Next Saturday marks 3 years since I heard the words “It’s cancer.” February 17, 2015 is a day that is forever etched in my mind. I can remember every detail of that day – leaving work early, sitting on the cold leather couch, and staring at my phone waiting for 2:30. When I saw the hospital’s number pop up on the screen, I wanted so badly to answer and to ignore it all at the same time. I can remember saying hello, waiting, listening, and then trying to catch my breath. I remember telling myself that I couldn’t drop the phone and swallowing hard to quiet my crying so that I could listen to what the nurse was saying. I tried to write down every single word that she said, words that I’d never heard before. I frantically flipped the pages of the legal pad as I struggled to make my hand keep up with her words. Then there were hours of Google searches, writing down questions, and making phone calls to my parents that I never wanted to make. I hadn’t even told them I was having a mammogram the day before, or that the radiologist asked me to come back an hour later for a biopsy after what he saw. I wanted to spare them the worry and fear that I was feeling and was holding out hope that I wouldn’t have to tell them that I had cancer.
The memories that I have of that day definitely don’t give me any warm fuzzy feelings, but every year as February 17th draws near, I reflect and let all of those little details come to the surface. I have hundreds of photos that we took in the weeks and months that followed – photos of shaving my head, trying on wigs, my last chemo treatment, and everything in between. I’ve had intentions of making a photo book with them but I’ve been avoiding it for a while because looking through all of those memories felt so heavy. When I finally decided to look through all of those photos last weekend, it felt surreal. I lived through all of it, but looking back at the photos – my bald head, the chemo chair, so many hospital beds, radiation burns – it is still hard to believe that I endured all of those things. I know without a doubt that it wasn’t by my own strength or determination, but that it was God’s love and grace that allowed me to put one foot in front of the other and take life one day, and often one hour or minute, at a time.
As the years pass and cancer becomes further and further away in the rearview mirror, I pause and take time to look back because it encourages me as I move forward. I found that it was so easy to trust and be completely dependent on God as I faced cancer. Watching all of the plans that I had shatter, it was so natural to look to God. As the vision that I’d had of spending the next few months planning our wedding crumbled the moment I answered that phone call, I was left with a new vision that was filled with all sorts of things that terrified me. It seemed that everyday there was a curveball and just when I began to think that I knew what tomorrow would hold, I was quickly reminded that I didn’t. I never knew what news the next scan or appointment would bring and I realized that my plan-loving Type A personality was going to be one of the first things I’d have to surrender. When I realized that I had no idea what any of my tomorrows would look like anymore, I began to cling to God’s promises and lean into Him with everything that I had. Now that life is “back to normal”, I’ve found it more difficult to just trust God’s process and take one step at a time. I’ve found myself wanting to hold on too tightly to my own plans and ideas of the way I think my life “should” be. I’m learning all over again that He has already written my story. It’s not up to me to plan it; it’s up to me to be still, to listen, and to follow His lead. I’ve had so many thoughts and feelings going through my mind lately that I’ve been trying to make sense of. There’s been a lot of talking to God and writing in my journal, but I decided to write here because I truly believe that God can use our stories. We may not know exactly how, but we just have to be willing to be vulnerable and transparent.
I have been wrestling a lot the past few months with fear and the possibility of the cancer returning. I know the statistics and I know that the greatest risk of recurrence is within the first 5 years. I know that my oncologist checks my bloodwork every 4 months and that I’m taking all of the medications that I possibly can in an effort to prevent a recurrence. But when I learn that a survivor friend has been told that the cancer is back, my emotions run wild. Sadness, fear, and even guilt start to creep in. I have wondered many times what it would be like to have go through it all again, and in October I was fearful that I would find out. I began having pain similar to what I felt when I was diagnosed and immediately called my doctor. I went in for a scan and waited nervously for the results. I wanted desperately to claim that it would be nothing and have faith in that, but after you have received that one phone call with news you were dreading, you know what a real possibility that is. There is no more naïveté of telling yourself there’s no way it could happen to you. I was terrified because my plans told me that there should not be any more cancer. My plans told me that I should be cancer-free from here on out. This was not my first scan, but it was the first one that was not routine and that was initiated by me. Thankfully, the scan results came back clear, but it was a wake up call that if they had not, He is still good. The thought of having to face cancer again and all of my plans for the future being halted made me realize that I’d begun to hold on too tightly to those things again. Although today I am still cancer-free, the ultimate victory is not the healing – the greatest victory of all is that I gained more of Jesus and that others did as well. The cancer is gone, my hair has now grown back past my shoulders, the burns have healed, and the reconstruction surgery was successful. For all of those things I am incredibly grateful. But I also realize that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what any of this was about. It was about so much more – and even if that means no happy ending, or a happy ending that looks very different than the way I would have written it. As one of my favorite people once said to me, “We know the ending is good because He is good.”
Another one of my struggles has been comparing myself to those around me and thinking that my story needs to look more like theirs, specifically, that it needs a baby in it. The fact that I’m 32 and still have several more years before we can try to have children has started to weigh heavy on my heart once again. I have had the desire in my heart to be a mom for as long as I can remember, so being told that we’d have to wait 5 years and the possible effects that chemo may have on that was something that I struggled with a lot in the beginning. I’ve had to rely on God to change my heart and my attitude with lots and lots of prayer. I have come a long way – I’m not crying on the way home from baby showers anymore – but now that I’m walking through the middle of the 5 years it’s begun to feel more like I’m trudging uphill again. There are so many people that we love expecting little ones and it’s been so hard for me to shake this feeling that I’m being left behind. There are days when I feel like I’m stuck in this season while everyone else is moving on into a new one. I believe that God placed the desire to be a mom in my heart and that He will fulfill it in His own perfect way and timing, not mine. I’m praying for grace as I work on choosing joy and being content in this season instead of wishing for the next one. I’m working on trusting His perfect plan for my life, and being ok with the fact that it looks different than what I think it should. If you are working on this too, my hope is that you’ll remember that God’s plan for you is not the same as His plan for your best friend or your sister or your neighbor, and that’s ok.
I still get frustrated with the little details of life after breast cancer. Dealing with menopause side effects at 32 is no fun, but they come along with the drugs that I take to prevent a recurrence. I have been known to declare on more than one occasion that it’s not fair for me to have to wake up all throughout the night with night sweats or to have hot flashes all day long. My hourly predicament is to feel the sweat dripping down my forehead in the middle of a conversation with someone and then have to decide whether or not to ignore it or wipe my face (both equally embarrassing). I don’t want to have a body that is up against a metabolism that’s come to a screeching halt and that’s been through so many surgeries – I’d love to have my old body back. I’d rather not go sit in the waiting room at my plastic surgeon’s office one more time and getting a shot once a month (once even on my birthday) isn’t much fun either. In December, I had my 7th surgery in 3 years.
I’m not sharing my struggles to complain. I’m sharing them because that’s the real story. The belief that God can use our stories was the basis for starting this blog 3 years ago. I knew soon after cancer became a part of my story that I was being called to write about my journey, but a public blog wasn’t exactly my idea. I was scared to be vulnerable, to share so much with so many. I was comfortable sharing with my close friends and family and leaving it at that. But God had other plans, as usual. Looking back on the past 3 years, I am able to see small glimpses of how He has used a terrible thing like cancer to accomplish so much good. I’ve seen hearts changed, relationships strengthened and restored, and what is even more incredible is that I know there are so many other ways that He has used this that I may never even know about. Your story certainly doesn’t have to include cancer for God to be able to use it, but I do think He needs your willingness to be vulnerable. That’s not easy; it’s much easier to keep things surface level and make small talk about what’s going great in our lives than to really let people in and let them see the hard parts. Never underestimate how a 5 minute conversation can impact someone, if you’re willing to open up. I don’t know about you, but the stories that are raw, unfiltered, and real are the ones that impact me the most. Those are the conversations that I walk away from feeling renewed, encouraged, and uplifted. Those are the books that I can’t put down. Give me someone who is honest about their failures, mistakes, and fears. I need those people who don’t claim to have it all figured out but who share their struggles and their need for Jesus every single day. It is in those stories that I am able to see God’s grace, love, and faithfulness most clearly.
I look back on where I’ve been so that I can be reminded that no matter how bad things were, God gave me grace each and every day and was there providing provision for me all along the way. I’m reminded that I can trust Him to make a way when there seems to be no way and that I can take one step at a time even when the fog is so thick that I can’t see where my feet will land. His perspective is so much broader than mine; all I can see is where I am right now, today. I can’t see the middle, but I can be assured that He can; He’s standing above it all. He is here now, in the middle of my current struggles, providing grace and provision. I can’t see the glimpses of grace that He’ll provide tomorrow, but I can trust that He will.
So on February 17th, I will celebrate 3 years. I will celebrate all of my story – the parts that are painful and sad, messy and complicated, sweet and wonderful, and the parts that I have yet to see.