Learning from cancer

So I’m reading a lot about suffering, struggles, sickness, etc. It’s heavy stuff. But it’s hopeful stuff. I’m making my way through Tim Keller’s excellent book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering.

Dr. Keller is a giant of the faith…super smart, wry sense of humor, a man who has had his own share of struggles. Yes, please. Give me a man who loves Jesus, has a PhD and has been through cancer – triple threat, Baby. (A far cry from the days when, to me, a real man was any guy who drove a Jeep, wore Birkenstocks and listened to Dave Matthews. Ick. If I met my 16 year old self now, I would basically hate her.)

So Tim Keller talks a lot about how our culture tells us that adversity, suffering and struggle are bad – they are something to get past so we can get on with real life. Suffering such as dealing with cancer is a life disruption, a snag, an interruption from our regularly scheduled programming. But reality – biblical, real life? It says this is IMPORTANT. It’s not an accident, it’s not punishment and it’s not to be squandered. Which brings about another one of my cancer boyfriends (i.e. spiritual advisors I have never personally met) John Piper – now, he’s said some, in my opinion, unnecessarily annoying things on some controversial subjects, but I choose to ignore those, and focus on the wisdom I think he does possess. His challenge to someone like me is “don’t waste your cancer.” Intriguing, no? It’s a whole new way of looking at this kind of situation. Here are some of the more interesting ideas:

You’ll waste your cancer if…

-you don’t believe it was designed for you by God. (Whoa! Can that be true? I think it probbaly is. It’s ok if you don’t. But think about God’s soveignty – if He’s in control of everything, He can choose what to allow and what not to.)

-you consider it only to be a curse and not a blessing. (Again. Whoa. My cancer can be a blessing. It’s hard to think this way, I know. But I can see how this is possible. It’s not easy to believe that might be true. But it’s worth some consideration.)

There are other interesting and challenging ideas in this piece. See them here.  http://m.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/don’t-waste-your-cancer-1383847.html

In other news, Mort the Port is healing well. I am gaining confidence in movement – at first, it just felt icky, and I did not want to move at all, worrying that I might dislodge it or something, but that is improving a lot. Chemo begins Thursday. I am pretty confident, however, it should be noted that I have a pattern that I’ve noticed. I don’t worry about upcoming doc appointments, I don’t think too much about them. I arrive in a sunny, calm mood, and suddenly unexpectedly intrusive, embarrasing or painful things are happening that I have not mentally or emotionally prepared for. So, I’m trying to consider that they will probably tell me something disappointing, ask me to take me clothes off or hurt me with a needle in a way that I was not expecting. I will report back later in the week, on what the unanticipated experience of the day is.

Mort the Port

Well, my friend/foe Mort the port has been installed.  He’s on my left side a couple inches below my collarbone, under the skin.  That general region is pretty sore, like a dislocated shoulder or something.  This is where they will access my circulatory system for my IV chemo.  They do this because veins get sick of being stuck and they can stop cooperating, which, I’m told is kind of terrible.  Hence, Mort.
I got some truly excellent news yesterday.  My prayer was answered and I’m going to be able to take one of my cancer drugs orally.  The original plan was to give me one IV drug at the cancer treatment center every two weeks, then send me home with a fanny pack attached to my port via tubes and wires, to deliver a kind of chemo.  For 48 hours.
Let back up for a second and talk about the fanny pack.  Umm.  Unless it’s 1991 and we’re at Kennywood, no.  Just no.  Also, I have a four year old.  She is already pissed that I can’t lift her up for three more weeks.  (After major abdominal surgery, for six weeks you can’t lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk.)  She also has to be careful around my incision – once she accidentally slapped me right in the belly.  I almost cried and she actually did because she felt so bad.  Now, with this possibility of the chemo-from-the-comfort-of-home fanny pack, the poor kiddo would have had to worry about getting caught in my spider web of chemo tubes for two days at a time.  So, instead (THANK YOU, Lord) I have to take a bunch of pills everyday.  I’m fine with that.  Now, I still have to go and get regular chemo at the treatment center but it’s only once every THREE weeks instead of every two.  And one final blessing to report:  I was going to have to pay a crazy amount in copays for this oral med every few weeks.  But somehow, they made it so it’s much less.  Cancer is expensive, folks.  So I’ll take it!
Mort and I are getting used to each other.  He’s a little pinchy.  But he’s going to be an ally in this battle.  So we’re going to be friends.  
Here I am pre and post Mort installation.

What's behind door number 1? A lovely PET Scan!

Today I had a PET Scan. This test involves the following:

– Getting up ridiculously early. Probably not every time but in this case, it did.

– Nothing to eat/drink that day – pshaw, that’s nothing after a liquid diet for a week.

– Hang on. yes, it is something. Because…coffee. Yeah. No coffee. 🙁

– Then, Crystal Light time. I assume it has something medically necessary in it.
– Vein abuse is next – if I had a nickle for every IV, blood draw….I know, it’s only just begun.

– Weird radioactive dye. The IVs gross me out but the injecting of weird stuff. Eeeeeek.

– One hour of “sitting quietly.” I am not sure why I have to be quiet.

– So, Candy Crush (level 59, yo.) Also music. Mid-90s worship music. (I know, I’m the pinnacle of cool.)

It’s not so bad. They give you a warmed up blanket. So you “sit quietly” for an hour. This part was actually kind of nice, once I can tune out that icky needle-in-my-arm feeling. Then they put you on this bed and it moves you through this iPod colored (clinical white) tunnel about 6 times over 25 minutes. Clustrophobes beware. They also give you this weird iodine injection that makes you feel like you are having a major hot flash. Thank God they warn you about this, otherwise you would think they are accidentally microwaving you. Honestly, the first time I had this done, I would have totally freaked out if they hadn’t given me a heads up.

In 24 hours the results (which hopefully show nothing we don’t already know about) will go to my doc and as long as all is (relatively) well, this will be the baseline from which they compare future PET scans to make sure Cancer-o-rama isn’t spreading into my liver or lungs. It better not. No, stupid Cancer. Sit. Stay. Die.

My state of mind is pretty good. I’m calm. I feel hopeful and grateful. God is meeting my needs, daily. I am treating this experience as a growing opprintunity that is preparing me for future difficult, challenging circumstances. I am believing that God is using this to soften and stregnthen me, to build me up, to shine light in darkness, to spread hope and bring clarity. The verse that has been shared with me over and over – it comes to mind continually and others share it to encourage me….

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.[b] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

Many complain that this verse is taken out of context. And it is. This is not a personal message from God to me, necessarily. It is comforting to think of it in that way. And that’s probably ok. But the real message of this Scripture…the fact that God is addressing not one person but a NATION, and that it refers (if you get real dorky into the original language and intended meaning) not only to those people way back then, but a future people, you see that it’s even bigger than God knowing the plans He has for me (which He does, of course.) But it’s talking about US. The Kingdom of God. The Church. Redemption for all who seek His face.

I want to live a long time. And I believe I will. I’m here for a reason, I have a lot of accomplish on behalf of the Lord and such. But. If we believe in Him for what He says He will do for us. If we believe in the truth of the cross. If we buy into it, if we throw all our chips in, betting on Jesus…If that’s true, if we’re right. It doesn’t really matter. Because the glory to come…it makes this whole thing so tiny and brief and insignificant. We will be together in the end. Forever. It will be better than we could ever imagine. He will make every sad thing untrue, to roughly quote Tolkien.

So, all that to say…I’m still planning on kicking this thing’s ass. Well, God will do His part, I’ll do mine – you know, that whole business of working as though it depends solely on you and praying as though it depends solely on God. If you want to do your part – keep praying. And bring me your best effort at a Mac & Cheese recipe. Unless I decide that my part includes going vegan. 🙂

The New Normal

On October 4th, 2013 I had colon resection surgery to take out a section of my colon that contained a mass that was causing some embarrasing bathroom problems – namely bleeding when I went number two. (I cannot believe I am saying that “publicly!”) I have had this issue for a long time but was told that it was hemorrhoids. (Again with the TMI. Headline: Lemon loses all concept of privacy!) “Eat more fiber,” the doc said in Seattle in 2003. But after ten years of this crap (ha! See what I did there?) I talked to my primary care physician, who I love and he sent me to a specialist. Long story short, that guy, who I will forever be grateful to despite him putting me through several deeply mortifying procedures, found the stupid tumor.

So, though a biospy said it wasn’t cancer, my surgeon begged to differ. Either way, it had to go, but he was pretty sure we were going to find bad news. I had surgery to get rid of that mass of evil tissue. I came through the surgery great. Three days after, when the docs came to my hospital room on morning rounds I was in designer PJs, with my hair fixed, earrings in, make-up on, yapping on my cell phone. They just laughed at me. Apparently this is not the norm after such a surgery. So I was in great spirits and ready to head home the next day.

I spent the next few days convelescing at home receiving visitors and cards and fruit baskets. I kept a stack of one-dollar bills handy to tip those flower delivery people since they seemed to be showing up every few hours for a while there. My incision was healing nicely and my strength was returning. I was feeling great. It had gone so well, I’d almost forgotten about the C-word. Until Sunday, October 13th when I got The Call. My surgeon woke me up Sunday morning with a call that I will never forget. One that took my very breath away. “Cancer,” he said. “Stage 3b.”

I really wasn’t expecting this. What with the constant praying and all. Of course the doc called during the one 30 minute period when my very caring and helpful husband had gone for a run. He had parked our 4-year-old in front of some cartoons and figured he’d be back before I even woke up. Wrong. It was a very difficult 30 minutes. Fear and despair washed over me. Hard. I felt like I was falling. But I was oddly calm. I called my mom and had to tell her this news that no parent wants to or should even have to hear. It just didn’t feel right or fair or ok. To be honest, all seemed wrong with the world.

This was one week ago. What a week it has been.

It has been a scary week. I mean…seriously!? I have to think about a world without me in it. And what it might be like for my kid to grow up without a mom? Oof. That one hurts. And what might it be like to die? Who wants to think about that at the age of 35?

It has been a sad week. I cry a lot. I do. It’s overwhelming. This is a complete life disruption and I’m sad about it. I just want to go to a bar and watch the Steelers play with my friends. Instead, I’m making oncology appointments.

It has been a wonderful week. Yup. It really has. I am learning SO much about how God can use this and how God IS using this. I am being plunged into this crappy muck, yes, but I’m learning what I and the people who love me are made of. I am learning how strong and kind and generous the people God has blessed me with are. I am learning what the bible has to say about suffering and trials. Check this out:

“…since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” – Romans 5: 1-5

We rejoice in our sufferings? Crazy, right? Just how is this possible? Well, while I’m no expert, I have a little bit of growing insight thanks to some intense prayer, a lot of Scripture reading, and investigating some trusted pastors’ teachings (Tim Keller, Allistair Begg and John Piper to name a few.) Here is what I’m learning:

To know Christ, to be forgiven and therefore in a right relationship with God, means that we can know, FOR SURE, that God has not abandoned us. You got that? Icky, scary, ugly circumstances are not an indication of God’s leaving us or not loving us. That is an unbiblical view. While sin can lead to natural consequences and at times our suffering is a result of our sin, suffering is not a punishment and it does not mean that He has forsaken us. He has, in His infinite wisdom allowed this, and not by accident or neglect….by DESIGN. This is my path. This is my fight. This cancer is putting me and my faith to the test. Do I really love God and want to serve him? Or do I only seek to have Him serve ME? If we ditch our faith in the midst of these trials – that is what we’re saying…that we were only in this to see what God could do for us. Not to serve him no matter what.

I’m learning how cancer (or whatever you’re struggling with) can be a gift. I know, that sounds nuts. But really. No matter the outcome, I know I am going to be refined through this. In a way that I could never have been apart from it. What is truly important and what is unimportant – these things are becoming increasingly clear. Who is really in this with me – that is becoming clear, too. Also, God is meeting me in my uncertainty, leading me to encouragement and refreshment in new and deeper ways.

So, we’re just a week into this diagnosis. The chemo hasn’t even started yet. The lessons are just beginning. The story of this trial is still in the prologue. By no means do I think I get it yet. But this is where we are. And I’m already different.

“Here am I. Send me.” – Isaiah 6:8 (It’s not exactly the same kind of situation, I know. But what I’m saying is. I’m willing to walk through this.)

Besides, I’ve got this to live for.