Alive in Christ: Living with Brain Tumors

Geriann says, “All this stuff is going on, but I am filled with joy.” Photo by Anne Raway.

by Elizabeth Pease

It’s a drizzly day in mid-October when I ring Geriann Raway’s doorbell for a chat. She greets me with a smile and a hug. Inside, she’s making a microwavable muffin for me in a coffee cup. Geriann has always fed her guests. She asks me cheerily to take a look and see whether it’s done. She can’t see well enough herself to tell.

Pouring some tea, she overflows her cup with hot water, yelping a bit when it hits her hand. I ask if she wants my help. “Oh, no, I overfill my cup about three times a day.” These more severe consequences of her vision loss began recently, but in her manner and bearing she’s just the same Geriann I’ve known for some time. If anything, she’s noticeably happier.

With her fifth brain surgery since 2002 (not including two gamma knife radiation treatments) pending in November, Geriann had used her new white cane to walk up to the microphone at a Servant Branch meeting a few weeks earlier. Her face lit with enthusiasm, she drew an analogy between her life and a book with many chapters. “There’s not blindness for me in the final chapter. There aren’t brain tumors in my final chapter. There’s no suffering; there’s no worry; there’s no anxiety. All that fills me now that is horrifying is not there. The final chapter is total glory. It is more than my mind can fathom.

“But now we have to go back to what I call the filler chapters. Those are what lie ahead of me.”

And in these middle chapters, one of the key plot lines involves a tumor called a meningioma, located in the lining between the brain and the skull, or the meninges. The tumor tissue doesn’t grow very fast but it does grow, and it can spread in a process called tumor seeding, spawning multiple tumors in various locations in the brain. Left unchecked, these growing tumors push on parts of the brain, which can result in a variety of symptoms. Geriann’s largest tumor causes vision disturbances by pushing on the part of the brain that processes visual information, and it’s been as large as an egg when removed during surgery. Her other tumors aren’t operable because they’re close to vital brain structures, but don’t currently cause symptoms.

After a previous surgery in February, 2017, Geriann had experienced some improvement in her vision, but around Labor Day in 2018 her vision suddenly worsened. The tumors were growing again.

“The doctors say there’s no cure for this . . . no hope. They want to keep me from becoming totally blind—that’s the number one priority—but the tumors won’t stop growing. They will affect major organs. There’s a huge risk of stroke and seizure. So, medically, they don’t have any answers.”

As Geriann sips her tea, she tells me the story of her recent conversations with the Lord about her situation.

“When I found out that the tumors were growing this last time, I felt like I had an agony in the garden, a time of seeing myself in the night, in the dark, at this rock, praying, ‘Father, you love me. How could  this be?’ When Jesus was in the garden, he sweat blood. I don’t feel like I’ve ever sweat blood. Here I am, I just have a little medical crisis. It is not like people hate me or people are out to kill me. Everybody I know is out to help me. But Jesus knew he was facing death. How could his Father, who loves him, allow that? I was just trying to wrap my mind around that.

“I trust God more than I ever have. This is not the first time I’ve faced the possibility of blindness. It’s not the first time I’ve faced the possibility of death. And to look back and see God’s faithfulness, I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t trust him fully, fully. I can look back and say, ‘Why am I not just fully, fully trusting in him?,’ because I have a history of him being faithful to me.”

The Raways took a moment for a family photo when they were all in the same place at Laura Kane and Jared Gonzalez’s wedding in Indianapolis on October 6. From left: Kaitlyn, Anne, Nick, Chris, Geriann, Mary and Claire. Photo courtesy of Anne Raway.

***


The brain tumor part of Geriann’s story began in 2002, when the Raways lived in Prescott, Wisconsin, in the branch’s east area, with five kids at home between the ages of five and twelve. Geriann had struggled through months of debilitating headaches and had received several unsatisfactory diagnoses. Then her primary care doctor noticed an elevated white blood cell count and decided to run more specific tests.

While waiting for the results, Geriann was out shopping at a store with her kids and suddenly felt like she was going to pass out. She rushed home. Laid out on the couch, she happened to get a call from Janice Mertz, just wondering what she was up to that day. On hearing about the situation, normally mild-mannered Janice threatened, “You call the doctor right now or I’m calling him.”

In the ambulance ride to the hospital, Geriann overheard the driver say, “She’s doing really well for someone with a brain bleed.” But it wasn’t a brain bleed, it was tumors—requiring immediate surgery. “I didn’t have time to react then, other than to be super-concerned for my children. I begged God to keep me alive for their sake.”

While the surgeries over the years have helped, Geriann says, “I’ve always been a very capable, independent person, and right now I am not capable. I cannot be independent. While that’s frustrating, there’s also a real freedom. I’m stiller than I’ve ever been. The Scripture verse, ‘Be still and know that I am God,’ was given to me years ago. That’s a major change for me—being okay with being uncomfortable. Now, I can say that, but I’m not really okay with being uncomfortable. I’m just trying to live more in the Spirit and less out of who I am and my own capabilities.”

Geriann squirms, leaning forward in her chair, as if to emphasize her discomfort with the very idea of sitting still.

Another thing that Geriann had to relinquish to her tumors was her job. She had spent several years working as a legal assistant in a small-town law office in Prescott, putting her organizational skills to good use by keeping files and appointments in order for a busy lawyer—until her vision symptoms had made computer work and driving no longer possible.

When I spoke to her husband Chris in January to confirm some medical details, I asked him what he sees the Lord doing with Geriann in this process. He didn’t hesitate at all. “I see her submitting to God in ways that none of us ever want to. As she loses the ability to do things that are dear to her—reading, crafts, sewing, biking, driving, things like that, or even enjoying a sunset—she can still see God in it and be in a state of detachment: ‘Lord, you’re the one. I live for you. It doesn’t matter what happens to me.’ That’s amazing.”

“It’s crazy,” she said, “but I told Chris that I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier in my life. All this stuff is going on, but I am filled with joy. Really, I am filled with joy.”

Chris and Geriann have ridden in the Bike MS: Ride Across Minnesota, a 300 mile bike ride for a number of years. Because of Geriann’s vision loss they did the ride together on a tandem bike in July 2018. Photo by Claire Raway.

***


In 2014, Chris and Geriann relocated from Prescott to the West Side neighborhood of St. Paul to join Servant Branch’s outreach there. They have five adult children, all of whom have moved out of state to join various works of the People of Praise.

Geriann’s five surgeries haven’t been enough to stop her from entering into family life and outreach to St. Paul’s west side. Photo by Robert Cunningham, PhotoResource, MN.

“I thought the work here would be much more active, and I’m finding that, because of my health situation, I’m much quieter. Actually, that has opened more doors. I’m physically here in the house during the day, and there are a lot of neighbors around. If I still had a job, I would miss a ton of opportunities. A lot happens just because I’m here and a neighbor can drop over, or I can drop over to a neighbor’s, or I can see someone across the street and walk over. So that’s been surprising to me. I didn’t think about being available in that way.

“I sit out on the porch a lot, and it feels like every time I sit there someone will come by and a conversation happens, which is a very fun thing. People walk by and they will stop and talk. Here on this block, we had a couple who were renting part of a house. They had several children, and we met them just as neighbors, not really knowing their situation. I invited the woman to come sit on the porch with me, and she began to talk about her life. She kept referring to herself as ‘a signer.’ I finally had to say, ‘I don’t know what a signer is.’ Well, it turns out a signer is a person who stands on the side of the road with a sign saying ‘homeless,’ begging for money. She said, ‘Now that you know I’m a signer, do you want me to get off your porch?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not!’

“This family had been homeless for years, sometimes living out of a car. Winter in Minnesota is terribly, terribly hard, and somehow they were able to rent space temporarily in this house nearby. Then she began to share about herself. She has some mental health issues, and she was raised in a totally unstable situation.

“I think it was partly God’s way of helping me recognize all that I’ve been given. I didn’t choose the family I grew up in. I didn’t choose my parents. Those are gifts to me. Here was someone who was not given those gifts. And she was struggling, struggling, struggling, and I was seeing the confusion in her life.

Geriann and Madeleine and Vera Brickweg greet one another out of their windows. Photo by Mary Brickweg.

“One night Matt and Mary Brickweg, who live next door to us, invited this family over for supper. They couldn’t remember ever, ever sitting down as a family for supper. Anywhere. Or ever being invited to anyone’s house for supper. Can you imagine? Not even really knowing what a family meal should look like?

“So, a couple weekends ago, I felt like, ‘Lord, they’re here. What can I do?’ I knew that the mother was trying to get the kids in school, and that meant she was trying to work, and I felt I should just make them a pot of soup. It was a thought that I felt came from the Lord. It’s not much, but I thought I could feed them something simple and basic, give them something so that when she comes home from work she can put a meal on the table for them. So I made a pot of soup and a pan of cookies. I wasn’t comfortable delivering them alone because the situation they’re living in is not a good situation, so I called one of the neighbors who loves them a lot and asked, ‘Would you be willing to go with me to deliver the soup?’ She said, ‘Oh, they moved. They packed up their vehicle over the weekend and left.’ So now they are states away, and we don’t really know where they’re going. But then I felt like the Lord said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You still have prayer. That will always be a gift. You can always intercede for them.’

“As it turned out, another neighbor stopped by that day who had recently had a baby, and I was able to give the soup and the cookies to her, and it all worked out—all because I was just sitting on the porch.”

***

Geriann and Chris Raway. Photo by Robert Cunningham, PhotoResource, MN.

After surgery on November 15, 2018, in Arizona, Geriann cracked jokes and made phone calls in the hospital room, but during the next few weeks she had her most difficult recovery yet from a surgery. Beginning in September she’d been on steroids to reduce swelling in the brain, and she experienced disturbed sleep and very low energy. She says it took a big effort to move each leg in order to walk. She had a persistent hacking cough for which the pulmonologist couldn’t find a specific cause. Not only that, but two weeks after surgery Geriann’s vision was worse than it was before, which was a big disappointment because she’d expected to see some improvement by then.

“I felt an invitation from the Lord to walk with him into darkness, and him saying that he would take my hand the whole way, that I would never be alone.”

On Christmas Eve, she was able to stop taking the steroids, and from then on she started to see gradual improvements. On December 29, she was riding in the car with her kids to a family party and noticed that she could read some street signs, something she hadn’t been able to do for months. She hadn’t expected to have any vision improvements so long after surgery.

“That’s been super-encouraging,” said Geriann. “It means I can read my calendar. I can pick up my phone and push buttons on it. I can even read a recipe out of a book, which I hadn’t been able to do. I can tell if I’m putting my shoes on the right feet.” She also said she’s gaining a little bit more energy every day.

Geriann’s oncologist hopes to slow the tumor growth using drugs, but he wants to allow her three months for healing before starting anything new, which Geriann sees as a relief. “For me, I’m always going back to this: I’m a child of God. Children don’t have to understand everything that’s going on or be in charge of the environment. That’s God’s part. I just need to cooperate with what he’s doing.”

Responses

  1. Sarah Whittenburg says:

    My belief system started with very simple things that I could say "Amen" to readily and then learn what God wanted to teach me = Death is not the end of life", and God never makes a mistake, and God never asks my opinion about what He is doing. He simply calls to me in that soft voice and says, "Let me be your rest, your hope and your peace". Through triple bypass surgery for my husband, 2 rounds of cancer for me, and FTD dementia for my husband and his passing last December. And yet as I walk through each day, I can see His plan unfolding more fully and completely as I too learn to cooperate with what He is doing. Bless you,

  2. haidy busekrus says:

    I thank you for sharing your journey. You are honest in your response to what the Lord is asking of you. I am inspired to do the same in my journey.

  3. Joan kerwood says:

    Thank you for your story,you are an inspiration to me and many. You truly are a child of God 🙏 Still always thinking of others. You are loved by many .My prayers forever,thank you .

  4. Kathy Smith says:

    Thank you for sharing. My prayers are going your way.
    I'd sure like to talk to you. Tim's got my number.

  5. Becky Sweeney says:

    God bless you and thanks for sharing your story. You are an amazing women.

  6. Patricia McAdams says:

    I know God had a part of this appearing on Facebook today. What an inspiration this woman is to me. I am 79 and dealing with severe pain from scoliosis, degenerative disc, arthritis, Etc. I am looking at the possibility of ending up in a wheelchair. I am seeing a scoliosis specialist and there is a possibility of scoliosis surgery. The doctors tell me this is a very difficult surgery with a long recuperation and they hesitate because of my age. Thank goodness and God I am in good health. Decisions to be made in the next few months. You reminded me that God is in charge and will walk me through every step of the way. Thank you thank you thank you. God bless and I'm praying for you also

  7. Jo Kay says:

    Geriann, You are such an amazing inspiration! Several years ago I learned of charisms, Spiritual gifts given by God for the good of others. You are certainly a poster child for the charism of faith. Through the years of trial you cling to and trust Him as we do our very breath. Thank you for continually shining a beacon of joy and trust for all who know you to follow.

  8. Sally Severson says:

    Hey Girlfriend: Thank you for sharing some of what’s been happening with you. I’ve been in your prayer corner since the night you called before your first surgery..and you know you and your beautiful family will always be there!! I love the picture in my mind of you sitting on your front porch..visiting with the neighbors☺️ Hmm..just remember “the drip of the day” says God loves you and so do I 😬😘. Hugs, Sal

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