Posts Tagged ‘cancer survivor’

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?”

When You Become The Miracle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And with that, I continue to beat the statistics!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fight on.

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Psalm 77:14 (ESV)

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

The Struggle is Real (Really)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 34:18 (ESV)

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

Moving Forward Regardless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 6:34 (MSG)

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

PC: K Mitiska Photography

Cancer: A Family Affair (Part 5 – Conclusion)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John 1:5 (ESV)

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

Cancer: A Family Affair (Part 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Psalm 90:12 (ESV)

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

Cancer: A Family Affair (Part 3)

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Written by Denise, Stephanie’s mother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Romans 8:26-28 (MSG)

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

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