Posts Tagged ‘cancer’

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.'”

Say The Words

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I stepped out of the house knowing that I would be offering my most vulnerable self to the world for one of the very first times. My wig was neatly tucked away in my luggage, sitting backstage to my bald, shiny head. I asked my husband, “Are you sure this looks okay? People will stare. Everyone will know that I have cancer.” After receiving tender encouragement, I soon believed his sweet words.

Nervously checking my reflection in the car mirror several times, we made our way to the airport. As soon as we parked, I recognized that I could easily reach into my suitcase and pull out my perfectly styled human hair wig and slip into the crowd unseen and unnoticed. Deciding to risk it, I tucked the thought away and confidently walked into the airport alongside my husband.

Immediately my fears were realized as eyes transfixed on me. Children were confused and couldn’t help but question why a woman would have no hair. Adults passed by and though their intentions were to cast secret glances when I wasn’t looking, I could feel their eyes on my naked scalp. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to forcefully inform passersby that it wasn’t my fault. I wanted to stand firm and express my pride. I wanted to hide. My brave face hid my anxieties and we continued on to security.

I formed a game plan. No eye contact. If I don’t have eyes on them, they won’t have eyes on me. Out of sight, out of mind. I stuffed my overpacked carry-on through the conveyor belt and walked forward. The scan beeped and I assured the TSA agent that I had a port implanted in my chest. After thorough examination I was free to get my baggage and continue ahead. Determined to get to our gate as quickly as possible so as to avoid the ever looming stares, I rushed forward only to be abruptly stopped. An airline employee stepped in front of me and smiled. Thoughts began to race.

Please, don’t say anything. I’m vulnerable right now. I know I stand out, and I hate it. Why didn’t I just wear my wig?

“You are absolutely stunning.”

And that was it. My life changed forever.

Fast forward to a year later. Short stubble graced my once shiny head. I was embodying GI Jane and feeling pretty good about it. I looked forward to the day my hair would cascade past my shoulders, but knew that this was a start. For that I was grateful. Just another day at the grocery store… I placed my items in the checkout line and smiled at the clerk.

“Wow! I absolutely love your hair. It looks striking on you!”

An email nesting in my inbox…

“My fiancé tragically died two years ago and I haven’t been able to get off the couch since. I have felt hopeless and depressed and didn’t want to go on. And then I read something you wrote. I now have hope. Thank you.”

A message shared through social media…

“Because of you, my faith is restored. Your encouragement has changed my life.”

My youngest brother surprising me by shaving his head for his college graduation. Lifting his cap off and looking up into the stands as he received his diploma as if saying,

“This one’s for you, sis.”

A radiology technician who has performed my last three CT scans. She recognizes me each time and welcomes me with a smile. She knows just what I need and offers comfort as if she were family.

“I’m so happy to see you! I think of you often. How are you doing? Still celebrating, I hope!”

Kindness is life-changing. Little did each of these people know how much their kind words would lift me up. It’s incredible how, by simply saying the words, someone else’s life can be impacted forever. Kindness is remembered. Encouragement, support, well-wishes, and prayers are glued to our memories because they are a salve to our wounds when life is difficult. Offering kindness is a direct reflection of our character.

Our memories reside on a scale from happy to sad. Hurt to encouraged. Celebratory to grieved. Tragedy to triumph. Pain to breakthrough. There are always two extremes and our memories are defined by how they made us feel in those moments. When we are at high points in our lives, it’s the low glimpses we remember most. And likewise, when we are struggling through hard moments, it’s encouraging and kind exchanges that linger in our memory.

Withholding a kind word for someone is allowing them to suffer in their struggle. The fact is, we’ll never truly understand what someone else is going through, but that should never stop us from offering kindness. We’ve all felt the urge to say something to someone but have gotten in our own way of delivering the message.

Your waiter is visibly tired but trying her hardest to keep up. Instead of internally sympathizing with her, tell her how much you appreciate her service. A baby is crying on the airplane, and though your instinct would be to throw annoyed glances at the mother, offer encouragement instead. You see someone sitting alone, invite them to your table. You haven’t told a family member how proud of them you are. Do it! You have never shared how grateful you are for a specific friend. Let them know how much they mean to you. You know someone battling cancer… Encourage them. No one wants to feel alone.

Saying the words is all it takes. Though sometimes it will require us to step out of our comfort zones, the reward is always worth the risk. If only we had a glimpse into how our kindness would impact the lives of those around us.

I will never forget the words that have been shared in the times that I’ve needed them the most. Be kind today.

Proverbs 16:24 (ESV)

Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body.

The Financial Burden of Young Adult Cancer

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

I’ve endured thousands of needle pricks, undergone painful surgeries, and have withstood innumerable grueling treatments. I’ve been sick, bald, weak, over-medicated, under-medicated, poked, prodded, pained, and simply desperate for life. I’ve been triumphant, encouraged, accomplished, fortunate, blessed, and hopeful. I’ve gained insight, wisdom, and more medical knowledge than I could have ever imagined. My perspective has flourished and evolved. I have found a depth of joy that many never will. I’ve grieved loss. I’ve suffered hardship. I’ve authentically experienced mortality. I’ve overcome. I am brave and strong and alive. Yet among those things, I am also overwhelmingly burdened.

I survived cancer, but my bank account did not.

What many never mention in the beginning of your battle is that cancer is expensive. Not designer purse expensive. Not home mortgage expensive. Not even dream vacation expensive. Cancer is life-saving expensive. And frankly, before you’re thrust into the fight of your life, you can’t fathom what expensive really means.

Before diagnosis, my husband and I were newlyweds building up our savings account. We both worked full-time jobs and lived comfortably enough to enjoy frequent date nights and yearly vacations. We were building our nest egg with dreams of purchasing our first home and expanding our family. We paid our bills on time and lived with financial peace. But then cancer happened, and soon our nest egg dwindled to mere pennies.

Surgeries, treatments, and hospital visits began invading our monthly calendar. Our mailbox began filling up with bills from surgeons, anesthesiologists, technicians, physicians, and oncologists. And what we first felt was manageable soon became overwhelming. Not only did we need to process our emotions and feelings about me being diagnosed with an extremely rare and aggressive cancer at only 25 years old, but we also needed to process how we would pay for it all. What would our insurance cover? Are these doctors in-network? How much is our copay? Have we met our deductible yet? What are the tax implications for this?

The big question was, “Can we afford to save my life?”

Soon, I had to quit working. My first surgery was a radical hysterectomy in which I was horizontally cut open from one hip to the other; to say I was in pain would be an exaggerated understatement. My initial tumor happened to be deeply embedded in my pelvis. Post-procedure, I was sore, aching, and miserable. The first surgery resulted in a week-long hospital stay. I couldn’t walk up or down the stairs for nearly two months. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t even sit comfortably. Therefore, working my full-time job was no longer feasible. Part-time became impossible as well. We became dependent on my husband’s income and, for a short time, had to move back home to live with my family.

Since then, I’ve had three recurrences. Each fight against cancer has involved surgery and treatment. And each surgery and treatment must be paid for. In total, I’ve received four major surgeries (each involving week-long hospital stays), 55 chemotherapies, 28 consecutive radiation treatments, a port placement procedure, blood transfusions, emergency room visits, innumerable prescription medications, doctor’s visits, and CT/PET scans. Each one came with a pricetag. Cancer has literally taken us to the bank.

My husband and I have learned that life doesn’t stop when cancer begins. Rent, electricity, cable and internet, trash, car insurance, phone bills, student loans, and more needed to be paid. So we began to compartmentalize. Survival here. Payment there. We found a basket to store medical bills in until we gathered up enough courage to go through them. We found ourselves transferring money from savings until our savings account dried up. With the help of our loving family and friends, fundraisers were held and money was raised to assist us. And though prior to cancer, receiving a $10,000 check would seem like a large sum of money, it soon barely put a chip in our medical debt.

Surviving cancer as a married person who can rely on their spouse for an income has been taxing, yet there are thousands of single young adults fighting for their lives without any means to pay for it. At 29, a friend of mine was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. She was single, active, employed, financially stable, and living on her own. Yet, like many upon diagnosis, she quickly learned that she could not afford her increasing bills. She soon had to move back in with her family and sublet her apartment. Without money to pay for her cost of everyday living, she began to heavily rely on her credit card. Within three years, she was thousands of dollars in debt and hadn’t even paid a single medical bill. It’s a story that is all too common for many YA survivors.

YA’s with cancer are not only fighting for their lives, but they are being buried in medical debt. Having to decide whether to purchase weekly groceries or pay a recent chemotherapy bill is not a decision anyone should have to make. Even when treatment ends and a young adult is declared cancer-free, the burden of debt often remains for years to come.

I’ve been out of treatment for one year, and the bills continue to flow in. I’ve developed a fear of voicemails and unknown callers, and when my phone rings, my heart grows heavy. The reality is, like many of my fellow survivors, several of our medical bills have now gone to collection agencies and they persistently call us in hopes that we can reconcile them. My husband and I have paid thousands and thousands of dollars, and still have thousands more to go. We have found the light at the end of the tunnel and are slowly but surely recovering from cancer. The financial burden, though still present, is growing lighter.

It may sound crazy, but we’d do it all over again. We simply cannot put a pricetag on my life. And you shouldn’t either. The bills will come and the money will go. Life is too precious to be seen through the lens of a dollar sign.

“Romans 8:28 (ESV)

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

*Photo: Flickr

10 Ways To Be Better Not Bitter

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Life has a way of throwing curveballs. We’re all recipients of unwanted detours, closed doors, and unfortunate circumstances. In fact, I once heard that if you feel good about where you’re at and what you’re doing, be prepared, because it’s all about to come crashing down. I’d say that while it’s a rather fatalistic viewpoint, there is some truth to it. Life isn’t easy and it never will be. We all have seasons of greatness where everything seems to be going right, when stars align and favor shines down on us. But likewise, we each experience tragedy that seems to strike at all the wrong moments. Death, divorce, accidents, sickness. We’re all susceptible to unforeseen affliction. It’s not about avoiding or denying misfortune, it’s about being prepared for it. It’s about allowing tragedy to make us better and not bitter.

My husband and I were married on a beautiful, sunny day in June. We had a blissful romance. Our first date lasted for 9 hours and, by the second date, I knew I would marry him. We laughed, loved, and enjoyed each other. We might as well have had a Disney soundtrack playing behind us as we moved into our first home, spent many nights cooking together, and lived a fulfilling and abundant life. Then, right as we were gaining our newlywed momentum and forging our way as us against the world, life hit. 19 months after we shared our “I Do’s”, I was diagnosed with cancer and given a less than 20% chance to survive. Our curveball came barreling into our white-picket existence and we were left facing a tragedy of the highest magnitude.

It would be easy to be bitter after everything that’s happened since our wedding day in 2010. It would be natural to be bitter after the loss we’ve endured. It would be expected that bitterness would reside in our hearts after all of this time. But facing the end of your life will teach you something. And what we learned is that we have a choice to make in our struggle. We can become better or bitter, but we can’t have both. Be intentional about where your heart rests. Bitterness is sneaky and creeps in at the first drop of your guard. Here are 10 practical ways to be better instead of bitter.

  1. Choose Joy. And I’m not talking about happiness. There’s a distinct difference between the two. Happiness is an outward expression while joy is an inward decision. Happiness is a reaction to what’s going on around us. Joy is a conscious choice that no matter what happens, you will rise above. Choosing joy will transform the way you live. It will allow you to see beyond your circumstance to what really matters.
  2. Grieve, But Get Back Up. Grief is a normal response to a tragic situation. It’s okay to cry, scream, and get angry. It’s okay to eat an entire pint of ice cream to drown away your sorrows. Grief is healthy. Be sad. Be upset. Be hurt. But don’t stay there. Walk through those feelings, but make sure you continue to walk. Giving up in the middle of grief can swallow you whole. When you’ve finished your ice cream, set the spoon down. Holding onto grief can paralyze your process. If you want things to get better, feel it and follow through.
  3. Pick Your Friends Wisely. Some friends serendipitously fall into our lives while others are hard-earned. Remember, you are who you surround yourself with. If Bitter Betty is your bestie, her bitterness will most definitely rub off on you. Be mindful of how your friends make you feel. If they bring you down, cut them off. The same goes for certain family members. If you have a sibling/parent/cousin/etc that can’t stop crying over the spilt milk, step away. Find relationships that speak life into your circumstance. Everyone needs Positive Polly as a friend.
  4. Keep The Faith. No matter your religion or beliefs, have faith. Faith that it is going to get easier. Faith that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Without belief in something, there can’t be a belief in anything. My faith in God rescued me from bitterness. He is my strength when I have none. He will make a way where there is no way. Have faith that where you are now is not where you will always be.
  5. Have Hope. Similar to faith, we must never lose hope. Hopelessness is a breeding ground for bitterness. Those who give up hope often fester in bitterness until the very end. When everything else fades away, hope will be your anchor. When catastrophe comes, hope will be the gentle salve that heals your wounds. Hope gives us a future perspective and allows us to grow through our trials.
  6. Be Intentional. Don’t drift. Complacency leads to dissatisfaction and resentment. Without intent we become victims. We fall prey to our tragedy. A victim mentality is a guarantee for bitterness. Every curveball has limitations, but living without intent allows our challenges to overpower every area. Maintain some level of normalcy and be intentional about how you spend your days. Sitting on the couch is a recipe for disaster during life’s battles. We rarely have the choice of what challenges we will face, but we do have the choice on how we will respond. Being intentional is a sure-fire way to take your power back.
  7. Find The Lesson. Though it may be the proverbial needle in a haystack, you can find lessons in your tragedy. I’m not referring to reason why the tragedy happened, but rather the wisdom you can glean from it. Every struggle can teach you something. My fight against cancer has completely changed my life. There are many disappointments that have resulted from my diagnosis, yet, because I’ve searched for the lessons, I’ve become a better person. I’ve learned more during my lowest points than I ever have in my highest.
  8. Count Your Blessings. It’s easy to focus on the negative in the middle of misfortune. Remember that life hasn’t always been and won’t always be difficult. We all have reasons to be thankful. Focusing on the positive things in your life will shield you against bitterness. Blessings block bitterness. It’s as simple as that.
  9. Get Healthy. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We all feel better when we feel better. When physically weak, get emotionally strong. When emotionally weak, go to the gym and grow those muscles! Pay attention to what you’re putting into your body. Eat what gives you life. Though few want to cook healthy meals and would rather opt for quicker and easier options when life gets hard, making healthier choices will pave the way towards a better life. Treat your body kindly, it’s the only one you get.
  10. Help Others. Your tragedy gives you insight into what others may be experiencing. Be what you needed when you were thrown a curveball for someone else. Serving others gives us an outward perspective and allows us to see life for more than what it may feel like in difficult seasons. There will always be someone else who has it worse. Reaching out and lending a helping hand betters not only you, but the one you’re serving.

Hebrews 12:15 (MSG)

“Make sure no one gets left out of God’s generosity. Keep a sharp eye out for weeds of bitter discontent.”

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.”

The Rollercoaster Ride of a Cancer Scan

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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…”

#YARally With Cancer Knowledge Network

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A variety of exciting developments have been stirring lately! If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, I’m sure you’ve seen posts about my recent business trips to New York City, Orlando, and Houston. I am touched that my story is impacting and inspiring so many, and in turn that I am able to travel and share a message of hope and faith around the world. We were never meant to walk alone and I am passionate about walking beside others in their struggles.

Among several recent ventures, I’m honored to officially announce my partnership with Cancer Knowledge Network. CKN is one of the largest cancer communities in Canada, and their goal is to help bridge the gap between young adult patients and oncologists. Because of the work of CKN and other organizations like Stupid Cancer and Livestrong, the YA (young adult) cancer community is growing in knowledge, understanding, and impact. When a young adult is diagnosed with cancer there is no longer a void of community, as many have rallied together to let the world know that we are not alone.

As the spokesperson and partner of the #YARally campaign with CKN, I’ll be writing several articles on a variety of hot topic issues that affect young adults in the cancer community including but not limited to body image, sexuality and relationships, finances, and fertility. Too often, the communication between doctors and patients is muddled and our goal in this project is to facilitate personal narratives combined with clinical resources in order to bridge the gap. We have recently launched our campaign, and I invite you to join this journey with us. Make sure to follow #YARally on Twitter, as well as my Instagram and Facebook pages in order to stay updated as this project develops. In addition, I will be co-leading Twitter chats and would love to talk with many of you on the topics being discussed in this campaign.

“It is my goal that by partnering with CKN, our voices will be heard where often they are overlooked. I invite you to join me in the movement to shine the spotlight on our generation as  we face challenges many simply do not face. Cancer doesn’t define your life, and I hope to rally beside the men and women of my generation to help pave the way for improved care and heightened awareness.” – Stephanie Madsen

Visit Cancer Knowledge Network’s #YARally with Stephanie Madsen to join the movement! I look forward to opening the conversation and raising further awareness for this critically important young adult community.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 (MSG)

“So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind.”

 

 

Joy and Happiness Are Not The Same

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Joy and happiness are not the same. Think about what gives you joy; does it also make you happy? If you answer yes, which most of us would, you may then say that they are two in the same. But they’re not. Joy is a decision and happiness is an emotion.

I’m often told that I am a joyful person. I’ve been nicknamed “Sunshine” for nearly a decade. When cancer barged its way into my life I had a choice to make. Would I allow this disease to pull me down, beat me up, and steal my joy? Or would I stand firmly clinging to joy, no matter the twists and turns, pain and grief, sorrow and loss? As difficult as it’s been, I have chosen joy every single day. Whether it was the size of a grain of rice, or as large as the universe itself, I decided on joy. And it hasn’t been easy.

There are more days than I can count that I haven’t been happy. Society tells me that I’m not supposed to say that. I have a wonderful marriage, an idyllic relationship with my siblings, a close family, lifelong friendships, and financial provision. Yet happiness has not been a constant in my life. Whether circumstance reared its ugly head and pushed me over, whether personal issues arose and pulled me down, whether cancer forced its way in and ruined my perfectly pictured life, I haven’t always been happy. And you know what? I’m okay with that. Too often we are told to live happy lives. “Do what makes you happy.” That line makes me cringe. No! Don’t always do what makes you happy, do what makes you grow.

Because happiness is an emotion, it isn’t always attainable. If I watch a gripping movie that makes me cry, I’m not happy. Should I not watch those types of movies anymore? When someone I love passes away, I’m not happy. Should I limit my relationships so as not to feel the sorrow? When an argument arises in my marriage, I’m not happy. Should I subdue my opinions and stay quiet? (Maybe sometimes to that last one, but that’s not the point!) Happiness comes and goes. It’s a reflex to circumstance. It’s automatic. Hearing babies laugh makes me happy. I didn’t choose that, it was a relfex to a sound my heart enjoys. Attending weddings makes me happy. I didn’t choose happiness, it’s a reflex to another emotion… love. Happiness ebbs and flows dependent on what’s going on around us. Joy is dependent on us, no matter our surroundings.

Happiness is an outward expression whereas joy is an inward decision. Joy is choosing to rise above, regardless of our circumstance. Joy is staying positive amidst the most negative news. Joy is gratitude in unsavory situations. Joy is forging a way when there is no way. Joy is a choice. Joy must be chosen, we can’t expect it to simply happen. It’s a conscious decision that requires effort. It’s not easy to be joyful because it takes work. I’ve heard that some people are just born joyful, but I’d disagree. Some are born with more cheerful attitudes, but joy is an acquired trait. To acquire a quality, one must diligently practice. Fortunate for us, we live in a not-so-perfect world and have the ability to practice joy frequently. We are given daily opportunities to develop joy.

Among the innumerable things that cancer has taught me, the number one quality that I have learned is joy. I’ve learned how to look beyond my emotion and embrace joy no matter what tumbles into my life. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be defined by my amount of happiness, because what defines me is beyond an emotion. I’ve learned that a grateful heart is conducive to a joyful one. Seeing life through a lens of gratitude only deepens our joy. Developing joy now will transform how you see the troubles that are guaranteed to come.

Joy and happiness are not the same. Happiness is fleeting. Joy is fulfilling.

Proverbs 17:22 (ESV)

“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

Every Scar Has a Story

There once was a time when the biggest surgery I had was the removal of my wisdom teeth. Though I grew up wrestling around with my younger brothers and playing competitive sports, I had never broken any bones, suffered any major sprains, or even had a scar to show for my rambunctious childhood. I never needed glasses or braces. In fact, I’ll never forget the day my mom took my two younger brothers and me into the dentist to decide who would need braces. I cried upon receiving the news that I would be the only one who didn’t need corrective devices screwed into my mouth. My brothers looked at me with confusion and envy. I remember feeling left out of the cool club as not only my brothers would have braces, but so would the majority of my friends at school. I remember my anguish as I realized I would be one of the few without. There was something cool about braces, and casts, and scars. They were a rite of passage.

We’ve all heard that scars are cool. The majority of us were soothed by our mothers and fathers after receiving cuts and bruises in childhood by hearing that though we were in pain then, we’d soon receive an awesome scar to tell the story. Many boys were told, “chicks dig scars.” Scars were a sign of maturity and experience as a kid. Remember going to school and showing off every bump, cut, bruise, and scab to your friends? Scars gave us credibility. Scars told our stories. When did that change?

It was until I received my cancer diagnosis that I remained scar-free. Shortly after hearing the news, I was scheduled for my very first major surgery. One of the first questions I asked was, “How big will my scar be?” The transition from adolescence to adulthood transforms perspective on physical beauty. The world explains to us that flaws are to be covered up. We go from believing that scars give us a certain cool factor and should be shown off, to believing that they should be hidden. There are hundreds of creams being sold to reduce fine lines, wrinkles, and blemishes. We live in a society that tells us that beauty is flawless. Therefore, the presence of flaws translates to a loss of beauty. Scars become unwanted because we stop viewing them as stories and begin viewing them as shame.

A couple of years ago, I was in the midst of a conversation with a young woman who had recently had heart surgery when she shared her distaste for the scar that graced the majority of her chest. She expressed feelings of ugliness because of the mark on her body. She shared how often people stared and how self-conscious it made her feel. She said that though she is happy to be alive, she really hates the way she now looks as a result of surgery. She was covered in shame because of her scar. The young woman was stuck looking at the scar instead of reflecting on the story behind it. And she’s not alone. Many of us look at ourselves and are overwhelmed by what we see. We become trapped in the mindset that we are less than and not enough because of the scars that cover our skin. We believe what the world says and view ourselves as flawed.

Take a second to look in the mirror. Look at your body. Carefully examine each scar. What do you see? Are your marks simply rough, jagged, thick, discolored skin? Are they contorted, gross, and ugly? Do you find yourself wearing clothing that hides your blemishes? While viewing each scar, reflect on why that scar graces your body. What happened? What’s the scar’s story? Were you attempting to pop a wheelie on your bike as a kid? Were you in a car accident? Did you have surgery? Scars not only reflect trauma to the skin, but often trauma to our lives. Scars reflect heartache, loss, and pain and that’s why we are trained to hide them. We become transfixed on the trauma instead of the testimony and we attempt to cover them up in order to avoid the painful memories because of our skewed perspectives.

It’s been nearly four years since my initial cancer diagnosis. Since then, I’ve accrued 14 scars from several surgeries and treatments. It’s taken me time to see myself as beautiful again amidst the markings on my body. I’ve learned that the way we view ourselves affects the way we view others. When I noticed the scar on the young woman’s chest, I didn’t see what she saw. I saw strength and survival. I saw her story behind her scar. If we can see strength in others’ scars, we must see it within our own as well. We must choose to see the story instead of the shame.

Each of my 14 scars tell a story. And all of them proclaim healing and survival. Each one represents strength and overcoming. My story shouldn’t be hidden, and neither should yours. Wear your scars proudly. You earned them. You fought for them. They are your testimony.

Don’t let anyone tell you differently… Scars are still cool.

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2 Timothy 4:17 (ESV)

“But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed.”

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