Keys of Hope: Free Hotel Rooms For Cancer Patients

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Every day, thousands of people are sitting in hospitals and cancer centers receiving treatment for their disease. Thousands of them are in treatment facilities away from home. Some are staying with friends or family while they undergo life-saving medical therapies. Some patients are paying out of pocket to temporarily live in hotels. Some are fortunate enough to have made it through the waiting list and are able to stay in short-term lodges specifically designed for families fighting cancer. However, there are thousands of people who are unable to receive treatment that could either save their life or give them the best quality of life because the treatment is simply out of reach.

If you were diagnosed with cancer today and told that the only facility that would offer the treatment you needed was across the country in a place where you have zero connections and know no one, what would you do? You may immediately answer, “Well I’d go anywhere to save my life.” But keep in mind that your wallet is going to be substantially thinner because of the cost of the surgeries and treatments you will need. You may be left with no money by the time you can receive that life-saving therapy. You’ll probably still be paying your current rent or mortgage and monthly bills unless you choose to move to this faraway city. You will have probably lost or had to quit your job because your place of work doesn’t offer extended paid sick leave. Your choices may be whittled down to nothing. Most likely you won’t be able to afford airfare, living expenses, and the cost of a place to stay on top of the cost of your medical care.

Unfortunately this scenario is not pretend, nor imaginary or made up. It happens every single day in America. Patients are faced with the difficult choice of having to forfeit the opportunity for the best treatment because they simply cannot afford the cost of living away from home. This is a hurdle in the cancer community that is all too common. Hundreds of people are dying because the fear of financial ruin is overwhelming, preventing patients from receiving treatment that could save their lives.

Recently, a program was birthed out of a unique partnership between a corporation and a non-profit organization to help people facing the realities of receiving treatment away from home. Extended Stay America has joined the American Cancer Society to offer financial relief to patients seeking accommodations near their treatment center. Together, they have joined those of us facing cancer in defeating the hurdles that come with fighting the disease. Through the Keys of Hope program, Extended Stay America has donated over 45,000 hotel rooms to patients in need. Over the course of two years, more than 6,700 patients and their families have saved nearly $1.2 million in costs associated with traveling for necessary cancer treatments. Extended Stay America and the American Cancer Society are rallying beside us to make a change. To let us know that we are not alone. Through these room donations, lives are being saved.

A hotel is not the same as home. Extended Stay America understands that and has therefore modeled their rooms around the comforts and conveniences of our own homes. When you benefit from the Keys of Hope program, you won’t be staying in a cold, confining space. You won’t be receiving the rooms that other guests chose not to book. With the Keys of Hope program, you will be staying in a hotel room that feels more like an apartment. ESA provides an environment that welcomes relaxation and relief for your recovery through cancer treatment. Some of the comforts include on-site laundry centers, kitchens in each hotel room for you to store and cook the food you enjoy, and free wi-fi access in order for you to stay connected to your loved ones. In addition, as you head out each morning for your doctor’s appointments, Grab-and-Go Breakfasts ensure a quick and healthy way to start your day. Your pets are welcome too. If you’re like me, my dogs help comfort me when I suffer from nausea, fatigue, and stress from treatment. Extended Stay America even provides pet-friendly accommodations so that you can have the same comfort as well.

Though I have not yet needed help from Keys of Hope, I personally know several survivors who have been deeply impacted by the benefits of this program. With over 680 hotels across the country, there is usually a property near every cancer center in the United States. The partnership between this corporation and non-profit organization is providing real, practical help to those of us facing a cancer diagnosis. Please know that you are not out of options. If you or a loved one is desperately seeking accommodations near a treatment center away from home, Keys of Hope can help. There are no hoops to jump through and no specific criteria needed to take advantage. Simply contact the American Cancer Society booking hotline and ask about Extended Stay America rooms via the Keys of Hope program.

As Tom Seddon, chief marketing officer at ESA shared, “…This is more than a donation, it is about providing families impacted by cancer peace of mind while they travel away from home to seek treatment. The true value of Keys of Hope is in the people it impacts directly.”

AmyRobachCancerSurvivors

Hebrews 13:2 (ESV)

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

 

The Scan I’ve Never Made It To

Have you ever had a prayer so desperate it crashed loudly in the torrential storm of your spirit? A plea so full of depth, it couldn’t be given an audible voice? One equally full of hope and fear? Lately, my prayers have been carnal cries to the Lord. Petitions that bring me to my knees.

Less than three weeks from now will mark one year of clear, cancer-free scans. June 14th is a day I have fervently longed for since the beginning of this journey. While I’ve derailed the statistics of my diagnosis (a less than 20% chance to survive one year), I have yet to make it an entire year without cancer. I’ve hit the three-month mark and have even made it to eight months cancer-free, but I have yet to receive one whole year of clear scans. Within the next week I’ll be laying on the cold, hard, metallic table while a machine takes pictures of my insides from head to toe. And then I must wait, which for me is the hardest; Scanxiety can be quite overwhelming. This is the scan I’ve never made it to.

My prayer life has been brought to new heights since hearing my life is not guaranteed. Not one of my prayers ends without the utterance of a plea to remain cancer-free for the rest of my life here on Earth. My conversations with God are full of asking for dreams to come to fruition. “I’d love to grow old with my husband. Please allow me to experience motherhood. I want to watch my children grow into adults and have their own children. I ask that I live until I’m wrinkled, hard of hearing, and gray.” Some petitions are whispered in my spirit without a voice to convey them. Some are one worded, and I find myself simply saying “Please” quite frequently. Recently, I have found myself showing up at the feet of Jesus with a new sense of urging… Truth be told, I’m desperate.

Desperation is typically frowned upon. It’s a sign of weakness and can be quite pitiful. However, though my spirit desperately calls upon my Savior in this time of need, I know that weakness is not a negative trait in this context. In fact, I know that God wishes for me to be desperate for Him– Putting all of my energy into seeking Him for He knows I can’t do this on my own. I am desperate for life. Desperate for time. Desperate for memories. Desperate for survival. Desperate to hear the words “no evidence of disease.” Desperate for answered prayer. I am desperate to receive yet another clear scan to stamp the one year mark.

The amount of doubt, fear, and uncertainty that can sneakily ease its way into my mind is unmatched. The battle of the mind is often much harder than the physical fight against cancer. I have to constantly and consistently cling to hope that someday I will live a cancer-free life. I must avoid the dark traps and triggers that can send me into pits of despair. I must, with every fiber in my being, believe that I am healed. Though I still experience aches and pains, I must respond rationally rather than place myself in a worst case scenario. I also must surrender my control to the One who holds my life in His hands.

Time moves by slowly and at the speed of light all at once. Some days I wish I was receiving my scan right this minute, and other moments I wish I could put off the inevitable for one more day. This is a scan I’ve never made it to, and the importance sears itself into my heart. I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding the “what ifs,” but know that I very well could be in a position I’m all too familiar with. Overcoming my worry is accomplished solely by my reliance on God. I can not worry, for worrying only wastes precious time. For now, I desperately cling to my faith in a God who is capable of every impossible hurdle I face. I find encouragement in the fact that He hears my every cry. And I know that He in His love for me, wants nothing more than the achievement of this milestone.

Though this is the scan I’ve never made it to, I’m believing that I soon will.

Mark 11:24 (ESV)

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Babies On The Brain

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Prior to my diagnosis, my husband and I spoke frequently about having children. We dreamt about how many we would have and what their names would be. We laughed at who they would take after. Would they be fiercely independent (and stubborn) like their momma or gentle and patient like their daddy? Would they have Matt’s tan complexion and my blue eyes? We noticed every pregnant woman passing by and couldn’t even walk through Target without perusing the baby section, dreaming of all the possibilities to come. Babies were destined to be in our future.

From a young age, we both felt called to be parents. Though we initially got married with the five-year plan in mind, after our first year of marriage, we were both struck with a bad case of baby fever. We no longer wanted to wait and were ready for a bundle of joy. However, no sooner could we begin the journey to pregnancy before a monstrous disease barged through the front door of our lives. Cancer began to fill every area of our perfectly prepared existence, quickly leaving no room for children.

Dreams began to disintegrate right before our eyes. No matter how tightly we clung to our hopes of bearing children, the dust of our wishes slipped between our fingers, disappearing into eternity.

We begrudgingly traded morning sickness for chemotherapy induced nausea. OBGYNs for oncologists. Ultrasounds for PET scans. Mom bobs for bald heads. Baby showers for fundraisers. Dirty diapers for hospital bed catheters. The clean baby smell for sterile alcohol wipes. Midnight feedings for night sweats. Pint-sized outfits for hospital gowns. Pregnancy pains for surgery recovery. Labor and delivery for a radical hysterectomy. Motherhood for survival.

Cancer took precedence over everything in our path. We entered the fight immediately, and dreams of babies fell to the wayside. The more chemotherapy treatments I had, the less conversations my husband and I shared about our future children. Soon we would go months and even years without the mention of kids. Everyone around us was getting pregnant and raising beautiful little bundles, yet we were stuck in the fight for my life. Discussing children became painful — an open wound. Every word spoken was like sprinkling salt over the gash. Cancer handed us the shovel, and grief buried our dreams. Whenever we would talk about children, the loss would surface and the pain broke what pieces were left of our hearts. Quickly our baby fever calmed to a manageable temperature and lay dormant in the back of our minds.

For over three years we have been solely focused on my survival. One day at a time, not getting ahead of ourselves, for the journey of fighting cancer is relentless and unpredictable. Treatment successfully ended in January and my most recent scans showed that I am cancer-free. While knocking on every piece of wood in my sight and believing in the healing power of God, this time feels different. The bandaid covering our previously gaping wound has been lifted and underneath we have found hope. Where there once was a stinging pain of our loss of fertility, there now remains joy for our future. Though it looks different, one thing is for sure… Our hearts still beat for the little heartbeats we will hear someday.

Our dreams never died. While buried under the ache of grief, they transformed and grew. In the midst of our sorrow, God was working in the darkest area of our hearts — the place we fiercely protected. He was making a way. He was healing the emptiness so that it could be someday filled with a future love. Our destiny was to lose fertility so that we could gain a love intended only by the hand of God. A love that will explain a portion of the “Why.” A love destined to be ours. A love that has been woven into our hearts unidentified until chaos exposed it. This love has always existed within our souls, and through tragedy has been magnified. No matter that they won’t be born with our DNA or be birthed from my womb, our children will always be our children and our love for them will be unmatched. Our destinies have already intertwined.

Healing has come, and the conversations have begun again. The dark cloud of grief is dissipating, and light is shining in the dark once more. God is revealing His purpose for our parenthood. He is restoring dreams and washing hope over our wounds like a gentle salve. He is gifting us glimpses behind the curtain, and preparing our hearts for what is to come. We are dreaming again. Excitement is being renewed. Grief has passed like waves drifting back out to sea, and the shore holds immeasurable joy. Though it’s still uncertain how God will bring us our babies, we have hope that He will. He holds our dreams tighter than we ever could, and wishes only the best to come. Though cancer robbed us of our fertility, it will not rob us of our parenthood. Babies are on the brain once again.

Hebrews 10:23 (ESV)

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”

I’m Cancer Free. So Why Do I Still Feel Anxious?

(As appeared in Everyday Health on April 10, 2015)

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Treatment is over. The poisonous toxins are no longer coursing through my every cell. My body is recovering and my energy is being refueled. My hair is growing. I’m seeing hints of familiarity in the mirror — what I was before this wretched disease took over.

I’m beginning to feel like myself again. My scans are clear and there is no evidence of disease.

A burden has been lifted.

But another one has taken its place.

Those outside the gates of Cancerland believe that life goes back to normal once treatment ends. It’s as if we get to press some universal play button and then proceed on our merry little way.

Life is never the same after cancer. The disease does not pause our lives, it redefines them.

Cancer is like a tornado ripping through a town in middle America. It tears through lives and leaves destruction in its wake. Like trees violently uprooted and thrown aside, so too are dreams and goals. Life doesn’t go back to normal after the dust settles. The survivors are left to survey the rubble and pick up what remains.

Discussing the realities of life after cancer can cause pain, grief, and discomfort. Some struggle to move forward because they are stuck living in fear. The “what- ifs” can be paralyzing. It’s easy to be consumed by thoughts of your own mortality even after you are deemed “cancer-free.” This disease doesn’t just affect your body, it also affects your mind. The battle against debilitating fear and anxiety is real. And can be more difficult to bear than treatment itself.

The slightest presence of pain can deliver thoughts of a recurrence. “I have a headache… Has the cancer spread to my brain?” “My stomach hurts; I wonder if a new tumor is growing there.” This mindset is ingrained. Throughout treatment you are constantly asked if you notice any new pain or experience symptoms. Therefore, like Pavlov’s dogs, you are intuitively trained. Even the smallest change is cause for alarm.

Being cancer-free is bittersweet. On one hand, finishing the treatments that have been wreaking havoc on your body is emancipating. But, on the other, the thought of no longer actively fighting the disease is terrifying. Many people have a love-hate relationship with these life-saving treatments. After saying goodbye to our chemo cocktails, radiation, or other therapies, we are left to pray and hope that cancer will no longer choose our bodies for its residency.

How do we live after cancer? Do we try and fill the shoes we wore prior to our diagnoses? Do we begin a new journey?

Many use their experiences with cancer to help others going through the same battle. Others say that cancer makes them better people and redirects their focus. For those who leave Cancerland, life is much more fragile.

Cancer gives you a new lease on life. As if the multitude of decisions we have made since diagnosis aren’t enough, we now must decide what to do with the rest of our lives. Often, life before cancer seems meaningless compared to the vast experiences and enlightenment we gain afterward.

We have looked straight into the eyes of death, and have come out on the other side. We have been beaten down, knocked around — and yet we have survived. Our faith has been tested and reborn. Hope has emerged from the ashes. Though we have lost much, we have also gained strength we never knew existed.

We are different. We have evolved, developed, and grown. We must acknowledge that even though cancer has affected every area of our lives, we have come out on top. Living every day is a choice. And choosing joy is vital to a healthy and happy existence.

Suffering With Purpose

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A cancer diagnosis is not easy. Neither is the death of a child or divorce. Financial ruin and joblessness aren’t a walk in the park either. Relationships fail, bankruptcy happens, and some of us are stricken with life-threatening illnesses. Catastrophic storms occur and lives are uprooted every year. Depression and anxiety cripple millions. Accidents happen. Death, disease, and disasters are common. These things are the realities of the world we live in and they will continue over and over again so long as we are here on Earth.

John 16:33 — “In this world you will have trouble…”

Biblically, we have been promised to go through hard times. We have been guaranteed to experience suffering. There’s no way around it; We live in a fallen world. For the entirety of our lives, calamity will be around every corner. Many wonder why and begin to question God’s goodness when their lives are stricken with grief and struggle. After all, if God is good and He loves us, why do bad things come our way? And furthermore, if God is strong enough to move mountains, part the ocean, and calm storms, why then does He allow us to experience suffering? He is capable of healing, yet sometimes He doesn’t heal.

Have you thought about what life would be like without suffering? What it would be like if all of our dreams came true and we never experienced loss? I’d venture to say that we would live in permanent infancy, unaware and naive. There would be no need for growth, and we would live stagnant lives. There would be a resounding lack of purpose and no need for God. As one who has suffered greatly, I now find gratitude amid my struggles. No, I am not a sadistic lunatic and I do not enjoy grief one bit. However, in my suffering I am driven deeper and deeper into the arms of the One who loves me the most — my Savior.

There is purpose in our suffering. There is purpose in our grief, and in our pain, and in our struggle. It’s imperative for us to remember that. If we lose sight of the fact that our difficulties are being used for a bigger purpose, we can soon become bitter and hardened by every blocked road and detour in our journey. We’ve all experienced someone who oozes bitterness. Someone who clearly has been shackled to their situation and, whether by choice or subconcious, exudes an attitude of seething abhorrence for their life. My heart aches for those burdened in strongholds of grief and sorrow, for I know that though life is full of devastating troubles, there is still hope for something better. For someone better.

John 16:33 did not end by simply promising us troubles. There is more — “…but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

Reflect on that. Though we are guaranteed to struggle in this world, we are equally guaranteed a God so powerful that He overcomes our hurdles. Though our circumstances are impossible for us, with Him the possibilities are infinite. He shatters statistics, derails diagnoses, triumphs over tribulations, and overcomes obstacles. Our hope should not lie in our circumstances but in the One who rises above them.

Through our suffering, we have a magnificent opportunity to bring glory to the Lord. When we suffer, people follow our grief. The world watches to see how we will respond. Will we crumble and give up? Will we avoid and ignore? Will we become shackled? Or will we stand strong in faith with hope no matter the trial? Our suffering is a platform, and in our troubles we are on a stage. Your audience may be your immediate family. It may be your school, neighborhood, or community. It may be those you pass by in the grocery store or the stranger down the road. The world is watching. In your suffering, how will you respond? When people follow your grief, will you lead them to Jesus?

Suffering is purposeful. From the daily annoyances to the life-altering circumstances, there is reason in your struggle. Adversity is not encountered by random chance. Your story is not a mistake. My diagnosis of this rare and aggressive cancer was not unintentional. I have been given an opportunity to suffer well and with purpose. To lead others in my grief. To usher those who suffer alongside me to a hope that is bigger than what I face on Earth. There is opportunity in our suffering. Our struggles bring us closer to Jesus, for He suffered the most. We suffer so that we can become more like Him. We suffer so that we may be molded in His likeness. We suffer so that what doesn’t matter is stripped away. We suffer in order to understand what love really means. We suffer so we can stand by others in their grief. We suffer with purpose.

Life isn’t easy and never will be this side of Heaven. Pain is promised. Suffering is sure. Testimonies exist because of the tests that precede them. There is purpose in our grief. Will you suffer well?

1 Peter 4:12-13

“Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.”

Reclaiming Identity: A Caregiver’s Story

(Guest post by Stephanie’s husband, Matt)

Stephanie has been asking me to write a guest post for a while. Usually the only time I write is when she is having surgery and I blog to update. I’ve resisted writing a guest post because it’s Stephanie’s blog, and I believed that people just wanted to hear from her. She’s the cancer survivor, she’s the Huffington Post author, she’s the one who was on the Ellen show. Ever since her diagnosis, I have felt less known as “Matt” and more known as “Stephanie’s husband.” I couldn’t possibly think that anyone would ever want to hear from me. After all, what could I possibly have to say when I hadn’t been the one fighting cancer? I never felt that I had a story.

Being the spouse of someone who has been diagnosed with cancer is hard. As a husband, all I want to do is fix the problem. However, cancer is a problem I can’t fix. I can support Stephanie in the best ways I know how; I can be there for her, speak encouragement to her, and just lay around and hang out with her. But none of those things make the disease leave her body. Since I couldn’t do anything to make the cancer go away, I found myself feeling helpless and worthless. And it showed. It showed in my career, and it showed in my relationships with others.

As a man, I’m naturally more reserved. As an introvert, I’m even more so. Anyone who knows Stephanie knows that she is one of the most outgoing, invested people you’ll ever meet. She chooses joy no matter the circumstance. We have opposite personalities. I’m more quiet and introspective. And as a man, I never wanted to let on to anyone how I was feeling. If I was struggling, I was afraid of being perceived as weak. So whenever anyone would ask how I was doing, the answer was always, “Doing good! Things are going well,” especially when things weren’t good or going well.

To offset my feelings, I’d try to occupy myself. Watch sports, play softball, design furiously and completely immerse myself in my work. I’d tip back a few too many and get mad at God that the cancer kept coming back. Five months before Stephanie was diagnosed, my relationship with God was forced into a place of constant conversation when my Mom died suddenly and without explanation. When something that painful hits so close to home, you come to the end of yourself really fast. Then my wife was diagnosed, and the majority of my conversations with God since then have been me getting angry and feeling hurt. Pleading just to plead because I didn’t know what else to say. I told God everything I was feeling, and then just rambled. I knew He knew my heart and how I was feeling, but I just didn’t know what to say. I was empty. Out of gas. The enemy knew it, and I was low-hanging fruit. He had me where he wanted me, and kept me there for a long time.

A month or so ago, we had a big cancer-free surprise party for Stephanie. It was great. She was surprised, people had fun and celebrated, and there was an overwhelming sense of finality. That it was over. My eyes were opened at that party. At one moment in the night, people gave toasts to Stephanie for being a warrior, and then they toasted me too. At first I was uncomfortable and thought they were toasting me just because I was Stephanie’s husband. Because I was there and it was the polite thing to do. But they said that I have a story that can help other people in my position. I have a story. It was the first time I had really heard it and, because so many others were affirming my story, it was the first time I really believed that I had one. An encouraging word goes a really long way.

For the past three years, I was convinced that I was an afterthought. That I was insignificant in Stephanie’s cancer journey. That because I wasn’t having surgeries or getting chemo, I didn’t have anything to say. When you’re going through something, you never realize any potential impact you have on people who are watching. Even in your lowest moments, the story is still being written. While I still don’t fully see myself as an example, the encouragement and love from people who have been watching Stephanie and I is enough to make me believe that I have something to say.

Just because I’m a believer doesn’t mean I’m not going to have struggles with God. It’s like with any relationship: we will experience highs and we will experience lows. But having struggles shouldn’t convince us that God has left us. I definitely needed to learn to rest in His presence because He never left. I was the one second-guessing everything I was doing, being too stressed to rest. He’s constant, I’m not. But rest assured, when we lower our shoulders and go through trials, at some point we pick up our heads and see how far He’s brought us. Looking back, looking forward, and resting in the story He’s writing in our lives, that’s a story worth telling.

Psalm 107:2 (NIV)

“Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story…”

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.”

 

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