The vase contained 13 pink roses, each with a scripture verse attached by a ribbon. They were for a friend who was about to have a second mastectomy for breast cancer that had returned nine years after the first diagnosis.
The gift was a thoughtful, loving gesture. It also happened to be symbolic. The road ahead for the recipient of this gift, Major Soo Kim, would be filled with thorns and she would need her faith, but she would also find a blossoming at the end.
“I hope those who go through the physical pain reap something very special,” Kim said in a telephone interview, adding that she doesn’t give testimonials about her experience unless asked. “It’s a very spiritual journey God provides you to understand who you are and your relationship with God and His plan. I want this experience to be a reward for them and others and, ultimately, for them to have a closer relationship with God.”
Kim’s sentiments were echoed, during telephone interviews, by three other Salvation Army officers dealing with cancer—Major Faith Miller, Major Brian Glasco and Major Norma Patrick. For all four, cancer was more than an ordeal to get through. It was and is a life–changing event that brought them deeper faith and an opportunity to assist others dealing with the disease.
Breaking the News
For Miller, the grace came immediately, in spite of or because of the ominous phone call that preceded it. It was 2016 and she was the county coordinator and corps officer at The Salvation Army Center for Worship & Service in Oil City, Pa. Although only 48, she had been experiencing fatigue and extreme swelling in her abdomen, but initial tests failed to detect the Stage 4 ovarian cancer growing in her body.
Several hours after more testing that included scans and a sonogram, she was alone at home, having left work to take a nap at lunchtime. The phone rang. When Miller answered she heard a nurse at the other end sobbing. The nurse asked if anyone was with her. Miller knew the news was bad.
Through her tears the nurse told Miller it was likely she had ovarian cancer that had spread into her abdomen. She would need to see an oncologist the next day. They made the arrangements.
“As soon as I hung up the phone, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit come upon me and that everything would be OK,” Miller said. “That’s where my story begins.”
Glasco’s story began nearly two years ago when he experienced “excruciating” back pain and went to the emergency room after church. Scans found spots on different parts of his body, leaving him “a little concerned.” Glasco, corps officer in East Cleveland, went for a second scan at the Cleveland Clinic.
It took from May to October to get the diagnosis that he had a fast–growing form of cancer in his liver that had spread to an area of his lung.
“It was a shock,” he said. In tears, he told his wife, “It’s really looking bad.”
Then, drawing on that faith to which he had devoted his life, he said, “‘OK, well Lord, whatever you want for me. It’s in your hands.’ It was scary, but really just a trust factor. In times like that there’s no one else to turn to but God.”
That’s not to say his faith wasn’t shaken a bit in the beginning.
“To not acknowledge that would be disingenuous and not helpful to other people who are struggling.”
Patrick, an officer in The Salvation Army Belmont County Corps in Bellaire, Ohio, has come to a similar trust, which she’s needed to draw upon, having had 21 operations in less than nine years for breast and bladder cancer and possible ovarian cancer.
“I’m trying to be strong and keep positive. It’s exhausting.”
But she knows her strength.
”Cancer might be the diagnosis, but I have Christ in my life and that’s stronger.”
She was still drawing on that strength in late fall when an 18–inch scar from her summer surgery refused to heal.
“They cut me from my backbone across my entire chest. That’s the journey.”
While these officers were the ones going through intense physical pain, numerous operations and taking huge doses of medication and rounds of chemotherapy, they weren’t the only ones dealing with the disease.
Impact on Family
“Cancer becomes a family issue, not just the individual’s,” said Patrick, explaining that her daughter had been 14 when her mother was first diagnosed with cancer. Watching what Patrick went through affected her deeply. She was 25 and attending the College for Officer Training when she learned Patrick’s cancer had returned. “She couldn’t finish. She got word of it. I didn’t want her to know.”
Kim, the Mission & Culture Department secretary at the USA Eastern Territorial Headquarters (THQ), also tried to shield her children when her cancer returned in 2011. During her first bout, when she was 34, her son had been 9 and her daughter 7.
“They didn’t know what was happening. It was traumatic to them. They thought I was going to die.”
It was actually her son who first noticed the lump in her chest.
“He broke down wailing and lamenting. I did not expect that from a 9–year–old.”
The second time around it was autumn and her daughter was a freshman in college and her son a sophomore. Not wanting to put a damper on her daughter’s new college life, Kim waited until her first visit to the campus to break the news.
“I wanted the college experience to be free from worries from home, for her to have a beautiful experience at the university, and have my full support. I wanted to be all upbeat and happy, to be there for her. Here I am, going to have it be about me. I really despised that.”
After a few hours of good times together, she took her daughter to a coffee shop and broke the news. Her daughter teared up. Rather than remain on campus, she chose to stay all weekend with her parents at their lodging.
“I think she knew what I needed. Her being there was such a comfort.”
Then she told her son by phone. His reaction was much calmer than his childhood response.
Spending so much time sick while her children were little was hard, Kim said.
“It took a few years of not being fully there for them. It really broke my heart.”
She put off the second mastectomy until after Thanksgiving vacation so the family could fully enjoy the holiday together.
Glasco also thought of his children when he learned his chemo wasn’t working. He asked his doctor, “Is it time for me to just spend more time with my kids and get my affairs in order?”
Fortunately, the doctor said “no” and moved him on to immunotherapy, from which he saw improvement in fighting the cancer on his lungs. Its effect on his liver is uncertain. He resumed immunotherapy in early November after a scan showed cancer starting to come back following a period of stability.
Miller, presently the assistant education secretary at THQ, has no children. The family members affected by her cancer were her parents, Salvation Army soldiers in Lexington, Ky. When they learned their only child was sick, they left their home and moved in with her in Oil City to care for her for five months.
On a Journey
Still being treated because ovarian cancer has no cure, Miller started her 24th round of chemo Nov. 1 at New York’s famed cancer hospital, Memorial Sloan Kettering. She speaks about her “journey” because she wants people to “be aware of the grace and mercy of the love of Jesus Christ working in my life and that it can work in theirs too. I’m alive and well and still working today. God can work miracles in their lives as well.”
She knows that even with strong faith, discouragement is a problem. One day when the pain was so bad and “Satan was trying to get into my head and my mind,” she asked her mother to lie beside her in bed and hold her hand, and she asked if she was going to die. Her mother, “who always knew the right thing to say,” told her that we all will someday and then quoted her favorite scripture passage in which Jesus tells His disciples He is going to prepare a place for them.
“She reminded me that it might not be today but when the Lord does plan to take you home, you’re ready.”
Miller advises people to “never give up hope in the Lord.” She clung to scripture passages in which God assures us that there is a purpose for our lives.
“God has not let me go through all this while Satan has it in mind to destroy me. God has a greater purpose and plan.”
She thinks of St. Paul and how his time in prison was an opportunity to witness to the guards and through them, their families.
“I would not have asked for cancer. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but God has chosen me to have this.”
Because she has weekly treatments at Memorial, she is able to speak of her faith to the doctors and nurses and offer encouragement to the patients.
“I’ve been in places I never would have been without the cancer. It’s opened up a door for me to share with them the love of Christ.
“I can honestly say I’m thankful for the journey with cancer. I had to come to the reality at first but I’m able now to be joyful in the journey in the ways in which God is using my story and my situation.”
Patrick also sees God using her experience. When a 77–year–old woman from her church was diagnosed with cancer, Patrick went with her to the hospital.
“I showed her a lot of strength for her journey. She said, ‘I can see how many things you’ve been through. You’ve been the inspiration for us.’ God has me in the right place and at the right time. God isn’t finished with me yet.”
A Unique Gift
Kim had a unique way of witnessing. She wrote about the healing power of her vase of roses for Priority! magazine. Each day after her operation she pulled out one flower and let its scripture passage fill her soul. The first rose was for the night before the surgery.
“They were God’s words of assurance and promise that really carried me through. I took them as His promise to me for that day.”
Each rose also contained a hand–written note of encouragement from Pamela Maynor, the giver of the bouquet. Wanting to offer a gift in return, “to let her know what this meant to me,” Kim kept a journal and made it into a book for her. It turned out to be a “huge gift for me at the same time.
“I wanted this to have a meaning, not just sitting around at home. When you have these surgeries, you can become passive just lying on the couch.”
Kim has kept the scripture passages and notes in the same vase. She tried to dry the roses, but they didn’t last.
“It will always go with me as a reminder of God’s healing in my life. My work is not finished. It’s a constant reminder that God can use me.”
Retta Blaney is an eight–time award–winning journalist and author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, which features interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams, and many others.