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.

 

Waiting for Change

There is a color, deep and glistening, a turquoise-black-blue. And when I see it, the world is shining and I cannot turn away. There is a contrast of white on black that is unmoving yet unpredictable, and when it pushes upward, it mingles with its antithesis that always floats away.

There are blades of grass that cover this place. But instead of inches, they have grown and grown and grown.  Their black, brown, green stretch far above me, forming patterns in the light and darkness, purpose in the shapes and forms.

There is water, so much water.  Water that is dark and cold, water that is blinding in excitement.  It forms liquid parades that quietly march through the feet of unknowing bystanders.  It forms gushing forces that surprise and astound all who see it.  Water produces transformative changes in a moment and through a millennium, both with dramatic results.

Streams push past pebbles, and clouds push past peaks, each initiating a newness upon that which is still.  Though it is impossible for mountains and trees and lakes to change what they are, they are consistently transformed.  That which can only flow and trickle and mist, initiates change upon that which is insurmountable and unmoving and waiting.

While drifting waters perform the task of bringing forth change, while those that are still, perform the task of waiting.  An empty and exceedingly difficult duty.

Waiting for water to fill, blanket, and flow. Waiting to be formed, reborn, transformed. Waiting for the revelation of beauty amidst the change. Waiting for a new season to begin.