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 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 dickens of a 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 the 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 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, sacred, 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, 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 . . . and 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 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!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Happy to Be Alive

My son used to play a song by Reliant K that went like this:

Sunny with a high of 75
Since You took my heavy heart and made it light.
And it’s funny how you find
You enjoy your life
When you’re happy to be alive.

I haven’t heard that song in quite a while ~ and I didn’t think of it at all during this longest-of-all-winters that we’ve just come through in Canada! But the last few days those words have been running through my head. Yes, even today . . . ’though we received an inch of fresh snow on our just-cleared lawns!

I can’t forget that a year ago today I started chemotherapy. I was so scared. Had I made the right decision about treatment? What side effects would I face? What if the “cure” was worse than the cancer? Would I get sick? What if I took the wrong dose of steroids at the wrong time? And on and on . . .

God sent me a special friend that day ~ a wonderful nurse who literally linked her arm through mine and ministered to me along every step of the way . . . from patiently pushing the drugs intravenously to covering me with a warm blanket to bringing me a cold pack when a sudden headache set in. When I told her how scared I was, she looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you believe in God?” I said, “Yes,” and she replied, “Then that’s all that matters.  Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray.”

She was such a blessing to me. I hoped that she’d be there for the next five rounds of chemo. She was; and I still stop in to visit the chemo clinic whenever I get the chance. Who dreamed I’d actually look forward to going there!

Today as I enjoy the beautiful snow and prepare to watch The Passion of the Christ with some friends as we approach Easter, I am reminded just how good it is to be alive. Thank you, Jesus!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

One Year In

One year ago today, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Nothing can prepare you for those words ~ especially when you believe you've been following a cyst for the past 2 months. I sat with my husband Greg in the waiting room, unable to relax, heart racing, hoping against hope the surgeon would have good news that would bring closure to the battery of tests I'd been through.

But we had barely sat down in his office when he said, "Well, it is a cancer." How can you explain how it feels to have the world fall away from under you while everything around you stays the same? As the doctor and the nurse talked me through what would take place in the next several weeks, I kept having to drag my mind back to the present. Could this be real? Surely it was happening to someone else, not me. But I was sinking into a black hole.

Greg's tears came first. All he could think of was watching his mom go through brain cancer almost 30 years before. The chemotherapy and radiation ravaged her body before the cancer took her life. And now his wife was facing the same thing? How could God do this to him?

I couldn't even cry. I was too stunned. The nurse told us we could stay in the office as long as necessary, to collect ourselves. But what good would that do? We had plans to make, family to be told.

As I walked down the hospital corridor toward the car, I suddenly thought, "Cue the music." I pictured myself, slow-motion, striding into battle. We were going to fight this thing.

Driving home from the hospital, I remember the sky was blue. So blue. The houses of our development stood out in vivid contrast, their bricks brilliant colors. The world was achingly beautiful. How could I be facing cancer? How could I walk through the door of the house and tell my kids? How could I break the news to my parents who were both at work?

Somehow, we got through the next several hours. I'll never forget the wailing of our daughters . . . their cries of, "Why our Mommy?" . . . our college-age son's stunned response and heart-wrenching struggle 8 hours away from home . . . having to tell our second son when he got home from high school . . . the shock of the Chinese friend who was staying with us . . . my mom's tears and my dad's strength . . . my fear that my younger sister would be left an only child.

Greg had to tell his family, too. It felt like déjà vu for all of them: their own mom had been only 45 when she died. The same age as me.

And how do you tell your friends and colleagues? Some cancer patients choose to keep it to themselves.  But we decided to use e-mail and social media. Is there a certain etiquette for making an announcement of this magnitude? We were feeling our way.

Ironically, three other friends were diagnosed with cancer just days before me:  four of us within four business days. They (and others who had also walked this road) became my support group, my safety net.  Nothing says “comfort” like someone who’s been there.

The outpouring of strength and support was amazing.  Well-wishes streamed in from around the world, via phone, e-mail, Skype and Facebook.  People brought gifts and flowers . . . so many flowers.  It was my own personal garden, mid-winter.  We ran out of places to put them.
I only had to wait eight days until my surgery.  Looking back, I can’t believe what we packed into that one week:  a visit to the dentist with my girls, a trip to the eye doctor, a church service, Kids’ Club, CT scan (clear), bone scan (clear, praise God!), pre-surgery appointment.  My attitude and outlook fluctuated by the day . . . sometimes by the hour.

We had some dark, dark days; but I remember Greg saying something like, “A year from now this will all be behind us, and you’ll be doing great.”  I desperately wanted to believe him, but I couldn’t even see my way clear to the local fair in the fall, let alone Christmas and a new year. 

But here we are!  If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this journey, it’s that every day is a gift.  I’ve had many statistics thrown at me in the last 12 months, but the truth is ~ not one of us is guaranteed even tomorrow.  God has the days planned out for each and every one of us.  I may not get to fulfill all of my plans, but I trust that He knows best.

And I’m amazed at how many special things He did allow me to do this past year:

* Started some knitting and cross-stitch projects that I’d been dreaming of
* Read . . . read . . . read
* Did dozens of Sudoku and crossword puzzles
* Celebrated life and family through multiple birthdays and holidays
* Learned to take naps and say “no”
* Proofread a friend’s novel
* Shared my story and hope with others who are starting their own cancer journeys
* Hosted many visitors who encouraged and helped us with our ministry
* Traveled to North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia
* Started this blog

And no matter what this next year holds, I know that the best is yet to come!