Posts Tagged ‘cancer recurrence’

We Need Your Help

There are times in all of our lives when we get to the end of our ropes and need to reach out to others. Personally, it usually takes me reaching the last thread of said rope before I ask for help. I have a tendency of being self-conscious of burdening others around me. Cancer burdens everyone, and I cringe at the thought of it weighing on those who love and support me. Today, that last thread slipped through my grasp and here I am with no other choice but to ask for help.

Let me get you up to date. As you know, this last tumor that we prayed would be benign was in fact malignant. This is my fourth recurrence, and I will be jumping back into treatment soon. My diagnosis is rare. So rare in fact, there is not much knowledge or even funding for research to learn more about it. Large Cell Neuroendocrine Cervical cancer is aggressive and stealthy and won’t take no for an answer. There is, however, one man who has taken on the job of finding out more about my diagnosis and is researching ways to defeat this type of cancer. He is a doctor located at MD Anderson in Houston, and we have spoken regularly about my case. He is always kind and optimistic, and would love to help me navigate the next steps in my fourth journey through treatment. I, too, am itching at the opportunity to meet him.

Fast forward to this week. I have recovered well from surgery, and wear my new scars proudly. I have settled into the swing of daily life and realize I still hate laundry. Why do I think that will ever change? … I digress. We have recently learned that insurance will cover an appointment with the doctor in Houston. Hallelujah. God has intricately worked together nearly every puzzle piece, both big and small. The timing is perfect — absolutely perfect. I have an appointment set at MD Anderson for Tuesday, July 29th. That’s two weeks from yesterday. I am beyond thrilled to have the chance to meet with the only doctor actively teaming alongside me, trying his best to learn more about this disease. My appointments in Houston will consist of several tests, scans, and further research of my case. Everything will be put on the table, and based on his findings, he will recommend what step we should take next. Until I see this doctor, we are shooting in the dark. This appointment is vital to this fourth journey in my fight against cancer.

Without further ado, I’ll get to the point… I need help. Matt and I need your assistance in a larger way than we have before. We are in need of financial provision in order for us to get to my appointment in Houston.

Cancer is expensive. You know that. We know that. Though we recently received a financial gift from Ellen DeGeneres and CoverGirl, it has all been put towards our never-ending bills. The well has run dry again. It’s amazing how quickly that can happen after a few hundred trips to the hospital and thousands of dollars in life-saving treatments. Our insurance recently changed at the first of this month, and we are now required to pay everything out of pocket until we reach our new deductible.

Our deductible is $4,000, which is due up front at the time of the appointment. The great news is that once we reach that deductible, my treatment and testing (including scans) for the rest of the year will be 100% covered by insurance. The bad news is that we don’t have $4,000 nor the rest of the money required for flights, hotels, a rental car, and food for my week-long stay in Texas.

Here’s where you come in. Many of you ask regularly what you can do to help us. Typically meal gift cards are a great way to help during my recovery from surgeries and treatments. However, this time we are needing extra assistance. If you are not in a position to help financially, we completely understand and ask you to pray. Pray for wisdom, direction, protection, and ultimately, provision. If you are able to help financially, below is what we currently need.

  1. $4,000 to cover our deductible and the appointment and tests at MD Anderson
  2. Frequent flyer miles or airline buddy passes to help us book our flights to and from Houston
  3. Hotel points to help us book a room for our stay
  4. Cash to help with any aforementioned area that is not met and unknown expenses that may arise through our travels.

Thank you for allowing me to be open with you. Thank you for allowing me to be vulnerable about our needs. Though asking for help is hard, especially for me, I know that there are so many of our supporters who are just waiting for us to ask.

We have faith that God will provide. He doesn’t lead us to the finish line and expect us to cross it ourselves. He provides from beginning to end. The amount of puzzle pieces that He has already put together has me humbled and in awe at His faithfulness. I know He will figure the rest out.

If you are feeling called or compelled to help us, please let me know. You can reach me directly through email at derailingmydiagnosis@gmail.com. Also, if you have ideas up your sleeve, please share them. We need a team to conquer this hurdle, and are thankful for all of you who surround and support us.

Thank you.

Philippians 4:19 (MSG)

“You can be sure that God will take care of everything you need, His generosity exceeding even yours in the glory that pours from Jesus.”

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

I have struggled since surgery, both physically and emotionally. This journey that I’m on, though abundant in blessings, is a difficult one. There are great achievements and considerable disappointments.

Ready to head into surgery. (6/14)

Ready to head into surgery. (6/2014)

Surgery last week went well. The doctor was able to remove the entirety of the left adrenal gland and the tumor with good margins. Besides commenting that my insides were “sticky” because of the amount of scar tissue from my three surgeries prior, the procedure (though an hour and a half longer than expected) was smooth. He was able to complete the procedure laparoscopically, allowing my stay in the hospital to be swift. Surgery was on Monday, and by Tuesday night I was walking out the front doors to head home. Though it was a quick stay, it wasn’t an easy one. The majority of my time in the hospital, I was in pain. At times it was excruciating, and I couldn’t help but cry out in agony.

My incisions were not the problem. In fact, though the doctor had to move my stomach, spleen, colon, and other organs out of the way, my insides weren’t even that sore. Gas was the culprit. As is standard in a procedure like mine, they inflate the abdomen with carbon dioxide gas. This allows the surgeons better visibility and to have space to move instruments around. Once surgery is complete, they deflate the abdomen and close the incisions up. Sometimes, not all of the gas is removed. In my case, gas was trapped in my diaphragm, unbeknownst to the medical team. When I woke up, I was in immense shoulder pain. Both of my shoulders felt dislocated and I was entirely confused. What was wrong with my shoulders? Why were they screaming in pain?

During the first night after surgery, I woke up quite loudly. Typically, I internalize pain and am able to breathe through even the most intense discomfort. This pain, however, was on a different level, and I could not contain my screaming like a banshee cries. My husband immediately jolted awake and ran out of the room to grab nurses, doctors, residents… heck, I don’t doubt he would have grabbed the janitor. He was desperate to find someone to help me. To be quite honest, I thought I had a blood clot in my lung. These are extremely dangerous and often can be fatal if not tended to. My right ribcage and shoulder felt as though a fist was trying to push through from the inside out; As though they would explode any minute. It was pain that I had similarly experienced with my first surgery. However, this gas would not be able to naturally escape. It was up high and would not be heading towards an exit. My body had to absorb it over time. The nurses and doctors, (and quite possibly the janitor) ran in and quickly tended to my ailment. Before I knew it, more pain meds began trickling through my IV. Slowly but surely I felt by body relaxing and the pain quieting. I was able to sleep that night, and felt well enough to be discharged the next day.

Once home, I rested peacefully in my own bed. With a memory foam topper, marshmallow-like mattress pad, and divinely fluffy pillows, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Within two days, I received a call from my doctor. After surgery, as usual, my tumor was turned over to pathology where it would be tested to determine if it was malignant or benign. My doctor called with the news. It was not the news we were desperately hoping and praying for. The tumor was malignant. Neuroendocrine cancer has recurred once again. For a fourth time to be exact… but who’s counting?

I can’t begin to describe the rush of emotions that both my husband and I experience upon receiving this type of news. Though it’s our fourth time learning that cancer has invaded my body, it never gets easier. With my husband at work, and I, alone at home with our dogs, I cried out to God. “Lord, you have to protect me. I can’t keep doing this! Please heal me here on Earth. I’m not ready to die.” Once I told Matt the news, he left work early and came home. Together, we sat on the floor of our bathroom and cried. We prayed and pleaded with God to rid my body of cancer. We prayed for strength, wisdom, and direction moving forward.

Cancer sucks. And recurrences are worse. A real-life version of the film Groundhog Day. A nightmarish merry go round with zombies and evil clowns. One that slowly comes to a halt, but before stopping to allow me to get off, quickly picks up the pace and continues wildly spinning about. I have zero control; All I can do is hang on and pray that the ride stops eventually. Recurrences are truly what nightmares are made of. Once you’ve had cancer, the fear of the disease returning hides in the darkest part of your mind. Though you may not think about it often, it lurks and appears at the first sight of vulnerability.

The truth is, I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’m ready for this seemingly never-ending chapter with cancer to end. I’m ready to move forward with my life, and for Matt and I to step into the greatness that we believe God has for our future. I’m ready to step out of my role as a cancer patient. I’m ready to be a full-time survivor, with cancer a thing of the past. I’m emotionally exhausted, yet I have to continue if I want to survive. I have no choice. I must fight to gain more time here. If I don’t, my end may arrive sooner. Cancer sucks.

Regardless of how defeated Matt and I may feel, we know that God is not defeated. No matter what the news is, God still holds the entire universe in His hands, and not one speck of our lives is unknown to Him. He knew that we would receive these results. He knew that I had a fourth fight in me. He knows. He believes in me. He believes in my future. He believes that, with His help, I can overcome this. So why shouldn’t I believe the same? We place our complete trust in Him. We know that God has purpose in this recurrence, and we cling to the faith that He is stirring up a story so big, we can’t begin to fathom it.

This may sound weird to you… it sounds weird to me sometimes. It is an honor to have this story. It is an honor to be chosen to fight this battle. It’s an honor to have the platform to share of God’s goodness through the darkest pits of despair. It’s an honor to be a cancer patient, and an even greater honor to be a child of God with the knowledge that I will survive, no matter what.

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Psalm 63:1-4, 7-8 (MSG)

“God—you’re my God! I can’t get enough of you! I’ve worked up such hunger and thirst for God, traveling across dry and weary deserts. So here I am in the place of worship, eyes open, drinking in your strength and glory. In your generous love I am really living at last! My lips brim praises like fountains. I bless you every time I take a breath; My arms wave like banners of praise to you… Because you’ve always stood up for me, I’m free to run and play. I hold on to you for dear life, and you hold me steady as a post.”

Complicated Results and Abundant Faith

It’s that time of the year again. My three month follow up scan has arrived. If you follow me on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, you know that I laid on the hard, metal table one week ago. The results are in…

There’s a spot on my left adrenal gland.

Before you begin jumping to conclusions, let me explain. We aren’t positive that this lesion is even cancer. This is a spot that has lit up on the last few of my scans, and first made it’s appearance in October. Since then, I’ve had several rounds of chemotherapy. Throughout it all, this unknown mass has remained. It has grown slightly in size over the last seven months, but doesn’t seem to be affecting my body’s function.

When I was first told of the news, I didn’t even know what an adrenal gland was. One of our close friends is a doctor in this field and was able to explain to us in non-medical terms what we were dealing with. The adrenal gland is essentially a hat on top of the kidney. It’s purpose is to produce hormones such as stress and adrenaline. Each kidney gets it’s own adrenal gland, so, naturally we all have two. This lesion could potentially be one of three things.

  1. A benign non-functioning tumor. In which case, it’s a mass that serves no purpose and isn’t affecting my adrenal function.
  2. A benign functioning tumor. This is a tumor that is releasing it’s own hormones like stress and adrenaline.
  3. A malignant tumor. Also known as, cancer.

Of course, we won’t definitively know what this spot is until it is biopsied and sent to a pathologist. However, based on my history in Cancerland, we can conjure up an idea of what it may or may not be. Most likely we can rule out it being a benign functioning tumor. If this were the case, I would be experiencing symptoms like heart racing and bloodshot eyes, which I’m not. It would be obvious if this mass was functioning on it’s own, and from what we can see, it’s not doing much.

There is a chance that this could be another recurrence. However, taking my history of malignancies into account, although this lesion has grown, it has not increased as rapidly as my other recurrent tumors. If you recall, my first recurrence was a softball-sized tumor that developed within three months. That mass grew rapidly and aggressively and even began affecting my hormonal functions. In addition to the difference in growth, my body has proven to respond very well to chemotherapy. If this were a malignancy it would be quizzical to have had no response to treatment. For these reasons and more, we believe this is not a malignant tumor.

This leaves the possibility of it being a simple mass that serves no purpose other than to annoy us by showing up around my left kidney. A little pest that has chosen to, for whatever reason, hang out on my adrenal gland. Matt and I strongly believe that a non-functioning tumor is what’s lurking inside of me.

We have abundant faith that this is not cancer.

Arguments can be made for both sides — malignant and benign. Yes, based on these last two years, an unknown mass can lead many to immediately think cancer. However, just as likely, it could be something completely unrelated. Not everything inside of me has to be marked by this disease.

Regardless of what this lesion is, it will need to be removed. Cancer or not, I don’t need something harassing my adrenal gland. Therefore, I will have surgery at some point. Honestly, I am not fazed in the slightest. I’ve already been through three major surgeries in the last couple of years. I’m familiar with the process and recovery. I know all too well about the discomfort and pain. Surgery no longer scares me. I trust that God has my life in His hands; Just as He orchestrated what has been, He orchestrates what will be.

This morning I venture back into the hospital to lay on another hard table while a loud spinning machine takes several images of my insides. This scan will be a full body PET scan and will show all of my internal organs, including my brain. Compared to the CT scans that I receive every three months, a PET goes deeper in it’s imaging and is far more comprehensive. We may or may not learn more information from this scan. This step is necessary to make sure there are no other masses growing elsewhere in my body.

Next week a new doctor will be added to our team, and we will meet with him to discuss surgery. He will go over the hundreds of documents that have chronicled my medical journey and review each scan image that has been taken. He officially has a new patient that comes baring a lot of medical baggage, and it’ll be interesting to hear his opinion on my case.

For now, we hope and pray. As I mentioned, Matt and I are not fearful, but full of abundant faith. We aren’t anxious, nervous, or even the slightest bit afraid. Standing in faith, we believe this growing lesion is not cancer. We believe that I am still cancer free and will remain so for the rest of my life. We believe that the chapter of cancer has closed and we are entering in to the next season of our lives. We are not only believing, but declaring this. God is so mighty in His power, we are calling upon Him to perform a miracle. He beckons us to have faith, to knock so He can answer, and to trust in Him. Therefore, while believing and trusting in Him, we are asking that this mass that has shown itself on my scans for seven months, will not appear on my PET scan. We are praying that whatever this spot is, will vanish. I actually laugh as I pray, because I can picture my team of doctors jaw-dropped as they read the report and view the images, and see the once 2.6cm mass completely gone.

So, while I don’t have the best news to share, I don’t have the worst news either. The results from my CT scan are merely a speed bump on the journey. This is a moment that the enemy is attempting to lead us to question God. I know he is asking us, “Are you sure you’re healed?” He wants to lead us down the path of emotional and spiritual destruction, but we stand against it. We aren’t entertaining the thoughts and fears that try to creep in. We won’t open a door until God tells us to. For now, we are firm in our faith, and believe in healing. We ask that you would stand with us and believe for a cancer free report.

Luke 8:50 (ESV)

“But Jesus on hearing this answered him, ‘Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.’”

When Cancer Flips Life Upside Down

(As appeared in Everyday Health on February 3, 2014)

Stephanie Madsen

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.

Arm’s Length: The Distance Between Friendship and Cancer

(As appeared in The Huffington Post on 1/28/14)

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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…”

Cancerland

A place where chemo drips freely. Hair is a rare sight to be seen. Tubes, treatment, and trials are common occurrences. Hospital bands are shackles bound to the arms of warriors. And cancer is everywhere.

Welcome to Cancerland.

As I sit here receiving my fourth chemotherapy treatment this season (34th overall), I can’t help but look around, witnessing how cancer has affected the lives of so many. It’s everywhere. Rampant like a rabid monster ferociously feeding on the innocent. Moving its way through the nooks and crannies of both young and old generations. No care that it’s unwelcome. No fear of opposition. No worries in the world.

Once diagnosed, patients, including myself, are immediately propelled into Cancerland. Slingshotted into the abyss, with doctors accompanying us on all sides. Our medical knowledge, once novice, becomes an integral part of our vernacular, and soon we are spouting terms like “hemoglobin,” “neuropathy,” “large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma,” and “CBC.” We become aware what it feels like when our white cells are low, and we equate a shortness of breath to a lack of red blood cells. We become accustomed to aches and pains, leg spasms, and a variety of rare side effects. We ingest pills, supplements, and other magical potions as if they were candy.

This is life. If only we could watch fireworks, eat a chocolate covered frozen banana, and leave the park at the end of the day to crawl into bed outside the gates of Cancerland. However, this disease embeds itself into the pages of our story. It becomes a part of us. A part of our journey. Enveloped in our trials. Overcome in our triumphs. It never leaves us. The shadow of cancer follows us no matter how far we run and no matter how well we hide.

Yet as I am surrounded by my fellow patients, I sense a spirit of camaraderie. We are an army fighting against this horrendous beast. Gathering up arms and standing firm on the hope of success… On the hope of remission. Encouraging one another, exchanging tales of war from seasons past, and dreaming of a bright future. We are more than just patients. We are spouses, children, siblings, parents, and friends. We are people with dreams and goals. Praying to make it through the next year. Hoping for healing. Believing in salvation.

I am touched, moved, and honored to have such an inspiring army of survivors and fighters around me. Everyone who has ever heard the words, “You have cancer,” is immediately part of a unique fraternity. We can say, “nausea,” and as comrades we immediately understand this specific type of sickness. There is something special and deeply personal about the unsaid connection between those who have entered the gates of Cancerland. Some hold their ticket proudly. Some tuck their ticket deep into the crevasse of their pocket. Some try to throw their ticket away, only to find it reappearing every time. No matter if you are proud to be a survivor, in denial of the battle you are in, or not ready to face the fight ahead, we are all a part of this clandestine society.

As for me? I am proud. I have scars, wounds, physical reminders of what I have been through, and what awaits my future. I have aches and pains. I have neuropathy. My insides have been nuked more times than I can recall. My body no longer resembles its form prior to diagnosis. I have been bald, with hair, and bald again several times over. I have lost and gained friends. My life plans have been altered. I am infertile and menopausal. If given the choice on what I wanted my life to look like, cancer would be at the bottom of the list. However, I’m here. There’s no denying it. There’s no getting around it. I have been fighting cancer for the last two years of my life. But I have a choice. One of the largest decisions I have ever had to make and will have to make continuously over the course of my life. Do I want to be miserable? Or do I want to be joyful? Some may think this is not a choice, but I would adamantly challenge that stance. Though oftentimes we cannot choose our circumstances, we can choose our emotions.

I am proud to be a cancer patient…fighter…survivor. I am proud to say that no matter what, cancer will not win because I will never lose. I am proud to belong to this fraternity. My ticket to Cancerland will forever be displayed triumphantly in a frame over my life.

Romans 15:13 (ESV)

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

WARRIOR. (November 2013)

WARRIOR. (November 2013)

The Question of Depression

I’ll admit it. I’ve been MIA for the past month. My absence was not intentional. I just couldn’t get the words out into my blog. However, it was nothing like writer’s block. It was much deeper. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but whatever it was, it was looming over me like a dark cloud.

Throughout these past few weeks, I have often felt the urge to sit down and write. To pour out my thoughts. To process. To purge. Yet, no matter how much I wanted to, I simply could not.

Recently I discovered the answer, the reason, and the explanation for this sudden halt. For this past month, and frankly since the day I learned of my enemy’s return, I had been carrying an extra burden of emotions. Emotions that lingered. That weighed me down. That tried hard to steal my joy, hope, and happiness. Call it depression. Call it a funk. Call it what you will, I was being buried by it.

Every season of my battle against cancer has contained different emotional responses and physical hurdles. For the better part of my two previous seasons, I had battled more physical hurdles. I had more days where I felt like crap. More days where I had been in pain. Yet, this season has been different from the start. Not a tumor, only microscopic cells. Praise God for that. Not as physically taxing as it has been emotionally. Yet, sometimes working through emotions is harder than working through pain.

“Do you ever get depressed having to go through all of this?”

A few weeks ago, I was asked this simple question. I actually laughed. Not at the friend asking the question, but at the thought. Depressed? “100% YES,” I said. However, not many people see that from me. Though I walk in the strength and grace that God has given me today, I still stumble into the pit of worry, fear, and despair from time to time. I have never lost faith nor hope. I cling tight to the belief that I will be healed here on Earth. But this season, this battle, this fight had brought with it a sadness that I hadn’t been able to shake off.

This question has been asked many times: “Do you ever get sad?” In fact, several people have inquired if I ever have low days. Many have shared that they always see a smile on my face. That if they had no idea about my diagnosis, they wouldn’t guess that I was fighting for my life every single day. I’m thankful that I don’t appear as a cancer patient. I’m thankful that I have beautiful wigs and that I am talented with a makeup brush. But, believe me… fighting cancer sucks. It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It’s hell. When I was initially diagnosed almost two years ago, some even thought I was in denial. Some thought that because I wasn’t crying every second of every day, the reality must not have hit me. The truth is, it hit me from the start. I did cry. A lot. I did grieve. I had to let go of the plans my husband and I had. At 25 years old, my whole world changed. Yet, from the beginning, I chose to not let cancer ruin me. It would take my health, my fertility, my plans, but I refused to let it steal my joy, my hope, and my faith.

This season I have shed more tears. After all, I was just getting used to a cancer-free life. My hair was gorgeous, growing, and curly! I hadn’t had treatment for seven months, and I was nearly a year cancer-free. I thought that was it. I thought Matt and I could begin to forge our way into our new “normal,” healthy, happy, and whole. And because I was living life free of this awful disease, it’s recurrence this time was harder. I cried every single day for a week straight. I, stupidly and regretfully, watched sappy romance movies by myself and went through boxes of tissues. I also noticed something else. Something far more concerning. I wasn’t in The Word as often as I should be. In fact, my emotions were beginning to interfere with my relationship with Jesus. And, now that I’m finding my way out of the dark cloud, I realize that was the enemy’s goal. To sadden me to the point that my focus was no longer on my Savior, but on my grief.

The struggle through cancer is the single hardest thing I have ever had to do. Fighting for my life every single day is exasperating. No matter how tired, weak, and sad that I get, I still put on my shit-kicker boots every day and head to war. The war against the enemy. Not only against the monster that has repeatedly tried to parasitically take my life from the inside out, but also the monsters that wage war inside my mind and spirit. But I am still human, and on my own am incapable of winning this war. Without help, I will surely die. I can’t head to the front lines without armor and supernatural strength. I can’t let my emotions cloud my sight to the Almighty: the One who can and will save me from this battle, the only One who is more than capable of healing me in a matter of seconds.

Often, we allow our emotions in a circumstance to control our reaction, response, and direction. We let the enemy slither his way inside our minds as he spits venom into our spirits. We become blind and deaf to the sight and voice of Jesus. Our victory becomes dull. Our joy is diminished. And that is why it is imperative to stay focused, with our eyes on the One who can offer us hope, freedom, peace, healing, strength, and joy. No matter how different and difficult the seasons may be… No matter the peaks and valleys of our emotions… No matter… God is never-changing. He is consistent. He is who He always has been. He is the same God when I was healthy. He is faithful, and continues to have my back. He wants the best for me. Therefore, I must seek Him first. I challenge you to do the same.

Let’s stand above our emotions, and let His promises, His goodness, and His power reign.

(October 2013)

(October 2013)

1 Peter 8-11 (MSG)

“Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you napping. Keep your guard up. You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world. So keep a firm grip on the faith. The suffering won’t last forever. It won’t be long before this generous God who has great plans for us in Christ—eternal and glorious plans they are!—will have you put together and on your feet for good. He gets the last word; yes, he does.”

Groundhog Day

The one with Bill Murray, not Punxsutawney Phil.

Getting cancer over, and over, and over again is comparable to the movie Groundhog Day. One season ends and I wake up expecting a new one to begin, only to find myself in the same season I have journeyed twice before. Over, and over, and over again. Much to my dismay, this battle is not complete yet.

As you know (or maybe you haven’t read the latest), surgery went better than we could have imagined. God has repeatedly displayed His power. The scan showed a two-inch tumor near my remaining ovary. However, during surgery, my doctor didn’t find a tumor at all, and in fact stated that I had one of the cleanest abdomens she had ever seen – pink and healthy. Just to be certain, she removed the ovary and sent it off for further review. Pathology reports came back showing microscopic cancerous cells… That, my friends, is a miracle… Did you not catch that? From the size of nearly a golf ball, to microscopic cells. Had there not been a tumor on my scan, my doctor would not have operated, and I would have continued believing that I was cancer-free, when in reality, this disease would have had three more months to grow and possibly travel elsewhere. God allowed a tumor to show up on my scan, in order for us to find the beginning stages of a recurrence. A golf ball size shrinking to microscopic cells. If you don’t call that a miracle, I don’t know what you would.

God calls us to focus on the praises and miracles He has performed in our lives and the lives of those around us. Yet, as humans, when another storm arises, we tend to forget those miracles. We often store them in the back of our minds, only occasionally pulling them forward in our memories. Life gets hard again, and we forget all the good He has done in and for us. By doing that, we aren’t fully recognizing God for who He is. His goodness doesn’t come and go. He is the single most consistent being in existence. We must remember the blessings He has poured over us. It’s as vital as breathing.

Since surgery one month ago, I have already received chemotherapy. About 12 days ago, in fact. It was my 31st chemo cocktail, yet familiarity doesn’t always bring comfort. I’ll never say fighting cancer is easy. No matter if it’s your first time, or your third, fighting cancer takes everything you have and more. Frankly, I can’t believe I’m doing this all over again. Twice… okay, that was hard enough. But three times? After being out of treatment for six months and nearly a year cancer-free. Seriously?

I’ve processed this recurrence different than my initial diagnosis and first recurrence. It’s been drastically more emotional for me. Being that so many of my girlfriends are pregnant now, I’d venture into comparing my emotions with those of an expectant mother. For real. This past week, I’ve cried over the silliest things. On one of my good days, Matt and I ventured into Ikea, and noticed a woman training a service dog. I had to keep walking, or I would have needed a box of tissues. I’ve cried to my husband and by myself. Over everything and over nothing. The tears have found their way out regardless of my will to keep them contained. I know that purging these emotions is a good thing, and a healthy cry session can help with the process.

No matter how much I’d love to say I’m always focusing on the positive, I am here to admit that I, too, am human. I have moments where I allow the blessings to easily slide to the back of my mind, allowing the storm to overwhelm my life. My tears are those of sadness, grief, and exhaustion. I loathe the fact that I am faced with this choice again. The choice to fight or die. Fighting cancer is just that… a choice. And it’s a choice that I must make. However, as always, I choose to fight.

Clinging to God’s blessings in the midst of the storm helps us build up our arsenal of tools to ward off the enemy. The enemy is a thief in the night who wants to steal our joy, hope, and positivity. He knows we are weak and preys on our vulnerabilities; doing whatever he can to push us further into the mud. It’s easy to fall into the pit of despair and continue drowning in the muck that tries to suffocate us.

Last week was full of emotions, sadness, shock, and defeat. I was living in a real-life Groundhog Day. But today, I am standing firm in the promises, miracles, and blessings that God has poured over me. I am calling forth every gift He has given me, and every promise He has spoken to me. I am remembering the moment I woke up from surgery to learn that there was no tumor. I am remembering the many times that God has scheduled divine appointments on my behalf. I am clinging to the goodness of my Savior, because I am blessed.

I’m fighting this again, which only means that I will soon be a three-time cancer survivor. This season will be different. I’m not waking up in the same place as I was twice before. Try as you may, cancer, but this chick is standing firm with spiritual armor so powerful, nothing can penetrate it.

Handling business as usual, chemo-style. (October 2013)

Handling business as usual, chemo-style. (October 2013)

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (MSG)

“Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’ Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”

Not So Fast

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(Guest post by Matt)

Stephanie and I have spent a few days in the hospital, and she seems to have been progressing better than she has after previous surgeries. When they rolled her out of the post-op area, she was already sipping water. In prior surgeries, she wasn’t even allowed to touch but a few ice chips for about a day afterwards. Aside from a furious bout with itchiness last night (which we think was brought on by the hospital bedsheets, soon replaced by soft sheets from home), Stephanie has been able to do everything they want her to in order to go home.

But, as we have learned on multiple occasions during this journey, life can be unpredictable. I noted in the last post that they had to check the removed ovary for microscopic traces of the cancer. Well, the pathology report came back today and MJ gave us the news: there were microscopic cancer cells in the cystic walls of Stephanie’s ovary, nothing that could be seen with the human eye. That’s the thing with this or any other type of cancer. There’s an obvious battle against tumors and what shows up on scans, but there is also the microscopic battle.

So, there will be further treatment.

Stephanie will once again have to undergo chemotherapy treatments after all. She’ll start in a couple weeks after she heals up from her hospital stay. The good news is that these cells were found in the ovary that was taken out. There wasn’t a tumor, and there wasn’t any spreading to other areas of her body. So this chemo season will be an “insurance policy” to fight the microscopic battle. MJ is confident that it’s nowhere else and if there are still cancerous cells, the chemotherapy will prove effective against them. And, tomorrow morning, Stephanie is getting a PET scan, not a CT scan. That is good news.

In hindsight, we were a little spoiled with the immediate post-surgery news that no cancer was seen. Just because it wasn’t seen doesn’t mean that it still wasn’t present (obviously). It’s so small that the doctor who sees cancer every day couldn’t even see it. But we know that God is still good. He has orchestrated this whole story. Nothing about this is a surprise to Him. He is obviously still working in this story to bring glory to Him. Yes, it’s a bummer that Stephanie will lose her hair again and have to get chemo again. But, this is what we were planning before we even got to the hospital on Monday. We were prepared for another season of treatment and we still are.

Prayer-wise, we would appreciate prayers for emotional strength and endurance for the season ahead. Imagine the amount of stress and anxiety that is endured when you spend months and months growing your hair out just to find out you’re going to lose it again. This is difficult (especially for a woman). Just like everyone else, we have been expecting to be able to plan out our lives a little bit. Some people get further along than others before God reveals HIS plan for their lives. We are experiencing this in the time when we would otherwise be thinking about buying our first house and starting a family. Having to put those things “on hold” has been difficult for both of us, so prayers for understanding God’s will for our lives and being able to handle the “holding” gracefully would be especially appreciated. Also, very short-term, I am bouncing between home and the hospital not only to care for our pups, but it is moving week. So, we also request prayers for a smooth move. Big props to the fellas who will be helping us out this weekend with this task, it means more than you know.

We are praying that the “third time’s a charm” with this treatment. We’re keeping positive attitudes and we know that how people handle what comes their way reveals their true character. Thank you for praying with us and standing beside us.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (MSG)

“It’s better to have a partner than go it alone. Share the work, share the wealth. And if one falls down, the other helps, but if there’s no one to help, tough! Two in a bed warm each other. Alone, you shiver all night. By yourself you’re unprotected. With a friend you can face the worst. Can you round up a third? A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped.”

Our Plan, His Will

These past few days have been entirely orchestrated by God, of that I am sure.

Tuesday night, our church had it’s monthly women’s event, and I was asked to be a small group leader for the evening. One of my dear friends shared her testimony with all of us, and her message was enriched with His faithfulness. In fact, God’s faithfulness was the theme of the night. I am convinced that both the theme and it’s timing were orchestrated with enormous purpose.

Most of us say that He is faithful. We worship Him with that word. We pray for that characteristic to shine in our lives. But how many of us really know that it is true? God’s faithfulness is not measured by how many prayers are answered. He remains faithful even when our plans aren’t in alignment with His.

As I led my group into discussion, I was given questions to pose to the ladies. Here are a few that stood out to me, and have meaning especially now:

  • “Has there been a time where God has made something beautiful out of your hurt or pain?”
  • “How is our story part of God’s bigger story? Share a time when it was hard for you to see at first, but in the end you realized that God was doing something for a reason that you couldn’t see at the time.”
  • “Why is it sometimes hard to surrender to God’s plan in our lives?”

Notice that not one of these questions mentions an ease to or fulfillment of our plans. Many times God sees our plans and wants something bigger for us. I’m sure He looks at our life goals, plans, and desires and thinks, “That’s it? That’s all you want? My will is far greater that that.”

My follow-up CT scan was on Monday. Our women’s event was Tuesday. And I received the scan results on Wednesday. In the moment, I wanted the results immediately. Why couldn’t I receive them within seven hours like I did last time? I didn’t understand why. But now I do. Tuesday was God’s time to speak to me. To remind me of His faithfulness, regardless of the circumstance. It was His moment to encourage and empower me, and to remind me of His steadfast love. His timing was perfect.

I received the call yesterday morning at 7:03 am. Upon answering the phone, I heard my doctor’s voice. I immediately knew. A tumor had grown near my remaining ovary on the right side of my abdomen. It’s a little smaller than two inches. The cancer has returned for a third time. After listening to the medical details and ensuing plan of action, the conversation ended. My husband slid to the ground with his face in his hands, and began to cry. Tears began to fall from my eyes, as well. Instead of asking “Why?” I uttered, “I don’t understand. What plans do You have for me Lord?” I refuse to question His intentions, but can’t help questioning His plan. The tears of disappointment quickly turned into tears of sadness that I would, yet again, lose my hair. I ran my hands through my thick curls, and continued to express grief over the future loss of my locks. I hate losing my hair. It continues to be the most difficult part of this journey.

From the moment I processed this news, a calm confidence has filled my spirit. Where fear, doubt, and worry could hide, confidence has held residence instead. Large Cell Neuroendocrine cancer is extremely aggressive and, more often than not, fatal. However, this cancer is behaving unusual in my body. Unusually good. Sounds oxymoronic considering it’s return, however, it’s seemingly losing it’s power inside of me. Typically, this disease grows out of control and spreads quickly. Because both my hormonal and nervous system (Neuroendocrine) are under attack, this cancer has no bounds to where it can travel. In fact, in many cases, it heads to the lungs and brain rapidly. Yet, for some reason, it is remaining very localized in my pelvic region. It’s attaching itself to surgically removable organs. It is nowhere else in my body, and is no longer growing out of control. The tumor this time is significantly smaller than the second softball-sized tumor that developed within three months. I have been out of treatment for nearly six months, and was nearing the one year mark for being cancer free. All of these facts are good. They give me great confidence that once we remove this last ovary, the cancer will see nowhere else to grow and will cease residency in my body. I’m not dying from cancer. God has bigger things in store.

On October 6th, Matt and I will be running our very first 5k. We have been training for nearly eight weeks, and have put a lot of sweaty effort into our goal. This race immediately flashed in front of my eyes upon hearing the news that I would need surgery and chemotherapy all over again. “I WILL run this race. We’ll postpone surgery if we have to, but we ARE running this race.” Matt was adamant that I was delusional, but agreed to speak with my doctor. Explaining that this accomplishment would mean so much, I was insistent that cancer not take it away from me. Thankfully my doctor agreed, and smiling, she told us to run the 5k. Thank you, Jesus! Postponing surgery a few more days than expected should not have an impact on my health. If at any time between now and surgery, we feel the need to move forward with the procedure earlier, we can and will. However, my hope and prayer is that my pain will remain at a minimum and that the tumor will neither grow nor spread in this time. Our race is in ten days. Surgery is scheduled in eleven days, on October the 7th.

Through all of this, God remains faithful. Our plans and His are not in alignment, yet I know that His will for my life is far greater than I can imagine. For that reason, I continue to trust in His healing power, and know that He’s got this all figured out.

Psalm 138:8 (MSG)

“When I walk into the thick of trouble, keep me alive in the angry turmoil. With one hand strike my foes, with your other hand save me. Finish what you started in me, God. Your love is eternal—don’t quit on me now.”

 

 

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