Pieces of the Puzzle

Two years ago today I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. In the past, this would have been a death sentence. As I look back over my life in the last twenty-four months, I am incredibly grateful. As I sit typing this blog, I am cancer free, just finished a nice six mile run, will spend some time working on my dissertation this afternoon, and later take my mother to a play this evening. I am blessed. My life has returned to normal and I only see my oncologist every three months for a blood test and a high five.

I am so incredibly grateful for the many wonderful people who cared for, supported, encouraged, inspired, carried, and prayed me through my battle with cancer. Many of which I didn’t know prior to having cancer. Survivors who told me their stories of hope and assured me life would get easier were an amazing source of strength when I was at my weakest. I remember meeting a young woman who approached me when I was in the last phase of chemotherapy; it was at a time when I was feeling pretty low and tired of the whole thing. I had gone with a friend to a park and this woman must have noticed my bald head under my baseball cap. She however, had the cutest short hairdo and was playing with her daughter on the swings and seemed to be having a wonderful day. She told me she was a breast cancer survivor and had since regained her life. The cute hairdo was regrowth after chemo and she once again had energy to chase her kids and enjoy her family. I was so encouraged by her story and by her willingness to share with it with a total stranger.

Now I get to carry on that work. We are surrounded by people who need encouragement. If you are a cancer survivor, you can share your story of hope.  If you have never had cancer, count your blessings and you can lend strength to those in the battle of their lives. We are all important pieces in this puzzle.

“He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” 2 Corinthians 1:4

Heart Puzzle

Chemo curls and chia pets

It is amazing to look back over this past year and see all that has transpired. A year ago I was in the middle of chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. I had lost all my hair and had barely enough energy to make it through each day. My goal was to finish chemo, get through surgery and be cancer free. Praise God for his strength and seeing me through to that goal. I am now enjoying good health, have enough energy to run most days, and only have to see my oncologist every three months to get the all clear. But most important during this past year and half, my daughter met and fell in love with wonderful man and they are getting married on Saturday!! We are so blessed to have Andrew as part of the family.

When I started growing my hair back after completing chemo I remember telling a friend that I didn’t care if a chia pet grew out of the top of my head, I was just tired of being bald. Well, careful what you wish for! My hair came back so curly that it very much resembled a chia pet.  A cute and sassy chia pet, but chia nonetheless.

Chia pet

Now my goal is to find some sort of a cute hair do for my daughter’s wedding that doesn’t have everyone remembering those old “ch ch ch chia” commercials. I visited my hair stylist recently and she diligently tried to tame the beast and alas, it will not be tamed. So I have gotten used to wearing a head band and just letting those chemo curls do what they will. It still is much better than wearing a baseball cap every day and I don’t have one that would match the wedding colors! What I have learned through all of this is that hair isn’t really that important. Unlike Sampson from the bible, my strength is not in my hair. It doesn’t define me. While I like having some again and it does keep me warm (who knew being bald would make me so cold?!?) there are so many more important things in life—like love, health, family, friends, and spreading the good news of God’s grace and mercy.

In Luke 12:7 when describing God’s care and concern for us, Jesus tells us that God even knows the number of hairs on our head. That verse now makes me laugh. God had quite a job keeping track of mine this past year as it all fell out and then started growing back! Regardless of my hairstyle I will rejoice in the God who loves me and has healed me. On Saturday I will celebrate with my daughter and Andrew as they start their life together….even if I look like I have a chia pet on my head!

4-6-2013 at Blackbird

Don’t go looking for trouble

I saw my oncologist on Friday. It was my three month check-up since being declared cancer free (I love saying that, by the way!) It was a little surreal being back in his office after having spent so much time there in the past 10 months. He asked some questions, listened to my lungs, checked for swelling in my legs, asked some more questions, ordered a blood test, and said I didn’t need to come back again for another three months. It was rather quick and painless for an oncology appointment. I asked him what I should be looking out for or if there was anything I need to pay special attention to and he said, “Erin, don’t go looking for trouble.” While he later clarified and said if I had any unusual pain or swelling I should give him a call, his words have really resonated with me. How often do we worry needlessly, seek out problems, or fret over things that we can’t control?

God tells us, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Philippians 4:6

Our minds can get so wrapped up in worry that we miss the blessings of the day. I am in a great club of women who have battled breast cancer and won!! We each have a choice to worry about the cancer coming back or celebrate the fact that it is gone. I want to spend every day praising God for healing me and giving me cancer free days, not anxiously wondering if it will return.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matt. 6:25-34

worrying

What does worry do for us anyway? There is no good in it. While we are to be responsible with our lives and our health, there is no need to fear. I plan to take good care of my cancer free body: eat nutritious food, exercise, actively manage stress, rest well, praise the God who saved me, spend time with family and friends, and refuse to worry!  So that’s my plan. What’s yours?

Don't worry just praise

Valentine’s Day…cheers or jeers?

hearts

Ahh…Valentine’s Day: anticipated holiday of happy couples everywhere and dreaded day of endurance for many singles. Regardless of your relationship status this Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to soak in the love that never ends and bask in the warmth of our Savior’s embrace.

Give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever. Psalm 136:26

Valentine’s Day is a great opportunity to share God’s love with others and nurture yourself too. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we need to be careful and not leave ourselves out of the equation. When we love ourselves well, we are reaffirming God’s love for His creation. Are you treating yourseslf well? taking care of your heart, body, mind, and soul?

14 things to do on February 14th that will fill your heart with love:

  1. Send a note of love and encouragement to someone who needs it
  2. Smile  (It will brighten your spirits and someone’s day)
  3. Do a favor for a neighbor
  4. Read Psalm 139 and ponder how God made you unique and special
  5. Savor a really good cup of coffee or tea (Let the warmth hug you from the inside)
  6. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, food bank, or homeless shelter
  7. Buy yourself flowers (if finances are tight, walk through a garden center and just enjoy the plants & flowers, marveling at God’s creativity is designing so many varieties)
  8. Anonymously pay for the person behind you in line at your local coffee shop
  9. Spend time in nature with the Creator of all good things
  10. Exercise!! Enjoy the endorphin rush J
  11. Sing (loudly and badly if possible. It’s more fun!)
  12. Ask God how much He loves you. Listen for the answer
  13. Bake and deliver cookies to a convalescent home
  14. Dark chocolate (Need I say more?)

You have filled my heart with greater joy. Psalm 4:7

my sweaty heart

my sweaty heart

When I got off the treadmill yesterday, I was surprised to see the sweat on my shirt had formed the shape of a heart. I know it’s disgusting but it makes a good point! When we treat ourselves well, inluding how we eat and exercise, we are being loving and we’ll feel better too (see #10 above.)

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord for he has been good to me. Psalm 13:5-6

Happy Valentine’s Day!

World Cancer Day

Today is World Cancer Day, a day set set aside in an effort to make known the global issues of cancer and work together to reduce the impact of the disease worldwide. As a breast cancer survivor living in the United States, I have had the benefits of there being a local, state, and federal focus on the epidemic of cancer. I received excellent treatment and I am so blessed to be cancer free. But it doesn’t end with me. Every nineteen seconds another woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. In much of the world a diagnosis of cancer is still a death sentence. It doesn’t have to be.

We all have a part to play in the battle to end cancer. I encourage you to watch the two minute video, “The Power of One” and let it inspire you.

http://y2u.be/V2sBqqX4dck

credit: Susan G. Komen

credit: Susan G. Komen

You can also visit the World Cancer website to become more informed: http://www.worldcancerday.org

“Never the less, I will bring it health and healing; I will heal them and reveal to them the abundance of peace and truth.” Jeremiah 33:6

Musical chairs

I went to a chemo infusion room today. Not for me but to visit a dear friend who started chemo this morning. It was a strange feeling walking into the familiar environment but knowing I wouldn’t be getting sick later. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I sat nervously in the chemo chair for the first time not knowing how the following months would be. Then after what seemed like an eternity I was sitting in the chair for the last time, exhausted and weak but grateful it was finally over. I remember new patients starting their chemotherapy journey that day as I was finishing mine, seeing their nervous faces and feeling an ache in my heart for them. And now it’s Patty’s turn at musical chairs, except in this game we all hurry to get out of the chair hoping never to sit down in a chemo chair again.  Tonight my heart aches for her too. As I talked with her today my eyes couldn’t help but linger at her beautiful long hair that will be gone in couple weeks… She is beautiful and strong and will bravely battle this disease, then soon will be her time to say good-bye to chemo chairs. Godspeed Patty!

musical chairs

Sharing our stories…

One of the wonderful things about having cancer (and yes there are some good things) is the opportunity to meet people who otherwise would have gone unknown. People who have, or have had, cancer form a kind of family or club of fellow fighters. While it is not the club I would have joined voluntarily, I am very blessed by many of it’s members. So many people have shared their cancer stories with me. I am encouraged and  honored to join with them as we celebrate the victories, support the ongoing battle, and lift each other up.

One story I have heard recently comes from Cameron Von St. James. He shared with me the story of his wife’s battle with mesothelioma and his role as her caregiver. I had never heard of mesothelioma and was saddened to learn of this form of cancer. He asked if he could share his story on my blog and I am happy to help him get the word out. Here it is:

Learning to Accept Help as a Caregiver

My wife knows that her treatment of mesothelioma was extremely difficult for me.  She’s said that she cannot imagine what I went through, and I really haven’t talked about that time with anyone.  However, I hope that I can help others by sharing that experience now.

It was supposed to be the happiest time of our lives.  Our daughter Lily was only three months old when my wife was diagnosed with this very deadly disease.  I still remember the first time I heard the doctors say the dreaded word.  I remember my wife and I looking at each other through our tears as we tried to comprehend the news and understand what our futures might hold.

My wife was silently crying, and I was sitting there trying to choke back the tears.  When the doctors started talking about future medical options, I knew I had to come back to the present and deal with the situation.  I loved my wife, and the news shattered me emotionally.  I was overwhelmed and scared, but I knew I needed to pull it together to help my wife make the difficult decisions that were awaiting us.

After the diagnosis, I was filled with rage at the unfairness of it.  There were times when the only words I seemed to know were too profane for polite company.  While my language seemed outside of my control, I was able to take charge of my emotions.  I knew that I had to be strong for Lily and Heather.  I tried to break down only when I was alone, so my wife wouldn’t be burdened with my pain.  I was determined to be a source of strength and comfort for her.

My life seemed impossibly busy after the diagnosis.  In addition to working to support the family, I also had travel arrangements for her care, I needed to figure out who would watch the pets and make arrangements for Lily.  It was incredibly overwhelming initially, but I soon learned how to prioritize the important tasks and let the rest go.  I also learned how to accept help from others.  We are blessed with many caring family members and friends who were happy to help us.  I don’t know what I would have done without them, and yet I still wasn’t sure how I would get through that impossible time.

There was one two-month period when Heather had no idea what I had gone through.  Lily was staying with her parents in South Dakota, and she had gone to Boston for her surgery.  After her surgery, she flew out to her parents to recover and prepare for the coming round of chemotherapy and radiation, the next steps in her mesothelioma treatment.  I was out of my mind without my family around, and I only saw them once during that entire long period.

I looked forward anxiously to the visit.  I left immediately after work one Friday, driving through the long night and a snowstorm.  It was eleven hours of misery, and I slept a few hours in the car while I waited for plows to clear the road. Arriving Saturday morning, I was exhausted.  I spent a precious day and a half with my family before driving back home on Sunday afternoon.

I refuse to view this time as an unhappy loss in my life.  I know that it was the best choice for my family.  I wouldn’t have been able to care for Lily, and keep up with my job.  It was one of those impossible choices we had to make in order to save Heather and keep our family whole.  I had to let go of the desire to do it all myself, and I will always appreciate my in-laws for being willing to take care of Lily and Heather.  My family is still here as a result, and I will always be thankful for that.

A new year—a new beginning

I love the optimism of the New Year. It’s a fresh start and anything is possible. Several years ago I began a daily Bible reading plan that would guide me to read the entire Bible in a year. I had been a Christian for many years and had studied parts of the Bible, but had never read it cover to cover. So with all the best intentions, I set out on my quest. While I struggled at times and didn’t complete the day’s reading, I would try to catch up and was determined to read even those books I had previous avoided like 1 & 2 Chronicles and Numbers. When I finished my reading that year on December 31st, it was a celebration, not of my efforts which had been sketchy, but of God’s faithfulness to meet me each time I sat down to read and to show me the great truths and joys in His Word. I follow a reading plan each year now and no matter how many times I have read through the Bible, there are always fresh revelations and hidden kernels of wisdom found in its pages.

2012 is over and it was, for many people, a difficult year. My breast cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, and surgery will all mark the significant events of the past year for me and my family. But I can also see God’s goodness, the promises of His Word, the miracle of healing, and His faithfulness. I started a new reading plan yesterday and I am excited to learn the new lessons God will teach me as I study His Word in 2013. I especially love the first few words in the Bible, “In the beginning God…” Genesis 1:1

starsBefore anything else, there is God. He is at the center of it all and should be at the start of all we do. In every day and in every circumstance God is there. When we need encouragement, wisdom, strength, or direction, God is there and able to supply all we need. In our happiest moments and in our deepest sorrows, God is there waiting.

In the beginning God—How will you begin your new year?bible with cross

Christmas joy

It’s Christmas Eve, the house is quiet, everything is finished and the presents are finally wrapped and under the tree. Tomorrow the house will chaotic and fun, filled with family, food, laughter, and Christmas music. As I sit this evening and reflect on the last several months, I am again struck by God’s goodness.

I received an early Christmas present last week when I learned that I would not have to undergo radiation treatments.  As I have been healing from surgery and continuing with the reconstruction process, the threat of radiation was always looming. I have been trying not to think about it too much but it was always hovering somewhere in the back of my mind. My doctor wanted me to see the radiation oncologist for a recommendation and the countdown to that appointment was never far from my thoughts.  Sitting her office last Wednesday, I was trying to prepare myself for the next round of treatments but remembering how faithful God has been throughout this journey. Chemo is over, surgery went well, and I am a cancer survivor. What a blessing to find out I will not have to have radiation!!

From the fullness of his grace we have received one blessing after another.  John 1:16

Christmas seems just a little brighter now. I hope this season finds you counting your blessings too. With so many difficult things in our world today, so many sorrows, devastating storms that rip through communities, senseless violence and tragic losses, it seems even more important to celebrate the victories, to share the joys, to join together and give God the glory.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas!             Nativity

Reflection

I have spent the last month recuperating from surgery and reflecting on life. Seven months ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and faced a very uncertain future. I started this blog ten days after being diagnosed and I wrote in that first post,

“I do not know what the days ahead will hold for me but I do know my future…I will see God’s goodness displayed through this trial. Romans 8:28 is just as true today as it was 11 days ago.And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and called according to his purpose.’ My hope and prayer with this blog is to encourage others with God’s grace and mercy as we all face the trials and struggles that compete for our attention. I choose instead to dwell on the good. Philippians 4:8 has been my battle cry, ‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent and praiseworthy—think about such things.’ It is not my choice to have breast cancer, but I can choose to walk each day by the love and light of God’s grace and mercy. I can choose to focus on all that is good in my life, to look up instead of down, to smile instead of frown, to sing even through my tears, and to have hope, always have hope.”

Since I wrote that first blog post, I have completed chemotherapy and have experienced such an outpouring of love I can’t even describe it. The nausea and headache are long gone but I hope never to lose the feeling of warmth and affection that enveloped me as so many people reached out to help me.

Last month I had a bilateral mastectomy and began the long process of reconstruction. Once again God showed His love and faithfulness to me through his people—reaching out and pitching in to help me, so much love, so much generosity, so much encouragement after my surgery and over the last seven months. Now I am cancer free!! God’s goodness has certainly been displayed during this season of struggle. “How great is God—beyond our understanding! The number of His years is past finding out.” Job 36:26

I so appreciate the many people who have prayed for me and my healing. My strength is growing with every day and I will give God the glory for His awesome power demonstrated in victory over cancer.  “He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope.”          2 Corinthians 1:10

Photo courtesy of Tainted Canvas.

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