Posts Tagged ‘chemotherapy’

Dear Stephanie: A Letter to Myself Before Cancer

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Dear Stephanie of January 2012,

You are both stronger and weaker than you could ever imagine. Life is about to show you that. Though you won’t be sure what she means, take the advice of your friend and “buckle up.” In fact, why don’t you grab the seatbelt next to you and buckle into it as well. You always liked roller coasters, right?

You are young, healthy, vibrant, and full of energy and dreams. You are working hard and thoroughly enjoy your job. You have married the love of your life and are thrilled to come home to him every day. This truly feels like the beginning of an incredible journey, and hand-in-hand you and your husband both feel ready to conquer anything. You’ve found the church you call home, and for once you finally feel like you belong to something far greater than yourself. The friendships that will develop through this church will become family. Trust and embrace them.

You feel ready. Ready for the future. Ready to start pursuing the dreams you and Matt have. Ready to do whatever it takes to achieve your goals. Ready for what God has for you. You think that means a white picket fence and two children. You think that means unending happiness with only minor bumps in the road. You think you know what God wants for you, and though you are certain of His goodness, you don’t know its depth just yet. You feel ready for a reason, but it’s not the reason you think. Stay ready.

You’re really rockin’ that hair. I know how much you love it. Go on with your blonde self — enjoy it. You are in shape and look good. Really good. You don’t believe it, but you are perfectly beautiful as you are. Stop worrying so much about it. Soon you will find that when looks fade, character will remain. Start thinking about your identity.

Your husband adores you. You think you have an understanding of his love and commitment, but you really have no clue yet. You reminisce to your first date, your wedding day, and all of the fun newlywed adventures you have experienced together. It’s been a year and a half, and you both laugh at the words of friends who have married before you: “The first year is the hardest.” You say to each other, “If the first year is the hardest, we’ll be smooth sailing for the rest of our lives because this is easy!” You were right, the first year was the easiest, but it will get harder. The man that stands by your side now will stand by your side through your darkest times. He meant every single word he vowed to you. Cherish him.

You like plans. You like goals. You like lists. You struggle with control. You want things just right. But your version of right isn’t always right. Let your pride take a step back. Though you have perfected the plans of your life story, be ready to erase. God’s plans are far greater than the little ones you have constructed. It’s okay to go with the flow. You’ll need to learn to do that soon. Be open to new things. Surrendering your life and all of the plans you blueprinted is scary, but marvelous.

You have experienced pain and loss, but you don’t fully know grief. It’s bitter and refreshing all at once. It comes swiftly and unexpectedly, but can truly heal if you let it. Though you are emotional at times, soon crying will become second nature. It doesn’t mean that you are weak. In tears, there is strength. Allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to experience the pain and then work through it. Don’t avoid situations because they make you uncomfortable. Dive in.

The faith you have now will soon become the only thing you can hold onto when your dreams, desires, goals, and plans are radically changed. Your faith, though it seems large now, will have the most impact when it is the size of a mustard seed. You’ve hoped for things before, but the hope that will birth inside you will reach magnitudes you can’t even begin to fathom. God is for you. He is on your side. He goes before you. He will protect, encourage, and supply you. Wrestle with Him. Pursue Him. He has never and will never leave you. When He is quiet, be still.

You have a story. The life you live now will soon change to reveal your purpose. The woman you are now will be pruned in order for a new creation to spring forth. At times you won’t recognize the woman you see in the mirror, but she is still there… stronger than before. Though there will be days and even months of painful struggle, the reward for staying steadfast will overwhelm you. Don’t give up. Keep your eyes focused on what matters most, and everything lackluster will fade away. It’s okay to be weak and to allow God to be your strength. He will overcome.

I write to you from a familiar date. You’re a numbers girl, I trust that you’ll understand the importance. On January 25, 2012, you will be diagnosed with cancer. And three years (almost to the day) later on January 26th, 2015, you will complete your final chemotherapy treatment and will be well on your way to a new journey. Be encouraged. Those three years will have an eternal impact. They will be some of the hardest years of your life, but will develop you in ways no other experience could. Be grateful.

You are brave. You are strong. You are fierce. You are a warrior. You are a fighter. You have the tools you need. You can do this. I believe in you.

With utmost expectations and encouragement,
Stephanie of January 2015

 Proverbs 16:9 (ESV)

“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”

 

Christmas with Cancer: What Matters Most

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Christmastime is my absolute favorite season of the year. Beautiful shining lights adorning neighborhoods near and far. Sparkling decorations around the home. Hot chocolate by the fire. Soft, white snow gently setting the tone. Carols sweetly filling the air. Cookies and treats being prepared and consumed. And a spirit of giving that is tangible.

What is Christmas to you?

Is it getting the best Black Friday deal for someone you love? Is it making sure you combine your ingredients just right so your sugar cookies turn out perfectly soft? Is it being known for giving the most extravagant gifts? Is it desperately counting down the hours until the day has passed? Is it a bitter reminder of those you have lost? Is it just another day on the calendar?

After being diagnosed with cancer, my perspective on the holidays has changed. Where I once was consumed with stress over everything that came with the season, I now let anything that is not full of cheer slough off. Christmas to me is a reason to be full of joy and happiness, no matter your circumstances.

No matter that you didn’t receive the gift you so desperately wished for. No matter that your cookies were burnt and crispy. No matter that your budget didn’t allow for all that your heart desired. No matter that the temperature is warmer than expected and snow ceased to fall. No matter that you received bad news. No matter that you can’t be home with your family this year. No matter that a diagnosis accompanies you this season. No matter that you’re sick, weak, and barely getting by.

Christmas is an annual opportunity of reflection and celebration. No matter what we may face, the holidays can and should be celebrated. What really matters most in the holiday season is giving, loving, and gratitude. Instead of focusing on what we don’t have or what we can’t do, we should instead focus on the abundant gifts that we are blessed with.

No matter how bad it gets, there is always something good in the midst of it all.

My diagnosis has refocused my life and has shined light on what matters most. Spending time with family, friends, and the ones we love. Sharing laughter, stories, and pleasant memories. Giving more of ourselves through time and energy. Taking moments out of our day to bless others. Living in a spirit of gratitude and happiness. Truly choosing joy above and beyond what we may be facing.

I have every reason to complain and be bitter during this season. I’ve lost far too many friends and family members recently. I am in a fairly constant state of pain from residual effects of treatment. I have said goodbye to many plans and dreams that my husband and I had a long time ago. This will be the third year I celebrate Christmas with cancer. And, I may in fact be sick this week because I ingested another fair share of chemotherapy only three days before Christmas. I have my reasons to dislike this holiday. But I choose not to.

In the end, I would much rather live a life of abundant joy no matter what circumstances I will face. I don’t want to spend one holiday bitter, angry, or aggrieved. I refuse to allow the junk in my life to decide the amount of joy and happiness that floods my heart. There is far more than perfectly baked cookies and the most trendy decor at Christmas. The reason we recognize this holiday is far greater than giving gifts, for we have been given the most magnificent gift of all.

It’s Christmas… What really matters most to you?

Isaiah 9:6 (NKJ)

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

What We Need When We Need It Most

Sometimes the simplest things in life bring the most joy. Though I’ve shared monumental moments of my journey including a phone call from Peyton Manning and being on The Ellen Show, often what brings my cup to overflowing are the little things that happen in the most perfect timing.

Yesterday, I woke up and began my day as usual. Preparing breakfast and lunch for my husband, ushering the dogs outside, and analyzing the cleanliness of our home. Do I need to vacuum today? How much laundry needs to get done? What’s on my list? Long gone are the days of planning my schedule according to how many minutes it will take me to get ready… That is, until yesterday.

For the past few months, I’ve been in awe of my hair. The specific type of chemotherapy that I receive weekly does not cause hair loss. My doctors and nurses shared that though it may thin, my hair should accompany me this season. Praise God, the hair on my head has indeed remained healthy, thick, and full of curls. And, it’s still growing. I’m amazed actually. For those who personally know me, you know my hair has always been a big deal. I’ve written frequently on the topic, HERE, HERE, and HERE, as well as several other places. I used to spend too much time on my locks each morning. My hair used to be my pride and joy. Then, just like that, cancer took it away.

Having hair while undergoing chemo is paradoxical. It causes many, including myself, to scratch our heads in confusion. When most people see me and hear that I am actively fighting cancer by ingesting chemotherapy once a week, there’s a shortage in their minds. What? How is that even possible? Hair and chemotherapy? That’s the epitome of an oxymoron, right? Wrong. It all comes down to the specific chemical mixture of the chemo drug. Not all cause hair loss, just like not all make your skin fall off. (Oh yes, if you’re new here, that happened to me also.) Each drug has different side effects, however the most common is hair loss. This time I got lucky. Though suffering extreme nausea and weakness, at least my dome will be warm this winter!

If you’ve kept up with my infrequent posts these last couple of months, you’ll notice that I’ve been down in the dumps. I’ve undergone great loss, and this fight has been particularly harder than the three before. It’s taken more effort to stay on top of my emotions and remind myself that this is not forever… One day at a time. I know I’m not alone when I say, there have been more moments than I can count when I’ve been near my rock bottom, and God has reached down to pick me up in remarkable ways. Sometimes His ways are through the right person saying the right thing at the right time. It could also be through receiving a blessing at a moment when you needed it most, or even an answered prayer that you thought was an impossible dream.

Let me share my heart for a minute. God speaks to me in many ways. He speaks to all of us in fact, we just need to listen. On Sunday night, I envisioned Jesus smiling at me. It brought me both pause and joy. Have you ever imagined Jesus smiling at you? It’s an incredible image. My mind began to wander… why? Why was He smiling at me? Now I think I know. Yesterday morning, He gave me a gift that only He knew I needed.

For some reason, I decided to get my flat-iron out. I got the hair-brained idea (no pun intended), to see how long my bangs were. My hair has been growing for 40 weeks now and determining its length is near impossible considering the tightness of each curl. I have longed for the day when my hair can be put up in a ponytail again. For fear of disappointment, I have kept my hair styling tools tucked away. Until yesterday, I didn’t think I would use them until my hair noticeably needed taming. A spark arose within me, so I pulled out the flat-iron and began to straighten my bangs. Utter shock and amazement followed.

Oh my word. I have bangs. My hair is long. Compared to being bald, I have long hair! The tears began to flow as I looked at myself in the mirror. My initial thoughts were vain and aesthetic. My hair is long enough to style! I finally look a little more like my pre-cancer self! It’s been nearly three years that my hair has been anywhere near this length! Soon, however, my thoughts transitioned into a realization. God just gave me a gift.

The reality that I’ve been fighting for my life for these last three years and have been abundantly blessed to still be here, caused the tears to flood my eyes and overflow onto my cheeks. Tears for all of the moments I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a bald, sick, weak, and dying patient. Tears for all of the times I felt like giving up. Tears for the heartache, grief, and loss that Matt and I have endured. Tears that even though I’m still in the most difficult battle I have ever faced, God is FOR me. He is on my side and He cares about the little things. He knew the gift He had up His sleeve would make my day. He knew that urging me to do the simple task of flat ironing my hair would propel me into a fit of immeasurable gratitude. He, above anyone else, knew how much having bangs would mean to me. Though seemingly little to most anyone else, these bangs represent so much more than long hair. They represent life, perseverance, and blessings. They represent the goodness of God.

And just like that, I can see Him smiling at me again.

Psalm 37:4 (ESV)

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

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Putting a Bandaid Where It Doesn’t Belong

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Life is not meant to be lived passively, but proactively. I need to remember that. We all do. Instead of allowing life to pass by and just happen to me, I need to stake my claim and walk forward refocused in my purpose.

Recently, my journey has been harder than usual. I often feel like I’m only capable of handling a certain level of difficulty. That level has been reached, and I’ve come to the end of my capabilities. Facing an impossible level, I’ve been given a choice and, unfortunately, I chose wrong.

I have been knee-deep in a murky swamp. Mud, muck, and dark waters have enveloped me. I’ve felt slithering snakes swimming past my legs, taunting me and begging for my attention. The mud between my toes has encased my feet, urging me to stay put. Instead of trudging forward, I chose to sit down. Instead of forging a way to get out of the swamp, I stopped in my tracks. I convinced myself that I was taking a break to gather my strength and to rest. But at some point, breaks end. Eventually, you must get up and keep going.

This wasn’t a break. This was me sitting down, giving up, and not wanting to deal with what I was facing. Like a child not wanting to do something, I metaphorically went limp on the ground.

These past two months have sucked me dry — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Chemotherapy has been increasingly difficult, and good days have become few and far between. I receive the poisonous toxins once a week, therefore plenty of my days are spent on the couch, pretty useless. My nausea is often overpowering and unbearable, sitting at the base of my throat like a volcano waiting to erupt. I’m tired. There are days when I can’t imagine anything better than the comfort of our bed. Exhaustion is exhausting. Not having energy to live life on my terms is an invitation for sadness to overwhelm. Some days, the harder fight is not against cancer, but against the subsequent emotions.

Beyond the daily battle against this disease, I have faced other obstacles. Difficult hurdles and layers of grief to top off this already bumpy journey. My grandfather, whom I lovingly called, “Papa,” passed away. We were very close throughout my life, especially so in these later years as we fought the same fight alongside each other. Never would I have thought I would be fighting cancer with my Papa, but it deepened our relationship in special ways. We understood each other through each surgery, treatment, and side effect. We lifted each other up on rough days. He fought a good battle, and ultimately won the victory. Boy, do I look forward to seeing him again.

Not only did I lose my grandfather, but only a few weeks later, a close friend of mine went to be with Jesus as well. This time, it was unexpected and sudden. The type of tragedy you can never prepare for. It still doesn’t seem real. A dislodged blood clot after surgery… A mere few hours prior, I was giving her a hug, kissing her on the forehead, and wishing her well as she was to head into the operating room. We joked, laughed, and prepared for how life would look like after the procedure. I lent my words of wisdom (having gone through several surgeries before), and let her know she would be fine. The shock still comes in waves. I just can’t believe she’s gone. How I miss her so.

The combination of grief, stress, frustration, exhaustion, and sickness has weighed me down, and I simply crumbled underneath it. I sat down in the mucky swamp and, instead of resting, I merely existed. I went through the motions each day. Chemo every Wednesday. Nausea pills every six hours. Church on Sunday. Grief, like my nausea, at the surface ready to explode. Yet, I couldn’t deal with any of it.

I covered my grief and uncomfortable circumstances with bandaids. I’ve watched too much TV. I’ve eaten horribly. I’ve been snappy with my husband. I’ve introverted. And, as many of you have recognized, I stopped writing. I just couldn’t bear pouring my reflections out to the world, when my thoughts were jumbled, messy, and self-pitying. Writing is cathartic for me. It helps me process, and in turn, heals my soul. Equally as my words encourage you, they often encourage me. There are more times than I can count when I read back through an entry and know God Himself was speaking through me to me. Yet, for several weeks, I avoided it. I sat down in the swamp and went limp.

It wasn’t until I was removed from my circumstances, and was stuck in a car for thirteen hours with my husband, that I pulled the bandaids off… finally facing the wounds that were hidden underneath. We talked and I cried. Releasing what had been burdening me for weeks. And, in true character, my husband gently led me back to The Lord. I am so grateful for an encouraging husband who holds my hand, understanding and grieving with me, and guides my eyes upwards.

The problem with placing a bandaid on a wound that doesn’t need one, is it doesn’t heal. Some wounds need air for a scab to form and the healing process to take place. My wounds needed air… The refreshing air of Jesus. And instead of reaching for Him, I put a bandaid on, covering myself from healing, and went limp. The bandaids paralyzed me and put me in a passive position.

While the grief, sickness, and emotion has been painful, I have learned from it. When life gets hard and uncomfortable, our human reaction is to give up. But have you thought how your circumstances might change if you were proactive in the midst of trudging through your own swamp? We have all faced difficult seasons in our lives. Many can say that, though our circumstances may not have changed, once we became proactive, our perspectives sure did. Instead of convincing ourselves we need a break and sitting down in our muck, stand strong, be proactive, and pull the bandaid off. Allowing God to touch our wounds and heal them is a powerful act. It’s painful, but so worth it.

What swamp are you sitting in? I challenge you to pull your bandaids off, stand up, and allow God to guide you in healing.

Psalm 119:50 (ESV)

“This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.”

 

Raising The White Flag

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There are moments when we reach the end of our rope. When no matter how hard we try to hold the pieces in place, everything continues to slip out of our grasp. When we desperately wish for things to go according to plan, just this one time. When we are this close to throwing in the towel.

We don’t realize that in those moments, all we need to do is surrender. Place our pieces on the table, push them over to God, and raise our white flag.

Surrendering is typically the hardest obstacle we face in life. Why is that? Why do we find it so hard to let go of control? Surrendering is not giving up. Surrendering is not admitting defeat. Surrendering is the strongest act of humility and trust. Surrendering is an acknowledgement that we can no longer do it on our own. To surrender is to gain.

Life with cancer has taught me to raise my white flag more often.

I’ve been MIA these past few weeks, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going through something. I was reaching the end of my rope. I was desperately grasping for straws. I was tired, unsure, stressed out, and frustrated. Sometimes I feel like my life is a bulbous onion. Layers and layers piled on top of one another. Each layer a new level made up of the stuff that makes your eyes water. Often too, I feel like a circus performer, trying to balance an innumerable amount of barrels on my head while walking across a tight rope.

We all have periods in our lives when we’re juggling too much already, only to have a few more balls get thrown into the mix, causing all of them to come tumbling down.

My car needed a repair. A repair that would cost us more than the value of the car itself. The only wise decision my husband and I could make was to purchase a new (used) vehicle. Our current lease was up soon, and we had been looking for a rental home for months. Each day we sat in front of the computer, scanning every place we could think of for used cars and rental homes. Nothing. Nothing in our price range. Nothing in our location. Too much mileage. Too expensive. Too much. Too little. Too far. Nothing. I felt defeated. I felt like we would never find what we needed. And amidst the stress of determining our next steps, my dear grandfather passed away. He fought a courageous battle against this disease, and ultimately won. Oh, and my weekly chemotherapy treatments… the cherry on top.

Stress, frustration, exhaustion, and grief all wrapped up into a tear-filled, multilayered onion.

I found myself in the shower one day — naked, alone, and vulnerable. I began to weep. Tears cascaded down my cheeks and spiraled down the drain alongside the water. My pent-up emotions heaved from my heart as I lamented my anguish. Soon, a song began to rise within my spirit. Bubbling up, forcing it’s way through my emotions, and cleansing them upon release.

“I surrender all. I surrender all. All to thee my loving Savior, I surrender all…”

The words flowed out and my arms raised up. In my weakness and vulnerability, I began to worship. God Himself gently placed this hymn that I had not sung for years in my spirit. He was urging me to let go. To give Him my checklist, my worries, and my grief. And in that moment, I did. Before I knew it, the burden was lifted off and I was in complete peace over what my husband and I were facing. The feeling you get when someone you love gives you a great big hug… that’s what happened. Tears of stress transformed into tears of joy and hope.

As if God was saying, “You can’t do this, but I can. Give these tasks to me. I’ll take care of you.” Within one week, we found a car and a home. Upon my surrender, He was faithful.

Have you experienced something similar? I have, many times. Yet in those dark moments, it’s easy to forget His faithfulness. It’s easy to doubt His ability. In our humanness, we believe that we are in control. We think that if we don’t do enough nothing with happen, or if we do, we’ll reap favor. Too often, we lose sight of The One who is ultimately sovereign over our lives. No amount of us “doing” can achieve what He can. We cannot achieve our impossibles. Only God can. And, in order for this to happen, we must surrender our pieces to Him.

Surrendering is scary. Full surrender is handing both your worries and fears as well as your dreams and desires completely over to Jesus. It’s entrusting Him to handle it. It’s relinquishing control over your life. Surrendering is hard, but necessary. After all, His abilities far outweigh our own. Surrendering comes down to trust. Do we trust God?

What do you need to surrender today? I challenge you to raise your white flag.

Mark 14:35-36 (ESV)

“And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’”

Photo: Flickr/lundgrenphotography 

Don’t Worry, I’m a Professional

Being a professional is a good thing, right?

I’m no longer a novice, and am far beyond proficient. I’m now an expert at chemotherapy. This upcoming season of treatment will be my fourth go around, after all. In fact, pretty soon I’ll be over the hill with above 50 chemo treatments under my belt. I’m choosing to see this as a positive. I’ve got this chemo happy hour pretty well figured out. Not much can be put past me. Nausea, hair loss, exhaustion, pain, soreness, and aching? No biggie. I’m a pro.

Truth be told, I’m not nervous for my next round of treatment. It could be that I’ve done this for nearly three years and it’s become somewhat of a new “normal” to me or that I have complete peace in my journey knowing that God is sovereign over every detail. Upon learning that I would have to endure more chemotherapy as a result of my latest recurrence, many have asked if I am scared or nervous for this next season. I’m neither. At least, not yet.

I better not be. Happy hour starts next week.

Over these last few days, I’ve had several preparatory conversations with my doctors and nurses in both Houston and Denver. We’re all on the same page, and that in itself is comforting. Our plan goes into effect soon—I will be choosing a recliner in the infusion center next week, and will be ingesting my chemo cocktails in no time.

Each season of treatment is unlike the last, therefore, I’ll be receiving a different type of chemotherapy this time around. Though a self-proclaimed expert in all things chemo, I am still unaware of how this specific prescription will affect me. As a patient, we are given the rundown of possible side effects. Everything from low white blood cells and platelets to extreme tiredness. These are things I should expect with this type of chemo. I may or may not lose my hair… We’re praying for the latter, but won’t be too distraught with the former, however, I do love my curls! Though I won’t know how I’ll react until I receive treatment, I will generally feel as I have felt on chemo these past few years. Gross, tired, and sore.

Side effects may be similar, but the actual regimen called for this time is different than my past experiences. I will be receiving chemo once a week for three weeks in a row, with one week off. I will be doing this six times. Essentially, I will only have one week a month for the next six months where I won’t be getting treatment. It sure does seem like a lot. That equals 18 more sessions, but who’s counting? Yikes.

I’m ready for it. Ready to drive to the hospital every week. Ready to flood my body with copious amounts of poisonous toxins. Ready to feel like crap on a daily basis. Ready to fight. Ready. It’s amazing what you’ll do to try and stay alive.

As always, we will need abundant prayer, support, and encouragement. Remember 10 Ways to Help Someone With Cancer? The tips I provided last year are still very applicable to this journey ahead. We will be needing meals for when I’m feeling too tired, weak, or sick…Though Matt can cook a nice grilled cheese sandwich, his expertise does not reside in the kitchen. He does, however, drive to get take-out far better than anyone I’ve seen before. Gift cards to restaurants help as well. We will need endless support and encouragement, and please keep in mind I am not the only one going through this. My husband is the rock behind the scenes; my guardian standing firmly by my side. He needs as much encouragement as I do. We will also need understanding and grace, as our schedules will firmly revolve around how I am feeling each day. With what you’ve shown us in these last few years, we know you will rally beside us just as strong this time. Thank you for that.

Chemotherapy isn’t fun. It’s not something that I would choose to do had it not been crucial to my recovery. Going through yet another season of treatment doesn’t produce butterflies and rainbows. Instead, it’s brutal and exhausting. Chemo sucks. I love it and I hate it. No matter though, I’m a professional. I’ve got the port to prove it.

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Isaiah 41:10 (ESV)

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Photo: Kimberly Mitiska Photography

Badge of Honor

_MG_8052Losing hair in an already difficult situation is like rubbing salt in an open wound. As if struggling to survive each day through treatments, medications, and poisonous elixirs isn’t enough, going through it bald is the proverbial cherry on top.

_MG_8040When I first lost my hair, I was unsure about venturing out into the public without something covering my smooth, hairless scalp. I remember the first time I stepped out of the house sporting my new look. As freeing as it felt, I also noticed the amount of unwanted stares I began to receive. The questions, curiosities, and expressions of pity in the eyes of strangers were tangible. I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed, but most of all, I was vulnerable. At times I wanted to boldly announce, “I have cancer, alright? Stop staring at me!”

_MG_8089I’ve been baldalicious for the greater part of two years, and have now learned to view it differently than I did in the beginning. My perspective has changed and a pride has emerged in the once desolate space of vulnerability. I am proud to be bald because being bald means I am a survivor. Being bald means I am still here. Still fighting. Still alive! Instead of viewing myself as a patient, I view myself as a strong warrior. Now, when out in public without a wig, I walk with my head high. I have nothing to be embarrassed about. Nothing to hide.

_MG_9187One month after my final chemotherapy treatment, I developed a longing to document my beautiful baldness. As illustrated as my journey has been, there was one thing missing — a gallery highlighting my bald head. I wanted my badge of honor on display, in a way that highlighted the fierce survivorship that I so often feel.

_MG_8133As usual, God’s timing is always perfect; Recently I was invited to be the subject in a photo shoot. After discussing my vision for the session, Kimberly met my husband and I at a park and we got to work. I was inspired to showcase the beauty in baldness, and brought along a headpiece that I put together. This photo shoot was such a special, intimate, and celebratory moment in time. Kimberly is a phenomenal photographer, warm and friendly face, and develops an atmosphere of comfort that is so needed in a shoot like this one. What she produced stunned me. She captured my vision to a “t,” and I will forever be grateful to have visual representations of the beauty in my baldness. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

_MG_9208Bald should be celebrated, not hidden away in embarrassment. If you are bald from the effects of your courageous fight through cancer, embrace it! It is your badge of honor. You are beautiful! After all, we are survivors … our bald heads say so.

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Isaiah 12:5 (MSG)

“Sing praise-songs to God. He’s done it all! Let the whole earth know what he’s done!”

PHOTO CREDIT: KIMBERLY MITISKA PHOTOGRAPHY

 

Bald is Beautiful: The Message That Got One Young Girl Banned From School

(As appeared in The Huffington Post on 3/26/2014)

Yesterday, I came across an article. It’s a story that gripped me and had me feeling both triumphantly exuberant and downright disappointed. This story is about a little girl who has lost her hair in her ongoing fight against cancer, her friend who decided to stand beside her, and a school who punished them for it. The school chose to send the friend home, because her shaved head violated school dress code policy.

Delaney Clements is a strong 11-year-old girl fighting neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer that develops in nerve cells. Kamryn Renfro is her 9-year-old friend who clearly has a heart of gold and more character than most at her age. Due to her chemotherapy treatments, Delaney has lost her hair. She is baldalicious and exudes such joy with her smile. Recently, Kamryn chose to shave her head as a way to stand by her friend in support. As a way to offer encouragement and to let Delaney know she was not alone. Kamryn made the decision to support her friend, against all odds and no matter the sacrifice.

This act of bravery from such a young girl is extraordinary. How many of us can say that we would do the same?

What happened next left me feeling disappointed and shocked. The school felt that Kamryn’s act of kindness, friendship, and support went against their dress code policy. They informed Kamryn’s family that she would not be allowed to attend school until her hair grew back, or until she arrived wearing a wig. Apparently, her bald head distracted other students. However, was it a negative distraction? I don’t think so. If anything, their fellow peers were given a rare opportunity to see what love really is. This act of solidarity could have been used as a teaching moment. A lesson that could not be explained with flash cards or times tables.

Our world needs to be distracted more often. Our eyes need to be taken away from the meaningless and be redirected to the meaningful. Sometimes lessons cannot be taught through a textbook.

The media has shared this story over and over again, yet the core message seems to get muddled. The debate of whether or not hair should matter in school should not be the focus. This message is not about a girl with a shaved head. This message is about what one girl did for her friend. In an interview, Kamryn stated, “It felt like the right thing to do.” And Delaney responded by saying, “It made me feel very special and that I’m not alone.”

Having lost my hair several times over from the slew of cancer treatments I’ve received over the last two years, I understand what it feels like to be bald. It can be isolating and scary. Many don’t realize the amount of value we place on our hair until we no longer have it. Being bald has often left me feeling vulnerable and different. Being bald is a physical reminder of the battle for survival. I am nearly 20 years older than Delaney, and can’t even fathom what she has had to go through at such a young age.

By punishing Kamryn for her act of kindness, this school has sent a large message. While I understand the importance of rules and regulations in schools, the administration carelessly looked over the benefits of this situation, and reacted improperly. Children should not be punished for doing the right thing. We should instill values into our youth, so that when they grow older, they will treat others with compassion and care. Do we want our children to remember moments like this as an example of what is not allowed, or rather an example of what it means to love? Acts of kindness should not be rebuked.

What Kamryn did for Delaney should not be punished. What she did should be praised. She responded to an urging of compassion in her heart by extending support to another. She stepped out in courage and bravery to do what not many would. She symbolically held her friend’s hand and let her know she was not alone. And I applaud her.

Thank you Kamryn for rallying by your friend and showing her support and encouragement. Thank you for showing her that she is not alone and doesn’t have to be the only one who looks different. Thank you for your courageous spirit and your brave response.

Thank you, Delaney, for your strength and courage. Thank you for showing the world that bald is beautiful. Thank you for inspiring those of us who are fellow fighters and survivors. Thank you for your contagious smile and bravery.

Kamryn and Delaney have defined what courage, friendship, and bravery really mean. Today, I stand with Delaney and Kamryn, and urge you to do the same.

Bald is beautiful.

Update: After all the media attention on the story, the school has since reversed its decision.

Romans 15:1-2

Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not status. Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, “How can I help?”

BaldIsBeautiful

Hair Hath No Fury

There comes a moment in every cancer survivors life when we realize our hair has returned. My moment was this morning.

After answering emails, continuing the laundry, and catching up on Real Housewives (a guilty pleasure … forgive me), I stepped into the shower. Over the course of these past two years, there are more times than I can recall when I’ve been without hair, and a few fleeting occasions when my locks have made a debut. This past season has been spent as hairless as a naked mole rat. Therefore, showers are quick. It never ceases to amaze my husband how speedily I can take a shower. You’d think we were on water rations or something.

“Are you sure you’re done? That was fast!”
“Yes, I’m sure. I have no hair. Remember? All I have to do is wash my body.”

And it’s the truth. I can get in and out of a shower within 5 minutes. I have no legs to shave, no hair to shampoo and condition. My sole duty is to get clean. I’d be lying to say I didn’t enjoy not having to time my morning ritual around how long my shower will take. Oh, the benefits of being follicularly challenged!

As I stepped out of the shower, dried off, and stepped into my wardrobe for the day, I noticed a shadow under my arms. It caused me great pause, as I was unsure what was lurking underneath my biceps. Lifting my hand to the sky, I peered at my underarm. What did I spy with my little eye? Hair! The softest hint had sprouted from an area that had been naked for so long. My first thought was, “Wow. It’s back. I’m officially done with treatment. Now I need to brush up on my shaving skills!”

Hair is a silly little thing we often take for granted. Women are constantly irritated with their manes — fussing, fixing and complaining that it’s not long enough, not short enough, not curly enough, or not straight enough. We buy the latest and greatest products to manipulate it to do things only God Himself could accomplish. We specifically tell our stylists we only want our dead-ends trimmed, and no length to be removed. We try new styles, new cuts, and experiment with how much volume we can achieve. We wax our bodies from head to toe – plucking, primping, and priming our skin to be as smooth as possible. No matter what woman I talk to, we all have a never-ending love-hate relationship with our tresses.

Every time I’ve lost my hair has been different. My first season through treatment two years ago took everything but my eyebrows and eyelashes. My second season, I lost nearly everything right away, but still managed to have two spots on my scalp that maintained about twenty hairs each. As aforementioned, this season I remind myself of a naked mole rat. Bald, pale, and if not for my hot flashes, cold. Because of the changing of each season, I’m never quite sure what to expect my locks to do. Will they all grow back in at the same time? Will my hair be thicker and more luxurious? Will its color and texture change?

The hair on my head has slowly but surely begun to make its debut. About three weeks ago, I noticed a little garden growing up there. Tiny sprouts had begun to make their voyage above the surface, and I was elated. Hair continues to be a reminder that I am no longer in treatment, and that brings me a happiness that I can’t even begin to describe. The second I spot newly established tresses, I make certain that I shampoo and condition it every single day. It’s hair. No matter that it’s one tenth of an inch long, it deserves to be treated as though it reaches my shoulders. I can officially say my showers have expanded from around five minutes to nearly seven.

After discovering what my underarms had been hiding from me, I began to hunt for more. This hair hunting expedition had me laughing to myself, alone in my bathroom. The joy that came from finding more and more pooled up in me, until it overwhelmed my thoughts with the acknowledgement, that I, once again am cancer-free. I looked closely at my face and noticed itty bitty strands making an appearance at my brow line. My lashes have even joined the party and are tap dancing across the edges of my eyelids. Soon, I was touching my legs, inspecting every square inch, gleefully observing hundreds of hairs revealing themselves to me.

I officially have hair again. It’s not much, but it’s here. It’s back. And it has returned with a vengeance. I remember the first time my hair reappeared. My poor, poor legs. It was as if I was a newly pubescent teenager, all over again. Nicks and scratches up and down each leg, and quite a few bandaids to mask my amateur attempt at shaving. I’m excited to brush up on my shaving skills once again, and pretty soon, I’ll go from novice to professional. I’m praying this hair is here to stay, and that it will forever take the place of the one who tried to steal it away.

I suppose it’s time to stock up on razors. I anticipate my shower to be much longer tomorrow, as I’ve got some shaving to do. For today, though, I will enjoy these beautiful reminders that I am alive and cancer-free.

6.5 Weeks From Last Chemotherapy (3/14)

6.5 weeks from last chemotherapy (3/14)

 Isaiah 43:18-21 (MSG)

“Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands.”

When Cancer Flips Life Upside Down

(As appeared in Everyday Health on February 3, 2014)

Stephanie Madsen

As a 25-year-old newlywed, my life was wide open with opportunity. My husband and I had dreams, desires, and plans to put into action, and conversations about when to bring children into the world. We were young, free, and eager for adventure, and Austin, Texas, was whispering our names. Obeying that call, we began packing up our condo in south Denver. Our plan was to move, find work, buy a home, and get pregnant.

If only it were that easy.

On Jan. 25, 2012, I first heard the word “cancer” directed at me. Not about someone in the news, or someone’s grandparent, but me. An unwelcome beast was lurking in my body. A monster called out of the darkness. It was a disease so ferocious it would try its hardest to steal my life. Suddenly the tracks of my world were redirected, and my train ventured down an unknown course — one full of speed bumps, road blocks, high velocity, and emergency stops.

Laughing, Crying, and Crying Again

Stage III large cell neuroendocrine cancer of the cervix had burst through the borders of my body, and I was launched into surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, with my husband and team of doctors along for the ride.

My body no longer resembled itself. I became infertile and menopausal. My long locks faded away. My mind and spirit were transforming.

The past 24 months have been full of ups, downs, and detours: A slew of treatments, followed by clear scans and then defeating news of two recurrences. I’ve felt overwhelmed and victorious. I’ve laughed and cried and cried some more. I’ve had good days where cancer hasn’t been in the mix, and I’ve had bad days where my diagnosis has slapped me in the face.

Along the way, I’ve become something of a medical professional, and I now know terms that never used to exist in my vocabulary. But through the positive points in this journey, and the downright deplorable, my character has transformed. Cancer has made me a better version of myself.

Go Ahead, Cut Me Off in Traffic

Now that I have seen how fragile and fading life can be, my old goals make me laugh because they are so lofty. Cancer has refined me. It has forcefully removed all that didn’t matter, and given me clear perspective. Being cut off in traffic used to irritate me. Now, I simply allow it, and almost welcome it, because in the end it doesn’t matter.

I have gained a deeper appreciation for relationships. I’ve stopped and breathed in what surrounds me. Colorado is one of the most beautiful states, and here I have the opportunity to look at the Rocky Mountains every single day. I now take one day at a time.

My New Goals: Conversation and Meaningful Moments.  

You can spend the rest of your days rushing through, ignoring and avoiding what really matters. Or you can put aside that deadline in favor of an hour with someone you love. You can’t possibly be in that big of a rush.

Take that vacation you’ve been dreaming of. Appreciate everything. Buying the dream house won’t matter in the end, but the memories will.

Cancer came crashing into my life like a train out of control. Along with it came pain, grief, and loss, an immeasurable amount of change. Yet it has also brought an overflow of blessings. I embrace the journey and allow myself to grow with every redirection that comes. I am choosing to derail my diagnosis. Cancer will not rob me of what’s most important: faith, joy, and never-ending hope.

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