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Cancer: A Family Affair (Part 4)

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Written by Todd, Stephanie’s youngest brother who was 21 at the time she was diagnosed.

Occasionally after receiving a bill in the mail, I set it down on the counter, tell myself I’ll take care of it in a few hours, and forget about it for weeks, sometimes even months. When the sight of the bill on the counter triggers my thinking about paying it, I’ll sometimes push the thought further back into my mind, only for it to reappear when the next bill arrives. This bad habit of mine – described in psychological lingo as avoidance coping – was the strategy I first used to cope with Stephanie’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. For months, I refused to seriously think about her battle, because doing so led to painful thoughts.

I remember well the day in January, 2012, when Stephanie called me and told me that she had just received a cancer diagnosis. Sitting in the passenger seat of my wife’s car, I thought to myself that the diagnosis couldn’t be too bad. Sure, cancer is serious, I told my wife, Amy. And a hysterectomy is also serious business. But I was sure that 25-year-olds couldn’t die from it. And so when Amy and I flew out for my sister’s surgery a week or two later, I was saddened by the invasive surgery Stephanie had to undergo, but also comforted by the thought that it would act as a magic bullet. That thought was enough for me to look down on my sister in her hospital bed post-surgery and think that, while this was a massive bump in the road in her and her husband’s life, it wasn’t a tragedy. Life for them would return to normal in a matter of months, I remember thinking.

That all changed when Stephanie’s prognosis came back shortly after her surgery. The gravity of that prognosis hit me when I realized that I would have a better statistical chance of more than quadrupling my measly college savings at a roulette table than my sister would of living another year. So what did I do with that tragic information? Stuck my head shoulder-deep into the sand. For someone who had taken that approach for years, it wasn’t too hard to do. I was in college, nearing graduation, and working hard to prepare myself for law school. And so instead of continuing to talk to her on the phone almost everyday as I had done for the previous few years, over the next few months I only called a few times. A “hey, how is chemo going,” here and there. To me, this was the best way of dealing with the situation – pretending it didn’t exist. Coping with her prognosis was like my approach to the bills in the mail I periodically receive: if I pretend they don’t exist, they don’t, at least for a while.

That approach didn’t hold up when I first saw my sister bald in person. She was in Oklahoma for my college graduation, and seeing her was like being hit with a ton of bricks. I couldn’t evade the issue any longer, and so I directly confronted her prognosis for the first time. Before walking out on stage at my college graduation ceremony to receive my diploma, I shaved my head to honor her fight with cancer. Walking across that stage and removing my cap was, and will likely continue to be, my proudest achievement.

After a recurrence of my avoidance strategy came back when I moved to Washington, DC a few months later – I refused to read her website to avoid the fear of her dying – I finally put that strategy to rest. I realized that, were Stephanie to die, I would regret not spending as much time talking with her as I possibly could. That basic thought was profound, and it influenced not only my relationship with Stephanie but with my other family members as well. I began to talk with her, my brother, and my parents much more, coming to realize the benefit of confronting her prognosis head on.

Stephanie’s fight with, and now defeat of, cancer has been defined by her courage, bravery, and wisdom much beyond her years. I am incredibly proud that she has influenced so many. Her battle, though incredibly tough over the years, has provided me with an opportunity to learn what life is all about.

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Psalm 90:12 (ESV)

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

Cancer: A Family Affair (Part 3)

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Written by Denise, Stephanie’s mother.

Some moments are caught in your heart and mind for the rest of your life. Most of them bring you great joy, and you recall them from time to time, like the day you gave birth to your very special first child or the evening that child married the love of her life. I remember both of those occasions with a clarity nearly as exact as a video recording. Even now, I smile at the memories!

Other moments, though, remain with you for far different reasons. I remember waiting for a phone call from Stephanie, that very special first child, with news about the doctor appointment we had been anticipating. After nearly a year of struggling with troubling symptoms that multiple doctors had been unable to diagnose, she had finally received some answers. My stomach sunk when she told me that she and Matt, my extraordinary son-in-law, would meet me at home to talk. This can’t be good, I thought, or she would have just bubbled over with joy and relief on the phone.

“It’s cancer, Mom.” Seared in my memory. These three words were the start of an arduous journey for all of us that would be characterized at different times by fear, uncertainty, and hope. Stephanie was diagnosed with cancer and would have to undergo a radical hysterectomy. At age 25. I spent part of that first night challenging God. I cried and pummeled my pillow, reminding Him that I had already carried three children and wondering why he would take this blessing away from my daughter. It didn’t seem fair. I begged Him to transfer the cancer to me, so that I could somehow rescue her from the grueling radiation and chemotherapy that were in her future. But that was not God’s plan. A few days later, we realized just how deadly her diagnosis was.

“This is really bad, Mom,” the oncologist said with tears in her eyes. She hugged me and said it again. “This is just really, really bad.” Another moment seared in my memory. Pathology from the hysterectomy indicated a different diagnosis than the original. Stephanie was battling an extremely rare and aggressive carcinoma for which there was some hope, but not very much. “Start getting things in order. She probably has only nine months.” Was this really happening? It was, and the grief was almost unbearable.

If you’ve read Stephanie’s blog, you know that she courageously underwent 28 radiation treatments and four different six-month chemo regimens because the cancer returned three times after the original tumor was removed. To say that the journey was difficult or challenging would be the biggest understatement of all time. I could go on and on about what it’s like to be the mother of an adult daughter battling a serious illness. It changes your relationship, that’s for sure, because you want to fix the booboo, just like you did when she was a toddler. Except now she’s a married woman. And you can’t fix things. And it’s awful.

Everyone says that struggles can teach you profound lessons, if you let them, and it’s absolutely true. Here are some important things I have learned through the journey:

  • There is no handbook for how to be a good mom when tragedy strikes, so it’s important to create an effective support system. I needed someone I could cry with, someone who wouldn’t be threatened by my anger or fears, someone who could push me to stay present when I just wanted to disappear and make it all go away. My daughter surely didn’t need to take care of me emotionally because she was already in the fight of her life. And her brothers needed their mom to be strong. Having a very small and dependable group of friends who gave me the strength I needed to make it through the grueling days, weeks, months, and years of the journey was crucial for my mental, emotional, and physical health.
  • Everyone’s coping methods are different, and that’s okay. I’m a teacher and I love information. The more, the better. After the initial shock of it all, the very first thing I did after Stephanie’s diagnosis was spend hours reading everything I could get my hands on. Even though there was nothing positive about large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma of the cervix to be found, at least I knew what I was dealing with. In some strange way, that gave me a sense of control. But information doesn’t meet everyone’s needs. I learned to let the rest of my family cope in whatever way they chose, even if it wasn’t the same as mine and even if it meant I needed to keep details to myself.
  • Your adult child is much stronger than you ever knew. Stephanie was a headstrong and independent girl from the beginning, a lot like me, funny enough. However, the way she battled cancer revealed her true grit and character. She made the decision, early on, that she was going to handle her journey with as much grace and courage as she could possibly muster. And that’s exactly what she did. I remember the day Stephanie asked me if she was going to die. Through our tears, we talked through the possibility. That raw, authentic sort of conversation only happens when the one on the front lines is strong and courageous. My daughter is the strongest and most courageous woman I know.
  • Struggles of any kind can refine everyone involved. Stephanie is not the same person today as she was the day before diagnosis. Neither is the rest of the family, including me, and I am so incredibly thankful because we are much better. We have learned how to love and celebrate each other more completely, how to make every moment count, how to give each other healthy space, and how to fully honor each other’s differences.

Stephanie is more than my daughter. She’s my true friend and my courageous hero. Our relationship is stronger and richer today, and we are on the road of life together, through thick and thin, as two adult women. I am so grateful for the memories we’ve made and those yet to come. Truly, all things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose!

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Romans 8:26-28 (MSG)

“Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.”

Cancer: A Family Affair (Part 2)

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Written by Matt, Stephanie’s oldest younger brother who was 23 at the time she was diagnosed with stage three, aggressive cancer.

Even though it’s been nearly five years since Stephanie was diagnosed, there are certain moments and emotions etched in my memory forever. For as long as I can remember, Stephanie has been one of my closest friends. I call her nearly every day and have for as long as I can remember. I cherish the bond I have with her. When she called me with the earth-shattering news that she may not live much longer, I didn’t know what to do.

I am going to be brutally honest. Writing this post has been incredibly difficult.  I actually love to write, in fact it’s one of my favorite ways to process and reflect. I journal nearly every day, and blog on my own quite often. When Stephanie asked me to contribute to this family series, I secretly didn’t want to. It is still painful and hard to reflect on.

In January 2012, I moved to Dallas, TX to start a consulting job. At this point, I was 23 and ready to make a name for myself in the business world. Coincidentally (or providentially… you decide), this is the same month when my dear sister called me and broke the news that she had been diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Typing this, I feel those painful emotions surfacing again.

“No. There is no way.”
“It can’t really be that bad.”
“No… what?”

How was I supposed to process that? I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to feel. I could literally not comprehend what my sister was saying.

After I hung up the phone with Stephanie that chilly, January day, I called my mom. I needed her to clear it all up for me. I needed her to tell me that everything would be okay… that somehow Stephanie was exaggerating, or that she’d misheard the doctor. You know that feeling when you get bad news, where you kind of just go numb? You don’t really have any thoughts, and you can’t really feel anything. Do you know that feeling? That is exactly what happened as I talked to my mom.

In a surprisingly peaceful and collected voice, my mom proceeded to tell me about this wicked cancer called large-cell neuroendocrine cancer of the cervix, which she described as exceedingly rare and aggressive. She told me of the very low chance of survival among its victims, and that Stephanie was an unusually rare case. In fact, this cancer was actually so rare that there was no consensus on how to treat it.

On that phone call, something inside of me shut off. Whether consciously (or subconsciously), I decided I could not deal with the reality that my sister might die soon.

The next four years, my sister battled an endless amount of surgeries, and chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It’s difficult to think about (and impossible to perfectly empathize with) the things she went through. As much as I want to say I got through those following four years with faith that everything was going to work out, it just wouldn’t be the truth. Sure, yes, I did have some amount of peace that things would work out, although not once did I try to define what “work out” would mean. I did trust the Lord in this to some degree, but to be completely honest, more than my faith that God DID have this under control, the way I coped with this pain was by avoiding it. Anytime I would call my mom or sister and they would want to give me details about a recent treatment or current struggles, I would tell them I didn’t want to talk about it. I can’t paint this pretty picture of how I coped because the truth is, I never wanted to face the reality of what was happening.

My way of coping was to shield myself from facing what could have been the loss of my sister. In some way, in order to cope, I almost chose not to cope. I never allowed myself to face the real possibility that Stephanie would die, because that would have been too much for me to handle. Living so far away and working long hours at a new job was helpful in some way – I was able to block out all of the pain with the classic “out of sight, out of mind” coping mechanism. I think the psychological term is “coping by avoidance.”

As I’ve opened up with others in the middle of trauma or reflecting on past trauma, I’ve realized that I’m not the only one who has ever had a tough time addressing something hard like this. It’s ok to feel how you’re feeling. It doesn’t mean you don’t love them any less, or that you don’t pray for them, or that you don’t care for them with all of your heart. It doesn’t mean any of that. Grieving is difficult, and no way is the right way. I’m still not even ready to go all the way into that pain, but I’m grateful to God that I still have my sister.

My sister’s experience has taught me so much. I learned about what true HOPE means when Stephanie stayed positive through nauseating treatments and exhausting tests and transfusions and surgeries. I learned about STRENGTH when she kept diligently going to treatment and sharing her story with the world, carrying the weight of everyone’s concern on her shoulders as she set off to put the devil to rest with her faith. I learned about GRACE as my sister took all the bad news and made tough decisions with class and peace. Finally, I learned a little more about LIFE and how to live it.

Stephanie is brave and courageous and determined and strong and driven, and she is living a life worth being proud of. Life is hard. Who we are in life is determined by how we respond in times of adversity, and I am so thankful to have her in my life to show me what a life worth living looks like.

Matt Shaw and Steph

John 16:33 (ESV)

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Cancer: A Family Affair (Part 1)

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When I was diagnosed, we were all diagnosed. My husband. My family. My friends. Though I carried the weight of the disease, those who surrounded me were burdened by the gravity of the situation as well. Cancer doesn’t only affect the afflicted, it tears through the core of everyone around you.

I’ll never forget each phone call I made to those closest to me on January 25, 2012. I spent nearly six hours sharing the news with my brothers, step sisters, parents, grandparents, extended family, and friends. I’ll never forget how I felt with each person. Because of different personalities, everyone heard the news in a different way. With some, I was direct and to the point. Emotionless. Others heard my tears and sorrow. With some, I was careful and delicate. I even offered comfort to those who simply couldn’t believe what I was telling them. I heard anger. I heard sadness. I heard guilt. I heard shock. I heard prayers. I heard support. I heard it all.

My diagnosis didn’t just affect me. It affected everyone who loved me. And everyone who loved those who loved me. And everyone who loved those who loved those who loved me. Cancer isn’t an isolated circumstance. Its tendrils reach far and wide, touching the world. We’ve all been affected by cancer in some way, haven’t we?

Though I fought this disease four times, through years and years of a desperate battle, my husband was there for every single moment. Though I was the one who was sick and aching and dying, my husband was being wounded by the disease as well. What he witnessed still leaves gaping wounds in his soul and deep scars in his spirit. I cannot even begin to fathom how he felt when his bride was facing death. We only had six months of wedded bliss before malignancy marred our marriage. He’s carried my weak body out of bed. He’s clothed me. He’s bathed me. He’s fed me. My husband is my guardian. He’s stood at the gates between Heaven and Earth in protection of me.

Miles often separated my brothers and I, but I know that my diagnosis also deeply affected each of them in ways I may never know. You see, my brothers are my best friends. We share a bond that I’ve never witnessed between other siblings. I thank God for choosing them to be forever mine. My comrades. My cheerleaders. My protectors. My younger, but much bigger, brothers. We’ve been through life together. We share everything with one another. We speak multiple times a week (often every day), and have for the majority of our lives. So, when I got cancer, I know they probably felt like a part of them got cancer as well. They are caring, attentive, and the most incredible brothers I could have ever dreamed or wished to have.

Because I’m not yet a parent, to begin to describe what mine have endured would never grasp the scope of what their realities have looked like since my diagnosis. My mom always dreamt of throwing me an elaborate baby shower. Of sympathizing with me as my belly expanded and morning sickness ailed me. Many of her dreams were lost the day cancer barged into her daughter’s life. In typical Momma Bear fashion, she roared in anger and desperation in my affliction. She felt helpless, as her adult child — her firstborn and only daughter — was growing weaker and weaker.

My father. This wasn’t the first time cancer threatened to steal someone close to him. His mother passed away from the disease years ago. His mother, and potentially his only daughter. I can’t imagine. I’m a true daddy’s girl. He has always been strong and bold and able to quiet emotion. He is the umbrella on a rainy day, and the warm blanket in the cold. Yet, my cancer tore through him. He cried devastated tears. How does this make a father feel? I will never know.

When cancer affected me, it affected them. And I’m sure my diagnosis has even affected some of you as well. I shudder at how devastating this disease is. It’s a plague. A monster. A beast that swallows everyone in its path. Cancer touches us all in some way. Yet, I honestly can only know how my diagnosis has hurt me personally. I can’t see within my husband’s heart, and though I often wish I could, I surely cannot read his mind. No matter how close my brothers and I are, to try and understand how my diagnosis has impacted them would end in failure. Though I’ve known my mother and my father longer than I’ve known anyone else, I’ll never be able to grasp what they’ve endured when their only daughter got cancer.

Because I cannot imagine, understand, or fathom how my family has personally been affected since I was diagnosed, I’ve been inspired to invite them to share their stories with you and me. This month, I’m beginning a series that focuses on the family behind the patient. Each week, a family member of mine will open their hearts and share with us. They’ll explain how they felt, what they feared, and how their lives have forever been altered since my diagnosis. Please know, this requires much of them. Though I have the gift of sharing my life in words, not all of them do. My journey has been painful for them, and I’m honored at their willingness to open their wounds in this way. They may share everything, they may only share the surface, and some may not share at all. In fact, my father desperately wishes he could, yet his wounds are still too raw to be opened. Someday he may, but the time isn’t just yet.

I encourage you to follow along as you and I both get an inside look at how cancer affects more than just me, the patient. Maybe you’re the mother, or the brother, or the spouse of someone fighting cancer. My hope is that this would bring healing to us all.

1 Corinthians 13:7 (ESV)

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

So Long, Brave and Strong

Before and After Cancer Stephanie Madsen

I’ve carried the weight through deep valleys and dark caves. Hunched over, I’ve trudged through quicksand, walked miles through the most desolate of deserts, and clawed my way over the steepest cliffs. Feet worn raw, knees scuffed, fingers bleeding. Sweat stinging fresh wounds. Several times wanting to quit, I didn’t.

Tripping over rocks, my heart whispered, “Brave and strong.” My body aching. Sore and tired and desperate for rest, the wind beckoned, “Brave and strong.” Needing water. My tongue dry and cracked, family shared, “Brave and strong.” My skin burned and tender, friends called, “Brave and strong.” Repeating over and over like a skipped record playing in my mind.

Brave and strong.
Brave and strong.
Brave and strong.
Brave AND strong.
BRAVE AND STRONG!

Though not fully convinced, I started to believe it. Soon, I lived it. There was no other option. When fear arose, I’d be brave. When defeat taunted, I’d be strong. For years, this became who I was. Ingrained in the core of my being, this was my name. Through it all, this was me. Cancer couldn’t compete, for I was far too brave and far too strong.

It wasn’t until the heat of the desert cooled, the sun slipped into the night, and the moon shone bright once again that I realized brave and strong wasn’t all I’d been. The light has a powerful way of illuminating even the darkest places. Behind brave and strong hid terrified and incapable. Afraid, weak, uncertain. Behind the warrior was the wounded. Behind the shield was the flesh. Until now, I didn’t even understand that there was something beyond bravery and strength. I didn’t have the capacity to carry the weight of it all, so for that season, I clung to brave and strong.

Pummeling perspective into my spirit, this realization has been swift and direct. When you hear that you’re brave and strong enough times, you take ownership. You embody the meaning of each word. They transcend from mere words to providential destiny. They grow big and mighty, overshadowing the rest. Though several moments left me shaking in fear, brave and strong took over. There was no time, no energy, no resources, no ability to be less than. But then the sun sets, pushing them off into the horizon. When cancer loomed like an endlessly haunting ghost, I wore the shield. But cancer is further and further away in the distance and I’m learning that there’s more. Behind brave and strong is great vulnerability.

I’m sitting in that vulnerability now. I’ve set the shield down and have noticed my wounds. Oh, the wounds. Burning, searing pain. My guts are all but spilling out before me, and I sit here looking at the carnage of the miles journeyed these last few disease-stricken years. It may sound odd… It sounds odd to me… I didn’t realize how much cancer had hurt me. How many wounds brave and strong covered up. How much fear and desperation the shield shadowed. For so long I denied the pain in order to endure it.

In a battle to the death, I have won. I’ve survived, succeeded, and overcome. Endurance has paid off and now it’s time to rest. Time to recover. Time to unwind. And most of all, time to heal. Looking at these wounds, I’m realizing healing isn’t going to be an easy process. It’s going to bring with it its own level of pain. A pain that must be walked through, not avoided. While the shield of brave and strong allowed me to endure the wounds, healing will force me to clean them. To heal is to pick out the thorns, wipe away the dirt, cleanse the area, and delicately salve. If not properly cleaned, the wound is restricted from healing. Yet, if you allow the healing to begin, but pick the scab each time it develops, ultimate healing cannot occur either.

I can’t tell you that I’m excited to clean my wounds. From what I’m seeing on the surface, it looks messy. Years and years of struggle caked into deep gashes. I also can’t tell you that I even know how to clean this on my own. I’ve never attempted a wound so deep. Like many, I’m going to need reinforcements like counseling, therapy, and support. Of this, I am not ashamed. And neither should you be. I can tell you that I do look forward to the relief healing brings. I know I can’t begin to fathom the debris that rests in my wounds, but I’m ready to scrub it out. I’m ready for the soothing comfort of the salve and the cute design on the bandaid I’ll pick out.

I know I’m not the only one who has carried a shield through the trenches of life. We all do. It’s how we survive. Just as I was brave and strong, so you may be too. But once the battle is over and the dust settles, the shield’s job is done. Shine it up, we’ll need it again someday for a different circumstance. Because… L I F E. It can be terrifying to address your wounds. To look down and see what happened behind brave and strong. But I have faith that healing comes from vulnerability. That redemptive restoration is birthed in the midst of that vulnerability.

It’s time to heal. I’ll grab the bandaids.

Jeremiah 30:17 (ESV)

“For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the Lord…”

Cancer In The Rearview

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We said goodbye and drove away. The anticipation and excitement was palpable as we voyaged on. We looked at each other in amazement that we were actually doing this. Are we really moving to Austin? Is this a dream? The adventure had just begun and, though we had no idea what our future would look like, we felt peace. We knew that doors had closed and others were opened wide. We had been called to step forward and go beyond comfort. We barely even looked in the rearview mirror as we headed south. I thought I’d cry. I thought I’d be sad. But I wasn’t. Instead, my heart was cheerful and expectant. The leap of faith was more than we could have ever imagined it being, and we’ve only now landed on the ground below. This chapter is just getting started.

Not only has our move brought a refreshing newness, but it’s also ushered in a spirit of reflection. We’ve been spurred on and inspired. From reflection has come revelation, and what a beautiful thing that has been for us. Beautiful yet painful. Painful but necessary. We’ve spoken more openly about our last four years than ever before. Our perspectives have shifted and we are allowing ourselves to feel the weight of what our previous season looked and felt like. For me, it’s an odd space to sit in. I never realized how much I’ve tucked deep into the dark corners of my mind, with the subconscious intent of forgetting. But how could I forget? Cancer has left an indelible print on my very core. My blueprint was altered at diagnosis, and it will never be the same. But as time moves forward, I’m learning that that’s okay.

Austin has been incredible. Each day here has tangibly revealed God’s faithfulness. We’ve been planted in a life-giving, spirit-breathing, community-reaching church. New friends have quite literally shown up on our doorstep. Each act of kindness, no matter how large or small, is 150% attributed to the compassion of God. He has given us gifts from above, shining down attributes of Himself with each one. We know we are exactly where we are meant to be and that’s more than we could’ve asked for. You’ve probably noticed that I’ve taken a small break from writing, and I thank you for giving me the time to soak into our new adventure.

Still, I find myself looking in the metaphorical rearview often. Every day, in fact. Not looking back with longing, simply looking back to see it from a distance. To view the battle with new eyes. I’m searching each moment, reflecting on what once was. Everything I went through. Everything Matt went through. Looking back gives me gratitude for the present. Gratitude that pushing through the storm was well worth it. Gratitude for the perspective change. Gratitude for grace, healing, and restoration. I also realize that I look back to assure myself that it wasn’t a recurrent nightmare, but that it actually did happen in real life. You see, stepping outside of the shadow of cancer has an interesting effect on those who survive.

Every single day. Sometimes, more than once a day. Seemingly often enough that it went beyond notice, cemented in my subconscious. I drove by my very own cancer landmarks. The locations in Colorado that have been seared into my memory. In my mind, there are plaques firmly planted in the ground at each area of significance. The office building where I was diagnosed on January 25, 2012. Its plaque reads, “You have cancer.” The doctor’s office where I learned the reality of my diagnosis on February 14th of that same year. Its plaque says, “You have less than a 20% chance of surviving this first year.” The route in which we drove over and over and over, back and forth to appointments. It states, “Ready for that needle?” The hospital full of the medical staff and technology that saved my life. Its says, “Thank you.” The emergency room in which I garnered frequent flyer miles. It reads, “You have to be admitted.” The post office who mailed off thousands of dollars of medical bills on our behalf. It demands, “Give me your money.” The grocery store where I was first asked why I was bald. It says, “Why did you shave your head?” I couldn’t go a day without being reminded of the disease. It lurked in corners, hid itself in memories, and peeked around buildings when I’d pass by. Cancer haunted me every day and I didn’t realize that until we left.

I’m in a new city. A new neighborhood. A new climate. A new time zone. Everything and everyone who surrounds me is new. The only familiarity I know rests in my husband and what we brought on our adventure. Everything else is new and unknown. I can’t tell you directions on how to get to the grocery store. I couldn’t point to where the bank is. I surely couldn’t even decipher which way is north from where I’m sitting in this exact moment. Though unfamiliarity can bring discomfort, it’s exactly what I’ve needed. I needed something to be in our rearview. I needed something to look back on so that I could move forward.

God knew. He knew, thank goodness, He knew. My rearview is clear and I feel freedom that I haven’t felt in years. It’s not blissful freedom, more somber than that. It’s a freedom that acknowledges the broken road behind while allowing me to press on towards the future. Seeing cancer in the rearview has enabled and encouraged me to truly live life with frontward vision. It’s an oddly wonderful place to be. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Being on this side of cancer is something I’ve prayed for for years. It’s good to arrive with my diagnosis finally in the rearview.

John 5:8 (ESV)

“Jesus said, ‘Get up and walk.'”

A Leap of Faith

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Wind violently whips through your hair. The sun blinds your vision and beats down on your skin. Gravel crunches beneath your feet. The air is crisp, fresh, and wide open. You’re at the edge. Every fiber in your being is inching you forward, begging you to jump. Your head desperately pleads “No.” Your heart battling, dares you to move. You don’t know what lies below. It’s terrifying. Exhilarating. Let your thoughts run wild. What if you do? What if you don’t? Do you jump?

When Matt and I were first married we agreed that Colorado would be our home. It’s where we would settle in, buy a home, and begin our family. Being a native, Matt had never dreamed of moving to another state, and though I’ve been here for fifteen years, I felt the same. All of our siblings had left the coop and flown on to experience other adventures, but we felt that our adventure remained here, in Denver.

Only a few months into our marriage, God deposited something into my spirit. He placed me right at the edge of the cliff and asked me to jump. It took me by such surprise that I looked up and said, “No way.” And I meant it. “No way God. That’s not the plan. If you want that to happen, you’ll have to tell Matt yourself because I’m not saying a word. I’m not taking that leap.” Little did I know that God would indeed tell my husband.

A few weeks later, Matt called me into the office with the preface and plea that I not get upset with what he was about to share. Oh no. “Babe, I just applied to a job out of state. I don’t know why, but I think God wants us in Austin.” Here we go.

If I’ve said it before, I’ve said it a thousand times… I’m a planner. I like things organized, in proper order, and neatly packaged. I’m also stubborn, though I prefer, “determined.” When I commit to something, I follow through. A stubborn planner, also known as: control freak. (Yikes, that hurts to admit.) When asked, “Do you jump?” my answer five years ago was no. Why would I willingly submit myself to the unknown and unplanned? Yet no matter how fervently my head denied it, my heart kept pushing me forward. After praying and wrestling with God, I finally came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t hurt to at least see what the edge looked like. If God brings you to it, He’ll bring you through it, right? I tried to convince myself.

Soon, Matt and I were on a plane headed for Austin, Texas. We agreed that it was crazy. Why Austin? We had never been and knew no one there. No family, no friends, no familiarity. Yet as quickly as we landed and began our exploration of the city, it became obvious. We had fallen in love. God urged us to take the leap and, by obedience, our eyes caught a glimpse of His promises for us. After a week staring over the edge of the cliff, we committed to jump. Hand in hand, we would take this leap of faith.

We arrived home and promptly started packing. We were excited with anticipation of a new adventure. We continued to pray, asking God if now was the right time. Interesting, that I remember our prayers always revolved around timing… That funny little thing called “hindsight.” We set our move date as March 1st, 2012. We were ready.

One, two, threeeeeeeeeeee. NO.

Our prayers were answered, though not how we expected. At the end of January, six weeks before our move date, I was diagnosed with cancer. Our plan, as quick as its conception, came to a halt. There was simply no way we could move to a city in which we knew no one and nothing to fight cancer alone. Visions of Austin, the excitement and thrill of what God had called us to, slowly began to fade behind the reality of the disease.

We spent months and even years questioning why God would deposit an urge to jump, when soon it would seem impossible. As we trudged through the years and multiple battles against cancer, our leap of faith was gone. We were focused on the fight and the fight alone. Survival has a powerful influence. But God knew, and we soon would, too.

While we thought the dream had died, enveloped in the burden of Cancerland, the timing simply wasn’t right. You see, God answered. We’ve learned that He doesn’t tease us. He doesn’t dangle a carrot in front of your face and watch you reach for it before He pulls it away. God makes deposits with purpose. It’s not always a matter of what, but when.

You see, God knows me. Inside and out, front to back. He knows the deepest parts of me that I may not even know myself. He knew that five years ago my answer would be a resounding no. He knew my trust was weak, that a leap of faith would require more than I was willing to give. Yet His deposit was purposeful. It’s timing with great intent. His deposit opened my eyes to His faithfulness.

He asked me to take a leap of faith to prepare me for what was to come. My trust grew with His urging. It prepared me to face the valleys of despair as I fought cancer four times. He called me to trust Him without knowledge of the future. If I could trust Him in my darkest moments with my entire life, I could trust Him with anything. God called me to the edge of the cliff to see if I would jump. When He knew I would, He knew I was ready.

I could continue on with the story, but the message resonates beyond the details. It’s now 2016, a little over four years from our original moving day, and we are officially and finally moving to Austin. Our willingness to jump into the unknown allowed God to work in our lives. Without our willingness, our lack of trust in Him wouldn’t have carried us through our tragedy. Because we gave Him a little, He gave us a lot.

The time has come and we have now jumped. We’re floating through the air, hand in hand, laughing at the possibilities.. We don’t know what’s to come, but we don’t care. We know it will be good. God deposited the seed long ago not only to draw our hearts towards Austin, but to see if we truly trusted Him. We look forward to our future in our new city. We have abundant faith that His promises will be unveiled when we arrive. I have an inkling that it’s where we’ll build our family… But only God knows.

If God is urging you to take a leap of faith, trust that His urging is with greater purpose. It may not be for what’s at the bottom of the cliff, but for what you’ll learn along the way by putting your trust in Him. So I ask again, do you jump?

 

1 Thessalonians 5:24 (ESV)

“He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.”

Fighting The Fear Of Recurrence

(As seen in Cancer Knowledge Network’s #YARally)

Treatment ends. Your hair begins to sprout anew. Your skin slowly smooths. Your energy levels rise. You can look in the mirror and see remnants of the person you once were. You’ve trudged through the hardest journey of your life and bear the scars that tell the story. Your doctors share the latest results from your scans and there is no evidence of disease. You’re cancer-free.

It’s time to move on with your life and dream again. You’ve gained perspective and see life in a new way. You’re ready to forge new relationships and deepen the bonds you already have. You’re excited to travel and see the world in a new light. You’re ready to pursue the dreams you were reluctant to before. You’re not afraid to fail, because you’d rather try than not try at all. Your character has flourished and you are stronger and braver than ever before. Because you’ve faced your own mortality, you are now fearless.

Right?

While many survivors experience a sense of relief and celebratory whimsy upon receiving cancer-free results, those feelings don’t always last as long as we expect them to.

At diagnosis, my number one goal was to be cancer-free. I wanted to defeat this disease and move forward in my life. I accepted the fact that I would lose my fertility through a radical hysterectomy. I knew it was the only way to reach survival. I faithfully attended every chemotherapy and radiation session. I grieved the loss of my hair, the changes in my skin, weight gain, and even my nails peeling off. I could no longer recognize the woman staring back at me in the mirror, but I reminded myself that this would only be temporary. Cancer would be only but a chapter in my novel of life.

I received my first clear scan seven months after diagnosis. My doctor was elated as she shared the news. No matter that I was given a less than 20% chance to survive the first year, I beat the odds. I was cancer-free! I danced around the house, smiling genuinely for the first time in months. My husband and I celebrated. The burden of cancer began to slough off our shoulders and we were able to see the future we so desperately hoped we could share together.

But that’s not how the story ended.

Because of the type of cancer I had, I would need routine scans every three months to ensure that the disease did not return. It was time for my first follow-up scan and I felt anxious. Only three months prior, a scan showed no evidence of disease (NED), but I was aware that cancer is hardly predictable. We followed protocol and I received the most potent and effective cocktails of chemo and radiation and it had worked. But just as our celebration began, the party was over. A softball-sized malignant tumor had grown within ninety days, and I was facing my first recurrence.

That moment changed everything. The knowledge that cancer had returned with a vengeance sent chills racing through me. To the depths of my soul, I was shaken. My fear of cancer rose exponentially from the trepidation I had experienced at diagnosis. I was facing my own mortality through realistic lenses as I knew my already small statistics would shrink even more. More surgery. More chemo. More pain, grief, fear, exhaustion, and nausea.

Diagnosis pales in comparison to recurrence. At diagnosis, the majority of people feel strong and able to defeat the giant. Bright eyes and bushy tails, we are ready for the fight. Determination and perseverance with a sprinkling of naivety propelled my first battle against cancer. Recurrence comes at a bigger price. The price that we know exactly what we are facing. There are fewer unknowns because we’ve traveled the road before, and can foresee the afflictions that are to come.

It’s been four years since diagnosis, and I’ve had three recurrences after first hearing the words, “You have cancer.” Some came swiftly like the first, only three months later. Other recurrences arrived further down the road. No matter the time that we are able to live without cancer invading our bodies, it never really goes away. Though it may not be a physical presence, cancer often lingers in our emotional well-being. A ghost that haunts us, never wanting to leave. We are constantly reminded that cancer can return at any moment. It’s normal for survivors to feel anxious, depressed, and fearful once treatment ends and NED is achieved.

Some survivors feel more scared after fighting cancer than they did in the throes of the disease. Once treatment ends, we are simply left to pray and hope with every remaining healthy cell within us that cancer will no longer choose our bodies as its residency. Life after cancer isn’t always what we dream it will be, therefore we should be prepared for what may come after this chapter has closed.

In order to look forward, we must avoid looking back. Not denying the journey we trekked or ignoring the fight, but by deciding that cancer can no longer have a vice grip on our lives, we can begin to truly live free of cancer. Fear of recurrence gives power to the disease. Our anxieties can fuel cancer, giving it control over us. When fear creeps in, we must stand against it, knowing who we have become in spite of the struggles we have faced. We are much stronger than we think we are.

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 put to the ultimate test and has grown in the fire. Hope has emerged from the ashes. Though we have lost much, we’ve gained more. We are different. We have changed, developed, and flourished. We must acknowledge that though cancer affected every area of our life, we have come out on top. Living every day is a choice. Choosing joy is vital to the continued success of a healthy and happy existence.

Matthew 6:34 (MSG)

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

Say The Words

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I stepped out of the house knowing that I would be offering my most vulnerable self to the world for one of the very first times. My wig was neatly tucked away in my luggage, sitting backstage to my bald, shiny head. I asked my husband, “Are you sure this looks okay? People will stare. Everyone will know that I have cancer.” After receiving tender encouragement, I soon believed his sweet words.

Nervously checking my reflection in the car mirror several times, we made our way to the airport. As soon as we parked, I recognized that I could easily reach into my suitcase and pull out my perfectly styled human hair wig and slip into the crowd unseen and unnoticed. Deciding to risk it, I tucked the thought away and confidently walked into the airport alongside my husband.

Immediately my fears were realized as eyes transfixed on me. Children were confused and couldn’t help but question why a woman would have no hair. Adults passed by and though their intentions were to cast secret glances when I wasn’t looking, I could feel their eyes on my naked scalp. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to forcefully inform passersby that it wasn’t my fault. I wanted to stand firm and express my pride. I wanted to hide. My brave face hid my anxieties and we continued on to security.

I formed a game plan. No eye contact. If I don’t have eyes on them, they won’t have eyes on me. Out of sight, out of mind. I stuffed my overpacked carry-on through the conveyor belt and walked forward. The scan beeped and I assured the TSA agent that I had a port implanted in my chest. After thorough examination I was free to get my baggage and continue ahead. Determined to get to our gate as quickly as possible so as to avoid the ever looming stares, I rushed forward only to be abruptly stopped. An airline employee stepped in front of me and smiled. Thoughts began to race.

Please, don’t say anything. I’m vulnerable right now. I know I stand out, and I hate it. Why didn’t I just wear my wig?

“You are absolutely stunning.”

And that was it. My life changed forever.

Fast forward to a year later. Short stubble graced my once shiny head. I was embodying GI Jane and feeling pretty good about it. I looked forward to the day my hair would cascade past my shoulders, but knew that this was a start. For that I was grateful. Just another day at the grocery store… I placed my items in the checkout line and smiled at the clerk.

“Wow! I absolutely love your hair. It looks striking on you!”

An email nesting in my inbox…

“My fiancé tragically died two years ago and I haven’t been able to get off the couch since. I have felt hopeless and depressed and didn’t want to go on. And then I read something you wrote. I now have hope. Thank you.”

A message shared through social media…

“Because of you, my faith is restored. Your encouragement has changed my life.”

My youngest brother surprising me by shaving his head for his college graduation. Lifting his cap off and looking up into the stands as he received his diploma as if saying,

“This one’s for you, sis.”

A radiology technician who has performed my last three CT scans. She recognizes me each time and welcomes me with a smile. She knows just what I need and offers comfort as if she were family.

“I’m so happy to see you! I think of you often. How are you doing? Still celebrating, I hope!”

Kindness is life-changing. Little did each of these people know how much their kind words would lift me up. It’s incredible how, by simply saying the words, someone else’s life can be impacted forever. Kindness is remembered. Encouragement, support, well-wishes, and prayers are glued to our memories because they are a salve to our wounds when life is difficult. Offering kindness is a direct reflection of our character.

Our memories reside on a scale from happy to sad. Hurt to encouraged. Celebratory to grieved. Tragedy to triumph. Pain to breakthrough. There are always two extremes and our memories are defined by how they made us feel in those moments. When we are at high points in our lives, it’s the low glimpses we remember most. And likewise, when we are struggling through hard moments, it’s encouraging and kind exchanges that linger in our memory.

Withholding a kind word for someone is allowing them to suffer in their struggle. The fact is, we’ll never truly understand what someone else is going through, but that should never stop us from offering kindness. We’ve all felt the urge to say something to someone but have gotten in our own way of delivering the message.

Your waiter is visibly tired but trying her hardest to keep up. Instead of internally sympathizing with her, tell her how much you appreciate her service. A baby is crying on the airplane, and though your instinct would be to throw annoyed glances at the mother, offer encouragement instead. You see someone sitting alone, invite them to your table. You haven’t told a family member how proud of them you are. Do it! You have never shared how grateful you are for a specific friend. Let them know how much they mean to you. You know someone battling cancer… Encourage them. No one wants to feel alone.

Saying the words is all it takes. Though sometimes it will require us to step out of our comfort zones, the reward is always worth the risk. If only we had a glimpse into how our kindness would impact the lives of those around us.

I will never forget the words that have been shared in the times that I’ve needed them the most. Be kind today.

Proverbs 16:24 (ESV)

Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body.

Grief is…

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It follows no timeline, has no standards, and does not discriminate. No amount of preparation, readiness, or allowance can ease the process. It comes and goes and rarely gives you a heads up of its impending arrival. It’s sneaky. It’s complex. It’s never simple. Grief is oh so good, yet oh so bad. It is equally painful as it is soothing. Grief is confusing. And though it is healthy and necessary, the majority of us avoid grieving because we simply cannot understand it.

Last week was a doozy. I found myself stuck in bed for the majority of Tuesday and I couldn’t figure out why. As usual, I went to the gym first thing in the morning. Typically that gets my endorphins running and sets the tone for my day and, while it worked for the moment, I still found myself slowly colliding with an invisible force. No amount of caffeine riddled pre-workout supplements nor the natural rush of dopamine and serotonin could combat the stealthy reflexes of grief.

I came home and went through my checklist of to-do’s as Matt left for work. Soon, I was crying. Soft, quiet tears rolled down my cheeks as I tried to search for a reason why. I looked in the mirror weeping with brows furrowed in confusion, as if searching for the answer in my own eyes. My tears were exhausted, reflective, and sad. But why? After all, I’m cancer free! I’m healthy and active. My energy has returned and I’m able to accomplish things I wasn’t able to for years. My business is building and beginning to thrive. My relationships are fulfilling. I’m happy. I’m joyful. None of these attributes should evoke tears… at least not despondent ones.

So, I continued about my day. Instead of seeking a new coffee shop, or even settling into my home office, I grabbed my laptop, notebooks, pens, and a soft blanket and retreated to the comforts of our bed. I began to work. I answered emails, brainstormed business ideas, and read a few pages of a newly purchased book. Yet no matter what I did to try and distract myself, I couldn’t shake the heavy burden. Instead of fighting it, soon I gave in. I surrendered and allowed myself to walk through the emotions, regardless of if I could understand them or not.

Grief is invisible, yet so tangibly present. It’s not an opponent that can be defeated because it’s not an opponent at all. Throughout my years of grieving, brought on suddenly by my diagnosis of cancer, I’ve learned that grief isn’t my enemy. Grief is a hand held out, bringing me through the darkness and offering light at the end of the tunnel. Grief is good. It’s a sign of healing and recovery. Of movement and growth.

I get trapped into thinking that because I’ve overcome and have reached the light at the end of the tunnel, there is no longer room for grief. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Grief follows it’s own patterns and rules, remember? After a few days of allowing grief to guide me, I began to understand. I was able to identify my emotions, thoughts, and feelings. The time I spent fighting cancer was undefinably difficult. Yet, the time after cancer is difficult, too, in it’s own ways. I’m still not quite sure who I am after all of this. I know my purpose, but I fear not fulfilling it. The exhale of life after is much longer than I expected. What I’ve learned is that grief can’t always be pinpointed to a single moment or tragedy. I can say with generalization that cancer is the cause of my grief, but it’s much more complex than that. For instance, if you were to ask me why I was sad, I wouldn’t have an answer. Grief cannot always be defined, and that’s okay.

The truth is, life after [fill in the blank] is hard for all of us. We expect things to be nice, full of happiness and ease, at a certain point after tragedy. We put parameters on our grief and set deadlines for when it should end. If only. Many who have walked through tragedy find that grief can be triggered years later in the most unassuming ways. Some deny grief, trying to suffocate it, in hopes that it’ll go away. Unfortunately, that never works. Grief is meant to be experienced. If we attempt to avoid, ignore, or deny it, it often shows up with exaggerated force. But the opposite isn’t helpful either. If we hold onto grief for longer than necessary, it can turn into an impossibly heavy burden that we aren’t meant to carry.

Grief is… good. In the end, it really is. It’s worth it. It’s hard and uncomfortable and untimely. Yet, when we allow ourselves to view grief as a hand held out, guiding us to complete healing, our lives can be changed. Grief offers perspective, and as long as we walk through it for the amount of time we are meant to, it can lead to restoration. Grief is painful because it reminds us of our loss, but it is soothing because it transforms our tragic memories, thoughts, and emotions into those of honor, reverence, and even celebration. When we grieve, we allow the pain to be soothed by joy, by hope, and by faith. Grief is the final step to reaching the light at the end of the tunnel and without it, we’re simply trapped in our tragedy. Press forward. There is light at the end of it.

Matthew 5:4 (MSG)

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”

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