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Losing hair in an already difficult situation is like rubbing salt in an open wound. As if struggling to survive each day through treatments, medications, and poisonous elixirs isn’t enough, going through it bald is the proverbial cherry on top.
When I first lost my hair, I was unsure about venturing out into the public without something covering my smooth, hairless scalp. I remember the first time I stepped out of the house sporting my new look. As freeing as it felt, I also noticed the amount of unwanted stares I began to receive. The questions, curiosities, and expressions of pity in the eyes of strangers were tangible. I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed, but most of all, I was vulnerable. At times I wanted to boldly announce, “I have cancer, alright? Stop staring at me!”
I’ve been baldalicious for the greater part of two years, and have now learned to view it differently than I did in the beginning. My perspective has changed and a pride has emerged in the once desolate space of vulnerability. I am proud to be bald because being bald means I am a survivor. Being bald means I am still here. Still fighting. Still alive! Instead of viewing myself as a patient, I view myself as a strong warrior. Now, when out in public without a wig, I walk with my head high. I have nothing to be embarrassed about. Nothing to hide.
One month after my final chemotherapy treatment, I developed a longing to document my beautiful baldness. As illustrated as my journey has been, there was one thing missing — a gallery highlighting my bald head. I wanted my badge of honor on display, in a way that highlighted the fierce survivorship that I so often feel.
As usual, God’s timing is always perfect; Recently I was invited to be the subject in a photo shoot. After discussing my vision for the session, Kimberly met my husband and I at a park and we got to work. I was inspired to showcase the beauty in baldness, and brought along a headpiece that I put together. This photo shoot was such a special, intimate, and celebratory moment in time. Kimberly is a phenomenal photographer, warm and friendly face, and develops an atmosphere of comfort that is so needed in a shoot like this one. What she produced stunned me. She captured my vision to a “t,” and I will forever be grateful to have visual representations of the beauty in my baldness. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Bald should be celebrated, not hidden away in embarrassment. If you are bald from the effects of your courageous fight through cancer, embrace it! It is your badge of honor. You are beautiful! After all, we are survivors … our bald heads say so.
Isaiah 12:5 (MSG)
“Sing praise-songs to God. He’s done it all! Let the whole earth know what he’s done!”
PHOTO CREDIT: KIMBERLY MITISKA PHOTOGRAPHY
When I was first diagnosed, several friends and family informed me of a non-traditional method of healing cancer. This modality involved a strictly fruit and vegetable juice diet. My husband and I watched half of the 1970′s documentary before cynically shutting it off. We didn’t truly understand the message behind it as it seemed more like a “Save the Seals” advertising campaign than a juicing documentary.
People often come out of the wood work with the latest and greatest trends on how to beat the disease when cancer barges into the picture. I’ve shared about cancer etiquette, and among the list of things not to do when a loved one gets diagnosed is advising us of what treatment we should or should not choose. Every cancer patient is different, and different things work for different people.
Not until Matt and I were surfing the queue on Netflix, did the topic of juicing ever come up again. Over one year ago, we came across a documentary called, “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.” We watched it a couple of times and enjoyed it, but never once thought we could actually achieve what Joe Cross himself did. Without giving a play-by-play run-through of the film, I can tell you that the story is about an unhealthy and overweight man embarking on a journey to self-healing without the use of prescriptions, chemicals, quick fixes, or doctors. He committed to a simple juice diet. With a juicer in tow, and a never-ending supply of God’s beautiful creation, he began juicing. Each and every meal consisted of fresh fruits and vegetables pushed through a machine to extract the utmost nutrients. He committed to this way of life for 60 consecutive days, and his results were astounding. Do yourself a favor and watch it.
Matt and I recently came across Joe’s film again and dared ourselves to try it. We aren’t overweight or unusually unhealthy. I’ve been a vegetarian for seven years — only recently adding fish to my plate every so often. I don’t drink soda, and stay away from caffeine completely. My vice will forever be a nice fluffy carbohydrate. I can’t get enough. But unfortunately, that’s true for all of us — carbs aren’t filling. They are evil little things that tempt even the strongest of wills.
I ended my third season of grueling chemotherapy less than two months ago, but as usual, my body takes a while to get back into the groove of things once treatment is over. It has been fighting for survival amidst a constant stream of poison for the greater part of two years, after all. I’m not simply focused on losing weight. My goal is to cleanse my body of the toxins that have been streaming through it. To rejuvenate and resuscitate the insides of this machine. We are only given one body on Earth, and it’s up to us to treat it well. It was time to clean out the old and welcome the new.
Before we knew it, our dare led us to become the owners of a gorgeous Breville juicer, and we stocked up on more fruits and veggies than we had ever seen outside of a market. Matt and I decided on a five-day juice cleanse and visited the recommended website to catch up on all the must-knows. We gathered recipes and posted them to the fridge, and before we knew it, we were ready.
Unsure of our very first juice. (March 2014)
Our first official juice cleanse began three days ago, and I am already amazed at how I feel. I’ll admit the first green juice we drank made me gag. It was a combination of flavors that I wasn’t accustomed to. Yet, my husband and I continued on, and I’m thankful that we did. I just finished my “dinner,” and feel satisfied and full. On the menu for tonight was kale, green apple, lemon, celery, spinach, and parsley. It was delicious. After drinking a few of our homemade concoctions, my energy was soaring. Even today, completing the third day of our juice fast leaves me feeling accomplished.
This cleanse hasn’t been smooth sailing from the start, however. The first day was the hardest. It just didn’t seem right to not chew my food, and only drink it through a straw. I experienced cravings, and I couldn’t watch TV. Do you realize how many food commercials we see every time we sit down to watch the tube? It’s ridiculous. Pinterest began to taunt me with its endless recipes, and I’ve had to avoid and ignore it. Pretty soon I was acclimated and no longer experienced unhealthy cravings. Don’t get me wrong, I still have cravings. Right now, I’d love to bite into one of the juicy apples resting on the kitchen counter, but the unhealthy desires have been curbed.
Soon we begin day four of our five-day juice fast, and I’m already beginning to play with the idea of continuing beyond our original plan. I’m feeling strong, energetic, and clear-headed. I have no desire to lounge around, and find myself brainstorming what projects can be done in the house. I’m sleeping better than I have since receiving my cancer diagnosis over two years ago. Typically I have to take melatonin right before bed in order to fall asleep and stay asleep, yet I have stopped taking it, and have slept better these past two nights than ever before. I’m officially a believer in juicing.
We’ve got two more days to go and endless amounts of kale and spinach to ingest, but with every day that passes, I find myself feeling healthier. My body is rejuvenating, and I am hopeful, excited, and happy.
Kale, Celery, Cucumber, Green Apple, Lemon, Ginger
1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
(As appeared in The Huffington Post on 3/26/2014)
Yesterday, I came across an article. It’s a story that gripped me and had me feeling both triumphantly exuberant and downright disappointed. This story is about a little girl who has lost her hair in her ongoing fight against cancer, her friend who decided to stand beside her, and a school who punished them for it. The school chose to send the friend home, because her shaved head violated school dress code policy.
Delaney Clements is a strong 11-year-old girl fighting neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer that develops in nerve cells. Kamryn Renfro is her 9-year-old friend who clearly has a heart of gold and more character than most at her age. Due to her chemotherapy treatments, Delaney has lost her hair. She is baldalicious and exudes such joy with her smile. Recently, Kamryn chose to shave her head as a way to stand by her friend in support. As a way to offer encouragement and to let Delaney know she was not alone. Kamryn made the decision to support her friend, against all odds and no matter the sacrifice.
This act of bravery from such a young girl is extraordinary. How many of us can say that we would do the same?
What happened next left me feeling disappointed and shocked. The school felt that Kamryn’s act of kindness, friendship, and support went against their dress code policy. They informed Kamryn’s family that she would not be allowed to attend school until her hair grew back, or until she arrived wearing a wig. Apparently, her bald head distracted other students. However, was it a negative distraction? I don’t think so. If anything, their fellow peers were given a rare opportunity to see what love really is. This act of solidarity could have been used as a teaching moment. A lesson that could not be explained with flash cards or times tables.
Our world needs to be distracted more often. Our eyes need to be taken away from the meaningless and be redirected to the meaningful. Sometimes lessons cannot be taught through a textbook.
The media has shared this story over and over again, yet the core message seems to get muddled. The debate of whether or not hair should matter in school should not be the focus. This message is not about a girl with a shaved head. This message is about what one girl did for her friend. In an interview, Kamryn stated, “It felt like the right thing to do.” And Delaney responded by saying, “It made me feel very special and that I’m not alone.”
Having lost my hair several times over from the slew of cancer treatments I’ve received over the last two years, I understand what it feels like to be bald. It can be isolating and scary. Many don’t realize the amount of value we place on our hair until we no longer have it. Being bald has often left me feeling vulnerable and different. Being bald is a physical reminder of the battle for survival. I am nearly 20 years older than Delaney, and can’t even fathom what she has had to go through at such a young age.
By punishing Kamryn for her act of kindness, this school has sent a large message. While I understand the importance of rules and regulations in schools, the administration carelessly looked over the benefits of this situation, and reacted improperly. Children should not be punished for doing the right thing. We should instill values into our youth, so that when they grow older, they will treat others with compassion and care. Do we want our children to remember moments like this as an example of what is not allowed, or rather an example of what it means to love? Acts of kindness should not be rebuked.
What Kamryn did for Delaney should not be punished. What she did should be praised. She responded to an urging of compassion in her heart by extending support to another. She stepped out in courage and bravery to do what not many would. She symbolically held her friend’s hand and let her know she was not alone. And I applaud her.
Thank you Kamryn for rallying by your friend and showing her support and encouragement. Thank you for showing her that she is not alone and doesn’t have to be the only one who looks different. Thank you for your courageous spirit and your brave response.
Thank you, Delaney, for your strength and courage. Thank you for showing the world that bald is beautiful. Thank you for inspiring those of us who are fellow fighters and survivors. Thank you for your contagious smile and bravery.
Kamryn and Delaney have defined what courage, friendship, and bravery really mean. Today, I stand with Delaney and Kamryn, and urge you to do the same.
Bald is beautiful.
Update: After all the media attention on the story, the school has since reversed its decision.
Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not status. Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, “How can I help?”
There comes a moment in every cancer survivors life when we realize our hair has returned. My moment was this morning.
After answering emails, continuing the laundry, and catching up on Real Housewives (a guilty pleasure … forgive me), I stepped into the shower. Over the course of these past two years, there are more times than I can recall when I’ve been without hair, and a few fleeting occasions when my locks have made a debut. This past season has been spent as hairless as a naked mole rat. Therefore, showers are quick. It never ceases to amaze my husband how speedily I can take a shower. You’d think we were on water rations or something.
“Are you sure you’re done? That was fast!”
“Yes, I’m sure. I have no hair. Remember? All I have to do is wash my body.”
And it’s the truth. I can get in and out of a shower within 5 minutes. I have no legs to shave, no hair to shampoo and condition. My sole duty is to get clean. I’d be lying to say I didn’t enjoy not having to time my morning ritual around how long my shower will take. Oh, the benefits of being follicularly challenged!
As I stepped out of the shower, dried off, and stepped into my wardrobe for the day, I noticed a shadow under my arms. It caused me great pause, as I was unsure what was lurking underneath my biceps. Lifting my hand to the sky, I peered at my underarm. What did I spy with my little eye? Hair! The softest hint had sprouted from an area that had been naked for so long. My first thought was, “Wow. It’s back. I’m officially done with treatment. Now I need to brush up on my shaving skills!”
Hair is a silly little thing we often take for granted. Women are constantly irritated with their manes — fussing, fixing and complaining that it’s not long enough, not short enough, not curly enough, or not straight enough. We buy the latest and greatest products to manipulate it to do things only God Himself could accomplish. We specifically tell our stylists we only want our dead-ends trimmed, and no length to be removed. We try new styles, new cuts, and experiment with how much volume we can achieve. We wax our bodies from head to toe – plucking, primping, and priming our skin to be as smooth as possible. No matter what woman I talk to, we all have a never-ending love-hate relationship with our tresses.
Every time I’ve lost my hair has been different. My first season through treatment two years ago took everything but my eyebrows and eyelashes. My second season, I lost nearly everything right away, but still managed to have two spots on my scalp that maintained about twenty hairs each. As aforementioned, this season I remind myself of a naked mole rat. Bald, pale, and if not for my hot flashes, cold. Because of the changing of each season, I’m never quite sure what to expect my locks to do. Will they all grow back in at the same time? Will my hair be thicker and more luxurious? Will its color and texture change?
The hair on my head has slowly but surely begun to make its debut. About three weeks ago, I noticed a little garden growing up there. Tiny sprouts had begun to make their voyage above the surface, and I was elated. Hair continues to be a reminder that I am no longer in treatment, and that brings me a happiness that I can’t even begin to describe. The second I spot newly established tresses, I make certain that I shampoo and condition it every single day. It’s hair. No matter that it’s one tenth of an inch long, it deserves to be treated as though it reaches my shoulders. I can officially say my showers have expanded from around five minutes to nearly seven.
After discovering what my underarms had been hiding from me, I began to hunt for more. This hair hunting expedition had me laughing to myself, alone in my bathroom. The joy that came from finding more and more pooled up in me, until it overwhelmed my thoughts with the acknowledgement, that I, once again am cancer-free. I looked closely at my face and noticed itty bitty strands making an appearance at my brow line. My lashes have even joined the party and are tap dancing across the edges of my eyelids. Soon, I was touching my legs, inspecting every square inch, gleefully observing hundreds of hairs revealing themselves to me.
I officially have hair again. It’s not much, but it’s here. It’s back. And it has returned with a vengeance. I remember the first time my hair reappeared. My poor, poor legs. It was as if I was a newly pubescent teenager, all over again. Nicks and scratches up and down each leg, and quite a few bandaids to mask my amateur attempt at shaving. I’m excited to brush up on my shaving skills once again, and pretty soon, I’ll go from novice to professional. I’m praying this hair is here to stay, and that it will forever take the place of the one who tried to steal it away.
I suppose it’s time to stock up on razors. I anticipate my shower to be much longer tomorrow, as I’ve got some shaving to do. For today, though, I will enjoy these beautiful reminders that I am alive and cancer-free.
6.5 weeks from last chemotherapy (3/14)
Isaiah 43:18-21 (MSG)
“Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands.”
(As appeared in The Huffington Post on 3/13/14)
I’m breaking up with you. There are no negotiations that can be made. No argument strong enough, no comeback able to change my mind. This is the end. I’m over you.
To be honest, I never liked you in the first place.
Our two-year relationship has been tumultuous, to say the least. We’ve had ups and downs. Breakups and forced reconciliation. There have been moments where no matter how hard I pushed you out of my life, you came slithering back in with your malicious intent. No matter how many locked doors and concrete walls I built, you somehow found your way back to me.
You came barging into my life, with no regard for myself or anyone around me. I didn’t have a choice. I was swiftly blindsided as you swept through me. Without a second to think, I was forced, pushed, and manipulated. You stole my most precious dreams. You trampled on my plans. You never cared. You’ve always been a narcissistic, sneaky, and reckless coward.
This arrangement has been toxic from the start. It hasn’t been good for either of us. From the second you entered my world, I’ve been mastering ways to get rid of you. I’ve gathered a team so great and powerful, the realm of our advances is mightier than your imagination. And likewise, you have conjured up tactical attacks on me. Let’s take a look at the facts. I’ve invited poison to flow through my veins, hunting you down with every curve of my vascularity. I’ve laid alone in a room while fiery lasers aim their beams on you, shooting up everything in the place you want to call home. I have been sliced open over and over, physically removing you from the premises. You’ve even gained a few souvenirs, organs that I so desperately wanted to use.
Yet, it was never enough. You still tried to slink back in. You spineless jerk.
You are selfish. You’re ego is so large, it infects the world. You are shameless and careless. All you’ve given me is grief, pain, and suffering. I’m not even your one and only. You’re a cheat. You force your way into the lives of thousands of other innocent victims. Yet, none of us want you. That must be lonely. At what point will you get the hint?
The three times that you have barged into my life, you’ve seemed to have forgotten that someone already lives here. This residence is already claimed. There is no room for you in this inn. You tiptoe your way into dark closets and hide out, waiting for the perfect opportunity to settle in. Yet, don’t you realize you are always found? This is not your average game of hide and seek.
Shoo fly, don’t bother me.
Though you have proven yourself strong and determined, you’re not smart. You repeat your strategies, only changing the location of attack. All brawn and no brain. Silly. Immature. A bully lacking care and thought. Don’t you know that I’ve got eyes on every inch of me? You’ll never get by unnoticed. You’ll never survive with me.
You have always been unwelcome, however, through your contrived presence, I have grown. I’ve gleaned experience and my character has developed. Though I abhor you, these past two years have taught me so much — about the world I live in. About relationships. About loyalty, trust, and security. About faith, joy, and never-ending hope. Because of you, I hold my loved ones closer. Because of you, I pray, believe, and act more intently. Because of you, I am stronger. Because of you, “perseverance” and “determination” have taken on deeper meanings. Because of you, I have discovered my purpose in life.
This relationship doesn’t work. We’re over. I don’t appreciate you. You don’t appreciate me. We’re toxic for one another. Your plan has backfired righteously. Your malevolent intentions have now transformed into benevolent outcomes. You simply cannot win, because I will not lose.
And, have you forgotten? I’m already married. Two is company … three’s a crowd. Don’t come crawling back this time. Be gone for good. I’ve lost your number, after all.
With triumph, happiness, and pleasure,
Luke 10:19 (ESV)
“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.”
Cancer-free once again! (February 2014)
Scans are routine in my life now. In fact, I can’t remember the days when I didn’t have to lay in some form of a machine that took pictures of my internal happenings. When I’m not in treatment, I receive a CT scan every three months to ensure that my body is free and clear of cancer. When I’m actively fighting this disease, I must wait until the completion of treatment to get another scan. Since I recently finished my latest adventures in chemotherapy, it was that time again. About two weeks ago, I laid on a tiny hard table for the umpteenth time as a fast and loud spinning donut somehow created an image of the inside of my body.
Typically, my phone rings anywhere from one day to an entire week after my scan. In terms of a waiting period, that window is very large. There are times when I receive results within hours, and other times where the days crawl by and I don’t hear back for a week. I’ve often referred to the anxiety that comes from awaiting scan results as scanxiety; However, the more scans and tests I have done, the better I am at not worrying over the results.
As John Mayer sings in The Age of Worry-
“Alive in the age of worry
Smile in the age of worry
Go wild in the age of worry
And say, ‘Worry, why should I care?’”
I’ve learned that worrying doesn’t accomplish anything, and it will never change any result I may receive. Worrying is a waste of time, emotion, and energy. Worrying is pointless.
These past two years have been a trial of great magnitude. And while I’ve experienced a depth of grief and loss I never could have imagined and wouldn’t dream of wishing on anyone, there have been numerous blessings dispersed along the way. Experience is our most effective teaching tool, and among the many lessons I’ve learned throughout my voyage, surrender has been the biggest one of all. Not only surrendering my plans and dreams, but also surrendering my thoughts and emotions. Understanding the true meaning of surrender has been one of the biggest gifts I’ve gained in this series of unfortunate events.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, surrender simply means, “to give the control to someone else.”
I am not one to surrender. I am a Type-A personality. I am a planner, an organizer, a keep-her-ducks-in-a-row woman. I have a tangible schedule, in which I physically write and record the many daily, weekly, and monthly events going on in the ever-adventurous life of the Madsens. When Matt and I were first married almost four years ago, we had our five-year plan set in stone. We knew when we were going to have children, where and when we would move, and how we would achieve our short and long-term goals. Everything was planned. We had it under control. Little did we know what our first five years would actually bring.
Though the majority of our plans have been wiped off the canvas of our life, new creations have replaced the old. Losing what we had dreamt about for so long was devastating. We continue to grieve the loss of what we imagined our life to be. However, at some point in this journey, we were given a choice. Do we grasp for remnants of what we had desperately wanted for our life, or do we instead surrender our plans, dreams, hopes, and goals, and place the control in God’s hands? Making the decision to choose the latter has forever changed our perspective. Giving the reigns to someone far more capable of directing our lives has removed burden and responsibility. After all, if I was in full control of my life, I know I would screw it up righteously.
Worry is an emotion. A verb. A tangled web of feelings and actions. Worry is an enemy that lures us into a trap and once we are overtaken, it takes hold of our every thought. It tempts us with pity-parties that seem much more fun than they turn out to be. It sneaks around every long-awaited result, and silently slips into our minds if we don’t keep a relentless guard. Yet, as with all temptations, we are called to surrender our worry to God. Surrendering worry leads to freedom.
Though I wish I could say that I surrender all of my worries without fail, it’s not true. I slip up. I let my guard down, and worry slips into my mind, corrupting everything within me. Fortunately for us, the world we live in offers us many opportunities to practice our ability to surrender. We will always face troubles and areas where worry could easily be a chosen response. One of the regular opportunities that I have to practice my ability to surrender my worries occurs every three months. Before, during, and after each scan I am reminded that in order to live freely, I must surrender my worries of the impending results. I’ve learned that no matter how much I worry, I cannot control the outcome of my scans. Worrying has proven time and time again to have zero effect on results. What worrying truly affects is my spirit.
Because I surrendered my worry about my latest scan results, I experienced a freedom and peace that I haven’t quite felt before. As I awaited the life-changing phone call, my thoughts were on other things. I wasn’t fixated on the possibilities. I wasn’t anxious. I wasn’t fearful. I was confident in the One I surrendered to, knowing His plans are always far greater than my own. No matter if cancer had returned once more or if I was officially rid of this beast, I wasn’t concerned. I had the kind of peace that passes all understanding, and a freedom birthed from my surrender.
Worrying will never change the circumstance. Worrying will only affect our spirit. I’m thankful that my spirit was guarded, for it allowed me to better appreciate the results I received last week. I can happily share that I am cancer-FREE! Had I chosen to worry, my joy might have been robbed in the moment I heard the wonderful news.
Surrendering is difficult for this “I’ve got life all figured out” chick, but it’s so worth it. Freedom feels good. Worry, why should I care?
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.”
Many outside of Cancerland think that once treatment is over, life continues again as if nothing ever happened. That we get to press the universal play button and proceed on our merry little way.
The reality is, life is never the same after cancer.
My life’s road map became forever altered upon the very moment I was diagnosed. There were many times after clear scans that I had the choice to revert back to my old life. I could go back to old jobs. Pursue prior dreams. Slip back into the routine of a life I once felt comforted by. Yet doing so always felt wrong. Like a butterfly trying to fit back into it’s cocoon. A place once full of great comfort and safety — though I could slide right back into it, my once upon a time haven would never be the same.
I am different than I was two years ago. Through the adventure of cancer, God has changed me. I have been stretched, broken, molded, and reformed. I see life through much larger lenses, and I appreciate moments that tended to slip by unnoticed in seasons past. My relationships have been altered. My character has been chiseled and refined. I am far more sensitive of what compassion and empathy really mean. I have suffered great loss, and have experienced overwhelming gain. I have been blessed abundantly. My body has been sliced open and stitched shut several times over. Organs have been removed and where there was once smooth soft skin, jagged scars remain.
I am no longer the Stephanie I was prior to my diagnosis. She was shed long ago, and the new me has matured. Why then should I force myself into her old shoes?
Through illness, new adventures, unexpected tragedy, job relocations, children, marriage, divorce, the passing of a loved one, or a cancer diagnosis, our experiences help mold us. We mature. We grow. We transform. The day we are living today is far different than the day we lived yesterday. Why then do we continually try to relive our past? Why then do we continually reach for something that has expired, as if the expiration was not the end of a chapter, but rather a revolving door?
Too often we turn around and view what’s behind us as a marker for what lies ahead of us. We think, “I wish I was back there. Where I’m at now sucks. How can I change this?” We try and relive our so-called glory days. Too often we place our eyes on the past, and are crippled by doing so. We do ourselves a disservice by comparing one season to another.
We have all gone through growth spurts. For me, elementary school entertained the most physical changes on my body. One morning I woke up and my shirts were too tight, pants too short, and shoes too small. Nothing fit, and no matter how hard I tried to stuff myself into my old clothes, they never fit the same again. Sure, I could wear the same shoes, but I’d be in pain for as long as my feet were crammed into them. I was in a dilemma. I loved my old shoes. They were comfortable and cute. I had become used to them, and found comfort in that. Yet, it was time to move forward. Out with the old. In with the new. It was better to find shoes that fit my current size, rather than trying to shove myself into an old pair.
Life’s seasons are comparable to shoes. We can cram ourselves into a past season, and never fit the way we once did. We try to recreate our past, yet suffer with the consequences. We will never experience what we did in the moment that has already expired. Therefore, we must live in the moment that God has for us today. We go through trials for a purpose. God allows us to endure unpleasant circumstances in order for growth and maturity to take place; to become more refined versions of ourselves. We can either embrace the change, moving forward with high hopes for our future, or turn around, desperately trying to hold onto something that once was.
Moving forward opens opportunities for new blessings. Staying behind limits what’s available for us.
As I face a new chapter living a cancer-free life again, I have a choice to make. Do I want to revert to the life I once had — one full of comfort, security, and predictability? Or do I embrace what God has allowed me to go through, and view it as an opportunity to experience new and exciting opportunities? Sure, the future is uncertain. There will be moments of great accomplishments and times of deep sadness. But I have grown in this season for a purpose, and in the future I will continue to mature, as long as I embrace the process.
I often hear, “I’m so happy you’re done with treatment! Now you can get back to where you were.” The latter is simply is false. My life will never go back to the way it once was. My challenge now is to figure out what my new life looks like. To navigate the different pathways that are set before me. And while I grieve that one season is gone, I am abundantly blessed to experience an entirely new one.
I’m ready to try some new shoes on.
Last Chemotherapy! (2/7/14)
Isaiah 43:18-19 (MSG)
“Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?”
(As appeared in Everyday Health on February 3, 2014)
As a 25-year-old newlywed, my life was wide open with opportunity. My husband and I had dreams, desires, and plans to put into action, and conversations about when to bring children into the world. We were young, free, and eager for adventure, and Austin, Texas, was whispering our names. Obeying that call, we began packing up our condo in south Denver. Our plan was to move, find work, buy a home, and get pregnant.
If only it were that easy.
On Jan. 25, 2012, I first heard the word “cancer” directed at me. Not about someone in the news, or someone’s grandparent, but me. An unwelcome beast was lurking in my body. A monster called out of the darkness. It was a disease so ferocious it would try its hardest to steal my life. Suddenly the tracks of my world were redirected, and my train ventured down an unknown course — one full of speed bumps, road blocks, high velocity, and emergency stops.
Laughing, Crying, and Crying Again
Stage III large cell neuroendocrine cancer of the cervix had burst through the borders of my body, and I was launched into surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, with my husband and team of doctors along for the ride.
My body no longer resembled itself. I became infertile and menopausal. My long locks faded away. My mind and spirit were transforming.
The past 24 months have been full of ups, downs, and detours: A slew of treatments, followed by clear scans and then defeating news of two recurrences. I’ve felt overwhelmed and victorious. I’ve laughed and cried and cried some more. I’ve had good days where cancer hasn’t been in the mix, and I’ve had bad days where my diagnosis has slapped me in the face.
Along the way, I’ve become something of a medical professional, and I now know terms that never used to exist in my vocabulary. But through the positive points in this journey, and the downright deplorable, my character has transformed. Cancer has made me a better version of myself.
Go Ahead, Cut Me Off in Traffic
Now that I have seen how fragile and fading life can be, my old goals make me laugh because they are so lofty. Cancer has refined me. It has forcefully removed all that didn’t matter, and given me clear perspective. Being cut off in traffic used to irritate me. Now, I simply allow it, and almost welcome it, because in the end it doesn’t matter.
I have gained a deeper appreciation for relationships. I’ve stopped and breathed in what surrounds me. Colorado is one of the most beautiful states, and here I have the opportunity to look at the Rocky Mountains every single day. I now take one day at a time.
My New Goals: Conversation and Meaningful Moments.
You can spend the rest of your days rushing through, ignoring and avoiding what really matters. Or you can put aside that deadline in favor of an hour with someone you love. You can’t possibly be in that big of a rush.
Take that vacation you’ve been dreaming of. Appreciate everything. Buying the dream house won’t matter in the end, but the memories will.
Cancer came crashing into my life like a train out of control. Along with it came pain, grief, and loss, an immeasurable amount of change. Yet it has also brought an overflow of blessings. I embrace the journey and allow myself to grow with every redirection that comes. I am choosing to derail my diagnosis. Cancer will not rob me of what’s most important: faith, joy, and never-ending hope.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 men are at risk of developing cancer in their lifetime. These statistics are increasing daily.
Cancer is rampant. Dare I say it’s the 21st century version of the plague? As a society, we are desperately searching for a cure, and until we discover that life-saving remedy, we can only treat the disease as best we know how. Cancer attacks any and all ages. It’s a beast that doesn’t care if you are young, old, strong, or frail. Whether you have cancer now, are at risk of developing it in the future, or know someone currently fighting, we are all affected by this disease.
When someone around us gets diagnosed with cancer, it is often difficult to think of how to react and respond. Do we send a card, text, or email? Do we avoid, ignore, and disregard? Do we send money or make a meal? I have spoken about the importance of cancer etiquette before, and while it is valuable to know what to say and what not to say to a cancer patient, sometimes doing something kind can be equally as valuable.
Two years ago, upon sharing the news of my recent diagnosis, I received a gamut of well wishes, prayers, gifts, and support. Many of these acts of kindness remain beneficial to my husband and I today, as my third season of fighting cancer will come to a close at my last chemotherapy this Friday. We have been and continue to be blessed by our incredible support team that surrounds us. If there is ever a need, we know someone will be there to meet it. Yet, no matter how close we are to friends and family, asking for help is one of the hardest things to do as a cancer patient. As if being diagnosed with cancer isn’t difficult enough, seeking help through our journey can be exhaustive.
Rather than asking the patient what you can do for them, be proactive. While expressing your willingness to do anything is thoughtful, offering before being asked can often provide the biggest impact and benefit. Below are helpful suggestions for acts of kindness that have personally benefited myself and many other people navigating a cancer diagnosis.
- Meals: Following surgery and other treatments, offer to provide meals for the patient and their family. Whether you swing by the local Chipotle and pick up a couple burritos, or make your famous homemade lasagna, providing meals helps tremendously. If they have not created a meal registry like MealBaby, offer to set one up in order for others to sign up to bring meals on specified dates.
- Gift cards: Purchase gift cards to their local grocery store, in order for the family to grab necessities. If you haven’t heard, cancer is expensive. Help remove the financial burden by eliminating the decision of whether to pay for groceries or medical bills.
- Date nights: Offer free babysitting for patients with children, and bless them with dinner and a movie with their spouse. For my husband and I, though we have no children yet, date nights allow us to escape the seemingly never-ending world of treatment. It’s a way for us to reconnect, and have a special evening just the two of us… No doctors, nurses, or chemo involved.
- Vacation donations: Often we see donating as a way to provide monetary support to organizations, yet donating can also be personal. Have any saved up airline miles or hotel points? Donate them to your loved one with cancer. Vacations are a way to break through the cancer bubble, and offer rejuvenation from exhaustive treatments.
- Beauty services: Though many chemotherapy treatments cause hair loss, relaxation is still a MUST for patients fighting cancer. Offer to pay for a massage, manicure, pedicure, or facial. Heck… send them away for an entire spa day!
- Cash: Let’s face it, cancer is expensive. Medical bills spill over onto everyday bills. Gift the patient with cold, hard cash and allow them to do whatever they want with it. Maybe they need to pay off that recent trip to the hospital. Maybe their car needs new tires. Maybe they want to buy a new outfit to boost their spirits. Give money with no strings attached.
- Hook ups: No, I’m not talking friends with benefits. If you or someone you know has a connection to a sports team, concert venue, or event, hook your friend up. Sports games, concerts, and festivals are fun ways for the patient to get out of the house and enjoy themselves.
- Home services: Offer to hire a professional cleaning service for the patient’s home. Cleaning and chemotherapy do not mix, after all. Have a knack for organization? Offer your services. Have $8 lying around each month? Sign the patient up for a Netflix service, so they can enjoy endless hours of Breaking Bad.
- Letters: Whether in the form of a hand-written card or an email, send your loved one encouragement. Let them know you are praying for them and supporting them through their journey to a cancer-free life. Encouragement motivates us to keep fighting, especially on days when sickness, exhaustion, and grief are overwhelming.
- KareKrates: We’ve all heard of care packages. They are the gift that keeps on giving. A box full of goodies to express your love and care. Recently, I received an extra special care package from my friends at KareKrate. They have teamed up to provide care packages to patients going through cancer treatment. These Kare Krates are highly beneficial and will put a smile on any patient’s face. The information and products included in the package are not only nice gifts to receive, but they are extremely applicable to any patient undergoing treatment. With top-ranking lotions for skin dryness due to radiation, all-natural lozenges to ease chemo-induced nausea, plush blankets, headwear and more, these KareKrates are the perfect gift to bless any cancer patient with. Head on over to KareKrate to order a valuable care package for your loved one, and make sure to enter the coupon code: SM30 to receive 30% OFF!
Check out my KareKrate!
Hebrews 13:16 (MSG)
“Make sure you don’t take things for granted and go slack in working for the common good; share what you have with others. God takes particular pleasure in acts of worship—a different kind of “sacrifice”—that take place in kitchen and workplace and on the streets.”
(As appeared in The Huffington Post on 1/28/14)
Cancer scares people. It’s the disease that no one wants to get, no one wants to talk about, and no one has a cure for. It brings the crazies out of the closet, introduces you to long-lost family members, and sabotages even the strongest of friendships. Cancer is the adult version of cooties. Getting it is not cool, and will send some around you scurrying away in search of a large tree to hide behind.
“Am I contagious?” This is a question that I admittedly asked upon hearing the news for the first time. I thought I knew the answer, but I couldn’t be entirely sure. Was I putting my husband, friends, and family at risk? Should I be quarantined?
Silly me. No, cancer is not contagious. Thank goodness. But if this disease is not contagious, what could be the reason for friendships beginning to dissolve and people hiding behind closed doors?
Until recently, I couldn’t quite understand the cause for the sudden shift in my relationships upon diagnosis two years ago. I just had cancer, after all. I didn’t have the chicken pox, diphtheria, or the plague. I was still me… the same ol’ Stephanie. Sure, I’d be bald soon, but did that really affect those around me? Was my bald, shiny head really the issue?
People change in difficult circumstances. Some become fearful and timid. Some hide behind sarcasm and cynicism. Some shy away. None of these reactions are wrong; coping mechanisms can fall on a large spectrum.
Before my diagnosis, I (like many) was afraid of cancer. My grandmother had passed from it, and not knowing much, I became fearful. Choosing to avoid any mention of the disease, I embraced blissful ignorance. Upon hearing reports of celebrities succumbing to their fights against cancer, I would feel sorry, yet would move forward as if it didn’t affect me. Because, did it really? As long as cancer wasn’t a part of my inner circle, I could remain euphorically unaware. Many share this approach, and my diagnosis brought these feelings out of several who surrounded me. An arm’s length became a safe distance.
While avoidance is on one side of the spectrum, artificial involvement is on the other. You know, the appeal of being friends with the “sick girl.” A concept similar to when someone passes away, and multiple people claim best friendship with the deceased. Or when passing by a car accident, we have to look, no matter how invasive it may feel. For as many people who vanished into the shadows upon hearing the news that I had cancer, there were just as many people who spontaneously appeared suddenly interested in the details of my journey… people whom I hadn’t heard from in years. Clearly not wanting to offer support, but rather trying to gather as much information about my newly changed life in order to be someone who could “share” my personal updates with others, as if they had the inside scoop.
Recently, I had an extremely valuable conversation with a dear friend. I shared with her the effects that cancer has had on my relationships. The ups, downs, and in-betweens of friendship after diagnosis. She responded by courageously sharing with me a perspective of hers that was entirely unknown to me. Truthfully, I was surprised at the feelings she expressed having upon hearing the news of my diagnosis, yet ever-so-thankful that she was brave enough to share. Her words have taught me so much.
“Stephanie, honestly, I was afraid to be your friend after I learned you had cancer. I feared that I would lose you. I was afraid that you might die, and I would have to go through the pain of losing someone close to me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to that.”
That day, I learned that avoidance might simply be an overwhelming fear of being close to someone who could possibly die. It has forever changed my perspective and has replaced my questions with grace for those who chose distance over involvement. Like I was before my diagnosis, many are just afraid of cancer. Afraid of what it might do to someone they love. And, whereas it doesn’t make dissolved friendships easier, it does allow me to understand that they may not be able to handle such a risky relationship.
As someone diagnosed with this disease, authentic support, encouragement, and prayers are treasures to receive. All friendships require selflessness. Being a friend to someone with cancer is no different. In fact, a relationship like this often requires more selflessness and can be far more difficult than others. Sometimes your friend with cancer may not be able to reciprocate equally, due to a slew of side effects from treatment. But if you’re willing to understand and accept that, this relationship will challenge and inspire you in ways you couldn’t dream of.
I am blessed to say that among several who slid out of sight and those who artificially tried to insert themselves, I have had numerous true friends stand firmly by my side. Friends who have brought meals when I couldn’t get out of bed. Those who have rearranged their schedules to pray with my husband and I before surgeries. Those who sit with me for hours as I ingest my chemo cocktails. Unwavering friends who offer support to myself and my husband no matter how hard the journey may get. Friends who don’t expect anything in return, and whom I know without a doubt would do anything for us. I am beyond grateful for these relationships.
Though arm’s length may be a safe distance, embracing someone with cancer is far more rewarding in the end. Just think. If it were you whose life just flipped upside down, what kind of friends would you want? … Be that friend.
Matthew 7:12 (ESV)
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them…”