With all the books on cancer survivors already out there, why did you chose to write this book on cancer?
Cancer shattered my world. I wanted a book full of Scripture, prayer, and hope that would assure patients and their families that God would never leave them or forsake them. I also wanted a book that, with honesty and boldness, would address the emotional roller coaster ride that cancer patients, even Christian ones, endure.
Was there anything good that came about through your illness?
Oh, yes. I am a stronger Christian today. I know God loves me and that he is faithful. I no longer doubt his call on my life as a counselor as well as an author and speaker. After going through the trauma of cancer, I counsel with more effectiveness. When clients tell me they are scared, depressed, or angry, I understand because I’ve experienced those same emotions.
During your illness and now in recovery, have you ever asked God, “Why” or “Why me?”
I didn’t ask, but I lashed out in anger at God. I knew he called me to be a counselor. So I spent hundreds of hours studying, writing papers, and completing projects and paid thousands of dollars for my master’s degree in counseling. Half-way through my residency, I received my diagnosis of cancer. I thought the timing was outrageous and let God know it.
Is there ever a time when you can laugh about cancer?
I asked God to help me keep my sense of humor. The day my hair started to fall out, I went to work with wet hair. My colleagues thought I had a power outage. I told them I was afraid to blow dry my hair because I might blow it all off and arrive looking like a Buddhist monk. I laugh now about how angry I was with God. I thought he had made a mistake. Now I understand he used the cancer for good in my life and the lives of others. I laugh every time I reminisce about George, my radiation therapist. He entertained me with stories about his childhood adventures.
What is the most important lesson you learned from your experience in having cancer?
In God’s economy, nothing is wasted, not even cancer. Romans 8:28 (NIV) says: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” I prayed that God would use cancer for good in my life and the lives of others, that it would be to his honor and glory, and for furthering his kingdom here on earth. I never dreamed he would do that through the publication of my book, much less through TV and radio interviews and speaking engagements.
Was the Bible real to you during treatment?
The Bible filled me with hope and peace. I clung to God’s precious promises during treatment and wrote verses with special meaning in my 3x5 notebook. Within days, I memorized those passages and repeated them daily. Terrified after my diagnosis, I slept with the Bible literally over my heart. I took my 3x5 notebook with me daily to radiation and reviewed my Bible memory verses on the way to treatment.
Why do some cancer survivors say cancer is the best thing that ever happened to them?
We say this because God has used cancer as a refining fire for us. He has used it to make us better people, stronger Christians, and more powerful in our careers and outreach.
How do you live differently today as a result of having had cancer?
I’ve learned to listen to my body. When I get tired, I take a nap. When I’m thirsty, I stop and drink water. Short breaks from my work help me relax. A weekend at the beach revives me. I don’t put off my plans and dreams because “next year” may never come. I signed up for a phone package with unlimited long-distance calls. Now I can call my family and friends any time. I appreciate the little things in life—thirty-minute walks to enjoy God’s beautiful world, a ride in my friend’s convertible, and sunrise and sunset at the beach. I also left teaching to become a full-time counselor because I felt God leading me to do so. I’ve never looked back.
How did you keep your spirits up while going through the cancer treatments?
I played praise and worship music every day and watched videos and DVDs by Christian comedians. During treatment, I planned the party I would have after completing my residency and obtaining my state license. I selected the music for the dance my friend would choreograph for us to perform. I dreamed about the sheet cake with white icing and hot pink roses with “Yvonne Ortega, LPC” and “To God be the glory” on the cake. I chose the Bible verses for my party invitations. After my diagnosis, I accepted an invitation to present a workshop on writing devotionals at the Maine Christian Writers Fellowship state conference the following August. I listened to tapes and researched the topic to prepare for my workshop and looked forward to the reunion with fellow writers in Maine and snacks of delicious Maine blueberries.
Did you ever think about giving up—that the treatments were too hard?
After my second treatment, my blood counts dropped to 500. Normal is between 4,000 and 11,000. My doctor hospitalized me. She said she would release me when my counts rose to 1,000. My counts dropped two days in a row. I called my parents to come see me, but Dad’s heart condition prevented them from doing so. I feared I would die alone in a military hospital more than an hour from my home.
After my final chemotherapy treatment, I thought I would never stop vomiting. I experienced a weariness that made my bones ache. I had to keep reminding myself that it would soon pass and in a few months I would travel to Maine for the writers’ conference.
What kinds of emotions did you experience during this time?
I experienced denial. If I didn’t talk about the cancer, maybe it would go away.
I experienced anger at God, the government, the Food & Drug Administration, televangelists who preached health and wealth, and anyone who told me Christians couldn’t be angry with God.
Fear overwhelmed me after my diagnosis and at times during treatment.
Depression forced me to my knees in prayer. When I found out the cancer had traveled to one lymph node and adjacent to another, I became depressed.
Are these emotions typical for every cancer patient?
Not every cancer patient will experience all of them. However, these emotions are typical. Also cancer patients don’t experience one feeling, get over it, and then go on to another one. They can go back and forth.
What can people do to help friends who are going through cancer treatments?
Listen without judging them. Expect cancer patients to ride an emotional roller coaster. Send cards, post cards, or e-mail greeting cards, especially humorous ones. Phone and visit them. Prepare a meal for them and take it in a disposable container or help with yard work and house work. Buy groceries and run errands for them. Take cancer patients to their chemotherapy and radiation treatments and pray with them and for them.