John Fuller: Michele Cushatt has battled tongue cancer for the past several years and it has changed her entire outlook on life.
Michele Cushatt: The only thing that we cannot lose,that doesn’t change yesterday, today, or tomorrow is God Himself and His affection for us - period.
End of Excerpt
John: Well, you’ll hear more from Michele today on Focus on the Family. Encouragement for you to not allow the setbacks and disappointments of life to cloud the vision of who you really are or to keep you from experiencing the spiritual freedom that God wants for you. Your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, the pressure to do more and to be more is constant these days. And I think that’s, uh, led to a lot of insecurity in people’s lives - believing that they’re never good enough - they’re just simply not enough. Michele is in the studio today with us to share an important message, mainly for women. But you know what? Men are going to benefit as well. You heard that clip referring to her struggle with cancer. We’ll talk about that and how God used that devastating battle to show her who she really is. And I just appreciate Michele’s, uh, vulnerability and openness. More of us believers should, uh, see our difficulties in this kind of light. She’s written a superb 60-day devotional book that we’re offering called, I Am: A 60-Day Journey To Knowing Who You Are Because Of Who He Is. Michele’s a writer, a speaker, a wife, a mother of six kids (laughter). We’ll talk more about that. We’ll have her back for parenting advice. But Michele, we are so glad to have you back at Focus on the Family.
Michele: I love being here with both of you. Thanks so much for having me back.
Jim: We just got right to it. We were just chatting away before recording, so...
Michele: I know. We could have had a whole different episode.
Jim: (Laughter) Yeah, it’s so true. Michele, uh, we heard the set-up and reference it. Some people may have heard part of your story on Focus last time when you were with us - your battle with cancer - but others haven’t. Uh, so let’s get the folks up to speed. Let’s start there with that journey - three bouts of tongue cancer in the last few years. Where are you at today? And what - what have you come through?
Michele: Wow. Yes. Well, my initial diagnosis with cancer was seven years ago now. So this has been a seven-year journey of being diagnosed and recovering and thinking it was over and then it coming back and recovering and thinking it was over and it coming back again. And the last time I was diagnosed was the more - most aggressive and radical. At that point, they removed two-thirds of my tongue and had to put me in a nine-hour surgery to help rebuild everything. So I had incisions...
Michele: ...On my leg and my arm from wrist to elbow, about six to eight inches, and on my neck...
Jim: Where they took material to...
Michele: Yes, to...
Jim: ...rebuild your...
Michele: ...Help rebuild my tongue...
Michele: ...And my arm and, yeah, had to take vessels from different parts of my body to rebuild my tongue, and then of course, had the, uh, tracheostomy so I could breathe and a feeding tube for five months. And so - so that was just the journey to try to save my life. And then the last two and a half years since that, I’ve been trying to come back to life because literally, they took me to the brink of death and then had to bring me back. And so...
Jim: You know, in that regard, the irony of it all is you, before being diagnosed with tongue cancer, you were and still are, amazingly, a public speaker.
Jim: I mean, isn’t it - have you ever thought about that. - Lord, why allow this? And I’d love to hear how you processed this. Was it God’s fault? Was it...
Michele: Oh, goodness, yeah...
Jim: I mean, I want to hear that...
Michele: ...That’s the...
Michele: ...Big question.
Jim: ...People are going to connect with this where - it may not be tongue cancer. But, you know, it’s something - could be physical, could be emotional, could be abuse, could be, uh, scars from all kinds of things. But how did you react when you, as a public speaker, communicating on behalf of the Lord - I mean, you’re doing this in churches and Christian groups and doing a good thing for the kingdom - and what? God, you’ve got to be kidding me.
Michele: Exactly. I mean, I asked that question multiple times. And there’s still times where it comes to mind - the irony that I had - I had an entire ministry - what I felt like was my calling, and my purpose in life was to be a communicator of truth. And so, the one thing that I really felt I was born for, that I was made for, is the very thing that was taken away from me. You know, I live with a permanent speaking disability. And it’s not just speaking. I have trouble swallowing, eating...
Jim: Taste buds.
Michele: Um, taste buds are gone. You know, all - anything related to my mouth is now a challenge. So, every day is very grueling for me, because of just, you know, how many times you swallow a minute or whatever. Uh, all of those things are a challenge. And here I am, a communicator. So God, what are you thinking? I mean, really, why, of all things? And then to have it three times. You know, thousands of people were praying for my healing, and it still continued to come back. So what do you do that - with that from a faith standpoint? And so...
Jim: You know, when you said three times, Paul jumps into my mind.
Jim: I mean, isn’t that...
Michele: Exactly. And I...
Jim: Three times I was told.
Michele: I have thought of that connection multiple times, where I’m like, you know, God heal me. Make me whole. I don’t want to be this broken woman. And through this process though, uh, I had to ask myself, really, what makes a great communicator? And what I had to face is that, uh, I believed what made a great communicator was the packaging.
Jim: The packaging - the outside.
Michele: The packaging. And what God has been - and he’s still in the process of doing - is helping me to see - is that the value of the gift is not the wrapping, it’s what’s inside. And this is not just true for me as a communicator, but for all of us. These things in our life that we think make us flawed, or broken, or somehow, uh, less than stellar, less than of the right kind of quality. And God’s saying that’s just the packaging.
Michele: That’s just the packaging.
Jim: Let me - let me spend a little time with you here, if you would.
Jim: Because, I think for so many people listening, this is really it. This is the part of your testimony that I think most people will attach to. You ask the question, in your devotional I Am, which is a great devotional, who am I? And I think all of us are asking that deep down, if you think about it. You get hit with tragedy, and you see something in your response that is not good, it’s not godlike. And you may start asking yourself, who am I, really? What do I really believe in? I think a lot of people hearing your story after three bouts of tongue cancer and the surgeries and reparative surgeries and all the things you had to go through, um, would be saying you have every right to curse God. So you’ve got to help me...
Michele: And not that there weren’t moments. I considered it.
Jim: Well, I appreciate that honesty.
Michele: And that’s the reality of it.
Jim: But how, in the pit of all of that, how do you actually open your heart up to God to say, what do you want me to learn? I mean, it sounds supernatural. How do you do that? Speak to the person that’s just been diagnosed with cancer. They’ve got their fist in the face of God, saying, “Why would you let me suffer this? Why did you do this to me?”
Michele: Well, I walked through that journey for months. And, in fact, I’d say probably the first nine to twelve months after my treatment ended, 100 percent of my focus of my time was to try to physically come back to life, but also spiritually come back to life, because this crushed me. I didn’t understand. And, I believe everybody who gets, uh, wrecked by something unexpected, that really knocks them at the core of who they are, go back to three essential questions. The first one is, is God real? Because, I think when these things happen, we have to get back to wait a second. OK, is God even real? How could this happen if God is real and exists? And I had to go back to, OK, is He real? And I really got to the basics. Do I believe that God is real?And when I answered that question, and I answered yes, I do believe He’s real. I moved on to OK, well, if He’s real, is He good? So is He real? OK, is He good? And I had to wrestle through that by - I read different books. I read the Bible. I prayed. I journaled. I worked through all of my own questions about-- do I believe that God is truly good? Is He real? Is He good? And then the third question after I moved through that is, can I trust Him? And that was the hardest question for me. It’s one thing to think He’s real and good. But am I really willing to trust Him?
Jim: What did that look like to trust Him though for you - physical body?
Michele: Trust whether or not I’m going to live or not.
Jim: ...With your life.
Michele: ...With my life. I mean, I had no - the doctors made no guarantee that I would have a full life. Now, I’m only in my - at the time of this third diagnosis, I was only 43, 44, with a 7-year-old still at home - seven and 8-year-old still at home. So, would I live? And, could I trust Him with the truth that I - nobody could make me a promise about that? And then, of course, there’s questions from that. If I don’t live, can I trust that He will take care of my children in my absence? And all these other things. Ultimately, when I came to the trust question, what helped me answer the trust question is, honestly, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the way to the cross. The only thing that helps me to be able to trust God with my own pain is the fact that He was willing to experience horrific pain Himself.
Michele: It was the only bridge for me. A God who was unwilling to feel pain and unwilling to go through hardship and difficulty and, something that was injust (sic) and shouldn’t have happened, if He hadn’t been willing to do that, how could I trust Him with my own, uh, life that was falling apart?
Jim: That’s a good thought process. And, again, I appreciate your truthfulness in that regard. And I think it’s so critical because eventually, every one of us suffers some kind of pain - loss of someone, a diagnosis with cancer, anything like that. Let me move back for a moment to that area of your insecurities...
Jim: ...Because, again, I think many of us will connect with that. Um, I think in college you had some issues that really stunned you and set you, perhaps, on a bad path. Describe that and then talk about your insecurities. And now that you’re on this side of everything, you see God working.
Michele: Mmhmm, absolutely. So I’ve always been somewhat insecure. Uh, and maybe it’s a girl thing, maybe it’s just how I’m wired up.
Jim: Or a human thing.
Michele: Or a human thing, yeah, exactly, that we all have this sense of insecurity, where we want to be better than what we know we really are. Well, when I was in college - my freshman year of college - actually, it was beginning of my sophomore year. I remember walking down the hallway. Uh, and right before I turned the corner, I heard a group of of my peers talking. And they couldn’t see me because I was around the corner. But I heard one of the boys in the group say, well, take Michele, for example, which, of course, made me stop in my tracks because I heard my name, and he simply went on to say, she’s one of those people that would be beautiful if she wasn’t so fat.
Michele: I know. Painful, right?
Jim: Yeah. Did you tiptoe away? You obviously...
Michele: I mean, I was stunned.
Michele: I mean, I still remember I was 19 years old. I was stunned. And, uh, it was like all the air got sucked out of my lungs, and I was crushed, embarrassed, humiliated. But probably what was the most painful in that moment is he said what I already believed about myself.
Jim: It was confirming it.
Michele: It was confirming what I already believed - that beautiful was out of reach for me, that I would be beautiful if dot, dot, dot - if I was taller, or thinner, or prettier, or had a different color hair, or was smarter, or whatever - that beautiful was something that I could have had if only these things happened. But unfortunately, I was too fat, or too whatever to be truly beautiful. And so I heard that...
Jim: Yeah, what were those days like just after that, then?
Jim: How did you process?
Michele: I - uh, after I heard that, I turned around, ran to my dorm room because I was so embarrassed - I just wanted to be alone - ran to my dorm room. I remember flopping on my dorm bed, crying. And two weeks later, I packed up and left that college and never went back.
Jim: That’s the impact it had on you.
Michele: That’s the impact.
Jim: I mean, amazing.
Michele: I mean, so crushing, so humiliating. And in my mind, that statement had to do with my true worth and my value. And I believed it. I believed that I was less than valuable, less than beautiful, less than worthy, and so I didn’t deserve to be there, or I couldn’t be there anymore. And I packed up and went home.
Jim: How does someone overcome that? I mean, um, describe that for us. Was it years? Was it - how did it morph into behavior that was inappropriate for you, or how did it affect you to see yourself that way?
Michele: Well, it - you become even more obsessed with how you look, when people make those comments. And you believe them. Then, all of a sudden, you have to work extra hard to be thinner and smarter, or prettier. I mean, that is just one example of what so many of us deal with all the time. One person says one thing that becomes defining about what we believe about ourselves.
Jim: Right. And in that context - and this really drives to what I want to dig into next - is that feeling for you that you’re inadequate, you’re not enough, and then God had to deal with that. How did He begin to get your attention? Where did you lean into God? Were you from a Christian home? Did you have a relationship with Christ at this time?
Michele: Well, yes, I had a Christian home. I’d been reading my - you know, this is what’s so ironic, right? - I’ve been reading my Bible since I could read. I should know better, right? All the - but...
Jim: Yeah, but the power of that man’s words in your dorm...
Michele: Is so strong.
Jim: ...Were even greater than what you read in the Word of God.
Jim: I mean, that’s...
Michele: And that’s what kind of leads to, - uh, and ties in with my cancer journey. The truth is, is this insecurity battle is - been an ongoing one for my whole life. And then all of a sudden, I am diagnosed with an illness that alters me, physically. It alters my talents, my skills, my abilities. And in my process of learning to live with this permanent disability, I’ve had to decide, OK, where am I going to find my value? And the truth is, is that the world tells us that our value is in our appearance, our skills and talents, our career, our roles and relationships, the children we have, the spouse we have, the jobs we do, all of that. But the problem is, is all of those things can be changed, can be affected...
Jim: In a minute.
Michele: ...Can disappear.
Michele: You can lose marriages. You can lose children. You can lose your - in fact, we’re going to lose our parents. I don’t know if you realized this, but...
Jim: (Laughter) Oh, I realize it.
Michele: ...Um, y’all are getting older.
Michele: I just thought you needed to know.
Jim: OK, let’s stop right there.
John: Thank you. I’m feeling insecure now.
Jim: But, you know, with those things, the key there is how to manage that. And what I love in your devotional and in your testimony is how that behavior began to drive your compulsion...
Jim: ...Your control. And, in fact, did that play a role in your first marriage?
Michele: Oh, gosh, well, I think, uh, yes and yes and yes. I mean, control...
Jim: Describe it. I want to hear it...
Jim: ...Because it’s - this is so real, Michele. This is where - and I think for women, this is where many women live. So...
Michele: So in my first...
Jim: ...Confirm it.
Michele: ...Marriage, my first marriage was just very complicated and full of all kinds of pain and brokenness, but it was outside my control, but I didn’t want to believe it was outside my control, so I worked extra hard to try to save it, to try to be good enough, to try to be pretty enough, to try to be a good enough wife - the wife who did everything right, in order to save everything. Uh, and the more that we try to, uh, to perform our way into our worth, the more we have to face the fact that our performance can’t always be counted on, right? You know, I listed those five things that we find our value in. And the problem is, is those can disappear. And in my first marriage, and in cancer, and even today, my journey, what I’ve had to embrace and understand is that if I can lose it, it’s not who I am. If you can lose it, it’s not who you are.
Jim: That is a good rule of thumb.
Michele: If you can lose it, it’s not who you are. And marriages, you can lose. Friendships, you can lose. Jobs, you can lose. A parent, you can lose. Talents, you can lose. Your own life, you can lose, OK? The only thing that we cannot lose, that doesn’t change yesterday, today or tomorrow is God Himself and His affection for us - period.
Jim: That’s unchanging.
Michele: It’s the only thing unchanging.
John: And that is the encouragement that just leaps off the pages of Michele’s book, I Am: A 60-Day Journey To Knowing Who You Are Because Of Who He Is. And we’ve got copies of that book and a CD or download of our conversation, also a link to our counseling team, uh, if you need to talk to somebody about some of the issues that have been raised already in our conversation. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word family. Online, we’re at focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Michele, um, as you’re going through all this, again, uh, God whispering to you-- I really would love to know what you’re hearing from the Lord. And I don’t know, theologically, how you process this - but how you look at this as an opportunity to grow. Most of us in the Christian community look at it as a mistake - that somehow God got the paperwork wrong.
Jim: I shouldn’t be - Lord, do you know, I’m speaking for you? I’m singing for you. And you must have meant this for someone else, not me. How do you reconcile that? How do you say, Lord, I’m getting it. I know my emphasis has been in the wrong area. And you have allowed this. I mean, I don’t want to put words in your mouth. How do you theologically deal with, this happened to you?
Michele: I don’t have all the answers for the whys. I mean, God is a mystery, and I don’t want Him to be less than a mystery. I want Him to be big enough that I can’t figure Him out. And so I don’t have all the answers for that. But, this is what I cannot deny - I cannot deny that, uh, the very brutal, painful parts of my story and my journey, and even my ongoing challenges, the things that I want to be healed and removed are the very things that help me to connect with people who are in their own broken places. Uh, perfection does nothing to create opportunities for connection, but pain and suffering and hardship is the place where we can pull up a chair with other people who are in pain and hardship and suffering and be together, to actually share that place of comfort and suffering. And so it’s been so apparent to me over last three years, that, God has given me a wealth of opportunity to walk alongside other people in their undone and alone places, not in spite of what I’ve been through, but because of it.
Michele: And so the thing that I thought was a loss and a wound and and an obstacle is actually the conduit for what God wants to do.
Jim: And you alluded to this a while ago, and I - when you say that, it’s the bookends of what it sounds like what your testimony is. When you were asking God those tough questions, the fact that he walked through suffering gave you hope that He knew what you were dealing with. Now with what you just said, isn’t it interesting? Because you - so many of us, as Christians, that are trying to be good in order to get blessing...
Jim: Let me...
Michele: ...The math of religion, right?
Jim: Yeah, the math of religion.
Michele: The two plus two - if I do everything right, God’s going to...
Jim: And, folks, this is where we need to learn this, especially in Western culture - that’s not the equation. And you think of what Michele’s just said - that Jesus suffered on the cross. If you don’t think you’re going to suffer in this life as a Christian, you better back up, because God demonstrated it will be that way.
Michele: It’s so interesting. InJohn 10:10, there’s this verse that, you know, I’ve come that they may have life and have it to the full, right? Everybody loves that verse.
Jim: Yeah (laughter).
Michele: And they think it’s the promise of, like...
Jim: Of everything.
Michele: ...Of everything. God’s going to give you everything.
Jim: A new Lexus.
Michele: Uh, but then, just six chapters later in John 16:33 – “in this world, you will have trouble,” OK? So He makes a promise of abundant life and a promise of trouble, which seems like a contradiction. But only in the cross do we see that it is not a contradiction. It’s the promise of abundant life, with the promise of trouble. The cross is the perfect example of absolute catastrophe and absolute full life in the same thing. It’s like the worst case scenario and the best case scenario in one place.
Jim: And, Michele, staying with that analogy of the Lord’s suffering on our behalf and what He went through to demonstrate this life will require suffering, and it’s part of the plan to make you better, I mean, some people - you’re going to write and call us. You disagree with that. I understand that. But look at the power of what Michele has said - that this is exactly what the Lord did. And yet, we struggle with that idea...
Michele: We do.
Jim: ...That concept.
Michele: We do. I get pushback on this all the time.
Michele: But I believe this. I mean, our God modeled it. He left perfection to embrace humanity. Can you imagine going from Him having perfection and having to embracing a human body...
Jim: Yeah, right (laughter)...
Jim: ...With its limitations.
Michele: ...With its limitations?
Michele: And He did it. And John 3:16, He did it so that we would all have a chance for life. And He modeled it, so - uh, I have a different view of suffering now.
Jim: Now, um, again, people are going to be in a place where they’re at some point on this continuum that you’ve journeyed along. You know, they’re shaking their fists at God. They just got the diagnosis. They just got the divorce papers. You - fill in the blank. It’s a blow to your emotional solar plexus, and you don’t know what to do. And you turn to God, and you shake your fist at him, like you did. Speak to the advice of how to think about this differently. I mean, the whole program’s been that. Your devotional is probably that. But I want you to speak directly to that person who’s driving down the road right now or listening on their iPhone, their smartphone, whatever environment they may be. But they’re saying to themselves, this is me. God is speaking to me right now. So do it - tell them what to expect and what to be open to.
Michele: Oh, my friend, for you, the one who’s listening right now who’s suffering, who’s just experiencing this gut punch of pain, and you have no idea how you’re going to get through, first, before anything, I want you to know you’re not alone. You are not alone. It feels like you are, but you are not.
What I want you to do is, I want you to take a moment and picture yourself walking in the Garden of Gethsemane, and you see Jesus there on his face weeping and crying, because He knows the pain and suffering that’s coming to Him. And He’s laying there, and He’s weeping, and He’s crying because He doesn’t want the pain, and He doesn’t want the suffering. But at the same time, He loves you. He loves you so much He can’t bear it. And all I want you to do is just curl up and sit next to Him because simply, in that moment, with Jesus on his face weeping and agonizing, He wants you to know you’re not alone in your own pain and your own agony. He literally came and experienced horrible pain so that way, even though you would have some pain right now and some suffering right now, that a day is coming that you would never again need to feel pain, and you would never again need to feel aloneness and isolation so that way you could be with Him forever. I just want you to hang out with Him in that place and know He sees you, He knows you, and He understands you are not alone. And then simply be open - open your heart and your mind to letting Him walk with you through your pain. He will not leave your side. He will not leave you exactly where you are today. And let Him walk with you through it one day at a time.
Jim: That is so good, Michele. I’m reminded ofRomans 8:28 - that all things work for good...
Jim: ...To those who love the Lord and are called by His name. It doesn’t always feel that way.
Michele: No, it doesn’t.
Jim: But when you get time and perspective, as you’ve done over these last seven years, all the surgeries, what you believed going into this trial and what you now believe on the other end, it’s a different perspective, a healthier perspective. You don’t have to worry about the boy in the dorm room saying something ugly, because you’re rooted - your identity is rooted in God and in Christ. I mean, that’s what’s - that’s the story.
Michele: That’s what it is. That’s it.
Jim: And this has been so good. If you are in that tough spot, man, we are here for you. Um, I’m sure Michele, in that moment when she went back to her dorm room, would have loved to have called a friend. Let us be that friend for you. Uh, we can help you. We have resources. Call us. Lean into us. Let us be a cup of cold water to you and let us tell you what God does think of you. I think it will set you in the right direction. And, uh, as Michele said, we love you. We don’t know you, but we know the trial you’re in, because there’s nothing new under the sun. Others have suffered it, too. Call us and let us help.
John: And our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY - 800-232-6459. Online, you can connect with us at focusonthefamily.com/radio. We’ve mentioned Michele’s exceptional book. It’s a 60-day devotional with lots of great content. It’s called, I Am: A 60-day Journey To Knowing Who You Are Because Of Who He Is. And, we also can connect you with a counselor, if you need to talk through some things. We have other resources for you, as well. All of that, again, at focusonthefamily.com/radio. And when you send your financial gift to Focus on the Family of any amount today, we’ll say thank you by sending a copy of Michele’s book. Focus on the Family is a listener-supported ministry, and we appreciate you standing with us.
Jim: Michele, again, thank you so much for being with us.
Michele: Such a privilege. Thank you.
John: Well, on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening today to Focus On The Family. I’m John Fuller inviting back next time, as we once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.