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.
Nine 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.”
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.