Posts Tagged ‘chemotherapy’
(As appeared in Everyday Health on February 3, 2014)
As a 25-year-old newlywed, my life was wide open with opportunity. My husband and I had dreams, desires, and plans to put into action, and conversations about when to bring children into the world. We were young, free, and eager for adventure, and Austin, Texas, was whispering our names. Obeying that call, we began packing up our condo in south Denver. Our plan was to move, find work, buy a home, and get pregnant.
If only it were that easy.
On Jan. 25, 2012, I first heard the word “cancer” directed at me. Not about someone in the news, or someone’s grandparent, but me. An unwelcome beast was lurking in my body. A monster called out of the darkness. It was a disease so ferocious it would try its hardest to steal my life. Suddenly the tracks of my world were redirected, and my train ventured down an unknown course — one full of speed bumps, road blocks, high velocity, and emergency stops.
Laughing, Crying, and Crying Again
Stage III large cell neuroendocrine cancer of the cervix had burst through the borders of my body, and I was launched into surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, with my husband and team of doctors along for the ride.
My body no longer resembled itself. I became infertile and menopausal. My long locks faded away. My mind and spirit were transforming.
The past 24 months have been full of ups, downs, and detours: A slew of treatments, followed by clear scans and then defeating news of two recurrences. I’ve felt overwhelmed and victorious. I’ve laughed and cried and cried some more. I’ve had good days where cancer hasn’t been in the mix, and I’ve had bad days where my diagnosis has slapped me in the face.
Along the way, I’ve become something of a medical professional, and I now know terms that never used to exist in my vocabulary. But through the positive points in this journey, and the downright deplorable, my character has transformed. Cancer has made me a better version of myself.
Go Ahead, Cut Me Off in Traffic
Now that I have seen how fragile and fading life can be, my old goals make me laugh because they are so lofty. Cancer has refined me. It has forcefully removed all that didn’t matter, and given me clear perspective. Being cut off in traffic used to irritate me. Now, I simply allow it, and almost welcome it, because in the end it doesn’t matter.
I have gained a deeper appreciation for relationships. I’ve stopped and breathed in what surrounds me. Colorado is one of the most beautiful states, and here I have the opportunity to look at the Rocky Mountains every single day. I now take one day at a time.
My New Goals: Conversation and Meaningful Moments.
You can spend the rest of your days rushing through, ignoring and avoiding what really matters. Or you can put aside that deadline in favor of an hour with someone you love. You can’t possibly be in that big of a rush.
Take that vacation you’ve been dreaming of. Appreciate everything. Buying the dream house won’t matter in the end, but the memories will.
Cancer came crashing into my life like a train out of control. Along with it came pain, grief, and loss, an immeasurable amount of change. Yet it has also brought an overflow of blessings. I embrace the journey and allow myself to grow with every redirection that comes. I am choosing to derail my diagnosis. Cancer will not rob me of what’s most important: faith, joy, and never-ending hope.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 men are at risk of developing cancer in their lifetime. These statistics are increasing daily.
Cancer is rampant. Dare I say it’s the 21st century version of the plague? As a society, we are desperately searching for a cure, and until we discover that life-saving remedy, we can only treat the disease as best we know how. Cancer attacks any and all ages. It’s a beast that doesn’t care if you are young, old, strong, or frail. Whether you have cancer now, are at risk of developing it in the future, or know someone currently fighting, we are all affected by this disease.
When someone around us gets diagnosed with cancer, it is often difficult to think of how to react and respond. Do we send a card, text, or email? Do we avoid, ignore, and disregard? Do we send money or make a meal? I have spoken about the importance of cancer etiquette before, and while it is valuable to know what to say and what not to say to a cancer patient, sometimes doing something kind can be equally as valuable.
Two years ago, upon sharing the news of my recent diagnosis, I received a gamut of well wishes, prayers, gifts, and support. Many of these acts of kindness remain beneficial to my husband and I today, as my third season of fighting cancer will come to a close at my last chemotherapy this Friday. We have been and continue to be blessed by our incredible support team that surrounds us. If there is ever a need, we know someone will be there to meet it. Yet, no matter how close we are to friends and family, asking for help is one of the hardest things to do as a cancer patient. As if being diagnosed with cancer isn’t difficult enough, seeking help through our journey can be exhaustive.
Rather than asking the patient what you can do for them, be proactive. While expressing your willingness to do anything is thoughtful, offering before being asked can often provide the biggest impact and benefit. Below are helpful suggestions for acts of kindness that have personally benefited myself and many other people navigating a cancer diagnosis.
- Meals: Following surgery and other treatments, offer to provide meals for the patient and their family. Whether you swing by the local Chipotle and pick up a couple burritos, or make your famous homemade lasagna, providing meals helps tremendously. If they have not created a meal registry like MealBaby, offer to set one up in order for others to sign up to bring meals on specified dates.
- Gift cards: Purchase gift cards to their local grocery store, in order for the family to grab necessities. If you haven’t heard, cancer is expensive. Help remove the financial burden by eliminating the decision of whether to pay for groceries or medical bills.
- Date nights: Offer free babysitting for patients with children, and bless them with dinner and a movie with their spouse. For my husband and I, though we have no children yet, date nights allow us to escape the seemingly never-ending world of treatment. It’s a way for us to reconnect, and have a special evening just the two of us… No doctors, nurses, or chemo involved.
- Vacation donations: Often we see donating as a way to provide monetary support to organizations, yet donating can also be personal. Have any saved up airline miles or hotel points? Donate them to your loved one with cancer. Vacations are a way to break through the cancer bubble, and offer rejuvenation from exhaustive treatments.
- Beauty services: Though many chemotherapy treatments cause hair loss, relaxation is still a MUST for patients fighting cancer. Offer to pay for a massage, manicure, pedicure, or facial. Heck… send them away for an entire spa day!
- Cash: Let’s face it, cancer is expensive. Medical bills spill over onto everyday bills. Gift the patient with cold, hard cash and allow them to do whatever they want with it. Maybe they need to pay off that recent trip to the hospital. Maybe their car needs new tires. Maybe they want to buy a new outfit to boost their spirits. Give money with no strings attached.
- Hook ups: No, I’m not talking friends with benefits. If you or someone you know has a connection to a sports team, concert venue, or event, hook your friend up. Sports games, concerts, and festivals are fun ways for the patient to get out of the house and enjoy themselves.
- Home services: Offer to hire a professional cleaning service for the patient’s home. Cleaning and chemotherapy do not mix, after all. Have a knack for organization? Offer your services. Have $8 lying around each month? Sign the patient up for a Netflix service, so they can enjoy endless hours of Breaking Bad.
- Letters: Whether in the form of a hand-written card or an email, send your loved one encouragement. Let them know you are praying for them and supporting them through their journey to a cancer-free life. Encouragement motivates us to keep fighting, especially on days when sickness, exhaustion, and grief are overwhelming.
- KareKrates: We’ve all heard of care packages. They are the gift that keeps on giving. A box full of goodies to express your love and care. Recently, I received an extra special care package from my friends at KareKrate. They have teamed up to provide care packages to patients going through cancer treatment. These Kare Krates are highly beneficial and will put a smile on any patient’s face. The information and products included in the package are not only nice gifts to receive, but they are extremely applicable to any patient undergoing treatment. With top-ranking lotions for skin dryness due to radiation, all-natural lozenges to ease chemo-induced nausea, plush blankets, headwear and more, these KareKrates are the perfect gift to bless any cancer patient with. Head on over to KareKrate to order a valuable care package for your loved one, and make sure to enter the coupon code: SM30 to receive 30% OFF!
Check out my KareKrate!
Hebrews 13:16 (MSG)
“Make sure you don’t take things for granted and go slack in working for the common good; share what you have with others. God takes particular pleasure in acts of worship—a different kind of “sacrifice”—that take place in kitchen and workplace and on the streets.”
The one with Bill Murray, not Punxsutawney Phil.
Getting cancer over, and over, and over again is comparable to the movie Groundhog Day. One season ends and I wake up expecting a new one to begin, only to find myself in the same season I have journeyed twice before. Over, and over, and over again. Much to my dismay, this battle is not complete yet.
As you know (or maybe you haven’t read the latest), surgery went better than we could have imagined. God has repeatedly displayed His power. The scan showed a two-inch tumor near my remaining ovary. However, during surgery, my doctor didn’t find a tumor at all, and in fact stated that I had one of the cleanest abdomens she had ever seen – pink and healthy. Just to be certain, she removed the ovary and sent it off for further review. Pathology reports came back showing microscopic cancerous cells… That, my friends, is a miracle… Did you not catch that? From the size of nearly a golf ball, to microscopic cells. Had there not been a tumor on my scan, my doctor would not have operated, and I would have continued believing that I was cancer-free, when in reality, this disease would have had three more months to grow and possibly travel elsewhere. God allowed a tumor to show up on my scan, in order for us to find the beginning stages of a recurrence. A golf ball size shrinking to microscopic cells. If you don’t call that a miracle, I don’t know what you would.
God calls us to focus on the praises and miracles He has performed in our lives and the lives of those around us. Yet, as humans, when another storm arises, we tend to forget those miracles. We often store them in the back of our minds, only occasionally pulling them forward in our memories. Life gets hard again, and we forget all the good He has done in and for us. By doing that, we aren’t fully recognizing God for who He is. His goodness doesn’t come and go. He is the single most consistent being in existence. We must remember the blessings He has poured over us. It’s as vital as breathing.
Since surgery one month ago, I have already received chemotherapy. About 12 days ago, in fact. It was my 31st chemo cocktail, yet familiarity doesn’t always bring comfort. I’ll never say fighting cancer is easy. No matter if it’s your first time, or your third, fighting cancer takes everything you have and more. Frankly, I can’t believe I’m doing this all over again. Twice… okay, that was hard enough. But three times? After being out of treatment for six months and nearly a year cancer-free. Seriously?
I’ve processed this recurrence different than my initial diagnosis and first recurrence. It’s been drastically more emotional for me. Being that so many of my girlfriends are pregnant now, I’d venture into comparing my emotions with those of an expectant mother. For real. This past week, I’ve cried over the silliest things. On one of my good days, Matt and I ventured into Ikea, and noticed a woman training a service dog. I had to keep walking, or I would have needed a box of tissues. I’ve cried to my husband and by myself. Over everything and over nothing. The tears have found their way out regardless of my will to keep them contained. I know that purging these emotions is a good thing, and a healthy cry session can help with the process.
No matter how much I’d love to say I’m always focusing on the positive, I am here to admit that I, too, am human. I have moments where I allow the blessings to easily slide to the back of my mind, allowing the storm to overwhelm my life. My tears are those of sadness, grief, and exhaustion. I loathe the fact that I am faced with this choice again. The choice to fight or die. Fighting cancer is just that… a choice. And it’s a choice that I must make. However, as always, I choose to fight.
Clinging to God’s blessings in the midst of the storm helps us build up our arsenal of tools to ward off the enemy. The enemy is a thief in the night who wants to steal our joy, hope, and positivity. He knows we are weak and preys on our vulnerabilities; doing whatever he can to push us further into the mud. It’s easy to fall into the pit of despair and continue drowning in the muck that tries to suffocate us.
Last week was full of emotions, sadness, shock, and defeat. I was living in a real-life Groundhog Day. But today, I am standing firm in the promises, miracles, and blessings that God has poured over me. I am calling forth every gift He has given me, and every promise He has spoken to me. I am remembering the moment I woke up from surgery to learn that there was no tumor. I am remembering the many times that God has scheduled divine appointments on my behalf. I am clinging to the goodness of my Savior, because I am blessed.
I’m fighting this again, which only means that I will soon be a three-time cancer survivor. This season will be different. I’m not waking up in the same place as I was twice before. Try as you may, cancer, but this chick is standing firm with spiritual armor so powerful, nothing can penetrate it.
Handling business as usual, chemo-style. (October 2013)
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (MSG)
“Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’ Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”
(Guest post by Matt)
Stephanie and I have spent a few days in the hospital, and she seems to have been progressing better than she has after previous surgeries. When they rolled her out of the post-op area, she was already sipping water. In prior surgeries, she wasn’t even allowed to touch but a few ice chips for about a day afterwards. Aside from a furious bout with itchiness last night (which we think was brought on by the hospital bedsheets, soon replaced by soft sheets from home), Stephanie has been able to do everything they want her to in order to go home.
But, as we have learned on multiple occasions during this journey, life can be unpredictable. I noted in the last post that they had to check the removed ovary for microscopic traces of the cancer. Well, the pathology report came back today and MJ gave us the news: there were microscopic cancer cells in the cystic walls of Stephanie’s ovary, nothing that could be seen with the human eye. That’s the thing with this or any other type of cancer. There’s an obvious battle against tumors and what shows up on scans, but there is also the microscopic battle.
So, there will be further treatment.
Stephanie will once again have to undergo chemotherapy treatments after all. She’ll start in a couple weeks after she heals up from her hospital stay. The good news is that these cells were found in the ovary that was taken out. There wasn’t a tumor, and there wasn’t any spreading to other areas of her body. So this chemo season will be an “insurance policy” to fight the microscopic battle. MJ is confident that it’s nowhere else and if there are still cancerous cells, the chemotherapy will prove effective against them. And, tomorrow morning, Stephanie is getting a PET scan, not a CT scan. That is good news.
In hindsight, we were a little spoiled with the immediate post-surgery news that no cancer was seen. Just because it wasn’t seen doesn’t mean that it still wasn’t present (obviously). It’s so small that the doctor who sees cancer every day couldn’t even see it. But we know that God is still good. He has orchestrated this whole story. Nothing about this is a surprise to Him. He is obviously still working in this story to bring glory to Him. Yes, it’s a bummer that Stephanie will lose her hair again and have to get chemo again. But, this is what we were planning before we even got to the hospital on Monday. We were prepared for another season of treatment and we still are.
Prayer-wise, we would appreciate prayers for emotional strength and endurance for the season ahead. Imagine the amount of stress and anxiety that is endured when you spend months and months growing your hair out just to find out you’re going to lose it again. This is difficult (especially for a woman). Just like everyone else, we have been expecting to be able to plan out our lives a little bit. Some people get further along than others before God reveals HIS plan for their lives. We are experiencing this in the time when we would otherwise be thinking about buying our first house and starting a family. Having to put those things “on hold” has been difficult for both of us, so prayers for understanding God’s will for our lives and being able to handle the “holding” gracefully would be especially appreciated. Also, very short-term, I am bouncing between home and the hospital not only to care for our pups, but it is moving week. So, we also request prayers for a smooth move. Big props to the fellas who will be helping us out this weekend with this task, it means more than you know.
We are praying that the “third time’s a charm” with this treatment. We’re keeping positive attitudes and we know that how people handle what comes their way reveals their true character. Thank you for praying with us and standing beside us.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (MSG)
“It’s better to have a partner than go it alone. Share the work, share the wealth. And if one falls down, the other helps, but if there’s no one to help, tough! Two in a bed warm each other. Alone, you shiver all night. By yourself you’re unprotected. With a friend you can face the worst. Can you round up a third? A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped.”
Stephanie. 26 years old. Christian. Woman. Wife. Daughter. Sister. Friend. This is who I was before my diagnosis. And, as I’m learning, this is who I still am.
Cancer does a lot to a person. Physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Any degree of trauma, battle, life experience… these events change and mold us. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it many times over, fighting against this disease is tough. Cancer has forever changed me. And I’m now on a path to rediscovering myself.
Today, as I was going through my typical routine and getting ready for the day, I looked in the mirror. As a woman, that’s not an unusual act. Whether I’m fixing my hair and makeup or making sure I have nothing in my teeth, mirrors are a part of my life. (Come on, don’t act like you don’t check yourself out everyday, too.) But today was different. Today I looked at the woman staring back at me. I asked her, “Who are you now?” and she responded, “Hello, my name is Stephanie.”
Pre-cancer, I was adventurous, organized, fun, and care-free. I enjoyed being a wife and loved married life. I loved to cook, bake, and host get-togethers. I exercised. I ate healthy. I was excited for the future. I dreamt of being a mother, and longed for the day when Matt and I would start trying to conceive. Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind.
In my battle against this disease, I began to identify as a cancer patient. Frankly, I was a cancer patient. I identified as a soldier in the throes of a civil war, fighting, quite literally, for my life. And in the midst of combat, I lost sight of who I was before the war began. I don’t suspect that’s uncommon. As someone fighting for their life, we tend not to focus on minuscule brainstorms such as what’s on the menu for dinner, or what movie we’ll see next, let alone complex questions of self identity. I was in the trenches, eye-to-eye with my enemy, attempting every maneuver to defeat the intruder. Warrior. Soldier. Fighter. Survivor. That’s who I was. And again, I’m learning, that’s who I still am.
Now that I’m climbing the hill to recovery and remission, I find myself pondering my identity. Am I the same woman before cancer as I am now? Do I still enjoy the same things? When I look into the mirror 18 months since diagnosis, I notice someone different. Not only am I physically different, but I, Stephanie, am different. I am not who I once was. I have been molded by the fire. I have been broken, reshaped, and sculpted, and have the scars to prove it. Coming to terms with this thought scared me at first. For, if I am different, who then am I now? My name is the same. My face shows some semblance of similarity from before, with the added wrinkles and tired appearance. But do I really know me?
As of this moment, I cannot confidently say I know all of who I am. But I’m beginning to understand that’s alright. Life events change us. And if we don’t change with the seasons, we might get buried in the past. Evolving, changing, and progressing into the future is healthy. As I am rediscovering myself, I know for certain that my foundation remains. My soul is untouched. I am still Stephanie: Christian. Woman. Wife. Daughter. Sister. Friend. But because of this season of torrential downpours, I am now more than that. I am more sensitive, aware, and compassionate. I am more brave and stronger than I ever thought I could be. A new passion for sharing my story and helping others has been birthed inside of me. Now that I’m coming out of the fog and haze of the battlefield, I find that I still love to cook. I am still adventurous, fun, and organized. I still enjoy spending time with friends.
If it weren’t for this diagnosis and subsequent fight for life, I would not live the way I am living today. I am living boldly and victoriously. I am soaking up every moment, no matter how big or small. I value and appreciate my husband more than I ever had before, for he is still faithfully standing beside me, when he could have easily jumped the next train to Georgia (or wherever!). My gratitude for my One, True God is greater and far more vast than it was many months ago. I woke up today with breath in my lungs, and for that I am immensely thankful.
Though I’m sure there will be moments where I have to recheck myself and shake my own hand in introduction, I can undoubtedly count on the identity I have in Christ. He has filled me with a spirit of love, power, and wisdom. I am His daughter and He is my friend. Through Him, I can do all things. Through Him, I have hope and a future. If my identity lies in the Lord my God, I will never be lost. So during these times of rediscovery, I cling to the knowledge that I am His creation and that my identity can always be found in Him.
John 15:5-7 (ESV)
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
Alongside us on this crazy roller coaster through cancer, two of our dearest friends have been planted. They have joined us at appointments, surgeries, chemo cocktails, and numerous cry sessions. They have held our hands as we have ventured into the unknown, and have triumphed with us in the victories. We have worshiped together, prayed for one another, and celebrated several occasions. God brought this passionate, genuine, selfless couple into our lives at the very beginning of this battle, and we can’t imagine having forged our way through it without them standing firm and rallying beside us.
He is a photographer and life-journalist by hobby. He resembles Jesus not only in his physical appearance, but also in his character. Selfless, compassionate, humble, generous, loving, and prayerful. His laugh is contagious and you’d be lucky to catch it. He is a gentleman. A leader. A father. A Christ-like friend. A true blessing.
She is a dancer. Hip-hop, ballet, contemporary, and jazz. A real-life ballerina. She has a heart of pure gold. She is a friend to hold dear for a lifetime. She speaks encouragement, life, and wisdom. Her gentleness, selflessness, and caring demeanor uplifts and offers strength. She is a mother. A hospitable host. A faithful friend. A prayer warrior. A true blessing.
These two have offered shoulders to cry on, words of encouragement, and a multitude of cries to Jesus upon my behalf for healing. They have documented our journey and brought life to a sometimes dark situation. Through photographs, videos, and sound recordings, they tell our story. They have blessed us more than they could possibly know. Today, we share a taste of what they have captured since diagnosis.
Get your tissues ready. If this video doesn’t move you in some way, you might want to check your pulse. This montage captures a glimpse into this battle. It begins at diagnosis in January of 2012, and ends in August of 2012 on the last day of my first season through treatment. At that time, we thought I beat it entirely. Little did we know, we had another year in the trenches. Through hair loss, weight gain, and several firsts… enjoy.
Stephanie Madsen | Cancer Survivor from Mark Nava on Vimeo.
Proverbs 18:24 (MSG)
“Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family.”
Yesterday morning, I woke up early and drove to the hospital for my three-month follow-up CT scan. Generally I have a fair share of “scanxiety,” yet that morning was different. Maybe my nerves were suppressed due to the overwhelming congestion in my chest, head, and sinuses, or possibly from the after-effect of two amazing vacations. Regardless, I felt confident, ready, and at peace with whatever the results would show. There still was an undercurrent of suspense as I journeyed my way to the life-changing scan, yet I suppose there always will be with every test I receive. That’s what you get with a diagnosis like mine.
After choking down every last drip of the repugnant “fruit cocktail” that would light up my insides, I waited. And waited. And waited some more… Story of my life.
My name was called and I was then directed to the room where the monstrous machine sat eagerly anticipating my body in its grasp. Before I laid down and surrendered to the process, I uncharacteristically asked the radiation tech to take a picture of me flexing my not-so-strong biceps beside it. Odd, yes. But, for whatever reason, I felt the urge to display my strength to the beast that has been trying to kill me. The tech laughed, the camera clicked, and I positioned myself on the scanning table, ready to be sucked into the machine. All the while, praying fervently that nothing would light up.
The nurses, radiation techs, and I chat frequently throughout the process of these scans. We become friends. I give them the run-down of my diagnosis, the long list of treatment, and the hope for healing that I cling to. Many share well wishes and good vibes, while several others say they will be praying with me for complete healing. After the CT machine was done spinning around my body, I was free to go. And as I said my goodbye’s and thank you’s, I caught a glimpse of my tech behind the computer that displayed the vast pictures of my internal organs. I could’ve sworn she was smiling.
No matter how hard I try not to read the faces of the techs as they instantaneously see the resulting photographs from my scan, I still succumb to curiosity. This time was no different. But did I really see a smile form on her face as she examined the results? Maybe I was fooling myself.
Typically, I wait about a week to receive the phone call from my doctor with results from my scans. However, barely seven hours after I had left the hospital, the number of my doctor’s office appeared on my phone screen. SHUT UP. Why are they calling me so soon? I bet all of my insides lit up, the cancer has spread, and they want to notify me that we must proceed with emergency treatment. Dammit. As I nervously answered the call, my ears began to hear unbelievable news.
“Stephanie, we just received the results from your CT, and I couldn’t wait to call you. The results show that there is no evidence of disease in your body. All of your internal organs look normal and healthy. Your liver is normal. Your kidneys are normal. Your ovary is normal. Your lymph nodes are not swollen and are normal. You are currently cancer-free!”
Even as I relive what happened less than 24 hours ago, I find myself speechless. I am in awe of God’s healing power. I am in awe of His faithfulness. I am in awe of His sovereignty. I am, yet again, cancer-free. And yet again, I am a survivor.
This is the longest I have gone without cancer in my body since diagnosis 18 months ago. I received a clear scan in August of last year, but within days, the beast was growing inside once more, and by November I was starting treatment all over again. In March, I was almost done with my second season of treatment and received my first clear scan. Yet, still actively undergoing chemotherapy treatments, I figured, of course the scan would be clear. After all, the poison was still coursing through my veins. But, my scan yesterday was different. This cancer-free proclamation is more meaningful, because it’s the first scan post-treatment that I have received good news. The way my doctors and I view it is, I have been cancer-free for the past seven months. It breaks down to look something like this:
- November 2012 (post mass-removal surgery): Cancer-free CT and PET scan
- March 2013 (before completion of chemotherapy): Cancer-free CT scan
- June 2013 (post all treatment): Cancer-free CT scan
That’s seven whole months that cancer has not invaded my body, and I am overjoyed! I remain cautiously optimistic, but nevertheless we are celebrating this victory. With every ounce of good news, there are heaping amounts of hope. I have yet to see what my future holds, but I am standing firm and believing that through The Lord’s healing power, I am ultimately healed. I celebrate this victory, and I am humbled by the hands of my Savior. He is GOOD! Continue to pray with me that cancer will no longer take residence in my body, and that the glory of God will reign.
Strength before a scan! (June 2013)
Psalm 107: 19-22 (MSG Version)
“Then you called out to God in your desperate condition; He got you out in the nick of time. He spoke the word that healed you, that pulled you back from the brink of death. So thank God for His marvelous love, for His miracle mercy to the children he loves; Offer thanksgiving sacrifices, tell the world what He’s done—sing it out!”
Grief: (n) “Keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.”
Loss: (n) “The state or feeling of grief when deprived of someone or something of value.”
These last two weeks have been particularly full of overwhelming emotions. I’m learning that grief is similar to waves in the ocean. It ebbs and flows. One moment I’m fine, and the next I find myself weeping, unsure of the exact reason for tears to fall so easily from my eyes. My own emotions surprise me. They can quickly appear out of nowhere. Take today, for example. All morning I’ve been productive around the house and even got a good workout in. Yet tonight, I find myself feeling somber, sad, and choked up. I struggle to write.
I’m continuing to grieve the loss of the life I once had.
Grief is a process, I’m discovering. It doesn’t happen all at once. Certain moments can trigger tears as effortlessly as they can laughter. Throughout this past year and a half, I’ve cried more times than I can count. I’ve dropped to my knees in heaving, wailing bursts. Tears have been shed in grocery stores, parks, restaurants, and church. Grief does not have a timeline nor a schedule. It doesn’t require a specific location. It can disappear for days, weeks, and months, and reappear at the drop of a hat.
I don’t enjoy crying. Like many others, I was taught to suck it up and be strong. Yet, no matter how hard I try to remain “strong,” I can’t push away the weak feeling that envelops me. I hate to admit it, but right now I’m sad. Having cancer sucks. Fighting cancer sucks, too. It’s exhausting. It’s tiring. It’s stressful. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never felt so weak in my life as I have throughout this battle. This is emotionally and physically draining. While I know that there is purpose in my suffering, I can’t help but grieve the immense loss we’ve experienced. I can’t help but grieve the dreams we had imagined for our future.
Through this, I’m understanding that crying and grieving are essential to my healing. And, that in my tears, there is strength.
In moments like these I focus on
something someone bigger than this. I cling to the promise that God is sovereign and faithful. He is here grieving the loss alongside me. He allowed this diagnosis so that my story would be bigger than I ever dreamt it could be. Through these tears, I look forward to the future that God has orchestrated, and the blessings He will pour down over my life. Three things remain… My God, my marriage, and my life. Aren’t those the most important after all? Everything that comes next will be a bonus!
Tonight, I cry. Tomorrow I may not. Grief comes and goes. In these tears, there is strength.
Matthew 5:4 (MSG)
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”
Sometimes, as a cancer patient, you want to blend in with the crowd. Blend in with those around you who have hair. Because, after all, being bald attracts attention and unwanted stares. Being bald equates sickness. And no matter how sick I feel, I don’t always want to look it. Sometimes, it’s hard to feel like a woman when the features that amplify your femininity fade away.
No makeup. Little hair. (May 2013)
After being diagnosed with cancer in January of 2012 and learning I would lose all of my hair, I was devastated. I had just reached the point where I was obsessed with my locks, so facing the reality that they would be gone in a matter of weeks was calamitous. That was 14 months ago, and since then, I have lost my hair a few more times. But, never once had I grieved my eyebrows or eyelashes. In my second season of treatment, my hair loss became more of an inconvenience rather than devastation. I had gotten pretty used to it. However, this time around, chemo decided to take a little more hair with it. This time, I lost all of my locks… as usual, the new curls on my head and the hair on my legs and arms. But, this season, even my eyebrows and eyelashes disappeared. Everything. The only hairs I hadn’t been used to saying goodbye to were my brows and lashes, and boy did I realize what an adjustment that would be. I had never understood how much I had taken those short little hairs for granted.
What a difference brows and lashes make! (May 2013)
As a woman, I like to feel beautiful. I like being confident in the way I appear to the world. I had always thought if I were to lose my lashes and brows that I would look like an alien. Or even a hairless rat. Or maybe a hairless rat-like alien. Regardless, I had thought that if my brows and lashes were to fade away, my beauty would soon then follow. After all, I had never had to draw my brows on, and only wore false lashes on few occasions. What was I to do?
I have an aversion to having all eyes on me. I don’t like all the attention. And, I don’t like being the sick girl. The cancer patient. Because of this, I’ve become somewhat of a chameleon. Not many people have been able to see me without my “mask” on. And frankly, because I appear to be healthy, it’s hard for others to see the face of sickness. When I’m made-up, cancer doesn’t shine through. And while that’s the point, it’s necessary to see what the “before” looks like.
Many women share that they don’t feel femininely beautiful after hair loss. I get that. I feel that way, too. But there is hope. And thank the Lord for makeup! Gifted with cosmetic creativity, I have been able to gather my tools and tricks and go to work on the canvas of my face. I am here to testify that as a woman diagnosed with cancer or for those suffering hair loss for other reasons, you can still be beautiful! Losing your hair does not mean you have to look vastly different from your prior furry self. It’ll take effort and creativity, but it is possible.
Makeup complete and hair on! (May 2013)
Cancer tried to take away a lot. And even though it has tried to strip me of my appearance, I will not let it. No hair, don’t care. I’m beautiful, regardless.
And so are you.
Isaiah 40:8 (ESV)
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
Is there really such a thing as “cancer etiquette?” The answer is a booming “Yes!”
I have been asked frequently about what not to say to someone going through a cancer battle, and have decided to finally take the plunge and address the issue publicly. Fact is, although cancer is becoming more and more prevalent in our world, most people still don’t understand how to properly talk with someone facing this diagnosis. Do you say “You’ll be fine,” “That sucks,” or “How much longer do you have?” No. Yet, while there are many things you should avoid talking about with a cancer patient, there are also phrases that can be beneficial. Everyone handles a cancer diagnosis differently. Family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, and the patient themselves will have emotions greatly differing from one another. Though you may feel right in your feelings, always be mindful, respectful, and considerate for the one on the front lines in the fight for survival.
Disclaimer: While reading these, you might think, “Oh crap! I’ve said that!” but please don’t feel bad. We are all humans and make mistakes. I know that it’s not your intention to offend or hurt me (or fellow cancer warriors) when you say certain things. And personally, I don’t keep a tally when I hear something that rubs me the wrong way. Frankly, my brain is pretty liquified from all the chemo I’ve ingested, and I might not even remember your name, let alone something you might have said months ago! In addition, please hear my sarcasm in some of these tips. I’m not intending to be mean, but only trying to add a little twist of humor. And last but not least, please note that not all of the below “do’s and dont’s” may properly apply to everyone with a cancer diagnosis. When in doubt, use your sense. Before word-vomiting on the person, stop and think first. And, when all else fails, treat them as you would like to be treated…Unless you like pity. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
- Don’t offer to help unless you really mean it. Sometimes when you see someone close to you get the news that they have cancer, you think that by offering help, we (the patient) will automatically feel better. Think first. Do you really intend to step out on a limb, interrupt your own schedule, and put yourself aside to lend us a hand? If you are willing to help, by all means, tell us. If not, don’t even bring it up. We won’t be offended. If you would like to help in certain areas (providing meals, running errands, financial support) let us know. Being more specific will benefit everyone involved. And don’t expect us to let you know when we need something. Being sick and asking for help is tiring.
- Is that a bad kind? Believe it or not, many people unknowingly ask this question. Unless you don’t know what cancer is, you can assume that all kinds of this disease are bad. Yes, there are diagnoses that have greater survival rates, while others have lower success, but the truth remains: cancer sucks no matter what the diagnosis or prognosis.
- You’ll be fine. Do you know this for certain? If not, please don’t throw this into this mix. It will only leave us feeling guilty for being sad. Truth is, no one knows how our story will end…except God. And last time I checked, that wasn’t your name.
- Don’t ignore us because we now have cancer. I promise, it’s not contagious. Ignoring us will make us feel diseased and isolated from all you healthy folks.
- Know-It-All. Yes, there are numerous sources for information in our world today. But just because you have spent hours on the internet researching cancer does not mean you can now put an “MD” in front of your name. Unless you have gone through the same process as us, you don’t know what it’s like. When you uninvitingly share your vast knowledge, there’s a high likelihood we will feel more scared and alone.
- Death Sentence. “Oh wow! My grandmother/uncle/sister died from cancer.” This is not helpful in any way, shape, or form.
- I can imagine. Really? You must have a very creative imagination. Fact is, no, you can’t imagine what this is like. Have you ingested poison day after day in hopes that it won’t only kill the good cells but also the bad? Have you laid under laser beams that shoot fire into your body? Didn’t think so. Also, pneumonia/pregnancy/migraines are not even slightly comparable to cancer.
- Don’t put pressure on us to change doctors or therapy. You may have good-intentions and you may actually be right, but suggesting that we switch doctors or treatment may cause us anxiety. Be mindful of how you offer input, and try not to push it on us. It’s our body and our decision. What worked for your friend may not work for us.
- That sucks. Yes, we know it sucks. Please spare us the reminder.
- How much longer do you have? Although you may be very curious about our life expectancy, we may not have the answer. And unless we offer this information willingly, assume that it’s a private subject. After all, how much longer do YOU have?
- I don’t know how you do it! This statement is laughable. Sometimes, we don’t know how we do it, either. But when it comes down to it and you have to choose between life and death, I bet you would put your shit-kicker boots on and choose life as well.
Now that you know what NOT to say to us cancer patients… are you worried you have nothing left in your arsenal? While there are the obvious no-no’s, you still have options when conversing with us. Believe it or not, there are things you can say and do that are highly beneficial. And sometimes, it’s not always about offering your words, but rather, offering listening ears.
- Reach out. While you’ve learned that ignoring us can be harmful, reaching out can do just the opposite. Sometimes we feel forgotten after a few months and years into our journey. Most people forget and move on with their own lives, leaving us feeling stuck and alone. Simply sending a text message, email, or phone call can change our day drastically.
- Give us a pat on the back. It may sound weird, but most of us appreciate physical touch. A hug, handshake, or pat on the back shows us that you are concerned. No, ass-grabbing will not be received well.
- Listening ears and strong shoulders. When asking us how we are doing, expect a long answer. Sometimes we might just respond with “I’m fine.” But other times, our responses may be long-winded. There are moments where words of wisdom are not necessary. Sometimes we just want to vent or cry or both. Offer to sit patiently and listen.
- Encouragement! You like encouragement don’t you? We are no different, besides being bald, weak, and sick. Most likely we are feeling the worst we ever have in our lives. We could be sad, depressed, anxious, and upset. Though you may not see the emotions from the outside, an inner turmoil might be brewing. Simply sharing that you are excited for us to be a cancer survivor, that we still look so beautiful/handsome, and that you know we are strong enough to get through this will lift our spirits. Our physical bodies may be weak, so offering strength and encouragement can inspire us tremendously.
- Ask about treatment with no agenda. Be prepared for scientific terms that you may not be aware of, extensive explanations, and confusing answers. Remember, you don’t have to respond. Sometimes we want to share what we are going through, because more than likely, treatment is at the forefront of our lives.
- If you don’t know what to say, tell us. We understand, sometimes we don’t even know what to say about our current circumstance. Coming up with a counterfeit response will be noticed. Be authentic, sometimes words aren’t necessary.
- Ask if you can pray for us. While some people may politely say “No thank you,” some of us appreciate and value a prayer…or two, or five, or one hundred.
- Admiration. We are trying our hardest to hold on and keep fighting. It’s hard. Reminding us that we are brave, strong, and/or courageous (even though we may feel like none of the above) can help.
- I’m sorry. This has potential to be slightly controversial. Sure we can say, “What are you sorry for? It’s not your fault.” But equally, I believe we all know that offering this statement is a generic condolence. Most of us will appreciate your concern.
- You’re an inspiration. If we have inspired you or someone you know, please share that with us over and over again. Sometimes we feel like our battle means nothing, and simply knowing that our sufferings are helping others in similar circumstances fills our spirit with gratitude. To know that we are making a difference through our journey to help others through theirs is a blessing.
- Sharing is caring. This compliments the previous point. If we have done something that has impacted your life for the better, tell us. If you have shared our story and offered hope to a fellow cancer patient, let us know. Not only will it inspire our fellow peers, but it inspires and motivates us to keep up the fight.
- Boring and mundane topics are valuable, too. While, there are many times we do appreciate sharing about treatment, struggles, and the journey, we would also like you to remember that we are living life just like you. In most cases, we still go to the grocery store, travel, cook, and clean our homes. Asking us about daily life outside of our diagnosis helps us all remember we are more than a walking science experiment. Ask us what what our favorite foods are… unless we’re sick from chemo. But you get the idea.
1 Thessalonians 5:13-18 (MSG Version)
“Get along among yourselves, each of you doing your part. Our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on. Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out. Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.”