Seeing the Invisible

20 Jul

I have recently decided that we don’t give enough credence to the invisible.  Just because we cannot see a thing, does not render it unimportant, benign or safe.  In fact, some of the world’s most awesome and frightening forces and substances are invisible.  I had this profound thought as I laid bare and vulnerable on a cold hard table, underneath a very noisy $3.5 million machine.  Said machine was administering very potent, very invisible blasts of radiation to my body, while everyone else ran for cover and a giant led door slammed shut, leaving me alone with my thoughts and my new invisible friend.

Like so many unseen forces, the effects rendered are very visible.  I could not see the radiation as it left the machine, penetrated my skin, and bored into my cells, but there was no mistaking that I had received the radiation.  After the first couple of treatments, my skin became red and a little tight.  By the end of my 8 week, daily regimen, I was a grotesque combination of angry red and black splotches with open blisters.  I could not bear to have my skin touched by any garment, no matter how soft, and any skin on skin contact was excruciating.  Further complicating matters, I could not lift my affected arm in order to find any relief.  All of this was brought on by something I couldn’t see, or even feel.  Something invisible.

We tend to gravitate toward things that we can see and, thereby, think we can control.  We want to dismiss or ignore that which eludes our senses, but control is often just an illusion.  The older I get, the more acutely aware I am that I don’t actually control much in this world.  As a result, I try to be really diligent about the few things I do have jurisdiction over; things like my attitude, my thoughts and my tongue.  The Bible says that “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” So, if I am constantly spewing venom from my mouth, I need to take a look at what is going on in my heart.  Am I entertaining self-pity instead of gratitude?  Am I selfishly putting my own needs ahead of those I love?  Am I focusing on all the crap instead of the beautiful, pure, noble, excellent, praise-worthy things that Philippians 4 admonishes me to think on?  Yeah, that’s usually the problem.

For those of you who now think I have  flipped my lid, believing in what I cannot see…let me say this:  I am a realist.  I have never been one to bury my head in the sand as a diversionary tactic.  You will not find me singing “La la la la la” while covering my ears, in an attempt to pretend something is not happening in my life.  If there is a problem, I want to identify it and fix it.  If there is a crisis, I want to face it head on, so I can move past it and get on with the business of living.  Like so many things in life, this strength has also proven to be a weakness.  I struggle with giving things time to “work themselves out,” and I have been known to jump the gun and overreact upon occasion.  I have forced many conversations that should’ve been left for a better time, and I have insisted upon confrontations that needed not happen at all.  But, I’m learning.

I am a realist, but, I am also a woman of faith; faith that things are not always as they seem.  I believe in the difference between facts and Truth and I believe that God can and does change circumstances in both miraculous and natural ways, every single day in this world.  While it might seem tricky to live in both of these places, simultaneously, I can tell you that it really isn’t.  As I have journeyed through my life, I have had to navigate some very difficult waters.  The more trying the life circumstance, the more important it has been for me to focus on the unseen over the seen.  I have learned to believe in the Truth of God’s Word over the “facts” that are often staring me in the face.  We all believe in things we cannot see, like wind, gravity, and electrical currents.  Why?  Because we have experienced their effects at one time or another.  I think people have trouble believing in an invisible God because they have not gotten close enough to feel the effects of His love, His protection, and His wisdom.  My advice: Get closer.

I came face-to-face with this realist/faith dichotomy when I was diagnosed with cancer. While I responded responsibly to my diagnosis by scheduling the necessary appointments, seeking out the best medical facilities and putting myself in the hands of the best doctors I could find, I did not stop there.  Yes, I showed up for every single test, biopsy, procedure and surgery that my medical team recommended (no matter how heinous), but that was only half of my overall treatment plan.  The other part…the most important part, was the part where I placed myself squarely in the capable hands of Almighty God and I chose to have faith.  Not faith in my doctors (although I trusted them to do their best), not faith in modern medicine (although I am grateful for all the advances in breast cancer treatment), but faith in an unseen God who loves me and works all things together for my good.

I recently read a Bible verse out of Psalms that said, “Give thanks to Him who leads His people through the wilderness, for His faithful love endures forever.  Psalm 136:16.  It occurred to me to ask God why the heck does He “lead us through” the wilderness?  Lord, why don’t You, “help us avoid” the wilderness?  Or, “go safely around” the wilderness?  Or, why don’t you just do away with wildernesses altogether??  You are God, after all!  In the midst of my ranting, God quietly dropped this thought into my heart, “Sandy, the wilderness is where I keep all of My best treasures.”

Overwhelmed

28 Apr

My dear friend, Winnie, called me the other day to ask if Tim and I wanted to stay in her Oceanside beach condo for a week while she went back East to attend a conference.  It just so happened that Tim was traveling to Arizona for work, so I would be staying by myself for the first three days.  I shook off the slight panic that immediately washed over me, and I decided that a little alone time would be good for me.  Up until a couple of weeks ago, my family worked together to make sure that I was never alone.  Mom would not even run to the store unless someone else was home and “in charge” of me.  Some people might consider this overkill…to me, it felt like fierce love.

Beginning with my recovery from surgery (a mastectomy on September 23rd) and throughout chemo, I watched helplessly while my body and my mind went through drastic and frightening changes.  My hair fell out, my skin became thin and translucent, my eyesight worsened considerably, my ears rang, my muscles weakened, my bones and joints ached, I was constantly sick and my brain became foggy.  Simply walking down the hall became a slow and arduous process and navigating the stairs was precarious on my good days, impossible on my bad ones.  Often, following a chemo infusion, my sweet mother would make me food and bring it to my room where I laid in bed for days on end.

I am painting this picture for you because I want to share an amazing lesson that I learned during that time.  When I focused on the cancer and all it was taking from me, it was overwhelming and I would begin to spiral down into a dark and lonely place of despair.  More than once I realized how cancer patients, or those who suffer with other life threatening illnesses, can get to the point where they give up.   When you are healthy, it is almost impossible to imagine how anyone could do anything other than fight tooth and nail against such a disease, but once your health has been obliterated, giving up can present itself as a very reasonable option.  At the beginning of my journey, I was told repeatedly how I would “win” this thing because I was so strong.  Well, I’m here to tell you that cancer takes your strength.  It is the first in a long line of sacred things that this epidemic steals from you.  Cancer quickly stole my strength, my normal, my outward beauty, my privacy, my dignity, my vision of the future, my security, and my emotional stability ~ just to name a few.  When I allowed my mind to dwell on the pain and the loss and the uncertainty of the future, I became so overwhelmed that I edged dangerously close to the precipice of hopelessness.  The one thing, however, cancer was never able to take from me was my hope.

Romans 12:12 tells us to “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, and steadfastly continue in prayer.”

I decided that this had to be my game plan.

Isaiah 40:31 says, “But they who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up on wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

This is a familiar verse took on a whole new meaning to me because walking down the hall could literally cause me to faint. 

Psalm 23:18 “Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.”

Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

So there it was, laid out in the Word of God.  In the midst of the most horrendous and agonizing circumstances, God had laid out a plan for me to cope and to hope.  Although not easy, it was simple.  I had to choose what I would think about.  I needed to realize that while my emotions were real and should be acknowledged, they did not run the show.  I was responsible for what I let myself think about and dwell on.  So in my very weakened state, I did the one thing I could still do…I changed my focus.

First of all, I thought about the comfortable bed I was laying in, the beautiful palm trees outside my window, the fragrant breeze that drifted in and cooled my hot skin, my laptop that kept me tethered to the outside world, and the family that hovered around me, making sure I was as cared for and as comfortable as possible given my condition.  I thought about the fact that I am a citizen of a free nation and that I had access to the world’s most advanced cancer fighting treatments.  I mediated on the ancient words of the Holy Bible, written centuries ago, but with crystal clear, timely instruction for me right now.  I ruminated over the scores of people who had committed to pray for me, sustaining me, as I walked this road.  I spent time saturating myself in all that I had to be thankful for and, suddenly, I was overwhelmed in a completely different way.  I was overwhelmed with gratitude and humility.

So I spent those glorious three days alone in Winnie’s condo ~ listening to the waves crashing on the shore, taking in the grandeur of the ocean that God created, and feeling overwhelmed by the generosity of my friend for sharing her home with me.  When Tim returned from his business trip, we basked in the glory of sunsets and down-time together, laughing out loud as much as possible.

Before cancer, I was a type-A, high strung, work-intensive person.  When asked how I was, I would often answer, “Overwhelmed!”  Now, my life has more order and purpose.  I don’t chronically over-schedule myself and I consider drinking coffee with my sister a valuable use of my time.  I don’t measure my productivity simply by how much work I have accomplished, but rather by how much joy I have experienced today.  Work is important; it always will be to me, but it is not the most important thing in my life….living is.   I am still overwhelmed…but now it is by how amazing my life is, how much beauty there is to see in the world, and by the sheer volume of things I have to be grateful for.  I hope to live in this state of being “overwhelmed” forever.

Sunday is on the Way!

6 Apr

With Easter right around the corner, I was thinking about the significance of today…Good Friday.  It occurred to me that I have had some really crappy Fridays in my life this past year.  It was a Friday morning that Tim and I sat in my doctor’s office and received my cancer diagnosis.  It was a Friday that I had to walk down that long, lonely hall and into an operating room to undergo a mastectomy and it was also a Friday that I first faced one of the most frightening experiences of my life…chemotherapy.

The week before I went in for my first chemo treatment, I spent a lot of time praying.  There were moments where terror would rear it’s ugly head, but mostly, I was just dreading it with every fiber of my being.  I told God that I didn’t ever want Friday to come because I had a good idea of what I would be facing and I didn’t want to do it.  The crazy thing about chemo is that you go into it feeling pretty good.  Once the cancer was removed from my body, the incredible pain I had been feeling for months ended.  The night sweats stopped and I had a sense of relief because the tumor was finally OUT of me.  I knew that chemo would be a long, drawn-out, horrible ordeal, and yet here I was making plans to do six rounds of it…willingly.  Intellectually, I understood that suffering through five months of chemotherapy would lower the odds that this cancer would return and would increase my overall chance for survival, but my heart just wasn’t getting on board.  In the end, I simply accepted that it was a necessary evil to serve a greater purpose in my life.

As I sat in my room, praying for peace and strength to face what I must, with as much grace as possible, a thought dropped into my mind.  Jesus knows a little something about dreading a Friday.  He walked willingly toward a hideous and painful death on the Cross, and unlike me, He didn’t do it to serve a selfish purpose, He sacrificed Himself to save others.  He knew exactly what horrors He would be facing and He did it anyway.  Although He was fully God, He was also fully man and was not spared the physical and emotional pain that death by hanging on a cross brings.  The humanness of Jesus is so evident as we are given a Biblical glimpse into what Jesus went through that Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The stress of His impending crucifixion caused Him to sweat drops of blood as He asked Father God to let this cup pass from Him if possible.  In the end though, He acquiesced to the will of God, He did not insist upon His own way, even though what God was asking of Him was so incredibly difficult.

Certainly nothing I will face in this life compares to what Jesus endured on the Cross, but I felt like I could take some cues from Him.  In my room that day, I prayed that if there was any way for “this cup” to pass from me, I would prefer that.  However, if God had some greater purpose in mind for my future, I would trust that there was a reason He was choosing to heal my body through medicine instead of by miraculous means.   I know that it was never God’s will for me to get cancer because God doesn’t bring sickness.  But I am not immune to the flaws and failings of the human condition and I know that because I live in the midst of this “fallen” world, I am not exempt from the sickness and pain associated with it.  I also know that God allows us to endure certain hardships in life, because walking difficult paths causes us to cry out to Him for help and it produces what the Bible calls “gold” in us.  If I had been given the choice between having cancer or not having it right in the beginning, I would have definitely chosen to pass on this disease.  However, now that I have experienced many long months of this excruciating trial, I already see some incredible changes in myself.  So much useless “chaff” has been stripped away and I have more clarity about what is really important in life.  I feel such a deep gratitude for things that I took for granted pre-cancer and I intentionally enjoy my life now.  Cancer (and all that comes with it) is so incredibly overwhelming, I was relegated to only two real choices: be consumed by fear and worry to the point of being unable to function, or trust God at such a deep level that all anxiety simply falls away.  I am now a truly peaceful person for the first time in my life.

Although I feel like the last nine months of my life have been one giant, dreadful “Friday,” I can continue to press on because I know that my “Sunday” is on the way.  Jesus’ story doesn’t end with the horrific Friday filled with physical and emotional abuse, torture and murder by those who hated him.  It doesn’t even end with the Saturday that followed; a day where all of Jesus’ friends, family and followers mourned his tragic and unfair death.  His story ends with Sunday when the huge stone covering the entrance to His tomb is rolled away by Angels and Jesus rises from the grave, conquering death forever for all of us who believe!  My Sunday will be the end of all cancer treatments and reconstructive surgeries.  My Sunday will be the victory of having survived and even thrived through this entire ordeal.  My Sunday will be the rest of my life, however long God deems that to be, to tell my story of how God met me in my darkest days and taught me things I couldn’t have learned any other way.  My Sunday is the satisfaction of knowing that when I had the choice, I trusted God and He did not fail me.

Whatever hardship you might be facing in your life….whatever your dreaded “Friday” is, know that if you choose faith over fear, God will honor that choice.  Believing in and trusting God with your life does not guarantee a particular outcome.  I am well aware that cancer is a disease whose very nature is to aggressively multiply itself, grow and wreak havoc on the human body.  I have intense and immense hope that my cancer will be obliterated and never return, but that’s not what my faith is rooted in.  My strong faith is wrapped up in the fact that no matter what happens in my future, God is with me and will never ever leave me.  My hope is in an eternity spent in Heaven with my Creator and all those believers who understand that faith in God isn’t about rules or requirements, but rather about love and freedom.  I spent my first 40 years being largely overwhelmed by life.  Now, I enjoy each day in a way I could not have even imagined before.  How ever many years God grants me from here on out…I will live them thankfully with laughter and a peace in my soul that I cannot explain.  I know I may face more “Fridays” in this life, but I will never forget that “Sunday” is on the way!

Life Goes On

30 Mar

On Valentine’s Day, Azusa Pacific University played Point Loma University in men’s basketball.  While most couples were out enjoying a romantic evening together, Tim and I piled into the car and drove over an hour to Los Angeles to watch a basketball game.  I was less than 14 days out from my last chemo infusion so I felt pretty weak, but nothing could have kept me from that game.  It is always an “event” for my family when these two rivals meet on the court because my nephew, Jake, plays for Point Loma, but my daughter, Emily, and niece, Ellie, both attend Azusa.  While we love Azusa… when they are playing the Point Loma Sea Lions, they are the enemy.  You see, we are a basketball family.  All four of my sister’s kids played ball and we have been going to games, ranging from local community pee wee teams to collegiate level contests, for over twenty years.  Being a part of this family tradition has been amazing and I have absolutely LOVED watching my nieces and nephews play basketball, but on this night, I felt a bit melancholy.  I realized that our family basketball days were very possibly winding down.

Jake has graduated from Point Loma and is working on his Master’s Degree, Emily and Ellie are both graduating from Azusa in May, and Abigail (my sister’s youngest) is just finishing up her senior year of high school.  Although she is being courted by a number of schools, Abby hasn’t decided if she will play college ball or not.  So on this night, I took it all in.  I sat in the stands with my head scarf on, wishing I didn’t look like such a cancer patient, but knowing that a wig would have been unbearably hot in that gym, and I cheered for Jake.  It was a glorious night because we were all together and because we won.  If my oldest nephew, Zach, could have been there, the night would have been perfect.

Later that night as Tim drove home, I sat quietly in the car, exhausted but content, watching the beautiful mountain scenery fly by my window.  I thought about all of our kids and their lives and what amazing things are happening with each of them.  I thought especially about our girls.  Ellie and Abby are Emily’s cousins, but they are close like sisters.  Their birthdays all fall within the same two-week time period and they were each born 2 years apart ~ Ellie in 1990, Emily in 1992 and Abby in 1994.  This has been a monumental year for each of them; a year filled with opportunities, possibilities, hard work, success, triumph, and surprises.  They have each been blessed in a unique way and, for that, I am so grateful.

Ellie met Kyle at the first football game of the year when they were both doe-eyed Azusa Pacific freshmen.  I recall her declaration that she was not going to date anyone right away when she went to college.  After dating one boy, pretty seriously through much of high school, she was going to take it slow and play the field a bit.  But, like so many times in life, our best laid plans go up in smoke when God has something better in store.  When Kyle entered the picture, it took a moment for us to look past his giant mohawk and spike earrings, but when we did, we saw his generous heart and his tremendous love for both God and our Ellie.

Fast forward three years and Kyle already feels like a part of the family.  In September, on the third anniversary of the day they met, our whole family trekked to the first Azusa football game of their senior year.  Unbeknownst to Ellie, Kyle had laid an elaborate plan to propose to her on the field at half time.  Ellie was told that she and Kyle would be participating in a half time game with several other couples.  Ellie was blindfolded, spun around and pointed in the direction of Kyle.  She zig-zagged toward him as fast as she could, trying to beat the other two girls.  Little did she know that everyone was in on the surprise and she was the only one playing the game.  When she finally made her way to Kyle and took off her blindfold, he was on one knee, holding out a beautiful diamond ring and asking for her hand in marriage.  The stands, which were filled to capacity, roared as the crowd went wild.  Kyle had just told everyone that, of all the girls in the world, he wanted Ellie to be forever by his side…and she said yes.

During those same three years, Emily was following her own dreams and bending the world to her will.  After graduating high school at sixteen, she left Chicago and moved into the dorms at Azusa Pacific University.  While she appeared to be an average college student, anyone who knows Emily is aware that there is nothing average about her.  During her freshman year, she made the monumental decision to complete her four-year Political Science Bachelor’s program in three years.  This feat involved petitioning the university to allow her to take up to 18 units per semester and committing herself to Summer school even while working full-time each Summer.  Additionally, she had to make sure to meet other graduation requirements, such as getting four years worth of ministry credits (volunteer hours) done in three years.  But even keeping up this hectic schedule didn’t satisfy my little over-achiever.

While working her way through college, Emily was also pursuing her dream of going to law school.  Instead of just giving this aspiration lip-service, Em put a plan into action.  She prepared a detailed calendar with projected dates for each step in her journey toward becoming a law student at one of the top law schools in the country.  She ordered her LSAT (law school entrance exam) study books, enrolled in an intensive study group, and dedicated herself to preparing for the LSAT exam, all while maintaining a excellent GPA in school. After working a full day as a nanny to the two precious girls that she cared for, Emily would board a train to downtown Chicago and then walk a mile to Chicago Bar Association to attend her LSAT prep course classes which lasted until 10:00 pm, several nights a week.  Of course her hard work all paid off when she earned a score of 172 on her LSAT’s, which put her in the top 1% in the nation. That score, coupled with her GPA, has now earned her acceptance at Georgetown, University of Texas, UCLA, Pepperdine, and Cornell law schools, just to name a few.  As a family, we have celebrated each acceptance and we look forward to seeing where Emily lands and what amazing things God has in store for her.

While Ellie and Emily were enjoying their college life, Abigail was making her mark on Chapparal High School in Temecula.  Abby has been actively involved in leadership at her school, through ASB, all four years that she has attended.  You can always find her planning school events, decorating for dances or volunteering for worthwhile causes like the Susan G Komen Race for the Cure run in her hometown.  These activities had to be carefully scheduled between classes, study time, practice and basketball games because Abby is not only a respected leader in her school, she is also a straight “A” student and a basketball star!  As if that didn’t keep her busy enough, she is also very active in her church youth group and baby sits on weekends for extra money.  I’m pretty convinced that Abby operates on some special system that affords her more hours each day than the rest of us.  In a word, Abigail Grace Johnston is Amazing.

Abby has played basketball her whole life.  She watched her brothers and her sister go before her, but Abby definitely put her own stamp on the game.  As a senior, she has been a fierce competitor that has played both high school and travel team ball.  Abby’s successes include: First Team CIF, 2  All-Tournament Awards, being named MVP for the Chaparral Varsity Women’s Basketball Team, and maintaining the status of Scholar Athlete all four years of high school.  At the final game of her senior year, as her proud parents and sister, Ellie, stood on the court with her, she boldly gave thanks to God and her parents.  In addition to being amazing, she is grateful and humble.  Abby OWNED high school…I can’t wait to see what she does in college.

The reason I am reflecting on these events right now is because all of the above happened after I was diagnosed with cancer.  If you have ever experienced something as heart-stopping as a life threatening diagnosis, or the death of a loved one, or anything else that seems to stop your world, the first thing you notice is that every thing around you keeps on moving.  It is easy to get angry and bitter about that.  I remember wondering how people could dare to laugh about anything in my presence after I found out that Emily had a brain tumor.  I also found it difficult to see people complaining on Facebook that their kid was home with the flu when I had just been diagnosed with cancer!  But here’s the thing: Life goes on.  It has to.

If I had curled myself into a ball of fear and anxiety, I would have missed out on the fun, the excitement and the good memories of the last 9 months.  I have come to realize that even when I didn’t really feel up to it, I never regretted forcing myself to continue participating in my own life.  At the risk of sounding like a flower child, I feel like I have to say this…  There is beauty, joy and laughter all around us ~ every day.  It is up to us whether we miss it because we are so focused on our own hardships that we don’t ever lift our eyes, or whether we keep our heads up and our hearts open to allow the happiness of other people’s lives soak in and lift us up.

In some ways, the kids in my family kept me going.  I so looked forward to Jake and Abby’s games, Ellie’s surprise proposal and now her upcoming July wedding, and Emily’s weekend visits chock-full of exciting new law school developments.  I got cancer, but cancer never got me.  I kept living and now, looking back over the last nine months, I have no regrets because I get it: Life. Goes. On. 

Making Friends at the Playground

31 Jan

When I was a kid, growing up in Villa Park, Illinois, I would come home from my day-job (school), grab a snack, do whatever chores were required and then I would fly out the front door, calling over my shoulder to my mom (as the screen door slammed), that I was going to the playground.  I couldn’t be bothered to follow the sidewalk, so I ran through the landscaped grass and used my super powers to leap the two big bushes, each in a single bound.  (A subsequent visit to the old neighborhood as an adult revealed these bushes to be no more than 18 inches high and I found it incredible that my entire neighborhood scale shrunk so much in my twenty-year absence.)  Next, I would shoot past Mr. Gardner’s yard, where he inevitably shook his fist at me and gruffly told me to stay off his lawn.  Mr. Gardner was the mean neighbor who must have been retired because he was always home to yell at us kids.  Strangely, nobody seemed too bothered by him, although in retrospect, it was a little weird that he always laid on a lawn chair in his front yard wearing nothing but a Speedo.  From there it was a straight shot to the playground where I would swing around the corner, hoping I was not the first kid to arrive.  If you were the first to hit the park that day, you simply sat contemplatively on the swings, waiting for the next kid to come come flying around the corner, and then you were in business.

The playground was a magical place where all kids were on equal footing.  Even if you didn’t know the person next to you, name-rank-and-serial number is all that was required.  In those days that was name-age-and what school you attended.  Once those basics were covered, you could move on to what cool toys you had at home and whether or not your mom was the type that liked having your friends come over.  As children, there were such commonalities among us that we were not constrained by all the societal trappings that adults must navigate through.  There were no questions designed to ascertain social status or compatibility.  We were all kids, living in the same neighborhood, participating in the same shared childhood experience.

Adulthood is an entirely different matter.  We all get so darn sophisticated and everything becomes, necessarily, more difficult.  Where is the neighborhood playground for grown-ups?  I suppose if you are into the bar scene that might count, but we are not.  Tim and I have found most of our friends at church, but still…you jump through hoops trying to assimilate and join small groups and get involved.  Then it is always a crap shoot that the couple you finally decide to have over for dinner isn’t weird or annoying or difficult to get along with.  The common ground isn’t a foregone conclusion the way it was when I was a kid, sitting on the monkey bars talking to another kid.  It takes work as an adult and frankly, I have often found friend-making to be tedious…until now.

I have entered an entirely new realm that has changed everything for me.  The moment I was diagnosed with cancer in August of 2011, I was inducted into a new club.  I was not even aware of my new membership at first, but it became apparent, very quickly.  The chemo infusion room is now the closest thing I have ever encountered to my beloved neighborhood playground.  I walk in and realize that all of us are living a very bizarre shared experience and, regardless of each person’s specific situation, we are all on common ground.  Every person in that room has had their life turned upside down with an unexpected proclamation that they had won the world’s worst lottery and had a terrible, often life threatening disease.

In the chemo room, most of us are bald, many are puffy or emaciated from the drugs we take, our eyes are sunken, our skin damaged, and all of us are tethered to plastic bags that deliver horrible treatments designed to save our lives.  Also, we have suffered the countless terrible indignities that accompany the endless tests, procedures and treatments that cancer requires.  In this playground, we exchange name-diagnosis-and treatment information, of course throwing around all of the appropriate acronyms that we have worked to hard to learn.  There is no sizing up that takes place.  Rich or poor, Stage I or Stage IV, it doesn’t matter.  There is a shared respect among these people and a kindness that flows from those who are feeling strong at the moment, to those quietly weeping in the chair next to them.  Having cancer has changed my outlook on life and has made me a kinder person.  This has also been my experience with most other cancer patients that I have had the privilege to meet.  Just one of the many treasures I have found on this strange path to recovery.

Yesterday, at my 5th infusion, it was like “old home week” for me.  I knew the women on either side of me and a number of other patients as well.  Now, most of the nurses know me by name because most of them have cared for me at one time or another.  We all have to sit there for hours on end, so we tend to get to know each other quickly.  Also, regular conversation in this place doesn’t start with small talk and idle chatter.  We delve immediately into deep, meaningful conversation because there is a sense among us that time is too precious to be wasted.  I sat next to Irene again yesterday.  She is somewhere in her late 60’s or early 70’s and is suffering from Stage IV lung cancer.  Clearly she has been a long time smoker, which in my previous life (Before Cancer), I would have likely felt compassion for her, mixed with some sense of judgment that she brought this on herself.  Now, however, there is no judgement.  Zero.  Now my guess is that she probably began smoking at a young age, before the dangers were well known, and fought the battle her whole life.  What I know about Irene is this: her husband of many years died unexpectedly in February of last year, and before she could even grieve properly, she was hit with her cancer diagnosis in June of that same year.  Irene does not have family close by that can be available, but Jeri, a brand new friend that she met just as her life was falling apart, stepped up to the plate.  They are neighbors in a trailer park in La Mesa, CA and Jeri heard of Irene’s hardship and made herself available.  She selflessly gives of her time to drive Irene to every appointment and infusion.  She is a quiet and gentle lady who considers this to be a privilege.  I am blessed to know both of them.

On the other side of me sat a woman about my age who I met for the first time during my 4th infusion.  She has a myriad of issues that have required years of regular treatments, including chemotherapy.  Her tiny little Native American mommy is always by her side with long dark braids cascading down from her knit beanie cap.   My sister, Holly, was with me when we first encountered this mother-daughter duo and I spent most of my time talking to the patient, while Holly engaged her mom in conversation.  The mom took particular notice of Holly’s beautiful necklace that had been made for her by a friend.  Holly took it off to show the lady, who was clearly taken with this piece of jewelry.  As we were preparing to leave that day, I noticed Holly disappeared briefly and returned with an envelope that she quietly handed to the mom as she gave her a hug and said goodbye.  She had given this woman her treasured necklace because that is just how my sister’s heart works.  The chemo infusion room inspires that sort of kindness in many and I have seen lovely gestures and encouragements every single time I have been there.

I never would have imagined that I would, once again, recapture that blissful feeling of making friends at the playground, but I have.  I have found a child-like pleasure in a place that I dreaded with every fiber of my being and a place that I begged God to spare me from having to enter.  Once again, I am breathless as I see how His wisdom, which is so much higher than my own has impacted my life.  God is God and I am not.  Each experience like this one, inspires me to trust Him more, especially when I am afraid or don’t understand.  His promise is that He will never leave me or forsake me, and He never has.  Further, He has promised to hold my hand as I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, so that I can bravely fear no evil.  This journey has already been so long (almost 6 months since my diagnosis) and I am not even close to being done, but I am a better, kinder, more compassionate person for the part I have walked so far.  So I will continue to put one foot in front of the other, trusting my Father, who loves me more than I will ever understand, to guide me and get me through with grace.

Half way through hell

5 Jan

I am approaching the halfway point in my journey through chemo.  Just as a point of clarification, half way is not immediately after your 3rd infusion.  Half way does not come until you have lived through all of the miserable days that follow that infusion.  It is the day before you have to go back and do it all again for a 4th time.  Contrary to popular belief, this halfway point is not a cause for celebration for me.  I would like to be excited as if I were a child crossing off days off a calendar in anticipation of Christmas, but this just isn’t like that.  Going through chemo is like walking very slowly through hell.  It is the worst thing I have ever experienced, and I have not lived a life devoid of difficulty.  Chemo is just a different animal altogether; there is no reprieve.  Even when the worst of the side effects seem to have subsided and I come out of what I refer to as the “chemo fog,” I still carry the weight of this process every moment of every day.  Since day one of my first infusion, I have been “chemo-y.”  Unless you have experienced it, you probably won’t understand that term, but I’ll do my best to explain.  Feeling chemo-y is about the all-over body aches and pains that never go away.  Dull pain that throbs in your joints and severe shooting pains in your bones that come on without warning.  It is a weird film that invades your mouth and never leaves, causing intermittent mouth sores and changing the taste of every single thing you eat.  It is a constant headache (in varying degrees), stomach pain, digestive problems, ringing in your ears, and a chronic fatigue that defies description.  It is an exhaustion that leaves you in bed for days at a time unable to even navigate your own staircase.  Feeling chemo-y is about knowing that there is something foreign coursing through your veins and invading every cell of your body.  You know it because you feel it.  It changes you.

I know the above paragraph will seem a bit dramatic to some, but trust me when I say that I didn’t even include the worst of the side effects in that description.  I didn’t mention how your hair falls out, including your eyelashes and eyebrows.  Do you know what purpose your eyelashes serve?  They keep the stuff floating around in the air from getting into your eyes.  On chemo, your eyes constantly water, your nose runs unchecked and your nails crack, split and lift from their nail beds.  Some cancer patients’ nails turn black and fall off.  I have not yet experienced that, but it’s fun to know it’s a possibility.  I’ve thrown up through every round of chemo so far, despite the anti-nausea drugs I take, which bring with them a whole new set of side effects which I won’t enumerate here.  I have neuropathy which means my fingertips are so sensitive that I cannot press on anything, open anything or touch anything that is either hot or cold.  The bottoms of my feet burn when I step on any cool or warm surface and I sometimes have trouble holding things or buttoning clothes.  I am an emotional wreck more often than not and my brain simply doesn’t work like it used to.  It is as if my mind and body have completely betrayed me and I am at the mercy of this thing called chemotherapy.

Chemo infusions have a cumulative effect which means that each time I go get pumped full of more chemo, my body still retains some from the last round and the round before, and it accumulates in my blood.  This is why each round becomes more difficult that the previous one.  Each round holds new possible side effects and the promise of more suffering than the round you just finished.  Therefore, each new round is an opportunity for fear to grip me anew and to speak wicked things into my head about how I might not survive this process.  This is why only being at the halfway point does not inspire me to burst forth in song.  I still have a long way to go and the worst lies ahead of me, not behind me.

For the most part, I try to write when I am in a “good place.”  I want to be an example and an inspiration and I have no interest in dragging everyone around me down my constantly complaining.  I thought I was doing the best thing by keeping my pain all to myself and only speaking out in moments when I feel strong and full of faith.  But recently I realized that there is also value in being honest about the whole process and all of the emotions that I experience.  Yesterday, I had a good friend tell me that she felt bad when she read a Facebook post I wrote about that fact that I saw 2011 as a great year.  She also has breast cancer and has just completed her 6th and final chemo treatment.  She hated 2011.  I meant what I said, that although last year was laden with hardship, I still feel grateful because I have grown at warp speed through these months of challenge and I have experienced God’s grace in ways I cannot even articulate.  What I wrote was true and honest, but I realize now that writing about just the good stuff, only paints half of the picture.  I have days that cover both ends of the spectrum, some horrible, defeating days, and some where I am walking in victory.  I am writing this post because I don’t want the next woman who has to suffer through this to feel as if she isn’t walking in faith if she has more bad days than good.  Yes, I am full of faith that God has good plans for my future and that I will, indeed, survive this process.  But I didn’t get here by osmosis.  I have to come back every single morning and get in that quiet place that allows me to enter God’s presence and get each day’s dose of faith and promise.  God does not load me up with a month’s worth of anything.  Every day holds only 24 hours worth of grace, strength and hope.  That is why the Word says that “Through the Lord’s tender mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.  They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.  ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, Therefore I hope in Him!” Lamentations 3:21-24

Chemo is a miserable, sometimes soul crushing, process that has challenged me on every level.  I am engaged in a constant battle to keep my mind focused on God and not my own suffering.  I remind myself that I have friends all around me suffering through their own suffocating life circumstances and that I have countless things to be grateful for.  I spend time each day verbalizing my gratitude for my family who has come around me and sacrificed so much to walk with me on this road and help me heal.  For a husband who has never once made me feel like I am anything less than beautiful, even when I cannot bear to look at my own reflection in a mirror.  For friends who have not forgotten me and who have been an endless source of encouragement and laughter.  But most of all, for a God who has never forsaken me or even loosened His strong grip on me throughout this entire process.  The best way I can explain all of this is to say that as I walk through what I can only describe as the valley of the shadow of death…I fear no evil.  I live simultaneously in a place of physical misery due to sickness, but spiritual victory where both peace and joy have taken up residence in my heart.  It is one of the greatest miracles I have ever personally experienced, this dual state of being.  All I can say is that no matter what life throws at me, I know I can withstand and, ultimately, overcome if I don’t try to get through it in my own strength.  At my weakest point, God brings me the most strength to simply get through the next hour, or the next day, put one foot in front of the other and survive.  Right now, for me, this is the very definition of walking in faith.

Thorn in the flesh

2 Dec

We all have our “thorn in the flesh.”  You know, that flaw in our personality, that horrible tendency that bugs us incessantly, but that is so hard to overcome.  Often, we think that we have successfully hidden it from the rest of the world, but we are usually mistaken.  Our “secrets” are far more transparent than we think.  The world already knows; God already knows…if only we could see past our own denial and face them honestly…

Self pity is ugly.  Have you ever known anyone who truly lives in a state of self pity?  That “woe-is-me, the-world’s-out-to-get-me, nothing-ever-goes-my-way” kind of mentality is weak and repulsive to me.  And I ought to know…I lived with it for many years.  Sometimes I think that I was actually born with a predisposition to self pity.  According to my mom, I cried non-stop the first 6 months of my life and I refused to be consoled by anyone other than her, much to my Daddy’s dismay.  I remember as a kid, feeling myself immediately downward spiral if things didn’t go my way.  Then, I would get stuck in the mire of my own self-absorbed emotion and I simply could not get out.  When I would feel sorry for myself, which was plainly written all over my face, my mother would often say, “Oh Sandy, don’t be in a snit.”  Okay, let me pause briefly here to explain how that single phrase could send me into an internal rage like nothing else in my life ever has.  Being “called out” on my self pity was so simultaneously embarrassing and infuriating to me, I could hardly contain the emotion of it.  Even as a kid, I recognized that my reaction to this phrase, which clearly identified my shortcoming to the world, was irrational.  Most of the time I really did want to just shrug off the heaviness of feeling sorry for myself and join in cheerfully with my family and friends, but I simply did not know how to do it.  I lacked to tools to deal with this sentiment, which had a strangle hold on my life.  I thought I hid my pitiful ways, but I know now that my “secret” was actually very evident to the world.

Although self pity was a primary struggle in life, I, like everyone, am a multidimensional being and so in addition to my tendency toward melancholy, was a strong sense of self reliance.  My entire life, I was told by my parents that I was a smart girl, and I believed them.  I barreled through my life, taking chances and not fearing change.  I knew that if I really wanted something, I could accomplish it and, as a result, I had many amazing experiences as a young adult.  When push came to shove, however, I was still in bondage to self pity and a very poor sense of self worth, so when I married for the first time, it was to another person even more bound than I by self pity.  As you can imagine, the ensuing 10-year marriage was bad from the start.   The juxtaposition of the woeful tendencies and the strong “can do” attitude made my life a roller coaster of ups and downs that exhausted me.

In the Summer of 2001, I was at the height of my misery.  I had been unhappily tied to my first husband for 6 years, I had just come out on the other side of Emily’s brain surgery, but her future was still very uncertain, and my Dad, who I loved with all my heart, was dying of Alzheimer’s.   This was the environment of my life when we decided to take a weekend trip to Phoenix with several other families from church.  We caravaned out from Southern California and stayed at the Hilton Pointe, known for it’s amazing waterparks for the kids.  As an added bonus, I was turning 32 years old on this trip.  As my birthday approached, I fell into deep despair as I surveyed the circumstances of my life.  I felt trapped in a relationship that I had foolishly committed to’ forever’ and which had left me feeling miserable and emotionally battered.  I had a precious dadaughter who I worried about constantly and whose health concerns I carried heavily upon my shoulders as I was the only decision-maker in my home.  My Dad, who I would have loved to turn to for advice and comfort was not there, and would never be there for me again.  It is safe to say that I felt good and sorry for myself.

On the day of my birthday, I cried with deep heaving sobs in our hotel room with the shades drawn and the curtains closed.  I sat on the floor, of course, because it is the much more pitiful to cry on the floor than it is to cry on the comfort of a 4-star hotel bed.  I’m not sure, but I might have even rolled around a little bit.  I am making light of this moment now, looking back with 10-years of space between me and it, but at the time, my suffering was very real and I was suffocating in sadness.  I remember thinking that I was now well into my 30’s and I had no joy.  I had no hope for a brighter future and I felt totally and completely alone, even though I was surrounded by friends who loved me.  My 32nd birthday was the worst birthday I had ever experienced.  Had it not been for my precious girl who needed me so much, I might have considered drastic measures to “check out” of my life.

Once I had fully embraced my own anguish while hugging my knees to my chest and trying not to drown in my own despondency, something happened.  I got  angry again.  If you are not aware, let me enlighten you…self pity and anger and very close cousins.  Just as I could move from sorrow to frustration (or even anger) as a kid, I could do the same as an adult.  During this fun-filled weekend adventure, I gave into that anger and it caused me to act like a total fool.  I was short and snippy with my friends and I became strangely paranoid.  As different families paired off and made plans, I read into every single action as if they were directed at me.  I accused just about everyone present of purposefully leaving me and Emily out of their plans.  I basically threw a tantrum.  In retrospect, nobody was doing anything to me.  It was all in my head and I left my friends wondering who in the world I was and what in the world was wrong with me.  Needless to say, the ride home was awkward.

Once I got home and came back to my senses, I could see with clear eyes what an idiot I had been.  Although it was tempting to change my name and move to another state, I realized that that was probably not a viable option.  I knew I had to do the really hard thing and face my own demons.  I believe that when you have a tendency (born with it or not) that is not healthy, you must take responsibility for that personality trait and change.  I know that change can be so hard, but it is so incredibly necessary for personal growth and maturity.  Several days after returning home, I called my dear friend, Koni, and spilled my guts about my problem.  I told her that I had always suffered from deep feelings of self pity and anger about how the world had treated me.  I acknowledged my own responsibility in that I had taken this problem and made it a pet.  I held it and nurtured it and told myself I was justified in how I felt.  But I knew that was a lie and I was finally willing to confront that lie.

Koni prayed with me and gave me good counsel.  I knew what I had to do…I had to call each and every friend that I had hurt and offended on that trip and I had to apologize.  Further, I asked these friends, who all forgave me immediately, to hold me accountable to the changes I was committing to.  I wanted OUT of this prison of self pity and I needed help and support.  The rest is a bit of a blur, but I can tell you this.  Once I exposed this dark, secretive area of my life to the light, it never again had power over me.  I began to recognize and reject self pity in myself, rather than to feed it.

This all happened over ten years ago and I’m guessing that nobody really even remembered it, until I brought it up again in this blog post.  While I would have preferred to let sleeping dogs lie, I realize that it is important to remember and rejoice at the freedom I now have from this stupid curse called self pity.  Recently, this familiar, ugly temptation came back to me in a big way.  I mean, seriously…if you can’t feel sorry for yourself when you’ve just been handed a CANCER diagnosis….when can you??  The answer is: never.  Self pity has tried to weasel its way back into my life several times over the last few months, thankfully, to no avail.  It takes on crafty forms, often using well-meaning friends and family to entice me back in.

I know that this is a time that I must focus on myself and my own healing, but that is not synonymous with embracing a “woe is me” mentality.  Every single day that I wake up, I am obliged to take inventory of my physical and emotional state.  My team of doctors require that I keep a “side effect” journal to track my symptoms and progress.  Along with this, I also keep a journal of amazing things in my life that I have to be grateful for every day.  I easily have twice as many things to be thankful for on a daily basis, than I have pain or other miserable side effects of cancer and chemotherapy.  Despite all that I am facing right now…my life is amazingly good.  I am blessed in immeasurable ways and God’s grace is always sufficient.  Self pity has no hold on me because I chose to take away its power.  What has control over your life right now?  Do you need to take your power back?  Expose your secrets to the Light, find a friend who will walk the road with you, and live fearlessly!