I am a Partner in Breakthrough

Words are society’s most powerful way of framing the issues of our time.  For thousands of years, philosophers have discussed how language affects perception.  The words we use, shape our filter around an issue; yet, in the age of people first language and politically correct speech, there remain many blind spots where we continue to utilize labels that feed into outdated and inaccurate perceptions. Living in an era of medical and technological breakthrough, we must often embrace new labels in order for our thoughts to grow and change with the times.

Individuals living with cancer are one of the groups that have been held back by old labels.  Currently, it is acceptable to call anyone impacted by cancer a “cancer patient”, or “cancer survivor.”  Why have these labels been allowed to identify 500,000 individuals living with cancer in America? We do not label someone with diabetes a “diabetes patient.”  People first language teaches us that a person is more important than a disability/disease. So why do we continue to allow cancer to be more important than the individuals it effects and use our speech to determine that a disease can define a person’s identity?  

To gather perspective on these labels let us look at their origins.  From the 1940’s until the 1980’s there were very few, if any, effective treatments for those with a cancer diagnosis.  The term ‘cacner patient’ was an accurate descriptive in that time. There were few cancer survivors. A person with a cancer diagnosis was without choice except to submit oneself to the guidance of a doctor.  Little to no information was available and therefore anyone with a diagnosis of cancer could be correctly labeled a “cancer patient” because many of these patients would not experience life after cancer. In the 1980’s, with the rise of technology, came effective imaging and screening for cancer.  For the first time, the death rate of cancer patients began to decline and a scientist spoke for the first time of “cancer survivors.”  The new term caught on because there was a new hope for cancer patients, the hope of survival.

Neither of these terms accurately describe a person impacted by cancer today.  By definition ‘patient’ is an individual who submits his/herself or is acted upon by a physician. Though this may have been accurate 20 years ago, it no longer is an accurate description of cancer treatment.  Presently, within hours or days of receiving the news of a diagnosis of cancer, one is given treatment choices and are urged to make significant treatment decisions, immediately.  I have personally known multiple individuals who were given the choice of which treatment to receive first: chemo or surgery. The implications of such a decision are significant, yet as a newly diagnosed patient, such a choice is often decided by when it would be convenient to be sick for 3-6 months.  In the moments after diagnosis, most of us have no idea what type of questions to ask to help make such choices, and usually, no one is there to help guide us. Furthermore, studies show that for the newly diagnosed, the fear that fills the mind minimizes decision-making skills and limits one’s ability to process information around such stressful decisions.  

But this is just a one example of how those impacted by cancer design their own treatment choices.  Once an individual is diagnosed with cancer and moves beyond the initial shock, s/he will soon learn of a plethora of treatment paths available. By talking with other individuals impacted by cancer or researching treatment plans from physicians around the world, an individual impacted by cancer can soon become empowered with a variety of treatment paths available today.  Cancer treatment is a dynamic process, a two-way discussion, and there is no expectation of quiet submission.  

Next, let us look at the term ‘cancer survivor’ and it’s implications for a person impacted by cancer today.  Until a cure/vaccine is the typical treatment for every individual impacted by cancer, there is a large population of people who question the label ‘cancer survivor.’  Today, many cancer treatments simply postpone cancer’s impact on lives.  In some situations, treatments themselves may kill the current threat of cancer in a body but will, in fact, create cancer over the following 10-15 years.  Other treatments may simply push cancer back, to a level where it can no longer be detected, only to be found at a later date.  Today’s label of ‘cancer survivor’ is misleading and inaccurate.  Those impacted by cancer long for the day when every individual who receives a cancer treatment will be called a ‘true survivor,’ not simply living for a 5-year benchmark but living long and full lives without fear of cancer’s return.

We are living in an era different than those that created the labels of ‘cancer patient’ and ‘cancer survivor.’  Today there is a whisper of a cure. Every individual impacted by cancer sits on the edge of their seat thinking, “The next big breakthrough could save my life, and so I will combine knowledge and wisdom and push myself so that I may be standing when that breakthrough comes for me.”  It is a new era for the community impacted by cancer and it is time for a new identifying term.

In this age of breakthrough, much attention is placed on fundraising and on the large research entities’ race to glory.  In the excitement, though, we have forgotten that for every medical breakthrough during these last twenty years, there have been thousands of engaged patients who chose to participate in clinical trials, risking their lives for a cure.  In this breakthrough era, those affected by cancer continue to die from treatments. In fact, they must. Someone must provide the data. Someone must be resolute enough to present his/herself to try what has not been tried before. Physicians and researchers cannot change treatment norms without participants in their studies.  Individuals affected by cancer must risk his/her life every day in pursuit of a breakthrough, in pursuit of a cure.

Yet when and where have we ever celebrated their courage?  On a t-shirt? On a hat? With a color? As a young adult living with stage four breast cancer, I must say I have never felt more alone than in the month of October when stores turn suddenly pink.  There is no celebration of me. There is no mention of individuals impacted by cancer. There is no face attached to the sales. There is only one marketing ploy after another that feels completely disconnected from the people it says ‘pink’ represents.  

So how, as a society, do we recognize the courage and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of individuals living among us with cancer? While they wait for a cure, those impacted by cancer offer up their lives in pursuit of a medical breakthrough. It is their strength that overcomes the odds to reveal what is possible. Those impacted by cancer are the driving force of medical change. They are the breakthrough. So instead of labeling them as ‘patient’ or ‘survivor’, it is time to acknowledge their place in finding the solution to cancer. Progress cannot occur without them.

I am not an unengaged patient. I am reading the research. I am designing my own treatment plan. I am changing the statistics. I am living longer. I am not yet a ‘true survivor,’ but I am a partner in breakthrough.  

 

My Six Month (Stage Four) Update

It has been nearly six months since I was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, mere months after completing my treatments for stage three.  

During these last six months, I felt that it was not time for me to speak. In any given moment since my recent diagnosis, you could find me soaring with confidence or lost inside of the darkest night.  I am discovering what it means to battle, not physically at this time, but emotionally and spiritually.

From January to March, I had surgery to remove all creators of estrogen in my body.  I became a low carb vegan, to ensure that every bite of food entering my body had the highest level of cancer-fighting nutrients possible.  I began taking a promising new medication that was highly recommended and came with many optimistic predictions of remission. Also, I started naturopathic infusions to help my body stay strong and also to potentially fight cancer via my own immune system.

When March came, there was a lot riding on my first non-baseline scan but alas the results were not good.  The scan showed new white spots all up and down my spine and into my left leg. Not what I was expecting, definitely not what I was hoping for and mind-boggling on how the cancer could have grown so much.  I concluded that the cancer had doubled in size in three months, despite the fact that I had used every possible tool to fight it. (Mat 19:26)

When I was initially diagnosed with stage four, there was hope.  You will have surgery! Here are great meds! Try this diet! You can beat this!  Now, three months into the process, after surgery, great meds, diet, and more, it did not seem like I could beat this.  I was devastated, and so I engaged in what I have come to call, “a death march.” (Proverbs 13:12)

I came home from that scan in March and sorted my belongings into three piles, one for each girl.  I wrote an outline for my funeral and contacted individuals who will be responsible for my arrangements.  My future was set, it was simply up to me to be prepared for it. My mind was set. At this point nothing on earth could change my course.  I cried everyday. I was hopeless. There were so many choices to make, but none of them were good choices. I became focused on how to spend time and money: memories, legacy, or treatment? Everything came down to one of these three choices.  I walked this path, like in an darkened tunnel, for about ten days. (Job 19:8-10)

Then people began speaking into my life. A lady sitting beside me at infusions started passionately speaking about how God promises something more than cancer.  I wanted to tell her, “I know! I have been a Christian my whole life, but look at where I am!” Instead I held my tongue and let her speak. I thought it was good for her to feel like she was making a difference, not knowing she was actually preparing the soil of my heart.  Then a cancer friend, who is typically quiet and unwilling to ruffle any feathers, flat out told me to “stop it!” when I gave her my death march speech. Again, I wanted to fight her, to defend myself, but something inside of me told me to listen. And so I did. I listened to her words, and her heart.  I read the scripture that had been given to me by the woman at infusions. Then I read the scriptures again, and again and again. I found music that spoke of freedom as if it were true. And slowly I began to hear. (Psalm 119:105)

When I was on my death march, I had plenty of evidence to back up my position.  My label of “stage four,” my scans, the look in my doctor’s eyes, their off-handed comments of “when the cancer spreads” all provided the data I needed to support a decision to walk, head down, broken, and waiting for the pain to begin.

Then I began filling myself with something else.  I started to listen, to hear, to remember the truth I built my life upon.  I realized that if even one Biblical promise is actually true, then no believing Christian can engage a death march.  (Gal 5:25)

My life is so much more than labels, data and cancer. (Romans 8:6)

My heart changed and almost immediately afterward, my life began to fill up with good things.  As soon as my heart changed, I began to find reasons to live, rather than reasons to die. Friends approached me wanting to do fundraisers to express their love and support.  Strangers were drawn to my story and compelled to support me. As my steps began to lead away from the death march, good news was all around me. My Stanford oncologist called and said my scans weren’t bad after all.  Then my blood work started to reflect that interpretation. Good things emerged unexpectedly until there was more good in my life than  I knew what to do with. (Rom 8:28)

My filters began to change and as I looked at the world I saw abundance where once I found emptiness.  I saw love where once all I knew was fear. (1 John 4:18) When I read the Bible, and found hope on every page. (Psalms 16:8)

I stopped allowing the fear of tomorrow’s scan, tomorrow’s blood draw, tomorrow’s appointment, ruin today.  I stopped looking for reasons to fear the cancer in my body and replaced it with finding the good in every moment.  When my heart is listened to Him who guides me, I recognize the “goodness that chases me down every day” (Psalm 23:6).

If I choose to not worry about tomorrow then I find that today is whole and complete.  I am not in pain TODAY, I have everything I need TODAY. When I choose to live in the moment I find that I have a rich, love filled life– today.  (Matt. 6:34)

When I remain in this knowledge, I have no fear, scans do not change my life TODAY, and doctor’s words have no power over TODAY.  (Is 26:3)

This is my starting place.  Every moment I live in fear is a moment killed, stolen and destroyed (1 Peter 5:7-8).  There are thousands of truths in the Bible that show me I have nothing to fear, but I must let them come to life TODAY, right now, this moment.  

It is a constant battle. (Matt 26:41) Simply writing these words, taking a moment to acknowledge the struggle inside of me weakens me.  

Today, five months into treatment my situation has not changed.  My bloodwork goes up and down. The scans have not proven whether treatments are working or not.  Nothing has changed, except my expectations. Life is often this way. What we believe creates our reality.  It may not be a reality based in truth, but our belief controls our actions and our actions define our outcomes. (Mat 9:20-22),

As for me, I choose to not surrender myself to a death march. I choose to turn my back on fear. This choice is presented to me daily, or to be honest, I must choose every hour and sometimes every moment.  (Luke 9:23-24) My prayer is that these hourly choices will accumulate over the years of my life, to create a legacy of compounding faith. (Psalm 34:4, 17-19)

(2 Cor 1:3-11)

*I have included scripture references that I may be fortified. For no part of my story is mine alone. (Deut 31:6) I first wrote my story without them and I was left feeling sad and lost.  I pray that their presence alongside my account makes my story a testimony of hope. (Hebrews 11:1) For in my weakness, He is making me strong. (2 Cor 12:9-10)  

Blessings (Eph 3:14-21)

 

Blog: Be a Bridge

I was reading a thread on my favorite young adult cancer site and I came across a friend discussing how her heart is broken.  Cancer treatments have left her infertile.  It is a fact that most people outside of the cancer community don’t think about.  If your cancer is hormone driven, or you receive chemo, or radiation or many other treatments, you chances of having a healthy child after cancer are significantly diminished.  I was fortunate enough to have three girls before my diagnosis, but many young adults are not so fortunate. On the thread, I read stories of other men and women who will never have the opportunity to be a parent and I was deeply saddened by their loss.  Simultaneously, I became aware that as a stage four cancer patient, my three girls may one day find themselves without a mother.  

So on one end of the spectrum are a large number of young women unable to have children because of cancer and on the other, there are children who will one day be motherless because of cancer.  While embracing her weakness, these women can look beyond herself to find that she holds an answer someone else is searching for.  

It is often through our tears that we discover hope. In our deepest hurt, the burden of our soul, there is an answer.  In order to find the answer, though, we must open ourselves and our hurt to the world around us.  

In order to find a solution, one woman must be willing to embrace a child that is not her own while another must allow the kindness of a stranger enter her heart and her home.  Both women must relinquish control of what they cannot control.  

It is in beautiful moments of realization like this, that I remember life is much more about our weakness than our strength, yet we live as if the opposite were true.  In weakness, we discover who we are.  In weakness we can share, that true essence of our self. In weakness we can truly experience kindness and love.

Strength on the other hand, is nothing. Individual strength results in isolation. Strength for the sake of independence or stature, personal satisfaction or bragging rights does not lead to the abundant life that is marketed in commercials.    

In fact, if you Google quotes about “strength” you find ancient wisdom passed down from every religion and region of the world. The quotes do not talk about financial success or physical stature, instead they speak of how one only finds strength when living in community, alongside others, bonded in weakness.  

We have been sold a myth that strength is valuable above all else.  Why else, do we pretend that everything is ok? Why do we live in isolation, yearning for the closeness of a friend?  Why is it nearly impossible to ask for help?  Why do we work ourselves into anxiety attacks and heart attacks? Even when our body screams out for help, our mouth never admits a lacking of “strength.”

Strength is nothing but a lie, a lie that we have bought, and bought and bought; but the greatest product of strength is isolation.  

Because of strength, each one of us sits on an island of isolation wishing for close friends and someone to help carry the load.  Then in the in the house next door to you, someone else is wishing for the same thing.  The person in front of you in line, the man in the cubicle across from yours, and the mom at the park are all sitting on their island of “strength” looking out at the isolation.

I would like to propose a change of perspective.  Let’s make weak the new strong.

Weakness looks like a cancer survivor who cannot have children embracing a child and allowing love to flow forth from her wounds.  Weakness looks like a mother with stage four cancer welcoming, a woman into the lives of her children that the children may experience love and acceptance from a new source.  Weakness looks like two women looking into her own heart and seeing the greatest pain of her life.  Then using this brokenness to heal the brokenness in others, and perhaps, finding herself healed along the way.  

Weakness looks like an act of kindness.  

Kindness is an unexpected, intentional investment in another individual with no thought of repayment. Kindness builds connection, the type that every person craves.  Kindness is a cure for isolation, a bridge.  Kindness eliminates individual strength.  Kindness is a path toward strength, not individual strength, but instead a strength of purpose, a strength found in community, a strength with no thought of self.  

To give kindness requires the giving of time, or money, or emotion with no guarantee of personal gain.  Therefore, kindness weakens the individual but this sacrifice of the individual results in a strengthening of community.

The role of strength and weakness is a paradox. Our constant pursuit of individual strength has in fact left us weak as individuals and as a community.  Yet a willingness to embrace our own weaknesses enables us to be fortified by the kindness of others and able to build strong communities.  It is in weakness that we can begin understanding the power kindness possesses.  

Therefore, I urge us to contemplate the possibility that the pursuit of individual strength is not best, instead let us embrace the pursuit of kindness.  

 

Stage 4 Cancer: A Declaration

I have always thought of myself as “set apart.”  

In high school I was not motivated by what motivated other high schoolers.  I chose a college that was itself, physically set apart.  It attracted students who were actively pursuing something, I myself, simply did not know what that something was, but I found kindred spirits and a home.    After college many people, lose their idealistic ways and turn themselves over to practical choices.  I ran off to California.  I wanted to witness a spiritual movement, see the beauty of a cliffside coastline, and find God in a new way.  I started a job, that led to a better and better job, but never was I content.  I felt in my heart that this was not my purpose.  I met Clifton, experienced love at first sight, spent a few weeks convincing him to give me a chance and then was married.  I had two of my beautiful girls, became a teacher and then had a third daughter.  Though I was a good teacher, a good advocate, a good mother and wife, I knew my life was not complete.  There was a calling, something set apart for me as I was set apart for it.  

The years that led up to my initial diagnosis of cancer I had daily reminders: 11/11.  Everyday on a clock or a sign or a book I would see 11/11.  I thought that November 11 would one day hold the biggest joy of my life.  So year after year I would show up to work on November 11 declaring that something amazing was going to happen!  This was MY day, something, HAD to happen! And nothing, nothing, nothing. Then in 2015 I met with a gynecologist who sent me in for a mammogram and on 11/11/15 I was told I had breast cancer.  I will never forget the doctor handed me a doctor’s note and on it was written “From 11/11/15-11/11/16 Lauren Huffmaster will not be available to take care of anyone but herself.”  Though I fought it for a month or so, she was right, my survival depended on my ability to rest.

My first diagnosis I processed as a trial.  Who doesn’t have trials?  I have a wonderful life, an amazing husband and family.  If I must be tested, let it be in my physical nature.  No problem.  I held onto my God’s faithfulness and inability to fail, and kept walking. No problem 11/11/15-11/11/16.  I can do this.  At that time I knew no one in my own town and was served by the kindness of strangers for a year.  I received support and love that poured in  from all over the country.  I experienced love because of my situation. I experienced God’s faithfulness, and I remained faithful to Him as I moved through the trial.  I had deep communication with God through my darkest moments and I never doubted. I loved others whom I met in cancer circles and I was open about my struggles.  I walked through the trial pulling from the faith that I had built in my spirit throughout my life.

For two years I pursued the list of treatments that were given to me on the initial night of my diagnosis: chemo, mastectomy, radiation, reconstruction, reconstruction adjustments and oophorectomy.  In December of 2017 I met with a surgeon about my impending oophorectomy, the last item on my list.  I went to have a PET/CT, as is expected before any surgery.  Then on 12/21/17 my doctor called me with tears dripping from her voice and heard that I have metastatic breast cancer.  The cancer spread. Through my spine and my pelvis.  Multiple tumors and lesions.  

For all that had altered my life under the first diagnosis, nothing compares to this news.    There is no “from this moment until that moment you will have cancer.”  This is a diagnosis for the entirety of life. This is a diagnosis without a cure.  A diagnosis with no hope at the end of a tough battle.  This is a diagnosis that demolishes my understanding of a trial.  This is completely unexpected; a possibility that never crossed my mind.  

All of my life, the prayer of my heart has been, “Here I am, take me, use me.”

Over the past two years I have met so many cancer survivors.  I have laughed and cried with them.  I have shared their pain, fears, anxiety, hopes.  They are family.  Even before I meet a newly diagnosed cancer patient, I know them.  I love them and hurt for them.  We are bound together.  

My First Descents family, a group of survivors, describe us as a tribe.  I have been called to this tribe.

There is a large number of young adult survivors in our country who are hurting, hopeless, desperate and alone.  I have been initiated into this group through cancer.  I love these people because of cancer.  I will serve these people because of cancer.  

Cancer, for me, is not a valley tucked between two mountain top experiences.  Cancer is the calling of abundant life.  It is my broken state through which God can best display His love.  It is my weakness through which God’s power can be perfected.  It is the one thing I can boast in because I believe His greatest work in my life will come through it.

I know a thousand voices have raised prayers for my healing since I announced my diagnosis but it is not the prayer of my heart that I may be healed.  I simply pray that I may rest in God’s plan.  There is a plan.  It is not what I was expecting God’s calling to look like, but there is a calling.  I feel overwhelmed by the idea that God would set apart a tribe of hurting, dying people, that I may be love to them.  It is both the worst and greatest realization of my life.

Though I do not want cancer in my life, I embrace it as my earthly sacrifice. In the walking out of this sacrifice, I find the purpose I have longed for my entire life. So, when you pray, pray not only for me but for young cancer survivors around the world.  Pray that I may be a voice of peace, a voice of love.

 

The State of My Post-Cancer Life

This is the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, my second cancerversary.  In honor of this moment, I want to serve others by taking time to reflect on where I am emotionally and physically, and what I have learned this year.  I hope my reflection is relevant to those who are learning to embrace survivorship and helps those newly diagnosed to not feel alone.  I hope these thoughts will help us face what is ahead, with greater strength.  

I spent this year learning to function within my new limitations.  The things I have not done since chemo, well those pathways in my mind are gone. Even if I did them 1000 times before cancer.  So whenever I meet someone new,  try to solve a problem, or remember a book a once read, I am stopped.  Words evaporate and my brain is blank.  The archives of my mind run like a slow computer.   

I spent this year adjusting to scars.  I am covered with scars. Scars that itch, and then bleed when I scratch.  Scars that span from one side of me to the other.  Scars that send shocks of pain, while retaining no other sensation.

I spent this year learning to limit the stress in my life. 

I spent this year learning to manage my emotions.  I cry under any pressure at all.

I spent this year learning how to empathize.  I feel other’s suffering.  Especially others with cancer. I hear of a mom with breast cancer and I am brought to tears, though I have never met her.  I don’t want anyone to walk this road.

I spent this year wondering who I should be.  I, like most every survivor I have ever spoken to, struggle with the idea that now that there is hair on my head, I should feel normal.  I don’t. I have only begun to heal.  My life is raw.  Like the skin on my body, I seem to be paper thin. Too thin to withstand the abrasions life brings my way.  

I spent this year with a cancer filter.  Every new pain in my body creates a flashing alarm in my mind, alerting me to the fact that perhaps there is new cancer growing.  Every mistake I make, sets off a chain reaction of fear that the chemo damage will never heal, I will never recover.  Walking into a doctor’s office is an ominous experience.  The smell of the building, the view of the magazines on the table, or the taste of the water fountain creates a blaring warning that something bad is coming or may be already present.  These alarms do not resonate like polite cricket-like clocks but rather blare deafening alerts that I must manually reset within me before I am able to respond to the receptionist or answer a doctor’s question.  I spent the year training my body and mind not sink into that type of fear. 

This is where I am, an honest look at me and my my struggles.  Though I cannot escape these experiences, I have set my heart on something different. Walking in this season has created a heightened sense of life and many transcendent moments, because of the presence of fear.

I would argue that there are two types of fear, good fear and bad.  Secondly, the best way to fight bad fear is to replace it with the good.

As I minimize my natural fear, the kind that sets off alarms in my mind and stops me from moving forward in life, I am able to make space for good fears which come from taking risks, walking in hope, and stepping out in faith. 

Let’s take a look at good fear.  We remember with great detail, a first date.  Why do we remember it so well?  Fear.  We are scared of rejection, scared of making mistakes, scared our breath smells bad, just plain scared.  Yet when all is said and done, fear makes the moment better. It gives us awareness of every detail. It locks moments into our memories with accuracy.  It heightens our emotions. In essence, fear provides the capacity for us to feel emotion in a big way.  In the right time, fear is a gift.

This same kind of good fear exists in sports, roller coasters, and adventures of every kind.  We pay a lot of money to experience fear.  We go to a scary movie, ride a roller coaster, climb up the side of a mountain, and paddle down a river because fear for a moment is exhilarating.  

Fear, makes us feel alive.  It drives out every other thought, focusing the mind, bringing joy and a sense of accomplishment.  We love this type of fear and so we go in search of another ride, another river, another moment to hold onto.  

Unfortunately, these experiences are fleeting.  We cannot truly achieve lasting peace or joy through back-to-back moments that expose us to good fear.  Eventually the ride won’t feel scary and the river will be tame.  

In our day to day life, we can experience fear by embracing risk.  Risk means embracing something that has no guarantees and looking at the situation through a filter of hope.  

When we head out on the adventure, with no guarantees of what we will find, risk is there.  Therefore, on our adventure every experience is heightened.  Every memory locked in for a lifetime.  

Why do we leave our house if there is risk? Because of hope.  

Hope is needed when taking risks. We set our minds above the problems that could arise.  We hope for a beautiful day, despite the forecast, as we set out on a hike into the wilderness. We put our mind, our thoughts, and our faith in what is not readily evident. We embrace hope and put that hope into action through faith.  

Unlike fear, these emotions are a choice. Unlike fear, the heightened sense of life that comes from hope and faith lasts for more than a fleeting instant.  As long as we can hold onto our hope, clarity and peace remain.  

Life with cancer does not on its own provide a fear that is good but it does create ample opportunity for hope and faith to thrive.  In fact, in many ways, a diagnosis of cancer leaves a person with two choices.  To live in involuntary fear, or to choose hope and the act of walking out that hope through faith.  

This year I learned to hope in the strength of my body, in cures, in the kindness of people.  I placed hope in love’s ability to rise above.  I placed hope in my ability to release all that I was and find something new, perhaps something better.  I hope for these things. I have not found them and so I choose to walk toward them everyday in faith.  This risk, this faith, has raised my eyes above all that I currently am.  It has given me sense of calm in the the storm.  This hope has heightened my awareness of life.  Like the experience of fear, living in a state of hopefulness and faith creates abundance in the mundane.  

My year of hope has also gifted me an opportunity for clarity. Clarity is a common experience among cancer survivors, though we may not readily call it ‘clarity’. Many of us have a sudden awareness of priorities, and how our lives align or don’t align with those priorities.  We actually experience joy when partnering with what we find valuable. Conversely we carry an increased burden in the tasks that pull us from those things. We live with a sense of urgency. Do not waste the moment. 

I would argue, this common experience is the result of hope in our lives.  We are walking riskily, investing our hopes in things that we find valuable but cannot guarantee. We are experiencing faith, by choosing to adjust our lives to our hopes; by moving closer to our ideals everyday.

Cancer gives us the ability to experience life like never before. Though it may not be the roller coaster ride we would have chosen, we are in fact on the ride of our lives.   Though I see myself grow tired and emotionally weak, it is what I cannot see that keeps me strong.  My eyes are set on all that I can imagine and hope for and I intend to keep walking in faith until these too are seen.  

Gift of Cancer

Cancer treatments create a massive physical struggle and a daily fight for survival.   Constant medical scrutiny leads to insecurity. Treatments strip take away strength both physical and mental. Then one day, my last treatment is done and it hits me:  What comes next?  Is the cancer gone?  How will I know?  Isn’t there anything else that can be done?  Where do I go from here? The season after treatment is very difficult, filled with emotional instability, questions, fear, and uncertainty.  

Unfortunately, for many of us, once treatments are complete, we enter a season of feeling stuck in a post-treatment anxiety. There are many fears and unanswered questions.  These thoughts fill us with a new type of need but they are needs that cannot be easily revealed nor clearly communicated. How do I start again?  Has everyone already forgotten that I had cancer?  How will I pay for these past two years?  How long before this all begins again?  What is this pain in my side? On and on the questions roll, controlling our emotions and crushing our ability to thrive.  

In this emotional process of beginning again, the question ‘Who am I?’ emerges.  This question might seem trite, but in this season of significant change, it deserves proper attention before we are able to heal emotionally.  

Before cancer, I would have described myself as a confident, centered person on the best path for my life. Then my life stopped.  I was stripped of my confidence and my path. I was left with nothing but the question, ‘Who am I?’. All of the adjectives I would have used to answer the question before cancer, no longer apply.  At the same time, I came face to face with new truths about myself.  Before cancer I would have stated with confidence “I am more than my circumstances”, yet when terrible circumstances, came my way, I was left changed and shaken. Before cancer I would never have thought, ‘I am defined by my physical appearance,’ yet when my hair fell out and my eyebrows and eyelashes gone, I truly struggled to find myself, in the mirror or otherwise.

Cancer’s impact on my self-image showed me that I have a lot of room for growth.

The truth is that I am more complex than I will ever know. There are pieces of myself that I put on, and bring forward daily for all to see.  There are parts I do not even want to show myself.  

Upon honest examination, there are an unknown number of layers that make up who I am. Each significant story in my life created a layer. Some layers happen to fall on the surface and receive the spotlight while others lay hidden despite their significant value.

One exercise for escaping a post-treatment anxiety, is to take time to find an honest answer to the question “Who was I?” and the follow up question “Who do I want to be?”.  

These are not easy questions to resolve.  I am fractured.  I am different at work than at home.  My ideal “me” is different than who I am everyday.  There are many versions and many visions of myself.  Fortunately, this complexity provides opportunity for who I can become.  

Cancer took at least one version of me.  It disappeared and was left in my past.  As treatments end, it is important for me to take time to mourn for that version of me.  I have spoken to survivors who wrestle with picking up the pieces in order to put that old “self” back together, with minimal success.  I feel we must be reminded that whatever picture of self that was lost during cancer is not the only version of you. Perhaps it is not even be the best version of you.  

Cancer stripped me of both good and bad, but I have the ability to rebuild.  I have the power to recreate myself not as who I was, but who I want to be.  I have the opportunity to minimize the negative aspects in my life and replace it with what I want to define my future.

Post-treatment is a unique moment of time to become whomever I want to be.  It is a moment of vulnerability and rawness.  A moment when I am not healed but I have moved beyond the sickness.  There is stillness, as the routines of life have not swept in, but there is also churning within my thoughts.  My old expectations are gone along with many of my fears. So what do I want for myself now?  Post-treatment is a season of freedom.  Freedom is a gift that is both liberating and terrifying, and beginning again requires significant courage.  

So let us fortify ourselves as we consider who we are.  

As a cancer survivors, we have accomplished an impossible task.  There was something in our life, in our body, trying to kill us.  

You made difficult decisions, that only you could make.  Perhaps when you received the diagnosis, there was no question that you would proceed with treatment or perhaps you struggled with where to begin. Either way, it requires significant courage to willingly submit yourself to chemo, radiation and surgery.  Once treatment begins, it requires more and more courage to continue through the process.  The night before a scheduled chemo is filled with choices.  Can I handle another treatment?  Do I want what tomorrow will bring?  Then despite the knowledge of what is to come, you moved forward, pushing through treatments and in the end accomplishing impossible things.  You pushed back a disease that wanted to kill you.  You beat the odds.  You are triumphant.  You are fierce.  You are strong.  You may not feel it today, but it is there inside of you. If you choose to own this piece of your new self it can monumentally change how you answer, “Who do I want to be?”.

I am choosing to embrace the strengths cancer revealed and I have placed this strength on the surface of my new identity.  I consider this a gift of cancer.  Before cancer I would never have described myself as fierce, but now, if I am honest, I know that inside of me is a strength that will rise against any challenge in my life.  I can face any impossibility with confidence.  I have done impossible things, I can do it again.  I have pushed through crippling fear, I can do it again.  I have submitted all that I am in order to accomplish a goal, I can do it again. I am driven by a deep unshakable confidence and courage that I never experienced before cancer.  As I learn to walk in this new strength, I become more and more thankful for my cancer experience.  

So, who am I? I was changed by cancer that is true, but how I was changed plays an important role in my future.  The presence of cancer in my life did not change me, there were months or possibly years when I had cancer in my body and I was unaware.  My life began to change because of what I chose to believe about myself and others after I heard the words, “You have breast cancer.”  Through treatments, did I believe I was all alone in my fight or that I was surrounded by a community?  As a survivor do I believe I have overcome cancer or I only have a few years before the fight begins again?  It is what I choose to believe that changes me, not the cancer itself.  

Cancer provides a platform for deep reflection.  It showed me what was already inside of me. It revealed my insecurities and fears.  I cannot blame cancer for the baggage that was already present in my life, just as I cannot blame cancer for who I am. Cancer taught me many things, and helped me take an honest look into the layers of who I am.  Now, what I choose to place on the surface, for all to see, is different than before. Now the characteristics I simply did not acknowledge before, I choose to embrace. Who I am after cancer is not a puzzle needing to be put together in the correct way, but rather is one layer upon the next.  Like the layers of the Earth, each layer tells a story. Each story cannot stand alone for they are all interconnected and require each other for a true understanding of all that I am. My cancer experience, has become a layer in my life.  A layer that tells a new story of who I am.  Cancer is only one layer though, what I do with that part of my story, is up to me.  

Reflections: First Descents

I sit in a red Adirondack chair in the Adirondack mountains. A few lightning bugs flickered along the grass line, at the edge of the cliff as I wait. The Adirondacks are lush dark green mountains that stretch far beyond my view. The ranges begin bright and inviting and while stretching into the distance they begin to wear darker and darker shades of greens. Lush, greens grow in abundance, happily covering every crevice, every bump as if in testament that this is a good place to be. A good place to grow. From my chair I can see perhaps six layers of mountains as my eye stretches to determine one line from the next as they intertwine on the horizon. The final rows of mountains are dark and dominant against the white clouds that seem to always be on course, emerging over the peaks, bringing refreshment to the millions of waiting trees. The high clouds bring sheer curtains of rain that saturate everything in its path with showers that come and go in a moment. The rains roll in simply to make the campfires steam and the grass glisten. The smell of rain and fire mingle to create a perfect balance of that which draws us in and that which drives us away. Once the curtains of rain move past, the mountains respond with their own adornment. Clouds rise from the ground, pushing up to drain the color of the trees and rock, creating a feeling that the hills are softer inside the fog. The low rolling clouds cling to the tree tops and push slowly as they creep between ground and sky. These earth bound clouds emerge from low points and peaks, floating atop the highest trees only until the sun breaks through the dark mother clouds to shine until they all melt away.
I sat in the fading golden light that spread out to touch every tree, every rock, every soul. It was my initial First Descents campfire gathering. A lead staff built a fire and participants, drawn to it’s warmth, began to gather. A simple question was presented to break the ice, but most of us came to this place prepared to share our unique perspective on the themes of our deeply similar story. We were a circle of strangers, soon to be friends, and we didn’t have to explain our laughter or tears. From diagnosis until this moment, our lives began a similar path destined to intersect, though we never knew it. This place of convergence lifted us above any awkwardness or fear. We came here to climb rocks and mountains and push ourselves into new places of body and soul.
Each of us had spent the last few years climbing beyond the crux of our young life, the initial diagnosis. Finding ourselves at the bottom of what seemed to be an impossibly high mountain. Like climbing, surfing and kayaking, moving through cancer is an independent process. Each of us must truly walk the path alone. When you are in treatment, there is little else you can think of. It is simply you, looking at each step, one at a time. Like climbing the rock face of a mountain, people from the outside can only make suggestions on how to move forward, they can only encourage you to be strong, they can only tell you to trust your supports. Ultimately the individual must have the presence of mind, while hanging from a rope, to face a challenge that is completely new. Whatever strength that is needed, must be found within. Only you can see where you are, only you can make the choice to continue, only you can determine whether or not you have the strength.
When you are on the rock, there is no time for thinking of life, anywhere else. There is only the challenge directly in front of you. There is that which you can hold onto and that which you cannot. The rock is full of challenges but also potential solutions. Your mind must sort through scenarios that deal with the idea of failure and success. Then as soon as you push upward, another challenge is waiting and over and over the process goes. A quest focused on upward movement and nothing more. Similarly, as you push through cancer treatments, there is little time to process beyond pushing forward. There is no time to understand the circumstances. There is no time not to be strong.
But on our first day of rock climbing with FD, we came to the top of our mountain. Each of us stepped onto the ledge and looked down. From the top, there is no work to be done, you simply stand and view the mountainside. You have already proven you have the strength to go up, now it is time to show you have the courage to look straight back at that challenge and recognize all that was at stake. It is a different view, a different set of emotions, a new perspective. This is where we are as we come to FD. Finished with the fight, now looking at the obstacle we overcame and wondering where to go from here.
As I look out over the lush mountains of northern New York, I wonder how dramatically these mountains would change if a raging forest fire swept through. The green would disappear, leaving only blacks and browns and greys. The vegetation would be destroyed, death would reign in a place that had once overflowed with life. Blackness would settle upon the mountains for years, yet the mountains themselves would remain. The seeds of the life that once thrived, would remain, waiting for the moment to begin again. From this mountain top, I ponder a question I have been rolling over and over for months. When will it be my time to begin again?
So much of the life I knew before my diagnosis has been destroyed. Cancer wiped me clean both outwardly and inwardly. On the outside, my hair has grown and doctors reconstructed my body. Outwardly I have been restored. Inwardly, the seeds inside my soul are only beginning to break free from their shell and take root. They are still small and almost imperceptible. There is a tiny, fragile tint of green beginning to spread across the landscape of my heart. It is a tender growth that feels every pain and every joy with great intensity. It is a beginning but nothing more. As I study these tiny growths inside of me, I wonder what they will become. Are they seeds of vines and shrubs that will clutter my heart and choke me, or are they the seeds of great Coastal Redwoods, released by the testing of my soul, to grow and connect and stand with dignity for the rest of my days.
At the last campfire of my FD1, I considered the falling rain, I listened to my peers and thought of the tears shared. I reflected on my week and how we threw our hurts and pains into the river for them to be torn apart and sent far from us. I observed how each of us wear a bracelet as a reminder that we are a part of a new family that will support and protect us. I thought of all of those who have gathered before me and how time on the mountain has offered each of us a new perspective. Then I contemplated the change inside of me, and my desire to accomplish impossible things. First Descents gave me a gift. I have been moved from broken to inspired.