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

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

The end of chemo!

I am finished with chemo! My strength is starting to come back and I am celebrating the end of this phase in the battle. God is faithful and has given me all I have needed and blessed me with more than I could have imagined. I have had wonderful support and have experienced God in deeper ways as I have walked this path.

“The Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. The Lord upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down.” Psalm 145:13-14

I still have a few more weeks to regain strength before I have surgery and I plan to enjoy every minute of it!

Today I spent the afternoon with my daughter and her boyfriend at Lake Clementine. It was beautiful and relaxing. Floating on the water looking around at the gorgeous scenery, with the trees beginning to change colors, laughing and telling stories, it was just a lovely day.

New Challenges = New Blessings

When I wrote my last post I was about to start a new chemotherapy regimen and didn’t know what to expect. I had heard from other women who have braved this road before me that it should be easier. I can now say with much gratitude that they were correct. With this new “chemo cocktail” come new and different challenges. But more importantly I am learning that with each new challenge, God is faithful to show me new blessings.

Taxol, my new chemo drug, has the unfortunate side effect of bone pain. I have felt it most in my legs. A few days I was unable to move much from my couch and needed support just to cross the room. I say all this to highlight the difference between the first few days after chemo and the glorious blessing of God’s strength in the days that followed. While on the couch, I had the opportunity to pray more, to praise more, to dig deeply into God’s word, and seek His face. This is blessing in and of itself. Had I my normal strong legs, I may have missed this precious time. As the pain lessened and my strength grew I was happy to walk my dog and once again enjoy time outside in the warm Sacramento sunshine. 🙂

What came next was an unexpected blessing for which I will forever be thankful. My daughter and her boyfriend had signed up for a trail race in Lake Tahoe to benefit the Tahoe Cancer Center. (We all love Lake Tahoe and are avid skiers in the wintertime!) When my daughter’s boyfriend was unable to attend due to work constraints, Kate asked me to go with her to and spend the day at Squaw Valley, I could ride the tram to the top and wait for her to finish the 3 ½ mike trek from the base to high camp. It seemed like a lovely way to spend the day and I gratefully accepted the invitation. But by the morning of the race, my leg pain was gone and God had renewed my strength. So instead of sitting on the sidelines waiting for Kate, we walked the race together! 3 ½ miles straight up!! It was the most beautiful and challenging hike I have ever experienced! So thankful for time with my daughter, so thankful for God’s strength in getting me through this difficult time in my life and showing me every day that HE has I all I need, so thankful for the beauty of His creation. So thankful, just so very thankful.

The beauty of God's creation

I have chemo again today. I know what is ahead: more challenges, more blessings.

“I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.”  Psalm 18:1-2

We made it to the top!

From why to what and how…

It has been three months since I heard the doctor say, “You have breast cancer.” I think for most people when faced with a difficult diagnosis, major life struggle, or big disappointment the “why” questions come pretty quickly. “Why is this happening to me?” “Why now when life was going well?” “Why GOD are you allowing this?” “Why do some people get healed miraculously but not others?” “Why do people who put their trust in God, still die early deaths?” “Why is there so much suffering?” But as the days turned into weeks, I found the why questions just left me frustrated and in a negative mood.

A helpful shift for me was to start asking “what” questions. “What can I do during this time to encourage others as they face struggles?” “What are the hidden blessings in the midst of all this?” “What is GOD’S purpose for me in this?” “What lessons can I learn now that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise?” This shift in thinking has given me resolve and determination. Now I am energized instead of frustrated. Living in the what has been so much better than living in the why!

Another shift for me has been to the “how” questions. “How is God going to fulfill His promises to me?” “How is God going to be glorified in this time of struggle?” “How can I make the most of this time?” “How will I be different when this is all over?” I think the how questions are the most exciting. Instead of frustrated, I am expectant and hopeful.

I am not an expert theologian, but as I read God’s Word I think the Lord is eager for conversations with us. He longs for us to spend to time with Him and chat like we would with a good friend. I also think it is fair to ask God questions and even complain about our circumstances. I love the Psalms for that! But if the questions we ask lead us to a negative and bitter place, perhaps we need to ask different questions.

“This is what the Lord says–the Holy One of Israel, and its maker; Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands? It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled the starry hosts.”  Isaiah 45:11

I have for many years said to my students and my clients, “We are not in heaven yet, we can’t expect it to be perfect.” We are all part of the brokenness of humanity and will suffer many kinds of struggles in our lives. I think Peter said it best, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” 1 Peter 4:12

I have chemo this afternoon and because it is a new drug, I don’t know how my body will react. I had lots of questions for my doctor about this. But this morning I will spend time questioning God and I know He has all the answers.

What questions are you asking today? 

Good news, great news, and greater news

So the good news is I was able to have chemo last Thursday. Funny how being denied chemo for a day while the dermatologist checked on my skin issues was so infuriating and then being allowed to have the infusion with all the nausea, headache, and exhaustion is now good news!! But in this fight I don’t want to back down! So with that last infusion, I am now finished  with half of my chemotherapy. It’s always nice in a race when you pass the half-way point.

The great news is the biopsy from my blistered hand revealed it was just a reaction to the drugs and not one of the very scary diagnoses the doctors were worried about. My hands are much better, the stitches from the biopsy will be come out next week, and I am thanking God for his protection of my body as I submit it to the rigors of chemotherapy.

“Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, Be strong, do not fear, your God will come, He will come with a vengeance; with divine retribution He will come to save you.” Isaiah 35:3-4

Now for the even greater news—I had an ultrasound today to check on the effects of chemo killing the cancer and the tumor has shrunk by almost half!! Praise God for his faithfulness!!

Since I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in late April I have held on to God’s promises in His Word. Specifically Isaiah 53:5, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” One of the things I love about this verse, especially as someone battling cancer, is the verb choice and tense—are healed. Not may be, now could be, not someday possibly, but we ARE healed.

For the past eight weeks during chemo I was thanking God for healing me without seeing any healing. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1

The ultrasound today was a nice visual of what God is up to.   🙂

Another twist and turn on the chemo ride…

Sitting in the chemotherapy room today, passed my blood test, got hooked up to my IV, premeds are flowing to aid with the nausea and other side effects, but then got pulled in to see the doctor to check out the rash and blisters on my hands. After much discussion he decided I should see a dermatologist before continuing chemo. Just a precaution but he didn’t want to flood my body with those toxic drugs if I am having a serious reaction. Some quick calls to my dermatologist for an emergency appointment tomorrow, the IV was removed, and I was sent on my way.

Feeling disappointed because I thought I would have passed the half-way point today. Praying for a good resolution at the dermatologist office so I can have chemo tomorrow (feels kind of strange that I want chemo especially since I was trying to talk my mom into taking me to the zoo down the street from my oncologist today instead of to my chemo appointment!)

But it also reminded me of my reading this morning in God’s Word. I raise the war cry and say to cancer, “Prepare for battle, and be shattered! Prepare for battle and be shattered! Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted; propose your plan but it will not stand, for God is with us.” Isaiah 8:10

I am eager for the battle because I know I don’t fight it alone. “You are my lamp, O Lord; the Lord turns my darkness into light. With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall.” 2 Samuel 22:29,30

I can trust in God to get me through this. “It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights. He trains my hands for battle.” 2 Samuel 22:33-35

I will not back down because God is giving me strength. “I pursued my enemies and crushed them; I did not turn back till they were destroyed. I crushed them completely, and they could not rise; they fell beneath my feet. You armed me with strength for the battle; you made my adversaries bow at my feet.” 2 Samuel 22:38-40

Cancer’s goin’ down!!!

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