Wednesday, December 13, 2017

God With Us

I've just come through another scare. Right at Christmastime, again.

Funny how a routine visit to the doctor can turn into déjà vu . . . x2? x3? x4? How many times have I been down this road?

Three weeks ago I found a little spot near my most recent scar. Not a lump, exactly ~ but something that felt different to me. Was it scar tissue? Had it been there before? I couldn't be sure.

The next day I had an already-scheduled appointment with my family doctor to discuss my colonoscopy screening and some heart issues I've been having, so in the course of the visit I mentioned the spot to her.

She felt it and wasn't overly concerned, but suggested that I check in with my oncologist. I had a six-month check-up scheduled in a few weeks anyway. So I tabled the issue and went on with my life.

Then last Wednesday, I saw my oncologist. I always look forward to my visits with her. She has such a way of putting me at ease, talking me through my concerns and giving me hope. 

When I showed her the spot, she wasn't worried, either. But she said it wouldn't hurt to do a breast ultrasound, just to check it out and document the location. I readily agreed ~ better safe than sorry.

But as I left her office, the doubts and fears began to creep in. And after I'd shared the situation with Greg, we both began sliding into a dark hole, the same dark hole that we've been in several times before. 

All the memories came flooding back: for me, of tests and treatments and isolating fears; for Greg, of walking through this with me twice before . . . but even more deeply, of losing his own mom to cancer when he was only 15 years old. These memories may fade, but they can re-appear in full colour in a heartbeat.

The hospital scheduled my ultrasound within just two days. But those 48 hours were still long enough for us to convince ourselves that the results would not be good.

In the darkness of Friday morning, as I woke on the day of the test, I whispered from my heart, "God, please remind me that you are with me today."

And He whispered back, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."

The Greatest Gift, by Ann Voskamp, is an Advent book of devotionals I've been walking through this month. On that morning, December 8, the reading was from Genesis 28 ~ God's promise to Jacob: "Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go . . . I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."¹ Another word from the Lord!

Then I turned to the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke. My son had recently shared with me how moved he was by Mary's response to her impossible assignment. So that morning before the ultrasound, I decided to read it again.

Sometimes a passage of Scripture, so quotable it's become cliché, suddenly pulses with powerful meaning for me in the moment. This was one of those times. And though the words were spoken to a specific Jewish girl at a specific time in history, their message resonated across two thousand years and sank deep into my soul.

"The Lord is with you."²

"Do not be afraid."³

"Nothing will be impossible with God."⁴

And then Mary's sweet response:  "Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word."⁵

I carried those words with me to the hospital. And God was there for me! In the next 48 hours as I waited for the results, He gave me so many reminders of His favor ~ not the least of which was the opportunity to empathize with several others who are facing their own medical tests.

It's a funny thing about worrying while you wait. If the news turns out to be good, then all that energy spent on worry has been wasted. But if the news turns out to be bad, all that worry won't help you deal with it when the time comes.

I'm not sure it will even soften the blow. By Sunday night my heart was lurching every time I imagined a phone call from my doctor's office the next day. I finally had to just hang onto the hope that everything would be fine ~ although my sleep was still restless.

And then, early Monday morning, the call came: "Nothing to worry about." Hallelujah! Praise God from Whom all blessings flow! Of course, I still want to meet with my doctor and ask some more questions, but now that can wait until after the new year. I feel like I've been given a new lease on life!  

Sometimes I wonder, will I ever be completely free of this fear? Will there ever come a day when my gut doesn't wrench and my heart doesn't clutch with the thought of what could be? Knowing myself, probably not. But I also know that God will be there to walk with me, whether through life or through death. 

And that's what we celebrate at Christmastime ~ Jesus . . . 
                                                                                  Immanuel . . . 
                                                                                      God with us.⁶

Typography by my friend Victoria

¹Genesis 28:15
² Luke 1:28
³ Luke 1:30
⁴ Luke 1:37
⁵ Luke 1:38
⁶ Matthew 1:23

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Second Time Around

My last post was eighteen months ago. Yes, there's a reason. And I'm here to take up the tale.  

But first, let me say with gratefulness . . . I am here! And I've reached another milestone. Last month, I turned 50! Since facing cancer almost 5 years ago, I have welcomed every birthday with open arms. And now they are doubly special, because of what happened just a dozen days after my last post.

On May 20, 2016, I went for my annual mammogram. The doctors had ordered a breast ultrasound, too, as a precaution after my questionable mammo results in 2015. Even though I was 3 years out from cancer, my heart was still anxious as I faced these routine tests.

And it grew more anxious the longer I lay on the ultrasound table. When the technician left to consult with the radiologist, and then came back to take another look, I was sure something must be up. I met my husband in the waiting room afterwards and, with fearful resignation, voiced, "I think they saw something. I want to talk to my doctor."

A quick walk around the medical arts building revealed that neither my family doctor nor my oncologist were in. (It was Friday afternoon on Victoria Day weekend here in Canada, and the hospital was eerily quiet.) As a last resort, we headed down the hall to the Breast Health Centre, and there I received news that sent my heart into my throat. The results of the ultrasound were already in ~ and they wanted to do a biopsy.

"We can get you in on Wednesday," the compassionate receptionist said. I just looked at Greg. We already had plans for the following week. We were to be in Ohio on a family vacation. Our boys were coming from their college towns and we were all going to be together. I had been so excited ~ this was going to be the "re-do" of my worst vacation ever, a chance to relax and rejoice with my family and put the spectre of cancer behind me. 

Instead, it felt like deja vu. 

We decided I should have the biopsy as soon as possible, even if it meant changing our vacation plans. Greg called the chalet where we had reservations, and they graciously offered to send us a gift card to use at another time. Our boys came home anyway and we had some precious, funny family days together.

The day of the biopsy, I woke up singing, "If Jesus goes with me, I'll go . . . anywhere!" My quiet time brought me the great encouragement of God's presence. My surgeon wasn't worried, and the radiologist was kind. I kept repeating my surgeon's words, that even if it was cancer it would be "early stage and curable."

The next day we headed to the States on an abbreviated family trip. And it was wonderful. I've been through these scares enough to notice a pattern ~ even though I stand aloof, isolated from my loved ones by my bubble of personal pain, I feel a depth and sweetness to our time together. Maybe I appreciate it more.

We wandered through Stratford, ON; browsed thrift stores; walked on the shores of Lake Huron; made a spontaneous stop to look at the teardrop campers I've always admired; and took the ferry across Lake Huron into Michigan (something we'd never done before). Then, a scenic drive along a peninsula in Lake St. Clair, a walk downtown to a frozen custard shop, a nephew's graduation open house and time with extended family . . . it all seemed special, even though fear still nagged at my soul. 

One week after my biopsy, we sat in the waiting room at the Breast Health Centre again. These are the hardest moments for me . . . the breathless waiting while your future hangs in the balance. After all the other patients had been seen, we were taken into an exam room. And I heard the dreaded words: "This is breast cancer." Again.

My surgeon was surprised. My oncologist (whom we saw later in the day) was surprised. This kind of thing (a second breast cancer on the opposite side) doesn't happen very often. But they were both convinced that it was a completely different cancer from the first one, and that it was slow-growing and very treatable.

And so, in the summer of 2016, we made room for cancer . . . again. I felt more prepared to handle it this time around, but we had so much on our calendar already. "I don't have time for cancer!" I chafed. We basically just squeezed the treatments in between everything else we had planned.

Looking back, I don't know how we did it. In between church activities and six family trips, we scheduled a lumpectomy and several follow-up appointments. We also celebrated our kids' birthdays and twenty-five years of marriage.

And I found that I wasn't as prepared as I thought. Even though I'd been through all of this before and knew what to expect, waiting for the pathology report after my surgery was still terrifying. I felt paralyzed by fear and all of the "what-ifs." 

But looking back, I also see the hand of God so clearly. I see His perfect timing, and His grace in allowing us to carry on with all the special things we had planned. I see how he met me for sweet fellowship during my quiet time. I see providential meetings where He brought people into my life to share a word from Him. I see phone calls with sweet encouragement from faithful friends and new acquaintances. I see sermons and worship songs that spoke directly to me in my need.

Praise God! Although the pathology report came back five days late, He kept me quite calm while I waited. And as my doctors had expected, the news was good:  the lymph nodes were clear; the tumor was small and slow-growing; the cancer was only stage 1A. It was indeed a completely different cancer, not a metastasis from the first time around. I would only face radiation (not chemo) this time; but because this cancer was fed by hormones, I would need to take Tamoxifen for at least five years. And so the second journey began.

When I was diagnosed the first time, the stories that encouraged me the most came from people who'd survived cancer more than once. Now I'm happy to join them ~ to share with people that the lessons you learn the first time through a trial really can help you through the second. "God goes before you. Don't be afraid!" *

*Old Testament, Deuteronomy 31:8

Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Long Walk

Three years ago on Mother's Day, I walked my first 10K with my parents by my side ~ after my second round of chemo. 

That wasn't how I'd planned it.

My mom and I had been talking for some time about walking a race together. Our first attempt got sidelined by a knee injury, and we had to cancel. Then my husband Greg heard about another race scheduled for Mother's Day 2013. What a perfect date for our first mother-daughter race! We signed up in January, before we knew what was coming.

Then February arrived, and cancer struck.

At the first meeting with my oncologist, after my surgery, we talked about my upcoming chemo and all it would entail. I told her about the race I hoped to walk, and she said, "I think you should do it." 

Buoyed by her confidence in my abilities, I decided to continue as planned. 

My first chemo treatment was on April 15. My second, May 6. Life began to fall into a routine: steroids before treatment to quell the nausea, energy for a few days afterwards, down into "the well" of unnatural exhaustion for a week, slowly returning to "normal" . . . then another round of chemo.

Walking became my therapy. Another cancer survivor had recommended walking every day during treatments. So I tried.  

It wasn't always easy. It wasn't often easy. Some days I had to force myself just to walk up the street or around the block. Sometimes my vision was so cloudy and my head so foggy, it was hard to see straight. Someone almost always walked with me.

Two days before the Sporting Life 10K, my mom and dad arrived at our home. The night before the race, I wasn't entirely sure I could do it. 

My journal entry for May 12, 2013, begins: "I really did NOT think I could walk the 10K today." We had to leave home at 6:00 a.m. to make it downtown in time. I remember coming to breakfast in the early-morning darkness, seeing my family, and wondering if I should back out. In fact, if anyone else (Mom, Dad, or Greg) had said, "You should stay home," I would have! But no one did, and I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. 

A whole group of friends and family joined us in the race. The runners took off first, while we walkers went later. Waiting with Mom and Dad in a crowded Tim Hortons, I was overcome by exhaustion and had to lie down in a booth. Resting too long made us get a late start ~ we were at the back of the pack the entire race.

Walking that 10K was one of the hardest thing I've ever done. My right arm was strangely achy. (I wouldn't know until days later that I had developed a blood clot from the chemo.) I had to fight to keep my nearly-bald head covered. (At one point, the wind blew my baseball cap off, and I raced after it in embarrassment.) Every kilometer became harder than the last. (I'm pretty sure I kept telling myself that I could quit at any time!)

But those signs became what we looked for. 4K . . . 5K . . . 6K . . . over halfway there! Somewhere along the line we realized that a band was playing lively tunes just before every marker. We began training our ears to pick up the music as we approached.

Eventually, I knew I couldn't quit. How could I give up with only 1-2 kilometers to go? And then, just around the 9K mark, my husband and son came running toward us. They had finished their own race, and come back to help us finish ours. I could have cried as we crossed the finish line. 

What a feeling of exhilaration! The "walker's high" is an incredible thing. But my biggest takeaway that day was the value of support. As my Facebook post that evening said: "I absolutely would not have been able to do it without my parents walking beside me each step of the way." It's a lot harder to quit when someone is walking beside you. I think we pulled each other through!

My parents walked that race (in support of Camp Ooch, a place where young cancer patients can enjoy being campers while still getting the healthcare they need) with my name written on their tags ~ but I walked with prayers and hope for 6 others who were also battling the disease. That, for me, has been one of the best things about cancer ~ getting to walk beside others in understanding and hope as they fight their own battles.

It reminds me of these words: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:1,2 NIV)

With Jesus as our focus, and faith warriors alongside, we can finish any race. God's mercies are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Magnifies Things

Christmas magnifies everything. Whatever you’re going through seems bigger at Christmastime. The good things seem even better, and the bad things ~ infinitely worse.

New romance is ecstasy at Christmastime. Loneliness is a bottomless pit. Family ties seem tighter . . . or more frayed. Grey weather is even bleaker on Christmas Day . . . and fresh snow even more magical.

It’s like Christmas is an overlay that changes the color of the everyday.  A filter that intensifies everything.  A magnifying glass that highlights the tiniest detail.

Christmas narrows it all down to one pin-point of time ~ that breath-hold as you wait for the gift to be unwrapped, for the verdict on its value to come down. I only get one chance at this ~ and what if I fail? We plan and strain ~ and too often our dreams of a Dickens Christmas die in a disappointing Christmas, and it doesn’t measure up. We don’t measure up. Again.

Across much of the world, Christmas is the pinnacle of the year. And how it captures our hearts! But Christmas is only one day ~ a man-made opportunity to remind ourselves of the greatest Gift ever given, and the Family that will never die. The twenty-four glittering hours pass, and life moves on. Hopefully, we are richer for taking the time to stop, be together, and believe.

My grandmother gave birth to her first child (my mother) on December 21. What intense joy! Five years and one week later, she lost her husband to kidney disease at age 28. What intense heartbreak. On her way cross-country from New York to Indiana for his final hospital stay, she heard “I’ll be Home for Christmas” playing in a restaurant. She said it was a long, long time before she could joyfully listen to carols again.

But she walked on. She did embrace Christmas again . . . and again ~ over 50 more times before she celebrated with her husband in Heaven. I remember that her home glowed with garlands and ribbon and mantel-snow and lights ~ I never knew the current of sorrow that surely ran underneath it all.

My mother-in-law spent Christmas 1982 in the hospital. She had been diagnosed at age 44 with a brain tumor and was to have surgery the next day. I treasure the photos of her opening gifts in her hospital bed with her children by her side. She’s smiling. She was to have only one more Christmas with her family. But still, she celebrated. And we still celebrate. We miss her presence intensely; but, because of Christmas, we know we’ll see her again.

How well I remember my own intense Christmas of 2012. On December 20 ~ the day my son came home from his first year in university ~ I lay on an ultrasound table, undergoing a follow-up to my mammogram the week before that had showed something “suspicious.” The intense joy of our reunion mingled with intense fear over my future.

There followed two breathless days of waiting, and a phone call from my doctor on December 23:  “It’s a complex cyst, probably benign. We’ll follow up again in 6 weeks.” What intense relief! And yet . . . and yet . . . the question still hung . . .

I felt Christmas so deeply that year. I realized that illness doesn’t take time off for the holidays. I watched wide-eyed, taking everything in. Some of my favorite memories from that year were totally unplanned: my youngest watching a spontaneous early-morning Christmas movie with Daddy, the breakfast table made festive simply with what I had on hand.

And yes, two months later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And yes, I underwent surgery and chemotherapy and radiation. I struggled to regain my strength. And for two years I seemed to appreciate Christmas more. Then this year . . . I took on the burdens again. I clutched for control. And I lost some of the joy.

So I’m reminding myself: slow down, breathe, and revel in God’s good gifts.

There will come a last Christmas together. We may or may not have the warning: savor every moment. I’m not sure that I want it. What I want is to be in the moment, pleasantly surprised by whatever comes. And the knowledge that whoever is missing from the family circle is celebrating Christmas with Jesus. And the hope that . . . Someday . . . we’ll all be together again.

It’ll be bigger and better than anything we can imagine.

Friday, February 20, 2015

It's Been Two Years

I wasn't going to let this milestone go by unnoticed!  While it may seem strange to "celebrate" the anniversary of a serious diagnosis, what I'm actually celebrating is that fact that I've had two glorious years since then.

The sky was achingly blue, the sunshine brilliant, the brick houses so vivid as we drove home from the hospital that fateful day. The beauty around me seemed surreal, and all I could think was, "I have cancer. How long do I have left to live?"

How does it feel to be told that you have cancer? I can easily reconjure the desperation in my heart, but I think my own words from two years ago say it best. Here's my diary entry for Wednesday, February 20, 2013:  

Well, I have breast cancer. There's just no good way to put it. Not the result we were expecting or hoping for. Even the doctors are surprised: a cancerous cyst. So now I face scans, surgery, chemo, radiation, and the pill. Not a pretty picture. Hard to tell the kids; hard to see them and Greg cry. I'm numb, scared, a little angry. But we'll trust God ~ and fight this hard.

The next day:

A lot of ups and downs today. Tears when I read notes from precious friends. Only slept a couple of hours last night, so took a couple catnaps this afternoon and evening. A good dentist's visit ~ no cavities!! And clean teeth heading into chemo. A very encouraging talk with [friends by phone], just tracing God's hand in my appointment set-ups so far. Miracles, they said! But feeling low and sad tonight. Girls [are], too.

And the next:

Another almost sleepless night. The girls and I were up in the middle with the cat ~ and a weird noise. Read to the girls [today], then a short nap . . . . Afternoon [phone] conversations with [some fellow cancer survivors/patients]. A lovely song and good conversation with [another friend]. A movie, Skype with [our university son] Cal (so good), and a visit from [more friends]. Cheerful!

Finally, on Saturday:

A much better night's sleep. Even dreamt a little! Studying my Bible in the morning felt normal, but then a sense of urgency and despair set in. Greg felt lonely and sad. I learned that [another acquaintance] had died in December of lymphoma. Got some necessary deskwork done, and a good walk with [my daughter] Nic, but just feeling really low and black before bed. Then a good chat with Mom.

And on Sunday:

God gives strength for each new day . . . . In church this morning, prayer for me and encouraging words afterwards lifted my spirits. A little nap before lunch ~ felt good. Long talk with Cal this afternoon. I started my journal of my journey thus far.

There were still four days until my surgery, but I'll stop my entries there. I believe this is the first time I've re-read most of these writings myself, and I find them sobering. But what strikes me are the patterns. Sleepless nights . . . naps . . . sweet conversations with my family . . . strengthening talks with others who'd "been there" . . . overwhelming darkness . . . and the light of Scripture, God's sovereignty, and prayer. In many ways, these things are still the fabric of my life, although the sleepless nights and black despair are few and far between now.

Then in my diary I notice the things that made life seem normal still: reading, movies, deskwork, walking, writing. Thank God, these are still with me, as well! 

I remember telling a friend during that time: "Cancer is no different than real life. It just makes everything seem bigger and more intense." Don't get me wrong ~ cancer is definitely life-altering. But with a good God, friends, and family to walk with you through it, life can still be sweet. 

Thanks to ALL of you who have journeyed with me!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Daily Things

It came and went without any fanfare or recognition. I actually had to check my diary to confirm the date. And here I am, four months and a handful of holidays later, finally writing about it.

The one-year anniversary of my final radiation treatment fell on October 8, 2014. And I didn't even notice. It seems like that would have been a major milestone, something worth posting about. But at that point last fall, we were in the midst of a heavy travelling schedule, speaking in churches and visiting family and friends. I was struggling to keep my head above water as we tackled a laundry room renovation and carried on our ministry here while taking major trips a couple of times a month.

I was tired and irritable, and found myself getting upset over the littlest things, things that wouldn't matter in a few months, or a hundred years . . . much less in eternity.  

And I had to ask myself: how can a person go through something as life-threatening as cancer, and still get angry over a measuring mistake during construction? It seems that by now I would have figured out what was really important, embraced it, and let the rest go.

The fact is, it's seldom the big things in life that trip us up. Oh, sure, they jar us. They stop us in our tracks, make us scream heart-wrenching questions, shake us to the core. But then, as the crisis becomes a daily reality, we seem to dig deep, find the Strength we need, and steady ourselves for the long haul.

But it's the little foxes that spoil the vines, as wise King Solomon once said. Or, as one of my friends told me, meltdowns usually come "apparently over something totally dumb ~ like they didn't have my usual brand of ketchup on the grocery shelf. But of course, that was only the trigger. It is the little things that get to us. We're good at balancing the BIG things, and most of the time God doesn't send too many at us at one time. But if that foundation of all the little things gets shaky, it makes the balancing act so much harder." She lived overseas as a military wife for a time, so she knew what she was talking about.

It seems we can "gear up" for the big things. I clearly remember the day in May 2013 when I was told I had a foot-long blood clot in my right arm and would need to give myself daily blood-thinner injections until the end of my chemotherapy. Scary? Yes. Heart-stopping? Yes. But God gave me several opportunities that day to share my faith. I drove home from the hospital rejoicing.

As I drove, I thought about my son who had just finished his first year of university and was needing to work long hours in Pennsylvania over the summer to pay for his school bill. I felt empathetic panic rise up in my heart for the trials he was going to face. And I realized with a start that I was more worried for him than I was for myself.  More worried about a heavy workload than a blood clot? Somehow I knew God was going to take care of the big things, but the daily things? Well, that's another story.

Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? I know full well that He cares about the world wars ... and the little sparrow that falls outside my door. If He can help me face cancer, He can help me face a "too-full" calendar. I just have to view them both in light of eternity.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Just Being in the Moment

My son graduated from high school last night. And, by God’s grace, I was there to witness it!

Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness changes your perspective in so many ways. At first, the future is so cloudy you can’t see more than a few days into it ~ just until the next medical test or dreaded phone call. You wonder if you’ll even be here to enjoy the fall fair, celebrate Christmas, or welcome the new life of spring. You fear that the milestones most people get to experience will never be reality for you.

But then you realize that no one is guaranteed tomorrow ~ or even the next minute. You begin to treasure the moments ~ even things that might have caused irritation before ~ because you are just thankful to be here. You begin to hope ~ not expect ~ that you’ll have the opportunity to do those things you’ve dreamed of. Life and relationships and time become oh-so-precious.

The tricky part comes when life moves back toward normal ~ even if it’s a new normal. You settle into a routine, start to anticipate what each day will look like, and feel upset when things don’t go the way you’d planned. You chafe at frustrations and chide yourself for what hasn’t gotten done. Until someone reminds you:  “The important thing is that you’re here. Just be.

Last night’s graduation did that for me. It was a reminder to be “in the moment” ~ in the midst of the rush and the stress of preparation, to take a deep breath, look around me with wonder, and think, “I’m here! I could have missed this, but God let me live.”

Let’s not take a moment that we are given for granted. Each breath, each experience with a loved one, is a gift!

* Thank you to my dear fellow-survivor Suzanne and my precious husband Greg for speaking these reminders into my life!