Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Giving Thanks during the Storm

There were several scriptures that I held close to my heart during my experience with breast cancer, especially during the time I was first diagnosed when there was so much uncertainty and fear.  I had a piece of linen I had received in the past, which had been referred to as a prayer cloth.  It was small enough to fit inside my Bible, so that is where I had kept it for the last several years.  I decided one day after learning about my diagnosis, I would write these verses on that prayer cloth so they would be close by.  I could just pull the cloth out of my Bible and read the verses during the day, when I was feeling worried or anxious.  I selected verses that specifically focused on the provision of God’s comfort and peace. Little did I know at the time, I would cling to these verses again in a few months during my husband’s diagnosis with cancer.

One of the verses that I wrote on my prayer cloth and one I would often read during this time of uncertainty was Philippians 4:6, which says,
 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”.
I was drawn to this verse initially because I thought it spoke to the anxiety that comes with a cancer diagnosis  or really any situation that  carries with it uncertainty.  I interpreted this verse simply as“do not worry about anything… bring all your concerns and your fears to God in prayer”.  Yet after I had read this verse over and over again, I realized, I simply had not paid attention to a small but yet very important phrase in that verse.  That phrase was, “with thanksgiving”.  The word “thanksgiving” in this verse seemed rather odd and sort of out of place to me.  First of all we are talking about being anxious, which brings to mind other words such as worry, distress, concern, and then we’re adding in the word “thanksgiving” in the same sentence?  It just didn’t seem like those two words would belong in the same sentence. 

As I began to study that phrase in context of the verse, I began to think about my own prayer life.  How often did I really give thanksgiving to God?   How often did I express to Him my gratitude for my family, for shelter, for my health, my life and above all for the life He gave us in His Son.  Lately my prayers seemed to consist solely of my requests, my needs, my complaints … all about ME, ME, ME.

As I mentioned earlier, right before my diagnosis, I was very unsettled. The best word to describe myself was “weary”… emotionally, physically, and spiritually. At work I loved my patients, but I was emotionally drained after many years of witnessing the havoc cancer plays on lives of so many people I would eventually become very close to.   I would spend many days grieving the loss of those I had come to care for deeply. This emotional drain in turn led me to feel physically drained.  It got to the point I would drive in to work every day with a heavy sense of dread. I would then spend the night complaining to my family about the many stresses of the day.  I would go to bed to get up the next day and repeat the same pattern day after day. In the midst of this, I eventually began to rationalize that I didn’t have time to read my Bible or participate in a Bible study because of the physical and emotional exhaustion.   Looking back, I say my prayers during that time were very “needy”, self-centered, and full of complaining, very much like God’s people in the desert when they “murmured” day after day about their circumstances, and in doing so doubted God’s provision. Even though they were free from the slavery of Egypt, their complaining still kept them in bondage. In a study I’ve done in the past by James McDonald, he says, “Those who choose complaining as their lifestyle will spend a lifetime in the wilderness.  And when you complain about trials, you are forfeiting the grace that could help you through it instead of embracing it as tool used by God to keep you humble and keep you close to Him.”  Simply saying, complaining is an attitude you chose, and it is sin.

How sad it must make God when all He hears as a response to the abundance He has given me is complaining.  And not just every now and then, but day after day after day.  But then how does thankfulness in prayer tie into times of trials?  How do you practice thankfulness with a diagnosis of breast cancer?  How could I “embrace” this situation in order to get close to God?

I simply began by thinking, “What can I be thankful for in this very moment and in this very circumstance of cancer. I thanked God my cancer was detected early.  I thanked Him that my prognosis, from what I knew at the time, was very good.  I thanked him for the “less aggressive” nature of my type of cancer.  These facts alone were miracles.  They were good things that God was doing in my life, and I had failed to acknowledge them, because I was so focused on “the bad” things.   I thanked him for my family, my friends, my church family, my co-workers,  … all who had consoled, encouraged, and lifted me up in their prayers.  Although I was in the middle of a pretty devastating experience, I still had much to be thankful for.  I realized thankfulness was a choice.  I could either keep complaining to God, or I could offer Him thankfulness for all He had done in my life.  I’m not saying that God does not want to hear our concerns, our fears, our worries, because He loves us deeply but at the same time, He is worthy and deserving of our praise.  When we offer Him praise and graciousness in our prayers, it affirms our trust in Him, not only in the good times, but during times of struggle as well.  When we can be thankful to God in the good times and in the times of uncertainty, we will reap the gift of His faithfulness. We will learn that He is a God who can be fully trusted to love us, to care for us and who will protect us during the many storms we will encounter in life.   

Thursday, January 16, 2014

It's Okay to Ask "Why?"

After hearing my biopsy results, I was excited as one could possibly be while dealing with cancer, by the news that I “most likely” would not have to have chemotherapy. This was based on the type and size of the cancer I had. Of course, we would not know for sure until after the surgery, but my surgeon was very optimistic that I would not need chemotherapy.   After everything I knew about the side effects of chemotherapy and seeing first hand my patients go through the tough days of chemo, I knew that if I did not have to have chemotherapy that alone was a great blessing. Chemo is not for the weak for sure. If you have not witnessed a close friend or family member go through the effects of chemo, you have no idea of the strength and determination these women possess. I have such an admiration for them.

An interesting thing I noticed after being diagnosed with cancer is you tend to become overly sensitive to words and meanings, especially words used by medical professionals. One day I was discussing my pre-surgical visit with my oncologist, who I just also happened to work with at the time.  Although you typically don’t see an oncologist before surgery, I wanted to get her advice and input. She had already reviewed by records. She suggested we make all my appointments at one of our smaller offices.  She said, “Why don’t we just plan on doing everything there, since we are not as busy”.  For most people, those words would not have meant much, but in my line of work, “everything” meant “EVERYTHING” and “EVERYTHING” meant chemotherapy. My heart began to race and I began to feel this overwhelming sense of panic as I thought, “She thinks I’m going to have to have chemotherapy.  Why would she think that?  She must think they will find something worse during surgery”. Most people would have clarified their questions at that time, but I just let her walk off. The fear of hearing something I didn’t want to hear was greater than my need to get clarification. I was afraid what her answer would confirm.

As my sense of panic continued, my thoughts continued to race in my mind. I was thinking about my upcoming surgery, the emotional impact of a mastectomy, the pain after surgery, the process of reconstructive surgery, and now the possibility of adding chemo into the picture.   When I rationally looked at what my reasons for dreading chemotherapy were, it seemed initially my concern was focused on the hair loss.  I wasn’t sure if I could handle that in addition to the nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bone aching, mouth sores, taste changes, skin rashes and on and on.  Again, sometimes as a nurse, you can know too much.

 Looking deeper into what the issue might have been, I realized it was not necessary about hair loss only, but is about loss… It was about losing a breast, losing hair, and mostly for me, losing control of my life.

Since I was at work that day, I realized I needed to gather my thoughts for the day and get to a more rational state of mind.  I was doing pretty well until I had two more experiences that day that literally caused me to hit rock bottom… the lowest point I had been to since finding out I had breast cancer. It began when I met with a 34 year old woman who had been such a trooper throughout her entire chemo treatment and radiation. When I would see her in the treatment room, no matter how bad she felt, she was always very upbeat and positive. She was always encouraging other patients who were not doing well. She and I were meeting that day to talk about survivorship, a term used for issues dealing with life after cancer. As a nurse practitioner, I usually met with patients after they completed treatment to discuss several issues related to survivorship, such as diet, exercise, the importance of regular follow-up, etc.   She smiled and listened attentively. She had no questions, but her husband said he had several. He asked me “How will we know for sure it is gone?  How will we know if it comes back?  They didn’t find it on the mammogram, so how can we be sure, it won’t come back”.  The uncertainty about his wife’s future continued in his questions. I began to feel my emotions take over. Now I could truly empathize with this couple, because I had the same thoughts.  I knew at some point I would be asking these same questions.  I knew for the rest of my life, I would have to deal with the fear a possible recurrence.  How would I do that? 

After that visit, I went back to my desk and looked at my schedule and saw I would be seeing a patient as a work-in visit.  It was Michael.  “On no”, I thought.  “I don’t think I can handle this, Lord”, I prayed. “Why today of all days?  Why Michael.”

I had grown very close to him. It was hard seeing him that day… losing weight, in a wheelchair, learning about his falls at home as his weakness continued to increase. It was hard seeing his wife so weary in appearance. Her face showed the strain of caring for a dying husband. He had been battling melanoma for some time. I told him most likely his cancer was worsening, which was causing the swelling in his brain, which was the reason for the weakness in his legs and his inability to walk.  During our visit, his wife left the room to answer a call. Once she was gone, he asked “Is this how it’s going to be?  Tell me what I can expect to happen?  I need to know how it’s going to be”.  I thought, “Lord, why is this happening today”? We talked and I tried to prepare him the best I knew how from a medical standpoint for what he was facing.  I was amazed at his sense of peace. How could he have such peace in his situation?  He had lived a life I personally witnessed as one lived for Christ. He openly expressed his trust and faith. He loved and trusted God.  He knew that leaving this world would be hard, but he was going to a place much better… a place where cancer does not exist.

I left work that day, weary both physically and emotionally, and questioning God about many things.  “Why is a good person dying? Why do people have to suffer?  Why is life so unfair?  Why is there cancer?  Why did I get cancer? Why? Why? Why?  The boys and Jeff were at church that night.  I went home and lay in bed and sobbed. I cried for Michael, I cried for all my patients who lived with cancer and those who had died of cancer, I cried for myself.  When Jeff came home that night, I was in such a state of despair.  I was really inconsolable. He suggested I soak in the tub. I grabbed a magazine on the way. I lay in the tub and picked up the magazine which was a devotional I subscribe to by David Jeremiah. I had a stack of about ten of these devotionals that I had still yet to read. The title of the devotional was “Perfect Piece”. I thought “PEACE” is really what I need now. I turned the page and read the following words,

“Only God is able to take decades of pieces from our experiences and create a garment of beauty, purpose, and uniqueness”

“We wouldn’t get where God intends us to go without adversity”.

“He designs every stitch of our time and every patch of our lives, weaving and sewing them together until He has made of us something beautiful in His eyes”.

“We have a Savior who can weave a garment of praise from the torn scrapes, ragged remnants, and tangled threads of life. “

“Our lives are in the hands of a skillful Weaver, who can use the roughest of materials to make the most glorious of garments”.

It was as if God was clearly speaking to me. He was going to use this ragged remnant called cancer and turn it into a glorious garment that would ultimately glorify Him. He designed this day, this moment, this very event in my life for a purpose, and I knew that He would remain faithful to me to see me through whatever circumstance I would encounter.  I knew God had placed this adversity in my life for a purpose.  I may not understand the “whys” right now, and that was okay, but ultimately, I knew it would be for His glory.

I prayed and wrote in my journal that night:

“God, thank you for giving me these words. Thank you for being the designer of the fabric of what you see as my life. I know You are in control.  You will be with me during this trial . I know this to be true, Lord.”

I was in awe that night of how clearly God spoke to me.  All my anxiety was replaced by a peace that I can’t explain.  I felt a sense of calm and a reassurance that only He could have provided. It was okay to ask “Why?”  Although all my questions may have not been answered that night, one thing I knew that I would never have to question was God's faithfulness to me.





Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Waiting Game ...

One character trait I’ve never had is that of patience. My family would definitely agree. If I wanted something done, it had to be done right then and there- no time for waiting. My husband often asks why things have to be “on your timetable”.  Well, with cancer, I soon found out things were not going to be on my timetable at all.  After I met with the surgeon I found out I was going to have to wait two weeks until I could have my surgery.  I couldn’t believe that my surgeon was going to attend a medical conference when I needed to have this surgery done ASAP.  Are you kidding?  A little lesson I learned that day was the world did not revolve around me.

The waiting was hard at first, because mentally once you find out you have breast cancer, you want it out yesterday. I had to make a daily effort to really try to stay rational and calm during this waiting time, but often my mind would begin to wander.  I would starting thinking about my cancer spreading and imagine the worse possible scenario. I would think about all the patients I had cared for who were so young and had such aggressive cancers, some already having cancer that had spread when they were first diagnosed.  I found that if I thought about these things for too long, I could literally feel myself becoming overwhelmed with a sense of panic. The nurse side of me was rational and knew that two weeks would not make a difference at all, but the non-nurse side of me thought two weeks is two weeks too long.

 I figured God had some reason for this time of waiting. There was something I knew He must be trying to teach me.  I continued to work as an oncology NP and just tried to keep the normal everyday pattern of life going. Again, many people wondered how I was able to continue to work with cancer patients, but somehow I found a real sense of comfort from being with them.  Through my twenty or more years of working with cancer patients, I’ve always said that I get far more from them every day than I have ever given to them.  They don’t sweat the small stuff, so it really helps you keep things in perspective.

Through this waiting period, God began to reveal to me that He was in control and that His hand was firmly on me and this situation.  I might sense this through a song I might have heard on the radio, or a phone call, or a card from a friend.   One day, while I was alone at home, I came downstairs and found this partially torn card lying on the floor. I immediatly called for our large lab, Kobey, who to this day continues to make a daily activity of finding things he can destroy. They are usually my things, of course.  I figured he had found a stack of my cards and had decided to make a tasty snack of them. I picked up the card, and turned it over.  The following words were written on the card:

“Rest in His Faithfulness”

In the ever-changing circumstances of life, there is a faithful, never-changing God in control

Everyday begins and ends with His purpose- there isn’t a detail that escapes His eye, or a trial that doesn’t touch His Heart…

Or a single experience beyond His compassion.

Every moment of your life is in His care- and I pray that He gives you overwhelming peace and hope today.

The card included the verses Philippians 4: 6-7. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. 

I opened the card, because it didn’t seem familiar to me at all. The card was not signed. I had never seen it before. I knew God had purposely sent these words to me.  They were words I needed to hear that very day and at that very moment in my life.

 As I continued to experience these little reminders of God’s presence in my life, my sense of panic slowly began to be replaced with a sense of peace. I prayed specifically for peace and received affirmation of this prayer in church on many occasions, but one occasion in particular stood out during this time before surgery.  I was early, so I opened the bulletin to check things out, and I was immediacy drawn to the words under the Prelude, which read:

“Lord, we come into this day unsure of many things, but of one we are absolutely sure:  that your will and your purpose for us is far finer, more glorious than we have ever dared to hope. Grant unto us this day, through Your Spirit’s work, the desire and eagerness to know more completely You and Your will within us. We ask this in Your Son’s name. Amen”.

Wow… God was speaking directly to me. In all the uncertainty that comes with cancer, the certainty of His love and His purpose for me could never be questioned.

A few days later, I received an email from my mom that contained a letter I had sent her over ten years ago right before she was scheduled to have a breast biopsy. I remember she was very worried and anxious about the procedure and concerned about what the outcome would be.  I was living out of town at the time, so I wanted to write her a letter to try to encourage her and let her know I loved her.

This is what I had written in that letter to her years ago:


Just pray these every day and I believe God will give you a “peace that is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand.”    I included the following verses:

“And the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress, for we don’t even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray.  But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groaning that cannot be expressed in words.  And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.” Romans 8:26-28.

We can rejoice too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us- they help us endure. For we know how dearly God loves us, because He has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with His love”. Romans 5: 3-5.

For with God nothing is impossible. Luke 1:37.

And again, Philippians 4:6-7, the verses that I would come back to so many times over the next year as my family would endure yet another diagnosis of cancer. These verses were reminders that although life is full of trials and uncertainties, there was an assurance that God would provide us with His peace. He would remain faithful.  Who would have thought years ago when I gave my Mother these scriptures that I would now be turning to them for my own comfort and peace in the same situation.  

If things had been on my timetable, I would have had the surgery right then and there and been done with it. In my state of impatience, I would not have taken the time to be still and to listen and most of all to experience an unexplainable peace that could only come from our Father.  I was truly amazed at God’s perfect timing and the intricate design He had for my life, even in the midst of cancer.




Saturday, October 5, 2013

Through the Fire...

Following my initial biopsy results, things began to move rather quickly.  I had to schedule what seemed like numerous tests and doctor’s appointments. Since hearing my diagnosis, everything in life seemed so surreal. I would often wake up at night, with a sense of relief thinking, “Oh, it was just a dream”, and then realizing it was not. It was like being in a continual state of shock.  You continue to function in all your unusual activities of life, but it’s like you’re not really there. I look back at a picture with my son at one of his football games last year, and think, “that was two days after I found out I had breast cancer”, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I went to a cross-country meet the day after my biopsy. Yes, it’s a bad time, but you continue on in life, even with all the uncertainty, and especially for my boys.

After the biopsy, then came the breast MRI. I’m not usually claustrophobic, but when they offered the Ativan, I thought, “what the heck, I could use a little relaxation at this point”.  Again, I was a nurse, but in this situation, only a patient. It was a unique experience to say the least, but I soon fell asleep in the giant tube accompanied by what sounded like the continual banging of a loud hammer.  It came to a stop, I woke up again, thinking this was all a bad dream, but soon realized I was lying on a table alone, scared, and overwhelmed with the fear of the unknown.

I began to pray for God to give me an understanding of what I was to learn from this situation. I asked for continual peace until I had all the results back and knew what I was facing. I would have to return to the surgeon’s office the following day for the MRI results… more of the unknown. On the way to her office, I told God, “Okay, I have cancer, but my prayer is that is it a favorable type of breast cancer”.  Being an oncology nurse, I knew there were various prognostic factors that all add together to really give the whole picture of exactly what type of breast cancer one could have. Based on all these different factors, there are favorable types and non-favorable types. I prayed specifically that it would not be an aggressive form of cancer, that it be contained to the breast only, and that there be no lymph node involvement.

My report was very good. It looked to be a very small area contained within the breast with no lymph node involvement.  The surgeon described my breasts on the MRI as very “busy”.  I actually found humor in that thinking that was fitting of my personality. Feeling very good about things overall, she then added, “Of course, we won’t know for sure the outcome until the surgery”.  She just had to add that in, didn’t she? 

I left her office that day feeling the presence of God so strongly, that I knew in my heart, everything was going to be okay. I asked God to keep me in His hands and comfort me. That day, I reflected on a Bible study by Beth Moore on the book of Daniel I had done a few months ago.  Like Daniel, in trials we encounter, we can be delivered from the fire; the result, our faith is built. We can also be delivered through the fire; the result, our faith is refined. It has to be proved genuine.  I prayed, “God, deliver me though this fire”.

Only God would have known a few months ago when I went to the church library on a day off to find a Bible study I could do at home, that these verses would come back to me at a time when I needed them most.  I know God designed this. These words would become the basis of my prayer. Over the next several weeks, I would ask for “deliverance through the fire”, and I would not be disappointed. He remained faithful to His word.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Not Your Ordinary Day

I think anyone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer can recall exactly how they felt the moment they heard the words “you have breast cancer.” I was actually at work and was told over the phone. I had to try to maintain composure until I could manage to leave the office. Once I got in my car, I still could not wrap my mind around what I had just heard. The anxiety and fear that comes with a diagnosis of any type of cancer can be devastating.

The first word that comes to mind when you think about cancer is scary, plain and simple. It is the unforeseeable, the unknown. Nothing can really prepare you emotionally for hearing those words. You literally feel as if time has stopped and your world has been turned upside down and nothing will ever be the same again.  

 I was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall. I had been an oncology nurse for over 20 years. It was my love, my calling, my ministry, to care for those struggling with cancer. Cancer was something I was all too familiar with. In a way, knowing too much was a source of my initial anxiety when I was diagnosed.   Although I was a seasoned nurse, when I was diagnosed, I was just a frightened, overwhelmed patient, not a nurse.

 The day I found out I had cancer, I asked God “why me God, I’ve spent so much of my life caring for cancer patients, why me?”  I had no idea at that time that I was about to embark upon a journey that revealed God’s answer to “why me?”  I can honestly say now, “Why not me?”   I would spend the next few months experiencing like I never had before the love of God through His Word, through circumstances, through family and friends, and through my church family. My journey has not ended, but I can look back now and say that I have never received more blessings in my lifetime than I did during my experience with breast cancer. As I will share later, I would encounter cancer again with my husband, learning about his diagnosis one week before my last reconstructive surgery. Through it all though, I would not change a circumstance, a moment, or give back any tears that fell. It was truly a divine plan designed by the One who loves me most.  Pastor James McDonald says in his Bible study Lord, Change by Attitude, “You forfeit the grace that could help you through a trial by complaining about it instead of embracing it as a tool used by God to keep you humble and keep you close to Him and to see us through.”  

 I wanted to start this blog to offer support to women facing the hurdle of breast cancer. I could not have made it through this experience without the support of my family, friends, church family and most importantly God. God has revealed so much to me during this last year that I cannot sum it all up in a few short words. I continue to be amazed at what I am learning from Him daily. I look forward to sharing that with you. My main goal for this blog is to give God the glory for all His goodness shown to me and my family in the last year.  Another goal is to share how He supplied me with a peace that was truly beyond any understanding. He revealed to me daily how He would never forsake me and would strengthen me in all circumstances.

 The verses, among many, I clung too throughout my experiences over the last year were Philippians 4:6-7,  "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

 I had never thought about presenting my requests with "thanksgiving" especially in the situation of cancer, but I thanked Him for all He had done and for all He was about to do on my behalf. I asked daily that He fill me with His peace. I prayed that my "mind" be guarded as well from all the anxiety and fear that comes with cancer. I became filled with a peace that I could not explain. I finally had to submit it all to God, and through it all, I learned I could trust Him. He remained ever faithful to me.  He will see you through this as well. He will surround you with so much love that you will not believe the amount of blessings you will receive during this journey.