Marriage and Cancer: 10 Ways to Maintain Your Relationship After a Diagnosis

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Marriage is hard work. It requires a level of effort, dedication, and commitment unparalleled to other relationships. One of the first pieces of marital wisdom I received from my parents was exactly that— “Marriage takes work. It’s not a stroll in the park.”

Marriage captures the ability of two people to rely on one another through both the good and bad times. It measures one’s character and integrity through the act of caring for another. As with any relationship, most marriages experience high peaks and low valleys. A diagnosis will bring out the best and worst of you and your partner. It has the potential to tear your relationship apart or bring you closer together more intimately than you could have imagined. As the saying goes, it’s not about what happens to you, it’s about how you respond. Upon receiving the news of a diagnosis, you must make the choice to not only fight the disease, but also fight for your relationship. Below are ten ways to help your marriage after a diagnosis.

Commit: Above anything else, you must make the conscious decision to commit — both to your spouse and to the process. Commitment doesn’t automatically happen when you speak your vows. It is a choice that must be repeated over the course of your relationship. Your journey through cancer requires steadfastness and faithfulness to one another. You need to assume that life is going to get extremely bumpy and uncomfortable. Nearly everything you have encountered thus far has been butterflies, fairy dust, and roses and you’re about to endure some of the most difficult moments in your life. Both of you will be pulled in different directions and be influenced in many ways. When things get ugly, complications arise, and grief pours over you both, you need to hold tight to each other. Commit yourself to be there for one another no matter what happens.

Communicate: Continue to talk. Grief is expressed in a variety of ways and for some, it shows itself in silence. Though there will be times when you need to process on your own, don’t build a wall between you and your loved one. In an atmosphere of silence, assumptions are birthed and hurt will grow. Communicating can bring healing to your relationship. You will both experience different emotions from the moment you hear the news of the diagnosis, and being on the exact same emotional page will be a rarity. Keeping the lines of communication open will benefit your marriage by drawing you closer to one another and preventing hurt feelings in the future. It’s okay to express your fears and anxieties. And equally so, it’s okay to share your faith and hope. Be vulnerable and loving in your communication, and understand that talking things through will only benefit the bond you have with your spouse.

Prioritize: Life moves quickly upon receiving a diagnosis. Medical decisions will need to be made. You’ll need to find a team of doctors that you feel comfortable with. Treatment will be discussed, and you will need to choose which option is best for you. Eventually you’ll feel in over your head as the chaos circles around you. Keeping a list of priorities will help establish balance. Be aware of what tasks are at hand and stay on the same page as your spouse. Communicate what is most important to your relationship. Is it more important to preserve your fertility before beginning harsh treatments? Do you want to establish a medical banking account to manage expenses? Put yourselves first and be okay saying “no” to those around you. Your health and your marriage are number one.

Be flexible: Plans change… that’s life. When cancer rears it’s ugly head into your relationship, you need to start stretching. Many of your dreams, goals, and desires for your life and family will abruptly come to a halt. Keep a tight grip on your non-negotiables and let insignificant matters go. Change is difficult, but being flexible is more valuable than gold. Go with the flow. Some plans will fizzle and new dreams will come forth. Flexibility allows room for growth.

Stay on the same team: Cancer can bring out the worst in us. Anger is one of the most common emotions that patients and their families deal with. Remember that each of you process things differently, and that no way is better than the other. Allow each other space to grieve and be sympathetic towards one another. Remember that you are fighting cancer, not your loved one. Direct your anger towards the root of the issue, and don’t let your emotions erupt in an attack on your spouse. Though at times you’ll feel your partner doesn’t understand what you are going through, don’t alienate them and turn them into the enemy. You’re on the same team, and you each play a vital position. Work together at working through it.

Pursue: We’ve all heard that we should continue to date our spouse after our wedding day. Whether to keep things interesting or to continue to nurture the bond, pursuing each other is important to your relationship. This shouldn’t stop after a diagnosis. Though it will require a deeper level of intent, consistently seeking each other out will be rewarded. Make time for one another. Go out of your way to make your spouse feel special. Pursue your partner’s heart. Ask questions about how they are doing and be a good listener when they respond. Treatments and the subsequent side effects may get in the way of your typical dinner and a movie date night, but if you are creative you can cultivate new ways to deepen your bond. Remember that dates don’t have to be fancy or extravagant, and most likely won’t be for a while.

Be grateful: Have you ever met someone so full of gratitude that it made you reflect on what you’re thankful for? Having an attitude of gratitude in all circumstances will change your view of the most difficult times. Though you’ll have a large list of things you are angry, upset, and resentful over, make an effort to think of things that you are thankful for. Thanksgiving is one of the quickest ways to heal a hardened heart. Make a list. Whether in your mind or on paper, write down specific items you are grateful for. Be thankful for the details. Be thankful for all things big and little. Be thankful for the life and love you share with one another. An attitude of gratitude will transform your perspective and will strengthen your spirit throughout your battle.

Remain intimate: Intimacy isn’t always about sex. Though sex is one of the fundamental ways to be intimate with your partner, there are other means to stay connected. Unfortunately, cancer robs many people of their sexual function, yet marriages continue to blossom even without intercourse. When biology is thrown off, creativity is born. Adapting to your current situation will benefit you both. Be gentle with one another. Discover new ways to develop a more profound connection. Hold hands. Share secrets. Kiss. Being affectionate will remind your partner that you are invested in them. If you allow it, the intimacy in your relationship can reach new heights after a diagnosis. Vulnerability will welcome intimacy.

Remember your vows: Think back to the day you stood in front of your friends and family and made lifelong promises to your spouse. What did you say? More than likely, you vowed to stay by your partner in sickness and in health. While you probably had no idea that sickness meant cancer, you promised your partner you would not leave them when things got rough. You vowed to stand with each other no matter what. You vowed to love one another and cherish one another. There will be moments in your journey after your diagnosis that all you have left is the man or woman standing beside you. Think back to your wedding day. If you knew then what you know now, would your decision be different? True, authentic, raw love knows no bounds. You loved them then… love them now.

Mark 10:9 (NIV)

“Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Alive and Pinching Myself

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I still wake up pinching myself. I cannot believe that I am done with treatment yet again. I have four major fights against cancer under my belt now, and I feel like a champion. I cannot begin to express how marvelous it feels to not dread each coming week. I’m alive and I feel like it. There are many times during the course of chemotherapy that I didn’t even feel like I was existing. I knew my blood was pulsing through my veins and that my organs were functioning. I knew that my lungs were breathing in air, and that my mind was cognitive. I knew that I was alive, but it was hard to feel life with poison enveloping every cell of my being.

I’ve made it. I have survived once more. And I’m alive. It’s always incredible to me how quickly my body recognizes the absence of chemotherapy. Though my muscles have atrophied significantly over these last six months of treatment, my insides are rejoicing. My mind is coming out of the dark haze and seeing with clarity. Because chemo is a depressant, choosing joy is a purposeful decision to be made, and now that the toxins are no longer attacking my psyche, I am overflowing with happiness. I’m alive and pinching myself.

As if surviving another season of treatment isn’t enough, the results from my PET/CT scan this week are the proverbial cherry on top. On Monday, rather than going to the hospital for chemo cocktails, I made the trek in order to receive my follow up scan. Though much easier physically, these scans are tremendously more harsh on my mental state. I’ve spoken about scanxiety several times before, and the pressure that it entails is incomparable. My whole body winces at the unavoidable anxiety that follows a scan. The waiting period is always the worst. I am vulnerable and out of control. There is nothing I can do but hope and pray… and practice patience, which God knows I need. My faith is put to the test.

With every scan that comes, God whispers into my spirit, “Do you trust me?” And, as strange as it sounds, I trust Him regardless of the results. I allow myself to play the what-if game for a moment. If results show that the cancer is nowhere to be seen in my body, I trust Him. And even if cancer peeks it’s ugly head out once more, I still trust Jesus. He is faithful, and has proven Himself ten times over in these last three years of my life. I owe it to Him to trust His intentions, for He is always good.

I’ve shared about the process of a scan before. If you follow me on Instagram, this week you got a sneak peek at what it looks like. I shared, “Today I’ll receive another PET/CT scan to confirm that chemo did its job and that my body is free from cancer cells. This is my current view and will be for the next forty-five minutes. I’ve checked in and filled out the same paperwork I have hundreds of times before. My name has been called and I have been escorted into a private waiting room — one all too familiar. My blood has been drawn and I have been injected with radioactive contrast. I’ve ingested the same ‘vanilla’ flavored barium as usual and have chased it down with water. I wait as ‘I’m The Only One’ by Melissa Etheridge is quietly playing over the speakers. I wait for forty-five minutes as the contrast courses through me. And soon I’ll be laying completely still for another twenty minutes as the scanning machine captures vivid pictures of my entire internal body. Later this week I’ll receive a call from my doctor’s office…”

That call came less than twenty hours later. It was Tuesday morning, the day after my PET/CT, and Matt and I were just barely waking up. For some odd reason my phone was turned to vibrate, so I didn’t hear the incoming call. When I looked at my phone, the first thing I saw was the missed call and a voicemail from my doctor. Though I didn’t think it possible, my heart both dropped to the bottom of my stomach in fear and leapt out of my chest in excited anticipation. This voicemail turned out to be one of the very best I have ever heard. As I quietly listened, I began to hear the voices of my doctor and head nurse. Soon I was smiling from ear to ear, and put my phone on speaker so that I could wake Matt up with the great news.

My doctor and nurse were rejoicing over the phone as they shared that my scan was negative and that there were no signs of disease anywhere in my body! I am officially cancer free, and something about this time feels different. I still don’t know God’s plan, and won’t even begin to presume or guess. But my faith is mighty, and I know that He is able to do anything. In fact, my faith and perspective have been strengthened recently as I have come to really understand how infinite His power really is. Our God who can move mountains, part the ocean, and make blind men see also heals the sick. I am declaring that He has healed me. And I am expecting more than I can even fathom for the future.

Psalm 28:7 (MSG)

“Blessed be God— he heard me praying. He proved he’s on my side; I’ve thrown my lot in with him. Now I’m jumping for joy, and shouting and singing my thanks to him.”

Crossing The Finish Line of Chemotherapy

For the first time in six months, I woke up on Monday morning and did not go to chemotherapy.

I did not hop in the shower knowing I wouldn’t have energy the next day to do so. I did not climb into my car and turn the keys in dread. I did not make the twenty minute drive to the one place that has brought me both grief and comfort. I did not walk through the doors of the hospital, enter the elevator and make my ascent to floor three. I did not put on a brave face and a smile to greet my oncology team. I did not find my favorite corner recliner and settle in. I did not bare my chest in order for the nurse to plunge a sharp, thick needle into my port. I did not lean back, close my eyes, and allow the poisonous toxins to flood my body.

I did not go to chemotherapy on Monday because I am done. Chemo is officially over! I have completed this season of treatment and am moving forward to the next. It’s been a long six months, and I couldn’t be happier to have finished this race. It wasn’t a fast one, but rather a slow and steady jog through innumerable peaks and valleys.

This specific season of chemotherapy has been hard. There were times when I didn’t think I could withstand it any longer. Several moments when I didn’t think I had enough strength to make it to the next day. Countless nausea-induced sleepless nights. More vomiting than ever before. These last few months, my mind has been applesauce — foggy, short-circuiting, and muddled. It’s been increasingly difficult to write. I couldn’t muster up enough focus to even read a book. I’ve been exhausted and restless. It has been the longest and most exhaustive journey through treatment. To say I am ecstatic to be done with this season would be a monumental understatement.

Have you ever ran a race? Last year Matt and I ran a 5k (3.1 miles) in downtown Denver. Neither of us are runners. In fact, I loathe running. However, we wanted to accomplish something we never thought we could. We trained hard for a few months. We woke up early and pushed our bodies to the limits. Several times we would come inside from a long run and collapse on the floor, reaching for breath to fill our lungs. There were days our muscles were so tight and sore we couldn’t imagine putting them through another day of grueling training. There were many days of accomplishment, and many days where we questioned if running the race was even attainable.

This season of treatment has been similar to that 5k we ran. I can’t help but feel the same way I did crossing the finish line of the race as I do now completing treatment. As I put hours and days of training into the race, I poured even more time into my treatment. As my muscles were sore from running, so too was my body weak from chemo. As some days I didn’t think I could run one more mile, so too have I thought I couldn’t handle one more toxic cocktail. As we crossed the finish line of the race hand-in-hand, we have also completed this journey through chemo hand-in-hand. We were surrounded by friends and family cheering us on and offering congratulations then, and we are even more surrounded now. The significance of crossing both finish lines is something that will resonate within my spirit for eternity.

Now that the race is over and I have completed my final hours of chemotherapy, what’s next? Many have been wondering what I will do now. I’d be lying if I told you I knew exactly what was going to happen in the coming days, months, and years. That’s what makes life an adventure, right? There are a few things that I know for certain, however. To start, I will begin receiving PET/CT scans every three months. This ensures that I am being watched closely — if any recurrences were to happen, we could catch them immediately. I’ll be receiving my first post-chemo scan this coming Monday (2/9) and am eagerly anticipating great news. Secondly, I know that no matter what comes in the future, God will remain faithful. He is unchanging, regardless of the circumstances we face. And lastly, I am certain of the hope I have within me. Just as I do every time, I am believing that this most recent season of treatment is the charm and that cancer will no longer find my body as its residence.

I’m also pretty sure I need more shelves for these trophies. I’ve earned quite a few from these last four marathons through cancer.

Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)

“…And let us run with perseverance, the race God marked out for us.”

 

Dear Stephanie: A Letter to Myself Before Cancer

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Dear Stephanie of January 2012,

You are both stronger and weaker than you could ever imagine. Life is about to show you that. Though you won’t be sure what she means, take the advice of your friend and “buckle up.” In fact, why don’t you grab the seatbelt next to you and buckle into it as well. You always liked roller coasters, right?

You are young, healthy, vibrant, and full of energy and dreams. You are working hard and thoroughly enjoy your job. You have married the love of your life and are thrilled to come home to him every day. This truly feels like the beginning of an incredible journey, and hand-in-hand you and your husband both feel ready to conquer anything. You’ve found the church you call home, and for once you finally feel like you belong to something far greater than yourself. The friendships that will develop through this church will become family. Trust and embrace them.

You feel ready. Ready for the future. Ready to start pursuing the dreams you and Matt have. Ready to do whatever it takes to achieve your goals. Ready for what God has for you. You think that means a white picket fence and two children. You think that means unending happiness with only minor bumps in the road. You think you know what God wants for you, and though you are certain of His goodness, you don’t know its depth just yet. You feel ready for a reason, but it’s not the reason you think. Stay ready.

You’re really rockin’ that hair. I know how much you love it. Go on with your blonde self — enjoy it. You are in shape and look good. Really good. You don’t believe it, but you are perfectly beautiful as you are. Stop worrying so much about it. Soon you will find that when looks fade, character will remain. Start thinking about your identity.

Your husband adores you. You think you have an understanding of his love and commitment, but you really have no clue yet. You reminisce to your first date, your wedding day, and all of the fun newlywed adventures you have experienced together. It’s been a year and a half, and you both laugh at the words of friends who have married before you: “The first year is the hardest.” You say to each other, “If the first year is the hardest, we’ll be smooth sailing for the rest of our lives because this is easy!” You were right, the first year was the easiest, but it will get harder. The man that stands by your side now will stand by your side through your darkest times. He meant every single word he vowed to you. Cherish him.

You like plans. You like goals. You like lists. You struggle with control. You want things just right. But your version of right isn’t always right. Let your pride take a step back. Though you have perfected the plans of your life story, be ready to erase. God’s plans are far greater than the little ones you have constructed. It’s okay to go with the flow. You’ll need to learn to do that soon. Be open to new things. Surrendering your life and all of the plans you blueprinted is scary, but marvelous.

You have experienced pain and loss, but you don’t fully know grief. It’s bitter and refreshing all at once. It comes swiftly and unexpectedly, but can truly heal if you let it. Though you are emotional at times, soon crying will become second nature. It doesn’t mean that you are weak. In tears, there is strength. Allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to experience the pain and then work through it. Don’t avoid situations because they make you uncomfortable. Dive in.

The faith you have now will soon become the only thing you can hold onto when your dreams, desires, goals, and plans are radically changed. Your faith, though it seems large now, will have the most impact when it is the size of a mustard seed. You’ve hoped for things before, but the hope that will birth inside you will reach magnitudes you can’t even begin to fathom. God is for you. He is on your side. He goes before you. He will protect, encourage, and supply you. Wrestle with Him. Pursue Him. He has never and will never leave you. When He is quiet, be still.

You have a story. The life you live now will soon change to reveal your purpose. The woman you are now will be pruned in order for a new creation to spring forth. At times you won’t recognize the woman you see in the mirror, but she is still there… stronger than before. Though there will be days and even months of painful struggle, the reward for staying steadfast will overwhelm you. Don’t give up. Keep your eyes focused on what matters most, and everything lackluster will fade away. It’s okay to be weak and to allow God to be your strength. He will overcome.

I write to you from a familiar date. You’re a numbers girl, I trust that you’ll understand the importance. On January 25, 2012, you will be diagnosed with cancer. And three years (almost to the day) later on January 26th, 2015, you will complete your final chemotherapy treatment and will be well on your way to a new journey. Be encouraged. Those three years will have an eternal impact. They will be some of the hardest years of your life, but will develop you in ways no other experience could. Be grateful.

You are brave. You are strong. You are fierce. You are a warrior. You are a fighter. You have the tools you need. You can do this. I believe in you.

With utmost expectations and encouragement,
Stephanie of January 2015

 Proverbs 16:9 (ESV)

“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”

 

Christmas with Cancer: What Matters Most

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Christmastime is my absolute favorite season of the year. Beautiful shining lights adorning neighborhoods near and far. Sparkling decorations around the home. Hot chocolate by the fire. Soft, white snow gently setting the tone. Carols sweetly filling the air. Cookies and treats being prepared and consumed. And a spirit of giving that is tangible.

What is Christmas to you?

Is it getting the best Black Friday deal for someone you love? Is it making sure you combine your ingredients just right so your sugar cookies turn out perfectly soft? Is it being known for giving the most extravagant gifts? Is it desperately counting down the hours until the day has passed? Is it a bitter reminder of those you have lost? Is it just another day on the calendar?

After being diagnosed with cancer, my perspective on the holidays has changed. Where I once was consumed with stress over everything that came with the season, I now let anything that is not full of cheer slough off. Christmas to me is a reason to be full of joy and happiness, no matter your circumstances.

No matter that you didn’t receive the gift you so desperately wished for. No matter that your cookies were burnt and crispy. No matter that your budget didn’t allow for all that your heart desired. No matter that the temperature is warmer than expected and snow ceased to fall. No matter that you received bad news. No matter that you can’t be home with your family this year. No matter that a diagnosis accompanies you this season. No matter that you’re sick, weak, and barely getting by.

Christmas is an annual opportunity of reflection and celebration. No matter what we may face, the holidays can and should be celebrated. What really matters most in the holiday season is giving, loving, and gratitude. Instead of focusing on what we don’t have or what we can’t do, we should instead focus on the abundant gifts that we are blessed with.

No matter how bad it gets, there is always something good in the midst of it all.

My diagnosis has refocused my life and has shined light on what matters most. Spending time with family, friends, and the ones we love. Sharing laughter, stories, and pleasant memories. Giving more of ourselves through time and energy. Taking moments out of our day to bless others. Living in a spirit of gratitude and happiness. Truly choosing joy above and beyond what we may be facing.

I have every reason to complain and be bitter during this season. I’ve lost far too many friends and family members recently. I am in a fairly constant state of pain from residual effects of treatment. I have said goodbye to many plans and dreams that my husband and I had a long time ago. This will be the third year I celebrate Christmas with cancer. And, I may in fact be sick this week because I ingested another fair share of chemotherapy only three days before Christmas. I have my reasons to dislike this holiday. But I choose not to.

In the end, I would much rather live a life of abundant joy no matter what circumstances I will face. I don’t want to spend one holiday bitter, angry, or aggrieved. I refuse to allow the junk in my life to decide the amount of joy and happiness that floods my heart. There is far more than perfectly baked cookies and the most trendy decor at Christmas. The reason we recognize this holiday is far greater than giving gifts, for we have been given the most magnificent gift of all.

It’s Christmas… What really matters most to you?

Isaiah 9:6 (NKJ)

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Countdown to Christmas Giveaway!

If you follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, you’d know that a couple of weeks ago I posted an inconspicuous teaser:

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Today, I’m sharing one of the exciting things that I mentioned! I will be partnering with some of my absolute favorite companies to do giveaways. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re giving you FREE stuff! All you have to do is follow the rules and play nicely.

This week, I have partnered with my wonderful friends over at Thrive Causemetics and we are doing a Countdown to Christmas giveaway. They are giving away a pair of their beautiful faux lashes with Infinity Lash Adhesives for you and a friend. Just enter and nominate your favorite Thriver!

Thrive Causmetics’ mission is to positively impact women going through cancer treatment. Karissa Bodnar, the founder of Thrive, has been personally affected by this horrendous disease and is now on a mission to make women feel more comfortable and more beautiful through the hardest moments in their lives.

Though the hair on my head is not falling out through this season of treatment, my brows and lashes sure are. I have worn faux lashes off and on for the last three years, and still had yet to find ones that I couldn’t live without. I went through brand after brand, and couldn’t find lashes that both felt and looked natural. Same goes for the adhesive – I just thought there were no good ones out there… Until I tried Thrive Causemetics.

photo-20The lashes are soft and natural. They are lightweight and not visually impairing (if you’ve worn faux lashes, you know what I’m talking about). They fit comfortably on your lash line, and blend in with any remaining lashes. The adhesive is the best I’ve ever tried. Seriously. It goes on in this incandescent blue/purple color, for you to see exactly where you are applying it, and it dries beautifully clear. This adhesive is even waterproof! Several women have worn Thrive’s products during marathons and they have stayed put. This product is the real deal.

To enter the giveaway, please follow these rules.

  1. “Like” Thrive Causemetics AND Derailing My Diagnosis on Facebook
  2. Share the posted giveaway photo with hashtags #ThriveCausemetics and #DerailingMyDiagnosis
  3. Tag a Thriver and tell us how they inspire you to thrive
  4. Once completed, comment on the giveaway photo on Derailing My Diagnosis Facebook page letting me know you entered!

Good luck!

*Contest begins on Monday, December 15, 2014, and ends Thursday, December 18, 2014. Winner will be chosen at random and will be announced on Friday, December, 19, 2014.

What We Need When We Need It Most

Sometimes the simplest things in life bring the most joy. Though I’ve shared monumental moments of my journey including a phone call from Peyton Manning and being on The Ellen Show, often what brings my cup to overflowing are the little things that happen in the most perfect timing.

Yesterday, I woke up and began my day as usual. Preparing breakfast and lunch for my husband, ushering the dogs outside, and analyzing the cleanliness of our home. Do I need to vacuum today? How much laundry needs to get done? What’s on my list? Long gone are the days of planning my schedule according to how many minutes it will take me to get ready… That is, until yesterday.

For the past few months, I’ve been in awe of my hair. The specific type of chemotherapy that I receive weekly does not cause hair loss. My doctors and nurses shared that though it may thin, my hair should accompany me this season. Praise God, the hair on my head has indeed remained healthy, thick, and full of curls. And, it’s still growing. I’m amazed actually. For those who personally know me, you know my hair has always been a big deal. I’ve written frequently on the topic, HERE, HERE, and HERE, as well as several other places. I used to spend too much time on my locks each morning. My hair used to be my pride and joy. Then, just like that, cancer took it away.

Having hair while undergoing chemo is paradoxical. It causes many, including myself, to scratch our heads in confusion. When most people see me and hear that I am actively fighting cancer by ingesting chemotherapy once a week, there’s a shortage in their minds. What? How is that even possible? Hair and chemotherapy? That’s the epitome of an oxymoron, right? Wrong. It all comes down to the specific chemical mixture of the chemo drug. Not all cause hair loss, just like not all make your skin fall off. (Oh yes, if you’re new here, that happened to me also.) Each drug has different side effects, however the most common is hair loss. This time I got lucky. Though suffering extreme nausea and weakness, at least my dome will be warm this winter!

If you’ve kept up with my infrequent posts these last couple of months, you’ll notice that I’ve been down in the dumps. I’ve undergone great loss, and this fight has been particularly harder than the three before. It’s taken more effort to stay on top of my emotions and remind myself that this is not forever… One day at a time. I know I’m not alone when I say, there have been more moments than I can count when I’ve been near my rock bottom, and God has reached down to pick me up in remarkable ways. Sometimes His ways are through the right person saying the right thing at the right time. It could also be through receiving a blessing at a moment when you needed it most, or even an answered prayer that you thought was an impossible dream.

Let me share my heart for a minute. God speaks to me in many ways. He speaks to all of us in fact, we just need to listen. On Sunday night, I envisioned Jesus smiling at me. It brought me both pause and joy. Have you ever imagined Jesus smiling at you? It’s an incredible image. My mind began to wander… why? Why was He smiling at me? Now I think I know. Yesterday morning, He gave me a gift that only He knew I needed.

For some reason, I decided to get my flat-iron out. I got the hair-brained idea (no pun intended), to see how long my bangs were. My hair has been growing for 40 weeks now and determining its length is near impossible considering the tightness of each curl. I have longed for the day when my hair can be put up in a ponytail again. For fear of disappointment, I have kept my hair styling tools tucked away. Until yesterday, I didn’t think I would use them until my hair noticeably needed taming. A spark arose within me, so I pulled out the flat-iron and began to straighten my bangs. Utter shock and amazement followed.

Oh my word. I have bangs. My hair is long. Compared to being bald, I have long hair! The tears began to flow as I looked at myself in the mirror. My initial thoughts were vain and aesthetic. My hair is long enough to style! I finally look a little more like my pre-cancer self! It’s been nearly three years that my hair has been anywhere near this length! Soon, however, my thoughts transitioned into a realization. God just gave me a gift.

The reality that I’ve been fighting for my life for these last three years and have been abundantly blessed to still be here, caused the tears to flood my eyes and overflow onto my cheeks. Tears for all of the moments I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a bald, sick, weak, and dying patient. Tears for all of the times I felt like giving up. Tears for the heartache, grief, and loss that Matt and I have endured. Tears that even though I’m still in the most difficult battle I have ever faced, God is FOR me. He is on my side and He cares about the little things. He knew the gift He had up His sleeve would make my day. He knew that urging me to do the simple task of flat ironing my hair would propel me into a fit of immeasurable gratitude. He, above anyone else, knew how much having bangs would mean to me. Though seemingly little to most anyone else, these bangs represent so much more than long hair. They represent life, perseverance, and blessings. They represent the goodness of God.

And just like that, I can see Him smiling at me again.

Psalm 37:4 (ESV)

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

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Putting a Bandaid Where It Doesn’t Belong

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Life is not meant to be lived passively, but proactively. I need to remember that. We all do. Instead of allowing life to pass by and just happen to me, I need to stake my claim and walk forward refocused in my purpose.

Recently, my journey has been harder than usual. I often feel like I’m only capable of handling a certain level of difficulty. That level has been reached, and I’ve come to the end of my capabilities. Facing an impossible level, I’ve been given a choice and, unfortunately, I chose wrong.

I have been knee-deep in a murky swamp. Mud, muck, and dark waters have enveloped me. I’ve felt slithering snakes swimming past my legs, taunting me and begging for my attention. The mud between my toes has encased my feet, urging me to stay put. Instead of trudging forward, I chose to sit down. Instead of forging a way to get out of the swamp, I stopped in my tracks. I convinced myself that I was taking a break to gather my strength and to rest. But at some point, breaks end. Eventually, you must get up and keep going.

This wasn’t a break. This was me sitting down, giving up, and not wanting to deal with what I was facing. Like a child not wanting to do something, I metaphorically went limp on the ground.

These past two months have sucked me dry — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Chemotherapy has been increasingly difficult, and good days have become few and far between. I receive the poisonous toxins once a week, therefore plenty of my days are spent on the couch, pretty useless. My nausea is often overpowering and unbearable, sitting at the base of my throat like a volcano waiting to erupt. I’m tired. There are days when I can’t imagine anything better than the comfort of our bed. Exhaustion is exhausting. Not having energy to live life on my terms is an invitation for sadness to overwhelm. Some days, the harder fight is not against cancer, but against the subsequent emotions.

Beyond the daily battle against this disease, I have faced other obstacles. Difficult hurdles and layers of grief to top off this already bumpy journey. My grandfather, whom I lovingly called, “Papa,” passed away. We were very close throughout my life, especially so in these later years as we fought the same fight alongside each other. Never would I have thought I would be fighting cancer with my Papa, but it deepened our relationship in special ways. We understood each other through each surgery, treatment, and side effect. We lifted each other up on rough days. He fought a good battle, and ultimately won the victory. Boy, do I look forward to seeing him again.

Not only did I lose my grandfather, but only a few weeks later, a close friend of mine went to be with Jesus as well. This time, it was unexpected and sudden. The type of tragedy you can never prepare for. It still doesn’t seem real. A dislodged blood clot after surgery… A mere few hours prior, I was giving her a hug, kissing her on the forehead, and wishing her well as she was to head into the operating room. We joked, laughed, and prepared for how life would look like after the procedure. I lent my words of wisdom (having gone through several surgeries before), and let her know she would be fine. The shock still comes in waves. I just can’t believe she’s gone. How I miss her so.

The combination of grief, stress, frustration, exhaustion, and sickness has weighed me down, and I simply crumbled underneath it. I sat down in the mucky swamp and, instead of resting, I merely existed. I went through the motions each day. Chemo every Wednesday. Nausea pills every six hours. Church on Sunday. Grief, like my nausea, at the surface ready to explode. Yet, I couldn’t deal with any of it.

I covered my grief and uncomfortable circumstances with bandaids. I’ve watched too much TV. I’ve eaten horribly. I’ve been snappy with my husband. I’ve introverted. And, as many of you have recognized, I stopped writing. I just couldn’t bear pouring my reflections out to the world, when my thoughts were jumbled, messy, and self-pitying. Writing is cathartic for me. It helps me process, and in turn, heals my soul. Equally as my words encourage you, they often encourage me. There are more times than I can count when I read back through an entry and know God Himself was speaking through me to me. Yet, for several weeks, I avoided it. I sat down in the swamp and went limp.

It wasn’t until I was removed from my circumstances, and was stuck in a car for thirteen hours with my husband, that I pulled the bandaids off… finally facing the wounds that were hidden underneath. We talked and I cried. Releasing what had been burdening me for weeks. And, in true character, my husband gently led me back to The Lord. I am so grateful for an encouraging husband who holds my hand, understanding and grieving with me, and guides my eyes upwards.

The problem with placing a bandaid on a wound that doesn’t need one, is it doesn’t heal. Some wounds need air for a scab to form and the healing process to take place. My wounds needed air… The refreshing air of Jesus. And instead of reaching for Him, I put a bandaid on, covering myself from healing, and went limp. The bandaids paralyzed me and put me in a passive position.

While the grief, sickness, and emotion has been painful, I have learned from it. When life gets hard and uncomfortable, our human reaction is to give up. But have you thought how your circumstances might change if you were proactive in the midst of trudging through your own swamp? We have all faced difficult seasons in our lives. Many can say that, though our circumstances may not have changed, once we became proactive, our perspectives sure did. Instead of convincing ourselves we need a break and sitting down in our muck, stand strong, be proactive, and pull the bandaid off. Allowing God to touch our wounds and heal them is a powerful act. It’s painful, but so worth it.

What swamp are you sitting in? I challenge you to pull your bandaids off, stand up, and allow God to guide you in healing.

Psalm 119:50 (ESV)

“This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.”

 

Raising The White Flag

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There are moments when we reach the end of our rope. When no matter how hard we try to hold the pieces in place, everything continues to slip out of our grasp. When we desperately wish for things to go according to plan, just this one time. When we are this close to throwing in the towel.

We don’t realize that in those moments, all we need to do is surrender. Place our pieces on the table, push them over to God, and raise our white flag.

Surrendering is typically the hardest obstacle we face in life. Why is that? Why do we find it so hard to let go of control? Surrendering is not giving up. Surrendering is not admitting defeat. Surrendering is the strongest act of humility and trust. Surrendering is an acknowledgement that we can no longer do it on our own. To surrender is to gain.

Life with cancer has taught me to raise my white flag more often.

I’ve been MIA these past few weeks, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going through something. I was reaching the end of my rope. I was desperately grasping for straws. I was tired, unsure, stressed out, and frustrated. Sometimes I feel like my life is a bulbous onion. Layers and layers piled on top of one another. Each layer a new level made up of the stuff that makes your eyes water. Often too, I feel like a circus performer, trying to balance an innumerable amount of barrels on my head while walking across a tight rope.

We all have periods in our lives when we’re juggling too much already, only to have a few more balls get thrown into the mix, causing all of them to come tumbling down.

My car needed a repair. A repair that would cost us more than the value of the car itself. The only wise decision my husband and I could make was to purchase a new (used) vehicle. Our current lease was up soon, and we had been looking for a rental home for months. Each day we sat in front of the computer, scanning every place we could think of for used cars and rental homes. Nothing. Nothing in our price range. Nothing in our location. Too much mileage. Too expensive. Too much. Too little. Too far. Nothing. I felt defeated. I felt like we would never find what we needed. And amidst the stress of determining our next steps, my dear grandfather passed away. He fought a courageous battle against this disease, and ultimately won. Oh, and my weekly chemotherapy treatments… the cherry on top.

Stress, frustration, exhaustion, and grief all wrapped up into a tear-filled, multilayered onion.

I found myself in the shower one day — naked, alone, and vulnerable. I began to weep. Tears cascaded down my cheeks and spiraled down the drain alongside the water. My pent-up emotions heaved from my heart as I lamented my anguish. Soon, a song began to rise within my spirit. Bubbling up, forcing it’s way through my emotions, and cleansing them upon release.

“I surrender all. I surrender all. All to thee my loving Savior, I surrender all…”

The words flowed out and my arms raised up. In my weakness and vulnerability, I began to worship. God Himself gently placed this hymn that I had not sung for years in my spirit. He was urging me to let go. To give Him my checklist, my worries, and my grief. And in that moment, I did. Before I knew it, the burden was lifted off and I was in complete peace over what my husband and I were facing. The feeling you get when someone you love gives you a great big hug… that’s what happened. Tears of stress transformed into tears of joy and hope.

As if God was saying, “You can’t do this, but I can. Give these tasks to me. I’ll take care of you.” Within one week, we found a car and a home. Upon my surrender, He was faithful.

Have you experienced something similar? I have, many times. Yet in those dark moments, it’s easy to forget His faithfulness. It’s easy to doubt His ability. In our humanness, we believe that we are in control. We think that if we don’t do enough nothing with happen, or if we do, we’ll reap favor. Too often, we lose sight of The One who is ultimately sovereign over our lives. No amount of us “doing” can achieve what He can. We cannot achieve our impossibles. Only God can. And, in order for this to happen, we must surrender our pieces to Him.

Surrendering is scary. Full surrender is handing both your worries and fears as well as your dreams and desires completely over to Jesus. It’s entrusting Him to handle it. It’s relinquishing control over your life. Surrendering is hard, but necessary. After all, His abilities far outweigh our own. Surrendering comes down to trust. Do we trust God?

What do you need to surrender today? I challenge you to raise your white flag.

Mark 14:35-36 (ESV)

“And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’”

Photo: Flickr/lundgrenphotography 

“Hi Stephanie, This is Peyton Manning.”

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The Sheriff. 18. PFM.

Peyton Freakin’ Manning.

The Denver Broncos quarterback is referred to by many nicknames. However, after Saturday afternoon, I’d primarily refer to him as genuine, kind, and authentic.

There have been many moments of incredible blessing in my fight against cancer. Abundant and overwhelming amounts of gifts, kind words, and support. The platform to meet with others and share my story. Innumerable opportunities for writing and motivating. Open doors I would have not experienced without this disease barging into my life. Though cancer has brought tremendous grief and loss, it’s also brought with it a wave of encouraging gifts and bright rays of hope.

Through my journey, I have been stripped raw of my previous notions about life. Cancer tends to do that — quickly sloughing off areas that don’t really matter. It cuts down to the marrow and brings an awareness of who we should be and how we should respond to those around us. What car we drive, what house we live in, and how much money we make is trivial in the grand scheme of things. Life is about relationships. Life is about compassion towards each other. Life is about finding joy no matter the circumstance. Life is about uncovering hope and sharing it with those around us.

On Saturday, Matt and I spent time with family. Catching up with his dad and grandparents, chatting about my upcoming season of treatment, and sharing laughter as usual. I’m blessed by his family, and from the moment he brought me home to meet them, they welcomed me with open arms. When I was diagnosed nearly three years ago, they wept with us. They rallied around us and have fervently prayed alongside us for my healing. His grandparents are some of the sweetest people I have ever met. His grandfather, a ninety year old World War II veteran, shared his excitement about his upcoming “honor flight” to visit the memorials in Washington DC. Matt’s grandmother told us how she loves her new iPad and enjoys playing Candy Crush and keeping up to date with her grandkids through Facebook.

Soon, we said goodbye and began the trek back home. Barely ten minutes into the drive, my phone began to ring. Immediately, “No Caller ID” appeared on the screen, and I was left wondering who was on the other end. Considering our adventures through medical bills, I tend to assume it’s someone asking for our money. I answered, “Hi, this is Stephanie,” and was shocked at the voice I heard in response.

“Hi Stephanie, this is Peyton Manning.”

The steady southern drawl behind the five-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion was saying my name. Peyton Manning was calling me on my cell phone. Believe me, I’m still in shock. In utter amazement, I asked, “Are you for real!?” only to be answered with a polite, “Yes, it’s Peyton.” Peyton… THE Peyton. Manning. Peyton Freakin’ Manning. Oh my word. My Denver Broncos quarterback was talking to me. He went on to explain that my husband had written him a letter sharing my story and that he wanted to personally reach out to to tell me that he was praying for me and cheering me on. We spoke for a while. He asked about my upcoming treatment, sharing well wishes and telling me to continue to fight strong. He was so nice. Yet nice doesn’t fully describe him. Invested. Peyton was invested in my story, and was genuinely interested in knowing how I was doing.

The conversation came to a close, as the team was heading to San Francisco for the upcoming pre-season game against the 49ers. I thanked Mr. Manning for taking time out of his busy schedule to call me. We said goodbye and hung up. Then, I screamed. I stared at my husband wide-eyed, with the largest grin plastered on my face. I could not believe that Matt had written Peyton Manning, and more-so that Peyton Manning had read his letter and personally responded. I cried tears of happiness and disbelief and asked, “Did that really happen?” more times than I can recall.

The man that you see throwing accurately targeted passes to his receivers is more than a great football player. He is a class-act, devoted to more than just the game. Though meticulously focused on the field, he understands with great awareness the impact he has outside the lines of the gridiron. His life displays compassion, and he has always focused on using his platform as a way to bless others. This was no more apparent to me than during our conversation. This man, with arguably the highest profile job in professional sports and a full schedule both on and off the field, took a moment out of his life to reach out to me and share encouragement.

Though a small gesture to some, the lasting impact our conversation will have on my life is unforgettable. Life is about relationships and those around us. No matter his fame and presence in the National Football League, Peyton Manning gets it. He understands that life is found in bringing joy to others. For that, I am grateful.

Thank you, Peyton.

(As a side note, Peyton Manning played a phenomenal game after our conversation, going 12/14 for 102 yards, 1 touchdown, and a rating of 120.8 in just over one quarter of play in a 34-0 Broncos win. That being said, I’ll gladly assume the position of the good luck charm for the Denver Broncos this season.)

Philippians 2:4 (ESV)

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

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