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Inspiration in the face of cancer

Toni E. Roberts, 52, is a woman with a mission.

Roberts has written a short, inspirational book that encourages the physically ill, the emotionally drained, the unappreciative, the lost and the found to discover or rediscover the reason they are here on Earth.

"I felt so compelled to write a book," she said last week. "It's not that I have a greater story than anyone else. It's because people need to know how to be OK with their situation."

She began writing the book, It's OK: Living and Loving through Cancer, in June after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her second bout with the disease.

The urgency to write the book didn't occur with her first diagnosis in June 2005. But what she has learned in the ensuing 31/2 years and the dearth of inspirational help available at bookstores pushed her into a higher gear.

"The other books I was reading were taking me through the things I had been through," Roberts said, her voice just above a whisper. "They didn't inspire me as to how to get over my anger or how to be OK with how I was."

Roberts is very ill. Her pain is controlled by a morphine pump. But she is surrounded by family and friends in her Mount Sterling home and her gentle spirit is undaunted.

I first noticed that spirit when she and I spent three days together at a religious retreat, Walk to Emmaus, in March 2006.

As a table leader during that retreat, I had been given information about the five or six women who would be seated at my table. Roberts, I was told, had cancer.

By that time, Roberts, a wife and mother of three daughters, had endured two operations to remove the mass, both of which had failed. She had survived weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, and had undergone an experimental non-invasive procedure called CyberKnife Robotic Radiosurgery System, which delivered radiation to the inoperable tumor with pinpoint accuracy.

Although she was thin and pale during our time together, I sometimes forgot Roberts was living with one of the most dreaded cancers in the medical arena.

I only noticed that spirit which was vibrant and alive.

In the book, Roberts notes she was taking 15 pills a day for pain and nausea, but she kept up with a rigorous schedule and long days.

A few weeks after the retreat, I received an e-mail that brimmed with as much excitement and joy as words can convey. In April 2006, Roberts was cancer-free.

"She received healing at Emmaus," said Dr. Anita Gray of Winchester, her long-time friend. "It was totally amazing. They couldn't find that she had had it at all."

For more than two years, Roberts and her husband, Dr. Bill Roberts, spoke to area groups about their miracle and about "the significance of faith and hope," he said. "God is a greater God than sometimes we can comprehend."

Both became better Christians, "pruned," she said, by adversity.

"Cancer, yes, cancer made Bill and me seek God and crave His closeness in ways that we could not have known without my cancer," Roberts wrote.

On May 30, 2008, however, a routine CT scan revealed the cancer had returned. Another CyberKnife procedure was scheduled for June at the Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.

"I was to have the procedure in two weeks," she wrote in her book. "I was okay with the new diagnosis. I focused on how much I'd grown from my first round with cancer and almost looked forward to the opportunity of growing as a Christian and knowing that God was close to those who suffered. I loved being obedient to God and couldn't wait to see how he was going to work in my life this time."

But she didn't bounce back this time. Later tests revealed the cancer had spread. She was told she had about six months to live.

What was she supposed to do? Was it her fault?

"In May 2008, I was initially embarrassed by the reoccurrence of my cancer," Roberts wrote. "I'd spent two years giving my testimony at churches and organizations with Bill giving his testimony of faith and of my healing, testimonies of how God had miraculously put all things in place for my healing. Almost three years to the day, I have cancer again. How could I ever speak to those groups again? Why did God miraculously heal me and then allow it to return?

"Had I not prayed enough? Had I been backsliding? Is that what I'd done? Had I taken my new life for granted and not continued to honor God and give Him the glory? Perhaps."

Roberts writes that she was angry after the diagnosis. It wasn't fair for her to get cancer again. She was a better Christian than she was before and she had too much to live for.

Anger is fine in brief spurts, she said, but those of us who are hurting for whatever reason must refocus on who we are and not on our circumstances.

"Toni and I have spoken about this," Gray said. "You cannot control your circumstances, but you can control your reaction to those circumstances.

"She has never once blamed God for this. She has never once done anything but kept her eyes on Jesus. She is not bitter with the Lord for not healing her this time. Healing can come in more than one way."

That's why Roberts wrote the book. She wants all of us to be spiritually healed.

"As a nurse, I've seen people dying in the intensive care unit," she said last week. "They were agonizing the whole time, gripping the sheets. I didn't want to be like that.

"That doesn't mean I'm wiping out praying for a miracle," she continued. "I don't have a death wish."

Jenifer Steger, the Roberts' oldest daughter, said that watching her mother's long battle with pancreatic cancer and the miracles that surrounded that fight have taught her that everything is a part of God's plan.

"First and foremost, whatever hurt you are going through, whatever trial, whether it is a relationship or cancer, look at it, say these are the cards that I have been dealt, and then go forth with God," she said.

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