Posts Tagged ‘cancer’

The Rollercoaster Ride of a Cancer Scan

Stephanie in CT SCAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James 5:15 (ESV)

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

#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.”

PINKTOBER: Hard Rock Hotel Orlando Fights Breast Cancer

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“We are with you in this fight until the end,” shares Managing Director of Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando, Carlton Hudson. As a 21-year cancer survivor, Hudson means what he says from a very personal perspective. He, like the thousands of men and women across the world facing this disease, understands the importance of teamwork in the fight against cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Hard Rock Hotel Orlando continues to play an integral role in the breast cancer community. This year, the hotel is celebrating it’s 16th annual PINKTOBER campaign by uniting musicians, supporters, and survivors through several outlets. I had the honor of joining the team in the launch of this year’s campaign, and am extremely touched by the personal ways Hard Rock is reaching out to make an impact. While October has a tendency to become “pinkwashed,” Hard Rock Hotel Orlando works diligently to direct the proceeds from PINKTOBER to charities that have little to no overhead costs. The money that is being raised is directly benefiting women and men facing a breast cancer diagnosis.

Hard Rock Hotel Orlando invites guests to show their support in a variety of ways. You can shop for the cause, get into bed for the cause, and even party with rockstars for the cause! In fact, the hotel’s popular concert series, Velvet Sessions, welcomed Bret Michaels for the fourth consecutive year to launch the campaign by performing a benefit concert. Michaels is an ardent supporter of PINKTOBER and breast cancer research, and his enthusiasm for the cause is inspiring. This year, Hard Rock Hotel Orlando donated all proceeds from the concert and the evening’s silent auction (featuring hotel stays, all-inclusive resort vacations, dinners and more) to a local charity called Martha’s Angels. In addition to the donation of proceeds, women from Martha’s Angels had the unique opportunity to spend time with Bret Michaels before his performance. The energy in the room was contagious, and I couldn’t help but smile as I witnessed the conversations between Michaels and the breast cancer survivors. These women, currently fighting this disease, and those who are years beyond their battle were treated like the warriors they are. There was a paradigm shift, as Bret Michaels asked about their stories and congratulated them on their strength and perseverance. Bret became the fan, and the women became the celebrities. Michaels was attentive in giving each woman time, and was truly connected and engaged with each one. Pictures were taken, as laughter and tears were shared. It was a moment I won’t soon forget.

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Who knew that by simply booking a stay at Hard Rock Hotel Orlando you could help the fight against breast cancer? Through the PINKTOBER campaign, Hard Rock welcomes guests to get into bed for the cause. By booking your stay in a Pink Sheet Room, 25% of your stay goes to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The BCRF’s mission is to prevent and cure breast cancer by advancing the world’s most promising research. Hard Rock has chosen the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to receive profits from the campaign because of their commitment to helping patients directly. They have very little overhead cost and are passionate about awareness, advocacy, and researching for a cure. Each Pink Sheet room is manicured top to bottom with beautiful shades of pink. From the bed sheets, decorative pillows, and lamp shades, to the bath robes, towels, and artwork, each room is a beautiful representation of the breast cancer ribbon color. These pink rooms truly are a special indulgence — one that should be experienced by everyone who enjoys a fun hotel stay.

Hard Rock Hotel Orlando has not only remodeled a certain number of rooms in their resort and hosted Velvet Sessions for the cause, but they have also turned their menu and merchandise pretty shades of pink as well. Lay out by the pool and order pink beverages and stop into the shop and grab PINKTOBER shirts and other items, and a percentage of your purchase will go directly to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. At nearly every corner of the Hard Rock Hotel Orlando, guests are invited to join in and show support for the cause. In addition to their pink amenities, the hotel has established a social media presence as well. Use the hashtag #PINKTOBER in your pictures to share your support for breast cancer awareness. Whether sharing photos of Hard Rock’s PINKTOBER merchandise, your stay in a Pink Sheet Room, or your daily life of supporting the fight against breast cancer, the hotel encourages fans to rally together this fall.

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While many organizations and companies are raising money to fund research for a cure for breast cancer, Hard Rock Hotel Orlando’s PINKTOBER campaign expresses their unique passion for the cause. Jennifer Hodges, the Director of Public Relations at Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando, shares that their goal is to stand beside each person affected by this disease and to make an impact on their journey to recovery. The brand’s goal is to unite people from across the world and celebrate life and survival, while actively raising funds that benefit foundations and survivors directly. And as Carlton Hudson explains, “One of Hard Rock’s mission statements is to, ‘Love all, serve all,'” and through their PINKTOBER campaign, I can attest that they have succeeded.

Rock on!

Steph-Brett-Michaels

Galatians 6:2 (ESV)

“Bear one another’s burdens…”

Post Cancer Blues: The Struggle of Beating Cancer

You’re trapped in a dark room and can see a sliver of light outside. Your eyes have adjusted to the darkness that surrounds you and though you have embraced the fear of the unknown, you are seeking the light. Your goal is to reach the outside, but on your way you fumble and trip on things the darkness hides. You sustain injury by trudging through the hidden places of the room. You run into walls, slamming your face into a barrier. You can feel blood trickling down your cheek. You can’t give up. You refuse to be stuck in the dark. You move forward with your arms outstretched in attempt to intercept opposition. You’re bruised and scarred from your previous struggles to reach safety. Just when your path feels clear, you face another road block. You fall down and begin to weep. The light is an ever-changing mirage. One moment you’re within reach, and the next it’s across the room. You’re confused but determined. Overwhelmed but steadfast.

The dark is turbulent, but you find solace and peace within it’s walls. You’ve been locked inside for years and it’s become familiar, yet no matter the familiarity, you know you must escape. You can’t live like this, so you press on. Sore and frail, you stand back up and trudge forward. Cautious. Slowly. Continually looking at the glimmer of hope the light provides. You’re close now. You’re almost there. Fight for it. Do whatever it takes. Your life is on the line, after all. Though bruised, bloodied, weak, and tired, your spirit has a raging ferocity. Your will is strong. And when there’s a will, there’s a way. After many failed attempts, you finally reach the outside.

Your body spills out of the darkness and is overcome by the light. You’ve been fighting for this moment for so long, yet it’s not what you thought it would be. Your eyes can’t adjust. The light is violently blinding. Your hands stretch towards your face and you cower behind them. For so long your eyes were used to the darkness. You became immune to the blackness in which you survived. Now, the one thing you had been desperately seeking isn’t as relieving as you dreamed it would be. You’re confused and afraid. With light, you thought you’d be able to see which direction to move in. You thought you’d know what to do. You thought everything would be so clear. You feel as blind in the light as you did in the dark and you hate that you feel this way.

Cancer is the dark room I’ve found myself trapped in for years. I’ve fought so hard for the light at the end of the tunnel and for my own survival. I’m now cancer free and have metaphorically reached the light on the outside. However, after the years of strenuous battle, I find myself lost in life after cancer. I would much rather be in this position than still fighting for my life, but being overwhelmed is a very real experience for those in my position. Fortunately and unfortunately, I know that I’m not alone. Many survivors describe feelings of confusion once their treatment has ended and they have received a clear bill of health. We get so used to the fight that we forget what life is like without it. Some refer to it as the “post cancer blues.”

We spend every waking hour fighting our disease by religiously going to our doctors appointments, working towards getting healthy, researching the latest and greatest in cancer care, and receiving scan after scan in hopes that someday we’ll be able to live a “normal” life once more. We’re so consumed with the cancer, that it’s easy to forget what life was like prior to diagnosis. We’ve set aside projects and goals to make room for treatment and the thought of beginning projects and to-do lists can be overwhelming. Fear can linger once health returns. Many say that time naturally resolves feelings of anxiety and fear, yet some continue to struggle with depression long after their disease is eradicated.

I’m squinting in the blinding light of life after cancer. I’m stumbling like a newborn deer. I’m trying to find my bearings and regain my footing. I’m trying to rediscover the world I’m living in outside of the dark shadow of this disease. I know the brightness will dim and my eyes will adjust, but for now I think I need to find myself a good pair of sunglasses.

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Psalm 61:2 (ESV)

“From the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”

Keys of Hope: Free Hotel Rooms For Cancer Patients

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Every day, thousands of people are sitting in hospitals and cancer centers receiving treatment for their disease. Thousands of them are in treatment facilities away from home. Some are staying with friends or family while they undergo life-saving medical therapies. Some patients are paying out of pocket to temporarily live in hotels. Some are fortunate enough to have made it through the waiting list and are able to stay in short-term lodges specifically designed for families fighting cancer. However, there are thousands of people who are unable to receive treatment that could either save their life or give them the best quality of life because the treatment is simply out of reach.

If you were diagnosed with cancer today and told that the only facility that would offer the treatment you needed was across the country in a place where you have zero connections and know no one, what would you do? You may immediately answer, “Well I’d go anywhere to save my life.” But keep in mind that your wallet is going to be substantially thinner because of the cost of the surgeries and treatments you will need. You may be left with no money by the time you can receive that life-saving therapy. You’ll probably still be paying your current rent or mortgage and monthly bills unless you choose to move to this faraway city. You will have probably lost or had to quit your job because your place of work doesn’t offer extended paid sick leave. Your choices may be whittled down to nothing. Most likely you won’t be able to afford airfare, living expenses, and the cost of a place to stay on top of the cost of your medical care.

Unfortunately this scenario is not pretend, nor imaginary or made up. It happens every single day in America. Patients are faced with the difficult choice of having to forfeit the opportunity for the best treatment because they simply cannot afford the cost of living away from home. This is a hurdle in the cancer community that is all too common. Hundreds of people are dying because the fear of financial ruin is overwhelming, preventing patients from receiving treatment that could save their lives.

Recently, a program was birthed out of a unique partnership between a corporation and a non-profit organization to help people facing the realities of receiving treatment away from home. Extended Stay America has joined the American Cancer Society to offer financial relief to patients seeking accommodations near their treatment center. Together, they have joined those of us facing cancer in defeating the hurdles that come with fighting the disease. Through the Keys of Hope program, Extended Stay America has donated over 45,000 hotel rooms to patients in need. Over the course of two years, more than 6,700 patients and their families have saved nearly $1.2 million in costs associated with traveling for necessary cancer treatments. Extended Stay America and the American Cancer Society are rallying beside us to make a change. To let us know that we are not alone. Through these room donations, lives are being saved.

A hotel is not the same as home. Extended Stay America understands that and has therefore modeled their rooms around the comforts and conveniences of our own homes. When you benefit from the Keys of Hope program, you won’t be staying in a cold, confining space. You won’t be receiving the rooms that other guests chose not to book. With the Keys of Hope program, you will be staying in a hotel room that feels more like an apartment. ESA provides an environment that welcomes relaxation and relief for your recovery through cancer treatment. Some of the comforts include on-site laundry centers, kitchens in each hotel room for you to store and cook the food you enjoy, and free wi-fi access in order for you to stay connected to your loved ones. In addition, as you head out each morning for your doctor’s appointments, Grab-and-Go Breakfasts ensure a quick and healthy way to start your day. Your pets are welcome too. If you’re like me, my dogs help comfort me when I suffer from nausea, fatigue, and stress from treatment. Extended Stay America even provides pet-friendly accommodations so that you can have the same comfort as well.

Though I have not yet needed help from Keys of Hope, I personally know several survivors who have been deeply impacted by the benefits of this program. With over 680 hotels across the country, there is usually a property near every cancer center in the United States. The partnership between this corporation and non-profit organization is providing real, practical help to those of us facing a cancer diagnosis. Please know that you are not out of options. If you or a loved one is desperately seeking accommodations near a treatment center away from home, Keys of Hope can help. There are no hoops to jump through and no specific criteria needed to take advantage. Simply contact the American Cancer Society booking hotline and ask about Extended Stay America rooms via the Keys of Hope program.

As Tom Seddon, chief marketing officer at ESA shared, “…This is more than a donation, it is about providing families impacted by cancer peace of mind while they travel away from home to seek treatment. The true value of Keys of Hope is in the people it impacts directly.”

AmyRobachCancerSurvivors

Hebrews 13:2 (ESV)

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

 

The Scan I’ve Never Made It To

Have you ever had a prayer so desperate it crashed loudly in the torrential storm of your spirit? A plea so full of depth, it couldn’t be given an audible voice? One equally full of hope and fear? Lately, my prayers have been carnal cries to the Lord. Petitions that bring me to my knees.

Less than three weeks from now will mark one year of clear, cancer-free scans. June 14th is a day I have fervently longed for since the beginning of this journey. While I’ve derailed the statistics of my diagnosis (a less than 20% chance to survive one year), I have yet to make it an entire year without cancer. I’ve hit the three-month mark and have even made it to eight months cancer-free, but I have yet to receive one whole year of clear scans. Within the next week I’ll be laying on the cold, hard, metallic table while a machine takes pictures of my insides from head to toe. And then I must wait, which for me is the hardest; Scanxiety can be quite overwhelming. This is the scan I’ve never made it to.

My prayer life has been brought to new heights since hearing my life is not guaranteed. Not one of my prayers ends without the utterance of a plea to remain cancer-free for the rest of my life here on Earth. My conversations with God are full of asking for dreams to come to fruition. “I’d love to grow old with my husband. Please allow me to experience motherhood. I want to watch my children grow into adults and have their own children. I ask that I live until I’m wrinkled, hard of hearing, and gray.” Some petitions are whispered in my spirit without a voice to convey them. Some are one worded, and I find myself simply saying “Please” quite frequently. Recently, I have found myself showing up at the feet of Jesus with a new sense of urging… Truth be told, I’m desperate.

Desperation is typically frowned upon. It’s a sign of weakness and can be quite pitiful. However, though my spirit desperately calls upon my Savior in this time of need, I know that weakness is not a negative trait in this context. In fact, I know that God wishes for me to be desperate for Him– Putting all of my energy into seeking Him for He knows I can’t do this on my own. I am desperate for life. Desperate for time. Desperate for memories. Desperate for survival. Desperate to hear the words “no evidence of disease.” Desperate for answered prayer. I am desperate to receive yet another clear scan to stamp the one year mark.

The amount of doubt, fear, and uncertainty that can sneakily ease its way into my mind is unmatched. The battle of the mind is often much harder than the physical fight against cancer. I have to constantly and consistently cling to hope that someday I will live a cancer-free life. I must avoid the dark traps and triggers that can send me into pits of despair. I must, with every fiber in my being, believe that I am healed. Though I still experience aches and pains, I must respond rationally rather than place myself in a worst case scenario. I also must surrender my control to the One who holds my life in His hands.

Time moves by slowly and at the speed of light all at once. Some days I wish I was receiving my scan right this minute, and other moments I wish I could put off the inevitable for one more day. This is a scan I’ve never made it to, and the importance sears itself into my heart. I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding the “what ifs,” but know that I very well could be in a position I’m all too familiar with. Overcoming my worry is accomplished solely by my reliance on God. I can not worry, for worrying only wastes precious time. For now, I desperately cling to my faith in a God who is capable of every impossible hurdle I face. I find encouragement in the fact that He hears my every cry. And I know that He in His love for me, wants nothing more than the achievement of this milestone.

Though this is the scan I’ve never made it to, I’m believing that I soon will.

Mark 11:24 (ESV)

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Babies On The Brain

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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 momma or gentle and patient like their daddy? 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. OBGYNs for oncologists. Ultrasounds for PET scans. Mom bobs for bald heads. Baby showers for fundraisers. Dirty diapers for hospital bed catheters. The clean baby smell for sterile alcohol wipes. Midnight feedings for night sweats. Pint-sized outfits for hospital gowns. Pregnancy pains for surgery recovery. Labor and delivery for a radical hysterectomy. Motherhood for survival.

Cancer took precedence over everything in our path. We entered the fight immediately, and dreams of babies fell to the wayside. The more chemotherapy treatments I had, the less conversations my husband and I shared about our future children. Soon we would go months and even years without the mention of kids. Everyone around us was getting pregnant and raising beautiful little bundles, yet we were stuck in the fight for my life. Discussing children became painful — an open wound. Every word spoken was like sprinkling salt over the gash. Cancer handed us the shovel, and grief buried our dreams. Whenever we would talk about children, the loss would surface and the pain broke what pieces were left of our hearts. Quickly our baby fever calmed to a manageable temperature and lay dormant in the back of our minds.

For over three years we have been solely focused on my survival. One day at a time, not getting ahead of ourselves, for the journey of fighting cancer is relentless and unpredictable. Treatment successfully ended in January and my most recent scans showed that I am cancer-free. While knocking on every piece of wood in my sight and believing in the healing power of God, this time feels different. The bandaid covering our previously gaping wound has been lifted and underneath we have found hope. Where there once was a stinging pain of our loss of fertility, there now remains joy for our future. Though it looks different, one thing is for sure… Our hearts still beat for the little heartbeats we will hear someday.

Our dreams never died. While buried under the ache of grief, they transformed and grew. In the midst of our sorrow, God was working in the darkest area of our hearts — the place we fiercely protected. He was making a way. He was healing the emptiness so that it could be someday filled with a future love. Our destiny was to lose fertility so that we could gain a love intended only by the hand of God. A love that will explain a portion of the “Why.” A love destined to be ours. A love that has been woven into our hearts unidentified until chaos exposed it. This love has always existed within our souls, and through tragedy has been magnified. No matter that they won’t be born with our DNA or be birthed from my womb, our children will always be our children and our love for them will be unmatched. Our destinies have already intertwined.

Healing has come, and the conversations have begun again. The dark cloud of grief is dissipating, and light is shining in the dark once more. God is revealing His purpose for our parenthood. He is restoring dreams and washing hope over our wounds like a gentle salve. He is gifting us glimpses behind the curtain, and preparing our hearts for what is to come. We are dreaming again. Excitement is being renewed. Grief has passed like waves drifting back out to sea, and the shore holds immeasurable joy. Though it’s still uncertain how God will bring us our babies, we have hope that He will. He holds our dreams tighter than we ever could, and wishes only the best to come. Though cancer robbed us of our fertility, it will not rob us of our parenthood. Babies are on the brain once again.

Hebrews 10:23 (ESV)

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”

I’m Cancer Free. So Why Do I Still Feel Anxious?

(As appeared in Everyday Health on April 10, 2015)

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Treatment is over. The poisonous toxins are no longer coursing through my every cell. My body is recovering and my energy is being refueled. My hair is growing. I’m seeing hints of familiarity in the mirror — what I was before this wretched disease took over.

I’m beginning to feel like myself again. My scans are clear and there is no evidence of disease.

A burden has been lifted.

But another one has taken its place.

Those outside the gates of Cancerland believe that life goes back to normal once treatment ends. It’s as if we get to press some universal play button and then proceed on our merry little way.

Life is never the same after cancer. The disease does not pause our lives, it redefines them.

Cancer is like a tornado ripping through a town in middle America. It tears through lives and leaves destruction in its wake. Like trees violently uprooted and thrown aside, so too are dreams and goals. Life doesn’t go back to normal after the dust settles. The survivors are left to survey the rubble and pick up what remains.

Discussing the realities of life after cancer can cause pain, grief, and discomfort. Some struggle to move forward because they are stuck living in fear. The “what- ifs” can be paralyzing. It’s easy to be consumed by thoughts of your own mortality even after you are deemed “cancer-free.” This disease doesn’t just affect your body, it also affects your mind. The battle against debilitating fear and anxiety is real. And can be more difficult to bear than treatment itself.

The slightest presence of pain can deliver thoughts of a recurrence. “I have a headache… Has the cancer spread to my brain?” “My stomach hurts; I wonder if a new tumor is growing there.” This mindset is ingrained. Throughout treatment you are constantly asked if you notice any new pain or experience symptoms. Therefore, like Pavlov’s dogs, you are intuitively trained. Even the smallest change is cause for alarm.

Being cancer-free is bittersweet. On one hand, finishing the treatments that have been wreaking havoc on your body is emancipating. But, on the other, the thought of no longer actively fighting the disease is terrifying. Many people have a love-hate relationship with these life-saving treatments. After saying goodbye to our chemo cocktails, radiation, or other therapies, we are left to pray and hope that cancer will no longer choose our bodies for its residency.

How do we live after cancer? Do we try and fill the shoes we wore prior to our diagnoses? Do we begin a new journey?

Many use their experiences with cancer to help others going through the same battle. Others say that cancer makes them better people and redirects their focus. For those who leave Cancerland, life is much more fragile.

Cancer gives you a new lease on life. As if the multitude of decisions we have made since diagnosis aren’t enough, we now must decide what to do with the rest of our lives. Often, life before cancer seems meaningless compared to the vast experiences and enlightenment we gain afterward.

We have looked straight into the eyes of death, and have come out on the other side. We have been beaten down, knocked around — and yet we have survived. Our faith has been tested and reborn. Hope has emerged from the ashes. Though we have lost much, we have also gained strength we never knew existed.

We are different. We have evolved, developed, and grown. We must acknowledge that even though cancer has affected every area of our lives, we have come out on top. Living every day is a choice. And choosing joy is vital to a healthy and happy existence.

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