Posts Tagged ‘faith’

Say The Words

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

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

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

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

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

“You are absolutely stunning.”

And that was it. My life changed forever.

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

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

An email nesting in my inbox…

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

A message shared through social media…

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

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

“This one’s for you, sis.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proverbs 16:24 (ESV)

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

Body Image After Cancer

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As seen in Cancer Knowledge Network’s, #YARally

“Welcome to Cancerland, here’s your new body. You may notice it looks a little different than your old one, but I can assure you… This is your body. Once you get past the bumps, bruises, scars, and bald head, you’ll realize it’s still you.”

As if I were waking up and looking in the mirror at someone else, I felt overwhelmed shortly after receiving my first cancer-removing surgery. My body was changing right before my eyes and I wasn’t sure I was able to cope with everything. My doctors told me to expect a large scar (from one hip to the other), hair loss, and weight changes. Not only would I have to wrap my mind around a life-threatening diagnosis, but I also would no longer be able to find comfort in the mirror.

I decided to take control and shave my head before the chemo took all of my hair; I wasn’t about to let cancer rip one more thing from my grasp. After my husband shaved the last of my locks, I stood up and looked at the woman staring back at me in the mirror. She resembled me. She had my eyes, but there was new depth to them. She had my smile, but there was new joy to be found within it. She was me, but she wasn’t. Cancer was beginning to change me emotionally, mentally, and physically. Physically, some changes happened within a matter of seconds and others took years to fully develop. My diagnosis ushered in a rebirth. Though my outer self was wasting away, my inner self was being reborn, refined, and celebrated.

Everything that I thought I was, now wasn’t. I didn’t realize that I had labeled myself prior to my cancer diagnosis. I didn’t understand that I had worked hard to uphold an image for many years. Most of today’s society gets too caught up in outward appearances, and I’d be lying to say I didn’t fall victim to that as well. Prior to cancer, I was a healthy, tall blonde in her mid-twenties. I had confidence and felt comfortable in my own skin. I was adventurous and took risks. And most of all, I could predict who looked back at me in the mirror every morning.

Cancer treatments rapidly began my metamorphosis. In the nearly four years that I have battled this disease, I have gained eleven scars. Each one is a visible reminder of the battle waged within my body. From the numerous chemotherapy and radiation treatments, my skin took on a new form. It was dry, cracked, and sometimes bleeding. For almost three years, my head was bald, and my face no longer donned lashes or brows. And while I, like many, assumed I’d lose weight throughout the course of treatment, I gained an astonishing 30 pounds within the first six months. The mirror no longer reflected the healthy young woman that I once was. I soon began staring at the stranger before me. My body looked nothing like it used to and grief, like a tidal wave, flooded my spirit.

Cancer causes pain, suffering, and most of all, grief. Grief comes in many forms and is experienced through many moments in this journey. I grieved the loss of my fertility. I grieved the changes of life. I grieved the dreams that I once had. I grieved the relationships that were lost. I grieved everything, and I still do. Cancer is an F5 tornado that rips through lives without a care as to what it swallows up. Grief is the rubble that remains when the dust clears. Along with the uncountable losses, I deeply grieved my body image. For months, I couldn’t find myself in the mirror. I searched her face, touching her tear-stained cheeks. My fingers traced over each scar in remembrance. Scanning her bald head and her sick, pale, exhausted body, I couldn’t find her. I couldn’t find me.

It wasn’t until I looked beyond the mirror that I discovered myself again. Behind the weight, the scars, the physical changes, and the grief was the woman I’ve always been. She was strong. She was determined. She was ferocious and ready to survive. She was kind and friendly. She had a streak of humor.

My body image evolved from my physical reflection to my inner character. When the outside is stripped away, all that remains is the inside. When a weak, frail, and bald person is looking at you in the mirror, you must acknowledge them. You must honor what they have gone through. You must pay respect to what they are enduring. But you mustn’t stop there. Look beyond what you see. Who are you on the inside? What does your character look like? Cancer will change your body image. But it doesn’t have to change who you are. You are more than your diagnosis. You are more than your reflection.

Proverbs 31: 25 (NLV)

“She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.”

The Rollercoaster Ride of a Cancer Scan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James 5:15 (ESV)

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

Joy and Happiness Are Not The Same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proverbs 17:22 (ESV)

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

Every Scar Has a Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2 Timothy 4:17 (ESV)

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

The Scan I’ve Never Made It To

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 11:24 (ESV)

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

Suffering With Purpose

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A cancer diagnosis is not easy. Neither is the death of a child or divorce. Financial ruin and joblessness aren’t a walk in the park either. Relationships fail, bankruptcy happens, and some of us are stricken with life-threatening illnesses. Catastrophic storms occur and lives are uprooted every year. Depression and anxiety cripple millions. Accidents happen. Death, disease, and disasters are common. These things are the realities of the world we live in and they will continue over and over again so long as we are here on Earth.

John 16:33 — “In this world you will have trouble…”

Biblically, we have been promised to go through hard times. We have been guaranteed to experience suffering. There’s no way around it; We live in a fallen world. For the entirety of our lives, calamity will be around every corner. Many wonder why and begin to question God’s goodness when their lives are stricken with grief and struggle. After all, if God is good and He loves us, why do bad things come our way? And furthermore, if God is strong enough to move mountains, part the ocean, and calm storms, why then does He allow us to experience suffering? He is capable of healing, yet sometimes He doesn’t heal.

Have you thought about what life would be like without suffering? What it would be like if all of our dreams came true and we never experienced loss? I’d venture to say that we would live in permanent infancy, unaware and naive. There would be no need for growth, and we would live stagnant lives. There would be a resounding lack of purpose and no need for God. As one who has suffered greatly, I now find gratitude amid my struggles. No, I am not a sadistic lunatic and I do not enjoy grief one bit. However, in my suffering I am driven deeper and deeper into the arms of the One who loves me the most — my Savior.

There is purpose in our suffering. There is purpose in our grief, and in our pain, and in our struggle. It’s imperative for us to remember that. If we lose sight of the fact that our difficulties are being used for a bigger purpose, we can soon become bitter and hardened by every blocked road and detour in our journey. We’ve all experienced someone who oozes bitterness. Someone who clearly has been shackled to their situation and, whether by choice or subconcious, exudes an attitude of seething abhorrence for their life. My heart aches for those burdened in strongholds of grief and sorrow, for I know that though life is full of devastating troubles, there is still hope for something better. For someone better.

John 16:33 did not end by simply promising us troubles. There is more — “…but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

Reflect on that. Though we are guaranteed to struggle in this world, we are equally guaranteed a God so powerful that He overcomes our hurdles. Though our circumstances are impossible for us, with Him the possibilities are infinite. He shatters statistics, derails diagnoses, triumphs over tribulations, and overcomes obstacles. Our hope should not lie in our circumstances but in the One who rises above them.

Through our suffering, we have a magnificent opportunity to bring glory to the Lord. When we suffer, people follow our grief. The world watches to see how we will respond. Will we crumble and give up? Will we avoid and ignore? Will we become shackled? Or will we stand strong in faith with hope no matter the trial? Our suffering is a platform, and in our troubles we are on a stage. Your audience may be your immediate family. It may be your school, neighborhood, or community. It may be those you pass by in the grocery store or the stranger down the road. The world is watching. In your suffering, how will you respond? When people follow your grief, will you lead them to Jesus?

Suffering is purposeful. From the daily annoyances to the life-altering circumstances, there is reason in your struggle. Adversity is not encountered by random chance. Your story is not a mistake. My diagnosis of this rare and aggressive cancer was not unintentional. I have been given an opportunity to suffer well and with purpose. To lead others in my grief. To usher those who suffer alongside me to a hope that is bigger than what I face on Earth. There is opportunity in our suffering. Our struggles bring us closer to Jesus, for He suffered the most. We suffer so that we can become more like Him. We suffer so that we may be molded in His likeness. We suffer so that what doesn’t matter is stripped away. We suffer in order to understand what love really means. We suffer so we can stand by others in their grief. We suffer with purpose.

Life isn’t easy and never will be this side of Heaven. Pain is promised. Suffering is sure. Testimonies exist because of the tests that precede them. There is purpose in our grief. Will you suffer well?

1 Peter 4:12-13

“Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.”

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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