A Brain Tumor and the Face of Baby Jesus – A Joyful Christmas Story
As we enter into this holiday season of Advent, it’s finally time to share my brain tumor story. For the past year, I’ve kept it close and under wraps, but when the face of baby Jesus is involved, it becomes a joyful Christmas story that needs to be told.
Advent. I’ve heard this word since I was a child, but never really comprehended its meaning. The word Advent is a noun and the definition is “The arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. The anticipation of things to come.”
It is by nature the true reason we celebrate Christmas and all its joyful hope.
It was 2020, the world was in pandemic chaos and my favorite seasons of spring and summer were filled with debilitating headaches that pierced my head like a dagger when I leaned over to pluck a strawberry or cucumber. As the pain worsened, I finally made my way into the doctor’s office in late fall. My to-do list was a mile long and packed with grading exams for the university, farm chores, and holiday preparation. It was crunch time and I didn’t feel I could take Excedrin and go lay in a dark quiet room again and again.
During the office visit, my doctor suggested a brain scan because the pain I described wasn’t the standard allergy, migraine, hormonal, or virus headache. Two days before Thanksgiving I had a CT scan, was immediately sent for an MRI, and then was told I had a large brain tumor.
It was the size of a large peach.
The neurosurgeon pointed out a section of the tumor he felt was too risky to remove, but he was hopeful the growth was benign. Because this is such a slow-growing tumor, he thought it had been in there for 10-15 years. He prepared to schedule surgery that week.
We asked for a second opinion referral, and we were sent to one of the top neurosurgeons in the region. The diagnosis was the same. Though for good measure, he added that the tumor was “gigantic.” Great. Now that word was in my head too. When I got home, I sat down at the desk where I’d been writing on pruning fruit trees. Dozens of photos of beautiful peaches were in front of me. I kept looking at them, trying to picture one inside my brain.
The surgery to prune away this unwanted tumor was scheduled for the week of Christmas. As we prepared for this adventure, God’s peace fell hard. I’ve never felt his presence like I did the weeks before surgery. It was as if the air around my family was spiritually charged. All the unimportant tasks and concerns were pruned away. I wrapped up Christmas shopping, my final two lessons at the university, and spent as much time as possible in prayer with my family.
After I removed daily tasks that no longer mattered, I began spending more time out in the barn with the goats. One afternoon I decided to drag out our large plastic nativity scene that had been in storage for years. It was filthy, janky, and over 20 years old, but I wanted to hang out with my goats and plastic baby Jesus in the barn. The chilly and stinky stall was my happy place where I could meet with God. The goats were snuggly and so silly, always knocking over poor plastic Joseph. They were quick to headbutt anything that came between them and baby Jesus. A lesson for all of us.
While hanging with the goats and plastic Jesus, I had the urge to tell the neurosurgeon to get the entire tumor out. For the love…just get it all! I wanted to explain that our family members are risk-takers, I’m tight with Jesus and if everything goes south, it’s all good. I’m ready to go to heaven.
In all honesty, the diagnosis couldn’t have been given at a better time. I had raised my four kiddos, and my last baby girl just graduated from high school. I had given them everything I had, and now they were becoming amazing young adults. Can you imagine going through something like this when you have toddlers and a lifetime of lessons left that you want to pour into your children? I was at peace.
However, I felt strongly that I didn’t want a portion of the tumor to be left, needing another surgery to remove it down the road. At my last preop visit, the neurosurgeon told me he would come to say good morning before they rolled me into the operating room on surgery day. Maybe then is when I could plead my case to get it all out regardless of the risk.
Yes, I would ask him to take the risk when he came in on surgery morning. Go big or go home…right?!?
A few days prior to surgery my bestie sent me a link to an article about the Christmas Star created by Jupiter and Saturn aligning and appearing as one bright star. It’s a rare occurrence and the next one was to happen on December 21, 2020, my surgery day. I read the article that speculated it may have also occurred just as Christ was born and similar alignment formed the star that led the wise men to baby Jesus. This is why the Jupiter and Saturn alignment was called the Christmas Star in the astronomy world. I wasn’t in the mood to go down the rabbit hole of researching dates. I’m always a skeptic, so I deleted the article and didn’t give it any more thought.
On surgery day, I arrived at the hospital in the early morning wearing my favorite t-shirt which reads Not Today Satan. As soon as I signed in, they whisked me to the pre-op area. I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to CJ. Pandemic protocols meant he couldn’t be with me.
Once the IVs were in, I was stripped of my wedding ring and phone that had my happy worship playlist and Bible reading app. It was just me—raw and alone with God in a chilly, sterile room for the next hour. However, I couldn’t feel his presence. The peace I had the past month was gone. For some reason, fear had taken over and I was full of despair. I cut my baby teeth on the church pew, so there are hundreds of Scriptures I had memorized over the years. And yet, I couldn’t recall even one to calm my spirit.
I prayed for God to help me get it together.
All of a sudden, a 20-year-old Third Day song came to mind. Three sentences of the chorus played in my head over and over. Soon I was humming them and singing them to myself and asking God—begging God—to show me your glory, send down your presence, I want to see your face. I felt the calm permeate my soul as I sang these three phrases from the song. I still marvel that all the memorized scriptures and positive phrases eluded me, but an old Third Day song emerged with crystal clarity and soothed my anxious soul.
The clock on the wall read 7:55 when the nurse popped in one more time to ask if my neurosurgeon had stopped by. Once he did that, I would be rolled to the operating room. It was clear she thought he would have been by for my 8 a.m. surgery. Where the heck was he? This was not something you want to turn over to the on-duty intern. Did my surgeon get covid, have a car wreck, decide to retire? I started to spiral again.
The song lyrics came back to me, and so did the calm. Once again, I was begging God—to show me your glory, send down your presence, I want to see your face.
Just then, my neurosurgeon pulled back the curtain to my cubicle. He had a clipboard in his hand and was dressed in a suit and tie. Really? Where the heck are your scrubs, I thought to myself. Let’s get this thing rolling.
That’s when I noticed it. A star on the top of his tie. I remembered the article from my friend and thought good grief, my neurosurgeon is an astronomy nerd. As he handed the clipboard to his nurse, I got a glimpse of his full tie.
My neurosurgeon was wearing a nativity tie in a secular hospital, politically correct or not. It was complete with the shining bright star, virgin Mary, Joseph, barnyard animals, and sweet baby Jesus. This was my barn scene at home where I had spent days in prayer and there was the glorious face of baby Jesus. Just what I had asked for in song during the last hour.
Instantly, I was covered in goosebumps and in awe of the sign God gave me that he was with me. Such a small tiny detail that meant the world to me at that moment. I was speechless for once in my life and couldn’t form my plea to the neurosurgeon to remove the risky part of the tumor. God was in control and would take care of it all. I was clearly in his hands now.
Four and a half hours later I woke up.
I was still alive, so there’s that. Slowly, I moved my arms, fingers, legs, and toes…all were working. Thank you, Jesus. I asked for my husband, and they said he couldn’t wait to see me. Wait, I thought. I am talking! What a relief to form a sentence. CJ came in with his eyes shimmering, (but of course the tough fire chief wasn’t tearing up) and he told me they had removed the entire tumor. Even though I never formed the words to express my request to take the risk, my heart’s desire and prayer had happened.
Later I learned there had been serious complications removing that risky part and they came out during surgery to tell CJ that I was bleeding profusely and would need a transfusion. They also told him to expect paralysis. Neither happened. Within hours I was up walking around and asking about the kids. I felt no pain, even with the 40 staples in my head. I didn’t even need Tylenol. They confirmed there was no cancer, no deficits, and I was able to go home right away. The bonus…they didn’t shave my head.
I was home on December 23rd just in time for the holiday joy. The family arrived for a brunch feast on Christmas morning and then again on New Year’s Eve. What a miracle to be able to cook, function, and enjoy my family.
Of course, we took down the old plastic nativity in the barn, but for some reason, I had to keep my indoor nativity up all year long. It has too much meaning to be stored away in a basement storage tote.
It’s taken an entire year for me to share this story. I’ve been questioning why I have the happy ending of no treatments, cancer, or deficits when others do not. That will most definitely be my first question to God when I cross that pearly gate finish line in heaven. I am counting my blessings, and this experience has been a gift. I’m grateful for God’s miracles and his presence every step of the way.
I knew it was time for me to share God’s goodness and give you some hope in the midst of your struggles. Whatever you are dealing with, big or small God is working things out for your good. Whether you are looking at a horrific brain scan, financial statement, or uncertain situation, you can lay your burdens and struggles at the edge of that precious manger. Trusting him and building that relationship is the gift we can give back to him.
Blessings to you friend as we celebrate Advent; the arrival of a notable person. May you feel the peace and joy that only sweet Baby Jesus can give.
P.S. Looking for a practical way to draw near to the peace of Jesus this coming year? Download my simple one-year bible reading plan here.