I usually don’t write a week after I already sent a 10 page letter (well okay, maybe just 5 pages), but it seems like this week has been very rich for me in so many ways, and I’m sure I have 10 more pages I could write. I’m not exactly sure why I feel compelled to share so much of my week, but only know that compulsions are hard to resist. The Apostle Paul said the same thing about preaching the gospel.
My last chemo treatment was very hard. I am still suffering the effects, and yet I only have one more week until it is time to go back again for more of it. The neurotoxicity has been particularly evident this last time. My fingers and feet are so numb and tingly (neuropathy) that I have to force them to work right. I can hardly put on my jewelry, and typing has become almost painful. They say this is caused by nerve damage- and hope it is temporary. I also have had moments when my brain is so fogged that my words come out jumbled, or my train of thought gets completely derailed. People who don’t know me, particularly work associates, probably think I’m about as ditzy as they come! The light-headedness has brought me to near unconsciousness a few times. And my sense of balance has been so challenged that I actually fell while standing perfectly still rummaging through a rack of clothes in a department store. The bone pain- it has been immense. Dr. Patel boldly proclaimed to me that I am “one strong lady” when I saw him last. I reminded him of those infamous words of Nietzsche: “that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. I got a disapproving “hmpf” from him. I guess oncology and existentialism is sort of like sugar in coffee to someone who likes their coffee with cream. A girlfriend of mine mentioned a while back that her husband, a local hospital chaplain, was reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Frankl. Good book. I’ve always kinda been an existentialist. And my girlfriend is right- those who find meaning in their suffering get through it far more triumphantly than those who don’t.
While a lot of the side effects of this past treatment are fading, with only a week to go before I do it all again, I figured that this next round is going to be that much harder. So, we came to the decision that I need to take a leave of absence from work. Thursday (10/9) will be my last day until after the holidays. There is a tinge of sadness in that, but even more, I am thirsty to have that “alone” time with God, so the break is very much welcomed.
After 7 days of the Neupogen shots, I went in and found my white blood cells were almost three times the high end of “normal”! When I went back to the chemo room to ask Julie (you get to know the nurses by first name) what I should do about that, the smile on her face and the look in her eyes spoke very loudly to me- “this is a work of God”. Although Julie and I have not talked faith, I know she is a sister in the Lord. So, a quick call to the NP, and there came the directive- “no more Neupogen!” So instead of 10 days, I only got 7, and probably didn’t even need that. It truly is a miracle that my white count would be that high on the day that it should be at it’s lowest point (even with the shots), after the rigorous chemo that I received………
My surgeon canceled my appointment this week, so we won’t have a surgery date until next week. But we went to Woodland Hills to consult with a plastic surgeon about reconstruction. I really wanted to have a decision before my surgery so that when I came out of it I could focus on what was coming ahead, and not so much on what I just lost. We learned a lot about the technique, the true commitment reconstruction takes, and the probable aesthetic outcome. There’s actually an advantage to having a double mastectomy if one chooses reconstruction, because at least symmetry can be achieved. There are a lot of risks, complications, and several procedures to complete the process of implants. And the mastectomy scar runs right through the middle of the breast, so it’s not like you get to have breasts that look like Pamela Anderson’s. I walked away with no clearer idea, and a lot of tears to shed. The feminine side of me wants to make the commitment to endure the process. The carefree and rebellious side of me doesn’t care, and would rather cover the scars with tattoos and enjoy the liberation of being bra-less! And then there’s just the sobering fact that in ± 20 years I’d have to get new implants all over again. If I survive this cancer, in 20 years I’ll still only be 50- and do I really want to live with having to continue to deal with Dr’s about my breasts for the next 20 years? I don’t know. But I think I have resolved that I’m just not ready to make a decision. And that really is ok. Because I can’t have reconstruction until after I’m finished with radiation anyway. So I have plenty of time to decide. And maybe that period of time that I finish up treatment without breasts will give me what I need to make the decision. One thing I am certain of- the girl in me is afraid that losing my breasts will somehow make me less of a woman. But the woman in me knows with complete conviction that losing my breasts will probably make me more of a woman. Growing up is so hard. And yet as children we are so eager to do it……
I’ve really struggled with God again lately. It’s not that I spend each day in this dramatic, epic battle. It’s more like little daily mini-battles. I cry. I protest. I question. I get angry. And the funny part of it is, I am fine until someone tells me how blessed they are through me. That’s when the thoughts grab me: “you’re gonna lead me to my grave so that other people are blessed- what about me….my family?!” Thank God those thoughts are lulled by the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit, who is constantly reminding me that this isn’t really about “me” anyway. Thank God that Job’s trials served as testimony to me that even a “righteous” man questions God at moments. Thank God He has answered my ridiculous, accusing questions by giving me small glimpses this week at the work He is doing in my own life through my cancer- the relationships He is mending, the gifts He is exercising, the faith He is deepening.
I made two new friends this week. One I met on the IBC listserv, and she is currently undiagnosed with all the symptoms of IBC. She is 38 years old, and has four children she is still raising. At first I seriously considered unsubscribing to the listserv, because the e-mails from those affected by this disease are an in-your-face kind of reality that was too much for me. Sixteen year young Andi Collins passed away on 9/4/03 from stage IV IBC. She didn’t tell her Mom about the changes in her breast until it was too late. In July, Grace Erica Pennell-Collins, a 33 year young woman passed away from IBC. She left behind two children so young they probably won’t have any of their own memories of her. Jody Cross, 41 years young, passed away in January. She also left behind four children still at home. Yes, most women with breast cancer survive. But most women with IBC don’t. It is sobering. And saddening. And angering. But I have learned to say a lot of prayers through it, and that can’t be a bad thing. The thing is, I haven’t really prayed much for myself in comparison. And even in the face of all this death, and with grappling with my own mortality, I still find that gravity has not taken ahold of me- I still live each day as if I have thousands more to spend. What I mean by that is I am still scarfing chocolate faster than I can taste it!
The second friend I made was actually at work. I pass by her office every day, and we have shared a few short and polite conversations. But today she came to my office, asked to shut the door, and shared an awesome testimony of her own battle and faith in the call God had given her in regards to me. It reminded me of a time several years ago when I disobeyed the calling of God to lay hands on a woman with cancer that He wanted to heal. I watched from a distance, with great disappointment in myself, as God healed her. You see, during a time of prayer God had laid on the heart of my new friend to pray for me. And He gave her a Word to give to me: Daniel 3:17-18. It is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The King, Nebuchadnezzar, had demanded they worship the idol he had made of gold. When they refused he became furious and wanted to burn them in the fire, as he had said he would do to all who did not bow to the idol. The reply of these three men of God was: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” For Christians, trials are like fire- for the purposes of burning off and refining. Yes, God can deliver me from my fiery trial. He is powerful. He is capable. I can walk out just like these three men, not even smelling like smoke! But even if He doesn’t heal me, I must remain faithful. Of all the attributes of God, His Sovereignty is the most important. And His Glory the most evident. As they say in Middle Earth, “even upon pain of death”, I will not stop worshipping God. After all, “since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil– and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). With a God like that, who could turn away?
Oswald Chambers had prophetic devotionals for me too this week too:
“After every time of exaltation, we are brought down with a sudden rush into things as they really are, where it is neither beautiful, poetic, nor thrilling. The height of the mountaintop is measured by the dismal drudgery of the valley, but it is in the valley that we have to live for the glory of God. We see His glory on the mountain, but we never live for His glory there. It is in the place of humiliation that we find our true worth to God-that is where our faithfulness is revealed. Most of us can do things if we are always at some heroic level of intensity, simply because of the natural selfishness of our own hearts. But God wants us to be at the drab everyday level, where we live in the valley according to our personal relationship with Him. Peter thought it would be a wonderful thing for them to remain on the mountain, but Jesus Christ took the disciples down from the mountain and into the valley, where the true meaning of the vision was explained (see Mark 9:5-6, Mark 14-23).”
“When you are brought face to face with a difficult situation and nothing happens externally, you can still know that freedom and release will be given because of your continued concentration on Jesus Christ. Your duty in service and ministry is to see that there is nothing between Jesus and yourself. Is there anything between you and Jesus even now? If there is, you must get through it, not by ignoring it as an irritation, or by going up and over it, but by facing it and getting through it into the presence of Jesus Christ. Then that very problem itself, and all that you have been through in connection with it, will glorify Jesus Christ in a way that you will never know until you see Him face to face. We must be able to “mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31), but we must also know how to come down. The power of the saint lies in the coming down and in the living that is done in the valley.”
Usually where there are valleys, there are lakes. And while legends have us believe there are ‘Loch Ness’ monsters in lakes, I know for certain there’s no swirling eddies. The “still waters” are much more likely to be found in a valley than they are at the sea! So I have four more days of work, then another walk through the Yew Trees (*smile* I guess that technically makes Taxol an herb?), and then I can lie down in green pastures for a while before I begin my pilgrimage in search of the still waters. I will let you know what I find………