Joni: 'Cancer Only Wins If I Don't Cherish Christ'

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The average woman in America has about a one-in-eight chance of developing breast cancer. That's why survivors, like Joni Eareckson Tada, are taking advantage of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month to encourage women to have annual exams.

Joni's cancer treatment is more challenging because she's also quadriplegic. Still, she told CBN News the experience has only strengthened her faith.

Joni is one of the world's leading Christian disability advocates. After a diving accident at the age of 17 paralyzed her from the shoulders down, she started the Joni and Friends International Disability Center as a ministry for those facing similar challenges.

Then two years ago, her life took another un-expected turn. Doctors diagnosed her with Stage 3 breast cancer.

'Give Me a Break'

"Well, because of my quadriplegia, I'm a spinal cord injured quadriplegic for 45 years, cancer never entered my thinking," Joni said. "It was always something that happened to other women, not me."

"It was a shock. It was stunning, but little did I realize I was simply falling into a statistic that one out of every eight women will get breast cancer," she said. "I just happened to now be in that statistic."

It began when Joni discovered something different in the shape of one of her breasts. Doctors performed an ultra-sound revealed a suspicious looking, three-inch mass in her breast.

Joni decided to document her story with the hope of helping others. Her ministry put together a DVD of her breast cancer treatment. On one of the clips in the video, Joni reflected on when she had first learned about the cancer.

"I remember, when it started to happen, I remember thinking, 'Oh, God, give me a break. I mean four decades in a wheelchair, don't I get a little reprieve here? Don't I get some time off?'" she said.

Further tests confirmed cancer and that the tumor had spread to other lymph nodes. Joni had to have a mastectomy.

"I mean, my body image is already pretty poor with my quadriplegia, and what little bit of femininity is now going to get sliced off. It just made me frightened," she said. "For one thing, I'm married and my husband of 30 years, what will he think? How will he react? What will he say?'"

'If I Had Known Sooner'

A question in almost any cancer diagnosis is, what if I had known sooner? It had been nine years since Joni's last breast exam.

"Had I had an annual mammogram as women over 40 should be having, I think we would have caught it a lot sooner," she said.

"Stage 3 breast cancer is pretty significant. It's pretty scary, and perhaps, it had only been stage one or two had I had that mammogram sooner," she continued. "So get your mammogram."

The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 20-39 undergo a clinical breast exam at least every three years. Women 40 and older need one each year as well as an annual mammogram.

Joni underwent chemotherapy to help fight the cancer, but her quadriplegia complicated the treatment. Because of her disability, her lungs are fragile and her bones are incredibly thin.

After much prayer and the advice from doctors, Joni decided to stop chemotherapy.

"My life is a matter of balancing competing risks. What is going to enable me to live the longest with the best quality of life possible?" she explained.

"And so, yes, there is a risk that my cancer may return, but as a quadriplegic, I'd rather be able to sit up in a wheelchair and breathe and have the strength and stamina to face my days as I do," she said.

With Christ, Cancer Can't Win

Throughout her treatment, Joni said she kept her thoughts focused on the Lord, not on the cancer.

"I began to see that cancer wouldn't win if I died. Cancer would only win if I failed to cherish Jesus Christ," she said.

"And with that attitude, I was able to live in the present, not wallow in the past, not be filled with thoughts of regret: 'Why didn't I get a mammogram? What if? If only?'" she said.

"No, I think there is special joy and courage in being able to live in the moment, live right now," she said.

Today, Joni is happy and healthy for the most part, although it can take up to several years for doctors to declare someone "officially" cancer-free.

In the meantime, she's thankful to be a living testimony to God's faithfulness.

"When people see us smile, in the midst of chronic pain, cancer, quadriplegia, whatever, they will look at us and think: 'Her God must be pretty great to inspire that kind of loyalty. I think that's amazing that she can smile in the midst of her affliction. I want what she has. I need her joy,'" she said. "Oh, what a rich testimony that is."

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Tracy Winborn

Tracy Winborn

CBN News Producer

Tracy Winborn produces for CBN News' Newswatch program - a daily 30-minute newscast seen throughout the U.S.   Tracy also travels with CBN to produce from the field - having worked on stories like the Lakeland Revival, American Idol, and the 2008 McCain election party.