Friday, May 11, 2018

Like a Zip-Line


On Wednesday, even before I met with my surgeon for the biopsy results, I was thinking that I wanted to start this post with "glory to God" whether the results came back benign or not. Why? Because I want God to be glorified either way!

My daughter Leah and I had a precious conversation in the kitchen before we left for my appointment. "Mommy, if God's fought cancer twice," she said, "He can do it again." Then she added, "I was going to say, 'If you've fought cancer twice' . . . but I read this morning about how God fought Israel's battles, and He always wanted them to give Him the glory." 


Meeting with the surgeon this time felt all-too-familiar, but different, too. I think I was calmer. Proverbs 3:5 had come to me so strongly the day before: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding."¹

Then a friend sent me a passage from the book Jesus Calling: 365 Devotions for Kids: "If you learn to trust Me--really trust Me--with all your heart and soul, then nothing can separate you from My Peace. I can use all your problems--even huge ones--to train you in trusting Me. . . .Don't be afraid of what this day--or any day--might bring. Put your energy into trusting Me. Remind yourself that I am in complete control, and I can bring good out of any situation."

"Trust in the Lord with ALL your heart." "Put your energy into trusting Me." Ahhhh! Those words carried me through Tuesday, the day before the verdict.

But I still greeted Wednesday with trembling. Why? I had hoped this time was going to be different, that my faith would be stronger. 

And then I realized: you can be scared and still trust.

Have you ever ridden a zip-line? I well remember the first time I rode one at camp. I was terrified to do it ~ but still, it intrigued me. And the counselor assured me it was perfectly safe. So I let him strap me into the harness and hook it to the cable. Through my fear, I stepped off the ledge, and zipped safely to the opposite hillside. It was exhilarating! I did it again, and again ~ soon feeling brave enough to step off the ledge backwards.

My first zip-line at The Wilds
I've ridden many zip-lines since then ~ always terrified beforehand, and always thrilled when I'm flying through the air, completely dependent on the harness and the singing wire above me.

I realized yesterday that this appointment was just like a zip-line. It's normal to be nervous. It's possible to feel afraid, yet still have complete faith that the harness will hold you.

Sitting in the exam room, waiting for the doctor to come in, was the longest 5 minutes of this entire week of waiting. Greg and I made small talk, tried to prepare our responses, looked at the wall, the floor . . . finally I heard footsteps approaching the door. "Here he comes . . . " I whispered. Then I heard his voice even before I saw him: "I was right!" he boomed, as he flung aside the curtain and came into the room. "Fat necrosis!" I thought he was going to dismiss us with a quick, "Adios!" But he sat down to discuss the good news and what it meant. "There is absolutely nothing that worries me about this," he reaffirmed

My pathology report reads: "Fibrous scar, fat necrosis with foamy histiocytic reaction." How do you pronounce that?!! But what I really cared about were the words: "Negative for malignancy." Whew.

There's a line that I love from the movie Princess Diaries: "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something is greater than that fear." For me, that's God.

Glory to Him! Truly. I hope that those who have prayed me through this will rejoice in a positive answer. "He saved them for the sake of His name, that He might make His power known."² That's what I want to do, no matter where this journey takes me.

¹The Bible, Proverbs 3:5 (NASB)
²The Bible, Psalm 106:8 (NASB)

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Almost Normal

I have a yearly MRI now. Plus mammogram. And sometimes ultrasound.

About every other year they come back with questionable results. (That's why a breast MRI has been added to the lineup.) And I'm in that place again.

My mammogram came back clear last month, but the MRI showed an area of "enhancement" near some "fat necrosis." (The necrosis had been noted last year, but the enhancement is new.) So my oncologist sent me for a breast ultrasound; and afterwards, the radiologist recommended a biopsy.

She explained it like this: the fat necrosis is nothing to worry about. Although it can look really nasty on the imaging, mimicking cancer, it's a normal response to the radiation, where some cells die off.

But the area of concern is a small "shadow" adjacent to the fat necrosis. It could just be more fat necrosis; but there's no way to be absolutely sure from imaging alone. That's why the radiologist wanted to do a biopsy. "I'm concerned, but I'm not," she told me that Friday. "Don't go home worried. Don't let it spoil your weekend."

So I went home and worked through my post-exam routine. (I'm getting used to this!) Whom should I contact first? Text or call Mom and Dad, the kids, and a few others. Then update my FB status. 

When I talked by phone with my son Josiah that afternoon, he said, "Mom, don't take this wrong or be offended . . . but this is starting to feel normal. When I got your text, I almost shrugged. Then I thought, 'Here we go again.'"

I'm not offended. He's right! This feels 'way too normal. And it always seems to happen at the same time of year: either Christmas (when we're welcoming our kids home and planning festive celebrations) or spring (when we're gardening and planning family road trips). Yes, indeed. Here we go again!

I sometimes wonder why I continue to go through these times of testing and waiting. Is there something more that God wants me to learn? Last fall I caught part of a radio program where the speaker (I believe it was Chuck Swindoll) said, "No test is by accident. They are all by design." If that is true, then what would it look like for me to pass this test?

I think the answer lies in what my mind and heart do in the waiting.

There's a part of me that's telling myself, "It's cancer," just because this is following a previous pattern of events. But if I've noticed a pattern in my testing, I've also noticed a pattern in my response. It's similar each time; but thank God, it's improving. I've learned a few things along the way.

About rest

When I was going through chemo five years ago, I had to rest. At some points in the treatment cycle, I just stayed in bed ~ reading, napping, doing cross-word puzzles and sudoku, and listening to audio lessons from Simplifiy101. My family handled housework and meals, friends brought food for us, my parents came often to help ~ everyone took good care of me.

And I enjoyed it! Well, part of the time. It was hard for me to let others do jobs that I thought I should be doing. And as the weeks dragged on, I did start to get a little bored. (I had never thought I'd get tired of reading!)

But I have to admit: sometimes I miss those days. Now, I see biopsies and surgeries as an opportunity to take advantage of a rest period. 

Before my biopsy last Wednesday, I announced that I was taking the rest of the day off. How nice to come home afterwards, crawl into bed, and get caught up on some much-needed sleep and some reading! My family kept tabs on me, and Greg fixed a delicious dinner for us. It was good to give myself permission to take a health holiday.

I'm learning to look forward to these enforced times of relaxation!

About work

Two years ago, when I was waiting for the results of another biopsy, I threw myself into yardwork, gardening as if my life depended on it. Last December, while waiting for a breast ultrasound verdict, I had the busyness of decorating for Christmas to distract me. And this month I've been organizing my house and purging papers. Along the way, I've learned that hard work is an antidote for worry. 

When I'm working away at something I love, my adrenaline flows, my heart rate goes up, I breathe ~ and for a little while I can forget the worry and loss that I'm facing.

About worry

I confess: I'm a worrier. When I was in college, I saw a poster that said something like: "Worry must work ~ most of the things I worry about never happen!" I've sort of taken that as my mantra.

But what good does worry really do? If this is cancer, worrying about it won't change the outcome. And if it's not cancer, then worrying was a total waste of time! Jesus said, " . . . can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?"¹

It already is whatever it is, whether cancer or not. And either way, it doesn't change what I'm doing today. It might change what I'm doing next week, or next month ~ but a thousand other things that I don't even know about could also change my future! I see why Jesus said: "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."²

My heart trembles a little as I write this, knowing that tomorrow morning at 10:00 I will be sitting in my surgeon's office to hear my sentence read. The "what ifs" loom larger as the time draws near.

But I cling to the words: "Don't worry about anything."³ It's like God is saying, "I've got this under control. I'll take care of everything." He wants me to trust Him ~ with all my heart.⁴ So I'm trying to sit back, relax, and watch with curiosity to see what He's going to do!

¹The Bible, Matthew 6:24 (NRSV)
²The Bible, Matthew 6:34 (NIV)
³The Bible, Philippians 4:6 (NLT)
The Bible, Proverbs 3:5 (NASB)

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Choosing Chemo

Five years ago today, I started chemotherapy. I can never forget the date. "Tax Day" will always be "Chemo Day" to me.

How well I remember my fear as I faced this treatment. I did not want to go through chemotherapy. I had hoped my doctors would say that surgery and radiation were enough. But because my cancer was triple-negative (meaning it was not fed by estrogen, progesterone, or HER2 and could not be treated with hormone therapy), they also wanted me to do 6 rounds of chemotherapy.

Of course, I always had the option to refuse the treatment if I wanted to.

During the month between my post-op pathology report and the start of chemo, as I began to feel better following surgery, I kept asking myself, "Why am I doing chemotherapy again?" I felt just fine. Was it really necessary to put my body through all that?

I had been given several books to read about alternative cancer treatments. My chemo was scheduled to start on a Monday. So I decided to take Sunday afternoon to decide once and for all on my course of treatment. [FYI: I do not recommend doing this the day before!]

These books ran the gamut from beating cancer with nutrition to bizarre "quack" treatments that sometimes required travel to remote places. And in between was the suggestion of modified treatments, going through surgery/chemo/radiation with the support of complementary therapies. There was lots of interesting information, and many miraculous stories of survival ~ but the more I read, the more confused I became.

Evening came on, and I laid down the last book in frustration and despair. Later I admitted to Greg, "I'm just so scared!" and melted into helpless tears.

But then it was like God quietly spoke to my heart: "Anne, are you ready to listen to Me now? You've taken in all this advice from everyone else. Do you want to hear what I have to say?"

Of course I did. How could I not? He made me! He understood my body best of all. He knew exactly what I needed.

As a child I had memorized: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?"* But around the time of my diagnosis and surgery, I had been reading Calm My Anxious Heart. Author Linda Dillow challenged me to look at the context surrounding these verses. And this is what I found:

  Thus says the LORD:
  Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
     and make mere flesh their strength,
     whose hearts turn away from the LORD.
  They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
     and shall not see when relief comes.
  They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
     in an uninhabited salt land.
  Blessed are those who trust in the LORD,
     whose trust is the LORD.
  They shall be like a tree planted by water,
     sending out its roots by the stream.
  It shall not fear when heat comes, 
     and its leaves shall stay green;
  in the year of drought it is not anxious,
     and it does not cease to bear fruit.*

And then, later in the passage:

  Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed;
     save me, and I shall be saved;
     for you are my praise.*

That was it! That was the answer! My healing would not come from traditional therapies or alternative therapies or complementary therapies, although God might choose to use them. If I were healed, my healing would come from Him!

I chose to go through with chemotherapy and trust God with the result. I thank Him for giving me five years (and counting!) since then to spend with my family and friends. And, because of Jesus, I still have eternity to look forward to! 

All this . . . and Heaven, too!

*Old Testament, Jeremiah 17:9
*Old Testament, Jeremiah 17:5-8
*Old Testament, Jeremiah 17:14

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Marking Five Years

Five years ago today, after the darkest week of my life, I underwent surgery for breast cancer. 

Today, at almost exactly the same time, I am sitting in the waiting room with Greg before he undergoes surgery to repair his nose ~ a deviated septum that has affected his breathing for years.

This feels so ironic to me. My dad once asked, when I was visiting him in the hospital, if it was hard for me to be there after all I'd gone through. And I quipped, "No ~ it's just nice to be on this side of the bed!" Today, I get to be there again, caring for my husband as I've been cared for.

A poem has been running through my head ~ a poem that I first heard as a highschooler and then saw on a poster as a young adult. There's quite some controversy about who wrote it, and I believe it's in the public domain: so I'm going to include here the bits that have lodged themselves in my heart.

Don't Quit

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low, and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don't you quit.

Life is queer with its twists and its turns
As every one of us sometimes learns . . .
Don't give up though the pace seems slow,
You may succeed with another blow . . .

Success is failure turned inside out, 
The silver tint to the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are ~
You may be near when it seems so far.
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit ~
It's when things seem worst that you must not quit!

Press on, my friends! God has a plan for your life ~ what happens today prepares you for what you'll face tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Grief . . . and Hope

Five years ago on February 20, I received what I believed was the worst news of my life. I was told that I had breast cancer. I ached as I watched my family struggle and cry. I felt numb, scared, and a little angry as I faced surgery, chemo, radiation, and an uncertain future.

Five years later, that is no longer the worst news of my life. Last Friday, we received word that a young man who was very close to our family had suddenly passed away in his sleep. Our world has been rocked to the core.

We spent the last six months getting to know Thomas through the eyes of our children, but it feels like we knew him so much longer. He blessed our family with his wisdom and wit. He had a way of focusing his entire attention on whomever he was with at that moment. He had the incredible ability of becoming whatever was necessary to meet the needs in another person's life. He has left a legacy in our family, and will always be a part of our home and our hearts.

We sit in a holding pattern, grieving and reminiscing, clinging to each other and the memories of Thomas that we share, as well as the hope of meeting him in Heaven someday. And we know we will move forward. We know Thomas would want us to. He would say, in the words of Jim Elliot: "Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God."

And I've learned something. I've learned that bad news is relative. But the remedy is always the same ~ run to Jesus for the hope and peace that only He can give.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

God With Us

I've just come through another scare. Right at Christmastime, again.

Funny how a routine visit to the doctor can turn into déjà vu . . . x2? x3? x4? How many times have I been down this road?

Three weeks ago I found a little spot near my most recent scar. Not a lump, exactly ~ but something that felt different to me. Was it scar tissue? Had it been there before? I couldn't be sure.

The next day I had an already-scheduled appointment with my family doctor to discuss my colonoscopy screening and some heart issues I've been having, so in the course of the visit I mentioned the spot to her.

She felt it and wasn't overly concerned, but suggested that I check in with my oncologist. I had a six-month check-up scheduled in a few weeks anyway. So I tabled the issue and went on with my life.

Then last Wednesday, I saw my oncologist. I always look forward to my visits with her. She has such a way of putting me at ease, talking me through my concerns and giving me hope. 

When I showed her the spot, she wasn't worried, either. But she said it wouldn't hurt to do a breast ultrasound, just to check it out and document the location. I readily agreed ~ better safe than sorry.

But as I left her office, the doubts and fears began to creep in. And after I'd shared the situation with Greg, we both began sliding into a dark hole, the same dark hole that we've been in several times before. 

All the memories came flooding back: for me, of tests and treatments and isolating fears; for Greg, of walking through this with me twice before . . . but even more deeply, of losing his own mom to cancer when he was only 15 years old. These memories may fade, but they can re-appear in full colour in a heartbeat.

The hospital scheduled my ultrasound within just two days. But those 48 hours were still long enough for us to convince ourselves that the results would not be good.

In the darkness of Friday morning, as I woke on the day of the test, I whispered from my heart, "God, please remind me that you are with me today."

And He whispered back, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."

The Greatest Gift, by Ann Voskamp, is an Advent book of devotionals I've been walking through this month. On that morning, December 8, the reading was from Genesis 28 ~ God's promise to Jacob: "Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go . . . I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."¹ Another word from the Lord!

Then I turned to the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke. My son had recently shared with me how moved he was by Mary's response to her impossible assignment. So that morning before the ultrasound, I decided to read it again.

Sometimes a passage of Scripture, so quotable it's become cliché, suddenly pulses with powerful meaning for me in the moment. This was one of those times. And though the words were spoken to a specific Jewish girl at a specific time in history, their message resonated across two thousand years and sank deep into my soul.

"The Lord is with you."²

"Do not be afraid."³

"Nothing will be impossible with God."⁴

And then Mary's sweet response:  "Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word."⁵

I carried those words with me to the hospital. And God was there for me! In the next 48 hours as I waited for the results, He gave me so many reminders of His favor ~ not the least of which was the opportunity to empathize with several others who are facing their own medical tests.

It's a funny thing about worrying while you wait. If the news turns out to be good, then all that energy spent on worry has been wasted. But if the news turns out to be bad, all that worry won't help you deal with it when the time comes.

I'm not sure it will even soften the blow. By Sunday night my heart was lurching every time I imagined a phone call from my doctor's office the next day. I finally had to just hang onto the hope that everything would be fine ~ although my sleep was still restless.

And then, early Monday morning, the call came: "Nothing to worry about." Hallelujah! Praise God from Whom all blessings flow! Of course, I still want to meet with my doctor and ask some more questions, but now that can wait until after the new year. I feel like I've been given a new lease on life!  

Sometimes I wonder, will I ever be completely free of this fear? Will there ever come a day when my gut doesn't wrench and my heart doesn't clutch with the thought of what could be? Knowing myself, probably not. But I also know that God will be there to walk with me, whether through life or through death. 

And that's what we celebrate at Christmastime ~ Jesus . . . 
                                                                                  Immanuel . . . 
                                                                                      God with us.⁶

Typography by my friend Victoria

¹Genesis 28:15
² Luke 1:28
³ Luke 1:30
⁴ Luke 1:37
⁵ Luke 1:38
⁶ Matthew 1:23

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Second Time Around

My last post was eighteen months ago. Yes, there's a reason. And I'm here to take up the tale.  

But first, let me say with gratefulness . . . I am here! And I've reached another milestone. Last month, I turned 50! Since facing cancer almost 5 years ago, I have welcomed every birthday with open arms. And now they are doubly special, because of what happened just a dozen days after my last post.

On May 20, 2016, I went for my annual mammogram. The doctors had ordered a breast ultrasound, too, as a precaution after my questionable mammo results in 2015. Even though I was 3 years out from cancer, my heart was still anxious as I faced these routine tests.

And it grew more anxious the longer I lay on the ultrasound table. When the technician left to consult with the radiologist, and then came back to take another look, I was sure something must be up. I met my husband in the waiting room afterwards and, with fearful resignation, voiced, "I think they saw something. I want to talk to my doctor."

A quick walk around the medical arts building revealed that neither my family doctor nor my oncologist were in. (It was Friday afternoon on Victoria Day weekend here in Canada, and the hospital was eerily quiet.) As a last resort, we headed down the hall to the Breast Health Centre, and there I received news that sent my heart into my throat. The results of the ultrasound were already in ~ and they wanted to do a biopsy.

"We can get you in on Wednesday," the compassionate receptionist said. I just looked at Greg. We already had plans for the following week. We were to be in Ohio on a family vacation. Our boys were coming from their college towns and we were all going to be together. I had been so excited ~ this was going to be the "re-do" of my worst vacation ever, a chance to relax and rejoice with my family and put the spectre of cancer behind me. 

Instead, it felt like deja vu. 

We decided I should have the biopsy as soon as possible, even if it meant changing our vacation plans. Greg called the chalet where we had reservations, and they graciously offered to send us a gift card to use at another time. Our boys came home anyway and we had some precious, funny family days together.

The day of the biopsy, I woke up singing, "If Jesus goes with me, I'll go . . . anywhere!" My quiet time brought me the great encouragement of God's presence. My surgeon wasn't worried, and the radiologist was kind. I kept repeating my surgeon's words, that even if it was cancer it would be "early stage and curable."

The next day we headed to the States on an abbreviated family trip. And it was wonderful. I've been through these scares enough to notice a pattern ~ even though I stand aloof, isolated from my loved ones by my bubble of personal pain, I feel a depth and sweetness to our time together. Maybe I appreciate it more.

We wandered through Stratford, ON; browsed thrift stores; walked on the shores of Lake Huron; made a spontaneous stop to look at the teardrop campers I've always admired; and took the ferry across Lake Huron into Michigan (something we'd never done before). Then, a scenic drive along a peninsula in Lake St. Clair, a walk downtown to a frozen custard shop, a nephew's graduation open house and time with extended family . . . it all seemed special, even though fear still nagged at my soul. 

One week after my biopsy, we sat in the waiting room at the Breast Health Centre again. These are the hardest moments for me . . . the breathless waiting while your future hangs in the balance. After all the other patients had been seen, we were taken into an exam room. And I heard the dreaded words: "This is breast cancer." Again.

My surgeon was surprised. My oncologist (whom we saw later in the day) was surprised. This kind of thing (a second breast cancer on the opposite side) doesn't happen very often. But they were both convinced that it was a completely different cancer from the first one, and that it was slow-growing and very treatable.

And so, in the summer of 2016, we made room for cancer . . . again. I felt more prepared to handle it this time around, but we had so much on our calendar already. "I don't have time for cancer!" I chafed. We basically just squeezed the treatments in between everything else we had planned.

Looking back, I don't know how we did it. In between church activities and six family trips, we scheduled a lumpectomy and several follow-up appointments. We also celebrated our kids' birthdays and twenty-five years of marriage.

And I found that I wasn't as prepared as I thought. Even though I'd been through all of this before and knew what to expect, waiting for the pathology report after my surgery was still terrifying. I felt paralyzed by fear and all of the "what-ifs." 

But looking back, I also see the hand of God so clearly. I see His perfect timing, and His grace in allowing us to carry on with all the special things we had planned. I see how he met me for sweet fellowship during my quiet time. I see providential meetings where He brought people into my life to share a word from Him. I see phone calls with sweet encouragement from faithful friends and new acquaintances. I see sermons and worship songs that spoke directly to me in my need.

Praise God! Although the pathology report came back five days late, He kept me quite calm while I waited. And as my doctors had expected, the news was good:  the lymph nodes were clear; the tumor was small and slow-growing; the cancer was only stage 1A. It was indeed a completely different cancer, not a metastasis from the first time around. I would only face radiation (not chemo) this time; but because this cancer was fed by hormones, I would need to take Tamoxifen for at least five years. And so the second journey began.

When I was diagnosed the first time, the stories that encouraged me the most came from people who'd survived cancer more than once. Now I'm happy to join them ~ to share with people that the lessons you learn the first time through a trial really can help you through the second. "God goes before you. Don't be afraid!" *

*Old Testament, Deuteronomy 31:8