Before I get going with this post I have to do a shoutout to my wonderful husband who continues to be a patient, gentle, sadly neglected strength, to my children who are all doing what they can to help me, and to family, friends and colleagues who encourage and support. So many people to help me carry my loads, and who pray for me, each in their own ways. I feel it and I cherish you. I have been studying Psalms lately, and this has kind of come out like a psalm. They often include an account of suffering and desolation followed by a burst of hope and light. I hope that comes across here.
It has been a really long while. In my last post I had finished chemo and (I forgot to share) a bad bout of hives as my immune system must have done a kick start, trying to shed all the foreign material. I had just had my first session of radiation therapy, the start of 16 days of going to the hospital, lying down on a hulking machine built out of an uncomfortable marriage of the miracle of human imagination and innovation and the terror of death. Getting burned from the inside out on a patch of my body less than 12 square inches. Burned with light. From the inside out. An interesting metaphor as I sit here 2 and a half months later after a very brutal few weeks.
I have lost a little bit of my grip on the passage of time and even the order of things. When last I wrote I was feeling my energy coming back. I felt excited to be sensing that inner core of strength again. Well, that was short lived. The radiation sessions weren’t too bad. But I had been told there would be “skin changes” and that I would be exhausted as my body recovered from the treatments. In the exact timeline described to me (without the following important details, mind you) my skin began to slowly boil and erupt into blisters and weeping fluid and shedding cells. And pain, and itch, and weep, and smell. First, though, I had to go through the mother of a cough and cold. Not Co-Vid, I tested myself four times. But a heavy racking cough that shattered the inside of my head and came from the bottom of my lungs, and left me limp and ragged. Or did that happen at the same time as the hives? I honestly can’t remember.
Then came the extreme fatigue. So much the harder because I had started feeling strong again. And with the fatigue the spectre of depression reared its ugly head again. It was as if I was suspended in a sort of purgatory, with no end in sight. No sooner did one thing start to improve when I was hit with the next wave. All of this happened within just a few weeks but each wave felt like it would never end. I finished treatment on July 4th. I went back to GP for three weeks to the first week of August. I took it easy but still did what I could, spending time with family out at a friends peaceful acreage, helping organize some work bees, did office work and financial stuff for a few days and a bit more hanging out with kids and grandkids, then home for three weeks.
I remember, before coming home that time, starting to feel a pep in my step. I was so thrilled to find that I had actually almost run up the 17 steps in our building to the second floor offices. I came home and crashed as the well documented schedule of radiation therapy predicted. I have been struggling with brain fog, lack of focus, and discomfort as I endure the side effects of estrogen repression meds on top of everything else. Insomnia, depression and lack of motivation, panic and stress for all that needs to be done and all that I am responsible for. It can be crushing and soul sucking. Like swimming against the current with lead boots on.
My treatments are done and everyone asks me, so is the cancer gone now? Oh how I hope so. But I will not know because there are no tests offered to tell me one way or the other. I guess I am in remission? But no one has actually said that officially to me. I only have the anecdotal knowledge of many people who have battled cancer for decades to comfort me on that front. And yes, that was meant as sarcastically as it sounds. Metastasized, aggressive breast cancer is not something you are ever really free from. The prognosis is: hope for a cancer free rest of your life but be prepared to battle this a few more times and keep living your best life in between and in spite of until it flares up somewhere there is no coming back from and you finally say, “I am done, pass the morphine.”
Cancer free? It hasn’t all been bad. There has been so much good as I see and feel the love of those around me, buoying me up, giving me space to go through this, keeping me grounded to all the wonderful things. I have definitely had cancer free moments, when I have laid aside this heavy load and lived away from it for a little while. I have enjoyed precious times with family, snuggled grandkid littles, helped big grandkids learn the value of work and earn some dollars, welcomed and held a new grandbaby with another just arriving today, actually, who I am excited to meet and welcome into this big scary, crazy, beautiful world!
I have had good talks with children and dear friends. I started going to church again, and reconnected with loved ones there. I am learning and discovering things about myself, my faith, my determination, my dreams, my hopes, my strength and convictions that help me move beyond cancer. I am increasing in compassion, patience, overcoming, enduring and growing. Also, I no longer go about wearing hats. I am baring my short-cropped hair and it continues to grow daily.
Cancer free? I don’t know about that. However, I know I can be free from cancer. Which is not exactly the same, but probably better. I know that this burden has been held for me, if I will let it go. All through this time and this journey through myriad discomforts and mortifications ( and please don’t get me wrong, or think me ungrateful, I know there are others who have it far worse than I do, but this is my journey), I have been battling to get a better grip on my spiritual anchors, and strengthen the habits and consistencies of worship, gratitude, reflection, study, and sanctification.
I know this is where my strength and personal power truly resides. I know this is where the perspective I need to wade through the adversity and uncertainty comes from. I hold tight to the saving graces and tender mercies that are tethered to the anchored ship in the stormy sea. Or more accurately to that One who is walking across the water with His invitation to step out of the boat, to test my faith and resolve… to teach me faith and resolve… to help me test and trust in my faith and resolve. For now, keeping a tight grip on those tethers is mostly all I can do. Even though I want to walk out on the water to meet Him!
From a song I wrote near the beginning of this:
No solid ground, you’re lost you’re found,
Step forward, that’s where faith begins,
Look beyond what you can see and let the light shine in,
Let His Light shine in!
As you reach, you step, you falter, then you fall
Turn and see Him there beside you through it all!
A couple of nights ago I had a moment of breaking, praying, reaching. Sitting on the stairs weeping and asking, please tell me what to do, what is the most important thing to do? There is so much and I can’t do everything. There are those times when it feels like a purgatory. At other times, like that night, I see so clearly this fiery furnace, the refiners fire, searing through me, burning off the dross, if I will finally let it go, crystalizing my sight and vision, if I will truly open my eyes, stoking that faith fire within, if I willingly lean into it and take those first steps forward. And the message came so clear. Do everything. Because you can. You are made to be able to. You are my child. There is nothing you are doing now that you need to let go of. Just do. Trust. Breathe. And I felt peace again.
I know that sounds crazy, and I hope it doesn’t make me sound egotistical. But when I think about it, I have pared back my life into a simple structure of just a few things. Faith, Family, and Social Purpose. And there are things required of me in all those areas and yes it fills my life and keeps me busy and it's hard work. Some things I am doing in the midst of all of this and some are waiting to be done. We don't have to do everything all the time, just be constantly doing something! We are made to have purpose and intention, without it we flounder. I think the peace came because I made a decision to lean into it, to surrender to whatever is there, up ahead in my journey. Cancer or no, I have a calling, a vision of who I want to be and what I want to leave in the world. For what, and who I have been entrusted with in my various roles. There are multiple moving parts and I must find a way to do all of those parts justice.
But I also need to rest sometimes, and take it at my speed. Balance all the things as best I can. Not lose sight of the good that I came into this world to do in my family, my circle of friends, my community, and beyond, and in my own growth and progression. Both what I have been able to do and what has yet to be done. None of that has changed. And because of my recent, and let’s face it, continuing, brush with mortality, it is more imperative than ever that I use my time in the best ways toward all the best things. And that does include stopping to smell the roses, worshiping and meditating, learning and planning, loving, giving, serving, resting, grieving, rejoicing, creating, building, growing, saving, in all the ways I can at any given moment.
From another song just recently written:
I get to choose between hope and despair
With every circumstance, through every second chance
I will add to what’s there…
This is the only way I can truly be “Cancer Free.” I have to transcend the threat and fear and do what I can while I am here. None of us know how long that is. I know that all things will be made right and put in their proper place. I know that how we manage the struggles and the journey are the things that matter the most if we want to grow. And I know that I do not want to get to the other side of this, and realize I didn’t attend well to what mattered the most. Which is just to be the best person I can, do all that I can, and try to make a difference. I am not breaking this blog post up into the three parts of cancer, mental health and community today, like I usually do, because in this one they are all bound up together. This whole situation, like every crucible time, has been a tapestry of all three of these parts of myself. With the incandescent, incessant, overwhelming and overcoming threads of love and spirit, and sanctification woven through.
They really cannot be separated, not in living our real, best lives to our full power and potential as spiritual beings having a human experience. I am being burned with light from the inside out in more ways than just the radiation. It is not comfortable. But it is exquisite as much as it is excruciating. Maybe more so. I can come through this better and purer, if I choose. We all can, whatever crucibles we find ourselves in. Whatever physical or metaphoric mountains, valleys, fires, floods, wars and famines we are asked to endure. None of us are alone in this. If you are very still and really listen, you will know this to be true. I know. I have been here before.