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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.”

The Financial Burden of Young Adult Cancer

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

I’ve endured thousands of needle pricks, undergone painful surgeries, and have withstood innumerable grueling treatments. I’ve been sick, bald, weak, over-medicated, under-medicated, poked, prodded, pained, and simply desperate for life. I’ve been triumphant, encouraged, accomplished, fortunate, blessed, and hopeful. I’ve gained insight, wisdom, and more medical knowledge than I could have ever imagined. My perspective has flourished and evolved. I have found a depth of joy that many never will. I’ve grieved loss. I’ve suffered hardship. I’ve authentically experienced mortality. I’ve overcome. I am brave and strong and alive. Yet among those things, I am also overwhelmingly burdened.

I survived cancer, but my bank account did not.

What many never mention in the beginning of your battle is that cancer is expensive. Not designer purse expensive. Not home mortgage expensive. Not even dream vacation expensive. Cancer is life-saving expensive. And frankly, before you’re thrust into the fight of your life, you can’t fathom what expensive really means.

Before diagnosis, my husband and I were newlyweds building up our savings account. We both worked full-time jobs and lived comfortably enough to enjoy frequent date nights and yearly vacations. We were building our nest egg with dreams of purchasing our first home and expanding our family. We paid our bills on time and lived with financial peace. But then cancer happened, and soon our nest egg dwindled to mere pennies.

Surgeries, treatments, and hospital visits began invading our monthly calendar. Our mailbox began filling up with bills from surgeons, anesthesiologists, technicians, physicians, and oncologists. And what we first felt was manageable soon became overwhelming. Not only did we need to process our emotions and feelings about me being diagnosed with an extremely rare and aggressive cancer at only 25 years old, but we also needed to process how we would pay for it all. What would our insurance cover? Are these doctors in-network? How much is our copay? Have we met our deductible yet? What are the tax implications for this?

The big question was, “Can we afford to save my life?”

Soon, I had to quit working. My first surgery was a radical hysterectomy in which I was horizontally cut open from one hip to the other; to say I was in pain would be an exaggerated understatement. My initial tumor happened to be deeply embedded in my pelvis. Post-procedure, I was sore, aching, and miserable. The first surgery resulted in a week-long hospital stay. I couldn’t walk up or down the stairs for nearly two months. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t even sit comfortably. Therefore, working my full-time job was no longer feasible. Part-time became impossible as well. We became dependent on my husband’s income and, for a short time, had to move back home to live with my family.

Since then, I’ve had three recurrences. Each fight against cancer has involved surgery and treatment. And each surgery and treatment must be paid for. In total, I’ve received four major surgeries (each involving week-long hospital stays), 55 chemotherapies, 28 consecutive radiation treatments, a port placement procedure, blood transfusions, emergency room visits, innumerable prescription medications, doctor’s visits, and CT/PET scans. Each one came with a pricetag. Cancer has literally taken us to the bank.

My husband and I have learned that life doesn’t stop when cancer begins. Rent, electricity, cable and internet, trash, car insurance, phone bills, student loans, and more needed to be paid. So we began to compartmentalize. Survival here. Payment there. We found a basket to store medical bills in until we gathered up enough courage to go through them. We found ourselves transferring money from savings until our savings account dried up. With the help of our loving family and friends, fundraisers were held and money was raised to assist us. And though prior to cancer, receiving a $10,000 check would seem like a large sum of money, it soon barely put a chip in our medical debt.

Surviving cancer as a married person who can rely on their spouse for an income has been taxing, yet there are thousands of single young adults fighting for their lives without any means to pay for it. At 29, a friend of mine was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. She was single, active, employed, financially stable, and living on her own. Yet, like many upon diagnosis, she quickly learned that she could not afford her increasing bills. She soon had to move back in with her family and sublet her apartment. Without money to pay for her cost of everyday living, she began to heavily rely on her credit card. Within three years, she was thousands of dollars in debt and hadn’t even paid a single medical bill. It’s a story that is all too common for many YA survivors.

YA’s with cancer are not only fighting for their lives, but they are being buried in medical debt. Having to decide whether to purchase weekly groceries or pay a recent chemotherapy bill is not a decision anyone should have to make. Even when treatment ends and a young adult is declared cancer-free, the burden of debt often remains for years to come.

I’ve been out of treatment for one year, and the bills continue to flow in. I’ve developed a fear of voicemails and unknown callers, and when my phone rings, my heart grows heavy. The reality is, like many of my fellow survivors, several of our medical bills have now gone to collection agencies and they persistently call us in hopes that we can reconcile them. My husband and I have paid thousands and thousands of dollars, and still have thousands more to go. We have found the light at the end of the tunnel and are slowly but surely recovering from cancer. The financial burden, though still present, is growing lighter.

It may sound crazy, but we’d do it all over again. We simply cannot put a pricetag on my life. And you shouldn’t either. The bills will come and the money will go. Life is too precious to be seen through the lens of a dollar sign.

“Romans 8:28 (ESV)

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

*Photo: Flickr

10 Ways To Be Better Not Bitter

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Life has a way of throwing curveballs. We’re all recipients of unwanted detours, closed doors, and unfortunate circumstances. In fact, I once heard that if you feel good about where you’re at and what you’re doing, be prepared, because it’s all about to come crashing down. I’d say that while it’s a rather fatalistic viewpoint, there is some truth to it. Life isn’t easy and it never will be. We all have seasons of greatness where everything seems to be going right, when stars align and favor shines down on us. But likewise, we each experience tragedy that seems to strike at all the wrong moments. Death, divorce, accidents, sickness. We’re all susceptible to unforeseen affliction. It’s not about avoiding or denying misfortune, it’s about being prepared for it. It’s about allowing tragedy to make us better and not bitter.

My husband and I were married on a beautiful, sunny day in June. We had a blissful romance. Our first date lasted for 9 hours and, by the second date, I knew I would marry him. We laughed, loved, and enjoyed each other. We might as well have had a Disney soundtrack playing behind us as we moved into our first home, spent many nights cooking together, and lived a fulfilling and abundant life. Then, right as we were gaining our newlywed momentum and forging our way as us against the world, life hit. 19 months after we shared our “I Do’s”, I was diagnosed with cancer and given a less than 20% chance to survive. Our curveball came barreling into our white-picket existence and we were left facing a tragedy of the highest magnitude.

It would be easy to be bitter after everything that’s happened since our wedding day in 2010. It would be natural to be bitter after the loss we’ve endured. It would be expected that bitterness would reside in our hearts after all of this time. But facing the end of your life will teach you something. And what we learned is that we have a choice to make in our struggle. We can become better or bitter, but we can’t have both. Be intentional about where your heart rests. Bitterness is sneaky and creeps in at the first drop of your guard. Here are 10 practical ways to be better instead of bitter.

  1. Choose Joy. And I’m not talking about happiness. There’s a distinct difference between the two. Happiness is an outward expression while joy is an inward decision. Happiness is a reaction to what’s going on around us. Joy is a conscious choice that no matter what happens, you will rise above. Choosing joy will transform the way you live. It will allow you to see beyond your circumstance to what really matters.
  2. Grieve, But Get Back Up. Grief is a normal response to a tragic situation. It’s okay to cry, scream, and get angry. It’s okay to eat an entire pint of ice cream to drown away your sorrows. Grief is healthy. Be sad. Be upset. Be hurt. But don’t stay there. Walk through those feelings, but make sure you continue to walk. Giving up in the middle of grief can swallow you whole. When you’ve finished your ice cream, set the spoon down. Holding onto grief can paralyze your process. If you want things to get better, feel it and follow through.
  3. Pick Your Friends Wisely. Some friends serendipitously fall into our lives while others are hard-earned. Remember, you are who you surround yourself with. If Bitter Betty is your bestie, her bitterness will most definitely rub off on you. Be mindful of how your friends make you feel. If they bring you down, cut them off. The same goes for certain family members. If you have a sibling/parent/cousin/etc that can’t stop crying over the spilt milk, step away. Find relationships that speak life into your circumstance. Everyone needs Positive Polly as a friend.
  4. Keep The Faith. No matter your religion or beliefs, have faith. Faith that it is going to get easier. Faith that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Without belief in something, there can’t be a belief in anything. My faith in God rescued me from bitterness. He is my strength when I have none. He will make a way where there is no way. Have faith that where you are now is not where you will always be.
  5. Have Hope. Similar to faith, we must never lose hope. Hopelessness is a breeding ground for bitterness. Those who give up hope often fester in bitterness until the very end. When everything else fades away, hope will be your anchor. When catastrophe comes, hope will be the gentle salve that heals your wounds. Hope gives us a future perspective and allows us to grow through our trials.
  6. Be Intentional. Don’t drift. Complacency leads to dissatisfaction and resentment. Without intent we become victims. We fall prey to our tragedy. A victim mentality is a guarantee for bitterness. Every curveball has limitations, but living without intent allows our challenges to overpower every area. Maintain some level of normalcy and be intentional about how you spend your days. Sitting on the couch is a recipe for disaster during life’s battles. We rarely have the choice of what challenges we will face, but we do have the choice on how we will respond. Being intentional is a sure-fire way to take your power back.
  7. Find The Lesson. Though it may be the proverbial needle in a haystack, you can find lessons in your tragedy. I’m not referring to reason why the tragedy happened, but rather the wisdom you can glean from it. Every struggle can teach you something. My fight against cancer has completely changed my life. There are many disappointments that have resulted from my diagnosis, yet, because I’ve searched for the lessons, I’ve become a better person. I’ve learned more during my lowest points than I ever have in my highest.
  8. Count Your Blessings. It’s easy to focus on the negative in the middle of misfortune. Remember that life hasn’t always been and won’t always be difficult. We all have reasons to be thankful. Focusing on the positive things in your life will shield you against bitterness. Blessings block bitterness. It’s as simple as that.
  9. Get Healthy. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We all feel better when we feel better. When physically weak, get emotionally strong. When emotionally weak, go to the gym and grow those muscles! Pay attention to what you’re putting into your body. Eat what gives you life. Though few want to cook healthy meals and would rather opt for quicker and easier options when life gets hard, making healthier choices will pave the way towards a better life. Treat your body kindly, it’s the only one you get.
  10. Help Others. Your tragedy gives you insight into what others may be experiencing. Be what you needed when you were thrown a curveball for someone else. Serving others gives us an outward perspective and allows us to see life for more than what it may feel like in difficult seasons. There will always be someone else who has it worse. Reaching out and lending a helping hand betters not only you, but the one you’re serving.

Hebrews 12:15 (MSG)

“Make sure no one gets left out of God’s generosity. Keep a sharp eye out for weeds of bitter discontent.”

Finding Fertility as a Young Adult Cancer Survivor

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

“I’m sorry to tell you, it’s cancer. You will need an emergency hysterectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation.” With one fell swoop, my life, dreams, and plans dramatically changed. Not only did I learn that I had cancer, but also that my chances of bearing children were erased.

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 mom or gentle and patient like their dad? 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. OB/GYNs for oncologists. Ultrasounds for PET scans. Mom bobs for bald heads. Baby showers for fundraisers. Dirty diapers for hospital bed catheters. Pint-sized outfits for hospital gowns. Pregnancy pains for surgery recovery. Labor and delivery for a radical hysterectomy. Motherhood for survival.

Shortly after my diagnosis and prior to my hysterectomy, we met with a fertility specialist. We learned about preserving fertility and what that could look like for us if we chose to walk that path. She versed us on the difference between surrogacy and gestational carriers, and taught us what an IVF journey looks like. We spoke about harvesting eggs, creating embryos, and freezing them for future use. We learned that not only could we adopt children, we could also adopt embryos. Our fertility doctor shared organizations that financially covered the cost of IVF for cancer patients. The immense knowledge that we learned in that first meeting not only gave us peace, comfort, and understanding, but also left us incredibly overwhelmed. How would we even begin to figure out what to do?

Because of the aggressive nature of my type of cancer, we were given a short amount of time to decide which route we would take. In fact, in our case, we had one hour to make the most life-impacting decisions one can make. Diagnosed on a Wednesday, by Friday we needed to have a game plan. The reason our decision needed to be made so quickly was due in part to the fact that the following Monday I would either be going into surgery, or beginning the four week process of harvesting my eggs. The single most terrifying and stressful moment thus far has been figuring out what path to walk.

Would we move forward with our fertility specialist and begin the process of harvesting my eggs in order to create embryos that someday would become our biological children, or would we choose surgery with my oncologist, saving my life but reducing the chances of creating a biological family? Ultimately, after endless tears, prayers of desperation, and emotional pain, my husband and I reached a conclusion. The priority was my life, and regardless of if our children were biological or adopted, they would need a healthy mother. The following week I underwent a radical hysterectomy.

They say hindsight is always 20/20 and I agree. After further testing of my tumor, we learned that my diagnosis was much more critical than we initially thought. I was given less than a 20% chance of surviving the first year. The type of cancer I was fighting was hormonal and in order to harvest eggs, I would have needed to be on daily hormone injections. We cringe at the thought of what might have happened had we chosen that path. I would likely not be here today.

The reality is, every young adult with cancer faces a multitude of decisions including matters of fertility. Many are fortunate enough to have doctors inform us of our choices before making final decisions that may inhibit fertility in the future. However, too often young adults are not made aware of the finality some treatments may cause for their dreams of having biological children once they enter remission. A cancer diagnosis brings fear, and many treatment plans are decided under pressure and fear of survival without consideration of the lifelong ramifications of rushed decisions. Before making treatment decisions, young adults need to feel comfortable with the full scope of what life during treatment and life after cancer will look like with each option.

Each diagnosis is different than the next. Therefore, each treatment journey looks different as well. Depending on what type of cancer, the location of the malignancy, staging, and necessary treatment, preserving fertility should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. My decision may not be the same as yours, and that’s okay. Young adults should be aware of every option before reaching a conclusion for their fertility. Not only is there IVF, harvesting and preserving embryos, but should the route of forgoing chances of a biological family be chosen (or required), one must know that that does not close the door on hopes of a future family. There are several options for family planning, and the choices continue to expand in number as our advances in the medical community continue to grow.

My husband and I have always wanted to adopt, and once we grieved the loss of a biological family, we knew that my diagnosis was affirmation of that path. However, we feared that due to my medical history, we would be disqualified from adoption. I’ve lost my ability to conceive and carry a child, would I now lose the ability to even adopt one? After further investigation and a handful of helpful adoption advocates and agencies, we have learned that my diagnosis will not affect our chances of adopting. In fact, though we are only in the beginning stages of our adoption journey, we have seen several friends, who are young adult cancer survivors, with beautiful, successful adoption stories.

Though a young adult may not be ready for children yet, they should be well informed of their options before making crucial decisions. This is where our oncologists, fertility specialists, and advocates play a significant role. A cancer diagnosis can be emotionally paralyzing — a fog that causes decision making to feel impossible. Medical professionals have an important duty to walk alongside us, advocating for our future. It is imperative that oncologists and fertility specialists view our fertility and family planning as if it were their own.

Most young adults are unaware of the multitude of family planning options that exist in the medical community, but with the help of caring doctors, finding fertility can be a much less daunting task. There is hope for finding fertility and family planning as a young adult diagnosed with cancer.

Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV)

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

4 Years Later

It feels like yesterday that I first heard the most powerful three little words, “You have cancer.” In reality, it was exactly 1,460 days ago. On this very day, four years ago, our lives changed forever. My husband and I have been reflecting over that moment and the years that have followed and we are blown away. Blown away that cancer is a part of our story now. Blown away that I’ve survived. Blown away that our marriage is stronger than ever. Blown away at the beautiful story that has emerged through the vast wreckage.

Four years and two days ago, on Monday, January 23rd 2012, I went in for my annual women’s wellness exam. I found a different OB/GYN in hopes that a new doctor would be able to answer all of my questions. I had been experiencing symptoms for a year and they were growing in severity. Over the course of those twelve months, I visited more doctors than I can count in an attempt to figure out what was wrong with my body. I had blood draws, pelvic exams, and ultrasounds, yet they all came back clear. There were many days that I would return home, a 25 year old newlywed, and cry to my husband that I thought I was going crazy. How could I not be when all of my doctors were telling me that I was okay? I knew something was wrong. I could feel it. I could sense it. And I had an urging that I simply could not ignore. That Monday, the answers to my questions began to be revealed through a generous doctor that was determined to help.

I laid on the examination table with my feet in the stirrups as my new doctor went through a normal exam and pap smear. Within minutes, she said, “Oh. Hmmm.” Typically, a response you don’t want to hear from a medical professional, I was relieved. After asking if she noticed something, she let me know that she could visibly see what she initially thought to be a fibroid on my cervix. Would this explain the bleeding, stomach pain, irregular menses, bloating, weight gain, unusual cramps, hair thinning, and more? While taking two biopsies from different areas of the mass, she said that fibroids could cause numerous symptoms and that this could be the answer. The exam was over and she stepped out of the room while I got dressed. I remember exactly what I wore that day. My doctor asked me to return in a week, the following Monday so she could give me the results from the colposcopies.

Four years and one day ago, on Tuesday, January 24th 2012 (the day after my exam), I received a call from my OB/GYN’s assistant. I didn’t recognize the number, so I allowed it to go to voicemail. The message on the other end raised more questions and I was left shaking and confused. “Hi Stephanie. The doctor received results from your biopsy and asks that you come in tomorrow on your lunch break so that she can discuss results. Also, please bring your husband so we can talk about treatment.” Click. I called my husband and shared the news. My doctor let me know during my exam that fibroids may need to be removed surgically. Maybe the treatment they were referring to would be surgery. Though I had never experienced surgery besides my wisdom teeth removal, I felt like I could handle it. Remove the fibroid and carry on with life. No big deal.

That night I shared my worst fear with my husband. “What if it’s cancer?” He promptly cut me off and said, “We don’t say that word until and unless that’s what it is.” I laid awake that night grappling with the multitude of scenarios the results may hold. Ectopic pregnancy? Though highly unlikely due to our paranoid contraceptive plan (condoms and birth control), maybe. Fibroid? Still likely. Cancer? I can’t get cancer. I don’t want to lose my hair. I’m only twenty-five. That doesn’t happen to young adults. Finally I fell asleep, and everything up unto my appointment became a blur.

Four years ago, and depending on what time zone you’re in while reading this, almost to the minute, Matt and I walked into my doctor’s office. I remember being extremely sensitive to everyone’s stares. It felt like the entire office knew the results and that we were the only ones walking through the fog of the unknown. I was nervous but ready. We didn’t have to sit in the lobby for more than one minute before we were ushered into a room. It might have been the exact room where I was two days prior, but I can’t remember. Strangely enough, that detail has slipped from my memory. We sat down. I can describe the room. A wall with a large window was behind us. An exam table in front and to the left. Cabinets and sink to the right. Though it felt like an eternity of waiting for my OB/GYN, she entered the room in probably less than five minutes. She was pregnant with answers. I could see it on her face, though she maintained a friendly and professional demeanor. She sat down on a rolling stool with my medical file in her lap. With a somber smile she shared, “Stephanie, we received the results from the colposcopy. I’m sorry to tell you that it’s cancer.”

I’ve heard several people share what that moment was like for them. Some fall to the floor overwhelmed by grief. Some quietly shed a few tears. Some instantly choose denial. I simply responded with, “Okay, now what do we do? What are the next steps?” She had already scheduled an appointment the following day with my gynecologic oncologist and sadly shared that I would need a hysterectomy and chemotherapy. More news flooded from her mouth as we soaked it all in. Soon she was quiet. I can’t imagine being in her position. Having to tell someone that they have cancer is unfathomable to me. What strength and kindness you must have, knowing that your patient will forever remember that moment. I stood up and asked if I could give her a hug. I caught her off guard with my response to the news. I didn’t cry. I simply wanted to hug her for she was the one, in a handful of others, who helped me find an answer. She saved my life that day. We embraced and I whispered in her ear, “You’re my angel. Thank you for helping me.”

Matt and I sat in the parking lot in our car that clear, beautiful, mild winter’s day in Colorado. We barely spoke. The quiet was comforting. Soft words escaped our lips as we sat in disbelief. “I can’t believe I have cancer.” I was thankful for an answer to the symptoms that had been plaguing me, but was fearful of what was to come. We held hands. We had no idea what our future looked like. We were overwhelmed at the intensity of our new situation. The only person that I knew who had cancer had died. I didn’t want that to be me. I was young, barely twenty-five. We hadn’t had children yet, and I was facing an irreversible decision… a hysterectomy. A monster had ripped through our perfectly canvassed life and threatened to take it all away.

To say that it has been an easy four years would be a blatantly disrespectful, untrue, and a highly exaggerated lie. These last four years have been, by far, the most difficult, challenging, and scary years of our lives. I was diagnosed with an extremely rare and aggressive cancer called large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma of the cervix and was given a less than 20% chance of surviving that first year. We’ve experienced a depth of heartache that many will never face. We’ve felt immense pain, walked through tidal waves of grief, and desperately fought for the light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve been kicked down and beaten up by this disease, yet have chosen to stand up and turn the other cheek. We’ve stared death in the eyes and proclaimed victory over my diagnosis. We’ve turned our eyes to the One who can offer peace, hope, and true help.

Looking back over the most intense season of our lives, I can say I am thankful. Though four years ago I was afraid, unsure, and defeated, four years later, I am fearless, certain, and victorious. It’s now four years later, and I’ve undergone four major surgeries, three recurrences, 55 chemotherapy treatments, 28 radiation sessions, and I’m ALIVE. Cancer has forever altered my life, yet only because I’ve found true joy in my suffering, am I grateful.

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Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end: they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

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