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Spiritually surviving chronic illness

By Dawna M. Stevens

Published: Monday, July 11 2011 6:30 a.m. MDT

The Book of Mormon teaches that not only did the Savior take upon himself our sins, but he also experienced our pains, sufferings and physical illnesses. What is our part in all of this suffering?

"And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people" (Alma 7:11).

In 1992 my mother was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. We all felt devastated. We had no idea of the challenges that lay ahead.

The first time I watched my mother have a central line placed in her chest, I wanted to fall apart. I turned and looked out the hospital window, prayed for strength and tried to pull myself together.

Never again did the need to fall apart surface. My silent prayer had been answered. I had been previously prompted that I needed to move home because my mother would need help. It was now starting to make sense.

Two weeks later, however, I was in a coma in complete kidney failure. My mother had to come to the hospital and sign the papers for me to be put on dialysis because I was not able to speak for myself.

There were many emotions to deal with, but there were wonderful people from our ward and other friends who helped to carry us through.

I remember Sister Beth Payne, my mission president's wife, once saying when you are ill and all you can do that day is read your scriptures then that is good enough.

We did my mother's chemo or radiation treatments one day, and then the next day it was my turn for dialysis treatments. Often when one of us would be released from the hospital, the other was just checking in.

The hardest part of this new situation was accepting help from others. We always want to be the ones giving help, but I learned that others are blessed by giving. The home teachers and visiting teachers made a significant difference in how we were able to cope. They filled in where our abilities ended.

When I had a concern and would pray about it, I would randomly open my scriptures, and there was an immediate answer to my prayer. That was very helpful. It made me keenly aware that the Lord is involved in our daily lives if we allow him to be.

Then I made some interesting discoveries.

My mother, who served as the ward librarian at the time, kept serving in her calling. We took her oxygen tank along with us when we went to the distribution center to pick up the items the teachers and others needed to fulfill their callings. It filled a need in her to be able to serve others and gave her hope that there was a reason to hang on.

In the same vein, when I went to dialysis the hours seemed so long. At that time we were doing extraction on the yellow cards, so I took my lists and cards with me and worked on it while taking my treatments. It created an appreciation for those who came before.

When I could not rest after a treatment, I would get up and work on family history by doing the simple task of entering names into the Personal Ancestral File program. An amazing thing happened: I was blessed with the physical strength that the treatments took away from me.

At night, my mother and I continued to pray and read our scriptures together. The cancer eventually affected my mother's vocal cords, and she was unable to keep reading aloud. She was disappointed, but she still participated as much as she was able.

There were times I would get up at night to check on my mother. As I looked in on her, I'd see her cat lying next to her and her hand on her scriptures as if she were being comforted just by the touch.

I learned it's OK to accept help from others, but I also learned that there is always something we can give back, no matter how simple. Without giving service, it is too easy to become centered on our own problems. It is easier for the Spirit to buoy us up when we are concerned about others. Our prayers and the scriptures give us strength from deep within that we had no idea that we possessed.

Yet, there is also a need for balance, and we need to be wise enough to know what we are capable of doing by following this counsel: "Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength and means provided ... but be diligent unto the end" (Doctrine and Covenants 10:4).

These type of experiences can lead us to greater faith, and in turn the Lord is able to use us as tools in his work.

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