Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Many Faces of Breast Cancer

It was my very first day of chemo, nearly 5 years ago now, and John & I sat nervously in the waiting room.  A woman came into the room in a motorized wheelchair. It was hard not to stare at her and wonder what horrible form of cancer had ravaged her. She was missing both legs and one of her arms. Fortunately she still had one arm with which to operate the controls of her chair. As I recall, she had an oxygen tank too. In spite of all this, she was very nimble in getting around in her chair and was cheerful and talkative.

We chatted and she asked me what kind of cancer I was being treated for. I told her I had breast cancer.

"Oh, mine started out that way too!" she said.

John and I looked at each other and I tried not to let the shock and fear show on my face. Oh, NO, I thought, I JUST have BREAST cancer -- it's not that serious, and certainly couldn't do THAT to a person! I'm just going to have my treatments, then my life will get back to normal. This poor woman must have some different type.

I envisioned crowds of women in pink tee-shirts that you see on TV commercials for breast cancer walks. Everybody smiling and holding hands with their mothers. Surely these are the thousands of women who survive breast cancer -- not this woman before me in the wheelchair! Statistically, many women do have early stage, non-invasive, non-aggressive breast cancer and they do go back to normal lives following only minor treatment.

But then there are also women who can't make it to those walks. Their cancer spreads and their battles are difficult. Like the woman in the wheelchair. Our paths never crossed again and I don't know any more of her story.

It's been nearly 5 years now and "just" breast cancer has invaded my breast, lymph nodes, brain, and 3 times in my lung.

This is where I left off when I started writing this blog about a week ago, where my inspiration ran out. I just wasn't sure where this story of mine was going at this point, so I decided to leave it for awhile.  I was just finishing a rough course of treatment and dealing with side effects and a new, yet unidentified pain. As we waited for scan results, I braced myself for bad news, convinced it was more cancer and planning for whatever treatment would come next.

I talked with my cousin Ann who has been fighting her own battle with cancer for several years. She and I are kind of a mutual support team -- sharing our experiences, side effects, nausea, baldness, hats, fears, and prayers. Others can sympathize, but there's nothing like sharing with someone who's been through the same battle. Doctors had recently found that her cancer had spread -- a nodule in her lung -- and she was scheduled for a biopsy. It was not going to be a pleasant procedure and seemed to be just a formality, as the doctor was certain it was malignant. He told her any hope that it was NOT cancer was a "pipe dream." Ann and I talked about her planned chemo and my potential further treatments as well.

Rather unexpectedly, my doctor told me that my scan showed fractured ribs and not cancer. I was quite surprised, relieved, and yet cautiously optimistic. Over the next few days I began feeling better, my pain easing and my energy improving. It was wonderful, and when I told Ann about it I almost felt guilty. 

On the day of Ann's biopsy I woke up at 4 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep, so I decided to pray. I prayed that she would have peace about it, that she would be protected from fear, that she would have safe travels, that the procedure would go smoothly and that she would not experience pain. I prayed that the Lord would be at work through each doctor and nurse that would be working on her today and I prayed that God would guide each needle. I prayed that the results would be good and lead the doctors to good decisions about her treatment. I prayed for everything I could think of. 

Then I realized that I was praying as though the cancer was already a forgone conclusion.  I needed to pray for a miracle. I don't usually pray so specifically, but felt God was leading me to specifically pray that when they did the preliminary scan for the biopsy they would find there is NOTHING THERE! I knew it was impossible, but I prayed anyway.

A few hours later, I got a call from Ann who was then on her way home. The most amazing thing had happened.....

She had been on the table being scanned and heard the hum of the machine. Then a long pause. Then it hummed again. The doctors and nurses had left the room and left her on the table for the longest time. She started wondering why the delay and wondered if the cancer had spread more and there would be additional spots to be biopsied. Time crawled and her mind was going wild.

Finally the doctor came in and told her she was done and could go home. WHAT? The scan had showed the spot was completely gone. They were all buzzing about it and said they had never seen anything like it! 

Wow, it's so fun to see God in action! What I had felt led to specifically pray for was EXACTLY what happened! Here, just a week ago she and I had both been facing a fearsome enemy and heading into a dark time of sickness and struggle. Now, we both had good news, a bright hope, and miraculous healing! 
Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness.Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me.This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope.The Lord's loving kindnesses indeed never cease,For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning;Great is Your faithfulness."The Lord is my portion," says my soul, "Therefore I have hope in Him."The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him.Lamentations 3:19-25

Friday, May 18, 2012

Doctors, Nurses, and Others: The Ministering Hands of God

Once again, here I sit at my computer at 3 AM, although I long for sleep, and I really NEED to sleep, although my pillows are SO soft and inviting ..... still I just can't sleep when God starts prompting me to write. I sure wish He'd pick another time of day, though. Maybe it's natural that we hear Him more clearly in the wee hours when everyone else is sleeping, the TV's and noises of the day are silent. Okay, God, I'm all ears.

I've been thinking that if I had my life to live over again, I would choose to pursue a career in the medical field. This is because along my journey I have been so directly impacted by the many doctors, nurses, techs, and other medical professionals who have cared for me. NEVER DOUBT that you are the ministering hands of God -- just like in this picture. When I was young and considering a career choice I was scared off of the medical field because I was squeamish about needles and blood and such. How silly that seems now. If only I could meet my younger self -- I would slap me! I would so love to "pay forward" the kindness shown to me. What an awesome and direct way to minister to people's very lives!

I have just completed 4 weeks of daily radiation treatments and the wonderful ladies who treated me each day made it such a positive experience, in spite of the side effects I struggled with. They were always so cheerful and kind to me and just had a way of putting me at ease. God bless you ladies for the job you do!

There have been plenty of others, as well, such as the tech named Angel who I mentioned in an earlier blog. My chemo nurses are wonderful, skilled, and compassionate women. I can't even imagine how difficult and stressful their jobs must be, but their smiles and amazing care has made the difference in so many lives. I'll never forget the time they saved my life when I had an anaphylactic reaction. God has truly given them a gift for what they do.

Two women whom God has truly gifted are my doctors, Dr. Wu & Dr. Malek. Both are young mothers with families of their own, and yet such devoted instruments of God to the patients they care for. My oncologist, Dr. Wu, constantly fights for my life, and I can't think of anyone I would rather have fighting for me. I've had friends suggest, especially when my cancer came back, that I go to some special cancer center or seek out some new cutting edge treatment. But I know that Dr. Wu is an expert on all the latest treatments and is looking out for my best -- I couldn't get better care anywhere else! There have been times when she has sat and cried with John & I -- I know without a doubt how deeply she cares for me.

My primary doctor, Dr. Malek, is another amazing and gifted woman. How blessed I am that God brought her into my life! Her compassion and caring blows me away! As an example, just last Christmas day, I was sick and e-mailed her. Within an hour, on Christmas morning, she had answered me and called in a prescription for me -- saving my Christmas!

Unfortunately, I have also met a few who are at the other end of this spectrum and lack caring and compassion -- yet they are in this field anyway. I have seen the most hateful and heartless people caring for people in nursing homes, in the ER, and similar jobs. I realize that these are difficult and often thankless jobs and they require a special gift in order to be able to do it. People like this need to recognize that they simply do not have that gift and get out. The reason they are so unhappy in their jobs is that they are a wrong fit. Get out because you are hurting people.

I think I am a naturally compassionate person and I expect others' minds to work the same way mine does. This is why I am so completely blindsided when I encounter people who are void of compassion or morals. I've come across a few folks like this in hospital bureaucracy and also in medical insurance. I just cannot comprehend how someone can deliberately do things to delay treatment for a terminal patient or in some other way do things not in the best interest of another person's very life. Just can't get my mind around that. Part of me wants to say there's a special place in hell for folks like that, but I must say, Father forgive them and change their hearts as only You can.

I do an awful lot of praying whenever I go for treatments, tests, checkups, whatever and wherever. Prayer is free, easy, and powerful -- and I know we all need it! I pray for the guy in the parking lot, other patients in the waiting room, the nurses, the doctors.  I pray that God would continue to work through their hands to care for others, give them wisdom for the decisions they make, compassion for the people they treat. God bless them for the important work they do. They are truly God's ministering Hands.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Finding Strength

Sometimes people compliment me how amazing my strength is, but I just don't see it. Or, at least I can't take credit for it because I know I am not the source -- it is from the Lord. If you looked at all I've been through: all the chemo, radiation, surgeries, biopsies, scans, and the many varied side effects -- if you rolled them all together, then yes, they would be really overwhelming. But God has only given this trial to me in one-day doses, and He gives me strength one day at a time. Daily bread.

I wish I could say that my life has been a faithful walk, always close to the Lord, but it hasn't. Funny, when I read the Old Testament about the Israelites and how they seemed to go through cycles of walking close to the Lord then straying then coming back again -- I think, what's wrong with those people? Don't they ever learn? What knuckleheads! They should learn from experience how much more blessed their lives would be if they would just STAY close to the Lord.

Then I look at my own life and see it has been the same cycles. When everything is going smoothly in my life, I may go days or even weeks without spending time in prayer or reading my Bible. Everything's fine -- I can handle it, right? Then a problem comes into my life -- a sickness, job loss, death in the family, etc. -- that drives me back to the Lord. What a knucklehead! You'd think I would learn from experience!

Jesus taught us we should pray for "daily bread." I used to think this was just asking God to provide us with food for the day, but we should be looking to Him daily for nourishment and strength emotionally and spiritually as well.

I love the story in Exodus 16 (Exodus 16) in which God provides daily food for the Israelites. Every day (except the Sabbath) for the 40 years they were in the wilderness. What an amazing lesson in God's faithfulness and provision. It also reminds me not to multiply my suffering by worrying or borrowing trouble from the future, but to trust God one day at a time! He is my strength and my daily bread!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

I am beloved!

Battling cancer for 4 years has taken a toll on the reflection that greets me in my bathroom mirror. Slowly and gradually the woman that looks back at me has changed and I've had to admit I'm not who I used to be. I don't mean to be shallow and too focussed on external appearances, but when I look at the "before" and "after" it's hard not to feel melancholy for the younger, cancer-free version of me.

My head, although friends assure me I have a "beautiful, perfectly shaped" bald head, still lacks the thick head of hair I used to have.  Now I look at women with long hair (or for that matter, women with hair at all!) and in my mind I calculate how long it took for their hair to grow. I have only white peach fuzz now and lose that every time they change my chemo medicine. The woman in the mirror is often drawn and pale. Eyebrows and eyelashes are long gone and when I go out in public, that is probably what looks the most freakish about me -- I turn heads for a totally different reason than I used to.

One night I told John about how I missed my old reflection and how I felt I now looked absolutely HAGGARD. The next morning when I walked into the bathroom, John had taped a large, cut-out paper heart to the center of the mirror, and wrote on it "To Erin, the most beautiful girl I've ever known." What a guy! He made me feel so loved! I have moved the heart to the side of the mirror, but it still greets me with every visit to the bathroom, and somehow I am less bothered by the reflection in the mirror. I know I am loved, regardless!

This past week my son shared with me a video done by Mike Donehey of the group Tenth Avenue North in which he shares his inspiration for his song "Beloved." We watched it together and I learned the most incredible and beautiful lesson about God's love for me. What beautiful parallels there are between Jewish customs at the time of Christ, Passover, the Last Supper, and Jesus view of us as His bride or beloved!

According to custom at that time, when a man offered a woman a cup of wine and said "This is my covenant," he was proposing marriage:
In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” I Corinthians 11:25
She could then accept or decline. If she accepted, she was then referred to as "one who was bought with a price" (because he had to pay a price just for the chance to propose to her). He would then go away to prepare a place for her, an addition to his parents' house:
"In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.  If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also." John 14:2-3
When finished, he would come to get her on an unannounced day and time, calling her with the sound of a trumpet. Does this sound familiar? Check out the video here -- it's amazing

So, as Mike pointed out, Jesus is metaphorically proposing to each of us (all we have to do is accept the offer!), even though we are not just unattractive, but scripture says we are a sinful and unfaithful bride. He is preparing a place for me and is coming back for me! Even though the reflection in the mirror is haggard and imperfect -- Jesus still loves me and wants me!

I am beloved.