Full Circle

Just days into my breast cancer journey, I “met” Stacey online. Tonight, I met her in person. I was nervous as I walked up the front steps, but the moment she opened the door, it felt like we’ve been friends forever.

My husband and I spent the evening with Stacey and Joe, and had a wonderful meal. Good things are coming for this friendship. We all hit it off, enjoying one another’s company and getting to know each other.

Every step of this difficult path has been led by God. He has met every need, soothed every hurt, and walked alongside me. I have seen His face in the faces of doctors and nurses who have cared for me. I have heard His compassionate words through cards and messages from well-wishers and prayer warriors. I have felt His touch in the hands of those who have physically cared for my body.

God’s peace has indwelt me. God’s grace has sustained me. God’s love has surrounded me. So many of His servants have ministered to me in one way or another.

I have one surgery left, and quite a bit of maintenance before I can move on without cancer defining me. Even as I heal and gain momentum, I know I will never truly be able to leave this experience behind. It is my prayer that active cancer is in my past–never to return–but only the Lord God knows for sure.

It is also my prayer that someone reading this has been encouraged and felt supported through my experience. If even one person has seen the face of God through my words, this entire battle has been worthwhile.

My journey is changing now. Instead of heading for chemo, I’m heading for Wyoming and new adventures.

I am blessed, I am grateful, I am content.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the Lord O my soul, and forget not all His benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. Psalm 103:1-5 ESV

Stacey and Brenda

Sisters

Me: I really hate having no nose hair Stacey: I know, right? It sucks!! Never would have thought how important it was Me: Contrary to popular belief, it does have a function. Lol

This crazy conversation is proof that walking the same path with someone else is an amazing thing. When I have cancer-related things like this on my mind, Stacey gets it. Things I can’t really explain to other people are fair game with her.

My sister-in-law is another example of this. Our husbands have farmed together longer than either couple has been married. Over the years, when the guys have been busy calving or in the fields, or things have been stressful, we’ve understood one another and been able to support each other. When nobody else could relate to our long hours, lack of vacation time, and need to be flexible, we have had each other. She is of utmost importance in my life and has been for years. She is a treasure and her worth is far above rubies.

My husband and I are in Wyoming this week, looking at property and making arrangements for our move. We are in Stacey’s hometown. She’s not feeling well today and tomorrow we are both busy, so we have made plans for Wednesday. We have been in daily conversation via text since September, and the time is finally here to meet in person. I’m nervous. I don’t know why I’m nervous, I just am. What if I’m not what she expects? What if we don’t click in person the way we do online?

I have a feeling when we see one another for the first time, we will bawl like babies. What we have shared in experience this winter has bound us together. I know it will be fine once we get into the same room and get talking. I wish my sister-in-law could be here to share this moment. Two vastly different life paths, two incredibly different traveling companions. And I am so grateful for both. My life is richly blessed.

Thank you, sisters.

Proverbs 17:17 A friend loves at all times, and a brother [or sister] is born for adversity.

Normal?

Life is beginning to get back to “normal.” Although, normal as we left it in September is not normal as we find it in February. I am getting back on my feet and I’m now up more than I’m sitting. This is wonderful and I’m enjoying being able to cook, clean, and think straight.

A daughter came and deep cleaned my kitchen and some of my living area, since we have fallen so behind over winter and we are trying to ready the house for realtors. I’m not going to gloss over the fact that even on my best day my housekeeping is not stellar so she had her work cut out for her. We’ve always been busy and mess-makers with one project or anther, so house cleaning has never been top priority. Now, it has to be. Welcome, New Challenge.

Now that I’m on my feet more I’m realizing just how weak my muscles are, particularly in my legs. Beside the fact that I have been so inactive, this is a chemo side effect that could last months to a year. On flat ground, it’s only a problem if I am very tired. Stairs, however, are another matter. I’m grateful that we live in a single story house with just a few steps up to the entrances.

Stacey and I have been comparing notes (read: whining) about the muscle weakness. So far, if she has fallen, she hasn’t admitted it to me. I did fall a few days ago, off a kitchen chair. Other than a sore behind, I’m no worse for the wear and it served to remind me that caution is important, no matter what I think I can tackle. My attitude is “I’m done with chemo, let’s get back to living!” My body, despite its valiant efforts, isn’t there yet. I suppose this is another opportunity for me to learn patience.

Dad and I were discussing this last night, tongue-in-cheek. Feeling like every little thing has to be a life lesson when we would really just love a break to live and breathe and take it easy. How nice it would be to press the pause button and take a little time to catch up.

We both know, though, that human nature doesn’t allow pauses. We are always moving one way or the other. Life is never static for anyone. Even if the events of life seem to halt, the mind and soul continue to work and move. If we are not challenged to move ahead, we will default to sliding backward–to laziness and eventually giving up.

Some people find this challenge in the workplace, and become workaholics. Some find it in their children and nearly smother them, only to find one day that the kids are gone and they no longer have a purpose. Hobbies drive other people. Every spare moment can be consumed in learning the next skill or the next step. We all invest in something, whether we realize it or not. There is something that keeps each of us going, even if it’s unhealthy like addiction or codependency.

Faith is what keeps me hanging on. I don’t mean the “faith” that is trendy in home decor right now. I mean honest-to-goodness, I-KNOW-who-holds-tomorrow faith. I have a relationship with the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. I don’t know how I would survive life without Him. You see, when you put your faith in a career or people or charity work or hobbies, you are trusting in things that will one day be gone. All of those things are temporary and man-made. But when you put your faith in Jesus, all of those things take on new meaning and new life. They become tools rather than the goal itself. And when they pass away, as all things will, what remains is eternity in Heaven, where the real treasure lies. What we do during life becomes the short range plan on the way to the long range goal of eternity with our Creator, in a place where struggle and strife are no more. Tears cease, and suffering stops.

So while I struggle to learn patience, it’s just one little sapling in the big-picture forest. That fact gives me hope and perspective and keeps me willing to carry on, knowing that each day is gaining for me eternity. I can live with that.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 2 Cor 4:16-18 ESV

Wait, what?

A few days ago, I got a phone call from my clinic. It was someone from Radiation wanting to set up an appointment. It had to be a mistake, and I said so. She assured me that, no, she had the right person, and my oncologist had ordered this consult. I nearly lost it right there on the phone. She transferred me to my nurse navigator who promised to check it out and get back to me.

I got off the phone and freaked out. It makes me sad that I reacted with such lack of control and reasonable thought, but there it is. Radiation hadn’t been mentioned since October, when our decision to have double mastectomy instead of lumpectomy was made. With lumpectomy, radiation is a given. With mastectomy, it is very often not necessary. Since October, we have been under the impression that radiation is off the table.

The nurse navigator called back and confirmed that, yes, my doctor had ordered this appointment. It would appear that this is a way of closing loops, leaving no stone unturned. It is highly probable that the conversation will be to review the initial discussion, talk over what has transpired and where we are now, and determine that radiation is indeed not necessary. But. There is also a chance that, based on surgical pathology, it is still a precaution they want to take (I don’t know what we would be targeting–the tumor is gone and there was no cancer in my lymph nodes).

The element of surprise in this case was brutal. When this call came, I was newly excited about being done with the rough part of treatment, and was beginning to feel better overall. My oncologist had made no mention that he was requesting the appointment. This new development took the feet out from under me. I was instantly in despair and panic mode. “I can’t do radiation. Not now that I am finally on the mend!”

Then, a still, small voice inside reminded me wherein lies my strength. I remembered who holds me–who has held me from the beginning of this journey–who has held me all my life. If radiation is a road I need to travel, He will hold me still. Will I take it calmly and sitting down? Probably not. I am human, after all. Self preservation is part of my nature. But He will work me through that, too.

And so, until my appointment with Radiation tomorrow, I’ll continue surrendering to Him, and trying not to worry about the future. My prayer is that Larry and I will accept whatever recommendation is given and weigh it prayerfully. If God adds another leg to my journey, so be it.

But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” Psalm 31:14 ESV

Evening Out

It has been 11 days since my last chemo treatment. Though many of the side effects are still present and may be for months to come, some things are beginning to even out.

My mental clarity is better already, and this is a huge blessing. I’m beginning to be capable of thinking about plans for the day, what’s for supper, etc without feeling panicky and like I can’t connect two thoughts. Just the fact that every little thing overwhelmed me mentally has been difficult for everyone.

Emotions are evening out as well. Since the mama is the thermostat for the house, I see the overall mood and emotional state of the household improving even as my personal emotions stabilize. This is HUGE, especially for those in the house for whom emotions are uncomfortable and difficult.

I am able to be up and doing more and more each day. Bit by bit, normalcy is returning. We still have a long way to go, but every little ounce helps. The household has been in such disarray and this has been one of the most difficult seasons of life. I fight feeling guilt about this. After all, I am the one that had cancer. All of this difficulty, this rocky road, started with me. I look around and see the struggle of everyone in my family and know that they are fighting for a breath of fresh air–because of me. I know in my head that this is unreasonable–I didn’t volunteer for this. And yet, somehow, part of me assumes responsibility and feels at fault. Thanks to the grace of God, most days I am able to let that part go and remember that all of this was ordained and allowed, for a purpose. It’s not about me at all.

You see, when cancer hits, it doesn’t just hit the person who was diagnosed. When one person has cancer, everyone in the family has cancer. Friends have cancer. The church body has cancer. Why this disease is so far reaching, I’m not sure, but it is. And so I’m learning that my family needs recovery time, too. They aren’t done processing, feeling, and hurting. Some of them have barely started.

Up until now, I haven’t been capable of much more than tending to my own treatment and process. Out of necessity, I have been pretty centrally focused. Nobody faults me for that, and I don’t fault myself. It’s the nature of the cancer beast. Regardless of the prognosis, there is a certain amount of the cancer life cycle that is simply survived. Some processing can happen during that phase, but much cannot.

And so my prayer focus today is for my kids. I’m praying for them to see the grace of God through this dark cloud. I’m asking the God of all comfort and peace to overwhelm them and walk them through the process of their own healing, even as I heal. I want them to look back one day and see their mom’s cancer journey as a place of growth and change–a necessary refining fire in all of our lives. I don’t want them to look back in bitterness and anger. But that’s God’s business. All I can do is lay them at His feet and let Him do His work.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6 ESV

Hope

Two days ago, I woke up dreading, sad, weary. I was headed to chemo. Even though I “only” had two rounds left, I still had two rounds left. When each day is a long, hard battle, two weeks feels like forever. It was two weeks in which I knew I would continue to decline. This drug has had a cumulative effect on my body, and while the first couple weeks felt pretty manageable and not so bad, every week since had been harder than the previous.

Now, just two days later, everything feels different. Things are not very different, but my outlook is new so it feels that way. For the first time in treatment, I am nine days post-chemo. My last 10 Thursdays have been hard days–ones that I just planned on staying in my chair, dozing off and on, too wiped out to do anything even as simple as reading. Today, though, I have hope. This Thursday will be different. It already is.

Though I am tired from the activity of getting up and ready for the day, my mind is alert. I didn’t get up, get ready, and sit down in my chair to sleep. The cobwebs are beginning to clear some in my brain, and thinking simple things through is beginning to be less frustrating. I realize that the chemo recovery will take months, maybe a year, but I can feel small changes daily and I am embracing every little one.

I am so grateful that, though my hands and feet are far from normal, the intense pain and itching is less today.

I was able to clean my kitchen yesterday–though it took me all day, with many rests, I did it. I am making small, attainable goals with scheduled rests between each one. It is important to pace myself, and I know myself well enough to understand that setting the bar low is the key. For example, yesterday, I would set the goal of putting away the dishes in the drying rack and washing one sink full. It felt good to reach that goal, and though I needed to sit and rest then, I was okay with that because I had succeeded. Using psychology on myself, y’all.

One step at a time, one task at a time, one day at a time. That’s how I’ll manage this recovery. And you know, it’s not a bad philosophy for life in general. Make an attainable goal, reach it, rest. Repeat. I do understand myself well enough to know that if I’m not careful, small goals will become frustrating and I’ll get discouraged. That’s where the continued prayers of the saints around me come in. So many people are praying for me–lifting me up to the Giver of Life–that I’ll make it through this. If you’re one of those, I give you my sincerest thanks.

I’m off to read (yay!) my devotional and my Bible. That’s my next goal for the day. After that, I’ll make another, and another. Keeping my eyes on Him and each task before me, I’ll make my way through this day. It’s gonna be a good one.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Romans 15:13 ESV

The Next Leg

Chemo Day started out like all the others. I was exhausted before I left the house, and with the muscle weakness I’ve had, I’m sure many people I passed in the skyway figured my day had started out with a beverage stronger than coffee. I have a certain “swagger” lately.

I was scheduled to see my oncologist, due to fairly severe issues with my hands and feet. My feet have been feeling like I am walking on bunched up socks, and my toes and fingers have been severely itchy, burning, and painful. Several evenings this week I have sat holding ice packs, just to relieve my fingers. This is called “neuropathy,” and it is a side effect of the main chemo drug I’m on–Taxol.

We parked and hiked 2 blocks (literally) to the Cancer Center. After they accessed my port and drew labs, we waited semi-patiently for an hour to see the oncologist. I really, really appreciate this guy and his approach to medicine. He listens, he explains, he researches, he educates. I feel well cared for. And I could listen to him talk all day.

Anyway, after hearing my symptoms, he said that the Taxol had become toxic to my system and it needed to be stopped. Given that I’ve already had 10 weekly treatments, he determined that the best course of action was to stop the Taxol but continue the last two weeks of Herceptin. What does this mean? I AM DONE WITH CHEMO!!! I have had more than enough of the Taxol to achieve full efficacy, and the remaining Herceptin has no side effects. I cried right there in his office.

Yesterday I had no Benadryl, no Pepcid, no doxycycline, no Taxol. I took two Tylenol and had a 30 minute infusion of Herceptin. No heartburn. No restless legs. Piece of cake. Walk in the park. Last night, I wasn’t sleepless and manic. Today, my face isn’t red, rashy, and sore. It hardly feels like Wednesday.

My mind says “Hey, you’re done! Get up and be normal!” but my body says “Whoa, there. We have a long way to go.” Yesterday ended the tearing down and destroying of my cells. Today, we start the rebuilding. While the “hard” part is supposed to be done, somehow I feel like the actual hard part is just beginning.

It’s going to take time for my strength to return. Fatigue this deep doesn’t resolve overnight. Lord willing, the neuropathy will fade and disappear altogether, but there is a 25% chance at least some of it will be permanent. Over time, the weight will come off, my hair will grow back, and my complexion will clear.

I am not patient with myself, so this rebuilding process will be a challenge for me. I will overdo and expect too much. And so, a new leg of this journey is starting. Thankfully, the Lord will be patient when I am not. He will remind me to pace myself and to give myself grace. He will remind me that the road is long but there’s time. I’m sure my mother will, too.

I am over the moon excited to be done with chemo. I am so grateful for all the support I have had thus far, and for great medical care. Moment by moment, day by day, I’ll work my way back to health. And because my God does all things well, all of the prayer that has been offered up on my behalf will be answered. It already has been.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Help

There is a burden so heavy on my heart. Several people I love very dearly are struggling. The issues are huge and their frustrations are great. I want to help.

Sometimes, helping is offering a hand up. Other times, to truly be a help, God calls us to back off and draw boundaries. The latter is especially difficult and comes coupled with grief and guilt.

I have been on both sides of this. There have been times when those who love me have had to draw hard lines in order for me to see clearly where I was and where I was headed. Nobody feels like a winner at the time those lines are drawn. Years later, I can see the necessity and blessing of that process in my own life, and I’m grateful I was so loved. That doesn’t make it any easier to be the line-drawer now.

There have also been times when I have needed a hand up. I can see many instances in my past where people have offered me opportunities or gifts or loaned me time or money in order to get me back on my feet and give me a boost. My present circumstances are no exception. The helping hands we have received lately have been numerous and overwhelming. We are grateful.

Receiving help is a tricky thing. Pride often gets in the way, especially if help has been needed and received before. The enemy can get in the way of our joy in receiving, and make us feel guilty that we have needs yet again. That we still haven’t gotten it right and can’t make it on our own. The gifts can then become salt in our wounds and further proof that we have failed.

Isn’t it grand, then, that we serve a God of second (and third, and fourth. . .) chances? Isn’t it amazing that He sees where we’ve been, sees where we are going, and uses others to steer and direct us? He surrounds us with people who love us dearly and are willing to walk those roads with us, backing up and re-routing when necessary, because they believe in us and know we can succeed.

Even as I am burdened for these people I love, I understand that I am the person for whom someone else is burdened. I am the recipient of someone else’s prayers and help and guidance. Just as God has me in place to help, He has others in place to help Me.

He’s got this covered, and I can trust Him.

Remodeling

As I’ve gone through this cancer fight, I’ve had in mind a training metaphor. I truly have been in training, and not always a good learner. As I watch my husband work on some small remodeling projects, I see metaphors there, too. Since I am unable to help him, I have plenty of time to contemplate metaphors!

Over the last 10 years, we have been in one project or another, working on this old farmhouse (if you’re thinking I’m the old farmhouse in the metaphor–ouch! And yes.) We have run the gamut of remodeling, from simple paint jobs to changing the floor plan. Each project has been individual to this house, this room, this wall. Nobody else in the world has this same set of circumstances with which to work.

So it is with the Lord’s remodeling of people. Every person, every personality, every trait is different from anything anyone else is or has. And just as there is no shortage of people willing to advise about home renovation, there is also no lack of people offering suggestions about even the very private corners of others’ lives. Too often, I am one of these.

Generally speaking, when the floor plan is being changed, it’s pretty obvious to everyone around. It’s hard to hide exposed studs and outlet boxes. Onlookers see destruction and chaos, but it’s also clear that new and better things are coming, and that brings with it anticipation.

Though exciting, this is a long and weary process. Each step takes time and can’t be rushed if the desired results are to be achieved. This means crumbled plaster. Dust. Scraps. It’s a mess. And bit by bit, it starts to come back together. The mess gets cleaned up and new construction starts. Lumber scraps. More dust. Drywall mud. Paint. Trim. More mess. In the end, if the builders are patient, the result is well worth it. Though it’s been a difficult project, it finally looks clean and new, and the old is forgotten.

So it is when the “floor plan” of a life is changed. Sometimes this change is voluntary, but more often it is thrust upon a person by circumstances beyond his or her control. Illness. Divorce. Loss. All of these things cause a stripping down–an exposing of the very framework of someone’s being. The wiring and supports are in plain view. The dust and rubble can cloud the vision and obscure the end goal. This is an excruciating and vulnerable place to be. The whole world can see the process, and some doubt the job will ever be completed.

Everything changes, though, when the Master Builder is invited to the scene. Though He orchestrates every detail of every life, He is often not allowed into the process. People decide that He is to blame for their circumstances, and shut out the only One who can make beauty from the ashes. They continue on, unqualified for construction, and often abandon the project half finished. You know the people I mean. They are sad and lonely, and so full of potential–but afraid to continue on. They desperately want and need someone to invest in them and to introduce them to the One capable of making all things new. Sadly, many of us see the mess and turn away, unwilling to get involved.

At the other end of the construction spectrum is the touch up work–fresh paint here and there, and maybe a little patching. Often, we only see someone for their irritating habits or their apparent sin. We see dirty paint and hairline cracks. We walk past, silently judging what we think we see. How different would our community, our church, our family be if we were to invest the time in a little painting? Above all, love one another deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins. 1Peter 4:8 Does that mean we slap some paint on and ignore what’s underneath? Sometimes. Because sometimes, every one of us needs someone to just love us through a rough patch and not nitpick about our shortcomings. And very often, when a person is treated as the precious and perfect person God created, they rise to the occasion and live up to their potential.

I don’t know. These thoughts are half-baked. I’m thinking and processing as I sit, thinking of ways that I am on both sides of the remodeling process. While I am being worked-over myself, I am also alongside others under construction. I don’t want to be absorbed in my own project–I want to be aware enough of others that I can simultaneously walk beside and encourage them to not abandon the work.

Unless we are building, changing, growing, we are stagnant. Those are the only choices. We’re moving or we’re stuck. Lord willing, we aren’t moving backwards, though I suppose that is also an option. Open my eyes, Lord, that I may see Your work in others and be willing to be used in their lives. Keep me from being lost in my own process. Keep my focus on the Master Builder, the perfecter of my faith, and keep me grateful for those who walk alongside me.

Catastrophic

Seventeen years. That’s how long we have dreamed of moving to Wyoming. In the past year and a half, the opportunity has arisen to finally make this dream a reality, and we’ve been seriously considering it. Last fall, as we got closer and closer to a “yes” decision, Larry would often say “Unless something catastrophic happens, we will probably move.”

Cancer is pretty catastrophic. My diagnosis threw all our gears into neutral and put us in a holding pattern. We waited out the first several months, breathless, needing direction. Moment by moment, piece by piece, it came. And is still coming.

God said “Cancer is catastrophic. But I’m still bigger.” He is demonstrating His power and continuing to move in our lives, which includes moving our family to the state of Wyoming.

It’s a little daunting. No, it’s a lot daunting to be finishing up the active part of treatment while working to get a house ready to sell, finding a new property to purchase, dividing the farm, and packing a house all while having zero energy. Oh, and we have a grad party to throw the week before we leave. It’s all huge and it’s all simultaneous. And while leaving will be difficult, it’s all very exciting.

How all these pieces will fall together, I don’t know. There are so many things to arrange and figure out. But God has shown that He is in charge of all of this. He is leading. He is guiding and orchestrating. We just have to keep walking in the way He has shown, and all will be well and very well.

While so much uncertainty surrounds us, we have peace and confidence. We don’t know what our lives will look like in a year, but we do know we will remain safely in His hand. No catastrophe can change that. God is so much bigger than all these things. And we are grateful.