Cancer Converted Me: 5 Lessons I've Learned Through My Journey


It’s a good bet that life will have its fair share of challenges when the first words the doctor speaks at birth are,

“It’s a girl,” and “she has Mongolism.”

Thankfully, my birth defects were not a symptom of Down Syndrome, as the physician had diagnosed, and I avoided a condition that could’ve defined my life to a certain set of challenges. As you might expect, more trials, many of them physical, inevitably came my way. Before my 3rd birthday, a cat scratch to my left eye had doctors explaining to my parents, “she’ll most likely be blind for life.” Many, many years later, another doctor confessed, “I do not know what is causing these miscarriages or if you will be able to have children.” Like many in this life, I have endured personal difficulties, disabilities, infertility, career letdowns, and other struggles. Life’s ups and downs have made up the peaks and valleys of my story.

Life has held many challenges since that first misdiagnosis at birth, but there have also been beautiful blessings—being able to use my talents in a teaching career I loved, marriage to a good man, and the birth of 3 beautiful boys who all defied the 50/50 odds of inheriting my genetic defect. After 10 years of moving and schooling, we finally bought our first home, were settling into a career and a neighborhood, and doing the best we could to live a good life, when another storm hit with the words of yet another doctor.

“It’s cancer.”

In January of 2013, something beyond normal ups and downs crashed into my path—I was diagnosed with stage 2B invasive ductal breast cancer after my husband discovered a tumor in my left breast. We all experience tests and trials, but cancer was the big one for me. It was a devastating storm, a mist of darkness, a powerful force like I had never before experienced. This was the test that brought me to my knees and had me crying out, asking God, if it be His will, to remove the cup from me.1

Hearing “it’s cancer,” was overwhelming, but became a great paradox in my life, similar to those spoken by the Savior himself—he who loses his life shall find it.2 What could’ve consumed me in despair inspired in me a change of heart. Shortly after my diagnosis, I took Elder Bednar’s challenge to “not shrink,”3 and made that the theme of my battle. As my body was drugged, destroyed, damaged, and reborn from the inside-out, my soul was changed for good. It was in the hardest trial of my young life that my heart was turned to my Savior. I began to see the gospel of my youth through new eyes (or eye, in my case!). I learned to see, hear, and understand with my heart.4

I was converted through cancer.

Fighting cancer, like conversion, does not happen quickly or all at once. “Conversion is an ongoing process…gradually and almost imperceptibly, our motives, our thoughts, our words, and our deeds become aligned with the will of God. Conversion unto the Lord requires both persistence and patience. Knowing that the gospel is true is the essence of a testimony. Consistently being true to the gospel is the essence of conversion. We should know the gospel is true and be true to the gospel.”5

Before cancer, I had not been tested beyond that which I could bear without turning to the Lord completely, and sadly, I did not always have patience or persistence in the gospel. During my battle to overcome cancer, however, I chose to turn completely to the Lord. I made the effort to seek Him, and I put his promise to the test when he said: “will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?”6

During treatment, I heard troubling and concerning words from many doctors. At the same time, I was taught to recognize more fully the words from the Great Physician, our Master Healer, even Jesus Christ, as He used the trial of cancer to heal me, to make me “whole.”7 Here are five lessons He taught me in the process:


1. Love is the essence of the gospel

We are commanded to love God with all our hearts,8 to love our neighbors as ourselves,9 and to love as the Savior has loved us.10 We show this love by serving others.11 Before cancer, I thought of service as mostly grand gestures that took great amounts of our time, but I learned that often the small tokens of love help us feel closest to the Savior.

One such display came early in the journey. I was scheduled to speak in church on the topic of Jesus Christ, a few days after my cancer diagnosis. Even though my bishop offered to release me from this calling, I went on as planned, knowing I needed all the blessings I could get to begin my fight. Immediate blessings flowed, as my ward family organized a surprise, a sign of their love and support. I stood to bear testimony of Jesus Christ, and saw an incredibly touching example of God’s love for me: a sea of pink—pink dresses, ties, shirts, bows, skirts, shoes, jewelry, and scarves equal to an entire congregation of Pink Warriors, displaying their willingness to fight the good fight with me. It was a outward expression of covenants these good saints had made to “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things and be willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.”12 I bear testimony that “God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs. Therefore, it is vital that we serve each other.”13 This loving service is at the heart of the gospel, and my family and I would not have survived our battle without it.

Some of the "pink warriors"

2. You can't do it all, but you are never alone

I would describe myself as a strong person. Some of my talents include independence, resourcefulness, and assertiveness. But our talents can often become a source of pride, which Satan can use against us. “If we are not wary, Satan can cause our spiritual downfall by corrupting us through our strengths as well as by exploiting our weaknesses.”14 When we fail to recognize the Savior in all things and as the giver of all gifts, we are often compelled to be humble.15 In my case, humility came from experiencing the absolute loss of strength or the ability to accomplish anything on my own. At a low point toward the very end of my chemo treatments, my body was broken down and my immune system was so nonexistent that I did not have even enough energy to lift myself out of bed. I had no desire to eat, and my brain seemed to have lost the ability to make my hands work. Despair and fear sought to overtake me. How would I care for my children? How would I recover enough to continue chemo and finish the fight if I didn’t have energy to even stand? How would I host that baby shower? How would I spend 4th of July at the beach? I went from being “that mom,” who could “do it all,” to being able to do absolutely nothing. I had to learn this lesson: “Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak…I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things...”16 It is okay not to be able to “do it all,” for we all need help from the Savior.

We have been promised that we “...can do all things through Christ,”17 but how is this possible when physical limitations sometimes make the literal translation of this scripture questionable? I lost physical strength, which became emotionally paralyzing; but like the Savior in Gethsemane, my Heavenly Father did not leave me alone. Angels in earthly form comforted me—a neighbor rushed over to climb my stairs and rescue my crying baby from his crib. Family members and friends dropped their plans to comfort me, clean my house, and cook for and feed me. I was never alone. There were times when my body could not do all things, but all the important things got done because I was strengthened by those who gave of their time and talents to serve and uplift me. We are never left alone, but at times we must humble ourselves to ask for and accept God’s help. I was compelled to be humble in order to understand that it is only through Christ that I can do all things, because not one of us can do it all on our own.


3. You are more than your body

I spent my 34th birthday in the hospital recovering from a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. I came home sore, broken, and feeling like Frankenstein, with stitches and scars, and 4 drains hanging from my body. This was another low point in my treatment. The pain was disabling, and I was unprepared for the sadness that came from the loss of my “real” body. I hated the sight of the scars, my surgically generated belly button, and my bulging and droopy new body. I remember thinking that I would never feel normal again. Since I was unable to do much more than stay in bed, I prayed for comfort. A scripture I had read many times took on new meaning: “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.”18 It was as if this passage was written just for me at this time. “Remember, Melodee, that the worth of your SOUL is great.” I was reminded, "know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you?"19 Have you forgotten that you are a spirit daughter of a king and that your spirit, your soul, is precious to Him? You are not this body. YOU are the spirit that dwells within.

The Lord does not see me as my imperfect body, for he does not see as man; “for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”20 If my heart is converted, the Lord can see me as a soul of great worth. Even though my stomach is now where my breasts once were, tattoos fill the space of missing parts, and scars cover my body, the Lord has made me whole by healing my heart and making my soul stronger.

Emotions soon after diagnosis. Photo credit: Amber Hagan Photography

4. One woman's cancer is another's canker

Before cancer, I often found myself wondering why 1) people weren’t able to handle certain trials or 2) why other people always seemed to have life so easy. Then, I experienced a trial that was extremely difficult to handle, and I realized how wrong I had been to attempt to judge the lives of others. Cancer progresses in a somewhat public eye. When people saw me as the bald and broken cancer patient, they would express things like, “I don’t know how you do it,” or “when I think about what you’re going through, I realize that I don’t have anything to complain about.” At the same time, I began to say, “yes, I have cancer. But, I have not had to go through divorce, living with a child with a disability, abuse, the death of a parent or child, job loss, poverty, addictions, or many other major storms that have burdened the lives of others.” This life is one of testing, but the tests look different for each of us. “Everyone has different trials, and Heavenly Father is aware of those. If we are humble enough to follow the plan He has for us, we’ll be happy.”21

I was able to beat cancer, yet driving in heavy traffic gives me anxiety. We must always remember that what might seem impossible for one might be easy for another. Through my cancer experience, I gained an understanding that not one person’s story is just like ours: not their strengths, nor weaknesses; not their triumphs, nor trials, so we should not compare our place on the path to where anyone else is on their own journey. “It is not possible to judge another fairly unless you know his desires, his faith, and his goals…. People are not in the same position. One may start at the top and the other at the bottom, and they may meet as they are going in opposite directions…. It is not where you are but the direction in which you are going that counts…At best, man can judge only what he sees; he cannot judge the heart or the intention, or begin to judge the potential of his neighbor.”22 The constant is that without the Savior, none of us will ever have the hope of becoming perfect. “Though our trials are diverse, there is one thing the Lord expects of us no matter our difficulties and sorrows: He expects us to press on.”23


5. Love your spouse with all your heart

“A spouse is the only person other than the Lord whom we have been commanded to love with all our heart.”24 How can you love both God AND your spouse with your whole heart? It seems like an impossible equation, another great paradox of the gospel that only proves true when two people make and keep sacred covenants in the House of the Lord. Temple marriage has been called ‘Covenant Marriage,’ and “when troubles come to a covenant marriage, the husband and wife work them through. They marry to give and to grow, bound by covenants to each other, to the community, and to God.”25 Before cancer, I did my best to be a loving and supportive wife, and I had never planned for a great storm of life that would threaten to shake those vows. During the storm, I became even more grateful that I was part of an eternal union, one that could not be tossed by the seas of trial. I witnessed how “a temple marriage provides an eternal perspective and a greater measure of divine assistance than a civil marriage can offer.”26

Not everyone is so lucky. Time and time again, fellow survivors shared that their “partners” had left them during cancer. Hearing these stories made me immediately grateful for the blessings of my marriage. With all the unknowns in a fight with cancer, I never had to question the strength of those bonds. I began to be even more unmoved and determined to live up to covenants I had made, for time and time again I received an extra degree of assistance and blessings because of them.

Stephen shaving Melodee's hair, March 5, 2013

Weathering the storm was not easy, especially for my husband. Stephen had to witness his sweetheart become broken, bald---he even shaved my head!--nearly lifeless, and physically weak. “For better or worse” does not come close to describing the magnitude of the process. Through it all, he had to be the provider, the strong one, the one who had to pick up more than his share of the slack, and the one who didn’t have cancer and therefore “shouldn’t” have anything to complain about.

Now that the storm has passed, I look into the eyes of my husband and know that he loves more than my temporal self: Stephen loved the younger, more beautiful me. He loved the bald, vomiting, bleeding, stitched-up me. He loves the me with physical and emotional scars. He loves my soul, and this helps me as I strive to love him with all my heart. We didn’t simply make vows “til death do us part.” We are partners for eternity, and if we are committed and converted to keeping our covenants, we will be strengthened to withstand any trial.

The Savior’s promised pattern was true for me that “…after…temptations, and much tribulation, [I was] converted and [He healed me.]”27 On May 27, 2014, my doctor proclaimed:

“You are cancer free.”

This sounds crazy, but at times I wish I still had cancer. Rather, I wish I still had a daily incentive “to not shrink” from the Lord. During times of trial, we have more reason to seek and to find our Savior and to take his yoke upon us.28 I felt a closeness to Christ during my cancer battle that I don’t want to lose now that I am healed, but it is up to me to continue to be converted. I must strive to keep seeking, learning, enduring, and becoming perfected. Conversion is not a one-time event or a chore to be completed. “Conversion is not an end, but a beginning of a new way of life.”29

So, what now?

I must continue to “act upon the doctrines [I] know are true and keep the commandments, day after day, month after month. A person who has experienced true conversion draws upon the power of the Atonement and receives salvation for his or her own soul, then reaches out to exert a powerful influence upon all those who know him or her.”30 Once we are converted, we are supposed to strengthen our brethren, 31 and sharing my testimony continues to strengthen me. Being healed, made whole from cancer, has helped to prepare me to weather the next storm, which will undoubtedly come. Next time, I hope the Lord won’t have to question, “ Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?”32 Someday, I’ll be able to hear the words of the Master Healer:

“Well done, thou good and faithful servant…enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”33


Family photo. Photo credit Beth V Photography
Melodee Cooper is a Texan by birth, an Aggie by choice, the wife of a fellow Aggie because “he loves her more,” and a mother of three boys by a combination of time, modern science, and divine intervention. She has taught both 5th and 6th grade math and science, and is now able to be a stay-at-home mom, an amateur decorator, a crafter, a blogger, and a holiday enthusiast. As of May 27, 2014, she could add “breast cancer survivor” to her bio. Now, 13 years after first leaving, Melodee is back in Aggieland with her family, ready to start the next chapter of life.


Sources:
1. See Luke 22:42 Matthew 26:38–39, see also Mark 14:36
2. See Matthew 10:39
3. David A. Bednar, “That We Might “Not…Shrink,” CES Devotional for Young Adults, March 3, 2013, University of Texas Arlington; see also D&C 19:18
4. See Deuteronomy 29:4, Psalms 119:34, John 12:40
5. David A. Bednar, “Converted unto the Lord,” Ensign, November 2012
6. 3 Nephi 9:13, emphasis added
7. See Mark 5:33–34
8. See Deuteronomy 6:5; Moroni 10:32; Doctrine & Covenants 59:5
9. See Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 5:43–44; Matthew 22:37–40; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8; Mosiah 23:15; Doctrine & Covenants 59:6
10. See John 13:34; John 15:12, 17; Moses 7:33
11. See Matthew 25:40
12. Mosiah 18: 8-9
13. Spencer W. Kimball, “The Abundant Life,” Tambuli, June 1979, 4; Ensign, July 1978, 4
14. Elder Dallin H. Oaks: “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Ensign, Oct. 1994, 12
15. See Alma 32:25
16. Alma 26:12
17. See Philippians 4:13
18. Doctrine & Covenants 18:10
19. 1 Corinthians 3:16
20. Samuel 16:7
21. Melissa Merrill, “Faith and Infertility,” Ensign, April 2011
22. N. Eldon Tanner, “Judge Not That Ye Be Not Judged,” Ensign, May 1972
23. Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Press On,” Ensign, May 2004
24. See Doctrine & Covenants 42:22; Gospel topics, “Marriage,” lds.org
25. Elder Bruce C. Hafen, “Covenant Marriage,” Ensign, November 1996, 26
26. “Celestial Marriage,” Liahona, October 1998
27. See Doctrine & Covenants 112:13
28. See Matthew 11:29-30
29. L. Tom Perry, “When Thou Are Converted, Strengthen They Brethren,” Ensign, November 1974.
30. Bonnie Oscarson, “Be Ye Converted,” Ensign, November 2013
31. See Luke 22:32
32. See Matthew 8:26
33. Matthew 25:21

3 comments

  1. This is so beautifully written! I am so impressed with your ability to capture the process into words.

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  2. Mel, thank you so much for sharing. Your Mom posted about this and I'm so glad she did because it's beautiful.
    Thank you!

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