Is someone you know afflicted with cancer or other chronic degenerative illness? I hope this post will encourage you and your loved ones.
Faith is known to be a tremendous factor in healing, even overriding prognoses and circumstantial limitations. One such case is that of Dr. Agnes C. Sarthou who was diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer in 2003. Today, she continues encouraging cancer patients and their families through her ministry, Life to the Max. In her answers to the interview questions, she shares her conversations with God seamlessly as an integral part of her system.
Dr. Agnes Sarthou, Ph. D. or “Aggie” to friends, has been a freelance Training and Organizational Development Consultant for over twenty years for multi-national companies and organizations. She is also the wife of CCF’s Executive Pastor, Ricky Sarthou. She is mom to Miguel (married to Tin) and Abigail (married to Pau) and Mamita to Eumir and Isabel.
Let’s dive into the interview…
Butterfly in the Spring (BITS): How long has it been since you got diagnosed with cancer?
Agnes C. Sarthou (ACS): Eleven years ago. That was June 2003.
BITS: Did the doctor give an estimate of how much time you had left?
ACS: From a medical standpoint, stage 4 is a sure death sentence… No one survives stage 4 cancer. It’s only a matter of time…
I remember my oncologist telling me: “Aggie, I’m a good doctor and I will take care of you. But I’m only a doctor. You are stage 4; only God can heal you.” So I’m alive only by God’s miracle!
BITS: How did you feel when you heard the news?
ACS: I thought, “Lord I thought You wanted me to be a doctor. I thought You wanted to use me so I can serve You in many organizations but I’m sick now and it’s terminal.” I just finished my doctorate degree. God was telling me, “Yes I want to use you but you will be a better doctor if you’re patient first. You’re a very impatient person. Credentials are not as important as character to Me. Just go through this wilderness experience. I will use you.” I realized that if my life is in God’s hands and I’ve already given it to Him then I’m in the best of hands. So I told God, “Please be glorified in my cancer.” I was tasked to deliver the talk on behalf of the Ph.D. graduates in June 2003. This was about one week after I had a modified radical mastectomy.
I knew God was doing something in my life. It was not a dead end but just a bend on the road. I just had to make a turn for the better so that God can use me. It was Enrique [her husband, Pastor Ricky] who broke the news. I said, “So when do we get the mastectomy done?” No crying. I went back to my meeting. I was meeting with Pastor Albert Noel because we were doing some training together. It went well. When I went to the meeting of the pastors’ wives, they were all crying. I asked, “Why are you crying?” They said, “Aggie, we know the news.” My husband had a text blast about the really bad diagnostics. When I was looking at them, I got so ashamed. I said, “Lord, will you please make me cry because I’m the only one not crying here.” It was not denial. It was something I had to deal with God even before the news came. I knew it was too complicated but I just had to trust God and His plan. My husband and I were praying that we would get a lower stage but it was stage 4, terminal stage…like God was telling me, “Agnes, if it were a lower stage, they would think it’s because your doctor is good, you’re good, your medicines are good but if it’s Stage 4, the glory goes only to Me.”
The stormiest days were my best times with God…because those were times I just felt His hand was literally putting me to sleep, making me rest, giving me peace and joy that I can’t even explain even at the height of pain. I would just ask him to make me sleep and He would make me sleep. I asked him not to make me puke all over the bed. We only had one bed and my husband sleeps with me so my husband wouldn’t have a place to sleep if I did that. I never did, not even once on the bed. To me that was a miracle. It’s SOP to throw up all the time. After the sleep, I would feel so fresh. “I’m alive. Thank you Lord for Your new mercies everyday.”
BITS: How did you feel about God at that time?
ACS: I think I had so much peace because I already dealt with it with the Lord before the medical results came.
BITS: You didn’t go through anger?
ACS: No. I already processed, “Lord, if it’s really bad, how would you want me to respond?” He gave me Habakuk 3:17-18 Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. That really sustained me. I had to focus on what God was doing and saying, “Lord, whatever You want in my life, You just be with me the whole time. I don’t know if I will be with You here as I walk [on earth] or I will be with You [in heaven]”… to rejoice with Him. Either way it’s a win-win situation. I had unexplainable joy before and after; even now, it’s something that I still just enjoy —to bask in God’s goodness in my life. I felt closer to him, I clung to him. I wanted to be independent but I realized that more and more as we mature in the faith, God wants us more and more dependent on Him rather than financial situations.
BITS: Were you always close to the Lord?
ACS: I was independent and self-righteous. I didn’t always have a personal relationship with Jesus.
BITS: What led you to a relationship with Christ?
ACS: I met Jesus when I was in College at UP Diliman. However, after college I was not able to sustain fellowship and bible studies. Consequently, my walk with Jesus faltered. Sadly, this was a time when my life didn’t glorify our Lord Jesus.
I was at a very low point in my life. I was very young then, but old enough to know that I had to break off a relationship which I foresaw would be disastrous. Then, someone on campus (UP) shared God’s love and made me understand that He loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life. But this wonderful plan for my life could not be realized if I did it my way. I needed to surrender my broken self and surrender my life to Jesus . Of course, the process of surrender is slow…
BITS: What changes took place after you came to Christ?
ACS: I did not like my husband, Enrique, when I first met him. In fact, I told myself: This guy is the last man I would like to have anything to do with. But as our friendship flourished, I realized that he was different. He made me laugh. He’s brilliant. Talented. He would sing and write poems for me.
I knew I should not be “yoked” with a non-believer. But each time I said “no” to him, something churned in my stomach. He would ask me to consider the relationship. I found him faithful, as his dad was faithful and loving to his mom to his last breath. So I thought I would like to risk being with this man for the rest of my life.
We married in December 1984… And because of my disobedience [to not yoke with a non-believer], I suffered the consequences. I almost left my husband. He had a volcanic temper and I had a short fuse. I hear all his curses. Then my husband accepted the Lord Jesus as His Lord and Savior during one of the Bible Studies conducted in his office. We put Jesus at the center of our lives and marriage. It was a complete turnaround for us. Indeed, Jesus is the author and perfector of our lives and marriage!
BITS: How many years into the marriage did you both come to Christ?
ACS: About a year and a half.
BITS: So there’s hope for people who get married before being believers who think they made a mistake?
ACS: (Chuckles) Yes, of course, there’s always hope in the Lord! We start experiencing the hope when we have Christ in our lives.
BITS: Can you tell us about the physical challenges you went through? How did you feel during your first major medical procedure or chemotherapy?
ACS: I did a lot of research on my chemo drugs. I had three deadly drugs. One cost P100k at that time. Gemzar was P50k. The other one was another P50k. During that time, I just had to find out how it would affect me, the toxicity in the liver and all. I did my research. “You knew my unformed body, you knew me before so You know what I can take and what I can’t take” [Aggie recalls herself talking to God quoting Scripture]. I call them my “chemo treats.” I had eighteen chemo sessions. No port. It’s all through IV injections. Normally you have six every twenty-one days. Mine was eighteen, once a week. They had to be very aggressive.
The only complication was my oncologist and diabetologist had to work together. Normally you have 80-100 reading of blood sugar. Mine was over 500. My glucometer could not even read it. But my body was okay. Those are the miracles. To this day, my body organs are preserved. I’m functioning well. Even when I was doing chemo, I was conducting training. Three days after my chemo, I had two-days-straight training. The company would wait for me until I was revived from my chemo sessions. I conducted management development programs for companies with 30-100 participants. I would have a bunny suit, covered…all possible by the sheer grace of God.
From my fees, I would give to the building fund. Except after a chemo, I would practically sleep for two days to revive my body. I would talk to God about my heartaches.
When I ask the Lord why He had to make His plan a bit complicated and extreme, He reminded me about Lazarus who was rotting and dead for four (4) days before He raised him up from the dead. The number “4” is a number of death and hopelessness. During the time of Jesus, people believed that the spirit of the dead lingers for about three days so that on the 4th day, the spirit would have left the body as it begins to smell, rot, and decay…
The Lord reminded me that if I were diagnosed to have Stage 1 or Stage 2 cancer, people would attribute my healing to my doctor or the medicines . But healing of Stage 4 cancer patients can only be attributed to God. It is not the work of human hands!
BITS: What do you think of sleeping pills?
ACS: I don’t like sleeping pills. I got rid of pain killers. If you can tolerate the pain, try to avoid. I don’t want to be dependent. But if a patient is going through prolonged suffering, they have to go through pain management.
BITS: Is there a book that you can recommend for cancer patients?
ACS: The book of David Jeremiah: A Bend in the Road, Finding God When Your World Caves In. It’s very inspiring and written from the heart. He was a cancer patient so he talks about his experience. [David Jeremiah, Senior Pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, California was diagnosed with cancer in 1994 when he was 53 and is now 73 years old]
BITS: What are the major issues that a cancer patient would face?
ACS: For me, I had to have mastectomy immediately. The deal before the deal was God wanted me to focus on him, be joyful despite the situation, trust that His plan is a good plan.
I was really asking God, “How do You want me to respond?” God gave me that Habakkuk verse [being joyful in Him no matter what circumstance]. Also the messages from Scripture were, “Will you give me your plans, hopes, fears, career, everything, for My glory not your glory. I said “yes”. Surrender came. It’s the most important and liberating part…because I would sleep. Most cancer patients have a hard time sleeping because of fear and worry that they might not wake up.
If cancer patients focus on the sickness, they die before their time…because they already start crying and get depressed etc. Your cancer cells are extremely joyful breeding on acidic environment. They breed on anger, worry, fear, depression.
BITS: How do you defeat that?
ACS: All by faith and grace. It takes a lot of getting self-infused in the word of God and trusting that you step into Truth. You can’t go by how you feel or by statistics. When I read and research, it looked depressing because they all say “Stage 4 means death. You’re a statistic.” So God told me to stop reading those books. I closed the [research] books . As far as God is concerned, I’m not a statistic. I’m a child of God and He has a plan for me. Jer 29:11 is very powerful whatever you are going through. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Cancer is so much related to death. But whether it’s cancer or not, we will die of other causes.
BITS: Are you saying that every child of God has that same track?
ACS: Every crisis situation has two sides. First is God’s side. He is the God of the impossible. But you have to cooperate with His plan for your life because you have a unique track from all the rest. Stop comparing yourself with all the rest because He has a plan for you and it covers eternity.
Many times if you focus on your circumstances, if you’re depressed, if you have no peace, there’s still something you have not surrendered. … the fruit of the Spirit is love joy peace. The temptation of fear will be there but you don’t have to yield to it. You can appropriate God’s power. That’s the difference many times we miss out on. Sometimes, the 4T’s are all in the same situation: Trials, Troubles, Trespasses, Temptations. I know It’s a Trial for me because I didn’t cause it. I thought that it was something unique that the Lord just gave to me. We have to rest in His love and plan and trust Him completely.
Every week one of our “classmates” would die. The Temptation is to worry, “Will I be next?” He assured me in His Word “Thousands will fall at your side but I will preserve you, I love you and I have a wonderful plan. So you just trust and walk by faith not by sight. Not by might but by My Spirit, says the Lord.”
I don’t think it’s a Trespass caused by somebody. Many times when you get de-focused of God’s purpose in your life and you lose sight of the truth that His plan for you is always the best, you will not respond well. Romans 8:28 says All things work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. In all things, even in cancer. The key is how you respond… in faith? There is a purpose behind everything.
BITS: What do you see as your purpose?
ACS: My main purpose in life is to please and glorify the King and Kings and Lord of Lords in everything I do. All the rest will follow. My priority is my husband, my ministry with my children to teach them to please God too and love Him with all their hearts, do an excellent job as trainer and consultant, use my experience even in cancer. That’s why Life to the Max ministry is something that always reminds me of my purpose. I tell God, “Lord I can’t do this alone. I need a room.” He gave me a room. “Give me people who will be committed to the program.” He gave me doctors, nutritionists, pastors. Lord, show me. From thirty people, now we have eighty people coming every week hearing Your Word.” Now it’s the funds. “Lord, will You help us because a lot of people are helping us and we don’t want them to feel used. We want to at least give them something. We want to plan our programs properly.”
BITS: How can people extend support to Life to the Max Ministry?
ACS: Through services. We have a lot of people who give time to be facilitators in the D-group. Yoji leads our worship. We have professionals whom we tap so they can speak. They prepare materials. We have people in the food committee. They feed us every week. I also bring food but there are eighty people on a weekly basis, that’s also a lot. We want to do juicing. There are hospitalizations, deaths; the families have needs. We can’t really pay everything but some kind of support would really mean so much.
BITS: So people can give cash and kind?
ACS: Yes. We have Evelyn Chua who handles the cash to record everything. I don’t like to hold the cash.
BITS: Francis Chan said “Death is what Christians live for.” Death is very much in the accepted psyche of the believer and the realization of eternal life with Christ is a real source of encouragement. For those who come to you who don’t know Christ, how can you encourage them?
ACS: Many times, cancer patients—specially those who don’t have Christ yet— really feel it’s a punishment because they’ve wronged people. The first thing I do is to share the gospel and the first thing that I tell them is, “God loves you.” And they really start crying. “This could be a trial that God uses to draw us closer to Him. But we cannot really draw closer to Him because of our sin problem so much like cancer. You don’t experience vitality of life because of cancer. We are sinful people, we cannot experience the abundant life that God promised in John 10:10″
“I came that you may have life and have it to the full.” We need to connect to the real Source of Life. I lead them to the acceptance prayer and give them a cancer tract.”
BITS: In a nutshell, can you tell me what your tract says that is different from other literature?
ACS: The title is “There’s hope in the Big C”. Because the Big C is not cancer. It’s Christ in you. Christ living in you. It’s really the hope. Life to the Max is about giving hope and comfort to those who are afflicted with cancer or other chronic degenerative diseases and their families. We help them refocus towards the goal of knowing and pleasing God.
To Be Continued…
(Note: Please don’t miss the prayer given by Pastor Ricky and Aggie for those afflicted with cancer. There is a video link in Part 2 of this post. Where “cancer” is mentioned in this article, it also refers to other chronic degenerative diseases that Life the Max Ministry addresses such as Diabetes, Lupus, Hypertension, Arthritis, Osteo-Arthritis, etc.).
Link to Part 2