Another month’s slipped by, and my Pastor is asking when I will get back to writing. I guess that means it’s time to write? It’s interesting how that works- it’s not like I mark my calendar. But right about the time I’m supposed to write, God starts stirring my soul. Once the stirring starts, my ears perk up, and my hum-drum existence suddenly becomes alive. A whole world springs up in my mind, because God starts speaking to me, and I’m processing His words to me, as they come in from every direction. I start to see Him, to hear Him, to dialog with Him in some manner far beyond words, and which seems to be in perfect balance with the outside world. And the way He puts it all together for me, the little things, and the big things, it all starts to take shape and make sense in these words I’m supposed to share about my experience with cancer. It’s a lot like a funnel- big and loose at the top and small and refined at the bottom. If I had to draw a picture of this writing process, that’s what it would look like- a funnel. Or a swirling eddy? How ironic. I guess I would say that God has ordained this writing that I’ve been doing. And it’s interesting to me that it took several writings for God to convince me of this, and now that He has, my Pastor is the only person who’s even acknowledged lately that he’s still reading. It’s like God uses other people in our lives to push us out on a limb, and then once we get there, and turn around to look at those people, they’re all gone, and there’s God even further out that shaky limb saying, “well, look where you are now. Do you trust me?” So what started out as a humble plea for prayer to family and close friends has turned into a book proposal. As I stand out here on this bowing limb, looking around and scratching my head, my book proposal sits on the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association book proposal list. This is my offering, God. It isn’t for me. It’s for You.
So cancer treatment is what it is- nothing new there. I guess I’m sliding along on a slopey plain now? If things continue as they are, I’ll be officially graduated from treatment in August 2005. I saw Susanna, Dr. Patel’s Nurse Practitioner, last week. She checked me head to toe and everything appears to be ok. My elbow x-ray came back negative for a bone metastasis, even though I continue to have pain there. I think it’s just my body’s reaction to the lymphedema, which will haunt me the rest of my life. When the lymph nodes are surgically removed the lymph fluid, which seeps out the blood vessels, does not have a system within which to drain away, causing a build up of fluid in the region where the nodes have been removed. They call this lymphedema, and it’s common for cancer patients who have had lymph nodes surgically removed. Because my axillary lymph nodes (the ones under the armpit) were all removed, the swelling occurs in my arm, shoulder, and chest. It’s a minor irritant, and sometimes a major medical condition, which requires almost daily attention from me. When the swelling begins to worsen, I start to have much more noticeable symptoms, like elbow pain. So that’s what the pain is from- no cancer in the bones. I go for a MUGA scan soon. That’s to check the blood ejection from the heart. The chemotherapy I am getting now is very mild, but one of its’ more dangerous and permanent side effects is heart damage. The MUGA scan is a way to keep a watch for that. Al was the first one to ask at my appointment if it was time for my MUGA scan. The MUGA scan is done on the same machine used for the bone scan at the radiology clinic I am sent to. The tech withdraws blood, adds radioactive “tags” to it, and then injects it back in me after 30 minutes. I guess this tagged blood “lights up” when radiation is directed at it, so that the blood being pumped out the heart is more discernable. The problem is they always miss my veins, and I have to lay completely still on that table for a very long period of time while the machine is less than an inch away from my body, taking pictures. I don’t do well any time I have to go to Kern Radiology.
Anxiety is one of the more predominant emotions I’ve had to tame through this whole cancer trip. Just this week at treatment I was on the brink of an anxiety attack. I don’t exactly know why, but I really didn’t want to be there to begin with. Then when the CNA took my blood pressure, it was very high, and I think that stressed me out even more. My neck/chest starts breaking out in big, red splotches anytime my blood pressure or nerves get slightly out of whack, so I can’t hide my nervousness at all. So my nurse, Kim, a cute little girl just a year older than me, asks, “why is your neck all red?” So I have to tell her that I’m nervous, and my neck just does that when I get nervous or anxious. She wants to know why, so we engage in a rather lengthy conversation about cancer treatment. She says to me, “but you should feel lucky that you get Herceptin. It’s a medicine that can help you and you’re doing well.” “I should feel lucky?”, I sneer. “Yes”, she says. “Some of the patients who come here are bald and so sick they are puking in the trash cans. They’re not doing as well as you.” “I was there myself, not too long ago”, I remind her. “I know”, she says. “This whole cancer thing isn’t easy you know”, I tell her, with a heart to open up to let her see a small glimpse of the struggle I’ve been through. “Healing doesn’t just come because I look good on the outside, because I have hair, and am not puking. Healing is a process, an emotional process, and I’m not sure I can fully grasp that while I’m still having to come here for treatment every week. The chemotherapy might not be the ‘hard stuff’, but the emotional commitment to getting myself here, going through the needle pokes in my port every week, seeing the other sick patients, that’s hard. Being the youngest patient in here most days, going home to kids after treatment, feeling so alone. It’s just not easy.” “Ya, you’re right”, she says, “I guess I never really thought about it like that.”
But the hardest part, the part I didn’t fully reveal to Kim, is the profound sense of loss. Loss of breasts, loss of health, loss of control, loss of dignity, loss of dreams. If cancer begs any kind of healing at all, it’s healing from loss. I recently bleached my hair so that it’s punky/spiky blond (and yes, it has come back the second time a bit curly, and much less coarse than it was the first time it grew in). One of the other nurses, Julie, commented on it when I first walked in for treatment this week. We had a short little conversation about my spunkiness. I told her I had gained 25 pounds and lost two breasts, as I patted my flattened chest, so “I had to do something”. I said it with a big grin, but there is pain behind that mask of spunkiness. I’m about to turn 32. And I’ve been thinking a lot about my life: where I was, where I am, where I wanted to be. Loss. This theme that God keeps bringing to my attention came through on the radio loud and clear one day as I was driving mid-day to a home visit with one of my clients. Pastor Chip Ingram was giving a topical sermon on “Overcoming the Pain of Shattered Dreams”. Ouch. Normally topical sermons are not my forte. But this particular sermon touched a nerve that connected straight to my heart. I felt the bitter sting of salty tears well up as I was driving down the road, and before I knew it my eyes were so overfilled that the tears were streaming down my face faster than I could wipe them away. “Oh no, not now! I’m on my way to a home visit and my mascara’s going to be streaked down my face if I don’t stop this”, I thought. God apparently doesn’t care about that. Pastor Chip talked about our expectations in life- the big house, the fancy car, the well mannered children, the hard earned retirement, the fairy tale that we chased after. And he talked about the brokenness that happens when we come to realize that our expectations were unrealistic, that our lives here are full of pain, and loss, struggling, and suffering.
So I had a good cry. A brief moment of a tiny bit of healing. On with my day. I have clients who need my full self. A few days go by and I dig out a book and dust it off- “The Heart of Christmas”. It’s time to focus myself on getting our annual Christmas newsletter written up so I can send it out with Christmas cards. I pull the book out hoping to get a quote or two to use as side captions in the newsletter. And the very first message I come to is a story by John Maxwell, “When You Follow a Star and Find a Stable”. That’s no coincidence. It’s the exact same message God had already given to me earlier this week, only wrapped in the story of the birth of Christ this time. John writes, “can you imagine the disappointment the Magi must have felt when they finally ended up in Bethlehem? We know that they were expecting a mansion, or a royal court. They even stopped at King Herod’s palace to find out about this star and this child who was to be born…….every one of us has had times in life when we’ve followed a star. Everything looked so promising, but we were to find out in the end that we were in a stable”. Yep. That’s what cancer is. A stable. A stinky, animal urine infested stable. Cold. Hard. Uninviting. Lonely. I followed a star, 30 years out, my whole life ahead of me, expecting a palace, but found myself in a stable. This wasn’t what I dreamed of, or hoped for.
But John doesn’t just finish with his “life sucks” message. He goes on to point out that “when wise men find a stable, they look for God”. The Baby Jesus, God in flesh, was in that stable. That is why the Magi were led there to begin with. John goes on, “strong Christians see God in both the good and the bad. The mature believer sees God not only in pleasures and palaces, but also in the barnyards and stables of life.” The second key point John makes is that “when wise men find a stable, they offer their very best to God”. Again, this was God’s confirmation to me out on that limb. “You see here, your very best gifts, your deepest emotions, your sharpest thoughts- I’ve sifted them all out, funneled them into these fine, powdery gold letters that make up the words of these pages”. I guess I have been giving my best to God, without even really being aware that I was? So here I sit in this stable, offering my gifts to God, pondering on the last point in John’s parable- “when wise men find a stable, they change their direction”. I know that means that at some point I have to get up and walk out of this stable. And I know that God is here. I never doubted that. What I grapple with is God’s purpose for me in the journey. He led me here, and I’m here. He asked for my best gifts, and I freely gave them back to Him. But now what? I just get up and walk out, and that’s it? Do I get to take anything with me? What was the point beyond the obvious? After such a profound experience, did the Magi just get up, walk out, and go back to their lives as usual? There are more questions than answers……….
Have you followed a star and ended up at a stable? And did you find God there? What did you give, and what did you walk away with? If you ponder on these things, thinking about the stables in your life, also consider the presence of the Christ child- the tiny, fragile infant God who wasn’t just led to a stable, He was birthed there. He started His life in stable, and for a purpose far more glorious than we can fully comprehend. And thank God. May your Christmas season be full of the love of Christ…………………
In His Grace~