was so intense she lost 36 pounds in just months and landed in the hospital. But she remained at peace. People noticed. Nurses asked her to sit beside other patients and comfort them.
Elsie reflected on one occasion when she was able to share her joy and peace with a fellow patient.
“The surgeon asked me, ‘Can you please call this lady? She’s about to have what you have,’” Elsie said. “Because he saw how I, how God handled it. And I talked to her, and then one day I went to the office for a follow-up, and she was there! We hugged, and it was amazing!
How God showed up
“Even in the middle of chemo, God gave me mercy,” Elsie said. “One verse of Scripture came over and over in my mind, which was good, because the chemicals made my vision blurry and I could hardly read. But it was Luke 17:33: ‘If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it’ (NLT).
“I kept thinking, ‘Hold loose, hold loose your life,’ because I knew if God called me home, I knew Hannah was gonna be OK.”
So instead of clinging to life, Elsie clung to God. The big God who told her “Cancer is small to me.”
In addition to His peace and joy, she experienced the love of God expressed in people. Her mother remained by her side the entire time, and Elsie is eternally grateful for her loving presence. Family members, including her sister, helped monetarily, went to appointments with her and asked questions and took notes when she was too out of it to do that herself.
Her church family also showed up monetarily, physically, and emotionally. She was unable to work and had no income, but she was able to stay in her home and did not go without.
“I learned that church family is really church family. So many people showed up. God shows His love and provision through others. I am so thankful for all the support and prayers I received during this time.”
Not the least was an acquaintance who had had a mastectomy before Elsie, and when she heard what Elsie was facing, she invited her to her house to see her scar.
“She showed me her scar! God showed up with friends and family and monetarily, which is not the most important. But seeing her scar! It changed everything and gave me such peace!” Elsie said. “When I saw her scar, I was like, ‘Wow, yours looks good! Beautiful!’ She was so gracious, so gracious.”
She never felt the need to have reconstruction surgery.
“In my mind, that would be messy,” she said, perfectly content with her scar. “I just love the way I see it. Yeah. I really do. Of course, I was concerned about, oh, if I get married, or what’s going to happen if I even go out with anybody. How do you break it down that you only got one boob?
“But if the person is for me, God is going to share love through him. So it’s going to be OK.”
“Besides, they can get their ear closer to my heart,” she said.
A change of heart
Had God spoken “Cancer is so small to me” in a similar situation, I would have translated it as God saying, “I’ve got this. I can beat cancer.” Without therapies. Without surgery. Or by preventing me from getting cancer in the first place.
So why did Elsie translate God’s message “Cancer is so small to me” as good even though He didn’t just cure her on the spot?
Elsie believes that she is better for her journey through cancer. In her mind, she had made cancer bigger than it was. When she realized cancer was small to God, she focused on Him, not her cancer. She saw His love expressed in people. And she experienced his peace and joy as she learned to abide in Jesus.
“It was quite a journey, but I’m blessed by it because I’m not the same,” she said. “I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for what I’ve been through and seeing God work.
“I would have been a punk! I would still have been a punk! I was kind of crazy! I was unbearable!”
I turned, then, to Hannah, and said, “Was she?”
“Yeah. She changed. Everyone changed through that,” said the teenager who had been 8 or 9 at the time. “It was crazy how peaceful she was, like, getting rolled into surgery. I was like crying my eyes out, and she said to me, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be okay.’ I was like ‘Oh, my goodness, this girl, so much peace.”
I had heard author and speaker Joni Eareckson Tada say something on a radio interview that I wrote down because I found it so powerful. And troubling. This is what she said:
“God allows what He hates to accomplish what He loves.”
I suspect God hates cancer. But He loves what it has accomplished in Elsie. She gives the glory to God.
“ABIDE. That’s the only thing I did,” she said. “It was ‘abide in God.’ That’s it. I didn’t go to a different church, go to church more, pray more. I just abided in Him because I had Him. I know how good He is. And He shows up.
“I was thinking today that I haven’t taken any mission trips, and yet God wrote such an amazing life story,” she said. “He is so good and wrote so many stories in my life, and I haven’t been anywhere, just here.”
Before Elsie and Hannah arrived, I debated where we would sit – the living room? The family room? Should I have a box of tissues nearby? I didn’t realize a conversation about her journey through breast cancer could be so joyous. But then, she hadn’t walked it alone. And that made all the difference.
“I feel bad that we didn’t bring a gift, but I was so busy I didn’t even think about it,” Elsie had said when they arrived. She had spent the morning walking a 5K to raise funds for an organization providing housing and hope for women rescued from sex trafficking. American by birth but raised in Colombia by her mother, she explained that bringing a gift to a host was customary in her culture.
I assured her I hadn’t expected such a thing. But as I reflected on her visit, I wish I had told her that she was the gift. Because she was. And is.
My friends, I hope none of us go through anything like what Elsie did. But I’ll tell you this, I know who I’ll call if I ever do. The God who is bigger than cancer. (And I’d reach out to Elsie, too.)
Initially, I had added this subtitle that suggested “the loss of her breast is evidence of God’s love for her.” When she read through the draft, she responded, “I don’t think this sentence is quite right. I haven’t lost anything. I’ve gained a deeper understanding of God and who I am in Him.”
Her prayer whenever she hears that someone is going through cancer is that God will make it clear that “Cancer is so small to me.”
“Because hearing His voice changes everything,” she said.