Two months have gone by, 8 more treatments under my belt, and I’m barely scratching my way back from a mud pit I fell into. I was so focused on watching my feet slide across the ground that I missed the big muddy trap laid out before me. By the time I realized there was no ground below my final step, I was already at the bottom. It crept up on me, and I guess I just didn’t realize the ground under me was so unstable. So the treatment after my last writing ended up being the end of one phase, and the beginning of another. I went in distraught, quickly overcome by tears, and couldn’t stop crying through the entire hour-long infusion. A Nurse Practitioner was called back into the treatment room, and she determined I am depressed. “I’m surprised you’ve gone this long without needing an anti-depressant”, she says. Chemotherapy alters brain chemistry. Our delicate seratonin and melatonin balances get askew with the cell ravaging intents of chemotherapies, and trying to get them back on straight is a nearly impossible task without some sort of chemical whistle to get them back in line. Because of my reported anxiety, the chosen whistle was Paxil- a drug given to treat both depression and anxiety.
So I started my daily regimen of Paxil in mid-Decemeber, and have found the walls of my dirt trap slowly firming up since. At least I can dig my fingernails in and gain some leverage at this point. Speaking of fingernails, my once natural and healthy long nails have diminished to flimsy stubs that bend when I attempt to use them for the most usual tasks. That’s just one of the signs of the weekly chemotherapy that has invaded my body. Since my last writing I have had another MUGA scan and CT scans of my pelvis, abdomen, chest, and neck. It’s the first time I’ve had to go through a CT scan and have not been on the verge of a full blown anxiety attack. Paxil. Sometimes God works in ways that aren’t so mysterious. The CT scans showed that everything inside looks good and there’s still no evidence of cancer in my body. But the MUGA scan showed a 10% decrease in my heart’s blood ejection fraction, meaning a decline in function. The ejection fraction is still within healthy range, but the 10% decrease in a 3 month time was of great concern to Al. He wanted me to immediately stop the Herceptin, call myself “cured”, and just go on with life. Sometimes I fail to see the toll that all of this has taken on him as well. If I continue on as scheduled, I have about 6 more months to go. I am definitely having a party in August. I’m not kidding. I’m calling it a “coming out” party- coming out of cancer treatment. A prominent woman in ministry here in town was also diagnosed with cancer about a year ago, and she is having a “healing celebration”. I believe she was diagnosed at Stage IV, which used to be considered terminal, so I can only imagine that she needs to embrace her healing with full effect. The invitation to the celebration gives a time when she will be giving testimony. That got me thinking again about what God has and hasn’t done through my own walk with cancer. In some ways I wish I could have a nice, clean testimony of God’s healing. Wham, bam, and thank You, God. But I’ve found my testimony has been far dirtier than that, full of fear, and loss, struggle, frustration, and even anger. I have whined, and clawed, and protested my way through it; and although I have fully accepted that God’s sovereignty has displayed itself in His choosing me, Aimee Kristine Shaw, beloved daughter of His, to bare the burden of cancer, I am pretty sure I haven’t done so gracefully. But I am coming to accept and appreciate that this in itself is my testimony. And God’s glory is evident in some pretty profound ways through it.
I shared before about reading Aron Ralston’s book written about his ordeal with being trapped in a remote slot canyon and having to sever his arm in order to survive. Now I am reading Lance Armstrong’s book, “It’s Not About the Bike”. Lance and Aron have a lot in common. They are both athletically inclined. And they both stared death in the face and had to make choices about how to handle that. Before I bought Lance’s book, I like I am sure a million other people, just thought of him as some star athlete who received undue attention for his cancer journey simply because of his athletic fame. But then I heard on a television program that Lance was diagnosed with Stage IV testicular cancer at the height of his career, and a mere 25 years old. The cancer had metastasized to his lungs and his brain. And not only that, his Tour de France wins were after he walked through the cancer. That got my attention. So I bought the book and am still reading through it. I can relate to a lot of Lance’s thoughts and feelings regarding his cancer and his will to live. But I’m sure there are many aspects of the cancer experience shared by the “common” person that Lance could not relate to. Regardless of his stature in the athletic community, he serves as a source of inspiration for many people, including the average cancer patient.
Everyone has a source of inspiration. Mine is Jesus. I read books like Aron’s and Lance’s not because I am seeking inspiration, but rather, I’m seeking to understand what was gained through the experiences. One commonality that struck me about both Aron and Lance is they shared a singular and powerful source of inspiration- their mothers. I’d have to lie to deny that I had my share of grandiose ideas about my own potential influence as a mother after reading these books. I can only hope to be that inspirational to my children. But my heart really is to leave a legacy much more eternally relevant than my cancer experience alone. I don’t want my children to say that I was brave and strong, that I taught them how to persevere or overcome great odds. I want them to say that though I was weak, I remained faithful. I want them to say that I was not just faithful, but faithful even unto death. I want them to rise up and call me blessed because it is God and Him alone who gave His Holy Spirit to me so that I could endure the trials, could persevere through doubt, and could overcome by faith. That would make it all worth it.
Cancer has changed me. But it has changed my family too. I can’t tell you all the ways, and I can’t articulate what has been of cancer and what has been just expected maturation as the children have grown up, but I can tell you that the family we were pre-May 2003 and the family we are now is radically different. Justin, almost 16 years old, is at the age when boys are trying to detach from their mothers, from their families, to gain independence and freedom, and to enter into the exciting and romantic relationships that girls can offer. I mean, what 15 year old boy wants to kiss his mother when he has a girlfriend at school waiting for him to get there? Well, oddly, mine does. Justin frequently tells me he loves me, and frequently wants to give me a hug. We enjoy talking about things, and he actually listens to what I have to say. He even comes to me for advice. Amanda, also at that awkward cusp of the teen years, actually has moments when she is affectionate too. And Jared finally says, “I love you too” back to me when I tell him I love him. He used to just say, “ok”. We talk, we giggle, we make home movies, we try new foods together, we encourage one another, and we ask one another how our days were when we all meet in the evenings. We still have our misunderstandings, disagreements, and plain old bad moods too. But the good seems that much better, the laughing that much more, and the affection much more genuine. So while I am still seeking the inner gifts cancer has left me, the external gifts are obvious and very much appreciated.
They started the art therapy back up at the cancer center. Our first session was about embracing healing, and we made collages. I couldn’t do that ‘laying my hands, meditating on the posterboard, and envisioning my healthy self’ thing. But I did my own thing and got a lot out of it. One factor I really like about art therapy is there are no words. We are so engrossed in creating that there isn’t a lot of deep conversation going on. Yet the creating itself provides a medium of self expression and emotional catharsis. This last session one of the other participants, a caretaker, said something about the Asian customs surrounding tea- specifically, the Chinese tea culture and the philosophy of Buddhism. The Buddhists drink tea as a way to manifest the philosophy of living in the moment. It’s a funny thought- I could have skipped the whole cancer trip and just learned to drink tea. But it’s more Zen-like to focus on the trip itself, the journey, and not even consider the destination. That’s what living in the moment is really all about. Savoring. Contemplating. Breathing. I guess I have learned a lot through cancer. So I worked on my collage, living in that moment, and came up with a pattern- the losses, the transition, and the lessons of my cancer journey.
I woke myself up a few mornings ago because tears were streaming from my eyes. I was dreaming that I was crying, and woke myself with literal tears. Good thing I wasn’t dreaming I was going to the bathroom! That same day I stood in the shower pondering on the ways that cancer has blessed me. How many people know when they are going to die? How many people are given a second chance to live? Very few- and I am one of those few. All these months I have been struggling to grasp exactly what it is I am supposed to take away from this cancer experience, and I have felt the emptiness of the perceived personal uselessness of my suffering, and the frustration at the lessons others have learned through my suffering. I have felt ripped off, empty-handed. I have felt inadequate and flawed, as if everyone else who had cancer was “getting it”, but I wasn’t. Was I owning it too much, or not enough? This constant searching for answers was leaving me psychologically unsettled. I was wrestling with God. But it seems to slowly be coming together with each little step I take away from that chemo chair. Six more months. Six more months. I could have died, but I am alive. And I am so, so blessed to have the wonderful family that I have. I am learning to drink tea.
Al took some time off from school over the holidays, but is back at it. In December of this year, right before we leave for our family cruise, he will have completed his junior year. Al’s been covering the work of two co-workers as well, which has taken him into L.A. proper more times than he’d like to have to go, and also to Reno, NV. They’ve also increased expectations company-wide, so his work load has increased. He’s burning the candle at both ends. We’re also struggling through a 12 week New Testament Greek class being offered through church. I’ve been staying more than busy with work, chemotherapy, regular blood tests, the ministry, home improvement projects, and on and on. Good thing that even though I am learning about appreciating the moment, I have an eternal perspective, and can contemplate storing up treasures in Heaven. Amanda’s active with her AVID program at school, a science fair project, and her recent musical awakening. Jared’s doing what Jared does- getting in trouble at school. He’s signed up for a magnet school that is not in our neighborhood, but offers an extended day program and a more progressive educational philosophy. He’s excited about it, and I’m excited too. The school goes through 6th grade so he won’t have to make the transition to middle school until 7th grade. Both Al and I worry that Jared will be eaten alive in junior high, both socially and academically. This alternative will buy us at least an extra year in elementary before junior high. Justin finished his football season with a 83 yard interception touchdown in his last game of the season, most likely breaking a record for his school. Now he’s doing track and has his first competition next weekend. He and Brittany are still a couple, and just celebrated their one year anniversary as a couple. They went on a chaperoned date to the local miniature golf/arcade. Al took them while Jared, Amanda and I stayed home and watched “Forrest Gump”.Justin’s also anxious to start driving. Al and I bought him a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle with the condition that we hold title and keys until he pays back half of what we paid for it. Until then, he may drive it only with permission. I figured if he was going to be learning to drive he’d be better off learning on a stick, and with a vehicle that old there’s no need to make sure it passes smog, insurance is cheaper, and it’s easy to work on. Al was excited to have a valid excuse to buy some new tools. And on top of all the scheduling, worrying, praying, and bandaging that comes along with being a mother of 3 kids, we’re going through the process of taking guardianship of Justin’s 16 year old friend, Larry. We’ve known Larry since he and Justin were in 7th grade together, and Larry was still living with his parents. He’s been in foster care a while now. Since then his father has died of undiagnosed hepatitis, and his mother seems to be having difficulty getting herself together. So Larry is in permanent foster care placement. He’s been shuffled around from home to home and is now in a boys’ group home. He asked us several months ago if he could come live with us, with a charming grin and a masked laugh that told us that Larry tried to pretend he was joking, but really wasn’t. After talking and praying about it for a few months we made the decision to move forward in attempting to bring him into our circle of family. With all that is going on, I am uncertain of how exactly things will go, but we are all fully trusting God on this, and aren’t really worried. But I am sure you can see why I haven’t written in a couple of months- I’ve been far too busy sipping my paxilated tea!
Always in His Grace~