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4 Years Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

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

“By The Way, I Have Cancer”… Dating After a Diagnosis

By The Way I Have Cancer PHOTO

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

Dating

Finding “the one” in a world of seven billion can be a daunting task. Sifting through people while searching for compatibility, meeting with strangers for awkward conversation, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable with someone you hardly know is not for the faint of heart. As if dating isn’t difficult enough, dating with cancer can prove even more challenging.

Among everyday issues like discovering who we are and what we are meant to do with our lives, young adults face a variety of life changing decisions. We are completing education, paving a way for our future, and stepping into our careers. We are establishing friendships and seeking long term commitment and love. We are eager and expectant and ready to begin the next chapter with someone by our side. Yet as a young adult facing a cancer diagnosis, beginning romantic relationships can be complicated.

When diagnosed as a young adult, dating often gets put on hold. You become engrossed in your treatment plans and immersed in the grief that follows your life-altering news. Though many soon discover that a diagnosis doesn’t have to prevent you from living a fulfilling life, when the time comes to step out into the sea of dating once again, some young adults feel paralyzed about where to begin. Having a cancer diagnosis is like wearing a neon name tag. We stand out. Whether physically, emotionally, or simply by circumstance, we are different than our potential suitors. Therefore, we have a few more things to keep in mind when introducing ourselves.

Choosing when to share your medical history is an important factor to consider when entering a relationship. Sharing a diagnosis on the first date may frighten someone. Waiting too late may cause feelings of betrayal and dishonesty. Many don’t want to be labeled by a diagnosis and want to be seen for more than just a disease, but young adults should be considerate in telling others their medical journey.

Experts state that a safe guideline is to share the news on the third or fourth date. Generally, young adults should share medical history before emotional attachment begins. This allows potential partners to make informed decisions on whether or not to proceed with the relationship. Be open to both possible outcomes. Your date may be uncomfortable with everything that comes with your diagnosis, however, they may be understanding and desire to move forward. As it would be with someone you simply lack chemistry with, be okay with letting someone go. And if your potential mate is interested in continuing a relationship, foster an open and honest conversation about how cancer affects your life.

Cancer affects each young adult differently and no diagnosis, prognosis, nor side effects are the same. Most cancer survivors struggle with changes in their sexuality. Whether it’s sexual function, body image, or self-esteem, many face a multitude of challenges. When sharing your medical history with your partner, be willing to share the facts.

Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery can cause drastic changes to sexual organs. Heightened skin sensitivity, lower sex drive, and infertility are common among young adults with cancer. Being open with your partner will help guide your relationship into a deeper understanding for one another. Always remember that intimacy is much more than sexual intercourse. Communication, trust, and commitment are conduits to intimacy as much as physical touch is.

Marriage

Some view me as lucky. My husband and I had been married for a year and a half when I received the news that I had an aggressive gynecological cancer. However, the fact that I was already in a healthy, stable, and committed long term relationship upon diagnosis did not make receiving the news or handling the journey easier. Cancer amplifies hurts and wounds, as much as it does love and respect.

Unfortunately, many marriages do not survive the trauma, heartache, loss, and difficulties that cancer brings to the relationship. Couples must work not only to save the life of the person afflicted with the disease, but also to save the life of the marriage. Each individual grieves differently, and my husband and I found ourselves at different ends of the grief scale. At times I would be experiencing deep sadness, but my husband would be experiencing anger. Other moments I would be encouraged, but my husband would be feeling frustration. My husband had hope when I had none and vice versa. Because no two people are identical in emotions and experiences, patience, forgiveness, and love are key in maintaining a healthy relationship.

Four years ago, as my husband and I sat in the car in the hospital parking lot after hearing of my diagnosis, he looked at me and said something so profound it has defined our relationship. “Some may say I didn’t sign up for this, but I did. I vowed to you, ‘in sickness and in health,’ and I’m not giving up on that promise.” Among many reasons why our marriage has thrived amidst this disease is that we simply committed to one another. To love, respect, and hold each other up. Marriages don’t have to fail after a diagnosis. They can thrive and grow into something more beautiful than you thought possible.

Relationships can be fun and they can be challenging. If you are a young adult cancer survivor and are ready to enter into a relationship, remember to be kind to yourself. Though being vulnerable is often more difficult with a diagnosis, dating requires vulnerability. Do not let fear of rejection keep you from finding love, happiness, and a fulfilling long term relationship. Keep in mind that there is someone for everyone, and though you may have to filter through some duds, you can and will find the perfect person for you. If you are a young adult married cancer survivor or spouse, remember to be gentle, patient, and forgiving. Cancer has already taken so much from you, don’t let it steal your love as well.

Philippians 1:9 (MSG)

“So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.”

Body Image After Cancer

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As seen in Cancer Knowledge Network’s, #YARally

“Welcome to Cancerland, here’s your new body. You may notice it looks a little different than your old one, but I can assure you… This is your body. Once you get past the bumps, bruises, scars, and bald head, you’ll realize it’s still you.”

As if I were waking up and looking in the mirror at someone else, I felt overwhelmed shortly after receiving my first cancer-removing surgery. My body was changing right before my eyes and I wasn’t sure I was able to cope with everything. My doctors told me to expect a large scar (from one hip to the other), hair loss, and weight changes. Not only would I have to wrap my mind around a life-threatening diagnosis, but I also would no longer be able to find comfort in the mirror.

I decided to take control and shave my head before the chemo took all of my hair; I wasn’t about to let cancer rip one more thing from my grasp. After my husband shaved the last of my locks, I stood up and looked at the woman staring back at me in the mirror. She resembled me. She had my eyes, but there was new depth to them. She had my smile, but there was new joy to be found within it. She was me, but she wasn’t. Cancer was beginning to change me emotionally, mentally, and physically. Physically, some changes happened within a matter of seconds and others took years to fully develop. My diagnosis ushered in a rebirth. Though my outer self was wasting away, my inner self was being reborn, refined, and celebrated.

Everything that I thought I was, now wasn’t. I didn’t realize that I had labeled myself prior to my cancer diagnosis. I didn’t understand that I had worked hard to uphold an image for many years. Most of today’s society gets too caught up in outward appearances, and I’d be lying to say I didn’t fall victim to that as well. Prior to cancer, I was a healthy, tall blonde in her mid-twenties. I had confidence and felt comfortable in my own skin. I was adventurous and took risks. And most of all, I could predict who looked back at me in the mirror every morning.

Cancer treatments rapidly began my metamorphosis. In the nearly four years that I have battled this disease, I have gained eleven scars. Each one is a visible reminder of the battle waged within my body. From the numerous chemotherapy and radiation treatments, my skin took on a new form. It was dry, cracked, and sometimes bleeding. For almost three years, my head was bald, and my face no longer donned lashes or brows. And while I, like many, assumed I’d lose weight throughout the course of treatment, I gained an astonishing 30 pounds within the first six months. The mirror no longer reflected the healthy young woman that I once was. I soon began staring at the stranger before me. My body looked nothing like it used to and grief, like a tidal wave, flooded my spirit.

Cancer causes pain, suffering, and most of all, grief. Grief comes in many forms and is experienced through many moments in this journey. I grieved the loss of my fertility. I grieved the changes of life. I grieved the dreams that I once had. I grieved the relationships that were lost. I grieved everything, and I still do. Cancer is an F5 tornado that rips through lives without a care as to what it swallows up. Grief is the rubble that remains when the dust clears. Along with the uncountable losses, I deeply grieved my body image. For months, I couldn’t find myself in the mirror. I searched her face, touching her tear-stained cheeks. My fingers traced over each scar in remembrance. Scanning her bald head and her sick, pale, exhausted body, I couldn’t find her. I couldn’t find me.

It wasn’t until I looked beyond the mirror that I discovered myself again. Behind the weight, the scars, the physical changes, and the grief was the woman I’ve always been. She was strong. She was determined. She was ferocious and ready to survive. She was kind and friendly. She had a streak of humor.

My body image evolved from my physical reflection to my inner character. When the outside is stripped away, all that remains is the inside. When a weak, frail, and bald person is looking at you in the mirror, you must acknowledge them. You must honor what they have gone through. You must pay respect to what they are enduring. But you mustn’t stop there. Look beyond what you see. Who are you on the inside? What does your character look like? Cancer will change your body image. But it doesn’t have to change who you are. You are more than your diagnosis. You are more than your reflection.

Proverbs 31: 25 (NLV)

“She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.”

The Rollercoaster Ride of a Cancer Scan

Stephanie in CT SCAN

Bright and early on Monday morning I walked into the hospital for yet another follow up scan. I’ve received more scans than I can possibly count in these nearly four years of fighting this disease. PET scans, CT scans, X-rays, echocardiograms, and ultrasounds. Though my treatment has ended (which brings its own set of relief and fear), I continue to be checked for malignant cells. It’s a double edged sword, really. While I am frequently awarded with reassurance, I’m also being buckled into the roller coaster of anxiety once more. I cannot remember a time without these scans, and I’m not sure if I’m looking forward to the day when they cease to exist any longer. They are my lifeline and my nemesis.

These scans never get easier, no matter how frequent and routine they have become. Logically, I should be used to them, yet somehow each time feels like the first. I’m comfortable with the technicians and the machines. I am not claustrophobic nor afraid of needles. I’m not allergic to contrast and know exactly what to expect. However, no matter how comfortable I am with my surroundings, I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with the reason I am there in the first place. These scans tell me if cancer has again invaded my body or if it has finally given up and has not claimed residency once more. The remembrance of each recurrence floods my senses and can overwhelm me if I don’t keep a tight guard on my heart and mind. The phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind” rings true, but it’s not an easy practice.

Many ask how I feel when scan time comes and to be honest, it’s similar to a rollercoaster ride. Ironically, I used to love rollercoasters before diagnosis, yet now that cancer has entered my world, I have come to loathe them. Blame it on the amount of treatment I’ve had, the fact that I’m menopausal, how I know what true nausea feels like, or that my equilibrium is much different these days… Regardless, it would take a lot for me to willingly jump onto one. Yet, crazy enough, I willingly sit on the rollercoaster of scanxiety every three months.

Upon my regular exam with my gynecologic oncologist and the discussion of an upcoming scan, I am standing in line at the ride. I see others walking before me. Hands sweaty, nervous, and smiling artificially. Some have been on this ride so often that they don’t seem to be phased. For others, it’s their first time. The naivety is obvious, and I want to hug them before they hear the news. I know what to expect. I’ve been on this ride many times, but it never gets easier. This rollercoaster can be fun, but it can also be terrifying.

When I confirm my appointment time with the staff at the hospital, it’s in that moment when I’m buckled into my seat. The attendant pulls on the chest belt to make sure it’s tight enough. He walks to the next person and does the same. I double check. My seatbelt isn’t tight enough, yet I can’t get one more click tighter no matter how hard I try. Thoughts of me slipping out from the confines of the coaster and slamming hard into the pavement below flash through my mind. I’ve been on this ride before, yet I never know how it’s going to end.

Receiving the confirmation call of my appointment time is the beginning of the ride. The coaster slowly clinks up the ramp right before the big drop. Click. Click. Click. The anticipation is equally overwhelming and exciting. I know it will be over soon, but it feels like it’s taking forever.

The days leading up to the scan are the twists and turns of the coaster. One twist may be fun, while the turns can be frightening. My hands are gripped to the safety bars and my eyes are closed. Occasionally I open them to see what lies ahead, but it does me no good. My head is jerked from side to side as my feet dangle below me. In one moment I feel safe, and the next I fear for my life.

The morning of the scan is the point when the coaster reaches yet another upcoming drop. The momentum slows down while the adrenaline quickly courses through my body. My head lashes forward as the speed slows. I can hear my own heart beat. Again, I am being forced upwards. Click. Click. Click. I know this feeling, but I am never fully prepared for it. I’m praying. I’m looking at the other riders. They offer quick smiles and words of encouragement, “You can do this!” I know I can, but I’m still unsure.

Arriving to the appointment is the last drop. I know the ride is almost over, yet my hands are gripped tightly as I know I must free fall without control one last time. I’m excited, scared, and ready. I don’t scream, I try not to cry. I am and always have been a silent sufferer. I tell myself it’s okay. My eyes are closed tight as I begin to fall.

The scan is the wind flowing through my hair as I sail down to the end of the ride. My heart begins to calm as I know the ride is over. I begin to release my white-knuckled grip and my breathing becomes more steady. I never want to get on this ride again, though I know I will have to. Out of sight, out of mind. I will stay in this moment and not look too far ahead.

Awaiting the results is the walk to the kiosk that displays the picture that was taken as the coaster made its final descent. Will I look stoic and strong or fragile and frightened? This picture will determine my fate. Will I be celebrating or lamenting?

As of today, I’m still walking to that kiosk. I have not yet heard the results of my latest scan. I believe it will be good, but there will always be a small portion of me that is prepared for what happens if it’s not. When (not if) this scan shows no evidence of disease, I will have reached 19 months cancer-free. One step closer to the two year mark. One step closer to this being my past. One step closer to the exciting future that is to come.

Will you continue to pray for us as we await the results?

James 5:15 (ESV)

“And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up…”

#YARally With Cancer Knowledge Network

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A variety of exciting developments have been stirring lately! If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, I’m sure you’ve seen posts about my recent business trips to New York City, Orlando, and Houston. I am touched that my story is impacting and inspiring so many, and in turn that I am able to travel and share a message of hope and faith around the world. We were never meant to walk alone and I am passionate about walking beside others in their struggles.

Among several recent ventures, I’m honored to officially announce my partnership with Cancer Knowledge Network. CKN is one of the largest cancer communities in Canada, and their goal is to help bridge the gap between young adult patients and oncologists. Because of the work of CKN and other organizations like Stupid Cancer and Livestrong, the YA (young adult) cancer community is growing in knowledge, understanding, and impact. When a young adult is diagnosed with cancer there is no longer a void of community, as many have rallied together to let the world know that we are not alone.

As the spokesperson and partner of the #YARally campaign with CKN, I’ll be writing several articles on a variety of hot topic issues that affect young adults in the cancer community including but not limited to body image, sexuality and relationships, finances, and fertility. Too often, the communication between doctors and patients is muddled and our goal in this project is to facilitate personal narratives combined with clinical resources in order to bridge the gap. We have recently launched our campaign, and I invite you to join this journey with us. Make sure to follow #YARally on Twitter, as well as my Instagram and Facebook pages in order to stay updated as this project develops. In addition, I will be co-leading Twitter chats and would love to talk with many of you on the topics being discussed in this campaign.

“It is my goal that by partnering with CKN, our voices will be heard where often they are overlooked. I invite you to join me in the movement to shine the spotlight on our generation as  we face challenges many simply do not face. Cancer doesn’t define your life, and I hope to rally beside the men and women of my generation to help pave the way for improved care and heightened awareness.” – Stephanie Madsen

Visit Cancer Knowledge Network’s #YARally with Stephanie Madsen to join the movement! I look forward to opening the conversation and raising further awareness for this critically important young adult community.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 (MSG)

“So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind.”

 

 

Joy and Happiness Are Not The Same

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Joy and happiness are not the same. Think about what gives you joy; does it also make you happy? If you answer yes, which most of us would, you may then say that they are two in the same. But they’re not. Joy is a decision and happiness is an emotion.

I’m often told that I am a joyful person. I’ve been nicknamed “Sunshine” for nearly a decade. When cancer barged its way into my life I had a choice to make. Would I allow this disease to pull me down, beat me up, and steal my joy? Or would I stand firmly clinging to joy, no matter the twists and turns, pain and grief, sorrow and loss? As difficult as it’s been, I have chosen joy every single day. Whether it was the size of a grain of rice, or as large as the universe itself, I decided on joy. And it hasn’t been easy.

There are more days than I can count that I haven’t been happy. Society tells me that I’m not supposed to say that. I have a wonderful marriage, an idyllic relationship with my siblings, a close family, lifelong friendships, and financial provision. Yet happiness has not been a constant in my life. Whether circumstance reared its ugly head and pushed me over, whether personal issues arose and pulled me down, whether cancer forced its way in and ruined my perfectly pictured life, I haven’t always been happy. And you know what? I’m okay with that. Too often we are told to live happy lives. “Do what makes you happy.” That line makes me cringe. No! Don’t always do what makes you happy, do what makes you grow.

Because happiness is an emotion, it isn’t always attainable. If I watch a gripping movie that makes me cry, I’m not happy. Should I not watch those types of movies anymore? When someone I love passes away, I’m not happy. Should I limit my relationships so as not to feel the sorrow? When an argument arises in my marriage, I’m not happy. Should I subdue my opinions and stay quiet? (Maybe sometimes to that last one, but that’s not the point!) Happiness comes and goes. It’s a reflex to circumstance. It’s automatic. Hearing babies laugh makes me happy. I didn’t choose that, it was a relfex to a sound my heart enjoys. Attending weddings makes me happy. I didn’t choose happiness, it’s a reflex to another emotion… love. Happiness ebbs and flows dependent on what’s going on around us. Joy is dependent on us, no matter our surroundings.

Happiness is an outward expression whereas joy is an inward decision. Joy is choosing to rise above, regardless of our circumstance. Joy is staying positive amidst the most negative news. Joy is gratitude in unsavory situations. Joy is forging a way when there is no way. Joy is a choice. Joy must be chosen, we can’t expect it to simply happen. It’s a conscious decision that requires effort. It’s not easy to be joyful because it takes work. I’ve heard that some people are just born joyful, but I’d disagree. Some are born with more cheerful attitudes, but joy is an acquired trait. To acquire a quality, one must diligently practice. Fortunate for us, we live in a not-so-perfect world and have the ability to practice joy frequently. We are given daily opportunities to develop joy.

Among the innumerable things that cancer has taught me, the number one quality that I have learned is joy. I’ve learned how to look beyond my emotion and embrace joy no matter what tumbles into my life. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be defined by my amount of happiness, because what defines me is beyond an emotion. I’ve learned that a grateful heart is conducive to a joyful one. Seeing life through a lens of gratitude only deepens our joy. Developing joy now will transform how you see the troubles that are guaranteed to come.

Joy and happiness are not the same. Happiness is fleeting. Joy is fulfilling.

Proverbs 17:22 (ESV)

“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

Living an Intentional Life

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I decided not to make resolutions this year. Instead, I chose one word that I wanted to represent 2015. Intentional. I desired to be more intentional with my time, my relationships, and my work. I didn’t want life to pass me by. I wanted to be present in everything I did and with everyone I was with. Yet somehow, I wasn’t as intentional as I intended to be. Sure, there were times when I was focused and diligent in certain areas of my life, but many things fell between the cracks. Decisions that were made and not made, relationships that were poured into and those that were put aside, and work that succeeded and some that failed, has taught me something. We must continually strive to be intentional. We must live a life that demands effort, otherwise our entire life will soon be witnessed through our rear view mirror.

My sole focus has been fighting cancer for many years. I have been diligent with appointments, medicines, and treatments. My intentions were always to beat this disease, and by the grace of God, my intentions were fulfilled. I’ve spent hours, days, weeks, months, and years in assiduous pursuit of my goal. I never let recurrences blur my finish line. I was persistent and determined. Fighting cancer requires devout commitment, after all. It demands every ounce of attention and every fiber of strength. I’ve been so committed to defeating this disease that the rest of my intentions got lost in the fog of cancer. Now I’ve succeeded (in Jesus name and with fingers crossed) and am ready to pursue other items as intentionally, but it’s not as easy as I assumed it would be.

It’s amazing how unprepared you can feel for life after cancer. You spend years trying to overcome your diagnosis, and most other goals lower on your priority list. But then… You’re cancer free… So, now what? You’ve attained your goal, and though it’s something you’ve passionately hoped and prayed for, once it’s gone, a void remains. Where all of your time and efforts were focused on cancer, there now sits an empty spot. What do I do on Mondays from 9am until 1pm? What do I do with this energy that has slowly returned? How do I plan my week now that appointments aren’t filling my calendar? I find myself stuck in the loss of a pursuit. I’ve lost what I’ve been so intentional about, and while I’ll never take for granted a fifth chance at living a long life, I’m sorting through what it should look like now.

I’ve heard that adjusting to life after cancer is similar to the adjustment that soldiers go through upon returning from war. And while I find the two vastly different, I can understand the analogy. I’m re-entering a world I’m not familiar with. Sadly, I’m often more comfortable in hospitals than I am at dinner parties. It’s an unsettling feeling. I’m beyond grateful that I’m on this side of the disease, but I often feel alone in my emotions and unsure of how to proceed with this new life. Now that cancer has passed, I’ve realized that I’ve gotten pretty good at being busy doing nothing. Now is the time to recommit to living intentionally. I’m relearning how to be busy doing something. I fought hard to survive, and now that I’m here, I dare not waste another moment.

It’s easy to become paralyzed in grief, fear, and uncertainty. But as the fog clears, I’m reminding myself that I beat cancer. I beat cancer. Not once, twice, or even three times. I beat a terminal disease four times. And I did it by being committed and intentional. Every day, I must wake up and say, “Stephanie, you did THAT. Now go do THIS!”

Cancer doesn’t have to be your interruption. It can be the loss of a loved one, a traumatic accident, a divorce, a miscarriage, or even bankruptcy. We all experience seasons that require devoted attention and commitment, and therefore we all find ourselves walking out of the fog with blurred vision. It’s time to re-harness our intent. You’ve come this far. Look at what you just walked through. Don’t let what’s ahead paralyze you. Let’s step forward with powerful intention and not let life pass us by.

Psalm 16:11 (MSG)

“Now you’ve got my feet on the life path, all radiant from the shining of your face. Ever since you took my hand, I’m on the right way.”

Every Scar Has a Story

There once was a time when the biggest surgery I had was the removal of my wisdom teeth. Though I grew up wrestling around with my younger brothers and playing competitive sports, I had never broken any bones, suffered any major sprains, or even had a scar to show for my rambunctious childhood. I never needed glasses or braces. In fact, I’ll never forget the day my mom took my two younger brothers and me into the dentist to decide who would need braces. I cried upon receiving the news that I would be the only one who didn’t need corrective devices screwed into my mouth. My brothers looked at me with confusion and envy. I remember feeling left out of the cool club as not only my brothers would have braces, but so would the majority of my friends at school. I remember my anguish as I realized I would be one of the few without. There was something cool about braces, and casts, and scars. They were a rite of passage.

We’ve all heard that scars are cool. The majority of us were soothed by our mothers and fathers after receiving cuts and bruises in childhood by hearing that though we were in pain then, we’d soon receive an awesome scar to tell the story. Many boys were told, “chicks dig scars.” Scars were a sign of maturity and experience as a kid. Remember going to school and showing off every bump, cut, bruise, and scab to your friends? Scars gave us credibility. Scars told our stories. When did that change?

It was until I received my cancer diagnosis that I remained scar-free. Shortly after hearing the news, I was scheduled for my very first major surgery. One of the first questions I asked was, “How big will my scar be?” The transition from adolescence to adulthood transforms perspective on physical beauty. The world explains to us that flaws are to be covered up. We go from believing that scars give us a certain cool factor and should be shown off, to believing that they should be hidden. There are hundreds of creams being sold to reduce fine lines, wrinkles, and blemishes. We live in a society that tells us that beauty is flawless. Therefore, the presence of flaws translates to a loss of beauty. Scars become unwanted because we stop viewing them as stories and begin viewing them as shame.

A couple of years ago, I was in the midst of a conversation with a young woman who had recently had heart surgery when she shared her distaste for the scar that graced the majority of her chest. She expressed feelings of ugliness because of the mark on her body. She shared how often people stared and how self-conscious it made her feel. She said that though she is happy to be alive, she really hates the way she now looks as a result of surgery. She was covered in shame because of her scar. The young woman was stuck looking at the scar instead of reflecting on the story behind it. And she’s not alone. Many of us look at ourselves and are overwhelmed by what we see. We become trapped in the mindset that we are less than and not enough because of the scars that cover our skin. We believe what the world says and view ourselves as flawed.

Take a second to look in the mirror. Look at your body. Carefully examine each scar. What do you see? Are your marks simply rough, jagged, thick, discolored skin? Are they contorted, gross, and ugly? Do you find yourself wearing clothing that hides your blemishes? While viewing each scar, reflect on why that scar graces your body. What happened? What’s the scar’s story? Were you attempting to pop a wheelie on your bike as a kid? Were you in a car accident? Did you have surgery? Scars not only reflect trauma to the skin, but often trauma to our lives. Scars reflect heartache, loss, and pain and that’s why we are trained to hide them. We become transfixed on the trauma instead of the testimony and we attempt to cover them up in order to avoid the painful memories because of our skewed perspectives.

It’s been nearly four years since my initial cancer diagnosis. Since then, I’ve accrued 14 scars from several surgeries and treatments. It’s taken me time to see myself as beautiful again amidst the markings on my body. I’ve learned that the way we view ourselves affects the way we view others. When I noticed the scar on the young woman’s chest, I didn’t see what she saw. I saw strength and survival. I saw her story behind her scar. If we can see strength in others’ scars, we must see it within our own as well. We must choose to see the story instead of the shame.

Each of my 14 scars tell a story. And all of them proclaim healing and survival. Each one represents strength and overcoming. My story shouldn’t be hidden, and neither should yours. Wear your scars proudly. You earned them. You fought for them. They are your testimony.

Don’t let anyone tell you differently… Scars are still cool.

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2 Timothy 4:17 (ESV)

“But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed.”

PINKTOBER: Hard Rock Hotel Orlando Fights Breast Cancer

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“We are with you in this fight until the end,” shares Managing Director of Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando, Carlton Hudson. As a 21-year cancer survivor, Hudson means what he says from a very personal perspective. He, like the thousands of men and women across the world facing this disease, understands the importance of teamwork in the fight against cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Hard Rock Hotel Orlando continues to play an integral role in the breast cancer community. This year, the hotel is celebrating it’s 16th annual PINKTOBER campaign by uniting musicians, supporters, and survivors through several outlets. I had the honor of joining the team in the launch of this year’s campaign, and am extremely touched by the personal ways Hard Rock is reaching out to make an impact. While October has a tendency to become “pinkwashed,” Hard Rock Hotel Orlando works diligently to direct the proceeds from PINKTOBER to charities that have little to no overhead costs. The money that is being raised is directly benefiting women and men facing a breast cancer diagnosis.

Hard Rock Hotel Orlando invites guests to show their support in a variety of ways. You can shop for the cause, get into bed for the cause, and even party with rockstars for the cause! In fact, the hotel’s popular concert series, Velvet Sessions, welcomed Bret Michaels for the fourth consecutive year to launch the campaign by performing a benefit concert. Michaels is an ardent supporter of PINKTOBER and breast cancer research, and his enthusiasm for the cause is inspiring. This year, Hard Rock Hotel Orlando donated all proceeds from the concert and the evening’s silent auction (featuring hotel stays, all-inclusive resort vacations, dinners and more) to a local charity called Martha’s Angels. In addition to the donation of proceeds, women from Martha’s Angels had the unique opportunity to spend time with Bret Michaels before his performance. The energy in the room was contagious, and I couldn’t help but smile as I witnessed the conversations between Michaels and the breast cancer survivors. These women, currently fighting this disease, and those who are years beyond their battle were treated like the warriors they are. There was a paradigm shift, as Bret Michaels asked about their stories and congratulated them on their strength and perseverance. Bret became the fan, and the women became the celebrities. Michaels was attentive in giving each woman time, and was truly connected and engaged with each one. Pictures were taken, as laughter and tears were shared. It was a moment I won’t soon forget.

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Who knew that by simply booking a stay at Hard Rock Hotel Orlando you could help the fight against breast cancer? Through the PINKTOBER campaign, Hard Rock welcomes guests to get into bed for the cause. By booking your stay in a Pink Sheet Room, 25% of your stay goes to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The BCRF’s mission is to prevent and cure breast cancer by advancing the world’s most promising research. Hard Rock has chosen the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to receive profits from the campaign because of their commitment to helping patients directly. They have very little overhead cost and are passionate about awareness, advocacy, and researching for a cure. Each Pink Sheet room is manicured top to bottom with beautiful shades of pink. From the bed sheets, decorative pillows, and lamp shades, to the bath robes, towels, and artwork, each room is a beautiful representation of the breast cancer ribbon color. These pink rooms truly are a special indulgence — one that should be experienced by everyone who enjoys a fun hotel stay.

Hard Rock Hotel Orlando has not only remodeled a certain number of rooms in their resort and hosted Velvet Sessions for the cause, but they have also turned their menu and merchandise pretty shades of pink as well. Lay out by the pool and order pink beverages and stop into the shop and grab PINKTOBER shirts and other items, and a percentage of your purchase will go directly to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. At nearly every corner of the Hard Rock Hotel Orlando, guests are invited to join in and show support for the cause. In addition to their pink amenities, the hotel has established a social media presence as well. Use the hashtag #PINKTOBER in your pictures to share your support for breast cancer awareness. Whether sharing photos of Hard Rock’s PINKTOBER merchandise, your stay in a Pink Sheet Room, or your daily life of supporting the fight against breast cancer, the hotel encourages fans to rally together this fall.

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While many organizations and companies are raising money to fund research for a cure for breast cancer, Hard Rock Hotel Orlando’s PINKTOBER campaign expresses their unique passion for the cause. Jennifer Hodges, the Director of Public Relations at Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando, shares that their goal is to stand beside each person affected by this disease and to make an impact on their journey to recovery. The brand’s goal is to unite people from across the world and celebrate life and survival, while actively raising funds that benefit foundations and survivors directly. And as Carlton Hudson explains, “One of Hard Rock’s mission statements is to, ‘Love all, serve all,'” and through their PINKTOBER campaign, I can attest that they have succeeded.

Rock on!

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Galatians 6:2 (ESV)

“Bear one another’s burdens…”

Seeing Stephanie: Looking In The Mirror After Cancer

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Have you ever looked in the mirror and cried because of what you saw? When I first lost my hair, I would look at my reflection with tears streaming down my face. I would try to utter a word in an attempt to recognize my voice and confirm my identity. I couldn’t believe that it was me, Stephanie, in the mirror. It didn’t look like me. It barely resembled me. But it was still me. For months I saw a weak, sick, and (dare I say) unattractive person looking back. I looked neither feminine nor masculine. I was balder than bald with not more than a few hairs gracing my body. My face was swollen and discolored. I was embarrassed of my appearance. However, after receiving my pro card for fighting cancer not once nor twice, but four times, my perspective of my reflection changed. Rather than seeing a weak girl in the mirror, I saw a strong one. Instead of seeing sickness, I saw survival. I went from trying to hide my bald to embracing it and wearing it as a badge of honor. Bald became beautiful to me in more ways than one, yet I still didn’t quite see myself.

It took months and maybe years to fully embrace my new look. There were days where my reflection wouldn’t affect me at all, and others where I avoided the mirror at all costs for fear of who was looking back. As a woman, my entire life had revolved around beauty. Society told me that I had to wear a certain size, look a certain way, and have gorgeous hair to boot. Not only did my body physically change through treatment, my hair soon began falling from my head, and I felt far from beautiful. I grieved the appearance of who I once was. I felt that I lost her. I tried wigs in an attempt to bring her back, yet it was never the same. I couldn’t find Stephanie. She was no longer there… Or so I thought.

There came a moment when I realized Stephanie wasn’t a look. Stephanie was a person. She was a woman of character and integrity. She had a personality. She was more than a visual. This revelation allowed me to cope with my bald head. I began looking beyond the bald, straight into my eyes. I could still see a faint whisper of Stephanie through the glimmer of blue into the windows of my soul.

Though I accepted my new look, I longed for the day when I would easily find myself in the mirror once again. I impatiently awaited her arrival with each passing treatment. I wanted my hair, brows, and lashes back. I wanted my face to return to normal. Not only was I fighting for my life, I was (silly as it may sound) fighting for my reflection. Cancer has a deep and profound effect on one’s identity. I know I’m not alone when I express my grief over the transition of my appearance. Losing my hair was an outward representation of the war being waged within my body. It was a visual reminder of my mortality. I prayed not only to survive cancer, but also to not die without hair.

After four treacherous, exhausting, and desperate battles against this disease, I have come out on the other side. I dare not say that I have won, for the implications that arise when those who pass away from cancer are far too hurtful. Let me add, those who have died from this disease did not lose. Too often we hear that someone has “lost” their fight against cancer. What a deeply wounding word to place over someone’s life (and death). Please stop saying it. For reasons I may never fully understand, I have survived this disease thus far. I am now fifteen months cancer-free, and my hair has had nineteen months to grow. It’s been emotional seeing Stephanie return to my reflection. Glorious. Sweet. Incredible. Breathtaking. Emotional. As they did when I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror, tears appear on my face again. Not for the loss of something, but for the gain of something greater.

Hindsight is always 20/20. In the midst of our struggles it is difficult to see the entire picture. Due to circumstance, our blinders prohibit us from having a 360 degree view of our life. Not until we walk out of the rubble do we have the opportunity to reflect on the battle. I’ve had time, as each scan returns clear, to see how far I’ve come. Just as I watched Stephanie fade away, I’ve seen her return. My hair is nearly to the length it was when I first heard the words, “You have cancer.” I’m blonde again. My lashes and brows are full. When I look in the mirror, I don’t have to try so hard to find myself. I see Stephanie immediately. But it’s not just Stephanie that I see now. I see strength and victory. I see power and humility. I see joy and unending hope. I see deeply rooted faith. I see a survivor.

Though you may not see yourself right now, know that you are more than just a visual. You are not weak. You are not ugly. You are strong, and much braver than you can possibly comprehend. I encourage you to look beyond your reflection. Your hair will return and you’ll recognize yourself once more. Though your outside reflects your struggle, it also reflects your survival.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (MSG)

“So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.”

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