Faithfulness

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Yesterday morning, I received an email notifying me that a sizable donation had been made to our family YouCaring site and that the established fundraising goal had been exceeded.

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I was completely overcome with emotions. The numbers jumping out at me from the screen felt incredible and crazy. I sat in utter disbelief and wept tears of deep gratitude.  How can we be this BLESSED??  I couldn’t believe that someone had been so generous. Then I read the anonymous comment on the page:

“Tiffany, because you are bold, courageous and graceful, take care of yourself and enjoy time with your beautiful family and go tell others that this donation was God’s answer to your prayers. Love you.”

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I’ll never be able to find the words that adequately express the thankfulness reverberating in my heart. This space. This feeling is so holy, so profoundly rich in love and meaning. My brain cannot conceive that people would do something so big, so generous, and so loving for my family. The best way I can describe what I am feeling is captured in the lyrics of the song “Amazing Grace”:

“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.”

I just don’t feel worthy of this large scale kindness by so many generous friends and family members. Yet, I know that God answers prayers and offers us peace despite the messiness in our lives. Friends from all seasons of our lives—childhood friends, high school friends, college buddies, former coworkers, Andre’s coworkers, new and old neighbors, fitness friends, and complete strangers—were coming along side of us and saying “You matter. We are with you.”   Every thoughtful comment encouraged us and reminded us of the gift of community.  I see very clearly the hand of God in our story in both big and small ways. I feel a stirring to share the backstory as well because it gives context to the blessings that continue to unfold.

Naming Fears

Last year, I downloaded an app in order to dig deeper into my spirituality on a daily basis. I wanted to be more intentional about developing a relationship with God. I didn’t want to just show up to church on Sundays. I craved to know His spirit and to seek Him more in my every day life. In April (and well before the return of my cancer), I completed a guided series about overcoming fear. At that time, I was prompted to identify my three biggest fears. No surprise, but one of the three things I identified as an area I feel anxious is health. Here’s what I wrote:

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Fast forward a few months to July and right about the time I was waiting for my biopsy reports to come back.   Reading back through what I wrote, I recognized a constant theme of uncertainty about my diagnosis and relentless worry about the associated medical bills.

Even while I was processing a cancer diagnosis and figuring out how I would get through the physical and mental challenges, I was also apprehensive about burdening my family.

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I share these very vulnerable thoughts with you because I believe they really illustrate the grip of fear but more than that, the power of God.

Letting Go of Fear & Finding Courage to Trust

One warm September morning at the bus stop, a friend approached me about creating a crowdfunding site where people could donate to my family. I couldn’t believe it. How could she have known how much the financial piece of our situation weighed heavily on my mind? God was showing up and sending people in to help. Yet, I felt sort of strange about it. I saw so much need in the world and didn’t feel like our situation warranted that kind of assistance.   Surely, others needed more. Nonetheless, she stressed that she wanted to do something to help and knew others wanted a way to contribute to our family as we weathered the cancer storm. So, despite the concern that we might appear too needy and the embarrassing idea of showing we were facing hardships, we considered the long road ahead. I talked it over with another friend who also said, “let people help you.” Hence we did. I prayed for clarity and strength and set aside my pride. For someone who enjoys giving, it was especially hard to humble ourselves to receive.

How do I ever fully thank so many generous human beings? I don’t fully understand how it all worked out but God provided.  I surrendered and I’ve been astounded over and over again.  I continue to learn that I am not in control but that I have a Father who is rooting for me.  My faith brings me through every hard day.  I pray He continues to shine His light through my journey so that others may witness His faithfulness.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, ”   ~Galatians 5

 

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Three Weeks Deep

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Today marks three weeks since my surgery. The recovery continues to be slow but I see small improvements every day.   I try to focus on the mini milestones and give myself grace daily when I grow impatient. I have good days and bad days and both triumphs and challenges. The rhythm is familiar.  I’m moving mostly forward with a few steps backward.

On Monday of last week, I had my right drain removed. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to handle the pain on top of the significant amount of discomfort I was already experiencing. The idea of yanking and pulling a tube that was about an inch in diameter out of my body did not sound fun.   The nurse told me she would snip the suture first that was holding the drain in place.

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Next, she told me to take two deep breaths in and out. On the second exhalation, she sprang quickly into action wrangling the tube with finesse. The initial tug on the tube made me flinch and I braced myself for something horrible. As it turns out, it wasn’t necessarily painful as much as it was just strange and mildly uncomfortable. I’d liken it to having a speculum inserted during a gyno visit—it doesn’t hurt per se but the whole experience is certainly unpleasant. (Sorry, guys, I have no male comparison to help you gauge the pain levels).   What was fascinating about the drain removal was learning that 12 inches of tubing was stretched inside me from my side to the surgical incision.  It was grossly interesting.  I’m not sure my husband who witnessed the entire production would agree and I’m actually impressed he didn’t pass out. Later that evening, I felt quite a bit of pain in the right breast and was told by the visiting nurse that the unpleasant sensations were due to disrupting the equilibrium within.

My left drain remained in place four more days, as the level of fluid was still too high earlier in the week.   Again, it was a quick extraction and my friend who drove me was surprised by how quickly I was in and out of the office.   I’m guessing it was completed in under ten minutes.  Luckily, I stayed atop the pain with meds that evening, as I knew better what to expect this time. Once I was completely drain-free, everything was easier. No more pinning the drains to a shoelace that I would wear around my neck so I could take a shower. No more accidentally catching my tubes on a door handle.   No more Home Depot apron to sport on walks to hide the drains. Most importantly, there was one less area of pain on my body and one less bandage to dress/redress.  I’m still trying to scrub off the sticky residue from surgical tape three weeks later!

While the drain challenge has subsided, I’m still dealing with limited mobility. I’m restricted from bringing my arms up over my head as well as lifting more than two pounds. Consequently, I remain dependent on my family to do every day little things like take a gallon of milk out of the fridge.   I also have to avoid pushing and pulling as these motions put too much strain on the surgical sites. Likewise, getting dressed involves feats of acrobatic talent just to get a shirt up over my head. I’ve had to switch my wardrobe from tanks and tees to all button-down shirts. Before the mastectomy, I had read clothing tips from other survivors and was well prepared with an arsenal of hoodies and flannel shirts. However, the unseasonably warm weather with temps in the 80s forced me to rethink my options and to shop for sleeveless items. My sister-in-law graciously took me shopping and helped me find lightweight shirts that would be more comfortable. Pickings were slim for summer items because the stores had already switched over to fall gear. Nevertheless, we prevailed over the limited stock but I was limited to blouses. Why don’t designers make casual clothing with buttons? I’ve never looked so ridiculously “done up” to walk around my neighborhood!

Last week, I also weaned off the stronger pain meds and switched over to ibuprofen. The good news is that the pain levels have decreased. I’m still sore and achy, but it’s manageable. I experience random jolts of pain as the nerve endings continue to repair and heal but that’s to be expected. The bad news is that sleeping is more difficult. The stronger meds pretty much knocked me out every night so I slept like a champ the first week and a half. Now, I wake up more frequently and find myself restlessly uncomfortable. I’m unable to sleep flat on my back yet and it’s too painful to lie on my side. Therefore, I’m sleeping upright in a recliner and my tailbone is bruised as a result. The lack of quality sleep seems to seep over into my day and I’m fatigued quite easily. I hit a wall every evening –everything hurts and I am just so over all of this.

While I find some of these adaptations to living a little annoying, I remind myself often that they are temporary.  I try to focus on the positives. I’m so appreciative for my friends and family who call, visit, or text to check in with me. Oh, and you guys—the snail mail love has been amazing!!   I love the notes of encouragement and reassurance of your prayers. I’m filled with gratitude that the cancer has not spread beyond the breast into my lymph nodes.   My heart goes out to those survivors who have to endure chemo on top of a mastectomy. I tip my hat to their fierceness and warrior attitudes. I’m thankful for a husband who bears the extra weight of my normal contributions and keeps our family routine humming along. I feel blessed to have a community of neighbors and friends who have volunteered to make us meals well into November so I can fully place my energy into healing. I’m grateful for moments of peace that I spend in prayer when I feel too wiped out to go another step. I know I’m never alone and God always draws near.  He continually nourishes my spirit, replenishes my resolve and brings me back to grace.   No matter the circumstance, there is always grace.

 

Healing Takes Time

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One week post surgery and I’m finally feeling a little less foggy and better able to update you on the last few days. If none of this makes sense, we’ll blame the Valium and other drugs I’m currently prescribed!

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The morning of the surgery found me pretty exhausted from my inability to sleep the night before. Nevertheless, I left the house comforted that my dad would be seeing my two sleeping boys off to school and maintaining some kind of routine. We arrived at the hospital at 5:30am and began what would be a very long day.

The nurse who prepped me for surgery was warm, talkative and her presence very calming. My husband and mom were by my side until I was wheeled away for my lymph node radioactive dye injection. About 20 minutes later, I was back in the pre-surgical area where both my surgical oncologist and plastic surgeon reviewed the surgeries ahead. Listening to them work together as a team reassured me that I was in good hands. They drew on my skin with purple ink where the incision sites would be and conferred on their plan. I couldn’t help but feel like I was the blackboard in the locker room at halftime of a football game with coaches drawing out their plays.

Next, I gave my hugs to my loved ones and was wheeled off again to the operating room.

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I prayed for God’s continued comfort, which had been with me all morning. I really wish I could properly articulate the amazing sense of peace that carried me each step but there are just no words to describe the transcendent love. I was going in with the knowledge that there would be immense pain and my body forever changed and yet, I had an unshakable brave feeling wash over me and I knew I would be ok.

The mastectomy and reconstruction took a little over six hours. I remember nothing until I woke in the recovery room. I was extremely groggy and felt like I was clenching all my muscles. They asked me some questions and my pain level and I have no memory of my response or until I woke again. This time they said I was able to move to another room and I would get to see my husband and mom. I was happy to see them and to hear that the surgeons were happy with the results. They were able to place the implants directly in without the need of a tissue expander and I was extremely grateful for the good news.

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The next few hours proved to be a challenge. The surgeon had placed a pain pump at the surgical site to help with the pain and that would remain for at least five days. I’d love to say it all went perfectly but there seemed to be much confusion by the nursing staff later about this little pump.

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I also got nauseated when I attempted to eat dinner and worried the pain of vomiting would be excruciating. Luckily, we got it under control. I experienced a great deal of pain throughout the evening and night and was beginning to feel defeated by early afternoon the next day. But, God is good. At just about the time I didn’t think I could bear another minute, two hospital chaplains happened to come in to tell us where the chapel was located should we want to go. In deep pain, I asked if they would pray with me. As they prayed, there was unexplainable comfort and renewed strength. I was crying because it was crazy that I could even fathom comfort in the middle of such despair.   Still, I knew He was ever faithful and that there was a well of resilience deep within me. Shortly after, a nurse increased my pain pump and I was able to get out of the bed and walk around.  I’m still connected to the pain pump and continue to wear it around in a very fashionable fanny pack (yeah, I’m not getting nominated for my style any time soon!) until it runs out.

After one week, I can say without hesitation it’s been a humbling experience.   There’s been a lot to learn about accepting my own limitations. Walking this journey continues to open my eyes to the many little things I take for granted on a daily basis.   In the hospital, I couldn’t lift my arms at all to hold a cup or a bowl so I had to have my family feed me. The simple act of brushing my teeth has been taxing. It took several days before I could wash my hands in the sink without assistance. Just pumping soap and turning on the faucet were strenuous. My 12 year old had to open my pill bottle so I could take my meds.

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Yet every little improvement is a victory. For example, I celebrated just yesterday (6 days post surgery) that I could finally open the lid to my chapstick.

I also have two drains that help pump out the fluid from the incision site.

We have to empty and measure the drains every morning and every night. In addition to them just being rather annoying to lug around, I have to be careful where I walk that I don’t catch the tubes on a door handle or such. Sometimes they are tucked into pockets and sometimes I wear them in my Home Depot apron (borrowed from my eight year old). The stretchy tubes attached to the bulbs must be “stripped” to keep them clear and I wince each time I experience a burning sensation as the air backflows into the breast area. I will have these drains until the fluid amount decreases to less than 30 ml for the entire day.  I’m not even close on my left side. This means no driving until I have the drains removed. In addition, a visiting nurse trained my mom on how to change the dressings where the tubes are stitched in since they must be changed daily. So, these are some of the daily things that are slightly painful but bearable.  The visiting nurse comes every few days to check my drain sites and to ensure there’s no infection.

I’m a stubborn woman and so surrendering and accepting help feels like admitting weakness. Guess what? I’m not Wonder Woman. Why do I think I have to be so strong? I am actually physically weak and that’s ok. I forgot to be kind to myself. So, I’m working to say, “please help me” with more ease and grace.

Yesterday was a great day because I was up on my feet more and doing more for myself. I was working to cut back on my pain meds. Then, I got a call from Dr. Lewis, my amazing surgical oncologist, and she told me my pathology report was in and the cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes. I couldn’t praise God loud enough and I have felt such an immense sense of gratitude for a God who continually holds me, sustains me, and strengthens me.

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Today I woke with more pain (on account of all that celebrating and thinking I was super healer with scaled back meds) and I’m working to give myself permission to slow down. My dear friend and prayer warrior, Adrianne reminded me early on to trust the process. Trust Him. So I make it through another day with a heart filled with love for a good, good Father. I stop and look around at the magnitude of  support and people showing up.  I stand in awe at how our lives have intertwined and can’t believe our friends (new and old) are willing to help us in such huge ways.  Not only that, but total strangers too!  There are so many good, kind, compassionate people in this world.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you anything different.  : )

So many of you have enriched and elevated my spirits with your prayers and encouragement. My network of fellow survivors has provided me with much needed wisdom and reassurance. Their bravery empowers me. My parents have kept our family rhythm both inside and outside the house. They check the kids’ homework, transport them all the necessary places, mow the grass, walk the crazy dog, water my flowers, pack lunches, cook dinners, and give me my meds. Really, the list goes on and on. Friends have taken my kiddos to practices, play dates, and sporting events and checked in to ask, “What can I do for you?”   My husband has been my gentle cheerleader, reminding me that I am still beautiful despite feeling beat up, stinky, and unattractive (I mean, I’ve been wearing the same two shirts for a week and am sporting nasty drains). He had to wash my hair because I’m not allowed to lift my arms above my head. My dear mom had to blow-dry my hair for me and we giggled, as it’s been a long time since I’ve needed her in this way.

The blessings have poured in in so many ways. We feel God’s love and abundance through every one of you earthly angels. Your offerings of meals, cards, texts, videos, flowers, gift cards, and financial donations have been blessing us each day. My lifelong friend, Lisa, and my sister-in-law Nathalie, are each coming in for a few days to further help us out.  Generosity and big-heartedness from family and friends move us profoundly.   Thank you for loving us fiercely. We will lean in to your generous offers as I continue to heal over the next 4 to 6 weeks. The road may be long and valleys may still be ahead, but we have faith, hope and love on our side.

Baby Steps to Brave

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The last few weeks have been an emotional time. I’ve been busy studying up on all things breast cancer in order to best understand my next steps and to try to come to terms with what lies ahead. I’ve had lots of appointments with my “team” of oncologists and surgeons and feel I’m in very capable hands.

I’ve gone back and forth on how much is too much to share and decided to just spill it (because, I’ve never been good at discretion any way). As I’ve shared before, I operate under the mantra that bringing truth into the light is so much better than struggling alone in the dark. If one person reads this blog and better understands the trials of cancer, than my vulnerability won’t be in vain.

In just over two weeks, I’ll be undergoing a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. I’ve been sharing this information with friends over the last week and sometimes feel like I’m giving a report about someone else. Up to this point, it’s felt kind of like a theory. It “might” happen. But, perhaps that’s what our minds do when we just can’t compute things that are uncertain or scary. As we draw closer and closer to the date of surgery, however, it’s becoming more real and concrete. The optimist in me wants to demonstrate that a positive attitude can overcome anything. The scared little girl in me wants to run and hide and cry to her mommy.

Here’s a little about what I’ve learned to expect in the days ahead:

I will report to the hospital at 5:30am to get injected with radioactive blue dye in my tumor area. Super fun! This allows the surgeon to follow the path of the lymphatic fluid and identify and examine the nodes. The surgical oncologist will remove all the breast tissue (as much as they can) to take out the cancerous tumor areas. She will also remove some of the lymph nodes in my armpit area for biopsy. Next, the plastic surgeon steps in and begins the reconstruction. Since I did not qualify for tissue transplant, I will have implants inserted under the skin and the surgeon will use AlloDerm (donated dead tissue) to act as a hammock and keep the implant in place.

As it turns out, I’m a lucky gal because I have smaller breasts (finally a plus!) so I qualify for direct to implant surgery. With this type of surgery, the plastic surgeon places the implants directly following mastectomy rather than the traditional use of placing tissue expanders. In the latter type, women have to have a second surgery after their skin has been stretched slowly (3-6 months) to exchange the tissue expander with the actual implant. So this is very welcomed good news. If I can get through this whole process with only one surgery, I’m going to be so relieved and happy.

A recovery from mastectomy is going to be painful. There’s no getting around it. I’ve been talking with fellow survivors and learning about the post surgery situation. I won’t be able to lift my arms above my head for a couple of weeks. So, washing and brushing my hair will be a real challenge. I won’t be allowed to lift anything over a half-gallon milk for at least two weeks. I’ve been told that the days immediately following the surgery are tough for sleeping and several friends have recommended sleeping in a recliner. Getting up and pushing off of a couch is nearly impossible following surgery so I’ve been told to get as much core exercise now as I can in preparation.

At the time of surgery, they will place drains near the incision site to collect fluid from the area. The drains help the body heal and reduce the chance of infection. I will have to “wear” my drains for about two weeks depending on the amount of fluid. I’ve already ordered a special mastectomy bra and something called Pink Pockets that adhere to clothing so I can discreetly tuck my drains inside my hoodie or sweater. I’m not gonna lie—I hear that they are a real pain and I’m not looking forward to these dangling, unwanted accessories!

Since I went through radiation therapy during my first bout with cancer four years ago, I will have some additional challenges. My plastic surgeon was very thorough in warning me of the many problems that increase as a result of previous radiation. Radiated skin is less elastic and healthy and is more prone to infections and necrosis (fancy term referring to tissue dying). Sometimes radiated skin does not heal well and could lead to delayed wound healing, again upping the odds of infection.   Extrusion (the implant coming through the skin) and breast tissue atrophy (implant shape gets wonky) were also thrown out there as possible complications. So, to get through this surgery with peace of mind is going to be my real struggle. I’m praying for no complications or additional surgeries. However, no matter how I slice it, I’ll need additional surgeries in the years ahead. Implants are only built to last 10 years so since I’m on the younger end of cancer (oh yippee), I can expect a few implant swaps down the line.   Additionally, I will need ongoing MRIs to ensure the implants do not leak. The physical and financial costs of cancer are unfortunately continuous.

Aside from acclimating myself to all this physical stuff, I’m trying to focus more on the many blessings in my life. My friends and family have been so supportive. The encouraging letters, thoughtful gifts, and uplifting texts and messages have given me such a tremendous appreciation of all that is good in the world. Thank you for showing up for me (AGAIN). When I don’t feel strong, your words and hugs have carried me. It helps me not feel so alone.

I want to tell you that I’m going to “kick its ass” and “battle the beast” and all that warrior talk but I’ve learned that I don’t feel quite that heroic. I’m simply reporting to the hospital with whatever bravery I can muster.   I fought cancer the first time and wanted to be a real conquerer. This time, I’m a little wiser. Cancer isn’t predictable and sneaks in even when your eyes are wide open and on the defense. My choice, then, is to face it with grace. I can move forward with gratitude and I can find joy in every small moment despite any hardship. These last four years were never promised to me so I must be grateful for every minute of extra love, laughter, happiness, and adventure. I assure you—I had them all in spades. I can sit with the pain and get back up. We all can, I’m learning, especially when we have each other’s backs.

Please keep those prayers coming that I can have the both the physical and emotional strength to fight through the tough days. I pray I can accept this soon-to-be foreign body and not cringe when I look at myself in a mirror. May I remember who I am on the inside, not just on the outside. I pray I continue to trust that God’s using everything I’m learning for growth. Please pray I can let go of some of the guilt I carry for feeling like an emotional and financial burden for my family.   May the beauty arise from the mess.

Fight Cancer, Seek Gratitude, Spread Love

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So, it’s been one week since the biopsy that confirmed that I had breast cancer AGAIN.  It’s been a doozy of emotions over the last week as I processed my worst fear.   It’s hardly the news I had hoped for or what any survivor wants to hear.  Yet here I am again, sitting in a place of uncertainty and disbelief.

The good news (and I use the term “good” loosely) is that since I’ve been monitored very closely over the last four years, my surgical oncologist believes we’ve caught it early again.  The bad news is that it’s in a different area of the same affected breast so she does not consider this a recurrence.  Rather, it’s cancer cells forming in another area.  What’s bothersome about this piece of information is that I’ve been on a medication for almost four years that’s supposed to block the estrogen in my body (which feeds my type of cancer).  I’ve disliked taking Tamoxifen but put up with all the nasty side effects of pseudo-menopause (hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, weight gain) because I thought I was doing everything possible to prevent cancer from returning.  In addition, I had radiation therapy on that breast.  So, to know that despite these measures, cancer continues to grow is more than a little disheartening.

Yesterday was a hard day. No matter how much effort I put into trying to remain positive, I found myself wallowing.  I’m grieving the soon-to-be loss of a body part.  Since I had a lumpectomy the first go around in 2013 followed by radiation, I’m unable to go that route again for my treatment.  Instead, I must have a mastectomy.  Ask any women how she feels about removing her breasts and you will likely understand the gravity of my situation.

I spent the weekend praying for peace as I came to terms with that news.  For the most part, I’ve accepted that removing the cancer is paramount to any issues I have with my aesthetics. Furthermore, due to a family history of breast cancer on both sides of my family and the fact I had another occurrence, my surgeon has encouraged me to weigh the pros and cons of removing the unaffected breast as well.   I talked with several fellow survivors about their surgical experiences and thought I was in a good mental state.

I dutifully started researching unilateral and bilateral mastectomies and found myself in tears as I stared at the pictures of breast reconstruction.  I know that some women joke that “hey, at least you get a free boob job.”  But friends, the photos I looked at were anything but beautiful or comforting.  Instead, I felt fear rising as I looked at patched up, scarred, Frankenstein-ish breasts.  The words of my surgical oncologist rang in my ears as I remembered her gentle warning that “no matter what, reconstructed breasts will never be quite like your own. ”  Reading that there would be heavy pain during a long recovery and a questionable outcome didn’t make me feel optimistic about surgery.  I texted my friend who already walked this road with an “I feel crazy” and “this is too hard” message.  But God sends His angels when you need them most and she reassured me that these days are hard and that’s ok.

I spent the rest of the afternoon throwing quite the pity-party for myself.  I couldn’t believe I had to travel this road AGAIN and have to give up even more.  I was angry at the unfairness of a second battle and mourning my breasts all at the same time.  Hadn’t they fed my beautiful babies and nourished their little bodies?  How could my breasts punish me this way?  And why didn’t I appreciate them more instead of cursing their non-voluptuous size?

Meanwhile, I texted some of the women in my tribe and told them I couldn’t find my way back to happy so I wouldn’t be able to join them for a movie after all.  Luckily, one friend lovingly reminded me that I had permission to grieve but that I myself said I didn’t want cancer to steal my joy.  Boom!  Truth bomb.   It was just what I needed to hear.  I needed reminded that I had another choice.  I could wallow, grieve and feel sorry for my situation, or I could go be in community with women who make me laugh, smile, and feel joy.  I chose joy.

This isn’t going to be easy and I’m going to forget and grow overwhelmed.  Good thing I have such great friends who can remind me to LIVE.  My friend shared this passage from a book and it really helped me remember who I am:

“Sometimes the best solution is to take a breath and seek God.  When we do this, we find that we are not lost–even when we are in the middle of the most difficult thing imaginable.  Not only does God have perfect timing, but he also knows the way through our troubles.”

So off I go to fight cancer, seek gratitude, and spread love.

Choosing Joy Again and Again

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Life is funny.  Just when I think I’ve got it all figured out, I learn something new.  Or, maybe it’s more of relearning what I forgot.  The realization that what I think I’ve mastered is only a small blip on the radar of my life.

It’s been a challenging year.  For a woman who prides herself on focusing on all that is good, I’ve struggled to find my footing over the last several months.  Why?  Because I forgot.  I forgot that happiness is a daily choice.  I forgot that daily life is tricky and that curveballs are sent all the time.  I forgot that I had to get up every darn day and choose my perspective.  Most importantly, I forgot how difficult that is when I’m in the depth of a storm.

I lost a friend this year to cancer.  Losing special people is always difficult.   We all lose loved ones along the way.  It never feels fair and it always hurts.  Yet, somewhere in the midst of living, I started to feel guilty.  I started to wonder why I was spared.  Was I living up to my purpose?  Was I using the gifts God gave me to impact others?  Was I doing enough and being enough to justify my existence?  The inequity of it all overwhelmed me.

So here’s the lesson I needed reminded of AGAIN.  I just need to be.  I don’t need to prove my worth or validate my existence.   For a woman who took her job home with her, cried for every student she thought she failed, who measured her worth in the graduation rates of students as well as feedback she received from administrators, students, and coworkers, it’s been a long, hard unlearning.     Truth is, I’m relearning all the time.  As a stay at home mom now, I have to stop worrying that other working moms look at me as though I add no value.  I have to let go of the image I so desperately feel validated me.  If I’m not working, how will people know I’m smart, capable, or creative?  How will they know what I have to offer?  The answer?  Who cares?  Who really cares?  “They” do not matter.

I know this.  I learned this before.  I learned what really mattered after I lost a baby.  I didn’t think I would make it through that dark time of living without Landon.  The experience was too hard and my heart was shattered.  But I got up, albeit slowly.  I learned that I would bounce back and reenter the world.  I would experience joy and happiness again.  But, I had to make that choice.  I chose joy.  I chose faith.

I had it all figured out, right?  Wrong.  I found out I had cancer.  Another life knock-out.  I broke down again and didn’t think I would walk through life as happily.  I was mad at God again.  I thought it would steal all my joy.  But I got back up and found out I was made in strength and love.  Oh, and lots and lots of grace.

I will have bad days and I don’t need to beat myself up over those moments.  I need to keep my eyes focused and my heart soft to all the little, wonderful day to day instances.  I choose to see life through a lens of gratitude.  I will hone in on the splendor of a butterfly, the wonder of a wildflower, the giggle of a child, the excitement of a friend, the smell of coffee brewing, the roar of a rollercoaster, and the gleam in my husband’s eye.  Of course, I will need reminded of this lesson again, no question.  Again and again and again.  Get back up and choose joy.

Simple Beauty

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Summer blessings come in the form of flowers in my world.  My time outside and in the garden is meaningful beyond the obvious nurturing of plants and flowers.  It’s also where I learn (and often re-learn) important life lessons.

When I’m weeding, watering, and deadheading, I’m living in the present moment.  I’m completely alone with my thoughts and I cherish the quiet solitude.  It’s where I hush the voices in my head that are critical.  I forget about all the ways I am not enough in our culture.  I’m not concerned about whether my skin looks younger or if I’m “fighting” wrinkles.  I don’t worry about my size, my legs, or my thighs.  I’m not concerned whether other women think I’m smart or successful.

In the garden, the variety of colors, shapes, and sizes is vast.

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Everything is different and I enjoy the contrast.  I’ve found that viewing life through the lens of gardening is good for my soul.

Today, my Shasta daisy buds are slowly opening and stretching their petals toward the sky.

I’m giddy because I often feel like I’m a daisy in the world.  You see, there are many flowers that are more elegant, more colorful, more vibrant.

Brides, for example, tend to choose lilies, roses, hydrangea, and gardinas for their bridal bouquets for fanciful and frilly buds.   Then there are the exotic flowers like orchids, hibiscus, and birds of paradise that remind us that we are visiting warm, lush, tropical locations.

IMG_4660 Their big blooms are showy, distinctive, and flamboyant.  Yet the daisy is still beautiful in its simplicity.  It may not be the first flower you see in a garden bed but it delights the eyes just the same.

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It’s happy yellow center draws the pollinators and invites smiles to all who visit.

If I picked a bouquet, I would welcome the variety of sizes and colors of the flowers.

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Why then, do I have a hard time remembering that I do not have to look like, act like, or “be” anyone other than me?  I can be simple and differently beautiful.   We can be bigger or smaller, taller or shorter, paler or darker, elegant or ordinary.  All of it welcome.  The difference and mixture IS the magic.

Grow, bloom, love.  Then repeat.

More Us, Less Me

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Sometimes you need to bust your heart wide open to find out who you really are and what you were made to do. I know that when my heart feels deep pain, I’m about to come out on the other side with inexplicable joy. I’m learning to lean into those painful places and not flee. Our culture encourages perfection and rewards those who keep it all together. We have a tendency to avoid brokenness and want others to “get over it quickly.” But I’m so over that script. It’s simply inauthentic and incompatible with who I need to be. One of the goals of 2017 I set out to accomplish is “more us, less me.”

Over the course of the last year, I’ve examined how I spend my days and searched for ways to find more purpose. As good timing is everything, I reconnected with a friend who was on a similar journey. We volunteered together and I found myself feeling deeply moved by Jill’s passion for others. Isn’t that what makes being around people who find their calling so inspiring? She spent her year journaling, volunteering and dreaming up a way to connect others to local nonprofits. She shared her vision and stepped out of her comfort zone, sensing something much bigger at work. Jill wants everyone to see the helpers of the world. I’ve been honored to join Jill’s efforts and dig into her ideas about ways to contribute to the good in life.

In December, Jill officially launched Charity Run as a nonprofit and we were off and running.

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Charity Run seeks out organizations that are doing incredible things in our community and listens to their stories. Sometimes small nonprofits have a difficult time promoting their services due to small staffs and tight budgets. So Charity Run features nonprofits on its social media outlets, promotes their needs and services, organizes “runs” or drives to collect desired items, and makes the community more aware of their personal stories.  Think of Charity Run as a public relations firm for nonprofits. Ultimately, the goal of Charity Run is to personalize the giving process. Beyond merely dropping off donations, we want people to know who they are serving and understand how their items are changing lives. We want to share the stories and beautiful moments when humans experience the healing balm of generosity.

Through out my life, I’ve found that serving others is a tremendous source of joy.  Something deeply spiritual happens when I am engaged in community and my connection to God is further kindled. When I focus more on others and less on me, I find beauty in unexpected places. When I see what others need, I gain better perspective on my “wants”.  I am reminded that I have enough and I am enough.  I don’t have to be perfect at all to reach out and help others.  I can listen and learn and let my heart break so I can lift up, encourage, and walk side by side with my brothers and sisters.

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Friends, I’m so excited about the year ahead and the lives that will positively be impacted because of all the helpers of the world. Do you desire to be more of a helper and to contribute to the good? Do you sense you have more to offer the world? I challenge you to join us and to keep your eyes wide open to the needs in your community. Let your heart break for the hurting and then stand along side those in need, strengthening the men, women, and children sharing our world. You can do BIG things. You can look around you and use your gifts—maybe it’s your time, your goods, or your donations. I’ve always loved the saying “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Join Charity Run and become change agents. Hope is a powerful feeling and can change everything.

Please follow our Facebook page  and Instagram account so you can find out ways you can join us and share with your friends. Help us get the word out about Charity Run so we can serve more people. We want to create a buzz and get on people’s radars. We want to become an effective resource to turn to when you want to donate things around your house in a more engaging and purposeful way.    “There is good in the world.  Find it.  Contribute to it.  Share it.”  ~Jill Jonassen

 

It’s Almost Summer Break

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We are rounding the final bend of the school year and I’ve buckled up for the final bumps on the Crazy Train.   The kids are getting squirrely and us moms are getting anxious. Why? Because we know that these little bundles of joy are now ALL OURS FOR THE NEXT THREE MONTHS! Oh sure, I’ve heard a mom or two say she is looking forward to summer. Those moms are crazy. Possibly drunk too.

Meanwhile, I’ll be frantically trying to squeeze in of all the places I need to go, shop and/or hang out solo over the next three days. Oh, the heavenly three days left of harmony, peace, and beloved silence.  I should research articles on “How Not to Explode at Your Children” or “Tame Your Beasts in One Day” as a just in case.  I’m not saying I’m gonna lose it (yes I am) but perhaps a little advance planning would alleviate future tangles.  Wait, why would there be tangles?  I will tell you why.  Most assuredly, one little brother will think it his duty to steal something valuable from big brother.  Big brother will feel compelled to stuff little brother into the ground, the couch, or a pillow.  Little brother will then elbow big brother. Big brother will shove back (this time with more force because he just ain’t having that) and little brother will inevitably get hurt and cry. Repeat this cycle (and similar permutations of it) about 100 times and you’ll have a good sense of our first week of summer vacation.  Did I mention that summer break is three long, arduous months?

Pass the vodka…

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That Time a Mammogram Saved My Life

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Does that title sound overly dramatic?  Perhaps to some it is.  To me, it’s 100% truth.  The very first mammogram I ever had detected something suspicious and I quickly learned how valuable early screenings are for women.

Several months ago, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Services or USPSTF (say that after a glass of wine!) changed the recommendation of when to start mammogram screenings.  Despite the expertise of many medical practitioners as well as studies that have shown breast cancer mortality rates decrease with earlier detection, their committee of experts moved the suggested age to begin screenings from 40 to 50.  Say what?  Apparently the increase in false positives and over diagnosis were more harmful than beneficial in their eyes.

You want to get a survivor fired up?  You just tell her something like this: “Oh, there are too many false positives and it’s really stressful for the person who has to go through that scare.”  Or watch how she cringes when you say something like “Early mammograms really don’t detect the ‘harmful’ cancers.”

I had no lumps or reason to suspect that something was growing within my breast.  In fact, I went as a walk-in for a mammogram at the prodding of my OB/Gyn because I had just turned 40.  Their offices were next to each other so I literally left one appointment and walked one doorway over for the mammogram because it was convenient.  I was moving from Iowa to Ohio the next week so I needed to knock out as many medical appointments as I could before the move.

When I received the follow up call to come back a few days later, I wasn’t terribly concerned.  After all, the mammographer had assured me that many women get called back after their first mammogram because there’s no baseline for comparison’s sake.  She also mentioned that many young women have dense breast tissue (thus making mammograms harder to read).   I shuttled my kids (then 8 and 4 years old) off to the neighbor’s house and said “I’ll only be an hour.”

Three hours later, after the follow up mammogram and an ultrasound, I found myself face down getting a biopsy.  They whisked me into the room and expedited services due to my upcoming move.  My appointment was on a Friday and movers were packing up my house on Monday so there was no time to waste.

After the biopsy, I sat bruised and uncertain.  I would have to wait a very long weekend to know the results.  Still, I was young and in good shape.  Certainly I was too healthy to get cancer.   I was confident the results would come back negative.  I didn’t know anyone my age with cancer.  I was a mom.  Moms don’t get cancer.

I’ve blogged about this before and I’ll say it again.  Nothing prepares you for bad news.  My mind could not comprehend the words I was hearing.  The man on the other end of the receiver was telling me he was sorry.  He had to share bad news.  I took the phone call as I sat in my packed up office, fumbling to find something to write with as the doctor rattled off my diagnosis.   As I was taking in this news, the men from the moving company were whizzing all around the house from room to room.  There was no private place to curl up and hide.  Instead, I scribbled down words that made no sense.  After I hung up, I tried to make heads or tails of what he told me.  What did he mean by “an area of micro invasion”?  That can’t be good.  What’s grade 1 mean?  Is that a stage?  It was as if someone had slipped me a math equation that I hadn’t studied before but I was being tested right there on the spot.

I won’t bore you with all the details.  Certainly, I’ve written enough on this topic already (because, you know, it’s therapeutic!).  What I do want to make abundantly clear is the significance of that first mammogram.  I ended up with stage 1 ductal carcinoma.  I had an area of micro invasion that had penetrated the duct –rather than in situ (considered noninvasive and where the cancer has not yet penetrated the lining of the duct).  So mine was not a simple case.  Luckily, after a lumpectomy and the removal of three lymph nodes, pathology showed the cancer had not spread.

Sometimes I can’t believe that this is my story.  It could have turned out so differently.  What if I hadn’t turned 40 and not been prompted to get a mammogram?  With these new guidelines, I would still have another 8 years before a mammogram (I’m such a young 42 right now).  Are you doing the math with me?  That’s ten years for cancerous cells to travel from my breast tissue to other tissue, bones, or organs in my body.  I shudder to think of the consequences in my life had I not had that early detection.  I’m grateful that I sit here sharing my story with you rather than someone else sharing this with my sons after I’m gone.

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Today, I will be getting my two year follow up mammogram post surgery (they start the 2 year monitoring clock following the first mammogram 6 months AFTER surgery).  I get mammograms every six months so my “girls” are closely monitored now.  I also get yearly MRIs.  Time passes but it never gets easier.  I will likely get sweaty palms and a case of scanxiety as I sit in the waiting room in a flimsy gown, waiting for my radiologist to read my scans/images.  This is life after cancer.  I’m ok with it.  I go because I know that knowing SOMETHING is better than the surprise alternative.

Women, chicas, sisters, lady friends–do not put off your mammograms.  Yes, I know they are mighty uncomfortable and getting your ta tas smooshed like a pancake is unpleasant, but do not delay.   I strongly urge you to start screenings at age 40.  I didn’t think it could happen to me.  After all, the risk of breast cancer for women aged 40 is only 1.45% (you can read more statistics at breastcancer.org).  Get the mammograms yearly and talk with your doctor if you are younger but have a family history of breast cancer.

I will remain a loud advocate for earlier screenings and cannot/will not squander this opportunity to use my voice.  I don’t mind serving as a poster child for this issue and I will continue to share my story because a mammogram saved my life.