Posts Tagged ‘cancer survivor’

My Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Sugar-Free Vegan Lifestyle

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The numbers on the scale continued to rise. I was bewildered and depressed knowing that my diet hadn’t changed at all. As my clothes grew tighter and my stomach more bloated, I realized that my assumptions had been wrong. Cancer treatment was not a sure way to lose weight, and in fact, many women actually gain weight during chemotherapy. I gained thirty pounds within the first six months of treatment.

I’ll never forget my very first chemo. A nutritionist came in to talk to me about diet and nutrition. He said that I would lose my appetite and that I needed to focus on consuming more calories than I was used to, to ensure that my body remained strong. He said, “If you want chocolate, eat chocolate. When you’re hungry, eat whatever sounds good.” And while this may be sound advice for those who truly do lose their appetites, for me, it was neither helpful nor beneficial to my fight against cancer.

The truth is, there are more opinions about the cause of cancer than I even care to address. Will being in the sun increase your chance of getting cancer? Yes. Will consuming copious amounts of sugar fuel the disease? I’m sure. Will eating red meat propel the growth of cancer cells? Maybe. Are there ways we can reduce our exposure and risk of getting cancer? More than likely. Do high-fiber, cruciferous, plant-based diets combat malignancies? Probably. There are books, websites, and plentiful resources that completely conflict with each other. How do we even begin to decide what is right? My answer? Do you what you feel is best for you. Read those books, watch those documentaries, listen to those professionals, and scour the resources, but always listen to your body and trust your gut.

Beyond the rise of the numbers on the scale, during my fights against cancer and years later, I noticed an overall decline in my health and wellness. Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery recovery is taxing on one’s body, but even after they were completed, I felt lethargic. For months I assumed it was my body trying to heal from the amount of treatment I had received. I figured that the reason my body was not bouncing back as expected was due to the fact that I was experiencing menopause as a young adult. I had just fought cancer four times in three years and received a slew of treatments and several surgeries, so of course my body was tired! While I believe that is true, I also know that my body was craving good nutrition. The tank of this engine was dangerously low and it needed to be refueled.

I grew up with a southern cookin’ mama. Casseroles, fixins’, crockpot dishes, pasta, rolls, cheese, and butter. All the food that metaphorically wraps you in a nice, warm blanket and whispers in a southern drawl, “Sweet darlin’, you’ll be alright.” It wasn’t until my early twenties when I realized that though my heart loved that food, my body did not. I have been lactose intolerant since birth. My mom had to quickly eliminate all dairy from her diet because of my colic. I have vivid memories of eating ice cream as a toddler and breaking out in violent hives. I quickly learned to steer clear of milk, but continued to eat cheese, yogurt, and other processed dairy foods.

I have never been someone who loves meat. If you are like my husband, a self-proclaimed meataholic, your jaw probably dropped at that statement. Though I grew up with barbecue meat, grilled meat, and deli meat, it never appealed to me. In fact, I’ve always loathed steak. So, at 20 years old, I decided to radically change my diet. I not only stopped consuming meat, but also rejected all animal products, becoming completely vegan. Yet one year in, at dinner with my boyfriend (now husband), I caved. I just needed that sour cream! Processed dairy continued to pull at my heart strings, but I stayed committed to being a vegetarian (no meat, but some animal products).

After cancer, no amount of exercise was helping. I’d wake up early every morning to get a hard workout in, but the tired, bloated, and heavy feelings remained. I have always enjoyed juicing, so I would go on strict juice fasts to see how my body would react. I would lose up to ten pounds in one week and feel great, but as soon as I went back to consuming my normal diet, my body would revolt. I grew weary in my search for health, and started to feel like this was the body and the energy level I needed to accept for myself.

Somewhere on my social media news feeds, I saw something that caught my eye. The Whole30. Several of my friends were posting how amazing their experiences were, so I quickly researched to find out more. I loved everything that I read, and especially loved that the goal behind the program was not to lose weight, but rather to “push the reset button with your health, habits, and relationship with food, and the downstream physical and psychological effects of the food choices you’ve been making.” Without going into a comprehensive description, because there are several resources that give in-depth explanations, the Whole30 is a 30-day elimination of “the most common craving-inducing, blood sugar disrupting, gut-damaging, inflammatory food groups.” No added sugar, no dairy, no gluten, no grains, no alcohol, no legumes, no processed foods. At this point you may be wondering what one can actually eat while on the Whole30. The answer? REAL FOOD.

I decided to try it, and even suckered my husband into joining me. After the thirty days, we both felt incredible. Our views of food radically transformed, our energy increased, our physical appearances changed, and we agreed that we felt the best we had in years. Though meat can be consumed on the Whole30, I chose to continue on with my decade-long decision to remain meatless. My body and mind felt so rejuvenated after the thirty days, that I decided to go forward with a vegan, primarily Whole30 lifestyle. Because the changes I experienced have been so dramatic, I cannot imagine ever returning to the gluten-filled, dairy-full, sugar-loaded way I ate before.

Am I so rigid in my nutrition that I don’t allow myself certain non-compliant foods every now and then? No! My husband makes an incredible vegan black bean (legume) quinoa (grain) dish, and you better believe that I practically lick my plate dry. What I’ve learned by eliminating inflammatory foods is that my body functions best with real, natural, unprocessed foods. I no longer crave nor want items rich in gluten, dairy, or sugar. I eat a diet abundant of fresh vegetables, fruits, and nuts. And you know what? Never have I ever felt deprived. I am full, satisfied, in shape, and energized. And as a bonus, I’ve lost nearly all of the thirty pounds I gained during treatment.

Many of you have asked for my favorite recipe recommendations. To start, I highly recommend beginning the Whole30 and reading the resources of the program. There are several books, cookbooks, and websites dedicated to this lifestyle. Heck, go on Pinterest and search, “Whole30 recipes” and you’re sure to find no less than 900 options! For me, there aren’t many vegetables or fruits that I won’t eat, so my options are endless. Eliminating all gluten, dairy, sugar, and processed foods can be intimidating, but if you are committed, your life will be changed. And by the way, this is not a sponsored post. I simply believe that we are meant to eat clean, real food and I have found a program that believes the same.

I challenge you to start listening to the way your body and mind responds to what you are feeding it. If you are tired after consuming certain foods, your body is trying to tell you something. Listen to it.

The Power of Shared Story

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I was sitting in the fourth row surrounded by hundreds of people perched on the edge of their seats awaiting the wisdom that would soon flood the stage. With an empty seat in front of me, I had clear vision of the speakers who sat in executive leather chairs facing the audience. As the session began, a sense of relief spilled over me. The conversation instantly pierced my weary heart as I thought, “Me, too.”

As she poignantly responded to each prose, the speaker’s authentic approach penetrated the doubting places of my heart and called me to rise up in self-worth and acknowledge that I was no longer alone. She expressed inner thoughts that I felt were only crashing inside my own brain. She illuminated fears and self-doubt that I had previously assumed were only felt by me. She shared personal struggles that turned out to be universal among many. Her openness invited me into a place of belonging. Her willingness to share her story broke the barriers I felt trapped in for so long. I no longer felt alone.

This has happened to all of us at one time or another. Maybe you were sitting in a church service and the pastor said something that ripped through to your very core and felt meant just for you. Maybe a friend shared their story with you and you couldn’t resist nodding your head in agreement at every word they spoke because each one resonated inside your heart. Maybe you read a book or heard a song that finally put words to the way you had been feeling. Maybe, like me, you attended a conference and a speaker expressed a message that washed over your spirit like cool water in the midst of a drought.

From that moment on, your life was probably different. Not only do we feel a sense of relief when someone expresses feelings that we feel, but we are also overwhelmed with a sense of belonging and validation. The “Me too” feeling is powerful. It breaks down walls that we construct around our hearts. It shatters the windows of isolation that we look out from. It invites us to walk alongside each other instead of alone and behind everyone else.

In each of these scenarios, someone entered into a space of vulnerability and was willing to share their story with us. Had they resigned themselves to isolation, we would not benefit from inclusion. If stories and experiences remained locked within the bearer, no one would belong. We would all be alone within the confines our feelings.

The power of sharing our stories is monumental. When we give a voice to our feelings and a platform to our experience, we invite others into the fold. When we shed light on the dark places, shame is removed, fear is absolved, and doubt is erased. Light penetrates the darkness and shines truth over the lies we convince ourselves of. When one person is bold to share their experience, it releases others into the freedom to share their own. What our parents told us is true: sharing is caring. When we share our hearts with one another, we are caring for the well-being of one another.

Many people often tell me that they envy how open I am about my journey. Saying, “I wish I was as bold as you,” or “No one would listen to what I have to say.” And this pains me, because it’s not only untrue, but is a deception that so many fall into. The comparison game is unending. What we must first understand is the difference between circumstance and story.  Our stories are unique and individual, while our circumstances may be shared. Comparisons come when we confuse the two and believe that because our circumstances may be similar our stories must be comparative. The truth is, circumstances happen to us all, but stories are uniquely given to each of us and no two are the same. Comparison is harmful and devastating because it kills the message. It builds walls when we should be breaking them down.

Comparison, at its root, is a thief. It robs us of joy and life and abundance. Comparison causes us to draw within ourselves and continues the cycle of isolation. We must stop comparing our voices to one another. We must stop comparing our circumstances and our experiences. Instead, we should unite and share our stories to show one another that none of us are alone in our suffering, and in our grief, and in our pain. The truth is we are all suffering, and no pain is greater or less than.

Sometimes we wonder if we actually do have a voice. We confuse extroverted and introverted personalities for the effectiveness of platform. We assume that extroverts have a louder voice and introverts have a more quiet one. While the volume of our voices may differ, our platforms are the same. Think about this — do you interact with other people throughout your day, week, or month? Whether you are confined to your home for medical reasons, in a fast-paced sales career, or are a stay-at-home mother, we all have interpersonal interactions. It may be with your neighbor, your spouse, your children, your online community, or even strangers in the grocery store. If you have people around you (which you do), you have a platform to share your story.

Our suffering is not meant for us alone. Our circumstance ushers us into the arena together, for we all suffer. Rather than being trapped in the lie that no one else knows what we are going through, step out in faith and share. You’ll be surprised at the influence your sharing will have not only on your own heart, but on the hearts who receive your shared story. By keeping your story within, you are perpetuating someone else’s isolation. Sharing our stories is pivotal to freedom, healing, and restoration. We cannot heal what we don’t acknowledge. Freedom will never exist until the chains of silence are broken.

Your story is powerful and it needs to be shared. Invite someone to say, “Me too.”

Romans 10:14 (MSG)

“But how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it?”

Fun Chat Friday

In the last month, I’ve begun a weekly digital series that I’ve titled, “Fun Chat Friday.” Through Instagram Stories I share about a variety of topics each week as a way to invite you to learn more about me on a personal level. It’s a great way to interact with all of you and I’ve really been enjoying it.

I launched the series by debunking the myth that I had breast cancer. Many of my social media followers were under the impression that because I have several friends who survived breast cancer, I must have too. Since then, I’ve addressed frequently asked questions including those about my nutrition and gluten/dairy/sugar-free vegetarian lifestyle, the top five ways I cope with scanxiety, and most recently, what life looks like now and what projects I am working on as of late.

I’ve been given wonderful feedback from these weekly episodes, and am surprised at how well they have been received by all of you. It’s nice to put a face and voice to my words, isn’t it? Sometimes a person’s full personality doesn’t entirely show through written words, but seeing them interact in a more personal way adds depth to one’s character. If you don’t already follow me on Instagram, please do (@derailingmydiagnosis)!

Some have asked how Instagram is different than my Facebook business page or even my blog and to be honest, it gives you a deeper look into my life. I share throwback photos of my time fighting cancer, sneak peeks into my daily life after cancer, and what inspires me now. When I visit the doctor, I take you along with me, sharing pictures and videos in real time. You see my minute-by-minute updates, my raw emotions, and what it’s truly like behind the scenes of my life.

Instagram has become a platform where I share more intimate details of my journey, and has quickly become my favorite way of sharing my story. As previously mentioned, every Friday I post a video series on a wide array of topics. Some topics are more serious and others are lighthearted and fun. Every topic comes from emails I receive from you. So, if you have a question or would like me to speak more on a specific subject, let me know!

The only catch to these stories is that they disappear after twenty-four hours, which gives you incentive to tune in each week. Though if you miss a Fun Chat Friday episode, you’re not entirely out of luck. Some of the topics will be featured here on the blog in the weeks following each episode. For example, this month I’ll be writing about two topics previously featured on Fun Chat Friday: nutrition and my five tips for coping with scanxiety.

On the lineup in the weeks to come, I’ll be sharing about the side effects I experienced during treatment and those that continue to linger after, my favorite products (hair, makeup, and accessories), how I choose joy in the midst of the storm, and who is most inspiring to me. I am loving this new venture and enjoy having a space that I can more readily interact with all of you.

One of the most revealing things that I’ve learned in sharing my story so openly is that we really do need each other. We are not meant to walk through life alone. Social media, though at times overwhelming and intrusive, provides an incredible community for all of us. No matter if you are currently fighting cancer, have survived the disease, or are walking a similar path of suffering, the power of social media has the ability to unite us. My ultimate goal for Fun Chat Friday is that you would know you are not alone. Let’s be vulnerable with one another. We’re in this together.

I receive daily emails, direct messages, and comments from you, and each one impacts my life. Though it’s been over five years that I publicly began to share my story, reading each note continues to leave in me in awe at the simple beauty of communication and camaraderie. I am grateful for you. For your dedication in following along as I have faced my darkest seasons, my most memorable moments, and the tremendous growth I’ve experienced and wisdom I’ve gained over the years. Your support and encouragement never go unnoticed.

If you want to join me each week — to laugh, maybe cry, and most definitely learn more about me — tune in to Fun Chat Friday! This week I’ll be digging into the past in a way I haven’t yet done. I’ve spent days scouring the hundreds of pictures we took during the very midst of my fight, specifically looking for the ones that tell the painful story of the side effects I experienced during treatment. Many have asked how chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery affected me then and how it still affects me now, so that’s what I’ll be chatting about this week!

See you on Friday!

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Hebrews 10: 24-25 (ESV)

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Fear, Faith, and Follow-Ups

SMadsenHope25-2“I don’t know about you, but I feel really good about this scan. You’re going to be cancer-free. I just know it.”

You’d be surprised at how often I hear this from family, friends, and sometimes strangers around the time I’m due for my latest follow-up scan. While my initial reaction is to bristle in response, it also breathes life into the dark and doubting places in my spirit. It’s a double-edged sword. I love and hate hearing it. I appreciate the words because, deep down in my soul, I feel them to be true. Yet, history glows on my medical reports. Having experienced three recurrences, I’m cautious and timid about predicting what’s to come. The truth is, we never know what the results of each scan will be until my doctor presents them to me face-to-face.

There have been seasons when I have felt, with every fiber in my being, that the cancer was gone. And I’ve been wrong. Likewise, there have been moments when my fears were overwhelming and I was convinced that the disease was infesting my body. And again, I’ve been proven wrong. I’ve had more scans than I can count, so I’ve learned to maintain a specific posture while facing them. Cautiously optimistic and abundantly thankful.

I stand with cautious optimism to maintain balance. It’s neither healthy to be ridden with the anxiety of looming bad news, nor to be preemptively and naively excited for positive results. It’s crucial to rest somewhere in the middle. Cautious and optimistic. Additionally, I remind myself to be thankful when scans are on the horizon. Depression, fear, and doubt cannot penetrate gratitude. Joy is birthed in a thankful heart. I reflect on how far I have come, all that I have, and all that God has waiting for me in the future. Second to salvation, life itself is the greatest gift of all.

“I feel good about it.” My dad actually said this to me yesterday. As soon as the words hit my ears, my insides shuddered. And as quickly as I recoiled, I also smiled. What an odd experience. I am full of faith and hope, yet fear pricks at my heart. You see, fear and faith are not mutually exclusive. So often we believe they are. That if we are afraid, we are simply lacking faith. How defeating must that be, for us to be faithless if fear is present? It’s simply not the truth. Fear is a human response, yet faith is a supernatural assurance. They can be felt simultaneously.

Likewise, I’ve grown to understand the difference between fear and fearless. Fearlessness is not a lack of fear but rather a resilient determination to push through the circumstance that makes us most afraid. Fearless means forging a way amidst paralyzing doubt and trepidation. Fearless is a mindset and a commitment. To be fearless is to overcome.

I am full of faith in a God who redeems, restores, and heals. Faith is an assurance in what cannot be seen, and while I have not tangibly seen God, I have seen Him to be true in my life. He is present, at work, and carefully orchestrating every detail. He has gone before me. He has written my story. He has rescued me. My God is alive, and I have faith in Him. At the same time, I struggle with the fear of my earthly opponent. My flesh is quick to breed anxiety and doubt. Rather than reflecting on the miracles woven in my story, my mind falls prey to the memories of past disappointments and recurrences. Fear is a looming shadow, stealthy to entrap me.

My faith is unmoved and unwavering, though my flesh is broken and afraid. Simply put, my faith is abundant because it rests in my Savior, and my fear is present because it rests in a scan. God does not change, our circumstance does. And right now, as my latest follow-up scan approaches, I am choosing to maintain a posture of cautious optimism and an attitude of gratitude. Am I afraid? Not overwhelmingly so, but enough to put me on edge. Scanxiety is real, no matter how long you’ve been cancer-free. Do I have faith? 100% YES! God is bigger than my fear and mightier than my disease.

As you read this, Matt and I will be in between appointments at MD Anderson for my next round of scans, tests, and doctors visits. If you remember my last trip to Houston, I officially reached the two-year mark of being NED, which means my scans have now switched from every three months to every six months. It’s hard to believe that it’s been only six months since my last trip to the hospital! We’ll be venturing to MD Anderson once again to not only meet with my specializing gynecologic oncologist and receive a PET/CT scan, but additionally to meet with a new team of doctors for further tests. (I’ve been experiencing intermittent nerve pain in my breasts and want to be extra sure it’s nothing, therefore I’ll be receiving a mammogram to be precautious.)

While I rarely look forward to these appointments, I find myself with excited anticipation for my last appointment on Thursday. It’s something I have looked forward to for years, and it’s hard to believe it’s finally here. Barring no new spots on my scans, my port will be removed! A momentous occasion indeed!

As we spend two solid days at MD Anderson with eight separate appointments, we ask that you stand with us in prayer. Though this isn’t our first rodeo and we aren’t expecting news other than the positive kind, fear and anxiety are present, but we are full of faith and cautiously optimistic for good results!

Philippians 4:6-7 (MSG)

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”

Unshakeable: 5 Tools to Equip & Strengthen Your Faith

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There are seasons in life when God seems overwhelmingly present and others when He seems far away. As our lives progress, so does our faith. We experience both peaks and valleys throughout our journeys. We can be ignited and on fire for the One who has shown Himself tangible in our lives, and then doubtfully contemplative of His existence when we cannot feel Him near.

When life gets hard, everyone responds differently. Some cry out to God in desperation, some turn their backs on Him in anger, and some worship with the full faith that He will redeem. It can be easy to praise God when life is comfortable, but it is in times of devastation when our faith is tested. We can be sharpened and refined, or defeated and crippled when we face seasons of suffering.

Do you know how you would respond in times of catastrophe? Maybe you have walked through a difficult season, and you felt spiritually ill-equipped to handle the burden. Before being diagnosed with cancer I would have said that I had strong faith, yet it wasn’t until I faced my own mortality, devastating loss, and overwhelming grief that my faith in God was fortified.

Suffering is the most powerful way of revealing the inner workings of our faith. Yet we shouldn’t wait until we face the storms of life to build our faith and equip ourselves for those seasons. Below are five life-changing strategies to grow your faith. My hope and prayer is that when struggles come, we would be equipped, ready, and full of unshakeable faith.

  1. Prayer. Think of your closest friendship. How was that relationship bolstered, created, and cared for? Communication! God wants to hear from us. Too often we are waiting for Him to speak and we forget that we can initiate the conversation. Prayer doesn’t have to be formal. You don’t have to brainstorm what you will say — God knows your heart, He asks that you share it with Him. Establish open communication with Jesus through prayer. Rather than using prayer as a way to ask for something, begin to thank God for all that He has done. Gratitude in prayer will transform your heart in suffering.
  2. Fellowship. “You are who you surround yourself with.” Did you parents tell you this growing up as well, or was I the only one? While I might have rolled my eyes in my adolescence, there is deep, resonating truth to this. Examine your relationships. Do you surround yourself with cynics full of sarcasm, gossip, and snark? Or are you around those who encourage, support, and speak life-giving words? Re-evaluate your company. Your friends are a direct reflection of who you are. Your faith will grow when you are in an atmosphere of positive, faith-filled believers.
  3. The Word (and Worship). I find my faith wavering when I become too enveloped with what is happening around me, rather than focused on what is happening within me. Through seasons of suffering, it’s easy to wonder where God is. Does He even care that I’m struggling right now? We lose sight of the work that He is doing within us. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of what we cannot see. Though we can’t always see God moving in our lives, we must believe that He is here among us. Closer than we can even fathom. Our faith is strengthened when we dive into the living, breathing word of God. It is a tangible tool to sharpen our faith. It is water in our deserts. Food in our hunger. It is life. Worship is also pivotal in transforming our view of who God is. I find that in moments I cannot pray, I simply worship — singing praises of gratitude for all that He has done. Worship is the outward expression for the work being done within us.
  4. Service. Nothing is more uplifting to our faith than serving someone else. Blessing others blesses us. When we step outside of our circumstance and step in to someone else’s, we not only grow our faith, but we encourage theirs. We are not called to be quiet believers. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Bold, brave, and benevolent. Serving others softens and molds our faith in not only God, but in humanity. Our faith is strengthened when we actively live a life of service. By loving others, we are loving God.
  5. Guard Your Heart. It is of utmost importance that we filter what we are allowing inside of our hearts. Everything we watch and listen to soaks into our spirit like a sponge. Though you may really enjoy that show on Netflix, is it feeding your soul? Are you allowing the wrong kind of media in your home? I get it. Believe me, I too am guilty. I say this to you as much as I say it to myself: We need to be mindful of what we watch. That show you watch that you think probably isn’t the best choice, probably isn’t. A great resource for family-friendly and wholesome entertainment is Pure Flix. It’s exactly what is sounds like. At Pure Flix (a subscription service similar to Netflix and Hulu), it is their mission to influence the culture of Christ through media and family-friendly content. When you subscribe to Pure Flix, you can be assured that every movie, documentary, and educational series is family-friendly and faith-centered. (Currently, they are offering a free month’s subscription!)

Hebrews 11:1 (MSG)

“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.”

Stepping Back to Move Forward

I try my hardest to look forward. I encourage others to do the same when exiting the gates of Cancerland and transitioning into life after. Don’t look back. Push forward. Look ahead. Yes, it’s true. Vital to let go of the past in order to embrace what lies ahead. But sometimes healing requires us to step back in order to equip us to move forward.

I always told myself that one day I would visit the hospital in Denver where I received all of my treatment and surgeries. I thought fondly of the moment I would visit my doctors. I imagined that we would rejoice and celebrate at the hard work we all put in for me to be able to sit here today and be cancer free. Hugs and tears flowing as we would reflect over the difficult road that led us to this very moment. The numerous surgeries and chemotherapies. The middle of the night calls of desperation to my oncologist. Each needle poke in my chest to access my port. Every encouraging word and prayer that pushed me over the finish line. I dreamt of the day I would walk back into my doctor’s office with long, flowing hair and without trace of disease.

As time continued to go on, I thought less of the wonder of walking back through the doors of the hospital and more about the dread and anxiety it would cause if I were to do so. Thinking about the sterile smell of the infusion center would trigger instant nausea. I cried fearful tears as irrational thoughts flooded my mind. Would stepping back into the place I fought cancer cause my cancer to recur? Irrational, I know, yet it felt so real and valid and true. Why would I subject myself to the very place that housed my darkest and most painful memories? My life has moved forward, there’s no need to step back there. We live in Austin now, and though we’d be back to Denver to visit family and friends, there was no reason to go out of our way to get to that hospital.

I recited to myself what I’ve encouraged others to do… Keep your eyes forward. The past is the past, let it go. Yet no matter how determined I was to walk the talk, everything in me was pulling me back. I was tethered to that hospital. Tethered to the nurses, technicians, and doctors that saved me. Not only did my medical team save my life, but they invested years into it. Never once giving up. Always willing to try again upon each recurrence. They had become family, and the reason I found myself longing to go back was to reunite with my DNA. They had become a part of who I am, and denying it would be rejecting my very self. I had to see them. The longer I avoided this, the longer my complete healing would be suspended — trapped in some version of recovery purgatory.

We flew to Denver last month to celebrate my brother and new sister-in-law’s wedding. We extended our trip for the entire week and made plans to visit family and friends. We even made sure to leave a couple days open to ensure that we weren’t booked solid. In the back of my mind, I knew this was it. The time had come when I would walk through the hospital doors for the first time in nearly two years. I called my doctor’s office and let them know that I would be in town and would love to swing by and say hello. The receptionist gave me a day and time that was most optimal for my doctor and nurse. Once I hung up the phone, I was flooded with anxiety. Technically, I didn’t schedule an actual appointment, so if I decided to miss, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I noticed myself already backing out. I wasn’t so sure I could do it.

The day arrived and I could barely contain my racing thoughts and unbridled emotions. My husband was calm and quiet, providing stability and reassurance. As we drove down the familiar roads that led us to the hospital, I was becoming increasingly nervous. How would I feel when we arrived? Could I actually do this? Was I ready? The closer we got, the more of a wreck I became. Past memories washed over me and, without success, I tried to sort through them. Before I could fully wrap my mind around what we were doing, the hospital was in view. There was no turning around now.

I was instantly transported to the past. I saw myself bald and weak, barely alive, making my way to chemotherapy. I reached up to touch my head, in order to remind myself that I did in fact have hair, was cancer-free and beyond treatment. My body was physically urging itself to stop. White knuckled, sweat forming, I became antsy. “I don’t think I can do this,” I whispered. “It’ll be alright,” my husband encouraged in response. We drove through the parking garage to the roof, where only one parking spot remained. As Matt unbuckled his seatbelt, I stopped him from opening the door. I needed to sit in the moment. I needed to breathe. I needed to overcome the crippling fear and anxiety that glued me to my seat. I cried.

Soon, I gave the okay, and we walked toward the wing of the hospital where I had been over one hundred times previously. All so familiar, the smells and sights ushered floods of memories. Under my breath I tried to convince myself, “I can do this,” and while shocked I also repeated, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” In a few minutes, we were standing in front of the entrance to my doctor’s office. Before pulling the handle on the door and entering my home away from home, I took a moment to center myself — remembering how important this was for my complete recovery — and without thought, we were standing in the middle of the waiting area, a beaming smile plastered to my face.

It all happened so fast. A smile reciprocated from the receptionist who I had spent hours with on the phone over the course of five years, scheduling appointments, leaving messages for my doctor, and paying bills. Everything had changed, yet nothing had. We hugged, and my eyes quickly shifted as my nurse walked in to grab a patient. Without shame, I interrupted and hugged her. No words needed to be shared just yet, smiles would do. She jubilantly told me that she would let my doctor know that I was here. Matt and I picked the two seats in the waiting room that we sat in countless times prior. I breathed it all in, and pouring over me came a loud, crashing, undeniable wave of gratitude.

My doctor peeked around the corner, smiled, and motioned that we follow her. I practically ran and found myself in a tight embrace with my dear friend, my oncologist. Neither of us let go. No words needed to be said. We cried into each other’s shoulders, and laughed at the precious miracle that was and still is. I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive. We pulled apart and looked at one another, taking it all in. We caught up on the goings on in each of our lives. With joy abundant, we reflected over the past five and a half years. Seeing the woman who fought for me, cried with me, and encouraged me countless times through my battle against this disease was more beautiful and fulfilling than I ever dreamed it would be.

Had I not stepped back, I could have never moved forward.

After making a surprise trip to the infusion center to visit my chemo nurses, I walked out of the hospital with my head held high. Healed. Death did not win. The enemy did not succeed. What was meant for harm was made beautiful. Restored. For the first time since I was diagnosed with cancer, I saw the whole picture. Not just a peek, or a glance, or a flash of its beauty, but a deep knowing that there was purpose in my pain. God’s redemption over my life overwhelmed me. He saved my life. He formed a team of doctors and nurses to come alongside me, and he knitted them into my story with deliberate intention.

It would have been easy to go the rest of my life without stepping foot into that hospital once more. Easy to avoid the pain, post traumatic stress, and anxiety. Easy to shove the feelings down deep into my soul. But it would have dishonored and dejected the journey that led me here. Sometimes we think healing involves forgetting or avoiding. That in moving forward, we shouldn’t dare look back. But there is power in addressing the place of our deepest pain. There is redemption in stepping back to reflect over how far we have come. There is honor in gratitude. There is healing in acknowledgement.

Sometimes we must step back into the depths of our grief in order to walk in confidence towards the future.

MJ and Steph

Lamentations 3:21-23 (The Message)

“I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness, the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed. I remember it all — oh, how well I remember — the feeling of hitting the bottom. But there’s one other thing I remember, and remembering, I keep a grip on hope: God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up. They’re created new every morning. How great your faithfulness! I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over). He’s all I’ve got left.”

Suffering Has Refined Us, Not Defined Us

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Seven years.

Today marks seven years of marriage for my husband and I, and I find myself reflecting over the gravity of our journey in learning what love and commitment really are and what vows really mean. For those of us who are married, many could say that we never fully comprehended the reality of the vows we shared with our spouse on the day we wed. Excitement and naivety clouded the promises we spoke to one another. Many are simply looking forward to the party to follow or the evening ahead. For Matt and I, we were just so happy to finally live in the same house. No more driving hundreds of miles to visit one another in our long distance relationship. We could fall asleep and wake up to each other forever. It was us against the world.

Marriage then is not what marriage is now.

In sharing our story with married friends recently, Matt and I have realized just how grateful we are to have endured suffering early on in our relationship. At first it seemed unfair, cruel, and isolating. We were the only young couple we knew walking through such a treacherous journey. Most of our mentors hadn’t even experienced the depth of tragedy and trauma in their own decades-long marriages. We were treading through waters that hadn’t yet been discovered.

Matt and I had only been married for a little over one year when his mother suddenly and unexpectedly passed away at the age of 54. We were 24 and 25 years old, left to navigate such a burdensome loss. Alongside his sister, we were responsible for making the tough decisions following their mother’s passing. The hours and days we spent in the funeral home speaking with the coroner and funeral director will forever be etched into my memory. We made the decisions on cremation, burial, funeral plans, and were even in charge of cleaning out her home. Everything was up to us.

It’s something many don’t face until much later in life, yet there we were, newlyweds in our twenties. Closing my eyes, I can picture myself sitting in the front row of the auditorium during her memorial service, watching my gentle husband deliver the eulogy with words full of encouragement, love, and faith, just days after his mother died. He was a pillar of strength when our world was crumbling.

Only five months after my mother-in-law passed away, Matt and I sat in a cold and sterile examination room receiving the news that I had cancer. Still in a fog from our recent loss, we were facing yet another season of suffering. Initially, I had been diagnosed with stage 1 cervical cancer, but soon discovered that I was actually stage 3, high-grade, metastatic large-cell neuroendocrine cancer with a less than 20% chance of surviving the first year. Our marriage was on the line. My life was on the line. We had a decision to make. We thought back to a quiet moment in the funeral home months earlier when the coroner looked at both of us and boldly said, “I have seen tragedy like this break marriages. But it doesn’t have to. You either choose to let it separate you, or you choose to let it unite you.” Upon hearing my diagnosis, we made our decision.

Life sped by quickly as we met with several doctors and began forging a treatment plan. With my husband by my side, I was diagnosed by my gynecologist on a Wednesday, met with my oncologist that Thursday, and was sitting in the office of our fertility doctor that Friday. Because of the aggressiveness of my diagnosis, we had to make life-changing decisions quite rapidly. We were given one hour to decide whether we would pursue harvesting my eggs to preserve my fertility, or move forward with the necessary radical hysterectomy. We were in our home, drenched in tears, full of fear, sorrow and grief clinging to each other, and we began to pray. We asked for clarity, direction, and peace. Soon our tears dried and our prayer stopped, and Matt, with strength and tenderness said, “I didn’t marry you for the children you could give me. I married you for who you are. And I need you here. Our future kids, no matter if biological or adopted, need a healthy mom.” The following week, I underwent a radical hysterectomy. 25 and 26 years old.

In the last seven years, we have faced suffering we could have never prepared for. Death, grief, infertility, pain, trauma, cancer. Though Matt’s mother died, we were both stripped of a mother. Though I was diagnosed, we were both diagnosed with the disease. That’s what marriage is. Not only sharing the “us against the world” moments when together you feel undefeatable, but also when your world and everything in it crumbles away and you feel weak, vulnerable, and afraid. 

Too often, marriages fail because of seasons of suffering. And while I can’t speak into individual circumstances and won’t chide those whose marriages haven’t lasted, I will say that marriage takes more than just love to succeed. We often get asked how our marriage survived all that it has. Seven years ago we thought commitment meant fidelity and loyalty, yet now we understand commitment as a decision to choose each other above all else no matter what. For Matt and I, there can’t be anything that comes between us. And not that plenty hasn’t tried, believe me. Years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, multiple surgeries and hospital stays, sudden infertility, early onset menopause, and the death of a mother all attempted to separate us. It’s only by the grace of God and our willingness to unite through it all that our marriage is beautiful and flourishing.

Our marriage then is not what is now. Marriage isn’t simply being together forever. Marriage is commitment through circumstance. It is love above fear. It is unity over division. After the majority of seven years full of suffering, our gratitude for one another is overflowing and much deeper than it has ever been. We have faced tragedy and chose to overcome together. We continue to choose each other above all else, letting nothing stand between us. We have a common goal, with eyes always focused on God. We’ve gained greater perspective through our suffering and are much better individuals and a much better couple for it. Suffering has refined us, not defined us.

Today, rather than letting these last seven years separate us, we celebrate our continued decision to let it unite us. Happy anniversary, my love. May we have seventy more, not without suffering, but with commitment, faith, perseverance, and unity.

Mark 10:9 (ESV)

“What therefore God has joined together, let nothing separate.”

The Power of Adventure

These past few weeks have been full to the brim with fun and new experiences. We were blessed by a friend who gave us two badges to SXSW here in Austin and several of our days were spent downtown shuffling to and from events among tens of thousands of locals and visitors. SX is a large, eight-day festival that quite literally takes over the city. It incorporates interactive technology, music, and film and brings in tens of thousands of attendees each year. While we had heard of this festival, we could have never prepared for its grandiosity until moving to Austin. Not only does SX converge the smartest minds from across the globe, it’s also a weeklong party. Needless to say, we had a blast. We networked, we learned, and we loved every minute of it.

During the interactive portion, we had the opportunity to listen to several great speakers. Casey Neistat, Gary Vaynerchuck, Michael Nieling, Tim Ferriss, Cheryl Strayed… the list goes on and on. We met people from Denmark and Germany, ate free tacos, and learned the correct pronunciation of our last name (courtesy of our new Danish friends). We left the conference inspired and tired and we’ll certainly be looking over our pages of notes for weeks to come.

SXSW ended on a high note. During his keynote that Friday afternoon, Garth Brooks announced that he would be offering a free concert for Austin residents only. Though tickets sold out within one minute of going live, we were two of the 50,000 other Austinites to get lucky. So that Saturday evening, in 80-degree weather under a gorgeous, star-filled sky, we rocked out to Garth Brooks. It was a moment that will be remembered for years to come. The glow of the city, the reflection on the lake, being surrounded with vibrant energy and smiles, and the sweet hum of country music… it was perfect.

Having cancer has taught me to live, experience, and soak it all in. No matter if it’s a concert under the stars in the city you love most, or a two-hour drive to find a remote winery with breathtaking scenery, or a kayaking adventure on a beautiful summer day, or enjoying tacos and margaritas with friends, or hiking to the top of a mountain simply for the view… life is meant to be experienced!

It’s easy to get stuck in life after cancer or any other trauma for that matter. It’s easy to curl into a ball and rest because the battle fought was exhausting and you’re beyond tired. It’s easy to stay home in your comfort zone. It’s easy to stick to your usual routine, not stepping too far out of the boundaries you created in order to feel secure. It’s easy to use the excuse of, “I’m too busy” or, “I don’t have time.” It’s easy to settle into monotony. But I’m learning that easy isn’t best. Easy is comfortable, and comfort is oh so good. But adventure and experience and really living life instead of letting life live you is what it’s all about.

With the start of the new year, my husband and I decided to take one small step to actively LIVE our life. We have deemed each and every Saturday our “Adventure Day.” To us, this means that no matter how big or small, detailed or straight forward, an hour or all day, we do something NEW. And I must say, it’s been the most rewarding decision we’ve ever made. It not only strengthens us as a couple, but pushes each of us out of our comfort zones and helps us grow.

Adventure Day not only represents spontaneity, but it also symbolizes a life well-lived. How many of us, at the end of our time here on Earth will think, “Did I live enough?” Right now, ask yourself that question. If you had eyes to the future and knew your last breath was around the bend, would you be satisfied with how you chose to live? It’s okay, you’re not alone in your answer. I’m still not satisfied and feel I have an incredible amount to do before entering the gates of eternity. Why are we often required to face our own mortality in order to really learn how to soak it all up? Cancer stole so much from me, but it gifted me eternal vision and has radically changed my perspective on the purpose of this life.

Adventuring removes barriers, manifests breakthrough, unites, births joy, and uplifts the dark corners of our souls. It ignites in us a passion for this life that we often forget is meant to be experienced actively, not sedentarily. It pushes us off the cliff of comfort and gives us wings to fly in vibrant ways. It freshens stagnancy, quenches deserts, and elevates us to living the way we are called to live. Adventuring gives us new perspective and creates vision. Though comfort is easy and adventure is often hard, the rewards for the latter are much greater than comfort zones can ever provide. Adventure is powerful.

Ask yourself again, “What am I doing to LIVE?” I challenge you to step out of your comfort zone and experience something new, letting adventure take hold in your life.

Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 (ESV)

“I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.”

NED, Now What?

The transition between cancer and life-after isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. As I shared in my last post, celebrating my five-year cancerversary and two years NED (no evidence of disease) wasn’t as exciting and celebratory as I expected it to be. Now that the confetti from my two-year NED scan has settled on the ground, I find myself questioning what my goals are since being cancer-free can be checked off the list.

As you’ve probably noticed, my writing on this blog has diminished in frequency. I went from posting weekly, to now monthly. And to be honest, I struggle with being okay with that. I feel pulled between regularly writing on this blog and focusing on a much bigger and more pressing goal. I’m still trying to work out the kinks and pave a new path for what lies ahead, and it’s proving to be quite the task. Not only do I find myself juggling the grief and emotional triggers of surviving cancer, but I’m also juggling what most everyone does when one chapter closes and a new one opens. I’m navigating new waters, and it’s, well… new! (And scary, and overwhelming, and joyous, and wonderful, and all the feeeeeels!)

Many of you have asked about my future endeavors. From questions like, “What will you do now that you’ve gotten a second lease on life?” and “Are you still traveling and speaking?” to more pointed and direct questions, “Are you writing a book?” and “What happened to the adoption process?” I thank each of you for being so invested in my life. For following along this arduous and quite emotional journey of mine. For rallying beside me to support, encourage, and pray me through the most difficult years of my life. In all honesty, I couldn’t have done it without you… My team. And because you’re on my team, you deserve to know what’s next!

While I can’t share many details because I’m still trying to wrap my mind around and navigate the road ahead, I will answer both yes and no. Bear with me. I’m learning so many valuable lessons during this new season of life after cancer, but they aren’t all easy. I’m learning that release is as important as focus. I’m learning that I don’t give myself hardly enough grace, forgiveness, and mercy. I’m much too hard on myself and I place exorbitant amounts of pressure and expectation on my shoulders. I set myself up for failure more than I do success because my goals are vast and innumerable. This last lesson learned has been eye-opening and revelatory for this next chapter of my life. I’m learning that redirection, regrouping, and refocusing is necessary. And as cliche as it may sound, I’m learning that we are meant to live life, not life to live us.

Yesterday I found myself having one of “those” days. As usual, I woke up early to work out, then sat and had my coffee and quiet time, and began getting ready for my day. As the sun was shining and birds chirped outside my window, a dark and looming cloud settled over my spirit. I tried to push through my day and continue on with my list of to-dos, but I simply couldn’t get out of my funk. The worst part was that I had no discernible reason to even be in a funk at all. Life has been grand and wonderful and so much fun recently. So why was I on the verge of tears for an entire day? That night on a drive to the grocery store, Matt and I began to talk. Let’s be honest, it was more of me talking and him graciously and patiently listening. But in our conversation, I realized something. Some of the pressure I have put on myself has stemmed from a season that I have just stepped out of. And frankly, it doesn’t deserve a seat at the table anymore.

My fight(s) against cancer has brought tremendous blessing and opportunity. Through my chaos came my calling: to write and share about the deep dark pits of despair and use my platform as a way to encourage my readers to focus not on what we are facing, but instead through faith to find joy and hope amidst it all. To inspire you to look beyond your circumstance and see the beauty in the journey. I’ve been privileged to walk through cancer with such an abundant amount of support and am incredibly honored that you’ve celebrated each feat with me. But I’m realizing that cancer can’t have a seat at the table anymore and I must move on.

Am I causing more confusion than clarity?!

Derailing My Diagnosis was birthed with the mission of living life beyond cancer. It’s in the name… I am more than my diagnosis. There is much more life to be lived beyond the constrictions of a circumstance. And now that cancer is in the rearview, I need to continue with the mission. Because cancer isn’t the focus in my life anymore, it can’t be the focus in my life anymore. Are you with me? Frankly, I need to build healthy boundaries and cancer can’t steal my energy, focus, time, and emotional well-being any longer. I need to begin the process of compartmentalization. And cancer needs to be redirected.

All of this to be said, cancer will always be a part of my story. And as much as I wish I could put it in a box to be hidden away in a dark corner, it still affects me everyday. I will carry it with me forever. But my focus is shifting and if you haven’t noticed it already, you will. I will continue writing on this blog because it’s important to speak life into darkness and  simply because I love it. However, from here on out, not every post will fit in the cancer category. I’ll be sharing life lessons and the truth that Jesus is speaking to me in the hopes that through my words He will speak to you, too.

Though cancer no longer will be the focus on my blog, it will be shining bright in another area of my life. This brings me to the answer of one of the most popular questions I receive. YES, I am writing a book, and NO, I can’t give details! It’s crazy and I still can’t believe it’s actually happening, but I’m thrilled for it and believe that God is preparing beauty through its pages. This book will encompass my journey to survival; The highs and lows, the grief and loss, the celebrations and, ultimately, the victory. It’s authentic, raw, and beautiful. And I’m believing that it holds treasure waiting to be revealed. I ask that you pray for me during this process.

So yes, life is changing and I’m entering a whole new season. My blog is shifting, my book is being birthed, and I’m still pinching myself that I’m actually alive to experience all of this. God is good. All the time.

Stay tuned. The best is yet to come!

Philippians 3:12-14 (MSG)

“I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”

Photo: K Mitiska Photography 

Life Awakened: Five Years Later

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Life after cancer is more confusing than anyone told me it would be. Honestly, they didn’t tell me much of what to anticipate when the disease was gone and the dust settled. Possibly because most didn’t even expect me to survive the first year, let alone the second, third, fourth, and least likely the fifth.

From the moment I was diagnosed and through the subsequent years during treatment, the focus for all of us was to simply get through it. To survive. To make it out somewhat intact. Yet, there was never any conversation beyond survival. Merely congratulatory well wishes upon my last treatment and the classic line, “We hope to never see you in here again!”, as if I were a prisoner released from a lengthy stint behind bars.

No one told me what life would be like back in the “real world.” No one told me that I’d experience post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by sights, smells, experiences, relationships, and even food. I wasn’t aware that I’d feel like I didn’t belong in this seemingly regular, normal, everyday life. I never imagined being more comfortable in a hospital than in a grocery store. I didn’t think I’d be shy about regaining my independence. I had no clue what life was supposed to look like or what I was even supposed to do when I arrived at my destination, when I reached my goal, and when I survived the statistics that labeled me. I didn’t know what to expect because I wasn’t expecting this… Life.

We had conversations about notarizing wills, what items would go to who, if my husband would remarry, and that eventually, grief would settle and everyone left behind would learn to cope with my death. We clung to the hope that maybe, just maybe, this period in time would fade away into the history of my life’s story. That, as a grandmother decades from now, I’d share tales of a battle won with my grandchildren. I never thought I would die from cancer, but as oxymoronic as it may sound, I wasn’t sure if I would live through it either.

I wasn’t prepared for the difficulties that a life almost lost has brought me. It’s been a recurrent struggle, a back and forth tug of war between then and now. Cancer isn’t just a moment in time. It’s not just something that happens and eventually goes away. It doesn’t sit on a timeline nor does it have a beginning or an end. From the moment it physically rooted itself into my anatomy, it also marked my very DNA and soul. Though free of disease, I will forever be marked by it. Though I walk without cancer, I will forever carry it with me. It has changed who I am, and the biggest conflict I now face is rediscovering who that really is.

Today marks five years since I heard those life-altering, fateful words, “I’m sorry, you have cancer.” And Friday marks two years free of this disease. I always thought that time healed all wounds, and though I still believe there is some truth in that, I think that healing requires more than days gone by. If only I could go back to that very moment when life as I knew it was forever changed. If only I could look that Stephanie in the eyes and say, “There is no right way to heal. There is no correct way to grieve. There is no road map nor compass. You will learn as you go, and you must trust that God has given you the grace for each obstacle you will face. Cry when grief falls upon you. Dance when joy is overwhelming. Laugh from the very pit of your soul. And love like your heart knows no bounds. There is no destination to be reached but rather a life to be well-lived. Keep looking forward and never let what happens today steal your joy for tomorrow.”

This new year has been full of incredible abundance and freedom. It’s the beginning of regaining my life. For the first time since diagnosis, I finally feel free. Free to feel. Free to release. Free to let my guard down. Free to really live this life that I’ve been gifted. I feel like I’ve finally awoken to the life that I so longed for after cancer. I think it’s due in part to the fact that I’ve ultimately given myself permission to.

As a cancer survivor, there’s a balance between recognizing and honoring the journey itself and also accepting survival with open arms. Though survival is the one thing I vehemently fought for all of these years, it’s also the one thing I must face head on. I’m alive, now what? It’s easier to live with a victim mindset always focused on what once was and what should have been; It’s more difficult to move forward with victory on my side, accepting that though cancer has forever changed me, it will not define me.

I expected that on this day, my five year anniversary, I would be in jubilant celebration, reflecting in awe of the miraculous road I’ve walked. Without a care, concern, or any hint of grief or sadness. After all, it’s been five years. FIVE. My doctors said I probably wouldn’t even make it to ONE, so this moment in time truly is a milestone. But here I am, and though I absolutely feel elated to be free of the shackles that bound me for years, I’m still coping with the grief that lingers after trauma. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

Though no one told me what life after would feel like, I’m learning that there is no “right” way. I’m learning to embrace what was was, what is, and what will be.

Isaiah 43:18-20 (ESV)

“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

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