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Post Cancer Blues: The Struggle of Beating Cancer

You’re trapped in a dark room and can see a sliver of light outside. Your eyes have adjusted to the darkness that surrounds you and though you have embraced the fear of the unknown, you are seeking the light. Your goal is to reach the outside, but on your way you fumble and trip on things the darkness hides. You sustain injury by trudging through the hidden places of the room. You run into walls, slamming your face into a barrier. You can feel blood trickling down your cheek. You can’t give up. You refuse to be stuck in the dark. You move forward with your arms outstretched in attempt to intercept opposition. You’re bruised and scarred from your previous struggles to reach safety. Just when your path feels clear, you face another road block. You fall down and begin to weep. The light is an ever-changing mirage. One moment you’re within reach, and the next it’s across the room. You’re confused but determined. Overwhelmed but steadfast.

The dark is turbulent, but you find solace and peace within it’s walls. You’ve been locked inside for years and it’s become familiar, yet no matter the familiarity, you know you must escape. You can’t live like this, so you press on. Sore and frail, you stand back up and trudge forward. Cautious. Slowly. Continually looking at the glimmer of hope the light provides. You’re close now. You’re almost there. Fight for it. Do whatever it takes. Your life is on the line, after all. Though bruised, bloodied, weak, and tired, your spirit has a raging ferocity. Your will is strong. And when there’s a will, there’s a way. After many failed attempts, you finally reach the outside.

Your body spills out of the darkness and is overcome by the light. You’ve been fighting for this moment for so long, yet it’s not what you thought it would be. Your eyes can’t adjust. The light is violently blinding. Your hands stretch towards your face and you cower behind them. For so long your eyes were used to the darkness. You became immune to the blackness in which you survived. Now, the one thing you had been desperately seeking isn’t as relieving as you dreamed it would be. You’re confused and afraid. With light, you thought you’d be able to see which direction to move in. You thought you’d know what to do. You thought everything would be so clear. You feel as blind in the light as you did in the dark and you hate that you feel this way.

Cancer is the dark room I’ve found myself trapped in for years. I’ve fought so hard for the light at the end of the tunnel and for my own survival. I’m now cancer free and have metaphorically reached the light on the outside. However, after the years of strenuous battle, I find myself lost in life after cancer. I would much rather be in this position than still fighting for my life, but being overwhelmed is a very real experience for those in my position. Fortunately and unfortunately, I know that I’m not alone. Many survivors describe feelings of confusion once their treatment has ended and they have received a clear bill of health. We get so used to the fight that we forget what life is like without it. Some refer to it as the “post cancer blues.”

We spend every waking hour fighting our disease by religiously going to our doctors appointments, working towards getting healthy, researching the latest and greatest in cancer care, and receiving scan after scan in hopes that someday we’ll be able to live a “normal” life once more. We’re so consumed with the cancer, that it’s easy to forget what life was like prior to diagnosis. We’ve set aside projects and goals to make room for treatment and the thought of beginning projects and to-do lists can be overwhelming. Fear can linger once health returns. Many say that time naturally resolves feelings of anxiety and fear, yet some continue to struggle with depression long after their disease is eradicated.

I’m squinting in the blinding light of life after cancer. I’m stumbling like a newborn deer. I’m trying to find my bearings and regain my footing. I’m trying to rediscover the world I’m living in outside of the dark shadow of this disease. I know the brightness will dim and my eyes will adjust, but for now I think I need to find myself a good pair of sunglasses.

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Psalm 61:2 (ESV)

“From the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”

Drug Therapy vs Chemotherapy

It’s been six months since I received my very last dose of chemotherapy. My hair is nearly to the length it was prior to diagnosis. My nausea has completely been alleviated. I’m no longer on steroids that caused terrible bloating and weight gain. And although I’m not experiencing side effects from chemo, some still remain. I look healthy and for the most part feel healthy, yet I continue to battle side effects. I’ve traded chemo for the alternative and less intrusive, drug therapy.

While a quick Google search will answer your questions regarding the meaning of drug therapy, I’ll try to put it in easy terms. Chemotherapy is the use of chemicals to treat malignancies. Drug therapy is the use of medicine to treat disease. Because I have reached one year cancer free, my doctors have prescribed that I maintain my health by receiving intravenous medicine once every three weeks due to my history with recurrences. The type of drug that I’m on is an angiogenesis inhibitor and works to inhibit the growth of new blood vessels. The goal is that if any malignant cells were to form, they would have no blood supply to grow. Medicine amazes me. To every doctor, nurse, technician, and researcher, thank you. You’re the ones that stand beside us and fight with and for us.

The administration of drug therapy is no different than chemotherapy. At least not for me. I receive treatment at my usual infusion center in the hospital. I sit in my preferred chair with my lovely nurses in attendance. My port is accessed identically as in treatments prior. Unlike chemo, however, drug therapy requires less time. Some chemo treatments lasted up to eight hours for me, while this therapy only lasts about two hours. It’s a fairly quick process, and doesn’t eat up most of my day.

As with any treatment, there are possible side effects. In fact, before I was cleared to receive this drug, I signed a form that lists in detail what could potentially happen. Every side effect form that I sign off on reminds me of pharmaceutical commercials. You know the ones. “Taking [generic drug] will greatly improve your [generic ailment].” These productions are set in rolling fields full of beautiful flowers in which the paid actors are frolicking through, holding hands and smiling without a care in the world. At the very end of the commercial, an auctioneer voice quickly rattles off every possible side effect. “Heart attack, stomach ulcers, and certain types of cancers have been linked to this product.” Oh, and your arms could probably fall off from it, too. Similar to these hilarious pharmaceutical commercials, the side effects of the prescription drug I’m receiving now can be alarming. Heart attack, bowel perforation, and stroke are on the top of the list.

Many have asked how I’m feeling. The truth is, I feel great. I do suffer side effects from this angiogenesis inhibitor, but I’ll gladly take them. They pale in comparison to what I experienced while on chemotherapy, but still have an impact on my daily life. Thankfully, my blood pressure and blood counts remain at normal levels. Because of my age and health, my doctors assure me that heart attack, bowel perforation, and stroke would be rare. As long as I keep a close eye on symptoms and listen to my body, I should be in the clear.

I’ve had eight cycles of drug therapy, and the side effects have joined the party. Who knew that we all have a layer of protection on our tongues? I didn’t until it was gone. Anything too hot or textured and the slightest amount of spice feels like acid and knives in my mouth. It’s unfortunate that I love spicy food. Things that didn’t affect me before really do now. Take watermelon for example. In the summer, I obsess over watermelon. I don’t let my sensitive tongue get in the way, but now I have to eat it gingerly. Typical toothpaste feels like fire, so I use Biotene (which is sent from the Heavens, I’m convinced). In addition to my tongue troubles, my hands and feet are increasingly more sensitive. Remember when I had Hand and Foot Syndrome? This time around my skin hasn’t entirely fallen off, but my palms and soles consistently hurt. My feet more so than my hands, and that probably has to do with me being on them most of the time.

The fact is, I’m lucky to be alive. I’ve survived cancer four times. I’m alive and healthy. I’m able to participate in my life more than I have in the last few years. My troubles now are spilt milk. These side effects ain’t nothin’.

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1 Thessalonians 5:18 (ESV)

“Give thanks in all circumstances.”

 

Chemo Tips: 15 Ways To Make Treatment More Comfortable

When receiving the news that you or someone you love has cancer, life seems to slow down and speed up all at once. Doctor’s appointments are made, surgeries are scheduled, and treatment plans are discussed. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and anxious with the amount of information being catapulted your way. Navigating the road ahead can feel next to impossible.

Upon my diagnosis, I felt utterly lost. Life was changing rapidly before my eyes and I felt unprepared for what was to come. My doctors and nurses assured me that if I had any questions I could ask them, however, I didn’t even know where to begin. What’s a port? Will chemotherapy hurt? Will I throw up and lose my hair? What happens next? The questions flooded my mind. When one was answered, another presented itself. A diagnosis is exhausting.

I’ve battled cancer for nearly four years, and have fought four separate battles against the disease. My treatment plans have all been different, and I have tried a multitude of chemotherapy drugs over the years. I’ll never forget the thoughts and feelings that cluttered my mind before my very first chemo. I didn’t know what to pack or what to expect. My resolution was to bring everything. I packed like I do for vacation, a lot of too much. In these past four fights against cancer, I’ve had nearly 55 chemotherapy treatments, 28 radiation sessions, and four major surgeries (not including port placement). I’ve become an expert at chemo cocktails and everything cancer. I’ve learned what to bring and what to keep at home. I’ve mastered the chemo bag, and am sharing my tips with you today. Below you’ll find tried and true tips and tricks to make your treatment more comfortable. This list, like every treatment plan itself, is customizable. Feel free to add or remove items from your own chemo bag as you see fit.

1. Wear comfortable clothes:  Chemotherapy takes time. Treatment ranges from one hour to eight and may involve overnight stays in the hospital. Wearing clothes that breathe and move with your body can make the difference during your wait. When you’re at home, do you prefer to wear business attire, or do you like to lounge in sweatpants? If the latter is true, wear your sweatpants to chemo. Be sure to keep your port accessible and wear clothing accordingly. V-neck shirts are a staple in infusion centers.

2. Wear socks and/or close-toed shoes:  Hospitals and treatment centers are notoriously cold. Though it may be summer and sandals may seem appropriate, the inside temperature will be much cooler. Wear comfortable, close-toed shoes and or slippers with a hard sole. If your feet prefer freedom, bring socks to change into just in case. The softer and more fuzzy the socks are, the better. Keep your toes happy, bundle them up.

3. Bring a warm blanket: For some reason, one of the most common gifts patients receive from loved ones after diagnosis are blankets. People must assume that having no hair means that we’re cold all of the time. Touché. They may be right. There’s something about cuddling up with a nice blanket that brings instant comfort. Bring your favorite blanket from your newly acquired collection and invite it to treatment. You’ll both be thankful. Call it your blanket buddy, and you’ll have its heart forever.

4. Stow your favorite snacks: You may find yourself getting the munchies during treatment. You may want to eat out of sheer boredom. Regardless of your reasoning, bring snacks. You may develop an aversion to hospital food and not want anything they have to offer. Customize your own menu according to what chemo cravings you have that day and bring your favorite items. Get creative and fun with your food. Take whatever your heart desires. Most infusion centers won’t have restrictions on what you bring for yourself. If you have something that could appeal to the masses, consider sharing. You’ll make more friends that way. Whatever you do, avoid tuna. Your new friends will thank you.

5. Pack water: Like a camel, quite literally pack loads of water. You’ll want to stay as hydrated as possible during chemo. Headaches are common occurrences during treatment, and many can be linked to a lack of hydration. You’re ingesting your chemo cocktails, but in order to avoid to a hardcore chemo hangover, fill your body with H2O. Water will help flush those nasty toxins through your body. And just when you think you’ve had enough, drink more.

6. Bring music: Make sure your headphones and iPod are tucked neatly in your carry-on. While some patients find the soft hum of the infusion machines relaxing, others find the incessant growling quite aggravating. You’ll never know which side you’re on until you’re face to face with the pole.

7. Bring a laptop: …Or iPad if you’re fancy. Browsing the interwebs from your phone will drain its battery quicker than you can say “chemotherapy.” If you have work to do, having your laptop is a great way to kill two birds with one stone. Though you may wake up the next day to discover you sent humorous emails to your boss, having your laptop during treatment can make the time go by faster. Most hospitals offer free wi-fi, so use it… you’re paying for it after all. Download Netflix to your iPad and catch up on the latest episodes of your favorite show. Make sure to pack a charger; The worst place to be is in treatment without one.

8. Bundle books or magazines: You can no longer use the excuse that you don’t have time. You now have plenty. Get busy reading! That stack of books sitting on the shelf that you’ve always wanted to read is crying out for attention. Crack open some pages and sink into the stories that will transport you away from the recliner in the infusion center. Not a book worm? Bring magazines and catch up on the latest celebrity drama, who’s dating who, and who wore it best.

9. Pack a journal: Cancer causes grief, and grief causes emotion. Instead of bottling up your feelings, pour them onto the pages of a journal. Let out your fears, anger, hopes, dreams, and prayers. Document your journey so one day you can look back and see how far you’ve come. If you can’t muster up words, resort to doodling. Everyone can use more practice in the doodle department.

10. Invite a friend: Pick your most favorite and have them tag along. Let them know you only choose the best friends to watch a thick needle stab your chest. Tell them that only the special ones get to see your alter ego, Chemo Queen. Let them know the requirements of sitting with you and that they must be a Positive Polly throughout the duration. Make sure they aren’t queasy and that they like to talk and listen. Conversations with friends can often ease the realities of chemotherapy.

11. Bring board games: …Or mind games like Sudoku if you’re up for the challenge. Some find that keeping their mind sharp during treatment helps alleviate chemo brain. And, who said chemo can’t be fun? Pass the time by playing games like Scrabble and Yahtzee. I’m sure your fellow cancer fighters would love to join in. Keep in mind that Candyland isn’t just for kids.

12. Stash the sweets: Having sugar-free hard candy at chemo can put a smile on anyones face. Dry mouth can be a side effect from treatment and having candy may alleviate your woes. Ginger candies are the two-in-one go to for many. While they fulfill the sweet tooth, they combat nausea as well. Lemon drops are also a fan favorite. Though the cocktail is quite refreshing, in this case, the candy is the healthier option. Mixing alcohol and chemo has never been a good idea.

13. Carry some chapstick: Your lips will feel like they’ve trekked through the Sahara desert in the middle of summer. You thought the inside of your mouth was dry? Just look at the outside of your mouth now. Certain chemotherapy drugs can cause not only mouth sores, but also chapped lips. Having chapstick at the ready like a sword in battle will help defeat the most cracked smile.

14. Bring your inspiration: #MotivationalMonday is popular because it works. Keeping your mind focused on positivity will help harness your mental strength during treatment. Write motivational sayings on index cards or in the journal you have stowed away. Note encouraging bible verses or quotes to reference when you need a little pep in your step. Everyone has bad days, it’s normal. Avoid the traps of despair by reminding yourself of the hope you have for your future. Sometimes reading, “You can do this,” is enough to fuel your mind for the moment.

15. Pack a designated driver: While this item will not likely fit in your bag unless you’ve chosen to bring a suitcase, bring someone who can take you to and from chemotherapy. After treatment, you’ll be exhausted. You’ll want to doze off into a cancer-free dream. More than likely you’ll be chock-full of medications that may make driving more than interesting. Two words: Intravenous Benadryl. Drugging and driving, just like chemo and cars never play well together. Be smart, get a chauffeur.

Psalm 16:8 (ESV)

“I have set the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.”

 

Milestones of the Miraculous

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Engrained in our spirit is the act of looking forward. From a young age we are encouraged to dream, imagine, and explore the exciting things the future has to offer. We are trained to set goals and achieve them. Children innately await the new adventures maturity will bring. Parents proudly prepare for their child’s first steps. Looking forward creates rousing anticipation of the opportunities that tomorrow may hold. We are consistently seeking what’s to come. The future is what we strive for.

There are distinct milestones that remain enveloped in our memory. Our typical landmarks may include graduations, marriage, children, home ownership, age achievements, career successes, weight loss, and financial accomplishments. Never have I encountered someone who has no intent for their future. No matter how big or small the goal is, we seemingly have them all of the time. Long term goals. Short term goals. Wishes, hopes, and dreams. They are synonymous to our existence.

Since cancer has entered my life, my goals have changed. The milestones I have reached are much deeper than my once superficial ideals. No longer do I crave the “next best thing.” No longer am I seeking superfluous nonsense that lacks ultimate fulfillment. The resounding similarity in the majority of my current goals is life itself. Once told I had less than a 20% chance of surviving the first year after my diagnosis, my goal was to beat that. Once told a recurrence would be difficult to make it through, my goal was to survive each time the cancer returned. Through each and every recurrence and subsequent treatment, my unsaid goal has been to achieve one year cancer-free. My goal is life. The one year mark has been my buoy. It’s been my north star while I’ve been lost in the wilderness. My lighthouse in the middle of a raging storm at sea. My compass when all sense of direction was lost. One year cancer-free has been a milestone I’ve desperately dreamed of reaching, but had never obtained.

One clear scan, praise God. Two clear scans, hallelujah. Three? Nope. Never have I experienced more than two clear scans in sequence. Cancer has always reminded me that it’s still here… Sometimes microscopic and sometimes maxing out at softball-sized girths. Reaching one year has become more than a milestone, it’s transformed into a miraculous feat. I’ve often thought, “It’s going to take a miracle for me to hit one year.” My latest scan brought more scanxiety than I have ever experienced. It was the scan I had never made it to. The one milestone I could never obtain. While sinking in the deep and dark abyss of the ocean, it was the buoy that I’ve always seen but couldn’t quite reach. Even though I’ve been fighting for three and half, one year has always seemed so far away… Simply a miraculous landmark.

I battled the inevitable in my head on repeat. I wanted to prolong the appointment’s arrival and fast-forward to the results all at once. Soon, I found myself walking into the doors of my home away from home. The hospital that housed my answers.

After redundantly checking the box that indicates I have cancer, ingesting the nauseating contrast, and waiting the long-winded forty-five minutes as my body soaks it up, my name is called. I try and smile naturally as I approach my technician. My heart races and I fear that she hears the pounding inside my chest. She’s sweet and gentle. She remembers me… They usually do. We joke as I need no introduction to the machine, and no further instruction on the process. I’m a pro, we both know that. I fumble to find a place for my purse. As usual, I then hand her my phone and pose in front of the device that quite literally sees right through me. She awkwardly takes a few snapshots and I ease her quiet questions by explaining the documentation of my journey. We share laughter out of polite necessity. I tell her my particular requests for a slower insertion of iodine, and lay on the cold, hard surface beneath the machine. My technician leaves the room. Everything the scan needs is fulfilled. I’m hooked up, laying still, and my heart begins to slow to a soft beat. A rhythmic tap of a drum, my heart is calm. My spirit is gently strengthened and prepared. No longer is it just the technician and I in the room. My hand is being held by someone neither of us can see.

The iodine slowly floods my body. The warmth is overwhelming and I instantly taste it in the back of my mouth. The machine starts to stir. Loud whirring begins to indicate the commencement of the scan, and soon I am being ushered underneath the spinning technology. The machine tells me to hold my breath for a few seconds, and then welcomes me to breathe once more. I’m praying inside. I know I don’t need to say much. “Please” is all I can utter into my spirit. The machine quiets, and slows to a hum. I’m brought out of the cylinder. My technician says, “All done,” and I thank her for being so helpful. I genuinely appreciate what she does day in and day out. For a split second, my eyes question hers. Has she seen my enemy inside of me once more or is she quietly rejoicing as she knows the results? The waiting begins. I’m looking forward.

After what always seems like months, I received the results. This time, I was back at the hospital in the middle of drug therapy. My infusion nurse, who has become a friend as she has walked me through every step of this journey, smiled as she shared the news. Tears fell from both of our eyes and I could no longer hold back the emotions that I had been guarding. I couldn’t believe it. Frankly, I still can’t.

I have officially reached my milestone! A milestone of the miraculous. One year ago on June 14th, my latest malignant tumor was removed from my body. I received more chemotherapy, and now, one year later, the cancer is still gone. There is no evidence of recurrent or metastatic disease in my body. I’m rejoicing, celebrating, and thanking God for His faithfulness. I’m cancer-free once more, and this time I’m breaking my own records. Now, I continue my drug therapy once every three weeks and recover. From here on out, each scan will be a milestone of the miraculous. I’m not only looking forward, I’m moving in that direction as well.

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Philippians 13:12-14 (MSG)

“I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”

 

 

 

 

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.”

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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…”

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