'Doctors told me most women with this type of cancer died within two years'
Alli’s story | A huge shock while serving God overseas
“I grew up in a Christian family, going to church twice on Sundays. We lived a safe, conservative life. I committed myself to Jesus when I was 16, and I married Paul when I was 19. From very early on, we both had a heart for overseas mission. We travelled to developing countries and we explored short-term missions in Romania, Africa, and Asia. All the time, we prayed and asked God where we could serve him long-term. It was our dream.”
“For a long time, though, the doors didn’t open. Then in 2001, we were visiting Cambodia. It was still a very broken country and the AIDS epidemic was sweeping through. I remember kneeling beside a bed with Paul, offering our lives to serve God cross-culturally in Cambodia.
“But we weren’t led back there until January 2013. It took 12 years. In the meantime, God kept saying to me, ‘Alli, it’s not about geography. Just serve me wherever you are. Be faithful in the small.’ I knew it was true, but I became discouraged, questioning if we were spiritual enough to go to the mission field. Maybe we weren’t godly enough? So, we kept waiting, praying and stayed in Brisbane.
“Then, in 2012, Paul was offered a teaching role at a school serving missionary families in Phnom Penh. We left for Cambodia in 2013, with our three young boys in tow, with full hearts and high expectations. We knew that God had called us there and we were ready to help save the world!
“In our first year, we were the king and queen of the ‘doing’. We overcommitted ourselves and we made all the rookie mistakes, not investing time in language learning or cultural assimilation. By October, we were both exhausted. I also started having gynaecological problems. The doctors advised I needed a hysterectomy, so in May 2014, I flew back to Brisbane for surgery, leaving Paul and the boys in Phnom Penh. But when I got to Brisbane, I met with doctors and was diagnosed with stage 4B cervical cancer. It had already spread to my ovaries. They told me most women with this type of cancer died within 18 months to 2 years. I was 39.
“I was in shock. I tried to call Paul in Cambodia and I told him over the phone. I was flailing, reaching for my Bible and my journal, flicking through scriptures, desperately looking for something to soothe my soul. Then in my journal, I found words and images that I’d copied months earlier. Back then, we’d commenced a new season of practicing spiritual disciplines, especially the focus on silence, stillness and ‘being’ with God, rather than doing. It was a challenge. I didn’t even know what stillness was! I was a busy mother of three boys. But my journal was full of scriptures and words from God inviting me into a deeper place of ‘being’ with him – a new kind of intimacy, as his beloved.
“And there I was in hospital, with only God. Paul and the boys came back from Cambodia. It was a confusing time, but our whole journey from that point on was one of trust.
“I had two years of cancer treatment, including chemo. I lost all my hair. Ultimately, I knew that I needed to surrender my earthly existence to God. I needed to trust that God was always good, whatever the outcome. I came to realise that God speaks to us deeply in the place of pain. My whole theology of suffering changed. And it was painful but a deeply refining time.
“Sometimes, I felt like I was spiralling into despair. But through it all, God kept giving me a new perspective on my life. He said that our years here are brief within his big story – like a vapour, a wisp, or a breath of air. For all of that time, God sowed deeper and deeper into our hearts the truth of his deep love for us and the world … and I kept coming back to Hosea 2:14. It drips of intimacy. ‘Therefore, I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak to her heart.’
“God has healed me and we’ve been back in Cambodia since 2017. We’re living in Phnom Penh, alongside the urban poor and serving with Alongsiders International. We’re different. Everything we live and breathe is coming out of the new truths we learnt during that refining time … about God’s tender heart of love.”