How Will You Know When To Go Home?

by Lisa McKay on January 22, 2014

Lis and Mike Jan 2014Three weeks ago, just after Christmas, we learned that my husband, Mike, has testicular cancer.

We were in Thailand at the time, on a three-day getaway from our home in Laos. Mike had noticed something different downstairs ten days previously, and we’d scheduled an appointment to get it checked out in Thailand while we were there (Laos medical facilities are, shall we say, sub-par).

Right up until the day of the appointment, I wasn’t worried. The chances of it being anything serious are so slim, I reasoned. And after everything that’s already landed on us in the last two years – a baby’s broken femur, my broken ankle, depression, Mike’s two herniated discs and spinal surgeries – it’s so not our turn for this sort of medical drama anymore, amen.

I was carrying our five-month old and simultaneously trying to prevent our leashed and unhappy two-year-old from climbing into a fishpond, when Mike walked up to me after his appointment and said the words: “I have a tumor. It needs to come out as soon as possible. The doctor said it could be life-threatening.”

Well. So much for not our turn anymore.

As we were driving back to Laos the next day, Mike and I began to do something we’ve gotten rather skilled at doing – planning for how to deal with a medical challenge in Bangkok while we continued living in Laos.

During that drive home, we decided that Mike would leave ASAP to have surgery in Bangkok while I stayed in Laos with the kids. If further treatment was needed after that, we hoped that perhaps Mike could commute to Bangkok for radiation or chemotherapy and then return to Laos and work in between treatments.

It seemed like a good plan to us. It didn’t seem like such a good plan to two of our good Australian friends – both doctors – who are also currently living in Laos.

These two friends came around to our house that day after we arrived home from Thailand. Over the course of the next three hours they lovingly but firmly laid out all the reasons why, given Mike’s test results, we should all catch the first available flight to Australia.

Forty-eight hours later, one minute before midnight on New Years Eve, our flight from Bangkok to Brisbane lifted off. I believe we were being serenaded at the time by our exhausted two year old screaming in rotation, “COOKIE MAMA, RIGHT NOW!!” and “OFF PLANE!!”

Now it’s the 20th of January. We’re living at my parent’s house. Again. Mike had surgery in Brisbane six days after we landed in Australia. His tumor turned out, as expected, to be cancer. What we didn’t really expect was for a Stage 3 diagnosis. Lymph nodes in his groin and his chest have already been affected. I’m writing this article in the oncology unit, sitting beside Mike. The nurses are preparing to hook up the first treatment in what will be at least nine weeks of chemotherapy.

I am so profoundly grateful that we are not in Laos or Bangkok right now, and that our kids are being watched over by their grandparents while I’m here.

I was wondering yesterday what to write about this month that might be relevant to you all when this question popped into my mind: How will you know when it’s right to leave the field?

Our first inclination when Mike was diagnosed was to stay in Asia. We only decided to temporarily relocate to Australia because we invited, and then took, the advice of two friends who knew more than we did about what we might be dealing with.

One of those two doctor friends reassured us as we were still trying to process stepping away from Mike’s job, our house, and “normal” life for an indeterminate amount of time.

“The specifics about your house and everything else will sort themselves out,” she said. “They always do. And within six months this will all most likely be behind you. You’ll be back. You just need to step away for a while.”

What sort of situations or warning flags would make you decide to step away for a while, or even leave the field permanently?

Sometimes we’re faced with a pretty clear crisis point, like a cancer diagnosis, that raises the question of whether to go or to stay. Speaking as both a psychologist and someone who has been through a couple of those crisis points, I can tell you that no matter how calm you feel in the immediate aftermath of a crisis point, you may not be thinking logically and rationally. Right when you need to be making 101 important decisions, you will not be at your best.

Make up your mind now not to go it alone during those moments. Who will you trust to help you untangle your options and to give you advice? Think now about who could be a good sounding board for you then.

Beyond that, however, think about what sorts of seasons and reasons should cause you to at least consider leaving the field. In the absence of a specific crisis point, we can slowly acclimatize to all sorts of stresses and strains without realizing the extent of the pressure that we (or our relationships) are under. That proverbial frog in the boiling pot of water might have survived if he’d kept his eye on a thermostat. Along those lines, we should keep some of our own personal and relational thermostats within view when we’re living in potential pressure-cooker situations. When you choose to live overseas, it’s wise to identify some personal warning signs that should prompt you to reconsider whether your life overseas is worth the cost that you and your loved ones are paying.

What signs of marital strain would act as this sort of trigger for you? What about issues with your children, or your (or a loved one’s) faith, job, sense of vocation, or health? Where would you go if you had to leave the field on short notice?

Think about these questions this week. Talk about them with your partner, friends, or family.

I hope you never have to put any “emergency exit” scenarios into place. But if you do, I hope you’ll know when to leave and that you’ll have somewhere soft to land for a season while you sort out your life. On those fronts, at least, Mike and I count ourselves blessed.

Share your wisdom with us all. Have you ever had to make an emergency exit from your home abroad? What helped you during that time?

And, what sorts of reasons or seasons might prompt you to leave the field?

Jan 19, 2014: A family "everyone still has hair" photo shoot.

Jan 19, 2014: A family “everyone still has hair” photo shoot.

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos
Website:      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.
  • Colleen Connell Mitchell

    Wow, Lisa. I will be praying for you and Mike and the kids, for healing and health and assurance that God is at your side every step of the way. There is a lot to consider here and I thank you for being willing to make it real by sharing your situation when it is so fresh and difficult. We will definitely be looking at these talking points this week.

    • Thanks, Colleen. Hope you and yours are all well.

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    This is so heavy, Lisa. I am praying for you and Mike and your two little ones. So much to think about. We had one thing that made it hard to stay in Haiti, but nothing like what you’re facing now. Hugs and prayers.

    • Thanks, Tara. From the little that I’ve seen you are living out amazing things in Haiti. Strength to you.


    Lisa, thanks for sharing this, and I hope you will also feel free to go shriek in a corner somewhere and not share publicly when you don’t want to. Do what you need to do, and be blessed with love, grace, and freedom for this journey.

    Since you asked, we had two crisis departures during our 20ish years overseas. One was a political coup, and we had 15 minutes’ notice from when we were informed to when we were supposed to be at the departure point. Take it or leave it, the marines will not be coming back for you. The second was when a marital crisis when my husband’s pornography addiction was discovered and we were sent back to the States. Those two experiences taught me that I can’t just have airy-fairy ideas about when I might leave, if… I ended up with major depression after we kept going after a bunch of crises–nothing was ever really bad enough to leave by itself, but over time, it was disastrous.

    After that, I knew I needed actual trigger points, just like the protocols that crisis management professionals create. A huge part of that plan for me was exactly what you describe above, the “outside consultant” who can look at the situation and give a recommendation. When we went back overseas after our second crisis departure, we changed our situation from very isolated to a mission community. I knew the time for isolation was over. In our community, I had three close friends on site, told them that I needed their honest opinion, and committed myself to listening to whatever advice they gave.

    So my first trigger point was, if that close community fell apart for whatever reason. The second trigger was, if we became concerned about the security situation in the country. We knew our organization would wait til the last possible minute, and we already knew that leaving pre-crisis and coming back was going to be less traumatic than staying through. We just weren’t prepared to go through that again. The third trigger was, if our marriage became an issue again, AT ALL, we would go. Our marriage and family were way more important than our job. So we would go.

    And we went back, prepared for 4 years. After 2, my close community fell apart due to…well, you know how it goes overseas. Things fall apart. And then we just found that overseas life didn’t provide the best environment for our marriage. It never had, and it still didn’t! So we decided to come back to the States, and it’s been awesome. My husband still works for the organization as an employee, I get to do cool work stuff that I love, and we are here for our kids as they transition through university and into adult life.

    • Oh, Kay, thanks for sharing this!! Such a valuable “case-study” for this discussion and really helpful to those of us needing to think through this issue in an ongoing basis (i.e., most of us who live overseas :)). Blessings to you.

  • Anna Wegner

    We’re getting ready to return to the field for our second term, and just had one of those types of conversations… Hopefully, nothing will happen that will make us need to make those decisions, but it’s good to know you’re both on the same page.

    • Good on you for talking this through before even going back. Hope all goes well as you prepare to transition again.

  • Richelle Wright

    I think you may be one of the bravest people I know – walking through this and sharing at the same time with this community. I hope you take Kay’s advice to heart and are sharing because it is also good for you and not just because it helps all of us… Our family is praying for Mike, for you and for your munchkins as you are in such a transition. We did a medical thing once – where I came home to have a baby (because of medical concerns – I’d already had two in local clinics but there were some differences that time) with half our crew and he stayed with the other half in school. Nearly 5 months as a divided family. Our situation was not the same, but it was hard – I sympathize.

    We’ve changed fields/directions (drastically) because our crisis points (although not all would I actually label as crises indicators) arrived. For us, my husband (more so than I) had a security threshold and we reached… although had not surpassed… that. A non-crisis point was that my husband had essentially worked himself out of his present job (although could go back and step up to the next level sometime in the future) where the local church was capable and starting to take over the very ministries/jobs he was the only one doing when we arrived. Then there were family concerns – nuclear (our oldest transitioning to college, two littles needing speech and lang help I was struggling to provide in a very inefficient manner) and extended. And there were some work issues/directional/philosophical issues within our team. All of those together made it quite clear to us it was time for a change – and even with all that, it seems so reluctant. I’m glad we had some of these ideas already figured out before we reached the point… It is easy to rationalize staying when God’s placed the circumstances to tell you to go… and He doesn’t always slam the door. Even with our points in place… It took counsel to convince us that we’d been right to establish those points…

    • Yeah, doors don’t always slam, and I think it’s harder sometimes in those grey murky middle zones when you’re unsure about what to do and struggling to keep your head above water all at once. Thanks for sharing some of the details that have made these discussions tricky for you guys. Always good to learn from people’s stories who are a couple of stops ahead of you on this journey. Thanks for your support and your prayers!!

  • Wow. THANK YOU for telling your story for us . . . from a hospital. I feel honored that you took the time to write it out, honored that you would invite us in so vulnerably. I am so amazed, as usual, by your wisdom about living overseas, Lisa. You speak with authority that comes from authentically living the real and I love you for that. We are all so behind you guys and supportive and just praying for God to show up in new ways to both you, Mike, and the kids.

  • Dee Sutton

    Lisa, will be praying for you all as you go thru this time. We arent currently full time on the missions field, but are in talks about how that will look for us in the future. I love this blog, just to read thru some of the “might happens”, and “problems” that are encountered, along with the joy that comes from serving in this way. Praying Gods Peace to always be with you both at this time.

    • Yes, it’s turning into a wonderful resource. Kudos to Angie and Laura for having the vision.

  • Lana

    Wow, this is so vulernable. I am praying for you all and for much healing.

  • Tim

    Blessings to you all. An uncle of mine died of testicular cancer in the late 1950s before I was born. I’m very grateful for the progress in oncology since that time! I’ll be praying that all goes well.
    My first wife and I spent four years in Costa Rica, where I taught linguistics and language learning at a seminary and a missionary training center. It became clear after the second time our administrators visited us to evaluate our work that we needed to return to the US. We took a home assignment, and a year later, it became clear that we needed to leave the mission for good. In our case, there were serious personal issues I needed to deal with, and serious issues in our marriage that eventually led to our divorce. I’m grateful for a God who redeems our failures and gives us new beginnings and new hope.

  • Wendy

    Thank you for sharing this. None of us wants to think about what could take us back “home” but it’s definitely an important conversation to have before it ever gets to that point. I think being a part of a “community of believers” (however that looks for you) is crucial to making it through those tough times (especially when that community is there to tell us when to go home!). Prayers for your family right now.

  • Wow, what a brave post. I am so sorry for the diagnosis. I am praying over you, your husband, and your sweet children!

  • as a new(ish) cross cultural worker, your story is a wake-up call for me. thank you for sharing a very personal story. i think it’s so amazing you’re using it to encourage others and not just saying, why me? (which is what i’d be doing) this sounds like a hard conversation to have, but one my husband and i probably need to pursue!

  • amandaburleson

    Lisa, thanks for sharing your family’s very difficult journey. I am thankful you get to be in Australia during this time. Just to point out a different side of things, How Will You Know When You Can Go Back??? My husband and I lived in Zimbabwe for 19 months (our second daughter was born there). Last May we were unable to renew our visas and were forced to leave our lives, ministry, community and home in Zim. We were hopeful, however, that we would soon be able to return. After 6 months of waiting, we started wondering if God was closing a door and leading us elsewhere, possibly to neighboring Mozambique. Last November, I gave birth to what we thought was our healthy baby boy. Instead, I delivered our third daughter Joy, who died 14 minutes after birth from an undiagnosed brain condition. We are two weeks away from moving to Portugal, where we will study Portuguese for 6-9 months before moving to Mozambique. So many people have asked us if we have healed and if we are ready to return to the mission field. While of course it varies for everyone, my husband and I are so excited to get back into the missionary community (we have teammates that will live very near to us in Portugal). While we have loved our time in the states, it has also been stressful (having to live with my parents and brother for financial reasons) and the uncertainty has been rough as well. We feel like our time in Portugal just maybe might be a really healing stepping stone for us before returning to Africa. For us, while we have had some very stressful team issues in Zim (the five other people on our initiative left the field permanently in the first year we were there, four of the five were forcibly removed) overall we LOVE the unique support and love of the missions community. Anyways, just sharing my story! I love this website so much… so encouraging

    • Yes! “How Will You Know When You Can Go Back???” We have really struggled with that one. After being deported for 5 years from Russia, we planned that we would try to go back after that. But when the 5 years ended, it still wasn’t time. Like someone else said in these comments, the doors don’t just slam shut or open wide, and it’s hard to know what to do.

  • I’m so sorry that you’re going through this!

    The same questions are bouncing around a lot in our community here, as our country (Ukraine) is in the midst of a mostly peaceful revolution. We were just discussing with friends about how we would know if it was getting dangerous and what we would do. Really, for our own family, we don’t know the answers.

  • Kristi Lonheim

    Prayers for all of you. My dad is a 40 year testicular cancer survivor. I pray your kids will be able to say that too. The question you pose is one we think of, but don’t obsess over even though we live in a country with an ongoing ‘situation’ an neighbors in civil war, etc. For us, as long as we feel like we can still live life here we will stay. If we get to the point that we do not feel safe leaving the house or our child is aware and concerned about the ‘situation’ then we will re-evaluate. One huge blessing is knowing who is in charge, even when the world seems to be in the proverbial hand-basket. And really, all you HAVE to have is your passport.

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  • Oh, you dear woman… #tears Lord Jesus, please work mightily in this family’s life during this difficult time. Please give wisdom and comfort where needed, for all involved, from Mike and Lisa, to their children, to their loved ones, to the medical team working with them, and beyond. Thank you, Father, that they can rest in knowing that You see the end of this, and that they can trust You.

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  • Shevaun

    Dear ladies. I would love to share my story with you, although briefly in this little space. In answer to dear Lisa’s questions ‘have you ever had to make an emergency exit? What helped?’
    We had to pull out of Asia at the end of 2010 with a teen with spiralling downward depression. In the end we suddenly said ‘we have to get her out THIS WEEK’. I flew her home to my mum and then came back to Asia so we could all pack up and leave (fairly fast).
    Leaving (so suddenly) was the hardest thing we have ever been through in our lives. And we have experienced some pretty tough things. However God had brought our minds and hearts bit by bit to the point that we COULD make that decision when the day came that time ran out. And He gave us a feeling, a sense, he was RELEASING us from our call there, to go home.
    I do feel for those who have much more sudden situations. We had a month or so of preparation before crisis point.
    What made it so hard to get to a point of being able to say ‘we gotta leave’, was that the place we lived was terribly hard in some ways. I am sure you can relate! It needed SO much determination, actually, DOWNRIGHT STUBBORNESS (!) to STAY. So making that U-turn was a wierd process.
    Naturally we’d do it 1000 times over for our precious daughter. We’d die for her if we had to. But God had to ease our trained, stubborn, determination- kinda like He had to pry our locked-clinging fingers from their hanging for life-grip on a rope over a ravine.
    Also, it was hard because despite being a tough area we felt very deeply connected with it, it was home, and as you all know, your team are often the closest people in the world and leaving the work, and them, suddenly, is actually devastating.
    Figuring out when to leave was a process of talking as much as we could with older/wiser team and leadership couples who lived right there with us in that city and knew our family well. They talked and prayed us in that process, we are SO grateful. When a crisis is intensifying its hard to think straight and when weighing up the MASSIVE choice of leaving your home, your ministry and heart calling (which is also your very job), your apartment, your pet dog, the kids school, your income, etc etc etc… other people on the road of decision making, are vital.
    I am really glad I stopped to write this as having been back in Australia almost 4 years I have occasionally been asailed by a little doubt, wondering if we DID do the right thing e.g. ‘maybe we should have just taken a holiday’ etc etc. I had forgotten how much other prayerful people were involved. It was a decision made with others, before the Lord.

    The reason those doubts have crept in occasionally is because although we have clearly seen God’s hand in this season here in Australia again, for us and our kids, and He has even used us to plant a ministry among immigrants, it has also been excruciatingly hard. It was exhausting to recreate a life here (especialy for my husband to find a new job) and we also experienced so much grief, real grief. That other people had walked the decision-road with us and were used by God as street signs to point ‘ This Way’ means we can actually rest on that, and ignore doubts.

    The very exciting news is that after amost giving up on going back to Asia, the Lord has this year opened the door for us to go back! What a fascinating few months we have had, watching Him unfold things. Way more fun than figuring out when to leave!
    We plan, Lord willing, to head back up to Asia next year. God has given me a new way of seeing it, to see it as a long ‘home assignment’. All 6 of us in the family are on board in the decision although now our kids are older, two of our four daughters are not going back with us as they are starting their own lives. But they are excitedly planning visits.
    And that story, ‘heading back’, is a story for another day. I hope to get a chance to share it sometime.

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