Celebrating through Cancer

By Hayley Annino

Listen to Hayley’s creative writing piece called “Why Suffering is Important in Understanding Beauty” on her experience with cancer and healing.

What is life without celebration?

Typically, we only celebrate the pleasing aspects of life, but how can we also celebrate when we suffer? I’m sitting here asking myself this question, and I’m also wondering how I can share my story with you without any semblance of bitterness in my heart about what I went through during my battle with cancer. 

I think we all understand, to some extent, the presence of suffering and its inevitability. While the majority of us have some grand highs, we can also experience the lowest of lows. Oddly, it is through great and terrible suffering in my life that today I can celebrate who I’ve become—a better, more richer, more wholly-connected-to-God version of me. 

I am blessed to call myself a cancer survivor. The lessons that I learned along my journey are lessons I wish could be instilled in everyone I love­—without knowing suffering. The truth is, though, that God knows our journeys from the beginning, and in His great love He has set us up for success even in various trials. In His loving-kindness, I have always had such a quiet peace and understanding of God’s perfect grace and abounding love. He has graciously blessed me with a high tolerance for pain, a close-knit family, proximity to one of the best hospitals in the country, and a strong faith—all of which helped me fight my battle. 

As Richard Foster states in Celebration of Discipline, “Celebration brings joy into life, and joy makes us strong.” 

I knew that, even within my suffering, I could find joy because He had prepared me for this moment. This divine gift of celebration kept my spirit strong enough to fight even when my body couldn’t­—three times to be exact.

The First Time

On June 1, 2013, exactly one week after my nineteenth birthday, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia—a blood cancer that develops in the bone marrow, which produces an excessive amount of premature, cancerous, white blood cells. I had just finished my first year of college, had just begun dating the love of my life, and was living every day with so much happiness. But the type of leukemia I had does not allot much time, and when I was finally diagnosed, my blood was 95% cancerous. This meant I could not spend my summer laughing, adventuring, and experiencing life; I would spend it instead using every ounce of strength I had to hold on to it. I did not know it then, but I had just experienced the first celebration of my healing: if we had waited any longer, a few days, a week, I would have dropped dead. Somehow, although I had just been given the worst news of my life, there was a calm understanding in my heart that no matter what happened, I would be okay. 

I celebrated.

In the days following my diagnosis, my arms became the entry sites for countless IVs, and some days I felt more like a science experiment than a bright and bubbly nineteen-year-old girl. Before I was completely taken over by pain and nausea from the chemotherapies and before the entirety of my hair fell out, I remember feeling something remarkable: the absence of fear. The absence of the enemy. This, in large part, is due to the thousands of prayers that held me together while my body fell apart. I celebrated those who cared so deeply for me through their prayers.

The Second Time

After two rounds of chemotherapy, my body went into bone-marrow failure, which meant that it was not producing any blood cells at all. This left me completely and totally without an immune system, which is when I caught two very deadly blood infections. I was, for about a month, fighting for my life every day. I remember a day where my fever spiked to 106º Fahrenheit, and I could not control my body. The nausea never subsided, not even for a moment. 

Miraculously, 72 days later, I left that hospital alive, which was the second celebration of my healing. Although my body felt defeated, my spirit did not. I continued to cel-ebrate God’s goodness in the fact that He had allowed me to continue to live life with the people I loved.

The Third Time

It was after spending my entire summer in the hospital that I experienced the third celebration of my healing: I would need a bone marrow transplant. 

My oldest brother, Nick, was a perfect match. A bone marrow transplant was something I never imagined I would need. I imagined a few rounds of chemotherapy would be enough. The survival rate for bone marrow transplants is low, and for my body to undergo that much more trauma was so daunting. But, surrounded by God’s unfailing grace, I fought the battle one more time. After receiving my bone marrow transplant on October 23, 2013, I have been completely healthy ever since. As such, my family and I celebrate with a party every year on my transplant “birthday” to continually remind us of God’s goodness.

Sometimes it’s so hard to understand the circumstances of our suffering and why we must endure so much of this imperfect world, but I never stopped celebrating through it all. I was so thankful that I was the one who suffered instead of anyone else I loved. 

There’s something that we, as Christians, are called to understand about suffering: even when we suffer, God is still so good; even when we suffer, there is always so much to celebrate about our God.