Faith-Filled Moms: Receiving God’s Help During My Cancer Fight – by Libby Barnish

I moved with my family from North to South Jersey in 2006 to start Crossbridge Community Church. For the first year or so, we held Bible Study in our home, allowing us to fellowship with the members, meet new people in the community, and tell them about the love of Jesus.

I loved being a pastor’s wife. I loved building relationships with others and watching them accept Jesus into their lives or grow in their faith. I knew it was my ministry to show the love of God to others. Looking back now, I think I may have even idolized being a pastor’s wife, instead of God being my top priority.

Less than 10 years later, all came crashing down. After a painful divorce in 2015, I had to figure out how to pick up the pieces of my life. I struggled with the loss of the life I loved and lost. Now, I was just Libby, no longer a pastor’s wife. Little did I know, I was beginning a journey of discovering myself first as a child of God.

I had to figure out how I was going to take care of myself. I could no longer work part-time at a job I loved helping people. I eventually secured a full-time position at Cooper Hospital as a mental health technician on the psychiatric unit. The hours were long, and the position was mentally challenging and exhausting as I never knew what I would encounter with my patients, especially during a crisis. This wasn’t the life or career I had envisioned for myself, but I would soon come to find out it was a part of God’s plan for what was to come.

In November of 2020, my youngest daughter Annie and I contracted COVID-19. Glory to God no one else in the family got sick. We were OK for the most part, just really tired all the time. But as Annie improved, I increasingly became short of breath. Just the previous year I experienced a severe case of pneumonia, causing me to end up in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) with a life-threatening case of sepsis. I knew that tightness I felt in my chest was probably pneumonia again, so even though it was the day before Thanksgiving, I headed straight to Cooper’s Emergency Room (ER). The doctor ordered a CT scan for detailed images of my lungs. She confirmed that I had indeed developed pneumonia from my COVID-19 infection, which was typical. But she also noticed a mass in my right breast and asked if I had a mammogram.

I told her I hadn’t had one. I know I should have scheduled one, especially since my mom had breast cancer twice, but I just wasn’t on top of my self-care and medical screenings with everything that I’d been through. But I always completed self-exams. I had fibrous tissue, so my breast always felt firm, and I never noticed anything.

The doctor immediately put a plan into action. I was scheduled for an ultrasound. The relationships I had formed at Cooper over the years made such a difference as I was going through this ordeal. God knew back when I was looking for a new job that this was where I needed to be for treatment, as the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper was one of the best in the region. How humbling that I can trust God with things that happen in my life that I don’t always understand.

Following my ultrasound, I was scheduled for a biopsy, where it was determined the 5cm tumor was Stage 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, which turned out to be one of the more treatable types of breast cancer.

My ex-husband showed great concern for me following my diagnosis, and we worked together to figure out how to tell our children. We waited to get through Christmas, and then my birthday in February. Our son just wanted to know that I was going to be ok. He didn’t ask a lot of questions. Our daughters were scared, cried, and showed so much concern for me. That was truly the first time I felt the emotional pain of my diagnosis. It set into motion our new reality because now the kids were living it out too. We were now a “cancer family’, and they had the burden of worrying about their mom.

Initially, the doctors presumed no chemotherapy would be needed, as the scans didn’t indicate that it had spread. To be safe they inserted dye during my double mastectomy, which showed the cancer had spread. I had twenty-three lymph nodes removed, of which eleven were cancerous. Surgery was followed by four rounds of chemo given every three weeks. I’m currently going through a six-week radiation treatment, for five days each week. I’m often tired and fatigued and deal with tingling on my right side. My final treatment will be reconstructive surgery in the upcoming months.

I dreaded my hair falling out – once that happened there would be no way to hide the fact that I was sick. I felt like I was embarrassing my children. I already felt fat and unattractive and now my hair was gone. Thank God for Martino Cartier and the Wigs and Wishes program. This amazing salon gives haircuts and free wigs to cancer patients.

As I think back to almost a year ago, my heart is full of gratitude. Gratitude for my place of employment, for the COVID-19 infection leading to the discovery of the tumor as it may have been much longer before the cancer was discovered. I am also humbled and in awe of God’s goodness and how He watches out for us. The only fear I felt while going through this was how it would impact my children. Even though they are older, this is still a battle of faith for them. After struggling through our divorce, they now questioned why God would allow us to have to deal with this.

I try to instill in them that through everything we’ve been through, God has been building their endurance through the testing of their faith. I guess that’s the minister in me, always wanting to help others see God through everything. But there are no easy answers to why God is allowing us to experience this. It is difficult to watch them wrestle with their faith and know that I can’t sing them a Bible song and make it all better like I did when they were younger. It also breaks my heart to see them put on a happy face and act like they have no troubles in their own lives because they don’t want to burden me.

It has been distressing to not be there for my family and friends as much as I want. It sounds dramatic but there were periods after chemo when I couldn’t get out of bed for twenty-four hours. I felt so guilty knowing my children were worried and felt helpless as there was nothing I could do except lie in bed and wait for the nausea, pain, aching, fatigue, heaviness, and “chemo-brain” feeling to pass.

I was always there to support my children and hear about their day or spend time talking or counseling my friends. I deal with the pain and loneliness of not being the same person I used to be. Conversations now only center around how I’m doing, instead of the regular conversations. I wanted to know what was going on in their life, but everyone always wanted to talk about my sickness.

Many times, I feel like I’m totally dependent on my children or other family members and friends. And that can sometimes bring on even more feelings of guilt. I feel so guilty not being able to give the kids a safe sanctuary any more. I want them to be able to be joyful, unburdened young adults and not worry about their bald mom and if the cancer will truly go away.

But even through the pain, guilt, and loneliness, God has also given me joy in seeing my children find healing in areas, and I’m so grateful when I think about how the members of our church, neighbors, and other friends and family love on us above and beyond what I would have ever known possible. Every day God has showered His love on us in so many different ways – from thoughtful texts to meals. I know He is in this and is holding myself, my children, and even you in the palm of His hands.

So where does that leave me? I’m still trying to figure out my purpose. There is a reason why I’ve gone through so much. I just want people to know that God loves them. Especially those who are fighting cancer. And yes, even those women going through a divorce. Maybe that’s my next ministry? Wherever God leads me, I will go.

Libby’s Prayer for Moms:

Dear all-knowing Father,

You are good and strong and see the potential in us that we don’t see. I pray for my sisters Lord that whatever is a lie from the enemy regarding their purpose or worth that you will eliminate. Remind us that we are your dearly precious children, and you are guiding our steps daily.

In your Holy Name…Amen

~Libby Barnish


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