I survived Katrina and cancer: Here's what I learned

This article was originally published in Christianity Today on May 26, 2017. 

Image: Illustration by Hugh Syme

Image: Illustration by Hugh Syme

As I emerged from the fog of anesthesia, I heard the surgeon informing my wife, Kelly, that our worst fear had improbably come true.

“Cancer!?” I interrupted, before falling back into unconsciousness. That happened six more times before I fully awoke.

Earlier in the week, tests had revealed a suspicious growth atop a nerve bundle in my pelvis, which explained the shooting leg pains I had been experiencing. Baffled about where the mass might have originated, I was scheduled for a colonoscopy. “Chances of cancer in someone your age and health are less than 1 percent,” the surgeon said just before performing the procedure.

Not long after, I found myself at a cancer center looking over an oncologist’s shoulder and examining my test results on his computer.

“It’s cancer,” he confirmed. He went on: The cancer was advanced, and the tumor in my colon had spread to create the mass in my pelvic region.

I cried as the shock started to wear off. The oncologist tried some small talk. “What is it you do for a living?” he asked. I told him I’m a college professor, and that I direct the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI), a Wheaton College research center dedicated to the study of faith and disasters.

“Looks like you’re in for your own personal disaster,” he said.

At the age of 35, I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. I had multiple surgeries to remove it. Altogether, I underwent chemotherapy for close to a year. For the first six months, my oncologist would only respond to my requests for a prognosis by telling me, “I can’t tell you that it’s going to be okay, Jamie. It’s too early to tell. But if there’s anyone you want to see or anything you want to do, now is the time.” This wasn’t how it was supposed to be; I was supposed to grow old and gray with my wife. I was supposed to watch my three young daughters grow up.

Cancer wasn’t my first disaster. In the summer of 2005, my family and I had moved to southern Mississippi just six days before Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast. We had no idea the storm was headed for us until the pastor of a church we were visiting alerted the congregation. I remember feeling helpless, unsure what course of action to take. We eventually decided to evacuate, not wanting our daughter’s first memories of her new home to be darkened by a massive storm.

When we returned, it looked like a war had been fought in our community. Six weeks after landfall, I began helping churches across Mississippi and Louisiana that had been affected by the costliest natural disaster in US history. My experiences there inspired me to dedicate my career to studying the role of faith and the church in disaster relief and humanitarian aid.

But my cancer was different. I had no opportunity to evacuate as I did before Katrina. This time, the storm was striking within: I was a walking disaster.

What I had studied about faith and resilience in mass disaster zones across the globe was suddenly playing out in my own life. My work had taught me about the importance of finding meaning, surrendering spiritually, and leaning on community in times of crisis. Now cancer made these lessons personal.

The Importance of the Search

One of the most critical and difficult tasks in disaster relief is the search process. A journalist recently told me about a small group of missionaries he interviewed who were trapped under their hotel after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Had it not been for the tireless efforts of hopeful search crews digging through the rubble against all odds, none of them would have survived. The search is vitally important whether it results in miracle or tragedy—we don’t go into it knowing what will happen.

The same is true of personal disasters. Cancer upended my world, from the most mundane details to threatening my dreams for the future. Those first weeks after the diagnosis were consumed by assessments, tests, and scans as the doctors searched to understand my cancer. I was haunted by “why” questions—and by what I might discover—as I searched for meaning in the aftermath.

While deployed with a relief agency after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, a colleague of mine met a man whose roof had been blown away. This man surprised the relief team with his ability to find meaning in the situation: “Sometimes you have to lose the roof to see the stars,” he said.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I found that people who seek spiritual meaning amidst disaster experience lower rates of posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms. This type of meaning is not easily or immediately found, and in the initial throes of catastrophe it often escapes us. But there’s good news: Research has found that striving to make meaning out of suffering can yield positive benefits similar to actually finding answers—at least for a period of time. Over the long haul, studies suggest it’s better for our well-being to make meaning of our tragedies than to remain in a permanent state of quest.

A common rejoinder at this point: “That’s great, but I didn’t just lose my roof, I lost my whole house, and every attempt to find meaning has only brought trite answers.” That’s fair. I felt the same way. What’s important is that the process doesn’t end there.

In my case, after countless attempts to find answers, I realized no single answer was going to make everything okay. The comfort I eventually found did not come in the form of “right” answers, but in God himself. He promises to be with us even in the most terrifying of places and times (Ps. 46:1). We can’t mistake his goodness, which he promises us in this life (Ps. 27:13), for the absence of hard things. His goodness is not dependent on our circumstances but can be found in all things—like losing a roof and gaining the stars.

The Strength of Surrender

Survivors of the most horrific disasters discover that if they are going to make it through, they have to learn to give up control over what they can’t control. When we do this out of a place of faith, it’s called spiritual surrender. It helps us understand what we do and don’t have control over when faced with overwhelming challenges.

In a study I led after Hurricane Katrina, we found that people who reported higher levels of spiritual surrender viewed God more positively and as being more in control. This finding didn’t make sense to me at the time. It seemed too passive to be an effective response, and the word surrender sounded to me like something people did when they had stopped fighting or had given up hope.

But my perspective on spiritual surrender was forever altered one winter morning in the middle of my fight with cancer: I was taking the trash to the curb, the freezing air cutting like tiny razor blades across my hands and feet thanks to increased nerve sensitivity caused by chemotherapy. I prayed God would heal me.

I kept praying as I walked back into my home, questioning if God even heard me. Then I dropped to my knees at the foot of my bed. I stopped asking for healing, and instead I asked God to take care of my wife and children if I didn’t make it.

This was the hardest prayer of my life. For the first time, I truly experienced spiritual surrender. I finally understood. True spiritual surrender is far from passive—it is a willful act of obedience (Rom. 12:1). Spiritual surrender resigns us to what is and reconciles us to our loss.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but spiritual surrender allows us to experience the fullness of God as we face our situation head-on, releasing our tightly held lives to him. When we let go of our desires at the foot of the cross, we position ourselves to gain not necessarily what we want but what we really need—eternal hope (1 Thess. 4:13). This is what Søren Kierkegaard referred to as the “double movement” of faith. Letting go of your control will paradoxically place you in the hands of God, through whom all things are possible (Matt. 19:26).

The Vulnerability of Community

When Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, took the reins of the agency in 2009, he ushered in a “whole community” approach. This disaster response strategy recognizes the importance of engaging local communities alongside emergency management professionals.

When disaster strikes, we all need community—especially spiritual community. God created us for and called us into community that we might “carry each other’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). It is God’s graciousness that offers us this gift, and we can choose to not let the pain isolate us but to let it unite us.

My colleagues and I conducted a study after flooding hit South Carolina in 2015. Findings showed that positive spiritual support (i.e., assistance from one’s faith community) is an important predictor of individual disaster resilience among survivors. We also discovered that spiritual support promoted post-disaster religious well-being (i.e., positive perceptions of God) and perceived posttraumatic growth.

Shortly after I made my diagnosis public, Wheaton College president Philip Ryken stopped by my home to pray with me. I confessed that I didn’t like being the type of person who needed help. He replied, “We don’t like to admit it to ourselves, Jamie, but we are all the type of people who need help.”

My spiritual community deployed in full force for the better part of a year. They brought food, took care of my family, took me to appointments, mowed our lawn in the summer, plowed the driveway when winter came, sent cards, texted and called, engaged in sacred conversations, covered my classes when I was too weak to teach, and sat by my side as I received drip chemotherapy.

This care was also visible in the blue rubber bracelets my Wheaton colleagues and students began wearing. Each bracelet was inscribed with my name and the phrase, “Lord, hear our prayer.” This small gesture was a big reminder that I belonged to a loving spiritual community and was not alone. My wife and I also wore the bracelets, and our three young daughters wore theirs around their ankles. I would see these bracelets on wrists everywhere I went on campus, on people I barely knew and on complete strangers in the community. I even received a picture of refugee pastors wearing the bracelets in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp, where HDI had assisted and done research.

A few weeks after completing my last chemotherapy treatment, tests showed I was in remission. I’ll never forget the joy my family and I experienced as we took off our blue bracelets.

But I still keep one in my nightstand, another in my office desk drawer, and one in the front pocket of my backpack. I do this as a reminder that God created each of us for community. Don’t try to go through a disaster alone.

The Recovery of Redemption

Finding your new normal in the wake of a life-altering personal disaster can feel like an impossible feat. For some people, life may never go back to how it was. But our latest research suggests cultivating fortitude may help.

The church has long taught fortitude as the virtue of adversity and as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Whereas one of the hallmarks of resilience is expediting recovery, fortitude places greater value on endurance and persevering through long-suffering.

We find an example of this in the people of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They survived genocide and war, only to have some of their homes destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in early 2002. The survivors responded with fortitude by returning to the region a month later, some using lava rock to rebuild their houses. They not only found beauty in the ashes—they found refuge.

I didn’t start to regain my pre-cancer cognitive and physical functioning until about nine months after hearing my oncologist say, “no evidence of disease.” Just as I started to come to grips with permanent nerve damage and an array of side effects caused by my treatments, another crisis struck. I needed surgery to address complications arising from my first series of surgeries. After three more weeks in the hospital, I was finally discharged. I felt like I was starting the recovery process all over again.

Fortitude is about pushing forward in the promise that God can work in our brokenness. It is about pursuing good in the face of fear and hardship, as expressed in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

I am now in better health and have been in remission for more than three years, for which I am incredibly grateful. But I still occasionally struggle with how the many treatments have changed my body. Sometimes my anxiety spikes as I worry the cancer will come back. I continue to work through survivor guilt—three others in my college community have lost their battles with cancer since I began mine.

Each of these struggles has shown me that God will not abandon us, no matter how badly or how often we are knocked down (2 Cor. 4:8–9). These difficulties have also taught me that life’s disasters need not have the last word.

Be it in this life or the next, God promises to redeem our disasters.

I was getting ready for work one morning not long after finding out I was in remission. As I was standing in front of the mirror buttoning my shirt, my youngest daughter walked by my room. I saw her reflection as the then-four-year-old paused to survey the surgery scars on my chest and torso. I felt very self-conscious in that moment and worried about her seeing me this way. My daughter asked, in a tender voice, if I would have my scars in heaven. I paused.

“God will give Daddy a new body,” I said.

A smile started at the corner of her mouth and grew enormous as my words sank in.

“Yes!” she exclaimed, pumping her fist in the air like an athlete after a game-winning play. She happily skipped off.

Jamie D. Aten, PhD, is an endowed professor of psychology at Wheaton College and founder and executive director of the college’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute in Wheaton, Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook (InterVarsity Press) and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma (American Psychological Association).