The New Normal

humility“You will find a new normal.”  I have heard the phrase many times, and in fact, I have said it to others in trying circumstances. The new normal seems like a goal, a hidden place where all things line up once again.  However, what no one talks about is the strong longing for the old normal…before.  Before my arms ached for a baby who was alive.  Before my husband changed to a different person.  Before the scars from cancer marred my body. We all have our befores. Before death. Before disease. Before dysfunction. They are right, you do adapt to the new normal and learn to cope with losses.  With each loss, I learn to deal with a different reality than I previously had to consider.  But that doesn’t stop me from grieving the old normal.  I know people who have endured unimaginable losses.  Many of them have sent me notes as my last two raw blogs were published.  Some are dealing with diseases and the limitations they bring.  Some have lost children and have gaping holes in their hearts the size of the Grand Canyon.  Some have walked through divorce and are facing single parenthood, alone and scared.  Some have lost friendships that have ruptured their souls.  Others have loved ones who have died, or children who have turned their backs. Dysfunction has claimed families to the point there is no reconciliation.  Abusive behavior of a spouse, a sibling, or a parent has caused self-doubt and condemnation to rise up. And still, people say, “You will get used to the new normal.”

I want to spit on that phrase because it denies the truth of the loss.  It says, ‘just get used to it’ or the other common phrase ‘just get over it,’ as if it is ME who is the problem, not the circumstance.  The root of the finding the new normal is acceptance of whatever the loss is.  I have never been one to blindly accept things until have understanding, until I work through what a monumental loss means to me.  I used to ask why, but I long ago realized that is the wrong question, because it leads nowhere and has no answer.  It leads me around in circles, taunting me in my attempts to sleep and it puts all the reasons for calamity firmly in my court.  I didn’t DO something right.  If I had been better this horrible thing wouldn’t have happened to me.

Instead of why, a better question is what now?  What do I do now that my life is no longer normal?   I am an optimist…or I try to be.  I look for the silver lining because there always is one.  But sometimes I wonder in trying to look on the bright side all the time if I sweep too much under the rug.  In my effort to avoid being a victim of my circumstances, have I pushed the perceived pain away, or I have I simply denied it exists? The problem with burying the hard stuff is that it doesn’t really go away.  You end up, in a place like I am in now, where the rug is mountainous thus preventing movement. It is time to pull it back and examine the pieces I have swept under there so I can be truly rid of them rather than just pretending they aren’t there.

It is times like these where I can relate to the Children of Israel in the desert.  Going in circles is tiring.  It brings out the worst attitudes.  We look at the provision of God for them and think, ‘How could they not see God’s hand protecting and providing for them?  How could they complain against him in the midst of the miracle of manna? What whiners they were!’  Now I am the one in the desert who cannot see the promised land.  Now, I get it.  How long will I wander?  How long will the promises be withheld from me?  I gather manna daily.  I have for nearly 30 years.  I watch the cloud, the hand of God, cover me and I see the pillar of fire light my steps. I depend on him for everything because I have no other choice.  I worship him in the desert, but I also do not understand why I must stay here.  If I were Moses I would have beat the rock to death out of frustration.  I can so relate to why he didn’t do what God told him to do. I am sure it felt good to hit that stone, and once he got started he just couldn’t help himself.  Meanwhile, the cynicism of the people grew to the point that once they got to the land, the giants loomed larger than God. The daily hardships overshadowed the promise.

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, it also clouds the eyes.  Hope becomes an enemy who never keeps a promise. The other shoe always drops, and the light just goes out internally as a means of self-protection. It hurts too badly to hope for a different normal.  The longing for milk and honey is overwhelming.  The loss of dreams never to be fulfilled is painful.  The dichotomy of those two is unbearable.  Instead, I find a “new normal” which denies my hurting heart expression.  I adapt.  I cope.  All while the mess under the rug gets bigger and bigger, until one day I am trapped in a room with a mountain that blocks my way out.  A day like today.  A day when life has to take a backseat to healing and where wholeness becomes a priority above all else.  A day when I decide to go retrieve hope from the old normal and bring it into the new.

I Am in Remission!

michelle-in-front-of-yonahRemission.  In Cancerland, it is a wonderful word.  A word which is coveted by every person in the chemo room, doctor’s office, hospital, or lab. It is every patient’s goal to hear that word, and every doctor’s desire to say it.  It means the diminution of the disease…the cancellation of cancer.  The origin of the word comes from the Latin remit; to send back or restore. Pardon me, but I like to imagine sending cancer back to hell from whence it came. For me, seeing life restored, after this dreaded disease tries to steal it, is a beautiful thing. Skin begins to glow again. The blood counts rise, resulting in energy and effortless breathing.  Hair returns in baby-like softness creating fluffy wavy curls.  The eyes lose their hollowed out appearance and regain sparkle. Bruises from the abuse of this disease, fade away.

Bigger than the physical changes are the mental/emotional ones.  The survival-mode-mentality fades, as the hope in the future is restored.  Gratefulness is the emotion of choice, and it bubbles up through tears and laughter at the same time. Every small detail of life is noticed and appreciated.  Colors are brighter, faces more detailed, trees more beautiful, family more loved, the sun shines brighter, and every single thing seems to be pulsing with life.  It is a fabulous feeling to be a part of the heartbeat again, instead of feeling life ebb away daily.  Healing, health, wholeness all collude together to bring hope and happiness.  All this because of one word.  Remission. What a glorious term.  To say ‘I am in remission’ is to say ‘death did not take me, I am alive!’  It is a defiant word which is said with heartfelt conviction and all the hope of the future behind it, while standing tall and breathing deeply of life. It is a proclamation that requires an exclamation point!

I am sure my understanding and experience of that word and the emotion intertwined within it are the reasons it jumped off the page at me this week as I was reading in Matthew 26.

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sin.  But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” Matthew 26:28

Wait.  What?  Remission of sin?  The diminution of the death-causing disease, the cancelation of the cancer of sin. When Jesus remitted sin, he sent it back to hell from whence it came.  He restored life.  This passage is about his last meal with his friends and he knew it.  He knew the bread he broke and the cup he poured, represented his body and blood which were about to be riddled with sin-disease.  He knew the pain that would come just hours after this meal.  He knew the life would drain from him, because sin-disease would ruthlessly steal it, pull out his hair, drain his blood, zap his energy, rip his skin apart, bruise his body, and ultimately stop the life flow.  He would no longer feel the pulse, and life would ebb out of him until it stopped his heart. (He also knew it would not stop his resurrection or ours, but that is next week’s blog.)

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He painted the picture for them, even though they were unaware.  Bread made from crushed wheat, wine made from crushed grapes. Ingested, or I should say, infused. To fill or pervade; to soak in healing properties. Jesus became the chemo.  His body and blood the medicine, to rid us of the sin-disease that was killing us. He submitted himself to sin in order to bring us the antidote.  He is the cure that brings our glorious remission.  When we submit to this infusion of his life, everything is brighter.  Hope is fanned into full flame.  Life pulses into us through gratefulness…to be free from disease, to be whole, to be healed.  Tears fill our eyes even as we laugh with joy at our great fortune.  What was killing us, riddling our lives with death and stealing from us, has been reversed and sent back.  We are restored to health because the disease has been cancelled. Forgiveness is ours and so too, freedom from death.  We stand, breathe deeply of life and proclaim “Because of Jesus, death did not take me and I am alive.”  We are infused with his crushed body and blood which results in our healing. Our heart cries out for all the world to hear, “I am in remission!!”

Beating the Odds

michelle-yonah-33-of-33I have always hated math.  It is no secret. Anyone who has known me for any length of time can tell you.  I regularly communicate to my students that when I was a kid, I used to pray to God every night to take away multiplication. I distinctly remember this prayer, because it was one that he never answered.  Instead, I tell the kids, I had to be diligent and study hard to learn the tables by memory.  I do not say to them that I didn’t finally get all of the answers memorized until I was a fourth grade teacher!  My aversion to math is deep, so when I was diagnosed with cancer and percentages were tossed around I cringed…more at the numbers than the cancer. I had two types, ovarian and uterine. Two…that was simple math…even I can count to two.  I also knew that 50/50 was an equal chance between two outcomes, because everybody knows that. When they gave the survival rate for my types of cancer, my mind had to work.  If 85% don’t survive, then what is the percentage of those that do?  In case you are also bad at math; the answer is 15%.  Not such good odds…but I beat them.

One thing about Cancerland is that it is a place of statistics.  Measuring things is something all the researchers do, so almost every stage of your journey has numbers attached to it.  Because of my aversion to math, I avoided all those percentages as much as possible.  I didn’t know until years later that only 1 in 10,000 are diagnosed in stage 1. You’ve heard of people being one in a million? Well, I am one in 10,000. 🙂 I also didn’t know that nearly 100% of ovarian cancer patients have a reoccurrence of their cancer in the first year after treatment. I had heard that the number is reduced each year you survive.  But still, to me, 87% still seems pretty high a number of ovarian survivors who have a reoccurrence before 10 years is up.  I preferred not to know these statistics.  Or to pretend I didn’t know them.  Some competitive folks like to know the numbers so they know what they are up against, and that is fine for them, but not me, I have never been a competitive person.

The thing is, if I am honest, fear becomes a companion when you go into Cancerland.  It does not leave you after treatment, either.  It hides out in the corners of your mind in the shadows where the boogey man lives…only cancer is a real monster, not imagined. At any point it can rear its ugly self and you are right back in the very real nightmare.  It is enough to cause anxiety for even the most fearless of people.

However, today I am putting the fear away.  Today is my 10-year-cancer-free-Michelle’s-alive-day celebration.  Today numbers are my friend because I beat the odds.  Today percentages matter.  I become a regular person who has the same odds as any other person.  I am no longer at a higher risk to get ovarian cancer again.  It is a day for dancing.  And smiling.  And being light hearted.  A day to put the percentages of getting other types of cancer aside and to walk in the healing that belongs to me. Today I am 100% a miracle!

Me and My Friend Bev

 

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I had a delightful afternoon with my childhood friend Beverly yesterday.  We hadn’t seen each other face to face in many, many years. However, over the past few, we have bonded on Facebook through our shared Cancerland experiences.  It was good to finally get to hug her neck long and hard, and to catch up on life with her and those who came out to see her while she is in town.  Memory lane.  Always a fun place to visit.
On my way home I remembered a story from long ago, somewhere around 1979, at Camp Waco. (Which we pronounced Wacko.) We always went to youth camp in the summer, and Georgia, in the summer, is a very hot place, especially without air conditioning in camp cabins. It is so hot, in fact, that you never cool off.  One afternoon, a few girls were determined to try.  We took cold showers.  We dried our hair for 3 minutes at a time, which took an exceptionally long time since all of us had long and thick hair.  We stayed on our bunks under the fans for a bit to avoid moving too much.  We dowsed ourselves in baby powder to absorb the inevitable sweat that would return as soon as we stepped out the door back into the sun. It kind of worked.  We were cool for the first time in a week. Eventually, we decided to go back down to WATCH the shaving cream battle that was scheduled for the afternoon.

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We were standing there laughing at the shenanigans, when suddenly we were grabbed and pulled into the fight against our will.  I do not remember who, I only remember grabbing hold of a tree to try to avoid being drawn in.  At some point, resisting was futile and we joined in completely, knowing that all the work to stay cool would be lost.  We hoped the hose to wash off the shaving cream would at least be cold water, but alas, it had been sitting in the sun all day, so a hot water rinse was all we got.  The moral of the story: Often in life, the unexpected happens and disrupts your plans, but you just have to go with it and find the fun despite the discomfort.

There was no way, at that time, that Bev and I could have known that in the future we would once again be pulled into another battle against our will. Now, rather than our desire to be clean and dry, our desire to live bonds us.  We have walked through Cancerland from our different regions of the country and are walking still, because once you are a citizen in this place you remain one.  Whether treatment is passive or active you will always be a cancer patient.  Bev has been in the active battle for 4 years and fought hard, with the help of 9 chemicals and radiation, for the remission she now possesses.  Treatment to retain this state is a constant in her life. Maintenance chemo they call it. Daily, weekly, and monthly. Three chemicals. I call it torture.  Yet, she has such a positive countenance that she glows. All that effort keeps her alive, and that fact makes it bearable.  Her eyes sparkle with love of life and her smile lights up the room.

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She recently turned 50, and is overjoyed to have made it.  Living fully has become her priority.  That is the silver lining of Cancerland…new priorities.  She set herself a goal to backpack into 5 national parks and camp for a week, all within her 50th year.  She has two under her belt already, and her photos are stunning in their detail. The wilderness is alive, and when you go there you feel alive too, which is something we cancer survivors like to feel. The life draws you to go deeper in because it pours hope into your soul. Breathing in fresh mountain air is the way breathing was intended to be, or so it seems.  In any case, the freedom to go and to breathe, is a gift. One fully embraced by my friend, Bev.  She is an amazing woman.  She inspires me.  She may kill me for writing this, but it takes a heroic effort to do what she is doing.  The courage, the tenacity, the ability to laugh, and the peace that hovers over her are testaments to her love of life and of God.

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The battleground has changed since 1979, we are no longer playing with shaving cream in the hot Georgia summer…but the moral remains the same: Often in life, the unexpected happens and disrupts your plans, but you just have to go with it and find the fun despite the discomfort.  Beverly Stripling is my survivor sister and she is kicking Cancer’s butt!

Work of Art

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I plug in my wax.  While I am waiting for it to warm, I open my windows wide to let in the light and out the fumes.  I turn on my fans.  They create a breeze.  I choose my music and let it flow into my studio.  I gather my brushes, my paper, and my imagination.  The smell begins to call to me.  It is honey and birthday candles.  It wafts through the room and draws me to my palate.

A blank page sits before me.  Always.  I cannot decide where to start.  I am astounded and perplexed as to how art gets made.  I look at the page and I see nothing.  Yet, there is something.  Picking up the brush, I decide not to decide.  Just to go.  No thinking.  Only feeling.  I put my hand to the page and the brush slides across the paper. The trail of clear molten wax shines, then dulls as it cools.  Another stroke, another trail until the whole page is filled.  A foundation laid.  For what I do not know.

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Now for the fire.  The torch hisses as I move it across the page.  It is a dragon licking the wax until it shines again.  Fusing molecules together.  Creating a bond.  Then off, so the cooling can happen. I have to be careful, because here is where I often get stuck.  Here is where hesitation can put a nail in the coffin of creation. Too much thought pulls me out of the flow, too little makes a mess of the foundation.  I tune into the music.  Pay attention to the breeze on my face. Soak in the act of creating. I inhale the smells of honey and wax.

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Next, is color. The choice is random.  Whatever color pops out at me.  It goes on top of the first layer smooth as silk.  It is riding the glass smoothly.  Gliding really, in whatever direction I choose.  The heat of the iron is the fusing of my choice this time, because I love to see the wax smear into organic patterns.  It pushes away from the heat of the iron and clings to cooler places.  Just like me, the wax tries to avoid the fire…and just like me, it is fused and bonded because of it.  The result is layer upon layer of colors which blend in unexpectedly beautiful ways.

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I add in leaves or papers or fabrics.  Embed them. Randomly, on a whim.  Or what feels like a whim.  I use intuition to bond items into the wax.  My eyes tell me where. Where to tear and add texture.  Where to let the smooth parts stay.  My gut says when to add more or when to stop. It is the stopping that is hardest.  Wondering ‘Is it finished?’ is the most common question. I have ruined many a painting by continuing past stop.  It is the act of laying down all expectations of what is supposed to be, to what is.  Just let it be what it is.  The hardest part of all.

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The whole process is a metaphor for life, which is why encaustic is my medium.  I can touch the pain and see it bleed into something beautiful.  I watch the layers build upon one another, just like the years.  They pile up, each adding to those underneath.  Each bringing its own contribution.  Some are lustrous, others are flat. Some are smooth as glass and others are nothing but textured tearing.  Taken separately each year stands alone, but combined they create a beautiful life.  A life to celebrate.  The smell of candles reminds me of birthdays.  Every candle a symbol and a reminder that life is fragile.  That burning brightly is a better option than being snuffed out, and that both are possibilities.

I am reflective because it is my 53rd birthday and I have been afforded with 10 extra years…borrowed time.  A second chance to take the colors and fusing, the smoothness and texture of life and allow God to create a beautiful work of art.  Growing older is a gift. A present to be opened with great reverence and appreciation.  I do not know when it will be complete, this painting of my life, but I plan to make the most of it until the artist says, “It is finished.”

Double Trouble

butterfly_ovarian_cancer_ribbon_samsung_galaxy_s4Ten years ago on this date, I heard some extremely scary words. “You have diabetes.” and then “You have Cancer.”  The D word and the C word, said within one breath of each other. My world was turned upside down in that moment. Death came to taunt me and Fear took up residence in my mind.  I would be lying if I told you anything different, and though Death has gone for now, Fear still has a room in the back of my mind where it camps out between doctor’s appointments.

This is not to say I don’t have faith, because I do.  I can assure you that I am a walking miracle, and I know this is because God held me up through some of the darkest days of my life.  Traumatic days.  Difficult days.  Days that I never wish to repeat…hence the fear.  However, even in the midst of the churning-gut-nervousness of those days, I knew I was being held in the palm of his hand no matter the result…live or die.

I count this date as my Diagnosis Day which is different than my Cancer-Free day in January. Today is more somber for me, whereas January is a party.  This is a day of reflection.  A time where I walked trembling into the unknown.  A season of day to day survival with no guarantees. A place in which trying to believe was the best I could do.  I would not say I was strong in this faith I was clinging to.  I would say I was carried through and hoping that I would make it to the other side of the battle intact.

I have come a long way in these ten years.  I feel better than ever and have energy galore. I have found my food, and I am down 50 lbs. so far, which has reversed my Diabetes!  Between now and the January anniversary of 10 years cancer free, I have several doctor’s appointments.  Check-ups…like a 10,000 mile tune up with my cancer team.  Yes, even after 10 years I still have a team, because once a cancer patient always a cancer patient.  Fear is so far in the back of my mind I am barely quivering at this next round of testing.  The confidence of good results for the past 9 years mask any thoughts that spring to my mind as needles dig, and pictures are made.  I push the memories out as I breathe the hope in.

These diseases taught me not to take my health for granted. Not to assume tomorrow will come.  Not to put things off until “some day.”  Movement=life.  Natural foods=life.  Attitude=life.  To live fully has been my motto from that time to this.  I do so by allowing myself the freedom to live.  I do things that give me life.  I practice self-care. I hike.  I do art.  I spend time with people who help me thrive.  I love my family and my friends who hold me up in good and bad times.  I celebrate every milestone. Even the 10 year ones. Especially those.

My Friend Marcia

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I met my friend Marcia at a Relay for Life event at which I was the speaker. After the telling of my survival story she came to me and said, “You need to come to my support group. We need some young ones like you.” I was 43 at the time I was diagnosed with both uterine and ovarian cancers. Not what I would call a spring chicken, but the average age for gynecological cancers is 65, so in a support group for these cancers I would indeed be the young one. I took her card and put it away in my purse.

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The next month she called to see if I was coming. I was not. The next month she called again…and the month after…and the month after. If you know Marcia at all you know she is a bulldog. I say that with the greatest affection. I guess I hesitated because I was nervous and was unsure what you do at a cancer support group. I pictured a sad and depressing place where everyone is old and sick and dying. Eventually, I figured she wasn’t going to give up and I went to my first meeting of the Northeast Georgia Women Surviving Cancer Support Group. I couldn’t have been more wrong about what the group would be like. When I left that day I was more encouraged than sad. The strength and tenacity. The laughter…yes I said laughter. The insight and humility. These women, some survivors and some still fighting, were amazing. They were all ages…I was not the only “young” one there. All different types of cancer. All backgrounds. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. Each one told her story briefly and I told mine. I cried my way through, and they hugged me with their eyes. It was a place to be heard. I felt understood, and other women who “got it,” validated my painful battle. The empathy was the most touching thing I had experienced throughout my journey in Cancerland.   It was inspiring really. And beautiful.

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After two months, I was all in to support Marcia in her desire to help women with cancer. The women in that group became “our” women. Make no mistake…Marcia did all the work, setting up, facilitating, gathering food, making phone calls, putting out flyers and cards…all I did was show up and lend support. What amazed me so was her energy and heart to reach out to women who were suffering. She went into the chemo labs to hold hands and bring encouragement. The support group was an extension of her chemo lab ministry, an arm connected to her hands of service. It was like a longed for hug that allowed cancer patients to rest. A space of safety and understanding where weakness was comprehended and strength was celebrated.

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Over time we lost a few members to the disease, and Marcia walked with them to the edge and gave them a place to speak their last beautiful words of encouragement. Live in the moment. Love completely. Do not waste your life. We wept with them and prayed over them. We knew that at any time we could be one of them. That is the reality of Cancerland. No sugar coating, no denial. The mutual respect of one another’s journeys was an exquisite treasure that only a group of fellow sufferers could fully grasp. There was great dignity among these women, and having a disease that steals your dignity, it was a sacred act to find it again.

Though there were plenty of tears, not all was sadness, because while cancer tries to steal life…it also gives it. God takes what the enemy means to destroy us and turns it to good. Only in a support group can you joke about losing your hair, and share wig/hat/scarf tips. Only in a support group can you compare the crazy stories about what people tell you will heal your disease. (Honey and baking soda? Really?) Only in a support group can you share tips about how to make the dye you have to drink before every scan taste better. We became a community. A precious, loving, caring, community with shared experiences…the wind beneath the wings of one another. Without Bulldog Marcia and her endless boundless passion that would have never happened.   The space would not have been created and sustained.

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Last month we had our last meeting of the Northeast Georgia Women Surviving Cancer Support Group. There were some changes in HIPPA laws that disallowed visiting women in Chemo labs. I can tell you that it broke Marcia’s heart. She felt as if her ministry had been stripped from her. The numbers of women in the group dwindled over time and eventually dried up all together. Even her bulldog tenacity was put to the test. We are both grieved that the end result of the situation was the dismembering of such a powerful group. Yet, in true Marcia style, she recognizes the seasons are changing. Nothing lasts forever, and there are other places to direct your passion. There is always a need for passionate bulldogs somewhere. I love this woman and her energy. God has used her zest for life to pour out life to others. To show that cancer does not have to steal your spirit. That even when you are challenged and weak physically it does not mean your spirit has to quit living. She has inspired many, many women as they travelled a hard road. That can never be taken from her. It feels odd to say the group is over, and while we grieve the loss of something so beautifully inspiring, we also set our eyes forward to the next place of passion that God has up ahead because there are always new seasons of grace.

I thank God for Marcia Price and her humongous heart of compassion. I ask him to bless her abundantly. That he would give her peace and the understanding that what she did mattered and matters still. That the women she ministered to were and are better because of her heart to follow God. That her tenacity would not be shaken and that her boldness would shine forth. That whatever her new season of grace entails that she would come to it with her full bulldog self…who God created for his own purpose to spread his glory. Much love. Much grace. Much peace. Cover her Lord with your presence…fill her with your spirit…surround her with your grace. Amen.

Elephant on My Back

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Nine years ago today I had an elephant on my back. Literally. Well, it was a stuffed elephant, and it was really more around my shoulders…but still. It felt like a real elephant. It was an orange fuzzy scarf with a smiling elephant face on one end, and though it was not heavy, the weight I imagined it carried might as well have been a ton. You see, this elephant lived in the chemo room.

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Week after week, month after month of treatments take their toll. The hair was long gone, the blood was weak at best, and I won’t even try to tell you about the side effects of poison pumping into your body regularly. The whole process was heavy, exhausting, emotionally draining and physically destructive. Carrying the weight of your world on your shoulders is impossible on your own, but cancer patients do it everyday because while you have a whole support system around you, you are the one in the chair.

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That’s why I think it was appropriate that the ‘elephant in the room’ was designed to be a reward. The last day of chemo, that elephant sat on my shoulders smiling until the last drop of poison was in. Then the whole room applauded as the elephant was removed. Pictures were taken…which I have intentionally lost…cheering and congratulations were offered by all. Goodbyes were said to the nurses who saved my life and the other patients with still unknown futures.

Everyone in that room secretly envied the elephant…coveted it really. I think because you never knew if you would get to have it, which made it even more desirable…a silly goofy treasure of enormous value. It seems to be a last day, but in reality it is a first. The first day of the rest of my life…however long that is. It was a day I mark as a day of celebration. The day I decided to live fully…from that day forward.

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And so, today on the anniversary of that day, I went hiking on Mt. Yonah. Not to the top, just partway up to meet up with some friends, but still, up a mountain. I hadn’t considered the significance of the day until I was climbing in the quiet. A solitary climb on my own…a time of reflection to soak in the beauty of fresh air and the freedom of movement. A day to remember. Fighting cancer was a big mountain to climb. I never knew if I would ever climb a “real” mountain again, but I do…regularly. Each one is a marking of a life lived well. And what a gift it is to have the ability to do so. A gift that I treasure and celebrate on this day.

And as I left the mountain, on Michelle’s Alive Day, I heard a song that was my mantra during my cancer ordeal. In Christ Alone. I could not sing/hear this song without weeping. The last verse still gets me every time. And today particularly, it caused my heart to explode with gratitude and my eyes with tears.

In Christ alone my hope is found,

He is my light, my strength, my song;

this Cornerstone, this solid Ground,

firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

What heights of love, what depths of peace,

when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My Comforter, my All in All,

here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone! who took on flesh

Fullness of God in helpless babe!

This gift of love and righteousness

Scorned by the ones he came to save:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,

The wrath of God was satisfied –

For every sin on Him was laid;

Here in the death of Christ I live.

There in the ground His body lay

Light of the world by darkness slain:

Then bursting forth in glorious Day

Up from the grave he rose again!

And as He stands in victory

Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me,

For I am His and He is mine –

Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,

This is the power of Christ in me;

From life’s first cry to final breath.

Jesus commands my destiny.

No power of hell, no scheme of man,

Can ever pluck me from His hand;

Till He returns or calls me home,

                 Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand. I’ll stand.

Reminder

IMG_9673I love the beach.  I love the Song of the Sea and I long to hear it.  But sometimes there are voices in my head that drown it out. I think most women know these voices. They come from my own head as I put on my bathing suit and step outside.  They are the body image voices that are engrained deep within us from a lifetime of being compared to magazine pictures.  We have come to think of those voices as part of us, but a few years ago, after my cancer, I realized that these voices do not belong to me. They are the voice of the enemy who tries to crush women. Instead of bullying my body, I decided to love her. Let me tell you it set me free to view her in a different way, and to recognize the voice of the enemy when I hear it.  It is the trips to the beach that try to pull me away from why I came and encourage me to bully her once again.  When that happens, I pull out this letter I wrote a few years ago…and I read it…over and over…and I remind myself that she is beautiful as she is. You might want to write one of these letters…it will change the way you SEE.

My Dearest Body,

First I need to ask your forgiveness. For most of your life I have regaled you, called you names, treated you horribly, and hated the sight of you. I thought of you as my enemy, keeping me from living the dream life of a skinny person. (The pretend ones they show on TV.) I have starved you, gorged you, worked you half to death, and sat without helping you at all. It has been a roller coaster ride in which I have made all the calls and you have done your best to comply. I have thought your face was too round, your freckles too noticeable, your double chin embarrassing. I have complained about your wide hips, thick thighs, and flabby arms for as long as I can remember. I never stopped to consider that your hips made it easy to birth my four children, your thighs keep me upright and walking, and your arms have carried everything from groceries and laundry to puppies and babies. No, in fact, I have never stopped to consider you at all. If you were another person, and I treated them like I treat you I would be considered an abusive bully. This saddens me more than I can say. I fell for the lies of the society we live in, hook, line and sinker. That makes me feel incredibly stupid now that I am nearly 50 years old. How could I have not seen it before now? The good news is that I did see it!

You are beautiful.

It took being bald, with no eyebrows, nose hair, or eyelashes. Translucent skin, sunken eyes, with a hole in my gut and bruises all over my body, scars abounding, and needle tracks in my hands and arms. Cancer taught me about how amazing you are and how wrong I had been about you. It took melting down in a dressing room in front of a mirror…horrified at the sight of you…for me to see the true you. It took my husband holding me and telling me how beautiful you are and pointing out each scar as a mark of victory. It took him wiping my tears, and holding me up in the midst of the painful reality…I do not know you. I have only seen you through the lens of perfection taught to me by airbrushed pictures and half-starved women. I had not seen you through the eyes of love until that day, because I had never loved you, but my husband had. Hearing his words, while seeing you in that mirror shifted something inside of my mind. I saw beauty in a whole new way. So now, I want to thank you and to tell you how much I love you.

I love that you were strong enough for me to be an active child. I love that your feet and legs carried me into the woods, down mountains, and onto horses’ backs. I love that your eyes have brought me so much pleasure in the colors of the sunset, and the words on pages. I am grateful my ears could hear the words I love you, from those I care about most. I love that my lips can feel the cold of an ice cream cone or the heat of a passionate kiss. I love how pleasure is one of the gifts you have given to me and my husband. Your inward parts nurtured five children. The first you held as long as you could and I love you for trying so hard to keep that precious baby. The other four you would not let go of until their appointed day. What an amazing body you are…knowing exactly what was required of you to introduce me to my children. Then feeding them, nurturing them, and bonding with them as they nursed at your breasts. You are Life Giving.

Your hands have patched up boo-boos, wiped bottoms, and held others in times of trauma and crisis. You have strong hands. And shoulders. You have carried much on your shoulders some of it has tried to crush you. I am sorry I have let the weight get so heavy. I am sorry I did not know how to lighten the load. You fought valiantly when disease came to destroy me. You did not give up even though you felt like crap most of the time. I love that your blood tried so hard to renew itself because you know that the power of life is in the blood. Your bones ached they tried so hard to make more. Your organs freshly washed from surgery where they cut you up, continued to work beautifully. Your heart, being pumped full of poison, continued to work knowing that its job was critical to eradicating the cells that revolted against me. Thank you. Without your hard work I would not have made it through.

So now you are disfigured from the fight. Muscles were severed that mean it is not likely that your stomach will ever be flat again. Your tissues have been compromised along with your cartilage. You are weaker now than before in many ways, but now I see. I know how much you love me and how you have tried to care for me. Now that I know, I am going to try to care for you too. I am going to love your sagging breasts because they have served my family well. I am going to love your face as it is, and your fine, limp, thin hair simply because you have some. I am going to be grateful for my bionic knee because you have accepted it as part of you and made it work to the best of your ability. I am going to love your weathered hands because they can still hold the hand of another and bring comfort. I am going to love your rolly-poly stomach because it carried my children, and fought heroically when disease tried to ravage it.

I will love you by not calling you names any longer. I will love you by eating and drinking things that will only bring you life. I will love you by not taking on more than you can handle any more. I will love you by moving you, making sure you have plenty of fresh air, and working all your parts in healthy ways. I will love you by loving others and letting them love me. I will receive your love, Body…your hard work to keep me alive…I will cherish what you do for me daily. I will remember this love when I am tempted to slip back into my old ways of bullying you. It is my promise to you and to God who created you to love you as he does and to care for you as if you were the only body I have…which of course you are.

You are the home of my soul, and the abode for my spirit…the True-me. You house me and allow me to move about this planet. True-me abides within you and for that I am ever grateful. Thank you Body, for making a resting place for my spirit and giving me physical attributes with which True-me connects with the world. Thank you for my mind that allows me to think and process. Thank you for my emotions, which sometimes feel roller coaster-ish, but mostly give me a heart that is tender because it is bathed with tears that flow from your eyes. Thank you for giving my spirit a place to grow and to become one with the Holy Spirit who dwells within you as well. You are an amazingly strong body. One day you will no longer be able to do this job and on that day I will be free to fly…but not before I say thank you, Body.

I love you. You are beautiful.

Michelle

Nine Years Ago Today….

I have two dates I make note of each year. One is July 7th, the other is Jan.2nd. The first is the date I was diagnosed with ovarian and uterine cancer and it is a more solemn occasion, a day of reflection. The second is the day I became cancer free… a celebration. I am asked why I mark my diagnosis date in this way, and I reply with ‘it was the day that changed everything.’ Here is the story of that day.  

IMG_9733Nine years ago today…

I remember the exact place I was when I heard the words, “You have cancer.” What the office looked like, the face of the doctor, the reaction of my husband will be like a snapshot that can be recalled in an instant. For me, it was a doctor’s office examining room. I was sitting in a chair and Bill was standing by my side. The doctor had called earlier in the day and asked me to come in following a procedure to remove polyps from my uterus. I knew in my head it probably wasn’t good, hence I asked my husband to come along. I figured when a doctor calls you and asks you to come after office hours on a Friday afternoon it cannot be good.

“Let’s not borrow trouble.” my husband said. “It may not be bad.” In reality, he was as scared as I was when we drove into the parking lot and climbed the stairs. So we held hands, in mostly silence, while we waited for the doctor. She was in quickly and started with “There are a couple of things we need to talk about.” The first one? Diabetes. It seems my blood test came back showing some glucose issues, but I had a feeling the other shoe was about to drop when she said, “But we are going to put the diabetes on the back burner for a minute.” I knew then. My heart knew. There is only one thing that can put diabetes on the back burner. Bill squeezed my hand, he knew too. Waiting for the word to be spoken were the longest seconds…like slow motion. I prayed to God to hold me up. I braced myself for the physical impact I knew was coming, and then she said it.

“The cells we found are cancer.”

My hands covered my face. Tears came unbidden. I doubled over as though I had been punched in the stomach. Gasp. Air…I need air. I had to remind myself to breathe. Bill had his arm around me now, already slipping into the caretaker role trying to shield me from the pain. The doctor said to take a minute. There were tears in her compassionate eyes. Bill was on his knee now, holding my head to his chest, stroking my hair. I could hear his heart beating 100 mph and feel his quick breaths. He kicked into labor coach mode. “Deep breaths,” he told me. In. Out. In. Out. After one or two, the questions started coming in my mind. They were having a tug of war with thoughts of my girl and three boys. Four children ages 10, 12, 14, 16, what does this mean for them I wondered. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Slow motion switched to fast forward in my brain. My need for information won the tug of war, and I sat up ready to hear the rest.

The thing was, there wasn’t a whole lot more to tell. I guess I expected to know how far it had spread, what the treatment would be, and how bad it was. I mean, I knew NOTHING about cancer. Never known anybody with it up close, until recently with Bill’s mom. But I was still watching her from an observers chair not as a participant. Other than her, I had never heard more than a report on a prayer list. My mind was in a fog and trying to formulate the right questions, but I didn’t even know what to ask. Bill was asking something about what was next. I nodded. That seemed to be a good question…yes what is next…good one. So we listened, trying to take it in. More tears came when I heard the words surgery…next week…tests…blood work…pre-op. I have a phobia of all things medical. This had to be my worst nightmare. Someone please wake me up. Please. My doctor tried to give us hope that maybe we caught it early, and if it hadn’t spread I would only need surgery and that would be it. Honestly, she didn’t know for sure. So we left her with a hug and a referral to an oncologist for the next week. She gave us her home phone number. She was the first doctor, in a long line of those to come, who would do so. It was my first indicator that I was in a new land…a doctor’s home number. I put on my bravest “determined to fight” face and thanked her for being so kind. I noticed, even in my fog, that as we left, her head hung. She hated this as much as I did.

From there, we took the long ride home. I was grateful for that 40 minute ride. Time. I needed some time. The rate at which you have to absorb this life shattering news is much too fast. I learned the very first day in Cancerland that life around you doesn’t stop just because your world is off its axis. It is culture shock, this new scary place. The immediate emotional response gets pushed to the side as you start arranging the details. In the haze, I went into mom mode. The kids. Yes. We need to tell them. Seems logical. Seems important. Where are they? Bill reminds me they are with his mom. There is a play, tonight…they are all in it. Bill is the musical director. How do we do this? SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME HOW TO DO THIS! Who do we tell? When? All the details are overwhelming while you are still processing the news. At one point, Bill had to pull off the road so we could talk and cry…and pray. That’s it! We should pray. So we do. Peace. Calm. Clarity of mind. Ahhh. This is better. Nothing is impossible. All things through Christ. A familiar comfort washes over me. The Faithful one proves himself once again. Now I can think. Calls are made. Prayer is a huge part of my story. It is my source of strength. Peace that surpasses understanding will follow.

Bill’s mom, in the midst of her chemo for breast cancer, cries when she hears. She leaves the room she is in so the kids won’t see her crying on the phone. She offers to buy my wig, even though we don’t yet know if I will need one. She says she will drive the kids to the performance tonight…without a word. Bill drives me home. I will not attend tonight’s performance. The only time I have ever missed one.   As a musician, he dresses all in black and I hope he does not have to do so again anytime soon for my funeral. It is a fleeting thought…one that I banish as soon as I recognize where it is leading me. Bill worries about leaving me alone. I tell him I am going to call my mom. So a plan is set, and we go through the motions to carry it out. After the play we will tell the children.

One minute after I am home and the door closes, the phone rings. It is mom. Her heart knows something is not right. Moms always know. So she asks about my appointment. I don’t know about you, but whenever my mom asks me how I am, the truth floods out through blubbery tears. It takes me a minute to fight back the tears enough to say, “It isn’t good mom.” She says she figured it wasn’t since she hadn’t heard from me. When I tell her it is cancer, through her tears she says, “Can I come?” I say, “Will you please?” Notice that the tears are flowing at every turn? Cancerland is a very emotional place.

While I wait, I avoid the ringing phone by unplugging it. In her worry for me Hannah, my daughter, has told friends that I had to return to the doctor today. They are calling to check on me. Sweet. They do not suspect that the news will be as bad as it is.  At the same time, my husband is avoiding people waiting for the curtain to open. We agreed no one is to know until after we tell the kids. So we are silent. Each of us in our own fog.

I am alone. At home. Normally, it would be a rare treat, tonight it is hard. I take the time to process my feelings. I weep. I wail. I sit. Finally, I cry out to God. I pour out my fears, and there are many of them. I am honest in my doubts, because I know he can handle my honesty. I am angry. I am scared to leave my kids behind. I am mad that I might have to. I think it unfair and I say so. I wrestle with him. He knows me well. He knows that I will tire of wrestling eventually. So he waits on me. God waits on ME. How crazy is that? Like an exhausted two year old after a tantrum, I finally flop down in my waiting chair. It is where I wait on God. It is where he meets me, and has always met me in my desperate moments. Then once I am silent, he speaks.

“Will you allow me to show myself strong in this new place you find yourself? Will you be transparent and honest in your pain? Can you share this with others so they will see my strength holding you up in your weakness? I am at work in you. Do you trust me?”

My answer is one word, but it is difficult to say, because I know what it means. I have said this word to him before, and pain is always the result as he burns away the dross to form me in his image. This time I know that the pain will be physical. So I wait, and consider, and think before I answer. He is not doing things my way. I do not know the outcome. I asked and he wouldn’t tell me. I ponder. I consider what he is asking of me. Not only to walk the road, but to do it in a public way (whatever that means)…to be open and share my tears. My fear of needles and stages with microphones all rolled into one long road, with twists that I cannot see and an end that I do not know. The truth is that there is no choice, at least not about the road I am to walk. How I walk it is where the choice lies. So with a heavy heart that is sober in its knowing, I give him my answer.

“Yes. I choose to trust you, even with my life. I put it on the altar and will give it up if it is what you require of me. Absolutely, yes.”

He smiles. Joy floods my soul. Peace rushes in. Strength rises up. I feel his strength even as I tremble in fear of what will be asked of me. I sit and rest in my new found courage. I find the secret place nearest to his heart. I hear his heartbeat for me. I know that he is for me and will be with me. He will never leave me…rather he will lead me…and carry me…and hold me up. He is my source. He is my breath. He is my life. I cherish my time alone with him to settle the matter in my heart.

Mom arrives. I fall into her arms and the tears start again. We hug without words for a long time. We don’t need words, the tears speak loudly. She sits and we talk. I tell her what we know and our plan for telling the kids in just a few short hours. I am honest about my fears, and my faith. Our time together is precious. God gives his comfort through moms. I am grateful for that gift and how it always arrives just when I need it. In the blink of an eye, my time with her is up. With more hugs and prayers, she leaves me. I want to know when the tears will dry up or if I should expect a never ending supply.

Bill is on his way with the kids. They are bucking him, wanting to go out with friends after the show. He is insisting that they come home without telling them the importance of why. A hard ride for him, knowing what is coming and not saying. I am at home bracing myself, and reminding God of his promise to me for strength.  They arrive, frustrated to be home and not with friends. It makes the family meeting difficult to get started with pouting faces and crossed arms. We plunge ahead. I am fighting with my tears from the beginning. I am having difficulty putting on a strong front, and then God reminds me of my promise to show my pain. I agonize over doing that with my children. I mean, it is my role to protect them from pain, right? I am supposed to assure them everything will be alright, not to worry, not to be scared…all of that. Right? So here I am, right in the very beginning, hours from my diagnosis and already I am being stretched in my trust of God’s word to me.

Bill says the C word because I cannot speak it. The frustration from before, melts away. Each child has their own reaction. I am smothered with hugs, teary kisses and statements whispered in my ear. “Mom, I don’t want you to die.” My heart is breaking, tears spilling into their hair. I try to reassure them I will do my best not to die. I try to lighten the possibility, but I am honest that we do not know what will happen and that we need to pray. One says, “You are going to be fine. I know it.” I see the variety of temperaments already. We fill them in on what we know, which is very little. We ask for their help through the process and off they go. It will take some time to tell how they are doing. Kids are resilient and bounce back much quicker than adults, but I also know that in the days ahead we are likely to see differing reactions…as varied as their personalities. I worry and remind God of my kids…and how they still need me. I am not yet ready to let them go. I pray that I do not have to.   The hardest moment is over. It is a relief.
Once people know, you no longer have to hold it as a secret. The most important people are with me, supporting me. It is a burden lifted and so my time-marking day ends. This was the last “before cancer” day of my life. All the rest are “after cancer.”

IMG_9721b

It was a long one I know, not many pictures fit this one…thanks for reading the whole thing. Each year that passes my chances of recurrence drop significantly. I know the statistics….that somewhere around 80 to 85% of ovarian cancer patients have a recurrence before year 10. I only have one more to go before I beat that stat. One more.