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Wig Wisdom: 10 Tips for Buying and Wearing

One of the first questions I asked after being told I had cancer was if I would lose my hair. I quickly processed the news that I would need a radical hysterectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, but couldn’t quite swallow the reality that I would lose my hair from treatment. Though I never quite appreciated my locks prior to cancer and would often complain about bad hair days, I now treasure each strand and am a firm believer that bad hair days simply do not exist.

They always say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone and let me tell you, they are right. Over the course of these last five years, I’ve lost my hair five times. I was bald for nearly three years straight as I fought cancer over and over again. I’ve worn hats, scarves, and wigs, and sometimes wouldn’t even bother. Because I had no prior experience with baldness, upon diagnosis, I had no clue what to expect. Not only did I feel unprepared to fight cancer, I felt utterly ill-equipped on how to cope with my hair loss. Where was I to start? What type of wig should I buy? Will it look real? Is it going to itch and make me hot? Should I try to match my hair color or try something new? Short or long? Bangs or no bangs? The growing list of uncertainty was overwhelming.

Chemotherapy induced hair loss is common for patients fighting cancer. Unfortunately, many of us have too little information on how to buy or wear hair pieces. This often leads to sadness, fear, and lowered self-esteem. We become afraid to be in public for fear that people will stare at us. We have nightmares of our wig flying off in a sudden gust of wind. We’re unsure if we should even invest in a wig or just stock up on hats and scarves. I tried it all. My scarf collection grew, and though I never enjoyed wearing hats, I soon bought many. I knew I wanted to feel as normal as possible while battling cancer, and felt that wigs may help my self image. Thus, I began my adventure into wig buying and wearing. I went to multiple wig shops, tried on various styles, colors, and hair types, and soon learned all about the wide open world of wigs. Because many of the popular questions I get asked are in regards to wigs, I’ve put together a comprehensive list of what to know before you buy. Below are my top 10 tips for both buying and wearing.

  1. Quality and Type: First, you’ll want to narrow down if you would like a synthetic or human hair wig. Synthetic wigs are made from pre-set fibers that allow the wig to maintain its style after washing. Waves, curls, and volume are set into the strands and remain throughout the life of the wig. Synthetic wigs are great for women who don’t want the fuss of having to style a hair piece. Most can be worn right out of the box. Though they offer ease, because of their pre-set fibers, they lack versatility. Don’t expect to be able to style your synthetic wig in a variety of ways. Human hair wigs are a more natural alternative and offer more customization than their synthetic counterpart by creating a beautifully natural appearance. Human hair wigs offer high versatility and can be cut, styled, and even colored based on your personal preference. Though the superior option, human hair wigs need to be regularly maintained. Expect to wash and style your human hair wig frequently (as you would your own hair) in order for it to last longer.
  2. Cut, Color, and Style: A benefit to wig wearing is the opportunity to try something new. Many women use this time to choose a wig that looks completely different than their natural hair, while others choose wigs based on their usual style. Hair pieces are made in a variety of lengths, and colors, so the possibilities are endless. From deep brunettes to vibrant reds and soft blondes, highlights and lowlights, and even natural grays, you are guaranteed to find the shade your looking for. Maybe you’ve always wondered if blondes really have more fun, now’s your chance to find out! Maybe you’ve been too nervous to cut your long hair into a short bob, or vice versa and have wanted to have long, cascading locks… Try something new! In addition, keep in mind skin tones can often change during treatment, tending to become more pale. Choosing a wig with warmer tones may help you look and feel brighter. If you prefer to find a perfect match between your natural hair and a wig, I suggest wig shopping before you lose your hair. This will allow you to do side by side comparisons and increase your chances of getting a more accurate match. Finally, don’t feel limited to buying one wig. Some women choose two to three wigs in order to change their style periodically.
  3. Customization: While synthetic wigs offer little to no customization, human hair wigs are extremely versatile and can be cut, colored, and styled to your preference. When purchasing your wig, ask yourself if you like it the way it is. If it’s synthetic, your answer should be yes. If it’s human hair, you will have the ability to adjust and customize. If you choose a human hair wig and would like to customize it to fit your needs, make sure you verify that your wig of choice allows for changes. Your wig retailer will be able to give you details about the specific hair type your wig has been made with. Always check with your wig retailer or manufacturer before customizing the color. Some human hair wigs are pre-dyed with low grade hair color that is not meant to be changed, while others are high quality and allow highlights or lowlights to be added. Most importantly, choose a wig with your preferred hair color. Adjusting the overall color from brunette to blonde or blonde to red may not be realistic. Because of their quality, human hair wigs are even more beautiful when trimmed to fit your face shape. Find a professional stylist who has wig styling experience, and ask them to trim your wig for a more tailored and personalized look.
  4. Accessorize: Where will you be storing your wig? Will you be traveling with it? Where will you style your wig? Both human hair and synthetic wigs require specific accessories. First, your wig will need a place to rest when you aren’t wearing it. This is called a wig stand. There are many different types of stands, from mannequin busts to metal tripods. Some are free standing, while others clasp to the end of a counter or tabletop. Mannequin and foam heads both help the wig to maintain its form in times when you aren’t wearing it. If you choose to purchase a head stand for your wig, you’ll need t-pins to hold it in place on the stand. If you are traveling with your wig, mannequin heads can oftentimes be too bulky to bring along, while metal tripods are great travel companions. Metal tripods don’t require t-pins, but often interfere with the set style of your wig by creating unwanted creases in your wig hair. They are perfect for travel but may not be your best choice for everyday use. In addition to a wig stand and t-pins, you will also need to purchase wig caps. These are breathable, thin caps that you place on your bare head prior to putting your wig on. These not only protect your scalp from the wefts of the wig, but create a grip for your wig to hold onto. Wig caps are made from a variety of materials, but a stocking cap is very popular because it’s thin and lightweight.
  5. Maintenance: Like all hair, wigs need upkeep. As previously mentioned, synthetic wigs require much less maintenance than human hair, but you will still need to take special care of each. Make sure you know what type of hair your wig is made from in order to know what products you will need to use. There are wig-specific shampoos and conditioners that will not only properly clean your wig hair, but also extend the life of your hair pieces. Do not use your typical cleansers and styling products on your wigs. This can weaken the bonds of the wig weft and may damage the hair itself. In addition, you will need a brush suitable for wigs rather than your regular brush and comb. Some women opt to take their wig to a professional stylist like they would their own hair for washing and styling. If you choose to maintain your wig yourself, be sure to know how to wash, brush, and style your wig beforehand.
  6. Try before you buy. Wigs are not one size fits all! Some have tighter wefts for smaller heads, while others have wider wefts for large heads. Most have adjustable straps woven into the weft for precise fit, but because of the grand variety of wig manufacturers, types, and styles, you will need to try before you buy. For instance, what may work for me may not be as flattering on you. Lace fronts look natural on some, but on others they never lay flat. Some wefts are itchy, while others are smooth and comfortable. Like you would a pair of shoes, try on wigs until you find your perfect match. A wig should feel comfortable on your head. Not too tight, but not loose enough to fall off if you shake your head from side to side. What may look like a long style on a wig stand may look shorter when worn on a human head. Never purchase a wig if you aren’t certain it’s going to fit correctly and feel comfortable.
  7. Retailers: A quick web search will bring up several sites for wig retailers. By following the above rule of “try before you buy,” you should find a local retailer in order to see, feel, and try on wigs before purchasing one. Most major cities have wig shops, just be sure to call ahead to learn if they carry both human hair and synthetic wigs. Quality wig shops will have private fitting rooms where you can try on a variety of styles discreetly. They should also have highly knowledgeable employees who are willing to help you with any questions or concerns you may have. Once you have tried on various wigs and have narrowed down what type you prefer, you can take note of the brand, style number, and color and possibly order for cheaper online. However, if you fall in love with a wig in store, it may not be worth the risk of hunting online for an identical one. Websites such as wigs.com and hairuwear.com are great online resources.
  8. Cost: The price difference between human hair and synthetic can be tremendous. When it comes to wigs, you truly get what you pay for. Higher quality wigs will cost more than their lower quality counterparts. Because of it’s desirable versatility and beautifully natural look, human hair wigs tend to be vastly more expensive than synthetic wigs. Human hair can cost between $700-$2500, depending on the length of the wig. They will, however, last more than a year with regular maintenance. Synthetic wigs can cost between $30-$500, but will only last up to six months. There are many factors to consider when purchasing a wig, including how long your chemotherapy will last and how long you are expecting to be without hair. If your treatment extends beyond six months, a human hair wig may be a better investment, whereas if you will only experience hair loss for a few months, a synthetic wig might be the preferred choice. Regardless of whether you choose human hair or synthetic, know that purchasing a wig is always an investment. This is something you will be wearing several times a week, if not daily. *Insider tip: Call your insurance provider and ask if they cover the cost of a “cranial prosthesis.” In some cases, insurance companies will offer full or partial reimbursement for the cost of a wig.
  9. Have fun! Shopping for and purchasing a wig can be overwhelming, but it can still be an enjoyable experience. If you’re like me, you’ll encounter a wide range of emotions while searching for the right wig. While I did cry grieving the loss of my treasured locks, I also laughed throughout the shopping process. Allow yourself to be silly and light-hearted. Be adventurous. Try on different styles, lengths, and colors. Step out of your comfort zone. A cancer diagnosis is a heavy burden to carry, and shopping for a wig can be the cherry on your proverbial mud pie, but it doesn’t have to be miserable. Invite your close girlfriends and/or family members and make a day out of it. Start by scheduling a manicure and pedicure, then grab lunch and cocktails before heading to the wig shop. Laughter can be the best cure for an otherwise somber occasion.
  10. My personal favorites: I’ve tested and tried many wigs and have found favorites along the way. I know what works best for me and is most flattering and comfortable. A good wig should be so well camouflaged that everyone assumes it’s your natural hair and, through trial and error, I’ve found just that. Please note that these are not sponsored products, they are simply my personal must-haves. My favorite wig manufacturer is Raquel Welch. I own two — One blonde and one brunette. Both shoulder length. She produces high quality, natural looking human hair and synthetic wigs. They tend to be more costly, but are worth every penny. You can find Raquel Welch wigs at hairuwear.com. In addition, as far as accessories go, I prefer a mannequin head and clamp stand for everyday storing and styling use, and a metal tripod for travel. I’ve also found that stocking caps are more comfortable and lightweight than cotton ones. Remember, what worked for me may not work for you.

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Proverbs 3:15 (ESV)

“She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.”

When You Become The Miracle

“Do you think I’m going to die?” I remember asking my mom this question four years ago during the first season of my battle against cancer. I was huddled under a blanket, sick, bald, and fearing death was upon me. My mother’s response was powerful and though I didn’t realize it then, quite prophetic.

“Stephanie, I know that we’re all going to die. I’m not sure if that’s what you’re really asking me, though. I think you’re asking if I think you’re going to die from cancer, and my honest answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ I do know that there always has to be the first… In a long line of terminal cases, there has to be one person who beats the statistic.”

She went on to share how two of her friends had passed away twenty years ago from breast cancer and, had they been diagnosed today, may have survived. Medicine has drastically advanced from decades ago and diagnoses that were once deemed terminal are now curable.

“Doctors and researchers finally found a treatment that worked, and there was a first woman who survived breast cancer. I think the same could be true in your case. Someone always has to be the first. Why couldn’t it be you?

Little did she know, many people (friends, family, and strangers) believed this for me as well. Oftentimes, God gives affirmations through the words of those who surround us. Quickly it became my mantra, my north star, my fight song. Statistics are just numbers, and I am more than a number. I can be the first. I will be the first.

Fast forward to my latest appointment two weeks ago. After receiving a scan that showed an 8mm spot on my lung, my hopes and dreams of surviving beyond the small numbers that I was given were quickly fading away. I then had to wait six weeks before receiving a PET scan to determine what the spot was. Two weeks ago, sitting in a sterile exam room, my husband and I learned my fate.

Displaying an enthusiastic smile, my doctor opened the door and quickly announced, “You’re all good!” Because I had prepared myself for news quite contrary to this, I questioned what he meant. “What does all good mean?!” He handed Matt the report and proceeded to tell us that whatever spot was on my lung was now gone and that the rest of my entire body was absolutely free and clear of disease.

And with that, I continue to beat the statistics!

Though in the beginning of my fight(s) against this disease I adamantly refused to know numbers, I now carry them proudly. I’m inching closer and closer to the five year mark when I can officially be deemed “in remission,” and I crave the numbers. The statistics for surviving my stage and type of cancer are astounding, so knowing them gives me fuel to stand up against my enemy.

The smaller the number, the bigger the miracle. Sometimes I think we are called to face Goliath in order for God’s power, goodness, and mercy to be brightly displayed for all to see. God performs “smaller” miracles that we tend to overlook because we don’t see them fitting our grandiose idea of impossible. So sometimes, I think we are burdened with a giant so big that our rescue becomes louder than we could possibly share ourselves. God is mighty to save. Through tears, I know this to be true.

In order for me to fully comprehend that, I need the numbers. I don’t share with proud disregard to many of you facing your own Goliath. I don’t share to set myself apart. I don’t share these statistics to boast in what I have done, but rather what God has. By giving these numbers a platform, my hope is that you can grasp the faith that I’m not the only one. See, I may be the first, but you may be too.

I shouldn’t be here. Many of you know that I was given a less than 20% chance to survive the first year. Meaning, it wasn’t likely that I would make it to 2013. After hearing the clear report two weeks ago, I asked my doctor for numbers. I needed the statistics. I needed to see, hear, taste, feel, and know the miracle. By rough and quick guesstimation, my oncologist shared that I am one in fifty million. Y’all (for perspective’s sake), according to the 2015 census, there are 8,550,405 people in New York City. To think that I am one in over five and a half NYC’s is mind blowing. A miracle on a grand scale.

In addition, there are only 10-15 cases in the database of the English speaking world that share my diagnosis. Among them, my oncologist (the leading researcher and expert of this type of cancer), has only three patients with large cell neuroendocrine cervical cancer.

Some of you may be like I was in the beginning of my battle, not wanting to know statistics. Not wanting to know the numbers that you are up against. That’s okay. I don’t encourage you to find out, because I was there. I get it. Had I known my likelihood of survival four years ago, I would have been crippled with fear. I may have given up. And some of you know your own statistics. You need to see your enemy in order to better fight it. You go girl. However, regardless of where you’re at in your journey, know that you are more than just a number.

If you’re wondering if you’re going to die, I want to answer that. The truth is yes, we’re all going to die. And though I don’t know if it will be from cancer, I do know that you can be the first. The smaller the number, the bigger the miracle.

Fight on.

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Psalm 77:14 (ESV)

“You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the people.”

Paying Tribute: Caribou Coffee Gives Thanks to Caregivers

Caribou Coffee

A cancer diagnosis never affects just the person afflicted with the disease. Though the doctor found a malignant tumor growing inside of me, she might as well have told my husband that he had one growing inside of him as well. Cancer is never a battle fought alone.

Through multiple surgeries and treatments, recurrences, and cancer-free scans, my husband has stood firmly by my side in every moment. He has courageously taken the role as my caregiver, and has sacrificially offered to help with my countless needs. While I rested in hospital recliners receiving treatments, Matt sat on the uncomfortable chairs beside me without complaint. When I was weak and pitifully sick, he would assure me and rub my back in comfort. When I have moments of depression and can’t battle fearful thoughts, he encourages and prays for me. He shaved his head when I lost my hair so I wouldn’t feel alone. At my weakest, my husband mustered up strength and bravery to help me through. Matt has been and continues to be my knight in shining armor, my caregiver.

Caregivers simply aren’t given the credit they deserve. Too often, they are overlooked — their importance shadowed. When sickness plagues, the patient receives encouragement, well wishes, and prayers. When cancer is gone, the patient is congratulated. Yet, cancer is never a battle fought alone. This is a disease that is defeated with a team, and quite often the caregiver plays the most vital role. Caregivers are burdened with the weight of a diagnosis as much as, if not more than, the patient themselves. They stay strong when we are weak. They are the listening ears and the sound boards when we need to vent, and cry, and grieve. Caregivers are our heroes and guardians. The ones who willingly choose to stand on the front lines with us. So, the next time you show support for someone battling cancer, thank their caregivers as well. Honor the ones standing next to us in our fight, for they too are deserving of gratitude.

This year, Caribou Coffee is launching a community video project in partnership with Tribute.co to pay tribute and thank caregivers everywhere. For the past 21 years, Caribou has supported Breast Cancer Awareness in memory of their original Roastmaster, Amy Erikson, who lost her battle with cancer in 1995. Part of their effort is to recognize the caregiver as the often unsung hero in the cancer battle. Launched in 2013 as an innovative technology for showing gratitude, Tribute.co is an online web application that makes it easy to organize a group, collect videos, and create a beautiful collaborative video montage.

For each video submitted on the #CaribouTribute page throughout October, Caribou will donate $5 to CancerCare as part of their overall $250,000 contribution to the national nonprofit organization. Caribou is also donating 10% of Amy’s Blend coffee and merchandise sales throughout the month of October. Amy’s Blend coffee comes out every Fall in honor of Amy in two blends — the vibrant and sweet original blend and the fuller body Dark Roast.

If you’re like me, you love coffee and caregivers. As not only a cancer survivor, but as someone who simply couldn’t have survived cancer without a caregiver, I encourage you to participate in this special opportunity during the month of October. Drink Amy’s Blend and record your very own Tribute video for a caregiver you love, respect, and admire. I also encourage you to view my Tribute video where I thank my amazing caregiver, my husband Matt. Also take a moment to view other tributes here, they are inspiring and heartfelt — A beautiful display of gratitude to caregivers everywhere. Let’s show our caregivers how grateful we are for the love, sacrifice, and care they give to us! Record your tribute today!

Caribou Coffee Tribute

This blog post was sponsored by Caribou Coffee.

The Struggle is Real (Really)

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Sometimes hope is hard to find. Smiles aren’t always easy to come by. Happiness is fleeting. Sometimes even the best intentions are squashed. Days envelop in worry, fear, and regret. Nights end in tears. Thoughts can trick you, emotions can be your worst enemy. Optimism can be an elusive ghost. Sometimes dark clouds roll in, bringing thunderous roars and floods that rain on your parade. Choosing joy can be an exhausting and tumultuous battle. Sometimes the “whys” and “what ifs” outweigh understanding. Sometimes purpose eludes us.

A few weeks ago, I found myself crumpled on the floor heaving burdened sobs into the quietness of our closet. This particular Saturday started as many weekends often do, full of possibilities, adventure… and laundry. The sun was out (per usual for a Texas summer) and the birds might as well have been chirping if they weren’t so dang hot. My husband and I had regained the glorious sleep that our work weeks stole from us and we faced no agenda, no errands, and no stress. I knew it was going to be a great day. I just knew it.

Yet somehow, no matter my intentions of enjoying this beautiful Saturday, something overcame me. My tone became rude, my words short, and I could feel a temper flaring up. Like a dragon from within, I snapped at Matt. Snipping and snapping at… nothing. My meaningless and unjustifiable frustrations bellowed. I can only imagine what he thought as I continued on my whining streak. Soon, I even began wondering what the big fuss was about. Why was I upset? What’s going on? Not long thereafter, as it always does, the real reason burst forth.

“CANCER HURT ME! IT TORE MY LIFE APART. I HATE WHAT IT HAS DONE TO ME. TO MY BODY. TO MY THOUGHTS. TO MY FUTURE. TO OUR LIFE.”

Each word sharp, searing truth. I meant them, and I still do. I hate what has happened because of cancer. This isn’t the life that I wanted. This isn’t my fairytale. I’d be lying to say that joy and hope and faith and happiness is boundless and everlasting.

You often don’t see my journey to hope and joy. You read only the wisdom that I glean from the trenches of my grief. You hear the thoughts after they’ve been processed, the pain after it’s started to heal, and the loss that has already found hope. I must let you in on a little secret, though. Sometimes finding hope is downright miserable, and sometimes impossible. My life isn’t as triumphant and victorious as some may think. I struggle. Often, quietly, I wrestle with the realities of what I now face on the other side of cancer. Not yet 30 and menopausal. A body that no longer feels like my own. Barren, infertile, and childless. Broken and scarred. Deeply wounded and downright sad.

I hate pity parties, but sometimes we just need to be the “hostest with the mostest.” I try my hardest to trudge through, to find hope and hold onto it. I try to reach for gratitude for I know it has the ability to overcome anguish, but sometimes I fail. And it’s not fair for me to only show you the finish line. Understanding what it takes to get there is where community, empathy, and growth happens. I can’t let you think that where you’re at is uncommon. If you’re depressed and forlorn, you’re not alone.

The truth is, I miss my life before cancer. The wounds are so fresh that I still cry at the thought of what once was. A blissful, yet naive marriage. Grandiose dreams that really felt attainable. The world, our life — a fresh palette of the most vibrant colors ready to be whimsically painted onto a clean canvas.

I wish cancer didn’t pick me, though I’m grateful for the gifts that came with it. I wish God didn’t choose me, yet I know my calling was found in this chaos. I was supposed to live with the security and assumption that my life would be long. We were supposed to live out our dreams. After marriage, I was supposed to get pregnant. We were supposed to land those dream jobs and have the ability to buy our dream home. Our savings account would grow to thousands, not diminish to pennies. I’m mad that it didn’t go that way. I’m hurt, and angry, and disappointed.

I don’t want cancer. I never wanted cancer. I wish it was different, somehow. To be honest, there are moments when I wonder if any of this was worth fighting so hard for. The scars, the infertility, the remnants of emotional and physical pain, the grief. But would I really change it? No. I’d fight for it all again, because life is worth living, no matter how painful it may be. It’s only with eyes towards Heaven that I can grasp a minuscule understanding of my life here on earth.

You see, God often deposits resounding truths in my trenches. He allows me to feel the depths of despair with tear-stained cheeks and profound sorrow in order to see with greater understanding and empathy. Into the dark places, I feel the weight of it all. The gut-wrenching pain of tremendous loss. The burden of shattered dreams. It’s in the trenches where I find hope. Hope is not found when life is beautiful and grand, but when there is nothing left to hold onto. We must sit in the dark, quiet, muck of the trenches in order to discover the light.

Psalm 34:18 (ESV)

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.

Moving Forward Regardless

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Looking down at the file in hand, he reads aloud, “It looks like the report says that there’s an eight millimeter spot on the bottom of your right lung.”

Silence. Though there are four of us in the room, nothing can be heard but the crinkling of the paper on the blue examination chair as I shift my weight. Suddenly the room grows smaller.

“We’ll need to send this over to our imaging team so they can explain further. Sometimes different technicians read results differently than others,” my doctor shares, noticeably attempting to maintain positivity.

My words are trapped. I desperately cling to hope, but with each breath it’s dwindling. Thoughts racing, I can’t seem to organize a simple sentence. The news hits me so violently, my breathing becomes labored. The wind is knocked out of me and I’m struggling to make sense of the force behind this reality.

All of a sudden, the questions begin to flood my mind. Each one determined to be asked first. They claw their way to the forefront of my brain, spilling out in jumbled words as my mouth involuntarily opens. “What does that mean? Is it cancer? It’s not cancer, right? How big is eight millimeters? You said it’s on my left lung or my right lung? On the bottom? Are you sure? But all of my scans for the last 26 months have been clear. How can this be?”

With more grace than I could ever muster, he shares, “This report says it’s non-specific, so let’s try not to panic. Let’s stay positive. We’ll need a few minutes to pass this by our imaging team. They’ll be able to give us more details. Maybe the technician that wrote this report was mistaken.” The door closes as my doctor and his PA leave the room in search of answers.

It’s just my husband and I now. We look at each other in disbelief. Our eyes speak while our lips cannot. The furrow in my husband’s brow tells me that he is confused, scared, and in shock. My eyes jolt to every corner of the room, frantically seeking explanation. I look back at him in astonishment and defeat. What is happening? I’m convinced this must be a bad dream and that I’ll soon wake up to find relief. But it is not a bad dream. It’s real. And it is in fact happening. Soon, my strong, compassionate, empathetic guardian of a man encourages me as only he can. “We have to have hope that it’s nothing. The doctor says this spot could simply be an infection in your lung that your body is fighting off. He says this could happen to any of us. It could be nothing. It may not be cancer.” Oh how I love him each time he speaks hope over my fear. His words are a salve to the fresh wound of this news.

Confusion lingers between us as we wait for my doctor to return. I valiantly fight back tears as I quickly map out the what ifs. I have climbed to the top of the ladder of worst case scenarios and tell myself ultimately, if I die, it’s okay. I’m going to heaven. But Lord, please take care of my husband. I step down one rung and quietly think to myself that if it is cancer, I know how to fight it. And I’ll do whatever I have to. With each step down the ladder, I consciously choose hope above all else. My breathing slows. My fidgeting lessens. Calm is just around the corner. I’ve addressed the worst of the worst, and there’s no need to go there again. I bring myself back to the moment and take a deep breath. “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow has it’s own worries.”

The door opens, and I’m standing now. Give it to me, Doc. I want the answer. I need to know. “Unfortunately we don’t know anything more. Our team confirms that there is a non-specific spot. It’s too small to even biopsy. I know you wanted answers. I wish I could give them to you. I’m so sorry. This isn’t how I thought this would go.” Me neither. Me neither. My mind rewound to the beginning of the day. We woke up early, before the sun. For hours, we drove to what we fully expected would be celebratory news. We tossed ideas back and forth about which restaurant we’d celebrate at after we learned the results. Yet, here we were, without those results, left with more questions than we had when we first arrived.

The rest of the appointment is a blur. I know I asked a million more questions, several of them rhetorical. I know we agreed to do a follow up PET scan in six to eight weeks to monitor this spot on my lung in order to see if it grows or becomes more visibly malignant or benign. According to my doctor, if this is an infection, it may resolve itself on its own and may not even appear on my follow-up scan. We can only hope. I know my doctor was patient as I asked what treatment would look like if the spot proved malignant. Consultations with a thoracic surgeon to see if the spot could be removed. Possible chemotherapy. “We just don’t know yet,” I remember him saying.

One of the most profound moments of the day has set the tone for these proceeding weeks as we wait for my upcoming scan, and proves the importance of proper bedside manner. As my appointment wrapped up, and the four of us turned for the door, I hugged my doctor. He whispered in my ear, and thinking of it brings me to tears just like it did in that very moment. “You are strong. You can do this.” Having a doctor who believes in and encourages you while understanding your fear and uncertainty is a game changer. Cancer is fought with a team. Strength builds with unity.

So here we are now. Two weeks out from learning that I have an unidentifiable spot on my lung, and less than four weeks away from my upcoming PET scan that will hopefully identify said spot. While it may not seem like it, there are many choices to be made when fighting this disease. Joy is a choice. Strength is a choice. Peace is a choice. Hope is a choice. Faith is a choice. When facing cancer, these choices are excruciatingly difficult at times, and they can also be fleeting. In the car on the way home, through tears, my husband and I decided that we would choose hope. We would fight back the fear and doubt, and focus instead on our faith. We would try not to waste our energy on worrying, because worrying is a quick ticket to stolen joy.

If this spot is not cancer, we move forward. If this spot is cancer, we move forward. We will move forward regardless of the outcome. We are called to be courageous in the face of death. We are called to be brave in the presence of fear. We are called to walk firmly in faith when doubt tempts us. We are called to choose joy above all else. And with each day that passes, we move forward with our choices made.

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.”

PC: K Mitiska Photography

Cancer: A Family Affair (Part 5 – Conclusion)

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Written by Matt, Stephanie’s husband, guardian, and steadfast calm in her biggest storm.

When I first heard that Stephanie had cancer, it wasn’t through Facebook. It wasn’t through word of mouth or even a phone call. I learned the news at the same time she did, because I was by her side, sitting in the chair next to hers at the doctor’s office. I was there.

Hearing the news made my stomach drop to the floor. Instantly, I became aware of a shortness of breath. I can only compare it to getting hit incredibly hard. You don’t feel pain at first, but you know it’s coming, and you know it’s really going to suck. Talking to the doctor, getting connected with oncologists and radiologists and getting meetings set up was the initial, “let’s deal with this” shock.

Then we got back to the car. That’s when the wave of pain hit.

Was this real life? Did that just happen? My mom had just died four months earlier, was my wife going to die next? Then what happens to me? I never told Stephanie at the time, but in my head I immediately went to the worst-case scenario. I went there once, and never went back. From then on, we had to live in the reality of the moment, but also make positive strides each day. So onward was the course. Even if you’re baby-stepping, make sure you baby-step forward.

Cancer is a literal hurricane that rips through every aspect of what your life was. Whatever plans we had for the future we had to let go of. We had to stay low to the ground and choose to not let it sweep us away. While shattered pieces of our dreams of having kids and buying a house swirled around us, cancer wouldn’t take us. Stay low to the ground and move forward, but find shelter.

The good news is that we did have a storm shelter, so to speak. It’s God. It’s still God. It’ll never stop being God. He’s our refuge. Get there, stay there. We found comfort in knowing Jesus as our Savior, and knowing that He was protecting us the whole time. We knew He wasn’t done with us, and that He’d use this situation for good. When people think of Jesus, they may think of someone who lived a long time ago and preached love and peace, laughing with children and holding lambs from time to time. That He was perfect. So perfect in fact that some don’t think He was ever real at all.

But people don’t see the whole picture. Jesus didn’t hide emotions. He cried over losing those He cared about. And He got angry, flipping over tables and yelling at people. While still God, He was also human and felt what we feel. And few see Jesus as the warrior He is and will come back as. The whole good vs. evil thing that plagues our world — He is the good. He was and continues to be our good. I shake my head and am brought to tears when I think of what would have happened if we didn’t know Him through the entirety of our journey through cancer. There’s a chance we’d be divorced. Steph could be dead. I could be dead.

Cancer sucks. But it galvanized our marriage. It gut-checked us. When we got married, we said vows to each other, but at the time never truly considered facing situations that would force us to “put up or shut up.” At diagnosis, we chose to “put up” and live out those vows. Because that’s what marriage is. It’s not surface-level rainbows and butterflies. It’s ugly and dirty and downright hard. But when you muck through the trenches with God as your anchor, the payoff is better than anything you could ever imagine. After all, we’re now in Austin, five years after God put the promise in our hearts when cancer wasn’t even on the radar. We still have dreams of family and buying a house someday, but those dreams look different than they did before.

This journey has also taught me to live a bolder life. Frankly, I used to be the type to think that if things didn’t work out in my favor, and if they didn’t work out perfectly, they weren’t meant to be. In the past few months I’ve stepped out and done things that the old Matt would call me absolutely insane for doing. But I’m glad I’m doing them, and I’m in a far better spot because of it. Swing hard, and swing for the fences. No one comes to the plate hoping to hit a weak grounder back to the pitcher. Taking chances and falling on your face is a guarantee, so you might as well make the falls worth it. Take big chances and bet on yourself.

Finally, invest in people. Take the good that life gives you, be the good you want to see, and do good for others. Take good, be good, do good. There’s nothing to be gained in the pursuit of vanity. “The good stuff” is in people, not things. Life isn’t a guarantee, and days don’t repeat themselves. January 25, 2012 happened once. August 31, 2016 happens once. Life ebbs and flows and is as unpredictable as the forecast of a Colorado weatherman. At the end of the day, what matters isn’t your status, intelligence, or bank account. It’s people. Growing old together may not be a guarantee, but the effect you have on others is. Make your life count for good.

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John 1:5 (ESV)

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Cancer: A Family Affair (Part 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Psalm 90:12 (ESV)

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

Cancer: A Family Affair (Part 3)

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Written by Denise, Stephanie’s mother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Romans 8:26-28 (MSG)

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

Cancer: A Family Affair (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John 16:33 (ESV)

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

Cancer: A Family Affair (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 13:7 (ESV)

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

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