I’ve learned a few things about cancer over the past 6 months. Some much needed lessons and most hard to accept.
1. God gave me this cancer for a reason. Yes, I wholeheartedly believe that. Am I mad? Yes! Heck yes, but mostly not at God. I know that He has a much bigger picture than my infant eyes can see. He will use this ugly disease for His own good and that may not always benefit me but it is my job to try to see what good He has in store from this ugly thing. Many days I am angry. Down right, kick-a-tree, scream-till-I’m-blue-in-the-face, swearing-like-a-truck-driver angry. But I’m mad at medicine, mad at all the Doctors who have so far to go. Mad at the food industry, the pesticide industry, the plastic industry, Monsanto, bovine hormones, big pharma. All the obscure people I can’t look in the eye and tell them what I really feel. I’m a coward.
2. There is a B.C. (Before cancer) and A.D. (After Diagnosis). And you can, in great detail, remember the day that separates the two. It was a quiet morning at home and I had just put Loli down for a nap. The boys and I were eating a picnic lunch out back in the shadow of the trampoline and I was thinking, “I may have breast cancer.” We knew after hearing preliminary reports from the mammogram a week earlier that this was a high probability. I felt anxious, as you can imagine and wondered what course of life I was about to embark upon. Up to that point I had become complacent, numb to life. I didn’t value the things that I always admired people for valuing. I didn’t seek God like I needed to. I didn’t pay attention to the life that was clearly in front of me. Cancer puts those things into focus. Sometimes I think God gave me cancer so that I’d have that defining moment. That feeling like, “well God, I kind of always knew you were in charge and I like to know you’ve got this all taken care of but I really just NEED you right now. I NEED you to tell me you got this. That whatever you are doing here has a purpose, a message. Make me your canvas. Paint a picture with this mess that others will see through me somehow. Reignite the desire I once had for you.”
3. People care about you. They come alongside you, they cry with you, they hug you, then cry and then hug you some more. And then you cry and hug them again. They wonder, “What if that were me?” They don’t say it out loud, but you know they’re thinking it. And it’s ok because I’ve been in those shoes with my good friend Sara a few years back. People cook for you, they fill your freezer with breakfast burritos, soups, and casseroles. And when they come to deliver your meals they are left speechless when you stumble downstairs in your dirty PJed baldness, incoherent, nauseous, and in pain. And maybe they go back to their cars and cry. And it’s ok. Cancer is raw, it takes people by surprise and it causes them to weep and pray. Your friends pray, their friends pray, your parents pray, your parent’s neighbors pray, your cleaning lady prays, your neighbors pray, your pastor’s wives pray and all that praying is GOOD. It can be felt, even when the tough days catch you by surprise and especially when the good ones do.
4. You lose a lot of dignity and pride. I have, for years now, been asking God to make me humble. Some days I mean it and others I just say it because it sounds all righteous and holy. But some days He actually humors me. Like when you have to walk naked from the waist up across an x-ray room as 10 young med students stare at you, bald and without breasts, you tend to lose your dignity a little bit. Your feelings of modesty are replaced with feelings of being more of a science project and quite honestly, there are few times I’ve felt smaller and more uncomfortable.
5. Your husband amazes you. Even though he was always helpful, your husband, who is now left to pick up the slack when you are left dry heaving in bed brings you buttered, toasted Wonder Bread (Wonder Bread, for cryin’ out loud. Didn’t I say I hated Monsanto?). He makes lunches for the boys, even though he comes upstairs and ever so gently whispers in your ear, “Where are the lunchboxes?” He does the laundry, reads the books, wipes the butts, kisses the boo-boos, attempts to try to match the teensy baby girl clothes and don’t get me started on the pigtails. Ohmycuteness. But he does all of this because, upstairs lays his young wife, quietly crying. A little bit from the pain and a little bit from the joy that she feels from having a husband who willingly and sacrificially handles all of these life moments without complaint. Maybe my 9-day girl’s trip to China last May was half my Brigadoon and half his practice for what lay ahead.
6. I am not good at being told what to do. How can I teach my children to submit to authority when I buck and resent it myself? I do not like Doctors acting like they know more than me. I get it, they do, but I don’t like it. “Single mastectomy,” they say. “Take them both,” I say. “6 rounds of ridiculously difficult chemo,” they say. “I had one round, I’m good now. Take your chemo and shove it,” I say. And after numerous rebellious consultations with my medical oncologists, surgical oncologists and family physician I agreed to finish and now I’m DONE!. Woohoo. “10 years of Tamoxifen therapy and injections of Zoladex every 3 months,” they say. And I say, “we’ll see.” I’m a rebel.
7. You’re stronger than you think. A wise cancer-survior friend told me this when I sent her this mesaage, “I cannot handle this. I am an emotional and physical wreck. How long does this nausea and dizziness last? Going on day 4 and no better. What can I do to make this easier on myself? It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel this early on.”
8. People love your kids like you can’t some days. The pick-ups, the drop-offs, the chemo days, the food, the playdates. It never ends and having cancer is exhausting, forget coupling it with three young children. People have been selflessly caring for and supporting my kids which makes such a huge impact on how I can handle healing. It broke my heart to put my boys in the local Belgian preschool down the road after I had just finished planning our first official year of homeschool (and spent plenty of money on all the curricula I “had to have.”) They love it, their teachers are lovely and they are learning French, whether they realize it or not. It’s also incredibly hard to shove your three small kiddos off on other people when they aren’t even old enough to understand what is going on. I cannot even begin to wrap my head around the blessings that surround me. My amazingly sweet, neighbor, Gena, has become like an aunt to Loli, taking care of her for most of my appointments and Lorelai has become quite attached to her “G.” When she’s traveling my wonderful friend, Piper, mother to three young adult boys is happy to get some little girl time. My other neighbors run over at the drop of a hat to help get kiddos off to school, babysit in a pinch, prepare a meal and just check in on me. The love is overwhelming. My closest friend, Lara, up the road, is an angel in every sense of the word. Like a second mother to my kids, she picks up from school, drops off or just stops by at the ding of a text message. Always ready with a prayer, a hug and an encouraging word. She has been such an amazing support to me and my family since she moved here. Most recently my friend Kelly and her daughter Steph, set up an online sign-up for radiation buddies. Within 2 days my friends filled almost 25 spots in which they drive with me to Leuven (my hospital, over an hour away) and we grab lunch and then head to the hospital for my radiation appt. It makes the days so much more meaningful and enjoyable to have some fun included. There are so many angels among us in this community, I cannot imagine going through an ordeal like this anywhere else. I am constantly amazed at the hearts here and will miss the community here when we move next year.
9. Your parents become stronger than they’ve ever had to be. When your 33 year old daughter is diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer and lives 2000 miles away, across an ocean, there is really only one thing to do. Get on a plane. And my parents have done that numerous times now. Luckily for me they retired last year and are willing and able to drop everything to come stay with us to help. My mother, a band member by day, dishwasher and bandage nurse by night, never tires in helping.
My dad somehow never gets tired of playing Little People zoo, reading the same book over and over and over and over and always gets up early to help feed the kids breakfast. Everyone has a special place in their heart for Papi and despite the circumstances I am so glad we have had this extra time with my parents. My parents have always been my biggest fans and supporters, despite my many adventures and difficult stages. I grew up and went to college in my hometown of State College, PA and I loved being able to see my parents on the weekends when I went home to eat dinner and do laundry. I would stop by my mom’s office on campus to say hello and eat lunch and tell her all about my college life. She sat for hours with me as a teenager and college student and was legitimately interested in my petty teenage drama (or she is an amazing actress;). She is the person I call when I need to cry and Joe’s shoulder is temporarily utilized by one of our kids. She listens to me, comforts me and I know she knows exactly what I’m struggling with. My mother battled breast cancer 8 years ago with grace and strength and now she has to go through it again, through her daughter’s eyes. Being a military spouse means we are far away from my folks and have been for a while. And when Joe’s military career comes to an end and he retires from service we all can’t wait to live closer to each other and see each other more often.
Life throws curveballs and cancer is a doozy. But there are life lessons to be learned throughout the toughest circumstances.