‘When can I return to Uganda?’: IMB missionary shares cancer journey

Rebekah Lockhart drove past leafy, vibrant banana trees on her way to the airport in Uganda. As she passed them, she wondered if she would ever see them again. Was this the last time she would be in this land she had grown to love?

Healthy, and in her early 40s, the International Mission Board missionary to Uganda had begun feeling intense exhaustion. She wondered if the exhaustion was just from having a lot on her plate. She was planning for her family’s stateside assignment and trip to the U.S.; her oldest son, Elijah, was about to graduate from high school and move to the U.S. for college; and she was organizing the trip-of-a-lifetime to the United Kingdom for vacation with her family.

However, doctors found something was very, very wrong. The IMB’s medical team flew her to Kenya and immediately had her admitted to the hospital. While her husband, who was ministering in Togo, couldn’t be by her side during the first few days, someone from the medical team was with her through each test and hospital stay. When she realized she wouldn’t be able to attend Elijah’s high school graduation, her fellow IMB team members surrounded him, video chatting with her the entire time and showering him with love and affirmation.

After a few tests, they had her diagnosis: leukemia.

“Cancer is shocking period,” she said. “But coming from complete health and in my early 40s, it was even crazier.”

A few days later, the IMB’s medical team arranged for her to take a private medical flight out of Africa and back to the United States. During the next year, she underwent treatment through the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and she battled the many illnesses that can accompany cancer and chemotherapy.

She was strengthened by the support of her family in the U.S., waiting for her husband (Eric) and sons (Elijah, Noah, Gavin, and Corban) to join her while she underwent her first round of chemotherapy. Three of them had tested positive for COVID-19 while trying to leave Uganda, so none of them could fly out. She prayed her hair would hold on until her boys could see her, wanting to reassure them she’d make it through this.

She spent 40 days in the hospital, undergoing aggressive chemotherapy treatments. The doctor told her they were aiming for a cure. She told them, “As long as you know I’m aiming for Uganda.”

She described her situation: “I had MRIs and PET scans and CAT scans and CT scans. I was constantly getting ultrasounds. I felt like I was going to die because I felt so bad. You pretty much just weather the storm, waiting for your platelets and your white blood cells to come back up.”

The fight wasn’t over after she was released. She had another week of chemotherapy and then spent an additional week in the hospital with an infection and dangerously low platelets. “At that point, I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m done.’ I was so tired of being in and out of the hospital. And I was so tired of being sick and not feeling myself. I don’t know how to make this go away,” she said.

After many tests, it was determined that a blood marrow transplant was the best option for a cure. They were able to find a donor with a 100 percent match, and Rebekah had the transplant in November 2022. After the transplant she spent 100 days in isolation. There was constant danger of infections and her body rejecting the transplant, but God kept her and her family healthy.

During that time, grief struck. Her father, who had been battling his own illness for years, passed away. Her first public event was her father’s funeral. She was still waiting for her body to repair itself, receiving ongoing care.

But slowly, she began improving. And though the road to recovery was long, eventually, she was declared cancer free. With her hair growing back, changing from straight, blonde hair to curly, brown locks, her body getting stronger, and her spirit livening, she had one question: “When can I go back to Uganda?”

About 18 months after her original diagnosis, she was cleared to return to the field, to serve her beloved Ugandans. She breathed a sigh of relief as she passed the same banana trees she had thought she’d never see again.

She’s back now and busy as ever, teaching church history at Uganda Baptist Seminary, serving as the school’s registrar, working for the IMB’s field human resources department, among other things.

She expressed her gratitude to the IMB and to Southern Baptists for the care she felt as she battled this life-threatening disease. As an IMB missionary, she had her treatment funded through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Cooperative Program. Southern Baptists gave, and now the Lockhart family is back in Uganda, equipping and encouraging seminary students – training a new generation of Christian leaders.

“In the 18 months of my ‘blip,’ we only had to pay co-pays for my medicine,” Lockhart said. “I can’t imagine what my hospital bills were, let alone the medical flight, but we didn’t have to pay a dime. I saw the bill from the hospital in Kenya and it was almost $5,000 for just one week, and that would have been the cheapest of the hospital bills. Because of LMCO, we didn’t have to worry about finances as well as my prognosis and transitioning back to the States. We will be forever grateful to everyone who prayed for and supported us – we still don’t know each one who lifted up a prayer and probably never will.”

Myriah Snyder
Senior Writer/Editor
Myriah Snyder
International Mission Board (IMB)
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