Reflections

Yesterday I celebrated my 49th birthday.  There was a time when I would cringe at the thought of being 49, despite the fact that I have a couple of friends who have crossed over the half century mark.  As with many birthdays, I reflected on the past year.  What a ride it’s been!  Last year I didn’t enjoy my birthday.  I’d just found out about the mass on my ovary and, despite being 7 weeks from confirmed diagnosis, I knew I had ovarian cancer.  I was worried and obsessing over everything.  I analyzed every pain and twitch.  I poured over research and websites.  I stopped living and started planning for what I thought would be the end of things.  The picture above shows me on my birthday last year.  My husband told me that I looked sick last year.  He said I look “healthy and vibrant” this year.  Good thing, since that’s how I feel.

I am amazed at what I’ve been through in the past year and have managed to not only survive, but thrive!  My life is a testimony to what God can do when you reach the end of your rope and have only Him to hang onto.  It’s a living example of what it means to be surrounded by people (who are too innumerable to mention) who refuse to allow you to give up even when you want to give up yourself.

In the last year I have learned that I can survive major surgery, a life threatening blood clot, chemotherapy, self injections of blood thinners, more blood tests that I thought were possible, a port insertion, too many trips to doctors to count and more scans than a body should have to endure while homeschooling two boys, keeping the house of a semblance of a schedule and continuing to write.  I have learned that chemo is a double edged sword.  While it saves your life, it takes your memory.  It kills the cancer and numbs your hands and feet.  And I will find out today just how much damage it did to my eyes (I have floaters which appeared when chemo started and are getting worse).  I have done all this while wrestling with the effects of instant menopause without the benefit of being able to have any hormones to help with the adjustment.

I am a warrior in teal.  I want to make teal as prominent as pink.  I posted on FB that since it’s Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, I was going to try to wear teal every day (today, my only teal is my wrist band, all my teal clothes are in the wash).  I wear it for those who walked before me and paved the way and for those who will inevitably come behind me.  I wear it for my oncologist, his incredible staff and the nurses and aides at the OPCC at Good Sam who saved my life.  I wear it because my Dad would wear it and say no one else’s daughter should ever have to go through what my daughter went through.  I wear it to show my mom that I’m just as stubborn as she is and that I got my strength to endure from her.  I wear it to honor my husband who had to walk a path that no partner should ever have to walk, but did so with the strength and courage to carry both of us.  I wear it for the two boys I am proud to call my sons, who were forced to grow up in ways that young children shouldn’t have to, but did so without complaint.  I wear it for my friends who called, brought meals, sent cards, took care of children, sat with me, cried with me and prayed for my family.  Their presence in my life cannot be defined.

I wear teal because God has a mission for me that I need to grab hold of and claim.  I wear teal because I survived.  I don’t know what the future holds.  Life is so fragile and never goes according to plan, no matter how much we put toward that goal.  Keeping God in the midst of chaos is what anchored me to life.

As I look forward, I still face monthly blood work for Coumadin.  I face quarterly CA125 testing and exams and semi-annual CT’s.  And yes, I do get concerned.  I will become apprehensive before seeing my oncologist knowing that despite the odds, I still might have to face the Beast again.  I look forward to entering a clinical trial for my oncologist in hopes that I can help him determine ways to beat back the Beast.  And I will wear teal for my visits.

So as I reflect on my 48th year and look forward to number 49, I will wear teal and smile.  I have been through so much and come out stronger for it.  I wear teal as a reminder and to show I am better for my experience.  And, I look good in it.

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Moving On

As we do most Sundays, we attended worship at Cornerstone Church.  Today was “step up” Sunday for the boys.  Braeden moved up to 2nd grade, his first year in elementary Sunday School without Kyle.  Kyle moved to our tween class, Club 56.  They have their own room and are situated away from both the lower elementary and the youth.  It was a big adjustment for both of them.  John and I are loving worship with our new pastor, Pastor Brian.  He reminds me of my youth pastor.  His sermons are relevant and entertaining, not an easy combination for pastors to master.

Tomorrow we begin our 6th year at KTA (Kitchen Table Academy), the affectionate name for our homeschool.  Since our learning occurs at the kitchen table, it’s given rise to the name.  I really should come up with something that will look better across the top of a diploma, but I haven’t stumbled on one yet.  I still have a couple of years.  I mean, can you seriously see UC accepting a transcript from Kitchen Table Academy?  I cannot believe Kyle is starting 5th grade.  With the exception of some stumbling over double and triple digit multiplication, my son is a practically a middle schooler.  Next year, he will be considered one at Learning Tree, our homeschool co-op.  What happened to that little bundle I brought home from Russia?  I finally understand the old saying, “The days are long, but the years are short.”

We are moving on this year in many ways.  We are starting new grades.  Mom is hoping to pick up more freelance work.  Both boys are playing sports again – Braeden’s soccer team won their first game yesterday and Kyle starts flag football practice Tuesday night.  John continues to hone his project management skills at Children’s.  We are beginning to move on.  Yet, I still get stuck.  In a few weeks, I have my CA125 drawn to track my tumor marker, have my 6 month CT scan and undergo yet another exam.  Yes, it’s preventative and given the results of my last CA125, I really don’t expect anything to show up.  Of course, I never expected to have cancer either.

Pastor Brian spoke about the bad times in life.  You know those times when life just knocks you for a loop and you can’t get back on your feet?  I’ve always known that when faced with struggles, I have two choices.  I can whine, moan and complain or I can face it head on.  Cancer makes you do a bit of both.  You have to face it head on.  It’s now your reality.  But I really don’t see how you can manage to make it through without whining, even if it’s just a little bit.  I chose to cling to God’s promise that even in my darkest hour, he wouldn’t leave me or forsake me.  He would lead me to those still waters and restore my soul.  Yes, I did have those times when I yelled at God, quite a few in fact.  My mentor, Pastor Linda Troy, once told me that God doesn’t care how much we yell at him.  It means we still believe in Him.

When I got the definitive diagnosis, I prayed like I’d never prayed for myself before.  I begged and pleaded with God to heal my body.  I visualized His healing hands.  I did it all right, but I still had a massive tumor on my ovary.  Funny thing is, if I had been healed of just my tumor I still would have had the nasty blood clot in my right leg.  It still would have probably broken off and, had I been anywhere but post-op, I probably would have died.  Hmmm.  Once I had the benefit of a couple of months of hindsight, I saw that.

That still leads me to why I had cancer.  Why couldn’t I have just had a massive benign tumor?  My oncologist told me that we will probably never know what triggered the cells to turn cancerous.  Even if we did know, it wouldn’t change anything.  I’d still would have had cancer.  Okay.  Here’s where choices really kick in.  Do you chose to wallow or do you choose to move on?  My friend Cathy told me I had to move on.  No choices.  I have 2 young sons and a husband.  While they were good reasons to move on, the only reason you can move on is because you feel like you have to.  God wants me to move on.  Granted, He let me have pity parties.  He gave me two wonderful friends who let me rant, rave and cry about how lousy I felt.  I will never, ever be able to repay Cathy or Lisa for listening to me when they had their own lives to live, but they both took the time to let me do what I needed to do.  Then I was able to move on.

Moving on means you accept you are not the same person you used to be.  Unfortunately, I will always have the “C” word in my background.   I feel a strong pull to work with ovarian cancer patients.  I’ve always been interested in healthcare and often write on healthcare topics.  Would I have found my niche without having ovarian cancer?  Maybe.  Did it affect me?  Definitely.  The person who entered Good Sam Hospital on October 17, 2012 is not the same one who left October 25, 2012.  Nor I am the same person who completed chemotherapy on March 15, 2013.  If we are open to things, God will continue to use our best and worst experiences to shape us.

So I need to be moving on now.  Life is about being an active participant, getting in and getting involved.  While cancer will always be a part of who I was, it doesn’t have to be a part of who I become.  And if it comes back. well, we’ll just move on with life and kick it back to where it belongs, in the past.  So we can get on with the future.  Moving on!

The Aftermath

By this time, I really thought I’d feel great.  Well, maybe not great, but at least better.  I’d be walking regularly, keeping the house clean, doing play dates, working 15-20 hours per week consistently and volunteering.  In other words, I’d be doing what I did before October 17, 2012.  Apparently, while the mind is more than willing, the body refuses to cooperate.

While I do keep up with the kitchen and bathrooms, I continue to have dust bunnies and piles of junk.  John and I walk when I’m up to it and I try to keep up with my videos, but neuropathy in my feet and calves often cause me to lay my best intentions aside.  Play dates, while more frequent, aren’t as often as the boys would like, mostly because I’m tired and just don’t feel like driving.  I try to work to help out with the bills, but chemo fog often makes writing difficult.  Volunteering, one of my favorite things in the world, is just hard when your body doesn’t cooperate.  I headed up a station at Cornerstone’s VBS a couple of weeks ago.  I had a blast, but my body rebelled for the next 6 days.

Neuropathy is probably my biggest enemy.  For those unfamiliar with this delightful condition, neuropathy is a constant numbness and tingling that is a side effect of Taxol (a strong chemotherapy drug).  Diabetics are also affected by this condition.  It generally attacks the feet and hands (my sweet sister in teal Lisa, has it up her entire leg).  Mine affects the toes of my right foot and my entire left foot all the time.  On bad days, my calves are affected and the outer sides of my knees.  Really bad days include delightful “electric shocks” that cause my feet to jerk.  John just loves those.  They tend to occur at night when I’m trying to get to sleep.  Despite my best attempts, the jerking keeps him awake.

My hands are also affected.  A surgery years ago, damaged the sensory nerve to one of the fingers in my right hand.  Now the fingertips of both hands are numb.  The joints in my hands always ache.  This is not good when you write for a living.  Nor is it helpful when you like to cook and relax by doing cross stitch (and you are desperately trying to finish a baby sampler for your great nephew before he turns 21.  He’s 7 weeks old now, but you get the idea). 

While these are annoying, the clincher is neuropathy of the large intestine.  Yep, your intestines can be affected by neuropathy.  Who knew (well, Lisa did. She’s my guru)?  Apparently, the nerves that tell your large intestine to move things along “go numb” like when you have a limb that “falls asleep.”  Nothing moves and you feel bloated, crampy and eventually get hit with nausea.  It’s delightful as a diet.

Now, you would think that my beloved oncologist would have warned me about this (and he truly is beloved in my eyes), but NO!  It’s a rare side effect and he’d hoped that I would avoid this particular one.  So much for hope, at least in this case.  So now, I have to tweak my diet yet again and deal with a delightful “cleanse” to get things moving.  I won’t bore you with the latter.  Let’s just say, I’m glad I have a large master bath that allows me to get comfy.

My diet, which I changed drastically to begin with, is now chocked with a minimum of 72 ounces of fluid (32 of which must be water at a minimum) daily.  I am still banning hormones, GMO, artificial sweeteners and soy, but now have to add more fiber in the form of vegetables and whole grains.  I was all ready doing this, but I have to bump it up even more. This is his PC way of saying, “Cut the junk food crap from your diet.”  If only chocolate was a high fiber food.  I all ready make my own breads, cook from scratch every night and have pretty much given up going out to eat because it’s a pain to find something I can eat.  I guess I’ll be going out for coffee, hold the desert.

I tend to forget that I had all of my abdominal muscles cut, all three layers, when I had my hysterectomy.  It will be 10 months on my hubby’s birthday next week.  However, those muscles take a LONG time to heal.  I insist on picking up heavy items, then pay for it later.  I only insist on it because I don’t hurt at the time.  Since I really need to lose weight, it’s probably worse.  My doctor has told me that if I don’t get some weight off that I’m a “hernia waiting to happen.”  Lovely.  Actually I have lost a couple of pounds with the neuropathy. 

My friend Cathy reminds me all the time that our bodies do not heal on our schedule.  She warned me in the spring that I would probably not feel good on a regular basis until the end of 2013.  While I was skeptical, I shouldn’t have been.  She’s been there.  She hit the proverbial nail straight on the head.  I should know better.

The aftermath is what it is.  Today I don’t feel so great.  I know I need to gear up to clean out.  I need to take care of myself.  I remember my dad saying the same things.  Do what you can when you feel great.  Rest when you don’t.  I’ve always been a slow study.

Everyone’s aftermath is different.  I am learning that there were things I used to do that are harder.  But a lot of things are easier.  I am more specific when I talk to God.  I am much more likely to say yes to playing games with the boys.  I spend more time journaling, even when my hands hurt, since it helps organize the chaos of my chemo brain.  I value spending time with my mom more than ever, particularly since she gave up so much to stay with me in the hospital and during my recovery.  Walks with John are sacred time.  I love visiting my mother-in-law.  She bent over backwards to take care of us long distance.  I don’t take anything for granted.  Nothing is guaranteed.  If that’s what I take away from the aftermath, then I think I’ve learned my lesson.

 

Dress Rehearsal

I have decided that my life before cancer was simply a dress rehearsal.  And I went through a lot of “stuff” before cancer. I think it’s the “stuff” that gives you the strength to fight cancer.  If you haven’t had a lot of “stuff,” you might not have the tools to really fight well.

When I graduated from college, all my friends were getting married so, of course, I wanted to get married too.  I hated being the third wheel.  Fortunately, one of my best friends got divorced during this time, but she ended up going to law school so I didn’t see her that often.  So I started dating a guy who was wrong for me on so many levels that I could write about it for YEARS and still not complete the explanation (my “sister” Sue can, however, give you the synopsis of why this guy was such a bad choice in 30 words or less).  If I hadn’t had that experience, I could never appreciate what a great guy I married.  And, despite his few flaws, he is absolutely perfect for me.  There is no way my ex-idiot, I mean fiancé, would have or could have stood by me through anything.

John and I have faced unemployment, financial distress, and infertility.  I’d have to say that the financial and infertility issues are a toss up.  Both are long term battles that suck you dry.  Both take an incredible commitment to stay together and work through it.  And both need to not place blame on the other.  We are stronger for being together through it.

Of course, infertility had its silver lining.  I have two incredibly handsome, funny, talented and amazing boys that lived in foreign countries that God gave us to raise.  Traveling to a foreign country is not for the faint of heart.  Three weeks in Russia, while amazing, took its toll on us.  And after two failed adoption attempts, the four days in Guatemala, while incredible, were hard on Kyle and my mom, especially since my dad had only been gone 5 months when we left and we were all acutely aware that Braeden would never get to meet his Papaw.  Reflecting back, however, John and I have decided that Braeden has, in fact, met his Papaw as he seems to be channeling him in a regular basis now.  They are random comments that my dad would have made and I marvel at how Braeden gets his wish to “meet” his grandpa.

Losing both our fathers within 3 years gave both of us a glimpse of the struggle at the end of life.  We put our intentions in place and have medical power of attorney’s and living wills.  And in 2012, we both had to have the talk about “if something happens to me, you WILL honor my wishes.”  John faced a potentially life threatening neurological incident that turned out to be something congenital.  It was, to that point, the roughest 6 weeks of my life.  While I had faced the death of my father and father-in-law, I never expected to face the prospect of being a widow at 47.  I am proud of the way John handled the entire experience (me, not so much.  I was pretty selfish with my prayers).  And it helped us learn why John’s short term memory is not as sharp as we thought it should be. 

Six weeks after that, the mass was found on my left ovary.  I KNEW it was cancer and even told John.  I hadn’t had any tests yet, but I just knew.  Being the incredible husband he is, he went through the entire spiel about not knowing anything and it’s probably nothing since that’s what the doctor says, yada, yada, yada.  But I knew.  Six weeks later, after nearly dying after surgery, I had to tell my husband I had cancer.  He missed the doctor because he had to take the kids to our homeschool co-op that day and was a little late.  I don’t think I will EVER forget the look on his face.  I don’t even know how to describe it.  For a brief moment, I had to be the strong one while he had to face the prospect of a life without a wife.  When I think back on this, I cry.  We’d had so many rugs pulled out from under us and landed on our feet.  This time, we landed smack on our butts and it hurt.

Once I was home, we laid out our action plan.  I would go to chemo and he would work something out with his boss so he could be with me.  We embarked on the longest, hardest journey of our lives and marriage – chemotherapy.  Lots of couples divorce during cancer treatment.  Spouses can’t handle it.  My husband shaved my head, cleaned the house, took care of the kids, held me when I cried and kept his vow of “for better or for worse” and “in sickness and in health.”  We definitely had the worse and sickness thing nailed during those 5 months.

Looking back, neither one of us could have come out on the other side of my battle without having been through all those smaller battles that seemed insurmountable at the time.  Had I not battled infertility and being told “No you can’t have children,” would I have developed the determination to fight and prove my doctors wrong.  Had I not dated an idiot, I would not have had to fortitude to know how to advocate for myself.  Had I not had the experience of losing my dad, I would not have learned how to fight.  Being a mom gave me the will to fight for my kids.  Being married gave me a partner to join me in battle.  Being a daughter of the one true King gave the hope that it was all in His hands.

My life to that point was a dress rehearsal for survival.  This experience has added another dimension to who I am.  Just like the experiences prior to this, ovarian cancer does not define me, but it helps shape the person I am becoming. 

No one jumps up and down and begs for cancer (if they do, they are truly more idiotic than my ex).  It happens, just like that stuff in the other more common phrase.  It’s a monster that takes far too many warriors in the battle for life.  I am thankful that I get to fight another day – every day.  Perhaps that’s the lesson from this battle.  Life makes you a better person.  You can face it head on or let it run over you.  My dress rehearsal taught me to always face life head on.  I wonder what challenges are next?

 

Changes, They Are Comin’

I am amazed at how much my body has changed in the last month.  I have hair on my head, eyebrows and eyelashes, and have even begun the unpleasant task of shaving once again.  I no longer look like a pale version of myself.  I actually look like a real person!  It’s not disconcerting to look in the mirror any longer.

Of course, now that chemo is over and I’m in remission my doctors required me to make changes.  Sometimes, though, they are in conflict with each other.  My oncologist has strict dietary requirements for me.  Absolutely no artificial sweeteners of any kind, no soy (to the extent possible) and hormone free dairy and meat.  After pricing organic meat, I decided that becoming an ovo-lacto vegetarian looks pretty good.  I have been buying organic eggs for a year now and with the exception of cheese (which is just way too expensive for me to buy completely organic), I have been pretty successful.  Fortunately, my oldest son has never been much of a carnivore so he’s good with the changes.  My hubby is a vegetable lover, but has requested meat on the weekends to meet his carnivorous needs.  My youngest is the pickiest eater on Earth so it doesn’t really matter what we do as long as he can eat a fish stick, hot dog or pizza.

Yesterday, my vascular surgeon started me on Coumadin and started weaning me off my shots I was taking to thin my blood (yippee!).  However, leafy greens have to be limited when you take Coumadin.  Now I LOVE spinach, lettuce and Swiss chard. Limiting me to two servings a day is tough since I eat salad almost every day.  While she has said that she will tweak my meds to meet my diet, a vegetarian diet makes it harder to manage Coumadin.  Thus my dilemma.  I am hoping that I am one of those people that their body just adapts to the Coumadin quickly and I can get on with life.

Then there’s the whole weight loss thing.  My mom once told me that losing weight after menopause is hard, VERY HARD.  Now I know that my mom is nearly always right, and this time is no exception.  My hope is that a plant based diet will make it a bit easier to lose. And I joined sparkpeople to help me on my journey.  As my neuropathy in my feet levels out, I am hoping that I can exercise more to boost my metabolism.  So my oncologist tells me to lose weight and if the other symptoms of menopause get too bad, he’ll consider putting me on progesterone, which has the side effect of weight gain.  I wish this guy would make up his mind.  You can’t have it both ways.

I’ve changed how I look at things.  Things I used to sweat don’t phase me much anymore.  Yes, I still worry about my family and paying the bills, but if the laundry doesn’t get done or if I don’t get the dishwasher unloaded before 9AM, it’s just not a big deal.  I take more time to do things I enjoy.  I have developed a real love/hate relationship with my computer.  It’s how I earn a living, but I realize what a time waster it can be.  I try to journal more, write more articles and hope to continue this blog.  They seem more beneficial to life in general than playing games on Facebook.

The biggest change I’ve noticed is how I face life.  Remission is, by far, so much harder than having cancer.  When you have cancer, you see the enemy and feel like crap because you are actively fighting it.  When you’re in remission, you find that you begin to dread those labs and scans even though they are much less frequent.  The Beast lurks in the background waiting for its chance to strike again.  The oncologist tells you to live your life, but the life you had is gone.  You have this new life and cancer will always be a part of it.  This is tough for people who have never had cancer to “get” and that’s okay.  I’m thankful for everyday that I don’t have cancer.  I’m thankful for every night I get to kiss my boys goodnight, for every hug from my husband, for every phone call from my family, for every hug from a friend, for morning I wake up.  I’m content with my life.  I was always discontented before.  I still don’t know what God has in store for me, but it’s good and that’s enough.

I like being content.  That doesn’t mean that the boys don’t drive me nuts, that John and I don’t argue, or that I agree with everything everyone tells me, I don’t.  But I am content with what I have right now.  And that’s a huge change, and definitely one I can live with.

What is Strength?

I have wondered what consistutes a “strong person.”  What characteristics do they have? Do they have some sort of intestinal fortitude that others don’t?  Just sitting here, I can think of at least 7 people right off the top of my head that I consider or have considered strong that have made a significant impact on my life.

My dad was, and still is, my hero.  Anyone who knows me will say I was the ultimate Daddy’s Girl.  My dad worked two jobs when I was young so my mom could stay home.  He went to school at night on the GI Bill.  He worked is way into upper management without a Bachelor’s Degree.  He was funny, smart, charismatic, selfless and the most loving man I’ve ever known.  He always put my mom and me first.  He even introduced me to my husband (after he tried to sell me to him, but that’s an entirely different story for another blog post).  He was devoted to my oldest son and my youngest son grieves over the Paw-paw he never got to meet.  My dad fought diabetes and congestive heart failure with a sense of strength and humor I find myself desperately trying to emulate.  He fought the battles on his terms, not the diseases.  I’ve often asked myself if my dad would approve of how I’m handling cancer and my mom always tells me yes.  Daddy always told me that while we need to pick out battles, sometimes they pick us.  When they do, you need to face them with all the ferocity you can muster.  Actually that’s a paraphrase.  Anyone who knew my dad knows he would never, ever use the word ferocity.  He’d just say “Kick in the ass.”

My mom and great-grandma are like twins from separate generations.  My great-grandma ruled the roost even from her room in a nursing home until shortly before she died.  When she said jump, we’d just do it.  She was a single mom, after the death of her first husband.  She worked as a baker for Lunkenheimer in their employee cafeteria.  Decades later, I was able to benefit from her gifts as a baker.  She was never afraid of hard work.  Well into her 70’s and possibly 80’s, she would sit on a window sill and wash windows – 2 or 3 stories off the ground.  She was tenacious, stubborn, and fiercely devoted to her family.  I know that’s where my mom learned it.

Mom is stubborn too, but in a good way.  No matter how old I am, she’s still my mom and that was never more clear to me than when I underwent my hysterectomy in October. As many of you know, my mom spent every night with me in the hospital being a second set of ears, a sounding board and momma tiger when 2 stupid residents came in and made pronouncements about my health status without reading my chart first. This is where I’ve learned that there is nothing deeper than the strength of a mother protecting her child. I have had my fair share of advocating for my children and I am willing to do whatever it takes to keep them happy, healthy and safe. I  make sacrifices in my own life to homeschool them. My mom is an incredible example of the strength of a mom.

My friends Cathy and Lisa are two of the strongest women I know for a single reason – they beat the Beast. Cathy is a 5 year survivor of breast cancer and Lisa is a 2 year survivor of stage 3 ovarian cancer. Both women refuse to allow me to wallow in self-pity. They give me a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen and arms to hold me, but they refuse to allow me to believe that I will do anything but beat cancer and be a survivor. Even when I get news that’s not what I want to hear (like needing a 7th chemo treatment, just to be sure), they dig in their heels and send fighting strength my way. Cathy texts me after every doctor’s appointment, nearly every lab and never misses sending me positive thoughts the day before chemo and during my chemo treatment. Lisa always e-mails me after chemo to check in on me and does so periodically in the intervening time. She also posts the best things on my Facebook wall. We IM when we can. She is the only person I know who really gets ovarian cancer since she’s had it, along with the multitude of side effects. Both of these incredible women have taught me that I have to have a single minded focus “Kick Cancer’s butt and don’t look back!”

I have a profound respect for my mother-in-law, Elsa Giess. I embrace her as my “second mom” and am blessed to have her. Her family spent much of World War II staying ahead of the Nazi’s and then worked as tentant farmers after the war. She came to the US with her two older sisters and left everything she knew behind. She married my father-in-law, who was also an immigrant, and became and Army wife for several years. When they settled in Mansfield, she raised my sister-in-law and husband while doing the books for my father-in-law’s construction business. She returned to school and worked for years at School Specialty Products. In fact, she worked until she was 70! She lost her sister, Erika, to breast cancer in the 80’s. While I know she worries, she keeps on living life to the fullest. When I had my hysterectomy, she had scheduled a trip to New York with my sister-in-law and her nephews who were visiting from Germany. The day after she returned, she came to Cincinnati to welcome me home and help John take care of me. She has lived through so much and still faces life with an optimism and faith I wish I could match. While God knew what I needed in a husband, he also gave me another wonderful woman to call “Mom.”

I rarely mention my dad’s mom and she certainly wasn’t what I’d call strong, but my Grandma Streckfuss had a profound impact on my life. Married to an abusive spouse, she endured a great deal of physical, psychological and emotional pain as did my dad. My grandma and dad handled it in two different ways. My dad turned into a strong man who didn’t need to use violence, a fist, or evil words to make his point. My grandma was a loving woman who would do anything for me. Her only daughter died when my dad was young and since I was the first grandchild and a girl we shared a special bond. No matter how she felt, she would play with me. I loved her and knew she loved me. When she was diagnosed with colon cancer, I was 7. I didn’t get it. She died right after I turned 9. There is still a empty place in my heart for her. However, I do know that she is that small voice that keeps me fighting. She chose not to fight since it got her away from her abusive husband. I will always remember one of the last things she said to me on the phone, “Don’t let anyone keep you from being you.” Cancer, while it will always be a part of me know, will never define my identity.

Strength is many things. It is courage, emotional fortitude, a caring spirit, tenderness, a hug and an enduring legacy. When I think of strength, I think of these people who have modeled it for me. I only hope I can model it as well for others.

Helpful Hints

After my last post, my friend Caren asked me to post about what things are helpful to a cancer patient. After reading the feedback from the last post, I am doing so now. There are a number of things that cancer patients, especially those going through chemo and have children, find helpful and appreciate during our journey.

1. Be specific. Instead of saying “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” make a specific inquiry. Asking “When would be a good day to bring you dinner?” is much better. So is “I would love to watch your children while you go to see your doctor. When is your next appointment?” I know I personally am so overwhelmed by what I’m not getting done, so if someone puts a general inquiry out there I’ll tell them I’ll get back to them simply because I’m too overwhelmed to decide what’s important. By giving me a specific request for help that requires more than a yes or no answer, I can provide a response that is specific to me and the person offering help. The best question I ever got came from a homeschool mom I know whose husband is a pastor. She offered to have the youth group come and help us for a Saturday by spring cleaning. I will NEVER turn down an opportunity for someone to clean my house. I can’t stand the smell of most cleaners right now (they make me extremely nauseous) so that will be a huge help. My friends Kelley, Sue and Karena are always looking for opportunities to watch my sons. My friend Cathy always asks if I need a friend to go to my lab appointments. Cancer patients need help and we don’t want to bother people. By making a specific offer, you allow the patient to tell you what they need.

2. Send a card or e-mail. My friend Denise B. knows how to make me smile. A couple of times a month she sends me a handmade card (she loves to make cards and one day I’m going to have her show me how). They always come when I’m feeling especially low and they always cheer me up. She also asks about bringing us dinner. My Facebook friend Lisa, who survived ovarian cancer, messages me a couple of times a week to check in. She knows I may not be up to responding, but she sends me a quote or picture or just a heart with the word HUG to let me know she’s thinking about me. My BFF Sue posts inspirational posts on my FB wall. These acts don’t take more than a minute to do, but they mean so much to someone who is stuck in the house because they feel lousy post chemo treatment or, as in my case, stuck because my neutrophils (white blood cells that fight infection) are so low I can’t leave the house because I could get very sick.

3. Pray for us. I’ll be honest, there are times when, as I’ve told my friend Cathy (another cancer survivor), that I feel like a piece of gum that God scraped off the bottom of his shoe and tossed aside. Now, I know that’s not true. I have a very vivid image in my head that I lean on based on the Footprints story. Jesus and I are walking on the beach and right now we’re just sitting watching the waves because, quite frankly, that’s about all I can handle. He reaches over and squeezes my hand or give me a hug, but we rarely speak. We don’t have to. He knows how I feel and that there are times when I just can’t pray. The prayers of others have lifted me out of the dumps more times than I can count. You don’t even have to let someone know. As Nike says, “Just do it!”

4. Pray for our husbands or wives and children. As my friend Cathy tells me, husbands get our tears and fears. I can put a happy face on when I go out or when people bring us a meal, but he sees me during and after chemo when my body aches so bad and I’m so nauseous that moving in bed is a monumental effort. At this point, he is definitely being supportive husband as well as taking on the duties of both parents. He cooks, cleans, shops and is a caretaker, which is not a normal role for men. In many ways, his role in treatment is so much more difficult than my own. My children are young, but they know that Mom needs to nap and has a tough time doing the things she used to do. And they are tired of it. As much as I need prayer, they need it just as much, if not more. Family is my number two reason for going through the hell of chemo (not wanting to die is number one). I need them to be tough right now. It’s especially difficult for one of my sons who’s a control freak. He can’t control cancer and it drives him nuts. As a result, he controls everything else in our house which drives the rest of us crazy. Praying for our families is as important as praying for the patient.

5. Ask how we’re feeling. Now I need to put a caveat on this one: if you don’t really want to know or expect a blanket, I’m fine, don’t ask. I will tell people I’m very tired, been nauseous or that I’m feeling pretty good. If I say I’m tired, it’s fine to say “I hope you get some much needed rest soon.” If I’m feeling good, you can say “You look like you’re feeling better today.” I have no clue how to respond to someone who’s nauseous. My husband has resorted to saying, “Is it time for an Ativan?” which is the only anti-nausea medicine that works for me. My mom asks if I have enough 7-Up.

I can’t begin to count the number of people who have offered specific things or gone out of their way to try to make this journey easier for us. And they have, without knowing it, done these exact things. The most difficult thing I’ve learned is to accept help from others. I love to cook and it’s hard for me to accept a meal. I’ve always taken care of my kids and it’s tough for me to let others drive them places without feeling like I’m imposing. My friend Kelley tells me that’s what the body of Christ is supposed to do, take care of each other. And the body that surrounds my family is a living, breathing example of Jesus’ ministry in action.

For those of you who’ve stepped out and helped John, Kyle, Braeden and I, we cannot begin to thank you enough. You have helped us through a journey that we never wanted to take, but has shown us the kindness of both friends and strangers that we can never repay. Thank you and God bless!