A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Nigeria

Mallory is the funniest person I know with a brain tumor.  When she was in the hospital, one our friends made her a business card that said, “Hi, my name’s Mallory.  I have a brain tumor.  Bring me a Coke.”  

She presented it to hospital staff every chance she got.  It worked like a charm. 

I’ve served on a church staff with Mal over the past eight years, and shared an office suite with for much of that time.  Five years ago, I watched her life take a horrible turn and have been blown away at how she’s handled it. 

I remember one of her first weeks back in the office after her surgery.  She forgot something her boss had asked her to do and replied with her trademark dry delivery, “What do you expect?  I have a brain tumor.” 

Anyone who can make fun of something that scary gets my vote for living a life less traveled.   Humor and tumor generally don’t go together. 

I wanted to hear more of her story.   I’d seen it unfold from the outside, but I wanted to know what God had been doing on the inside.  How is someone able to react like Mallory when life throws them such a major curve?

So we sat down over Mexican food one afternoon, and she told me a story that changed me forever.

It was just a routine trip to the doctor.  Mallory had been planning on leaving the country for a short-term mission trip to Nigeria and needed to get a couple of shots.  Off-hand she mentioned some symptoms she’d been experiencing, loss of feeling in her arm and leg and back pain. 

The doctor grew concerned and ordered tests.  At that moment her life began to shift out of her control.  “That was the hardest part of all,” she said.  “I hate change.  I had no control.  From the time I walked in to get that meningitis shot, I had no control.”

It was four o’clock on a Friday afternoon when she and her mom sat down with the doctor again. “I got your test results back,” she said.  “You have a brain tumor.”

Immediately, when she spoke those words, an overpowering peace washed over her.  “I honestly wasn’t scared at all,” she said.  “The peace was so intense it felt like no big deal.”

No big deal.  Honestly, even as a pastor, it’s hard for me to get my head around how you can sit in a doctor’s office and hear what most would consider a death sentence and say it was no big deal.  Clearly, something else was at work here. 

For several weeks before the news, Mal said she kept running into the same Bible verse over and over again.  “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” 

Now, she knew why.  “My peace helped others deal with it.”    

But not everyone knew how to deal with it.  Some people, when they heard the news, shared encouraging thoughts like, “Yeah, my grandfather died of a brain tumor.”  Great, Mallory thought.  Good for him. 

Other friends stopped coming around.  They just couldn’t handle it.  But the church surrounded her with love and prayer, and that made all the difference.  “It’s probably the only reason I’m sitting here,” she said.

She had peace about the tumor itself, but her anxiety finally kicked in as surgery approached.  She’d never had surgery before.   She found herself more apprehensive over the actual procedure than the cancer itself.  Too many episodes of House.

It was in that waiting time, that eighteen days, that things got weird.

“I knew I had to stay focused on God and not my problem,” Mallory said.  “I was constantly praying throughout the day, short breath prayers like, ‘I can’t do this.  I need you.’  It was in the waiting where God gave me faith.” 

Eventually that got her through to the day of her operation.  She had her bag packed in one hand and held her little dog Gypzee in the other.  “I thought it was the last time I’d see her.”

Everything moved fast.  The surgeon had an early opening and rushed her in.  Back in surgery prep, she overheard her nurse and anesthesiologist talking about why she got bumped.  The patient before her had died on the table. 

“Okay, I need drugs,” Mallory told them.  “It’s time for a relaxing pill.” 

The last thing she remembered was being wheeled into the operating room, seeing the table and the device they put your head in.  Then she was out.

“Do you know your name?” the nurse asked her.  She was cleaning blood out of her mouth when Mallory woke up.  Apparently, she had bit her tongue.  “Do you know what day it is?” the nurse asked.   “Do you know who the president is?” 

The only question Mallory cared about was, ”Did they get it?”   It was seven hours later.  Her mom was there.   

“No,” her mom said.  “They didn’t get it.”

The tumor was too enmeshed with her brain tissue.  After all of that waiting, all of that prayer, all of that anxiety, they couldn’t cut it out.  Mallory’s adventure was really just beginning. 

She began thirty-four radiation treatments and all the side effects that come with them and then physical therapy to recover her motor skills and rebuild her strength.  She refused to quit, refused to stay at home, refused to stop living, refused to give up on her faith.

And the tumor began shrink.  And shrink.  And shrink. 

That was almost five years ago.   At this point she gets a follow up MRI every six months.  The tumor could either stay as it is, shrink some more or return, but the farther out she gets from her surgery, the better her odds. 

 “I’m pretty close to feeling like I’m a survivor,” Mallory said.  “My goal right now is to see 40.  Then it will be 45.  Then 50.” 

She goes to the National Brain Tumor Conference every year and meets so many people who are angry or depressed.  “What’s the point?” she said.   In the past year, God has begun using her experience to minister to others who’ve been diagnosed with cancer too.

Her advice is simple.  “Don’t give up.  Take the days you have.  Just don’t stop.  It’s not over till it’s over.  A lot of times those words don’t mean anything until you’re in it yourself.”

Watching from the outside I can tell you those words mean something to Mallory because she’s lived them.  So many of us let our struggles define us, but Mallory let her life – who she is and the faith she has – define her struggle.  Her brain tumor didn’t make her the person she is.  It revealed the person she is. 

Mallory is a woman who takes her God way more seriously than any tumor, and so she can joke about standing too close the microwave and passing out business cards to get her free Cokes.  Hearing her story makes me want more of what Mallory has, a laid-back brand of peace that the Bible describes as truly hard to understand. 

©Jason Byerly 2011

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