Posts Tagged ‘cancer’
Cancer-free once again! (February 2014)
Scans are routine in my life now. In fact, I can’t remember the days when I didn’t have to lay in some form of a machine that took pictures of my internal happenings. When I’m not in treatment, I receive a CT scan every three months to ensure that my body is free and clear of cancer. When I’m actively fighting this disease, I must wait until the completion of treatment to get another scan. Since I recently finished my latest adventures in chemotherapy, it was that time again. About two weeks ago, I laid on a tiny hard table for the umpteenth time as a fast and loud spinning donut somehow created an image of the inside of my body.
Typically, my phone rings anywhere from one day to an entire week after my scan. In terms of a waiting period, that window is very large. There are times when I receive results within hours, and other times where the days crawl by and I don’t hear back for a week. I’ve often referred to the anxiety that comes from awaiting scan results as scanxiety; However, the more scans and tests I have done, the better I am at not worrying over the results.
As John Mayer sings in The Age of Worry-
“Alive in the age of worry
Smile in the age of worry
Go wild in the age of worry
And say, ‘Worry, why should I care?’”
I’ve learned that worrying doesn’t accomplish anything, and it will never change any result I may receive. Worrying is a waste of time, emotion, and energy. Worrying is pointless.
These past two years have been a trial of great magnitude. And while I’ve experienced a depth of grief and loss I never could have imagined and wouldn’t dream of wishing on anyone, there have been numerous blessings dispersed along the way. Experience is our most effective teaching tool, and among the many lessons I’ve learned throughout my voyage, surrender has been the biggest one of all. Not only surrendering my plans and dreams, but also surrendering my thoughts and emotions. Understanding the true meaning of surrender has been one of the biggest gifts I’ve gained in this series of unfortunate events.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, surrender simply means, “to give the control to someone else.”
I am not one to surrender. I am a Type-A personality. I am a planner, an organizer, a keep-her-ducks-in-a-row woman. I have a tangible schedule, in which I physically write and record the many daily, weekly, and monthly events going on in the ever-adventurous life of the Madsens. When Matt and I were first married almost four years ago, we had our five-year plan set in stone. We knew when we were going to have children, where and when we would move, and how we would achieve our short and long-term goals. Everything was planned. We had it under control. Little did we know what our first five years would actually bring.
Though the majority of our plans have been wiped off the canvas of our life, new creations have replaced the old. Losing what we had dreamt about for so long was devastating. We continue to grieve the loss of what we imagined our life to be. However, at some point in this journey, we were given a choice. Do we grasp for remnants of what we had desperately wanted for our life, or do we instead surrender our plans, dreams, hopes, and goals, and place the control in God’s hands? Making the decision to choose the latter has forever changed our perspective. Giving the reigns to someone far more capable of directing our lives has removed burden and responsibility. After all, if I was in full control of my life, I know I would screw it up righteously.
Worry is an emotion. A verb. A tangled web of feelings and actions. Worry is an enemy that lures us into a trap and once we are overtaken, it takes hold of our every thought. It tempts us with pity-parties that seem much more fun than they turn out to be. It sneaks around every long-awaited result, and silently slips into our minds if we don’t keep a relentless guard. Yet, as with all temptations, we are called to surrender our worry to God. Surrendering worry leads to freedom.
Though I wish I could say that I surrender all of my worries without fail, it’s not true. I slip up. I let my guard down, and worry slips into my mind, corrupting everything within me. Fortunately for us, the world we live in offers us many opportunities to practice our ability to surrender. We will always face troubles and areas where worry could easily be a chosen response. One of the regular opportunities that I have to practice my ability to surrender my worries occurs every three months. Before, during, and after each scan I am reminded that in order to live freely, I must surrender my worries of the impending results. I’ve learned that no matter how much I worry, I cannot control the outcome of my scans. Worrying has proven time and time again to have zero effect on results. What worrying truly affects is my spirit.
Because I surrendered my worry about my latest scan results, I experienced a freedom and peace that I haven’t quite felt before. As I awaited the life-changing phone call, my thoughts were on other things. I wasn’t fixated on the possibilities. I wasn’t anxious. I wasn’t fearful. I was confident in the One I surrendered to, knowing His plans are always far greater than my own. No matter if cancer had returned once more or if I was officially rid of this beast, I wasn’t concerned. I had the kind of peace that passes all understanding, and a freedom birthed from my surrender.
Worrying will never change the circumstance. Worrying will only affect our spirit. I’m thankful that my spirit was guarded, for it allowed me to better appreciate the results I received last week. I can happily share that I am cancer-FREE! Had I chosen to worry, my joy might have been robbed in the moment I heard the wonderful news.
Surrendering is difficult for this “I’ve got life all figured out” chick, but it’s so worth it. Freedom feels good. Worry, why should I care?
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.”
Many outside of Cancerland think that once treatment is over, life continues again as if nothing ever happened. That we get to press the universal play button and proceed on our merry little way.
The reality is, life is never the same after cancer.
My life’s road map became forever altered upon the very moment I was diagnosed. There were many times after clear scans that I had the choice to revert back to my old life. I could go back to old jobs. Pursue prior dreams. Slip back into the routine of a life I once felt comforted by. Yet doing so always felt wrong. Like a butterfly trying to fit back into it’s cocoon. A place once full of great comfort and safety — though I could slide right back into it, my once upon a time haven would never be the same.
I am different than I was two years ago. Through the adventure of cancer, God has changed me. I have been stretched, broken, molded, and reformed. I see life through much larger lenses, and I appreciate moments that tended to slip by unnoticed in seasons past. My relationships have been altered. My character has been chiseled and refined. I am far more sensitive of what compassion and empathy really mean. I have suffered great loss, and have experienced overwhelming gain. I have been blessed abundantly. My body has been sliced open and stitched shut several times over. Organs have been removed and where there was once smooth soft skin, jagged scars remain.
I am no longer the Stephanie I was prior to my diagnosis. She was shed long ago, and the new me has matured. Why then should I force myself into her old shoes?
Through illness, new adventures, unexpected tragedy, job relocations, children, marriage, divorce, the passing of a loved one, or a cancer diagnosis, our experiences help mold us. We mature. We grow. We transform. The day we are living today is far different than the day we lived yesterday. Why then do we continually try to relive our past? Why then do we continually reach for something that has expired, as if the expiration was not the end of a chapter, but rather a revolving door?
Too often we turn around and view what’s behind us as a marker for what lies ahead of us. We think, “I wish I was back there. Where I’m at now sucks. How can I change this?” We try and relive our so-called glory days. Too often we place our eyes on the past, and are crippled by doing so. We do ourselves a disservice by comparing one season to another.
We have all gone through growth spurts. For me, elementary school entertained the most physical changes on my body. One morning I woke up and my shirts were too tight, pants too short, and shoes too small. Nothing fit, and no matter how hard I tried to stuff myself into my old clothes, they never fit the same again. Sure, I could wear the same shoes, but I’d be in pain for as long as my feet were crammed into them. I was in a dilemma. I loved my old shoes. They were comfortable and cute. I had become used to them, and found comfort in that. Yet, it was time to move forward. Out with the old. In with the new. It was better to find shoes that fit my current size, rather than trying to shove myself into an old pair.
Life’s seasons are comparable to shoes. We can cram ourselves into a past season, and never fit the way we once did. We try to recreate our past, yet suffer with the consequences. We will never experience what we did in the moment that has already expired. Therefore, we must live in the moment that God has for us today. We go through trials for a purpose. God allows us to endure unpleasant circumstances in order for growth and maturity to take place; to become more refined versions of ourselves. We can either embrace the change, moving forward with high hopes for our future, or turn around, desperately trying to hold onto something that once was.
Moving forward opens opportunities for new blessings. Staying behind limits what’s available for us.
As I face a new chapter living a cancer-free life again, I have a choice to make. Do I want to revert to the life I once had — one full of comfort, security, and predictability? Or do I embrace what God has allowed me to go through, and view it as an opportunity to experience new and exciting opportunities? Sure, the future is uncertain. There will be moments of great accomplishments and times of deep sadness. But I have grown in this season for a purpose, and in the future I will continue to mature, as long as I embrace the process.
I often hear, “I’m so happy you’re done with treatment! Now you can get back to where you were.” The latter is simply is false. My life will never go back to the way it once was. My challenge now is to figure out what my new life looks like. To navigate the different pathways that are set before me. And while I grieve that one season is gone, I am abundantly blessed to experience an entirely new one.
I’m ready to try some new shoes on.
Last Chemotherapy! (2/7/14)
Isaiah 43:18-19 (MSG)
“Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?”
(As appeared in Everyday Health on February 3, 2014)
As a 25-year-old newlywed, my life was wide open with opportunity. My husband and I had dreams, desires, and plans to put into action, and conversations about when to bring children into the world. We were young, free, and eager for adventure, and Austin, Texas, was whispering our names. Obeying that call, we began packing up our condo in south Denver. Our plan was to move, find work, buy a home, and get pregnant.
If only it were that easy.
On Jan. 25, 2012, I first heard the word “cancer” directed at me. Not about someone in the news, or someone’s grandparent, but me. An unwelcome beast was lurking in my body. A monster called out of the darkness. It was a disease so ferocious it would try its hardest to steal my life. Suddenly the tracks of my world were redirected, and my train ventured down an unknown course — one full of speed bumps, road blocks, high velocity, and emergency stops.
Laughing, Crying, and Crying Again
Stage III large cell neuroendocrine cancer of the cervix had burst through the borders of my body, and I was launched into surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, with my husband and team of doctors along for the ride.
My body no longer resembled itself. I became infertile and menopausal. My long locks faded away. My mind and spirit were transforming.
The past 24 months have been full of ups, downs, and detours: A slew of treatments, followed by clear scans and then defeating news of two recurrences. I’ve felt overwhelmed and victorious. I’ve laughed and cried and cried some more. I’ve had good days where cancer hasn’t been in the mix, and I’ve had bad days where my diagnosis has slapped me in the face.
Along the way, I’ve become something of a medical professional, and I now know terms that never used to exist in my vocabulary. But through the positive points in this journey, and the downright deplorable, my character has transformed. Cancer has made me a better version of myself.
Go Ahead, Cut Me Off in Traffic
Now that I have seen how fragile and fading life can be, my old goals make me laugh because they are so lofty. Cancer has refined me. It has forcefully removed all that didn’t matter, and given me clear perspective. Being cut off in traffic used to irritate me. Now, I simply allow it, and almost welcome it, because in the end it doesn’t matter.
I have gained a deeper appreciation for relationships. I’ve stopped and breathed in what surrounds me. Colorado is one of the most beautiful states, and here I have the opportunity to look at the Rocky Mountains every single day. I now take one day at a time.
My New Goals: Conversation and Meaningful Moments.
You can spend the rest of your days rushing through, ignoring and avoiding what really matters. Or you can put aside that deadline in favor of an hour with someone you love. You can’t possibly be in that big of a rush.
Take that vacation you’ve been dreaming of. Appreciate everything. Buying the dream house won’t matter in the end, but the memories will.
Cancer came crashing into my life like a train out of control. Along with it came pain, grief, and loss, an immeasurable amount of change. Yet it has also brought an overflow of blessings. I embrace the journey and allow myself to grow with every redirection that comes. I am choosing to derail my diagnosis. Cancer will not rob me of what’s most important: faith, joy, and never-ending hope.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 men are at risk of developing cancer in their lifetime. These statistics are increasing daily.
Cancer is rampant. Dare I say it’s the 21st century version of the plague? As a society, we are desperately searching for a cure, and until we discover that life-saving remedy, we can only treat the disease as best we know how. Cancer attacks any and all ages. It’s a beast that doesn’t care if you are young, old, strong, or frail. Whether you have cancer now, are at risk of developing it in the future, or know someone currently fighting, we are all affected by this disease.
When someone around us gets diagnosed with cancer, it is often difficult to think of how to react and respond. Do we send a card, text, or email? Do we avoid, ignore, and disregard? Do we send money or make a meal? I have spoken about the importance of cancer etiquette before, and while it is valuable to know what to say and what not to say to a cancer patient, sometimes doing something kind can be equally as valuable.
Two years ago, upon sharing the news of my recent diagnosis, I received a gamut of well wishes, prayers, gifts, and support. Many of these acts of kindness remain beneficial to my husband and I today, as my third season of fighting cancer will come to a close at my last chemotherapy this Friday. We have been and continue to be blessed by our incredible support team that surrounds us. If there is ever a need, we know someone will be there to meet it. Yet, no matter how close we are to friends and family, asking for help is one of the hardest things to do as a cancer patient. As if being diagnosed with cancer isn’t difficult enough, seeking help through our journey can be exhaustive.
Rather than asking the patient what you can do for them, be proactive. While expressing your willingness to do anything is thoughtful, offering before being asked can often provide the biggest impact and benefit. Below are helpful suggestions for acts of kindness that have personally benefited myself and many other people navigating a cancer diagnosis.
- Meals: Following surgery and other treatments, offer to provide meals for the patient and their family. Whether you swing by the local Chipotle and pick up a couple burritos, or make your famous homemade lasagna, providing meals helps tremendously. If they have not created a meal registry like MealBaby, offer to set one up in order for others to sign up to bring meals on specified dates.
- Gift cards: Purchase gift cards to their local grocery store, in order for the family to grab necessities. If you haven’t heard, cancer is expensive. Help remove the financial burden by eliminating the decision of whether to pay for groceries or medical bills.
- Date nights: Offer free babysitting for patients with children, and bless them with dinner and a movie with their spouse. For my husband and I, though we have no children yet, date nights allow us to escape the seemingly never-ending world of treatment. It’s a way for us to reconnect, and have a special evening just the two of us… No doctors, nurses, or chemo involved.
- Vacation donations: Often we see donating as a way to provide monetary support to organizations, yet donating can also be personal. Have any saved up airline miles or hotel points? Donate them to your loved one with cancer. Vacations are a way to break through the cancer bubble, and offer rejuvenation from exhaustive treatments.
- Beauty services: Though many chemotherapy treatments cause hair loss, relaxation is still a MUST for patients fighting cancer. Offer to pay for a massage, manicure, pedicure, or facial. Heck… send them away for an entire spa day!
- Cash: Let’s face it, cancer is expensive. Medical bills spill over onto everyday bills. Gift the patient with cold, hard cash and allow them to do whatever they want with it. Maybe they need to pay off that recent trip to the hospital. Maybe their car needs new tires. Maybe they want to buy a new outfit to boost their spirits. Give money with no strings attached.
- Hook ups: No, I’m not talking friends with benefits. If you or someone you know has a connection to a sports team, concert venue, or event, hook your friend up. Sports games, concerts, and festivals are fun ways for the patient to get out of the house and enjoy themselves.
- Home services: Offer to hire a professional cleaning service for the patient’s home. Cleaning and chemotherapy do not mix, after all. Have a knack for organization? Offer your services. Have $8 lying around each month? Sign the patient up for a Netflix service, so they can enjoy endless hours of Breaking Bad.
- Letters: Whether in the form of a hand-written card or an email, send your loved one encouragement. Let them know you are praying for them and supporting them through their journey to a cancer-free life. Encouragement motivates us to keep fighting, especially on days when sickness, exhaustion, and grief are overwhelming.
- KareKrates: We’ve all heard of care packages. They are the gift that keeps on giving. A box full of goodies to express your love and care. Recently, I received an extra special care package from my friends at KareKrate. They have teamed up to provide care packages to patients going through cancer treatment. These Kare Krates are highly beneficial and will put a smile on any patient’s face. The information and products included in the package are not only nice gifts to receive, but they are extremely applicable to any patient undergoing treatment. With top-ranking lotions for skin dryness due to radiation, all-natural lozenges to ease chemo-induced nausea, plush blankets, headwear and more, these KareKrates are the perfect gift to bless any cancer patient with. Head on over to KareKrate to order a valuable care package for your loved one, and make sure to enter the coupon code: SM30 to receive 30% OFF!
Check out my KareKrate!
Hebrews 13:16 (MSG)
“Make sure you don’t take things for granted and go slack in working for the common good; share what you have with others. God takes particular pleasure in acts of worship—a different kind of “sacrifice”—that take place in kitchen and workplace and on the streets.”
(As appeared in The Huffington Post on 1/28/14)
Cancer scares people. It’s the disease that no one wants to get, no one wants to talk about, and no one has a cure for. It brings the crazies out of the closet, introduces you to long-lost family members, and sabotages even the strongest of friendships. Cancer is the adult version of cooties. Getting it is not cool, and will send some around you scurrying away in search of a large tree to hide behind.
“Am I contagious?” This is a question that I admittedly asked upon hearing the news for the first time. I thought I knew the answer, but I couldn’t be entirely sure. Was I putting my husband, friends, and family at risk? Should I be quarantined?
Silly me. No, cancer is not contagious. Thank goodness. But if this disease is not contagious, what could be the reason for friendships beginning to dissolve and people hiding behind closed doors?
Until recently, I couldn’t quite understand the cause for the sudden shift in my relationships upon diagnosis two years ago. I just had cancer, after all. I didn’t have the chicken pox, diphtheria, or the plague. I was still me… the same ol’ Stephanie. Sure, I’d be bald soon, but did that really affect those around me? Was my bald, shiny head really the issue?
People change in difficult circumstances. Some become fearful and timid. Some hide behind sarcasm and cynicism. Some shy away. None of these reactions are wrong; coping mechanisms can fall on a large spectrum.
Before my diagnosis, I (like many) was afraid of cancer. My grandmother had passed from it, and not knowing much, I became fearful. Choosing to avoid any mention of the disease, I embraced blissful ignorance. Upon hearing reports of celebrities succumbing to their fights against cancer, I would feel sorry, yet would move forward as if it didn’t affect me. Because, did it really? As long as cancer wasn’t a part of my inner circle, I could remain euphorically unaware. Many share this approach, and my diagnosis brought these feelings out of several who surrounded me. An arm’s length became a safe distance.
While avoidance is on one side of the spectrum, artificial involvement is on the other. You know, the appeal of being friends with the “sick girl.” A concept similar to when someone passes away, and multiple people claim best friendship with the deceased. Or when passing by a car accident, we have to look, no matter how invasive it may feel. For as many people who vanished into the shadows upon hearing the news that I had cancer, there were just as many people who spontaneously appeared suddenly interested in the details of my journey… people whom I hadn’t heard from in years. Clearly not wanting to offer support, but rather trying to gather as much information about my newly changed life in order to be someone who could “share” my personal updates with others, as if they had the inside scoop.
Recently, I had an extremely valuable conversation with a dear friend. I shared with her the effects that cancer has had on my relationships. The ups, downs, and in-betweens of friendship after diagnosis. She responded by courageously sharing with me a perspective of hers that was entirely unknown to me. Truthfully, I was surprised at the feelings she expressed having upon hearing the news of my diagnosis, yet ever-so-thankful that she was brave enough to share. Her words have taught me so much.
“Stephanie, honestly, I was afraid to be your friend after I learned you had cancer. I feared that I would lose you. I was afraid that you might die, and I would have to go through the pain of losing someone close to me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to that.”
That day, I learned that avoidance might simply be an overwhelming fear of being close to someone who could possibly die. It has forever changed my perspective and has replaced my questions with grace for those who chose distance over involvement. Like I was before my diagnosis, many are just afraid of cancer. Afraid of what it might do to someone they love. And, whereas it doesn’t make dissolved friendships easier, it does allow me to understand that they may not be able to handle such a risky relationship.
As someone diagnosed with this disease, authentic support, encouragement, and prayers are treasures to receive. All friendships require selflessness. Being a friend to someone with cancer is no different. In fact, a relationship like this often requires more selflessness and can be far more difficult than others. Sometimes your friend with cancer may not be able to reciprocate equally, due to a slew of side effects from treatment. But if you’re willing to understand and accept that, this relationship will challenge and inspire you in ways you couldn’t dream of.
I am blessed to say that among several who slid out of sight and those who artificially tried to insert themselves, I have had numerous true friends stand firmly by my side. Friends who have brought meals when I couldn’t get out of bed. Those who have rearranged their schedules to pray with my husband and I before surgeries. Those who sit with me for hours as I ingest my chemo cocktails. Unwavering friends who offer support to myself and my husband no matter how hard the journey may get. Friends who don’t expect anything in return, and whom I know without a doubt would do anything for us. I am beyond grateful for these relationships.
Though arm’s length may be a safe distance, embracing someone with cancer is far more rewarding in the end. Just think. If it were you whose life just flipped upside down, what kind of friends would you want? … Be that friend.
Matthew 7:12 (ESV)
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them…”
Stephanie’s First Birthday (January 1987)
By definition, birthdays are to be celebrated. However, more often than not, society frowns on old age. With face-lifts, age-defying serums, and injections, youth is praised while maturation is muddled.
As a child, I grew up counting down the days until my annual party. The day we celebrated me. My birth. My presence in this world. Every year on the sixth of January, I reached a new age. I was a year older, and always figured, a year wiser. Friends were invited, cake was devoured, laughter commenced, and memories were made. Yet, with every twelve months that passed, celebrations began to dwindle. Balloons were no longer purchased. Cake was no longer on the menu. By my 27th birthday, I found myself in a small, local sushi restaurant with six of my immediate family members surrounding me. Somehow, “How does it feel to be older?” slipped into the conversation just like it does each January, but no “Happy Birthday” song was sung.
Before my cancer diagnosis, age equated wrinkles, aching joints, and hip replacements. Getting older was no longer a momentous occasion, simply one year closer to stepping foot inside a retirement home. “Old” was said with an underlying tone, as if it meant moldy, used, and unwanted. Why is that? Why do we view age negatively with such flippant disregard? The answer may stem from fear of the inability to be our former youthful selves. Fear that death could be closer than we care to admit. As a double-edged sword, death affects all ages. No matter how young, old, vibrant, or frail.
If you woke up this morning with breath in your lungs, you are blessed. You have survived yet another day and are officially one day older.
Since cancer has stormed into my life like an unwelcome party guest, birthdays have deeper significance than before. Receiving a cancer diagnosis often paralyzes ones thoughts about the future. We are left wondering how many more birthdays we may be here for. Will I make it to 30? Will I have grandchildren some day? Some patients on the front lines fighting off this disease are wondering if they’ll live to see next week. Some questioning if they will even wake up tomorrow. As cliché as it may be, each day truly is a gift. Why then, are birthdays not celebrated as the momentous occasion that they are? Why then, are we not more-so grateful when we unwrap the gift of another day?
“I feel so old.”
“I wish I was younger.”
These sentiments are unfortunately expressed by many. Society shares the approach that growing older is an unfortunate occurrence. This is baffling. Growing older is a natural phenomenon. We can’t escape it. It’s inevitable. Therefore, it should be embraced. After all, if you are aging, you are alive.
Age should be recognized, acknowledged, and held in high esteem. Age isn’t just a number. Age is the reflection of an accomplishment we have been subconsciously working for in each and every moment of our lives. Time will come when you will inhale your last breath. When experiences, adventures, and memories will be washed away in the tide of eternity.
After nearly two years in the trenches of this diagnosis and subsequent fight for my life, birthdays have become a symbol. They epitomize opportunity, growth, and life. They represent hope, gratitude, and blessings. Each morning I wake up to see another day… to create new memories… to enjoy my friends and family… to follow my passions… I am blessed. I look forward to my 80th birthday. I look forward to the many celebrations ahead. I look forward to the blessing of a new day.
I challenge you to not view age as a curse, but rather as a gift. One that we cannot give each other. One that has only one Giver.
Proverbs 16:31 (MSG)
“Gray hair is a mark of distinction, the award for a God-loyal life.”
A place where chemo drips freely. Hair is a rare sight to be seen. Tubes, treatment, and trials are common occurrences. Hospital bands are shackles bound to the arms of warriors. And cancer is everywhere.
Welcome to Cancerland.
As I sit here receiving my fourth chemotherapy treatment this season (34th overall), I can’t help but look around, witnessing how cancer has affected the lives of so many. It’s everywhere. Rampant like a rabid monster ferociously feeding on the innocent. Moving its way through the nooks and crannies of both young and old generations. No care that it’s unwelcome. No fear of opposition. No worries in the world.
Once diagnosed, patients, including myself, are immediately propelled into Cancerland. Slingshotted into the abyss, with doctors accompanying us on all sides. Our medical knowledge, once novice, becomes an integral part of our vernacular, and soon we are spouting terms like “hemoglobin,” “neuropathy,” “large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma,” and “CBC.” We become aware what it feels like when our white cells are low, and we equate a shortness of breath to a lack of red blood cells. We become accustomed to aches and pains, leg spasms, and a variety of rare side effects. We ingest pills, supplements, and other magical potions as if they were candy.
This is life. If only we could watch fireworks, eat a chocolate covered frozen banana, and leave the park at the end of the day to crawl into bed outside the gates of Cancerland. However, this disease embeds itself into the pages of our story. It becomes a part of us. A part of our journey. Enveloped in our trials. Overcome in our triumphs. It never leaves us. The shadow of cancer follows us no matter how far we run and no matter how well we hide.
Yet as I am surrounded by my fellow patients, I sense a spirit of camaraderie. We are an army fighting against this horrendous beast. Gathering up arms and standing firm on the hope of success… On the hope of remission. Encouraging one another, exchanging tales of war from seasons past, and dreaming of a bright future. We are more than just patients. We are spouses, children, siblings, parents, and friends. We are people with dreams and goals. Praying to make it through the next year. Hoping for healing. Believing in salvation.
I am touched, moved, and honored to have such an inspiring army of survivors and fighters around me. Everyone who has ever heard the words, “You have cancer,” is immediately part of a unique fraternity. We can say, “nausea,” and as comrades we immediately understand this specific type of sickness. There is something special and deeply personal about the unsaid connection between those who have entered the gates of Cancerland. Some hold their ticket proudly. Some tuck their ticket deep into the crevasse of their pocket. Some try to throw their ticket away, only to find it reappearing every time. No matter if you are proud to be a survivor, in denial of the battle you are in, or not ready to face the fight ahead, we are all a part of this clandestine society.
As for me? I am proud. I have scars, wounds, physical reminders of what I have been through, and what awaits my future. I have aches and pains. I have neuropathy. My insides have been nuked more times than I can recall. My body no longer resembles its form prior to diagnosis. I have been bald, with hair, and bald again several times over. I have lost and gained friends. My life plans have been altered. I am infertile and menopausal. If given the choice on what I wanted my life to look like, cancer would be at the bottom of the list. However, I’m here. There’s no denying it. There’s no getting around it. I have been fighting cancer for the last two years of my life. But I have a choice. One of the largest decisions I have ever had to make and will have to make continuously over the course of my life. Do I want to be miserable? Or do I want to be joyful? Some may think this is not a choice, but I would adamantly challenge that stance. Though oftentimes we cannot choose our circumstances, we can choose our emotions.
I am proud to be a cancer patient…fighter…survivor. I am proud to say that no matter what, cancer will not win because I will never lose. I am proud to belong to this fraternity. My ticket to Cancerland will forever be displayed triumphantly in a frame over my life.
Romans 15:13 (ESV)
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
WARRIOR. (November 2013)
I’ll admit it. I’ve been MIA for the past month. My absence was not intentional. I just couldn’t get the words out into my blog. However, it was nothing like writer’s block. It was much deeper. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but whatever it was, it was looming over me like a dark cloud.
Throughout these past few weeks, I have often felt the urge to sit down and write. To pour out my thoughts. To process. To purge. Yet, no matter how much I wanted to, I simply could not.
Recently I discovered the answer, the reason, and the explanation for this sudden halt. For this past month, and frankly since the day I learned of my enemy’s return, I had been carrying an extra burden of emotions. Emotions that lingered. That weighed me down. That tried hard to steal my joy, hope, and happiness. Call it depression. Call it a funk. Call it what you will, I was being buried by it.
Every season of my battle against cancer has contained different emotional responses and physical hurdles. For the better part of my two previous seasons, I had battled more physical hurdles. I had more days where I felt like crap. More days where I had been in pain. Yet, this season has been different from the start. Not a tumor, only microscopic cells. Praise God for that. Not as physically taxing as it has been emotionally. Yet, sometimes working through emotions is harder than working through pain.
“Do you ever get depressed having to go through all of this?”
A few weeks ago, I was asked this simple question. I actually laughed. Not at the friend asking the question, but at the thought. Depressed? “100% YES,” I said. However, not many people see that from me. Though I walk in the strength and grace that God has given me today, I still stumble into the pit of worry, fear, and despair from time to time. I have never lost faith nor hope. I cling tight to the belief that I will be healed here on Earth. But this season, this battle, this fight had brought with it a sadness that I hadn’t been able to shake off.
This question has been asked many times: “Do you ever get sad?” In fact, several people have inquired if I ever have low days. Many have shared that they always see a smile on my face. That if they had no idea about my diagnosis, they wouldn’t guess that I was fighting for my life every single day. I’m thankful that I don’t appear as a cancer patient. I’m thankful that I have beautiful wigs and that I am talented with a makeup brush. But, believe me… fighting cancer sucks. It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It’s hell. When I was initially diagnosed almost two years ago, some even thought I was in denial. Some thought that because I wasn’t crying every second of every day, the reality must not have hit me. The truth is, it hit me from the start. I did cry. A lot. I did grieve. I had to let go of the plans my husband and I had. At 25 years old, my whole world changed. Yet, from the beginning, I chose to not let cancer ruin me. It would take my health, my fertility, my plans, but I refused to let it steal my joy, my hope, and my faith.
This season I have shed more tears. After all, I was just getting used to a cancer-free life. My hair was gorgeous, growing, and curly! I hadn’t had treatment for seven months, and I was nearly a year cancer-free. I thought that was it. I thought Matt and I could begin to forge our way into our new “normal,” healthy, happy, and whole. And because I was living life free of this awful disease, it’s recurrence this time was harder. I cried every single day for a week straight. I, stupidly and regretfully, watched sappy romance movies by myself and went through boxes of tissues. I also noticed something else. Something far more concerning. I wasn’t in The Word as often as I should be. In fact, my emotions were beginning to interfere with my relationship with Jesus. And, now that I’m finding my way out of the dark cloud, I realize that was the enemy’s goal. To sadden me to the point that my focus was no longer on my Savior, but on my grief.
The struggle through cancer is the single hardest thing I have ever had to do. Fighting for my life every single day is exasperating. No matter how tired, weak, and sad that I get, I still put on my shit-kicker boots every day and head to war. The war against the enemy. Not only against the monster that has repeatedly tried to parasitically take my life from the inside out, but also the monsters that wage war inside my mind and spirit. But I am still human, and on my own am incapable of winning this war. Without help, I will surely die. I can’t head to the front lines without armor and supernatural strength. I can’t let my emotions cloud my sight to the Almighty: the One who can and will save me from this battle, the only One who is more than capable of healing me in a matter of seconds.
Often, we allow our emotions in a circumstance to control our reaction, response, and direction. We let the enemy slither his way inside our minds as he spits venom into our spirits. We become blind and deaf to the sight and voice of Jesus. Our victory becomes dull. Our joy is diminished. And that is why it is imperative to stay focused, with our eyes on the One who can offer us hope, freedom, peace, healing, strength, and joy. No matter how different and difficult the seasons may be… No matter the peaks and valleys of our emotions… No matter… God is never-changing. He is consistent. He is who He always has been. He is the same God when I was healthy. He is faithful, and continues to have my back. He wants the best for me. Therefore, I must seek Him first. I challenge you to do the same.
Let’s stand above our emotions, and let His promises, His goodness, and His power reign.
1 Peter 8-11 (MSG)
“Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you napping. Keep your guard up. You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world. So keep a firm grip on the faith. The suffering won’t last forever. It won’t be long before this generous God who has great plans for us in Christ—eternal and glorious plans they are!—will have you put together and on your feet for good. He gets the last word; yes, he does.”
The one with Bill Murray, not Punxsutawney Phil.
Getting cancer over, and over, and over again is comparable to the movie Groundhog Day. One season ends and I wake up expecting a new one to begin, only to find myself in the same season I have journeyed twice before. Over, and over, and over again. Much to my dismay, this battle is not complete yet.
As you know (or maybe you haven’t read the latest), surgery went better than we could have imagined. God has repeatedly displayed His power. The scan showed a two-inch tumor near my remaining ovary. However, during surgery, my doctor didn’t find a tumor at all, and in fact stated that I had one of the cleanest abdomens she had ever seen – pink and healthy. Just to be certain, she removed the ovary and sent it off for further review. Pathology reports came back showing microscopic cancerous cells… That, my friends, is a miracle… Did you not catch that? From the size of nearly a golf ball, to microscopic cells. Had there not been a tumor on my scan, my doctor would not have operated, and I would have continued believing that I was cancer-free, when in reality, this disease would have had three more months to grow and possibly travel elsewhere. God allowed a tumor to show up on my scan, in order for us to find the beginning stages of a recurrence. A golf ball size shrinking to microscopic cells. If you don’t call that a miracle, I don’t know what you would.
God calls us to focus on the praises and miracles He has performed in our lives and the lives of those around us. Yet, as humans, when another storm arises, we tend to forget those miracles. We often store them in the back of our minds, only occasionally pulling them forward in our memories. Life gets hard again, and we forget all the good He has done in and for us. By doing that, we aren’t fully recognizing God for who He is. His goodness doesn’t come and go. He is the single most consistent being in existence. We must remember the blessings He has poured over us. It’s as vital as breathing.
Since surgery one month ago, I have already received chemotherapy. About 12 days ago, in fact. It was my 31st chemo cocktail, yet familiarity doesn’t always bring comfort. I’ll never say fighting cancer is easy. No matter if it’s your first time, or your third, fighting cancer takes everything you have and more. Frankly, I can’t believe I’m doing this all over again. Twice… okay, that was hard enough. But three times? After being out of treatment for six months and nearly a year cancer-free. Seriously?
I’ve processed this recurrence different than my initial diagnosis and first recurrence. It’s been drastically more emotional for me. Being that so many of my girlfriends are pregnant now, I’d venture into comparing my emotions with those of an expectant mother. For real. This past week, I’ve cried over the silliest things. On one of my good days, Matt and I ventured into Ikea, and noticed a woman training a service dog. I had to keep walking, or I would have needed a box of tissues. I’ve cried to my husband and by myself. Over everything and over nothing. The tears have found their way out regardless of my will to keep them contained. I know that purging these emotions is a good thing, and a healthy cry session can help with the process.
No matter how much I’d love to say I’m always focusing on the positive, I am here to admit that I, too, am human. I have moments where I allow the blessings to easily slide to the back of my mind, allowing the storm to overwhelm my life. My tears are those of sadness, grief, and exhaustion. I loathe the fact that I am faced with this choice again. The choice to fight or die. Fighting cancer is just that… a choice. And it’s a choice that I must make. However, as always, I choose to fight.
Clinging to God’s blessings in the midst of the storm helps us build up our arsenal of tools to ward off the enemy. The enemy is a thief in the night who wants to steal our joy, hope, and positivity. He knows we are weak and preys on our vulnerabilities; doing whatever he can to push us further into the mud. It’s easy to fall into the pit of despair and continue drowning in the muck that tries to suffocate us.
Last week was full of emotions, sadness, shock, and defeat. I was living in a real-life Groundhog Day. But today, I am standing firm in the promises, miracles, and blessings that God has poured over me. I am calling forth every gift He has given me, and every promise He has spoken to me. I am remembering the moment I woke up from surgery to learn that there was no tumor. I am remembering the many times that God has scheduled divine appointments on my behalf. I am clinging to the goodness of my Savior, because I am blessed.
I’m fighting this again, which only means that I will soon be a three-time cancer survivor. This season will be different. I’m not waking up in the same place as I was twice before. Try as you may, cancer, but this chick is standing firm with spiritual armor so powerful, nothing can penetrate it.
Handling business as usual, chemo-style. (October 2013)
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (MSG)
“Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’ Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”
(Guest post by Matt)
Stephanie and I have spent a few days in the hospital, and she seems to have been progressing better than she has after previous surgeries. When they rolled her out of the post-op area, she was already sipping water. In prior surgeries, she wasn’t even allowed to touch but a few ice chips for about a day afterwards. Aside from a furious bout with itchiness last night (which we think was brought on by the hospital bedsheets, soon replaced by soft sheets from home), Stephanie has been able to do everything they want her to in order to go home.
But, as we have learned on multiple occasions during this journey, life can be unpredictable. I noted in the last post that they had to check the removed ovary for microscopic traces of the cancer. Well, the pathology report came back today and MJ gave us the news: there were microscopic cancer cells in the cystic walls of Stephanie’s ovary, nothing that could be seen with the human eye. That’s the thing with this or any other type of cancer. There’s an obvious battle against tumors and what shows up on scans, but there is also the microscopic battle.
So, there will be further treatment.
Stephanie will once again have to undergo chemotherapy treatments after all. She’ll start in a couple weeks after she heals up from her hospital stay. The good news is that these cells were found in the ovary that was taken out. There wasn’t a tumor, and there wasn’t any spreading to other areas of her body. So this chemo season will be an “insurance policy” to fight the microscopic battle. MJ is confident that it’s nowhere else and if there are still cancerous cells, the chemotherapy will prove effective against them. And, tomorrow morning, Stephanie is getting a PET scan, not a CT scan. That is good news.
In hindsight, we were a little spoiled with the immediate post-surgery news that no cancer was seen. Just because it wasn’t seen doesn’t mean that it still wasn’t present (obviously). It’s so small that the doctor who sees cancer every day couldn’t even see it. But we know that God is still good. He has orchestrated this whole story. Nothing about this is a surprise to Him. He is obviously still working in this story to bring glory to Him. Yes, it’s a bummer that Stephanie will lose her hair again and have to get chemo again. But, this is what we were planning before we even got to the hospital on Monday. We were prepared for another season of treatment and we still are.
Prayer-wise, we would appreciate prayers for emotional strength and endurance for the season ahead. Imagine the amount of stress and anxiety that is endured when you spend months and months growing your hair out just to find out you’re going to lose it again. This is difficult (especially for a woman). Just like everyone else, we have been expecting to be able to plan out our lives a little bit. Some people get further along than others before God reveals HIS plan for their lives. We are experiencing this in the time when we would otherwise be thinking about buying our first house and starting a family. Having to put those things “on hold” has been difficult for both of us, so prayers for understanding God’s will for our lives and being able to handle the “holding” gracefully would be especially appreciated. Also, very short-term, I am bouncing between home and the hospital not only to care for our pups, but it is moving week. So, we also request prayers for a smooth move. Big props to the fellas who will be helping us out this weekend with this task, it means more than you know.
We are praying that the “third time’s a charm” with this treatment. We’re keeping positive attitudes and we know that how people handle what comes their way reveals their true character. Thank you for praying with us and standing beside us.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (MSG)
“It’s better to have a partner than go it alone. Share the work, share the wealth. And if one falls down, the other helps, but if there’s no one to help, tough! Two in a bed warm each other. Alone, you shiver all night. By yourself you’re unprotected. With a friend you can face the worst. Can you round up a third? A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped.”