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

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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

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

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.

Hurdles on the Horizon

I have really enjoyed these last few weeks since finishing chemo. I am feeling stronger; I no longer have a headache; I am not such a frequent visitor to the oncology office—Ah, the good life! Yet looming on the horizon is my next hurdle in the cancer fight. I will undergo surgery on Monday and the anxiety is beginning to creep in. I feel confident in my decision. I have great assurance in my surgical team. I have a wonderful support network of family and friends to help me. But since the only surgery I have ever had was when I had my wisdom teeth removed at age 22, a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction seems like a much scarier endeavor!

But I will trust in my God and his protection over me. He has shown himself faithful throughout this cancer journey and I know he will continue to carry me as I enter this next phase. 1 john 4:18 says, Perfect love casts out fear, so I will choose to focus on God’s perfect love for me and not let fear get its grip on me in the days before surgery.

…I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope. Acts 2:25-26

Hurdles aren’t the only thing I see on the horizon—I also see hope.

hope on the horizon

Are you aware?

Fondue for the Cure!Typically I don’t write about breast cancer all that much on this blog. Instead I choose to focus on the positive, what I am learning through this battle, and the blessings I have encountered during the journey. For this post, however, I felt the need for something different. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Then again, you already knew that. Everything is dressed in pink and pink ribbons, even the White House is bathed in pink lights this month. It’s been 28 years since October became the official month for breast cancer awareness but this October is entirely different for me—I am now AWARE of breast cancer. It’s easy to get lulled to passivity by the overabundance of pink every October. Like Pepto-Bismol coating our consciousness, we can see the pink but not the need to act.  I have supported the cause in the past: I have donated, raced for the cure, bought the pink ribbon gear, and worn the apparel, but let me tell you, nothing heightens your awareness of breast cancer like a diagnosis of breast cancer!

So this month I am asking you, no, pleading with you to not only become more aware of breast cancer and the need for continued research toward a cure, but become personally aware of the risk of cancer and take action toward good breast health. By that I mean self-exams. My breast lump was discovered by me in the shower. Mammograms are an important and necessary tool, but there is an equally important process by which many women have detected a problem and begun the first steps in their battle against this disease. Ladies, if you are not in the habit of doing monthly self-exams, now would be a great time to start. Gentleman, please talk to the women in your life about this vital life-saving process. Your mother, sisters, wife, and daughters all could use a nudge and gentle reminder.

If you need a little more motivation let me share some staggering numbers with you. Approximately 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer at some point in her lifetime. That’s just fewer than 12% of all women in the U.S. In the last year, there were an estimated 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer, with an additional 57,650 new cases of non-invasive (in-situ) breast cancer in the U.S.  For more detailed and mind blowing statistics please see: www.breastcancer.org

For all the retail stores offering breast cancer awareness sales, the restaurants with special breast cancer awareness menus (the photo at the top is a group of some lovely ladies in my life out for breast cancer awareness night at the Melting Pot earlier this week), for all the races and pink ribboned fundraising events, don’t forget the important task of assessing your breast health.

Monthly self-exams save lives.

Getting my life back

I am blessed! Yesterday was the first day of classes at William Jessup University (www.jessup.edu) where I teach psychology. It was so wonderful to be on campus surrounded by an excited group of college students, to reconnect with faculty and staff, chat with students I have had in classes in the past, and meet my new students for this term. I love teaching and always look forward to the start of classes in the fall, but this year after a summer battling breast cancer, yesterday was especially sweet. I felt like me!

All summer I have been masquerading as a cancer patient, dutifully enduring tests, chemotherapy, doctor appointments that never end, and basically living someone else’s life. But I have so missed living my own. While I realize I am not quite finished with the cancer patient life, I am getting my life back in stages and it feels great!

While there is no good time to be diagnosed with cancer, I am thankful that my diagnosis occurred at the end of the spring semester. I have been able to devote my summer to fighting this disease and now when I am almost finished with chemo, it’s time to return to classes. How great is that?!?! I did continue to see clients this summer but I did not allow my caseload to increase as I normally do during my break from teaching. I know I needed the down time but now I embrace having fuller days doing what enjoy. My new students were incredibly gracious when their instructor walked in sporting a cap sans hair and I look forward to getting to know them over the next few months. Returning students have been so generous in thier offers to help me, in thier faithful prayers, and encouraging words. The faculty and staff all have surrounded me with love and support.

I still face surgery in October and the possibility of radiation after that but for now I will rejoice in being able to do what I love to do, surrounded by a wonderful college community. I am blessed!

“How abundant are the good things that you have stored up for those who fear you, that you bestow in the sight of all, on those who take refuge in you.” Psalm 31:19

“I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High” Psalm 7:17

He’s big—I’m small

I had the wonderful blessing of spending a couple of days with a dear friend and her daughter in Monterey last weekend. Having grown up in Southern California, I have always loved the beach. It is a special place of peace for me. Now that I live a couple of hours from the coast, I don’t get as many opportunities to dig my toes in the sand, but when I do they are always glorious.

The ocean reminds me of just how big our God is and just how small I am in comparison. The strength of my problems pale in light of the power and might of the waves. The thing that always gets me is the God of the universe, the creator of the seas, with all His glory and majesty, loves me!

“You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.” Nehemiah 9:6

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.” Psalm 24:1-2

“You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds, God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas, who formed the mountains by your power, having armed yourself with strength, who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations. The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.” Psalm 65:5-8

I will remember the morning mist and the cool salt air, the laughter of good friends, and meditate on these verses today as I sit once again today in the chemo chair—and the God who created the oceans will bring me comfort.

“A friend loves at all times,
    and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” Proverbs 17:17

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” Romans 8:32

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