One night in October 2017, I ended up in the emergency room knowing something wasn’t right but thinking it wasn’t all that bad. I walked out with a stage IV cancer diagnosis. My breast cancer from 22 years ago came back and I didn’t catch it. Now it was spread throughout my body.
I did both my pastoral work and doctor’s appointments for a bit, but it became very clear that I couldn’t do both at the same time. I didn’t have the energy. So I went on medical leave in December 2017 and I am still on medical leave. I have had varying degrees of feeling good over these months. Thanks to God, I have had more good days than bad. But the truth is, on those good days, I found myself in a hurry to get well so I could get back to work.
I was a pastor and my passion was (and still is) serving God in the kingdom. Being on medical leave made me feel like I wasn’t serving God, like I was letting my congregation down. But the Lord has slowly changed my mind. God told me that I still had a mission but that the mission field had changed. No longer was it my congregation and surrounding community. Now, it was this new community created by cancer.
One of my new mission fields is the oncology department. Many of us sit in the waiting room for our appointment, but we talk and listen to each other. We answer each other’s questions. We encourage each other. We help each other. And I pray for all these people, too. It is definitely a mission field because these patients need God. Many already lean on him.
Being on medical leave made me feel like I wasn’t serving God, like I was letting my congregation down. But the Lord has slowly changed my mind.
Another mission field is the people on my health update list. When I went on medical leave, the question then was how would the congregation know how I was doing if they were no longer going to see me? So I agreed to write a health update that could be put on the bulletin board. I also post it on Facebook for family and friends and send it out as an email to those not on Facebook.
The number of people who receive my updates has steadily grown and people constantly tell me they are so thankful for the updates. I am told they are uplifting and inspiring because my faith comes through loud and clear. I started this journey by being thankful to God—even for the cancer—because I knew God would use it for his good and his purposes, and I was anxiously waiting to see what he would do with my cancer.
I also try very hard to follow something Joni Eareckson Tada taught me in her book A Place of Healing: for every word you say about cancer or another ailment, say ten words about God. So I have made sure that my updates show my almighty God, his power, provision, protection, compassion, faithfulness, and grace. And that is what encourages others.
"For every word you say about cancer or another ailment, say ten words about God"
A friend of mine was just diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She wrote to me that she is going to try to follow my example as she deals with her cancer. It is a little intimidating to hear that. But I know she was part of the mission field God gave me and now I know why. My journey can help her in her journey.
While on leave, I’ve attended a Presbyterian church where a good friend is the minister. At first, I just sort of kept to myself, but this warm congregation accepted me. They didn’t all know my name, but they all knew that I was a pastor and that I had cancer. I became amazed at how many of them were either cancer patients or survivors. I heard God say, “This is a gift, but it is also a mission field.” So as I get to know these people with cancer, we share stories and I hope to be able to encourage them as well.
I am still finding other mission fields in this world of cancer. Mission fields are out there but we don’t often see these kinds of things as mission fields. No matter where you are in life, God has a mission field for you. Your mission field is wherever God puts you—even in the world of cancer.
Janine Dekker is a specialized minister in the Reformed Church in America. When she is not on medical leave, she serves as pastor of Laurel Lea St. Matthew’s Presbyterian Church in Sarnia, Ontario.