I know I should be getting ready for a big evening out–doing my hair, painting my nails, pulling out my party dress (which, in my case, is a dress I bought 15 years ago on a 80% off sale at JC Penney’s!). And I know I should be getting my “festive” on–planning a dangerous back-yard fireworks display and getting my day-after hangover pills all lined up on my bathroom vanity (of course, I don’t have a vanity, but let’s all play along, shall we?). It’s New Year’s eve, after all. Well, forgive me for not being in an over-the-top partying mood. I’m in a reflective and joyful mood, which really isn’t anything to turn one’s nose up at. And it comes with a no-morning-after-migraine guarantee, so I’m golden.
I was fresh out of ideas for Christmas presents this year, so I designed a 52-page photobook for my family and closest friends. It retraces my journey, in photos and blog text, from December 31, 2007 (a year ago today, when my first diagnosis was made) to the beginning of radiation in November, 2008. Unfortunately, I didn’t do very well at reading the small print in the contract, so though the book is beautiful and professional looking, it’s also a tad expensive. Much as I’d like to send each of you Prayer Warriors a copy, I’ll have to settle for ending this year with a collection of excerpts from its pages. I know it’s a bit long–but it’s your story too. Bite off only as much as you can chew. There will be no quizzes…! (The photos, thanks to technical genius Jay Na, are of the actual coffee-table book.)
[July 7, a note to my friends written two days after diagnosis #2] Please know that I am strong in my mind and heart, though tears come often and uncontrollably. I sobbed during my shower this evening and sobbed into my pillow in the wee hours last night, wondering how I got here–it’s just been so fast and so unexpected and so close on the heels of my victory over Mac.
On the night I received the diagnosis, a dear friend drove me to her home and installed me in a rocker on her beautiful screened-in porch. I was so sick to my stomach that I could barely speak, and it felt like all the muscles in my body were convulsing. Deb sat next to me and read scriptures while I tried to quiet my panic. One verse from Psalm 84 promised that God would give me ‘strength upon strength.’ Well, I got the first of those strengths with Mac, and it looks like I’m moving on to the ‘upon strength’ segment of that promise.
[July 16] The first four days after diagnosis were truly difficult. I lived them in a surreal state of numbness, being broadsided again and again by the multi-faceted repercussions of this disease. I nourished my lack of information with online research and breast cancer chat rooms and a nearly constant calling on God for sustenance. I was bathed in the words and tears and support of friends and family around the globe. They were a shield against the winds of incomprehension that tried to sway my faith. There was never despair. There was fear and there was rebellion. There was laughter, too, and a healthy dose of irony. There were tears that burst from me unexpectedly, usually accompanied by a wordless plea for God’s help, whatever may come. The image of Him grieving for me even as He “armored” me for this battle was my comfort and my strength.
Then you will discover the fullness of your life.”
Brother David Steindl-Rast
[January 16] I learned at a very young age just how painful this world can be and have not allowed myself to assume that those early experiences were flukes that would not be repeated. There is pain in the human condition. But what I know beyond a doubt is that though this life might throw cancer–and worse–at me, because God exists (mystery, contradictions, and all) and comforts in ways I can’t begin to describe, I will make it through this crisis and through the treatments ahead with the certainty that I am not alone.
[July 29] Oh, there have been tears, for sure, and there will be more. But there’s also this rock-solid weight in my lungs that tells me that I can do this. My spirits are sobered but positive. My outlook is proactive and optimistic. My heart is sometimes melancholy, but more often so very grateful for things I hadn’t really taken the time to notice until now. I might not always feel this way–who knows when my humanity will overpower God’s promises in my mind? But for now, I’m clinging to the Truth in the hope of storing up enough courage for whatever lies ahead.
[June 10] I don’t agree with the statement that the center of God’s will is the “safest” place for anyone, because we live in a world where bad things happen to fairly good people. It’s a consequence of our fallenness and not in the least in contradiction with God’s goodness! But–I believe that the center of God’s will, though not guaranteeing physical safety, does offer utter fulfillment, purpose, comfort and peace…and there is a different kind of safety in that, one that should not be confused with immunity from harm.
I know–that God grieved as this cancer began to grow in me. That He wept on the day I received my diagnosis. That He shuddered when I learned of the surgeries ahead. He loves me too much to have reacted any other way.
[September 5] This is the chief conclusion I’ve reached: as long as I focus my mind and spirit on what I desire to gain from this disease, the fear will not have power over me. I can either let cancer take my serenity captive or I can allow it to direct my motivation in a way that has eternal value. This experience is not about what might happen to my body, it’s about what I want this disease to produce in me. If I can focus on what I desire more than on what I dread, this passage of my life will be a beneficial journey of discovery that will allow me to minister to others in ways I never have before. Don’t get me wrong. There has been fear; it’s endemic to humanity. There was fear when my diagnosis was revealed. There was fear when I first took my bandages off. There is fear when I allow myself to dwell on the statistics or to anticipate worst-case scenarios. But I am determined to overwhelm the fear with a desire for change and an expectation of purposes fulfilled.
[August 29] I have seldom sensed God’s majesty or authority as fully as I have while resting at His feet. From the vantage point of that kind of closeness and dependence, there is little else to hear and breathe than He. My prayer for the remainder of my life is that I will not leave the sacredness of this place, even if the disease that flung me here is lifted from my shoulders. May I continue to aspire to little more than kneeling at His feet and gazing on His splendor.
[August 12] There’s no need to remind me of the Truths I cling to when my thoughts veer into dangerous territory. I know them–I believe them. I throw myself on them daily when murmurs from my fragile human side slither their way into my consciousness. I really don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering if the cancer has returned. And I really don’t want to meet someone, some day, and have to say, “Uh…before you make any declarations here, you might want to know that there’s only half of ‘me’ left.”
But–while those currents surge and swell and froth around me, another current anchors me to the most momentous of Truths: God is with me. Therein lies the confidence and faith and joy that defies these grievous circumstances. It is that current–that certainty–that allows me to regain my emotional footing after the necessary storms. It is that current that keeps me praising the God who can make of something this painful something so spiritually galvanizing. It is that current that allows me to smile genuinely, because it focuses me on the blessings I have received and will continue to receive. It is that current that tells me that I am still precious, that I am still worthy, that I am still useful, that I am still me. It is that current that lifts me and carries me and sustains me and empowers me and, ultimately, heals me.
[November 10] This could have been a devastating journey, but it hasn’t been. Challenging? Yes. Painful, jarring and disorienting? Yes. But the road has been paved with kindness, smoothed by answered prayer and redirected by Divine Design. The trauma has been softened by faith and sublimated by gratitude. What might have been the worst months of my life have instead been the most galvanizing months of my forty years of existence. I have learned, I have grown, and I hope that I have changed–deepened in compassion and broadened in spiritual understanding. My most fervent prayer today, as I pursue treatment and contemplate the “new normal” of life after cancer, is that I will continue to seek, explore and lean on the One whose love redeems our pain.
Thank you–friends, relatives and perfect strangers–for the prayers that have lifted me and carried me through the roughest patches of this journey. You are to me the expression of God’s love and mercy. You have shown His face to me and contributed to healing me. Please know that I thank Him for you every day that I live. 2008 was one of the very best years of my life, if not the best. I approach 2009 with more certainty and fulfillment than I’ve ever known before. That, my friends, is a testament to God’s ability to turn the most traumatic of life’s events into something galvanizing and good.
Happy New Year, everyone. May you know Him better in it,
PS: If you know someone who might be helped or encouraged by the collection of photos and thoughts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My greatest desire is for my experience to be of service to others, and if this tome can contribute to that, I’d love to be a part of it. If money is an issue (it costs $55), I’ll be happy to cover as much of the expenses as I can. The $55 is strictly production costs charged by the company I used–I have no intention of making any money off this publication!