Posts Tagged ‘cancer survivor’

So Long, Brave and Strong

Before and After Cancer Stephanie Madsen

I’ve carried the weight through deep valleys and dark caves. Hunched over, I’ve trudged through quicksand, walked miles through the most desolate of deserts, and clawed my way over the steepest cliffs. Feet worn raw, knees scuffed, fingers bleeding. Sweat stinging fresh wounds. Several times wanting to quit, I didn’t.

Tripping over rocks, my heart whispered, “Brave and strong.” My body aching. Sore and tired and desperate for rest, the wind beckoned, “Brave and strong.” Needing water. My tongue dry and cracked, family shared, “Brave and strong.” My skin burned and tender, friends called, “Brave and strong.” Repeating over and over like a skipped record playing in my mind.

Brave and strong.
Brave and strong.
Brave and strong.
Brave AND strong.
BRAVE AND STRONG!

Though not fully convinced, I started to believe it. Soon, I lived it. There was no other option. When fear arose, I’d be brave. When defeat taunted, I’d be strong. For years, this became who I was. Ingrained in the core of my being, this was my name. Through it all, this was me. Cancer couldn’t compete, for I was far too brave and far too strong.

It wasn’t until the heat of the desert cooled, the sun slipped into the night, and the moon shone bright once again that I realized brave and strong wasn’t all I’d been. The light has a powerful way of illuminating even the darkest places. Behind brave and strong hid terrified and incapable. Afraid, weak, uncertain. Behind the warrior was the wounded. Behind the shield was the flesh. Until now, I didn’t even understand that there was something beyond bravery and strength. I didn’t have the capacity to carry the weight of it all, so for that season, I clung to brave and strong.

Pummeling perspective into my spirit, this realization has been swift and direct. When you hear that you’re brave and strong enough times, you take ownership. You embody the meaning of each word. They transcend from mere words to providential destiny. They grow big and mighty, overshadowing the rest. Though several moments left me shaking in fear, brave and strong took over. There was no time, no energy, no resources, no ability to be less than. But then the sun sets, pushing them off into the horizon. When cancer loomed like an endlessly haunting ghost, I wore the shield. But cancer is further and further away in the distance and I’m learning that there’s more. Behind brave and strong is great vulnerability.

I’m sitting in that vulnerability now. I’ve set the shield down and have noticed my wounds. Oh, the wounds. Burning, searing pain. My guts are all but spilling out before me, and I sit here looking at the carnage of the miles journeyed these last few disease-stricken years. It may sound odd… It sounds odd to me… I didn’t realize how much cancer had hurt me. How many wounds brave and strong covered up. How much fear and desperation the shield shadowed. For so long I denied the pain in order to endure it.

In a battle to the death, I have won. I’ve survived, succeeded, and overcome. Endurance has paid off and now it’s time to rest. Time to recover. Time to unwind. And most of all, time to heal. Looking at these wounds, I’m realizing healing isn’t going to be an easy process. It’s going to bring with it its own level of pain. A pain that must be walked through, not avoided. While the shield of brave and strong allowed me to endure the wounds, healing will force me to clean them. To heal is to pick out the thorns, wipe away the dirt, cleanse the area, and delicately salve. If not properly cleaned, the wound is restricted from healing. Yet, if you allow the healing to begin, but pick the scab each time it develops, ultimate healing cannot occur either.

I can’t tell you that I’m excited to clean my wounds. From what I’m seeing on the surface, it looks messy. Years and years of struggle caked into deep gashes. I also can’t tell you that I even know how to clean this on my own. I’ve never attempted a wound so deep. Like many, I’m going to need reinforcements like counseling, therapy, and support. Of this, I am not ashamed. And neither should you be. I can tell you that I do look forward to the relief healing brings. I know I can’t begin to fathom the debris that rests in my wounds, but I’m ready to scrub it out. I’m ready for the soothing comfort of the salve and the cute design on the bandaid I’ll pick out.

I know I’m not the only one who has carried a shield through the trenches of life. We all do. It’s how we survive. Just as I was brave and strong, so you may be too. But once the battle is over and the dust settles, the shield’s job is done. Shine it up, we’ll need it again someday for a different circumstance. Because… L I F E. It can be terrifying to address your wounds. To look down and see what happened behind brave and strong. But I have faith that healing comes from vulnerability. That redemptive restoration is birthed in the midst of that vulnerability.

It’s time to heal. I’ll grab the bandaids.

Jeremiah 30:17 (ESV)

“For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the Lord…”

Cancer In The Rearview

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We said goodbye and drove away. The anticipation and excitement was palpable as we voyaged on. We looked at each other in amazement that we were actually doing this. Are we really moving to Austin? Is this a dream? The adventure had just begun and, though we had no idea what our future would look like, we felt peace. We knew that doors had closed and others were opened wide. We had been called to step forward and go beyond comfort. We barely even looked in the rearview mirror as we headed south. I thought I’d cry. I thought I’d be sad. But I wasn’t. Instead, my heart was cheerful and expectant. The leap of faith was more than we could have ever imagined it being, and we’ve only now landed on the ground below. This chapter is just getting started.

Not only has our move brought a refreshing newness, but it’s also ushered in a spirit of reflection. We’ve been spurred on and inspired. From reflection has come revelation, and what a beautiful thing that has been for us. Beautiful yet painful. Painful but necessary. We’ve spoken more openly about our last four years than ever before. Our perspectives have shifted and we are allowing ourselves to feel the weight of what our previous season looked and felt like. For me, it’s an odd space to sit in. I never realized how much I’ve tucked deep into the dark corners of my mind, with the subconscious intent of forgetting. But how could I forget? Cancer has left an indelible print on my very core. My blueprint was altered at diagnosis, and it will never be the same. But as time moves forward, I’m learning that that’s okay.

Austin has been incredible. Each day here has tangibly revealed God’s faithfulness. We’ve been planted in a life-giving, spirit-breathing, community-reaching church. New friends have quite literally shown up on our doorstep. Each act of kindness, no matter how large or small, is 150% attributed to the compassion of God. He has given us gifts from above, shining down attributes of Himself with each one. We know we are exactly where we are meant to be and that’s more than we could’ve asked for. You’ve probably noticed that I’ve taken a small break from writing, and I thank you for giving me the time to soak into our new adventure.

Still, I find myself looking in the metaphorical rearview often. Every day, in fact. Not looking back with longing, simply looking back to see it from a distance. To view the battle with new eyes. I’m searching each moment, reflecting on what once was. Everything I went through. Everything Matt went through. Looking back gives me gratitude for the present. Gratitude that pushing through the storm was well worth it. Gratitude for the perspective change. Gratitude for grace, healing, and restoration. I also realize that I look back to assure myself that it wasn’t a recurrent nightmare, but that it actually did happen in real life. You see, stepping outside of the shadow of cancer has an interesting effect on those who survive.

Every single day. Sometimes, more than once a day. Seemingly often enough that it went beyond notice, cemented in my subconscious. I drove by my very own cancer landmarks. The locations in Colorado that have been seared into my memory. In my mind, there are plaques firmly planted in the ground at each area of significance. The office building where I was diagnosed on January 25, 2012. Its plaque reads, “You have cancer.” The doctor’s office where I learned the reality of my diagnosis on February 14th of that same year. Its plaque says, “You have less than a 20% chance of surviving this first year.” The route in which we drove over and over and over, back and forth to appointments. It states, “Ready for that needle?” The hospital full of the medical staff and technology that saved my life. Its says, “Thank you.” The emergency room in which I garnered frequent flyer miles. It reads, “You have to be admitted.” The post office who mailed off thousands of dollars of medical bills on our behalf. It demands, “Give me your money.” The grocery store where I was first asked why I was bald. It says, “Why did you shave your head?” I couldn’t go a day without being reminded of the disease. It lurked in corners, hid itself in memories, and peeked around buildings when I’d pass by. Cancer haunted me every day and I didn’t realize that until we left.

I’m in a new city. A new neighborhood. A new climate. A new time zone. Everything and everyone who surrounds me is new. The only familiarity I know rests in my husband and what we brought on our adventure. Everything else is new and unknown. I can’t tell you directions on how to get to the grocery store. I couldn’t point to where the bank is. I surely couldn’t even decipher which way is north from where I’m sitting in this exact moment. Though unfamiliarity can bring discomfort, it’s exactly what I’ve needed. I needed something to be in our rearview. I needed something to look back on so that I could move forward.

God knew. He knew, thank goodness, He knew. My rearview is clear and I feel freedom that I haven’t felt in years. It’s not blissful freedom, more somber than that. It’s a freedom that acknowledges the broken road behind while allowing me to press on towards the future. Seeing cancer in the rearview has enabled and encouraged me to truly live life with frontward vision. It’s an oddly wonderful place to be. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Being on this side of cancer is something I’ve prayed for for years. It’s good to arrive with my diagnosis finally in the rearview.

John 5:8 (ESV)

“Jesus said, ‘Get up and walk.'”

A Leap of Faith

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Wind violently whips through your hair. The sun blinds your vision and beats down on your skin. Gravel crunches beneath your feet. The air is crisp, fresh, and wide open. You’re at the edge. Every fiber in your being is inching you forward, begging you to jump. Your head desperately pleads “No.” Your heart battling, dares you to move. You don’t know what lies below. It’s terrifying. Exhilarating. Let your thoughts run wild. What if you do? What if you don’t? Do you jump?

When Matt and I were first married we agreed that Colorado would be our home. It’s where we would settle in, buy a home, and begin our family. Being a native, Matt had never dreamed of moving to another state, and though I’ve been here for fifteen years, I felt the same. All of our siblings had left the coop and flown on to experience other adventures, but we felt that our adventure remained here, in Denver.

Only a few months into our marriage, God deposited something into my spirit. He placed me right at the edge of the cliff and asked me to jump. It took me by such surprise that I looked up and said, “No way.” And I meant it. “No way God. That’s not the plan. If you want that to happen, you’ll have to tell Matt yourself because I’m not saying a word. I’m not taking that leap.” Little did I know that God would indeed tell my husband.

A few weeks later, Matt called me into the office with the preface and plea that I not get upset with what he was about to share. Oh no. “Babe, I just applied to a job out of state. I don’t know why, but I think God wants us in Austin.” Here we go.

If I’ve said it before, I’ve said it a thousand times… I’m a planner. I like things organized, in proper order, and neatly packaged. I’m also stubborn, though I prefer, “determined.” When I commit to something, I follow through. A stubborn planner, also known as: control freak. (Yikes, that hurts to admit.) When asked, “Do you jump?” my answer five years ago was no. Why would I willingly submit myself to the unknown and unplanned? Yet no matter how fervently my head denied it, my heart kept pushing me forward. After praying and wrestling with God, I finally came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t hurt to at least see what the edge looked like. If God brings you to it, He’ll bring you through it, right? I tried to convince myself.

Soon, Matt and I were on a plane headed for Austin, Texas. We agreed that it was crazy. Why Austin? We had never been and knew no one there. No family, no friends, no familiarity. Yet as quickly as we landed and began our exploration of the city, it became obvious. We had fallen in love. God urged us to take the leap and, by obedience, our eyes caught a glimpse of His promises for us. After a week staring over the edge of the cliff, we committed to jump. Hand in hand, we would take this leap of faith.

We arrived home and promptly started packing. We were excited with anticipation of a new adventure. We continued to pray, asking God if now was the right time. Interesting, that I remember our prayers always revolved around timing… That funny little thing called “hindsight.” We set our move date as March 1st, 2012. We were ready.

One, two, threeeeeeeeeeee. NO.

Our prayers were answered, though not how we expected. At the end of January, six weeks before our move date, I was diagnosed with cancer. Our plan, as quick as its conception, came to a halt. There was simply no way we could move to a city in which we knew no one and nothing to fight cancer alone. Visions of Austin, the excitement and thrill of what God had called us to, slowly began to fade behind the reality of the disease.

We spent months and even years questioning why God would deposit an urge to jump, when soon it would seem impossible. As we trudged through the years and multiple battles against cancer, our leap of faith was gone. We were focused on the fight and the fight alone. Survival has a powerful influence. But God knew, and we soon would, too.

While we thought the dream had died, enveloped in the burden of Cancerland, the timing simply wasn’t right. You see, God answered. We’ve learned that He doesn’t tease us. He doesn’t dangle a carrot in front of your face and watch you reach for it before He pulls it away. God makes deposits with purpose. It’s not always a matter of what, but when.

You see, God knows me. Inside and out, front to back. He knows the deepest parts of me that I may not even know myself. He knew that five years ago my answer would be a resounding no. He knew my trust was weak, that a leap of faith would require more than I was willing to give. Yet His deposit was purposeful. It’s timing with great intent. His deposit opened my eyes to His faithfulness.

He asked me to take a leap of faith to prepare me for what was to come. My trust grew with His urging. It prepared me to face the valleys of despair as I fought cancer four times. He called me to trust Him without knowledge of the future. If I could trust Him in my darkest moments with my entire life, I could trust Him with anything. God called me to the edge of the cliff to see if I would jump. When He knew I would, He knew I was ready.

I could continue on with the story, but the message resonates beyond the details. It’s now 2016, a little over four years from our original moving day, and we are officially and finally moving to Austin. Our willingness to jump into the unknown allowed God to work in our lives. Without our willingness, our lack of trust in Him wouldn’t have carried us through our tragedy. Because we gave Him a little, He gave us a lot.

The time has come and we have now jumped. We’re floating through the air, hand in hand, laughing at the possibilities.. We don’t know what’s to come, but we don’t care. We know it will be good. God deposited the seed long ago not only to draw our hearts towards Austin, but to see if we truly trusted Him. We look forward to our future in our new city. We have abundant faith that His promises will be unveiled when we arrive. I have an inkling that it’s where we’ll build our family… But only God knows.

If God is urging you to take a leap of faith, trust that His urging is with greater purpose. It may not be for what’s at the bottom of the cliff, but for what you’ll learn along the way by putting your trust in Him. So I ask again, do you jump?

 

1 Thessalonians 5:24 (ESV)

“He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.”

Fighting The Fear Of Recurrence

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

Treatment ends. Your hair begins to sprout anew. Your skin slowly smooths. Your energy levels rise. You can look in the mirror and see remnants of the person you once were. You’ve trudged through the hardest journey of your life and bear the scars that tell the story. Your doctors share the latest results from your scans and there is no evidence of disease. You’re cancer-free.

It’s time to move on with your life and dream again. You’ve gained perspective and see life in a new way. You’re ready to forge new relationships and deepen the bonds you already have. You’re excited to travel and see the world in a new light. You’re ready to pursue the dreams you were reluctant to before. You’re not afraid to fail, because you’d rather try than not try at all. Your character has flourished and you are stronger and braver than ever before. Because you’ve faced your own mortality, you are now fearless.

Right?

While many survivors experience a sense of relief and celebratory whimsy upon receiving cancer-free results, those feelings don’t always last as long as we expect them to.

At diagnosis, my number one goal was to be cancer-free. I wanted to defeat this disease and move forward in my life. I accepted the fact that I would lose my fertility through a radical hysterectomy. I knew it was the only way to reach survival. I faithfully attended every chemotherapy and radiation session. I grieved the loss of my hair, the changes in my skin, weight gain, and even my nails peeling off. I could no longer recognize the woman staring back at me in the mirror, but I reminded myself that this would only be temporary. Cancer would be only but a chapter in my novel of life.

I received my first clear scan seven months after diagnosis. My doctor was elated as she shared the news. No matter that I was given a less than 20% chance to survive the first year, I beat the odds. I was cancer-free! I danced around the house, smiling genuinely for the first time in months. My husband and I celebrated. The burden of cancer began to slough off our shoulders and we were able to see the future we so desperately hoped we could share together.

But that’s not how the story ended.

Because of the type of cancer I had, I would need routine scans every three months to ensure that the disease did not return. It was time for my first follow-up scan and I felt anxious. Only three months prior, a scan showed no evidence of disease (NED), but I was aware that cancer is hardly predictable. We followed protocol and I received the most potent and effective cocktails of chemo and radiation and it had worked. But just as our celebration began, the party was over. A softball-sized malignant tumor had grown within ninety days, and I was facing my first recurrence.

That moment changed everything. The knowledge that cancer had returned with a vengeance sent chills racing through me. To the depths of my soul, I was shaken. My fear of cancer rose exponentially from the trepidation I had experienced at diagnosis. I was facing my own mortality through realistic lenses as I knew my already small statistics would shrink even more. More surgery. More chemo. More pain, grief, fear, exhaustion, and nausea.

Diagnosis pales in comparison to recurrence. At diagnosis, the majority of people feel strong and able to defeat the giant. Bright eyes and bushy tails, we are ready for the fight. Determination and perseverance with a sprinkling of naivety propelled my first battle against cancer. Recurrence comes at a bigger price. The price that we know exactly what we are facing. There are fewer unknowns because we’ve traveled the road before, and can foresee the afflictions that are to come.

It’s been four years since diagnosis, and I’ve had three recurrences after first hearing the words, “You have cancer.” Some came swiftly like the first, only three months later. Other recurrences arrived further down the road. No matter the time that we are able to live without cancer invading our bodies, it never really goes away. Though it may not be a physical presence, cancer often lingers in our emotional well-being. A ghost that haunts us, never wanting to leave. We are constantly reminded that cancer can return at any moment. It’s normal for survivors to feel anxious, depressed, and fearful once treatment ends and NED is achieved.

Some survivors feel more scared after fighting cancer than they did in the throes of the disease. Once treatment ends, we are simply left to pray and hope with every remaining healthy cell within us that cancer will no longer choose our bodies as its residency. Life after cancer isn’t always what we dream it will be, therefore we should be prepared for what may come after this chapter has closed.

In order to look forward, we must avoid looking back. Not denying the journey we trekked or ignoring the fight, but by deciding that cancer can no longer have a vice grip on our lives, we can begin to truly live free of cancer. Fear of recurrence gives power to the disease. Our anxieties can fuel cancer, giving it control over us. When fear creeps in, we must stand against it, knowing who we have become in spite of the struggles we have faced. We are much stronger than we think we are.

We have looked straight into the eyes of death, and have come out on the other side. We have been beaten down, knocked around, and yet we have survived. Our faith has been put to the ultimate test and has grown in the fire. Hope has emerged from the ashes. Though we have lost much, we’ve gained more. We are different. We have changed, developed, and flourished. We must acknowledge that though cancer affected every area of our life, we have come out on top. Living every day is a choice. Choosing joy is vital to the continued success of a healthy and happy existence.

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.”

Grief is…

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It follows no timeline, has no standards, and does not discriminate. No amount of preparation, readiness, or allowance can ease the process. It comes and goes and rarely gives you a heads up of its impending arrival. It’s sneaky. It’s complex. It’s never simple. Grief is oh so good, yet oh so bad. It is equally painful as it is soothing. Grief is confusing. And though it is healthy and necessary, the majority of us avoid grieving because we simply cannot understand it.

Last week was a doozy. I found myself stuck in bed for the majority of Tuesday and I couldn’t figure out why. As usual, I went to the gym first thing in the morning. Typically that gets my endorphins running and sets the tone for my day and, while it worked for the moment, I still found myself slowly colliding with an invisible force. No amount of caffeine riddled pre-workout supplements nor the natural rush of dopamine and serotonin could combat the stealthy reflexes of grief.

I came home and went through my checklist of to-do’s as Matt left for work. Soon, I was crying. Soft, quiet tears rolled down my cheeks as I tried to search for a reason why. I looked in the mirror weeping with brows furrowed in confusion, as if searching for the answer in my own eyes. My tears were exhausted, reflective, and sad. But why? After all, I’m cancer free! I’m healthy and active. My energy has returned and I’m able to accomplish things I wasn’t able to for years. My business is building and beginning to thrive. My relationships are fulfilling. I’m happy. I’m joyful. None of these attributes should evoke tears… at least not despondent ones.

So, I continued about my day. Instead of seeking a new coffee shop, or even settling into my home office, I grabbed my laptop, notebooks, pens, and a soft blanket and retreated to the comforts of our bed. I began to work. I answered emails, brainstormed business ideas, and read a few pages of a newly purchased book. Yet no matter what I did to try and distract myself, I couldn’t shake the heavy burden. Instead of fighting it, soon I gave in. I surrendered and allowed myself to walk through the emotions, regardless of if I could understand them or not.

Grief is invisible, yet so tangibly present. It’s not an opponent that can be defeated because it’s not an opponent at all. Throughout my years of grieving, brought on suddenly by my diagnosis of cancer, I’ve learned that grief isn’t my enemy. Grief is a hand held out, bringing me through the darkness and offering light at the end of the tunnel. Grief is good. It’s a sign of healing and recovery. Of movement and growth.

I get trapped into thinking that because I’ve overcome and have reached the light at the end of the tunnel, there is no longer room for grief. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Grief follows it’s own patterns and rules, remember? After a few days of allowing grief to guide me, I began to understand. I was able to identify my emotions, thoughts, and feelings. The time I spent fighting cancer was undefinably difficult. Yet, the time after cancer is difficult, too, in it’s own ways. I’m still not quite sure who I am after all of this. I know my purpose, but I fear not fulfilling it. The exhale of life after is much longer than I expected. What I’ve learned is that grief can’t always be pinpointed to a single moment or tragedy. I can say with generalization that cancer is the cause of my grief, but it’s much more complex than that. For instance, if you were to ask me why I was sad, I wouldn’t have an answer. Grief cannot always be defined, and that’s okay.

The truth is, life after [fill in the blank] is hard for all of us. We expect things to be nice, full of happiness and ease, at a certain point after tragedy. We put parameters on our grief and set deadlines for when it should end. If only. Many who have walked through tragedy find that grief can be triggered years later in the most unassuming ways. Some deny grief, trying to suffocate it, in hopes that it’ll go away. Unfortunately, that never works. Grief is meant to be experienced. If we attempt to avoid, ignore, or deny it, it often shows up with exaggerated force. But the opposite isn’t helpful either. If we hold onto grief for longer than necessary, it can turn into an impossibly heavy burden that we aren’t meant to carry.

Grief is… good. In the end, it really is. It’s worth it. It’s hard and uncomfortable and untimely. Yet, when we allow ourselves to view grief as a hand held out, guiding us to complete healing, our lives can be changed. Grief offers perspective, and as long as we walk through it for the amount of time we are meant to, it can lead to restoration. Grief is painful because it reminds us of our loss, but it is soothing because it transforms our tragic memories, thoughts, and emotions into those of honor, reverence, and even celebration. When we grieve, we allow the pain to be soothed by joy, by hope, and by faith. Grief is the final step to reaching the light at the end of the tunnel and without it, we’re simply trapped in our tragedy. Press forward. There is light at the end of it.

Matthew 5:4 (MSG)

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”

Finding Fertility as a Young Adult Cancer Survivor

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

“I’m sorry to tell you, it’s cancer. You will need an emergency hysterectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation.” With one fell swoop, my life, dreams, and plans dramatically changed. Not only did I learn that I had cancer, but also that my chances of bearing children were erased.

Prior to my diagnosis, my husband and I spoke frequently about having children. We dreamt about how many we would have and what their names would be. We laughed at who they would take after. Would they be fiercely independent (and stubborn) like their mom or gentle and patient like their dad? Would they have Matt’s tan complexion and my blue eyes? We noticed every pregnant woman passing by and couldn’t even walk through Target without perusing the baby section, dreaming of all the possibilities to come. Babies were destined to be in our future.

From a young age, we both felt called to be parents. Though we initially got married with the five-year plan in mind, after our first year of marriage, we were both struck with a bad case of baby fever. We no longer wanted to wait and were ready for a bundle of joy. However, no sooner could we begin the journey to pregnancy before a monstrous disease barged through the front door of our lives. Cancer began to fill every area of our perfectly prepared existence, quickly leaving no room for children.

Dreams began to disintegrate right before our eyes. No matter how tightly we clung to our hopes of bearing children, the dust of our wishes slipped between our fingers, disappearing into eternity.

We begrudgingly traded morning sickness for chemotherapy induced nausea. OB/GYNs for oncologists. Ultrasounds for PET scans. Mom bobs for bald heads. Baby showers for fundraisers. Dirty diapers for hospital bed catheters. Pint-sized outfits for hospital gowns. Pregnancy pains for surgery recovery. Labor and delivery for a radical hysterectomy. Motherhood for survival.

Shortly after my diagnosis and prior to my hysterectomy, we met with a fertility specialist. We learned about preserving fertility and what that could look like for us if we chose to walk that path. She versed us on the difference between surrogacy and gestational carriers, and taught us what an IVF journey looks like. We spoke about harvesting eggs, creating embryos, and freezing them for future use. We learned that not only could we adopt children, we could also adopt embryos. Our fertility doctor shared organizations that financially covered the cost of IVF for cancer patients. The immense knowledge that we learned in that first meeting not only gave us peace, comfort, and understanding, but also left us incredibly overwhelmed. How would we even begin to figure out what to do?

Because of the aggressive nature of my type of cancer, we were given a short amount of time to decide which route we would take. In fact, in our case, we had one hour to make the most life-impacting decisions one can make. Diagnosed on a Wednesday, by Friday we needed to have a game plan. The reason our decision needed to be made so quickly was due in part to the fact that the following Monday I would either be going into surgery, or beginning the four week process of harvesting my eggs. The single most terrifying and stressful moment thus far has been figuring out what path to walk.

Would we move forward with our fertility specialist and begin the process of harvesting my eggs in order to create embryos that someday would become our biological children, or would we choose surgery with my oncologist, saving my life but reducing the chances of creating a biological family? Ultimately, after endless tears, prayers of desperation, and emotional pain, my husband and I reached a conclusion. The priority was my life, and regardless of if our children were biological or adopted, they would need a healthy mother. The following week I underwent a radical hysterectomy.

They say hindsight is always 20/20 and I agree. After further testing of my tumor, we learned that my diagnosis was much more critical than we initially thought. I was given less than a 20% chance of surviving the first year. The type of cancer I was fighting was hormonal and in order to harvest eggs, I would have needed to be on daily hormone injections. We cringe at the thought of what might have happened had we chosen that path. I would likely not be here today.

The reality is, every young adult with cancer faces a multitude of decisions including matters of fertility. Many are fortunate enough to have doctors inform us of our choices before making final decisions that may inhibit fertility in the future. However, too often young adults are not made aware of the finality some treatments may cause for their dreams of having biological children once they enter remission. A cancer diagnosis brings fear, and many treatment plans are decided under pressure and fear of survival without consideration of the lifelong ramifications of rushed decisions. Before making treatment decisions, young adults need to feel comfortable with the full scope of what life during treatment and life after cancer will look like with each option.

Each diagnosis is different than the next. Therefore, each treatment journey looks different as well. Depending on what type of cancer, the location of the malignancy, staging, and necessary treatment, preserving fertility should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. My decision may not be the same as yours, and that’s okay. Young adults should be aware of every option before reaching a conclusion for their fertility. Not only is there IVF, harvesting and preserving embryos, but should the route of forgoing chances of a biological family be chosen (or required), one must know that that does not close the door on hopes of a future family. There are several options for family planning, and the choices continue to expand in number as our advances in the medical community continue to grow.

My husband and I have always wanted to adopt, and once we grieved the loss of a biological family, we knew that my diagnosis was affirmation of that path. However, we feared that due to my medical history, we would be disqualified from adoption. I’ve lost my ability to conceive and carry a child, would I now lose the ability to even adopt one? After further investigation and a handful of helpful adoption advocates and agencies, we have learned that my diagnosis will not affect our chances of adopting. In fact, though we are only in the beginning stages of our adoption journey, we have seen several friends, who are young adult cancer survivors, with beautiful, successful adoption stories.

Though a young adult may not be ready for children yet, they should be well informed of their options before making crucial decisions. This is where our oncologists, fertility specialists, and advocates play a significant role. A cancer diagnosis can be emotionally paralyzing — a fog that causes decision making to feel impossible. Medical professionals have an important duty to walk alongside us, advocating for our future. It is imperative that oncologists and fertility specialists view our fertility and family planning as if it were their own.

Most young adults are unaware of the multitude of family planning options that exist in the medical community, but with the help of caring doctors, finding fertility can be a much less daunting task. There is hope for finding fertility and family planning as a young adult diagnosed with cancer.

Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV)

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

4 Years Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

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

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

By The Way I Have Cancer PHOTO

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

Dating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage

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

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

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

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

Philippians 1:9 (MSG)

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

Body Image After Cancer

Matt_Stephanie_Couple_Shoot-53

As seen in Cancer Knowledge Network’s, #YARally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proverbs 31: 25 (NLV)

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

The Rollercoaster Ride of a Cancer Scan

Stephanie in CT SCAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James 5:15 (ESV)

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

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