My terminal illness has helped me to live!

When Sylvia Reeve was diagnosed with a diseased lung and told her condition was terminal, she had to make many changes in her life. Now, she believes her life is richer than before

It occurred to me when asked what it was like “living with a terminal illness”, that if one wanted to be pedantic, we should talk about “dying with a terminal illness” after all, what is the meaning of terminal? Fatal, incurable, lethal, deadly, life threatening, critical; the list goes on.

As I sat and thought about this, it made me think about our lives in general. How many of us have a terminal illness? The answer has to be, all of us. Everyone who breathes life will die. This is the one phenomenon that can never be disputed. When and how, only God knows, and we can do nothing about it. Even our Saviour was born with a terminal illness. His illness was being burdened by our sins, suffering for our sins, troubled by our sins, and dying for our sins. Even worse was that from an early age, he was always aware of his impending death and the cruel nature of it.

I was 61 when I was diagnosed with a diseased right lung; (it turned out to be an allergy to my budgie.) Jesus was just 33 when he died. I have had a good life. It’s not been without its ups and downs but, on the whole, I have been happy and blessed. But it was only possible because of that death on the cross.

I have come to realise that the person who posed the question was in fact right. I am not dying with a terminal illness, but I am living with it, in the fullest sense of the word . . .

It came as rather a shock to me when I started writing this, for I hadn’t realised how much my life had changed. Before that dreaded day when I visited my consultant, I was a happy ‘contented with my lot sort of person’, attending and sharing in activities at the church. I supported the coffee mornings, went to Bible class, helped with Alpha courses as the appointed ‘cook’ and even sang with our Gospel Crusader Choir. I felt that I was fulfilled, positive in my faith and ‘doing my bit for God’. Was I in for a surprise? I hadn’t been really living at all. I merely existed. I went with the flow and never challenged myself with other things for fear of under achieving.

That person was dying with a terminal illness; she is dead. But the one who had been cocooned in God’s protective arms until he decided it was the right time has emerged from that chrysalis, and is very  much alive. So alive that she hasn’t dared to think if she has enough time left to do all the things that God has shown her she can do. But that too will be his decision . . .

“So, what is my prognosis?” I asked my consultant.

“I can’t predict because everyone is different.” He was being truthful at least, “but the disease is progressive and incurable at the stage you are at now. Had it been diagnosed earlier . . . ? (I couldn’t tell him that my previous GP had put my symptoms down to being overweight). However, we can help to make life easier for you.”

“Thank you for that.” I told him. He looked at me and I wondered if he thought I was being sarcastic, but he smiled. No, he didn’t seem to be that kind of person.

“I mean for being honest,” I quickly added.

“Let’s see how things go, once we start you on treatment,” he replied.
That treatment was one tablet three times a day. Within six months I was taking eight tablets a day and, a year after my diagnosis, the disease had spread to my other lung. I needed oxygen when I got breathless and my tablets increased in type and number, to 20 a day.

My whole life was revolving around hospital appointments and being an in patient. Within two years, my heart was beginning to show the strain, due to the lack of oxygen I was able to transfer through my lungs. I was soon on oxygen most of the day, and all night. My stays in hospital alternated between chest infections and angina attacks, eventually resulting in my having a stent inserted into my heart. My whole life had turned around. I was really dying.

I prayed: “Oh Lord, did it have to be just when we were looking forward to enjoying a few years retirement in our new home? I’m a good Christian, aren’t I?”

My consultant was wonderful. He had told me that I could only get the better of this disease if I was positive. I told him I was a positive person and, not meaning to offend him, added that I had another physician taking care of me too. Instead of laughing, he said he knew. How did he know? Without my asking, I was sure he had the same physician in mind.

I began to think about what the psalmist wrote, in psalm 118:8 and became aware that the consultant was looking at me questioningly.
“Sorry, just reflecting on a Bible verse,” I told him. “Just as God is at the very centre of my life, so is the verse at the very centre of his Word. “It is better to trust in the Lord, than to put confidence in man’ (KJV). 

“It doesn’t mean I don’t trust you”, I added, “but by trusting God, I know that whatever burdens I have to bear; he will not allow them to be more than I can cope with. And, he is there for me 24/7.”

But, was I really that positive? Not at that time. Was I angry? Yes. Did I feel let down? Yes. Did I blame God? Well, I had to think about that one; but no, how could I? When I was born, I didn’t come with a specified lifespan or a guarantee that I wouldn’t ever suffer. But Jesus did. I came with a promise; an unconditional promise that if I allowed Jesus into my life, he would be there for me whatever I had to endure. Jesus came with a destiny, to die for me.

I spent much time in prayer and, against advice, did some research into my disease. I discovered the disease had a prognosis of 50% death in five years; with a maximum 10 years. So what should I do with my next, my last, 10 years? No, not 10, for I must have had the disease at least 18 months before it was discovered. Well, statistics aren’t always correct, so here’s to the next 10, 15, or however many it didn’t matter, I told myself positively. I was determined to make the best of what time I had left. That was eight years ago.

I had to make changes to my lifestyle as I needed oxygen aound the clock. As walking became more difficult, my need for a wheelchair was soon apparent. But between us, me and my lovely husband, found ways to make living as easy as we could.

My church life was to some extent disrupted, as I couldn’t take an active part in the necessary jobs such as cleaning, and helping with tea and coffee. But, as I lay in bed one night, it came to me; prayer. How many people needed prayer? How many people, as I had done many times, didn’t make time to pray? I could do that, anywhere and I became quite excited. I didn’t feel quite such a failure in my spiritual life. But it still wasn’t enough, there had to be more. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life worrying about the things I could no longer do, I must concentrate on what I could do.

My husband and I managed to book a cruise holiday which afforded both of us all that we needed. It was a Christmas Caribbean cruise and I had the most amazing time. Not only were we able to join others in worship, but I had taken my watercolour paints and my writing pad. I have always enjoyed writing and painting; both give me a sense of relaxation and peace, and as I sat employed in one or other of these activities, people would come and look what I was doing. I’d invite them to sit and chat and, as if God had planned it, my writing, and painting took on Christian themes.

Wow, so this was what he had planned for my future. The amount of time I spent talking about my faith, and what it meant to me despite my health problems, was wonderful, not to mention answering the question which came up time and time again. “How can you still love God when he has allowed you to develop these conditions?”

I was able to say with all honesty that God didn’t inflict these things on me, but that he has shown me how to deal with them. He has shown me where I can use the talents he gave me and, most important, he has given me the confidence I never had before to openly discuss and promote my faith. I was no longer afraid of what people might think.

The best thing is that God has steered me to a new career in writing and giving testimonies for his glory. The very fact that I need oxygen everywhere I go is a wonderful ice breaker in a room full of strangers.

So, what is it like living with a terminal illness? I suppose I could say not much different than before I was diagnosed. But that would not be true. I have loved my Lord since I was small as my grandparents showed me the first steps along that long and often arduous road to faith. It has taken six decades and I still have lots more living and learning to do, so I don’t think about time in terms of terminal, or how long. Time is when God has finished with me.

Two months ago, I saw my consultant to get the results of my latest tests and to find out how much more my disease had progressed. He asked me how I was, to which I replied truthfully, “good”.

“Well . . .” he paused. “ I would have been surprised if you had said different, because your test results reveal that instead of dropping more, your lung function has improved greatly.”

I said “thank you Lord,” and we both smiled. He immediately decreased some of my medication and said. ”See you in four months then.”

It was the confirmation, and a reminder, as if God was telling me that it is not for me to plan my next - however many years. He is the one in control.

I have such an exciting life now. The doors have opened for so many things I never dreamed I could do. I have many wonderful stories of how my terminal illness has helped me to live and I share my faith without fear.  I pray that I can continue until my Lord calls me home.