Trusting God with terminal cancer
Q&A | Kara Tippetts on resting in God’s faithfulness to the very end
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 9/29/14, 09:57 am
Kara Tippetts and her husband, Jason, have a lot going for them, including four beautiful children and a thriving new church that Jason started and serves as pastor. But soon after moving to Colorado Springs, Colo., to start that church, Tippetts discovered she had breast cancer. Despite aggressive treatment, the cancer spread throughout her body.
Kara describes herself as a terrible sick person. She hates being sick, so it might have been easy for her to retreat into self-pity. Instead, she started blogging about her experiences with a remarkable transparency that immediately won her as many as 20,000 daily page views on her blog, Mundane Faithfulness. A publisher soon discovered the blog and the result is her first book, The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard. I had this conversation with Kara Tippetts at her home in Colorado Springs.
Kara, your book is called The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard. Whenever I read that, I want there to be a hard … Something. Anything, and that’s what I say in the introduction. I am not trying to win at having the hardest story. I’m trying to get us all to look for God’s grace in the midst of any “hard.” Though my hard is cancer, each of us face hard every single day. We have an expectation of what life would be, and yet it becomes unmet.
Let’s back up a little bit and talk about those expectations. You and your husband, Jason, live here in Colorado Springs, Colo., but you came here originally to plant a church. Arriving here in Colorado Springs is also about the time you found out you had cancer as well. The first night in town I actually fell on my face. I passed out from dehydration and altitude and fell on my face and broke my nose. My teeth went through my lip, and my heart went into AFib. Then six months later, that was reconciled, and then we moved here to the west side of town. We were ready to plant a church, and the Waldo Canyon fire came screaming down that ridge that you saw driving up.
For people that don’t know, the Waldo Canyon fire was the largest fire in the history of Colorado. Folks that didn’t live in Colorado Springs don’t know what a defining moment that fire was for the city. Our entire ZIP code was evacuated. We had just moved in 10 days before. Over 330 homes were burned. It was just the winds. They thought they had it and there was a wind change and everything changed in a split moment.
That was the side of town that we had chosen to do the church plant. It was very clear to us that it was a door opening. People came out of their doors, talking to each other about what happened. It was really a beautiful moment of God opening the doors for community in the brokenness of that. Then 10 days after that is when I found the lump and found out that I had breast cancer.
So you found the lump in your breast, and you’ve written that even before you got the diagnosis you knew. I knew. I simply knew. I really just knew that I was going to be asked to walk this. We have no family history of it. I just felt sure that it was cancer and that I was being called to do something really hard.
What happened next? We got the diagnosis, and I first started with chemo, then went to a double mastectomy, reconstruction, and then radiation. In the midst of that, the mother church hired us. It’s a large church here in town. We were supposed to start our church plant in October, and they allowed us to stay with them until March.
We started our church plant in March when I was in the midst of radiation. God has just been blessing our work. There’s just a real sense of brokenness in our community, so we have this really beautiful church with people who know that we need to do this. There are seven of us in our community with cancer, in our small little community of about 200 now.
Then we went away for the summer. The summer of 2013, we ran away to enjoy Colorado. I came back in the fall, and my last optional surgery was to have my ovaries removed. When I went to that GYN/oncologist, when he did an exam, he found tumors. At that point I got the diagnosis of stage four metastatic cancer, which means the cancer has gone into my blood and moved to organs. So I had a radical hysterectomy, and it has since just been growing and growing and growing. The story is cancer growing, and Jason and I just looking for Jesus in the midst of it.
What has that been like? That was a little over a year ago. Stage four cancer is … forgive me for being so … Incurable. It’s incurable. … It’s true that there is no cure, but when you have the horizons of your days shortened, you can either curl up in a ball and cash yourself out and just wait to die, or you can begin to really live. The grace of having very small children is every day I have to pack lunches and deal with cuts and sibling rivalry. I have to still keep going, and so while I still have this breath, I’m planning on using it faithfully.
In the midst of all of this you started a blog as well. Tell me about that blog. It’s called Mundane Faithfulness. I started it from Martin Luther’s quote, “What will you do in the mundane days of faithfulness?” My husband had preached that very often, and I really felt like as a mom most of our days are like Groundhog Day. Every day is the same: laundry, dishes, dinners. How do you see Jesus in the midst of it and how do you not just get through it, but live well in the midst of it?
I really started it thinking it was going to be a mom blog, just encouraging moms to love their kids well, and I didn’t realize that it was going to be my journey on cancer and loving kids well and my husband well. When I first got the diagnosis, I went to our elders as they prayed for me and said my "hard" is that I would not use illness as an excuse to be unkind to my family. That has really been my prayer—that even though I am a horrible sick person, I hate being sick, I asked God to help me, in the midst of my hard, to be kind and loving to my family.
When you say you’re a horrible sick person and you hate being sick, what’s the worst part about it? A lot of chemo is a constant, almost car sickness. Some of the drugs they give you to help rapidly grow your white blood cells cause great pain. Jason and I will be going out to an event at night, and he’ll say, “Do you feel good?” And I look at him and I say, “Nope, let’s go.” It’s a constant feeling poorly, but I’m not sick with a virus, so I’m not contagious in any way. I just have to learn to live, even when I feel horrible.
While you were feeling horrible and starting to document it on your blog, you came to the attention of a publisher. Correct, David C. Cook. It was right after my hysterectomy when I got the new diagnosis, and they approached me and said, we love your writing. We love the honesty with which you write. Would you be willing to write a book with us? At first we didn’t know if I’d even have the time to write the book.
You mean the … Time living; yeah. We didn’t know; we weren’t actually sure how long I had at that point. They just became very gracious and wanted to work with me and said they would use some of the writing I had already done, but I said my hard is if I want my blog readers to read this book I want it to be new to them. They gave me a very short deadline and we just worked really hard. … Oct.1 is its release date.
What do you want the book to be and do? I think so much of our culture is about winning. Social media makes us all compete, and my hard is that we would all stop competing and start living honestly and in the honest living help each other love each other better and do this better. My hope is that we wouldn’t be afraid of hard things in our lives, but allow those hard things to be the things that make us see how much we need God.
In the losing by this world’s standards, I’m seeing how kept and how loved I am and I want other people to see that, because everyone, everyone, everyone has hard in their life. Like I said, mine is cancer, but everyone has something, and some people are hiding it and not realizing that God can use it in a unique way.
Kara, you have a great husband, great marriage, great kids, a calling in your life, you and your husband planting this church, and meaningful work. You were successful at it by the world’s standards. There are going to be a lot of people who say, “God must be a real you-know-what to allow this sort of thing to happen.” What would you say to the folks outside looking in at that situation? It is hard for a lot of people on the outside looking in. I often say hard is not the absence of God’s goodness. Look at how our salvation was made. It talks about in Philippians that we then get to partner with Jesus in suffering, so it’s a calling of us all. I think we forget that. I think somewhere we have blended this American culture into our faith and forgotten that suffering is very much a part of what we’re all called to.
There’s also I would think on the other side of that coin a danger to be glib about this too, right? It’s not just your suffering, but it’s your family’s, as well. It’s a possibility that you’re going to leave them without a husband, without a mother. How do you as a family deal with that? I know some of that is probably too personal to talk about. No, not at all. I talk very honestly and openly about that. I don’t discount how incredibly hard it is in my writing. I have desperately low days and days where I forget, and I need my community to remind me of the goodness of God, and I’m really honest about that. Today I can’t see the gospel. Today I can’t see this. Will you all help remind me?
For my kids, we have a very large age range of kids, and so we have just been very open with them and answer their questions as they come. Last week I found out I have cancer in my brain in three new places. The kids got in the car and I said, “All right, kids, you know mommy is struggling with cancer. We found three new spots in my brain, now let’s just play the music really loud and dance on the way home from school and go home and make dinner.”
And, you know, with our diagnosis it’s just going to keep coming like that. So they get in the car, it’s like, “All right kids, mommy has to go to more doctors.” It does sound a little glib, but it’s kind of our story.
You know it’s funny when I walked up here; you and I are sitting on your front porch right now with the Waldo Canyon fire remnants in the background and I guess Pikes Peak over here as well, and a beautiful site here. On your front porch though you’ve also got a sign that says immune suppressed, please wash hands before entering, and you’ve got some hand sanitizer there. Your daughter came to the door whenever I knocked on the door and she just looked up at me and I said do I need to wash my hands before I come in, and she said, “Yeah, you need to wash your hands because my mommy has cancer.” Did she say that? Wow. From a 5-year-old. I mean that’s her reality, and it’s hard. Last week I shaved my head and my hair is now about to fall out, so I’m going to look like you pretty soon, Warren.
Hey, it’s not all bad. It’s not? For the kids I appear as somebody sick. They know I’m somebody who is sick, and it’s our story. My youngest daughter is named Story, and she knows this is our lives. She probably doesn’t realize that cancer is deadly. There will be the time that that unique conversation will come to her. My oldest, they do know. They do know.
In the book, I talk about my second born saying, “Is mommy going to die of old age or cancer?” We just lay in bed and cried together. I said, Harper, will Jesus be good to us in either answer? We just cried; that we want to believe that truth. It’s a hurt.
Kara, a few minutes ago, you talked about your community and how they have walked with you through some of the times at the very bottom. What’s been helpful and what’s not helpful? That’s an excellent question. I really love hearing the stories with cancer where people have grown in faith or grown nearer to God. I struggle when people need to tell me about a horrible death from cancer. Those really discourage me and sometimes will leave me brokenhearted for a couple of days.
What is helpful? We have asked our kids along the way what help do you want in our home? My children specifically love when I cook. They just like watching me cook. There is something very normal about me cooking. In my first year of cancer, people brought dinner every night. This time, we’ve asked for freezer meals so the kids watch me put it together. Even though I’m not the one actually cooking, it appears to my children that I am.
We are very careful, season by season. Right now I have moms that help me come and clean on Mondays because we’re trying to save my energy for the kids when they get home from school. I think for community it’s a constant asking, especially with somebody that has a chronic disease. We want suffering to be like pregnancy, nine months and it’s gone, but my story isn’t like that, so we have to keep re-looking at my story; what new help do we need, and what new support do you need as I get weaker and weaker?
When I hear you talk about the story of your church, and the fact that you and Jason have planted this church and it has grown, it’s thrived, temptation is to be glib about this and to look for the happy ending, to say things like, “God has turned this into good by giving you guys such a powerful and compelling story.” There may be some truth in that. How do you process all of that? At the end of the day, my heart’s desire is for more time and to be a mom longer. So I can say in my mind that God is good, even if He takes me early. But, in my heart, I scream, “Lord, let me stay!” Somebody once told me a story of a season of great blessing. God was blessing her ministry, her book, and she had a friend who had just lost her husband, and she was in the midst of great suffering, but the hard thing for both of them was to trust God.
I listened to that and I said, I’m both those women. I’m in the midst of great blessing and getting to share my story, getting to ask people to look for God’s grace, and I’m also dying. So the struggle is to trust God every day. Trust God and walk in faithfulness with Him. It is not a simple journey.
You talk about being tired. I’ve got to imagine that hearing impertinent questions from guys like me has got to be a part of the draining process; yes or no? Not for me. I am highly extroverted. I don’t think that’s often true of writers, but I love people and getting to share the story and meet new people. It is one of my greatest delights. I have enjoyed this process of getting to share my story and answer hard questions and hope, in some way, maybe encourage just one person even.
What do you hope people get out of the book and your life in general? I want the essence of my heart to be left behind, that when my kids go to find me, they won’t find me, but they’ll find the essence of me, and they’ll know me by these words and by the countless words that I’ve left behind. And not even know me—they would see my dependence on Jesus, and that would be what would lead them. Mom might not give me advice, but she would have said to me, what’s the Holy Spirit saying in your life?
For the readers abroad, I hope it would challenge people to live in kindness to one another. Kindness matters, and it shows others the gospel in a way that nothing else does. Looking for God’s grace, that unmerited love that we did not earn but that is lavished upon us each day of our living, [I hope] they would begin to see that.
What are the doctors telling you right now? I was raised in the Love Boat generation, where it’s like I am on the boat because I have six months to live. It’s not so much like that anymore. I think the time will come when they say, we’re out of treatment options, and at that point we’ll know I’m to the end. We’re not there yet. I’m not out of treatment options. It’s moving through my skeletal system quite rapidly, which is discouraging at best. I have never been told any type of timeline. I know people are very curious of that, so that’s a great question.
Are you curious? No. I don’t want to know. I mean there is a part of me. With each diagnosis, I know I’m getting closer to the end. You meet people who just can’t wait for heaven. They talk about it all the time. I am not one of those people. I love heaven. I am sure that is my destination. I am a hundred percent sure that’s where I’m going, but I’m not a person who pines for it, because when I look in my kids’ faces, I want to stay because it’s what I can see, feel, hear and touch.
Listen to Warren Cole Smith interview Kara Tippets on Listening In: