Let’s talk about trees for a minute. I wouldn’t consider myself a “tree hugger” per se but I’ve always loved them. They are amazing, supportive, strong, resilient, and adaptable… not to mention they give us shade, clean oxygen to breathe and many other valuable resources.
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, my oldest son gave me a small tree as a Christmas gift. I’ve had a lot of time to think and during that time, it has patiently sat on my bedside table since the beginning. It is special to me, not just because it was a gift but because of its rich symbolism.
Also, I recently listened to one of Pete Scazzero’s podcasts that a friend shared. It touched on a tree’s need for wind. So I did some research and thought it was the perfect introduction to my story…
In a nutshell, trees need wind in order to survive. How do we know this? Thanks to a science research facility now owned by the University of Arizona. In the Biosphere 2 project, they created a dome to study Earth’s living systems. The trees inside the Biosphere 2 grew at a faster rate than those in the wild but would collapse before reaching complete maturity.
Why? Scientists were surprised to find this was due to lack of wind in the biosphere. Trees in the wild develop something called stress wood which helps with optimal sun absorption and overall solid growth. In conclusion, trees need to weather stress in order to thrive long term.
“He will be strong, like a tree planted near water that sends its roots by a stream. It is not afraid when the days are hot; its leaves are always green. It does not worry in a year when no rain comes; it always produces fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:8)
As October is upon us and I reflect on breast cancer awareness month, where do I begin? Our words have tremendous power but can they begin to describe what the past year has been like for my family? I was literally jerked from a life that seemed to have it all…a loving husband, two growing boys (16 & 12 at the time) and an accomplished real estate career.
We spent most days running in opposite directions in the relentless pursuit of an idealism that would slip through my fingers. The more I tried to grasp, the more disconnected I felt. I was seeking a sense of purpose which would evolve in a most unexpected way.
It began on November 25, 2019 when I went for my first routine mammogram at 42 years old. It was just one more thing to mark off my “to do” list. I had been perfectly healthy my entire life…my only visits to the hospital being to deliver our boys many
years before. I happily greeted the radiologist as she entered the exam room. She was beautiful (Angelina Jolie beautiful) but she didn't smile back as she shook my hand. It was then that I knew something was very wrong.
I felt perfectly fine (ZERO symptoms!) but had a 5 cm malignant tumor in my right breast with an involved lymph node under my arm. This couldn’t be happening! I was a runner, a yogi, I drank green juice, took supplements and ate healthier than most people I knew. Cancer happened to “sick” people, people with health issues, people with a family history…not to me, not to my family.
The type of breast cancer I had was triple positive, invasive ductile carcinoma, stage
2B with lymph node involvement. The fact that the grade of my cancer was a 3 (faster growing/more likely to spread/angry tumor) was most concerning to my healthcare team. I was advised there was a 50/50 chance that the cancer had spread to my liver and/or bones which would change my prognosis considerably. A PET scan would determine the outcome.
As you can imagine, this was the most terrifying obstacle of my journey with my first chemotherapy treatment coming in at a close second. I was very open about my diagnosis and as a result, a great deal of prayer warriors emerged for which I found solace. After lots of prayer requests near and far, my cancer had NOT spread! My cancer was treatable. Yes, I had a long road ahead of me but I was going to live!
That was all I needed to know. Divine blessings beyond my wildest imagination continued to pour over us in our grief and turmoil. So much so that some of it wouldn’t even sound believable if I told you! A few of the highlights were coming home from Dana Farber Cancer Institute to our home entirely decorated (interior & exterior) for Christmas and then a parade of friends and neighbors lining our street for blocks, cheering me on as I came home from my last chemotherapy treatment on March 30, 2020. I felt like a princess…a very sick one (minus the tiara) but a princess nonetheless! I will never forget that day as long as I live.
“With God’s power working in us, God can do much, much more than anything we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20)
From very early on, I developed a mantra that I would repeat to myself over and over in the coming months. When my mind would race, if I had a difficult procedure or if I was sick or fearful (more days than I could count!). It was very simple yet all encompassing. It was this…
• My God never leaves my side.
• My God can be trusted.
• My God is good.
Chemotherapy was the first part of my treatment plan which started 17 days after being diagnosed. The ten months that followed would challenge my physical, emotional and mental strength in ways I could never prepare for or imagine. I literally could not think past the day I was living without becoming overwhelmed about what might loom around the bend. I believe each woman battling breast cancer is given a “Pink” Angel (who is also a Survivor) to guide them through the process. I was no exception and I don’t know what I would have done without her by my side.
My treatment plan would be a full year consisting of several biopsies, countless scans, six chemotherapy infusions (taxotere, carboplatin, herceptin, & perjeta aka TCHP), multiple surgeries, five weeks of radiation therapy, more “maintenance” (herceptin & perjeta aka HP) infusions and miscellaneous shots/oral medications with their plethora of side effects.
Surviving would become my job…one I intended to take very seriously. Obviously this was very different for this working girl and Mom accustomed to her annual well visit and maybe routine blood work. I couldn’t sit still for five minutes. My chemotherapy treatments would be six plus hours sitting in a chair attached to an IV pole. How exactly was this going to work?? I was about to find out.
“Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Lord himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.” (Exodus 14:13-14)
A miracle would also unfold before my eyes…an immense power spilling over despite my weak and vulnerable state. A power that inspired my family and friends, a power that would invoke boldness and courage, a power that would renew my marriage, a power that would provide strength and wisdom for each and every day of my long journey. The miraculous power of the Holy Spirit was working in and through me.
“But He said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, my strength is made perfect in weakness, Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor. 12:9)
People were listening. More than ever. And I felt empowered (by the Holy Spirit) to be transparent with others regarding the struggles and triumphs I was experiencing. I’m normally more of a private person. I, along with my entire family were literally living and feeling the power of the prayers. I have never experienced anything like it. It was truly amazing!! I think it is so interesting that by making myself vulnerable, we received the love and support we so desperately needed.
In my eyes, I had been faithful since my twenties but this time was different. My unsettling circumstances would require an utter and complete surrender to my Heavenly Father…I chose to reach for His hand in a childlike trust. This may sound easy but I can assure you it was not. I groped in the darkness out of desperation, not because I’m some “perfect” Christian…quite the opposite. It’s because I’m broken and I need a Savior. It has been a daily discipline to choose faith over feelings.
During this period, I was blown away by the love and support we felt from our community. There were blessings to be found around every corner whether it was a meal, a chat, visit, gift on our front porch, help with our boys, a heartfelt text, and even a small hand painted rock anonymously left in our yard saying “You Are Loved.” Well, I did feel loved and it helped sustain me on those really tough days.
“Every good action and every perfect gift is from God. These good gifts come down from the Creator of the sun, moon, and stars, who does not change like their shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)
Have there been questions, tears, scars, pain, illness, anger, confusion, infections, insomnia, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and sheer terror? Yes. I still experience many of these symptoms on a daily basis. Oh and let’s not forget to throw COVID-19 in there to top it all off! However, I am not alone in my fight.
I truly thank God for my husband who shaved my head, helped me up and down the stairs when I was too weak to walk, and picked me up off the floor of our home a few times during my bouts of unconsciousness (among a million other things!). After almost twenty years, I love him now more than ever. He has set an example for our boys as a kind, strong leader who leans in when the going gets tough. I can only hope and pray that this experience will instill empathy in our boys that will carry over to their own families someday.
I am changing, growing, learning patience, humility, weathering the elements, waiting for signs of spring. Speaking of stress wood, I should have enough to survive hurricane Irma by now! I have also found myself appreciating things I never noticed before. Little things…that ultimately make up this thing we call life.
And although the process has been painful, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’ll never be the same and I’m better off for it. Even in my suffering, I accept God’s plan for my life. I feel like there was a crusty layer around my heart that has been sloughed off, exposing a healthy, pink flesh ready to love, accept, serve.
“God gave you the honor not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for him, both of which bring glory to Christ.” (Philippians 1:29)
My “Pink” Angel shared something with me early on that has stuck with me. She said, “I’d take this disease all over again for the person it made me today.” Think about that for a minute. The perfect example of how there is always a silver lining to be found in our struggles.
I believe in restoration. I believe God takes our broken pieces and carefully weaves them into a beautiful work of art. The messy kind that has no plan or borders with everything left to interpretation.
“For I will restore health to you and heal you of your wounds,” says the Lord. (Jeremiah 30:17)
I’ve been fighting for almost a year now and still actively undergoing treatment with “maintenance” (HP) infusions until December 2020. Is there collateral damage? Sure. Will I have limitations I didn’t have before? Probably. There’s no amount of makeup that can cover a much more pronounced furrow in my brow.
But I’m alive and God willing, I will indeed be restored to complete health. My most recent scans showed a complete pathological response to chemotherapy (basically just a fancy way of saying that my treatment was effective). Although there’s no way to prove my cancer is completely eradicated, I now consider myself cancer free wearing the Survivor badge with honor! I chose my cancer birthday as August 21, 2020 which was when I completed the radiation portion of my treatment plan.
“My whole being, praise the Lord and do not forget all his kindnesses. He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases. He saves my life from the grave and loads me with love and mercy.” (Psalm 103:2-4)
So yes, I’ve gone dormant for a little while…slowing down, swaying with the breeze, weathering the elements, standing up tall, digging down deep into the fertile soil, strengthening my roots. I’m determined to bring purpose from this awful disease. I’m not sure what that looks like yet but know it will be revealed in God’s perfect time.
The Lord says, “Forget what happened before, and do not think about the past. Look at the new thing I am going to do. It is already happening. Don’t you see it? I will make a road in the desert and rivers in the dry land.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
My message for breast cancer awareness month is no one EVER thinks it will happen to them. Trust me, I know the feeling all too well! One in eight women in the United States will be affected. Your monthly self checks and annual mammograms are more important than ever. If you’re not comfortable and/or in a routine of doing monthly self checks, what will it take for you to get comfortable? Is it talking to your doctor or a close friend? Is it watching a YouTube video from a trusted source? Ask questions. Get comfortable. Don’t stick your head in the sand. Unfortunately, it is simply not enough to do all the “right” things.
As for me, I’ll forage ahead trusting Jesus to clear my path of healing day by day. My doctors say it will take a full year to fully recover from my treatment. I’m hoping it doesn’t take that long. But in the meantime, I’ll put on my favorite pair of jeans, turn up the Lauren Daigle, bask my face in the sun, rock the pixie haircut, laugh more, and delight in watching our boys become young men. I’m going to thank God for every day that I’m given and relish in the simple joys that were always right in front of me.
“Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.” (Deut 31:8)
I dedicate this to Kimberly Ayers Vining who lost her battle to breast cancer on October 16, 2012. She was 49 years old. Kim inspires me to keep fighting and I’m certain she is cheering me on from heaven. She could light up a room with her smile and her loved ones miss her dearly.