Monday, September 5, 2011

The Day I learned I had Cancer

Journal Entry: Written on Friday, October 2, 2009

My note to God, 9-28-09.
During the spring of 2009, I discovered a small yet pronounced lump in my right breast. It wasn't visible to the human eye but I could certainly feel it when I rolled my fingers over it. I really wasn't nervous when I first discovered it either. I remember thinking that it was probably fatty tissue or calcium deposits ... something but not cancer. I felt the lump for the first time in May 2009 and it wasn't until late June that it really sunk in and I realized that this was a real lump and could potentially be a serious matter. I concluded in that moment that this deserved professional attention and scheduled an appointment to see my doctor the first week of July.Two mammograms later on Friday, August 28th, I found myself having the lump biopsied because the mammograms indicated that the lump wasn't normal. The biopsy confirmed that the cells in the lump were abnormal and that this lump was the pre-cursor to cancer but thankfully it wasn't cancer. I was also told that the lump needed to be removed to avoid the development of cancerous cells. So on Thursday, September 24th, on my 42nd birthday, the birthday girl had a lump removed from her right breast. Even though I had to under-go surgery on my birthday, I still felt pretty lucky and incredibly thankful that the lump was not cancerous and that we could do something about this before cancer happened. I remember thinking: Good job Ruthie. It's good that you went in to see the doctor when you did. This is good. Sure, a Lumpectomy is going to suck, but it's not cancer so hurrah! 

At 12:20pm on Monday, September 28th, I got the call. My surgeon called me with the test results from my Lumpectomy. He said he would call around noon that day and he did. Unfortunately it was not the news I had hoped to hear. The lump that he removed was still benign but he told me that they found cancer in my breast. Ductal Carcinoma in-Situ is what he called it, also known as DCIS. The word in-Situ means contained. The cancer was found in tissue next to the lump that was removed. The pathology report indicated that the cancer appears to be contained but he said that he wouldn’t know for sure until they biopsy a few lymph-nodes near my right breast. He added that I need one more surgery to remove additional tissue in my right breast to see if they can get clean margins (clean/uncancerous tissue) which would help determine if my cancer had spread to other areas. It also helps determine what stage the cancer is in. He recommended another incision near my right arm pit to have a few lymph-nodes removed during this surgery to be biopsied. The main lymph-node is called the sentinel node and he wanted to remove that node in addition to a few other nodes to determine if my cancer has spread to my lymphatic system. My head dropped and my heart sank when I heard him say “one more surgery.”  And I didn't like having to hear that he couldn't tell me with certainty that my cancer was contained. My right breast was still so sore and tender and it still ached and throbbed from the Lumpectomy just four days earlier. In that moment, I couldn’t imagine having one more surgery. The thought of one more surgery seemed unbearable, unimaginable and left me feeling terribly sad and afraid that my cancer had spread. The hard reality that cancer had invaded my body was a difficult truth to accept. I couldn’t understand how this was happening. How did this happen to me??? This is the kind of stuff that happens to other people, I thought. And when you hear about it, your heart feels sad for them and you visit them and hold their hand and pray for them but you never imagine cancer happening to you. 

My surgeon is a kind man with an incredibly calm demeanor. And he was incredibly patient with me on the phone as I asked what seemed like a million questions. Gosh, what a tough thing to have to do. It has to suck to have to deliver such horrible news to someone. I can't imagine how many times he's had to make a call like that. Does it ever get easy I wondered? He told me that I will likely have many more questions before we meet again and encouraged me to write them down. I'm scheduled to see him on October 3rd for my post-op appointment. He added that he'll address any and all questions I have regarding my diagnosis and next steps when we meet and that he'll give me all the time I need. He also shared with me that together, we'll schedule my next surgery when I see him and that during this visit, he’ll recommend a Radiation Oncologist and an Oncologist to follow up with for treatment. I needed to hear the word "together" because in that moment, it made me feel less alone. When cancer happens to you, you feel so alone. Nothing about cancer feels normal. And nothing in life has prepared me for this moment.

So how did I feel that day?  .... Incredibly sad for sure. Sad because I knew the days ahead would be tricky and nothing short of unfamiliar. All of the sudden, things felt uncertain in life. I remember feeling really sad for my family. And I felt deep sadness for my son. I remember thinking: I'm his biggest cheerleader. This can't be happening. I can't go anywhere, not yet at least. I also remember thinking that my son and I have endured and survived so much already. Now this? Cancer? Really??? ...  I was in shock to say the least. I felt dismayed, disheartened and terribly confused that this was even happening to me. What could God possibly be up to? I know God didn't cause my cancer but He did allow it and I know there's purpose in everything we endure in life. On the phone I remained remarkably composed. And even though the surgeon's voice and his words were clear, they didn't seem all that clear to me because who comprehends cancer? My brain felt foggy and my heart sank and lurched to hear the words: You have cancer, Ruth. Oh my gosh ...I have cancer, I thought to myself. At this juncture in my life, that was by far the most surreal moment I had ever experienced. I think I needed someone to pinch me in that moment because I was in a state of disbelief. I remember my ears ringing during that conversation. I think that was shock setting in. That feeling was so weird. I recall the surgeon telling me something about my diagnosis being treatable or maybe even curable with local management. And to that, I wondered: what does that even mean? How long will it take? And does it come with a guarantee? At the end of our conversation, I remember thanking him for calling with a soft and polite voice. When the call ended, there was a short pause, then a deep breath, then suddenly an explosion of emotions. There were many tears. The tears were projectile in nature and gargantuan in scale and over flowed in an uncontrollable manner. The tears didn't end for a really long time it seemed but in actuality I think I cried hard, really hard for 15 minutes straight on. I cried so hard, I could hardly breathe. Have you ever cried that hard? Ugh ... It's quite horrible. It's an anguish I don't wish upon anyone. It's such an awful feeling. When someone cries that hard, you're crying from the deepest recesses of your soul. At this point, I had my head down on my desk and I just sat and I sobbed. I sobbed in deep sadness, but I think I also sobbed in gratitude because we think; [I hoped] my cancer was caught early. I cried, "Oh God please let this be the early stage of cancer!" To sob was all I could do in that moment. I didn't have any brilliant words or brilliant thoughts to console myself. I couldn't even pray really, not yet at least. All I could do was cry and cry some more. In that moment, I was inconsolable. It was that big ugly cry, you know the one that only happens when deep sadness enters your world uninvited and unexpectedly. That news pierced me. What's perplexing and quite interesting is that my gut didn't prepare me for this. I almost always have a clammy feeling when something is going to go horribly wrong. I felt pretty certain that my news would be good and that I would be okay and that life as I knew it would go on. After all, I had a birthday I still needed to celebrate because I had spent my 42nd birthday days earlier at the hospital, having breast surgery. Imagine my surprise to learn that cancer had taken up residency in my body. It felt harsh and it felt cruel. In boxer terminology it felt like someone had just hit me below the belt. It didn't seem fair and it didn't seem right. On that day and in that moment, I remember thinking: Oh how I wish the phone would ring just one more time and have it be my surgeon telling me that he had made a terrible mistake, to please forgive him and that I really don't have cancer. If he called I remembering thinking, I could forgive him. After all, mistakes happen, right??? ...  But the phone never rang. {sigh} ...

The tears finally ended and when they did, I felt exhausted. I was completely drained and felt terribly confused. I remember thinking: What's happening to my life God? My face was red and wet from all the tears I had shed and my nose was terribly stuffy. I was struggling to breathe from my nose because I had cried so hard and for so long. In the moment I was a hot mess and desperately needed Kleenex and comfort and rest for sure but mostly, I needed God to rescue me. I needed and still need Him to come and heal me. I felt too exhausted and totally overwhelmed to do any real research that afternoon. I remember carefully crawling into bed coddling a very sore and tender breast due to surgery just days earlier. I curled up in a fetal position, feeling incredibly vulnerable and praying with tears falling out of my eyes pleading with God to please hear my cry for help and to please be with me during this journey. If there was ever a time I needed Him, I needed Him now. I confessed and admitted that I've been needy in the past when things were hard, when life was hard and scary but I also admitted that nothing, absolutely nothing in life has prepared me for this. I reminded Him [like He needs reminding] that for some people cancer shouts: Game over! I told Him I don't want my game to be over. I pleaded with Him and told Him that I can't do this without Him. I'm not that strong I confessed. But I know that He can make me strong. I know this because I have a L-O-N-G history of His faithfulness in my life. I asked Him to please give me strength for my journey and to please, PLEASE spare me from death anytime in the near future because I'm not ready. I'm too young I pleaded and I love life too much. This is awful I remember thinking. I remember feeling a bit desperate. It felt like it was too much to bear. I could feel my heart beating and my chest felt heavy. But I know that I don't have to bear this alone. On that day and even today as I write to you, deep down inside, I know that no matter how difficult the days ahead will be, I still have a God who loves me, who won't leave me and who won't abandon me. The Bible says that He will never leave us nor forsake us and that if we draw near to Him, He will draw near to us. I believe that with all my heart and I need to keep believing that in spite of how I might be feeling in the days ahead. It's time to exercise faith muscles. I'm inviting Him into this process. After all, He's still in control and I know that He loves me so I'm going to keep trusting Him. I still have my faith and the love and support of my beloved friends, my beautiful family and my amazing prayer warriors who pray fervently [really, they do] and I know that this is just one more bump in the road that must be traveled. Today I'll admit that I have more questions than answers and that I don't really understand why cancer happens and why it happened to me but what I know for sure is that I know the One who does and I know that God will use this for something good. I'm believing in that. I also know that I am not alone. I am loved and for now that is enough.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
~Hebrews 11: 1

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. ~Romans 8:28
Note inserted Monday, September 5, 2011:

I'm happy to report that today; I'm cancer-free and incredibly grateful for that gift. It wasn't an easy journey but I got through it. It took 18 long months and five surgeries after my biopsy in August 2009 to get through my treatments and all the complications by body experienced due to medication and treatment. God, my friends and my family were all there to help me. Thank you friends and family! I'm so thankful for you! Life isn't always easy, it's hard sometimes, really hard but its always worth living. Here's my confession: After my radiation treatments ended in December 2009, and as grateful as I was to be alive, I can't deny that sometimes it felt like a daily challenge to trust God because there were so many crazy complications that kept surfacing. Let's be frank, sometimes its super hard to trust God with the unknown in our lives. Most of the time, and most days, nothing made sense to me. There were days, many days, I feared that my cancer would return. I didn't understand why my body was failing me. And I missed feeling healthy. And every where I turned, fear kept rearing its ugly head but I fought hard against it with prayer because I refuse to live my life governed by fear. In fact I know I don't have to live with fear or be governed by it because God's word says in 2 Timothy 1:7 ... For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline. During that season in my life, God used my friend Tony to help me remember this verse. In fact, every time I read this verse, it reminds me of him. Bless you Tony and thank you! And by the way, did you know that the Bible says "Fear not" 365 times? Yes! ... 365 times! I bet its written that many times because God knew in advance that the spirit of darkness would tempt us to live in fear. God not only calls us to live fearless lives but he encourages us many times over through his word in the tune of 365 times (verses). 

Here's what I've been learning about difficulties: When God does not remove a difficulty from our life, He's not punishing us. He allows difficulty to take place and He allows us to endure the difficulty for however long, to refine us, not define us. Read that sentence again if you have to. I've also learned that He provides us with just enough strength and grace and mercy to get us through our difficulties. I remember reading a quote several years ago that really stood out to me. You've probably read it too. The quote read: the only way out is through. Friends that is so true. Sometimes the only way to learn the lessons, or to become better, or to be refined is "through." There's no doubt that the difficulties in my life have shaped my character. I hope and pray that I'm becoming my best self and that I'm becoming the woman God created me to be because of them. Friends, life isn't always hard and it doesn't always have to be hard but when it is, lean on God. He wants us to be our best selves and He wants us to live our best lives. And He'll provide strength, grace and mercy for your journey. He also wants us to live our lives trusting Him for all things and believing Him for all things. I would be remiss if I didn't share this last thing with you. This is my final confession. My cancer journey helped me to discover things about myself, things that were good and honestly some things that weren't so good, things that I needed to work on. I'm working on them. I haven't overcome all of those things that need to be worked on but I can honestly say that I'm at least "aware" and honestly, in life sometimes, that's half the battle. Today, I'm doing the hard work of working through those things one at a time and as I'm getting "through," God is blessing me with enough grace until I overcome. I'm thankful for that. 

Friends, I'm so grateful for what I'm learning in life. Because of cancer, I've learned to live with gratitude in new and fresh ways. In spite of my imperfections, and in spite of hard days, I've learned to live EACH day with gratitude because its a gift that I'm even here today! Being diagnosed with cancer and living cancer-free and getting "through" has reminded me to cherish my life and to give God thanks in all things. Notice that I didn't say "for" all things but in all things. Cancer taught me to celebrate life in a new way. It reminded me that big moments are worth celebrating but it also taught me that small moments and small mile stones are worth celebrating too. When you're battling cancer, you quickly learn to celebrate small milestones. So today I live with gratitude and I live and love well. And my message to you today is to live with gratitude and to live and love well because life is a precious gift. Please allow my story to help you realize that life can change with a single phone call. Please allow my story to help you cherish your life in a new and fresh way. Laugh and celebrate big and small moments. Forgive and ask for forgiveness. And when you forgive, don't forget that its equally important to forgive yourself. Did you hear that dear one? Forgive yourself. Let yourself off the hook. I think sometimes the hardest person in life to forgive is yourself. Here's what I've learned about humanity and the wounds that we receive and the wounds that we cause: Hurt people hurt others. Sometimes its intentional and sometimes its not. If you've hurt someone, whether it was intentional or not, that action came from a place of pain. The symptom of pain is anger and your anger is what caused you to hurt another human being. And if you've been hurt, that action also came from a place of pain. Someone else had pain that they were carrying which surfaced in anger and caused them to hurt you either directly or indirectly, intentionally or not. I have to say that when I learned that, that was an aha moment for me and it helped me to forgive others and it also helped me to forgive myself. So choose forgiveness because healing always follows forgiveness. And when there is forgiveness there is peace. And when there is peace, you sleep better and life feels richer. When I was a teenager, my mother use to tell me that "God don't make no junk." And that's how she said it too. My mom has an adorable broken American-English accent. When my mother said those words to me, she was reminding me that in spite of my mistakes, I'm still a person of value. We're all people of value not because of our accomplishments or where we live or how we live but because of who we are. We're people of value because we were made by a holy God who loves us endlessly, and unconditionally, flaws and all. Let's mark that on our hearts today. 

A final note of gratitude:

Thank you Mom for reminding me that I'm a person of value regardless and for teaching me that people matter. Thank you for teaching me about God and Jesus whom I affectionately called "Papa Dios" when I was a little girl. Papa Dios means "Father God" in English. And thank you for being my caregiver during my cancer journey. Mama's are so special and you are one special lady. I'm so grateful and thankful that you were here with me. I felt less alone, more comfortable, and more loved. You prayed for me, you sat with me, you cooked for me, you cleaned for me, and you did my laundry. You took good care of me. I can't imagine having survived all of that without you. Thank you! And bless you. And a special thank you to my son Michael for hanging in there and for loving me and for helping in so many different ways and for remaining strong in the midst of our difficulty. We got through it! Thank you friends and family for your contribution during my cancer journey. It meant and still means so much to me. Your love, your prayers, your trips with me to the hospital, your visits, your cards and gifts and encouragement all made a difference. Thank you! And a BIG thank you to God, my Papa Dios for always being there, for being my comforter, my friend, my strength and my healer. I'm lost without you and any and all goodness in me today is because of you. God does some of His best work through people and it was during my cancer journey that I discovered how much my friends and family love me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for being the hands and feet of Jesus and for making a difference in my life, especially when I needed you. My cup runneth over ...   

Until next time,