Tuesday
Aug122014

Backpacks, Cancer Treatment, and Metaphors

My dad recently wrote me a beautiful metaphor describing his prayer for me.  He wrote, “I do not want cancer to be this massive backpack that weighs you down and keeps you from the adventures you enjoy. What I'm praying for is a small day pack that allows you to go and do everything you want to and often forget about carrying.”

I have been grappling with how to process the most recent development in my health journey, and this sweet prayer has helped me to clarify my approach.  For my “day pack” has been packed by my Savior and has everything I could need for the adventures he has for me. 

When my new doctor told me that I needed to have a new port placed and to begin receiving infusions of Herceptin every three weeks for the rest of my life, I was pretty daunted and disappointed.  I drove home that day feeling weighed down with the enormity of it all.  Another surgery?!  Treatment for the REST OF MY LIFE?! Figuring out what to do with my three boys every three weeks while I drive into San Francisco?!  And Lord, what if it still makes me sick for 24 hours like it used to?! My prayers were a staccato of worry and frustration…and relief.  As much as I didn’t want to do any of it, there was enormous relief in the knowledge that I would be doing everything medically possible to keep me from having to face cancer again.  None of us are guaranteed tomorrow, but this would give me my best chance.  

My cancer backpack definitely felt massive that day; underneath the worry, frustration, and relief was a heaviness at the knowledge that once again cancer, or preventing cancer, was going to dictate my schedule, my life, my abilities.  

But then I started really researching Herceptin (it’s a beautiful miracle of science), and I’m once again reminded how completely God is working all things together for my good.  You see, just like my dad’s metaphor, what Herceptin does in my body is also a beautiful metaphor for what the Holy Spirit does in my soul.  Breast cancer is, after all, part of me.  With an original diagnosis like mine, my disease is presently considered managed, but never in remission.  My breast cancer cells are my cells just like my healthy cells are.  Cancer is unique in that it is not a disease I’ve caught from an outside source.  It’s my own cells doing the wrong thing and taking over the cells that are doing the right thing, and my rare and aggressive kind of breast cancer cells are incredibly good at reproducing and killing my good cells.  Herceptin finds those breast cancer cells, attaches itself to them, and signals my immunity cells to come attack them while simultaneously blocking the cancer cells’ ability to communicate with other cells and reproduce.  Herceptin is taking down any breast cancer cells that try to show their faces, therefore allowing my healthy cells to flourish and my immunity cells to do their job with heightened effectiveness.  

The Holy Spirit is doing the same work in my soul.  He is finding all of the pieces of me that are not working right—fear, doubt, worry, anxiety, impatience, selfishness—and he is signaling the other parts of me to take those out and block them from reproducing and taking over the supernatural parts of me—faith, patience, selflessness, love, peace, joy. 

I am not perfect.  I never will be.  The Holy Spirit will not stop working on my soul.  At this point, it also looks like I’ll never be completely done with cancer treatment while I’m on this earth.  But that’s really ok, because I am believing Philippians 1:6 for my soul and my body: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”

Thank you, Daddy, for your beautiful prayer.  My cancer day pack has come to hold peace, joy, love, faith, and strength that are not dependent on my circumstances.  It is not heavy or massive; it is a sign that God has prepared me for a longer journey, in this life or the next.

My prayer for all of you is that you can see the gifts that come from what is weighing you down.  May your struggles prepare you for the work God has for you.  May you embrace the truth of Isaiah 40:31: “But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”    

 

Wednesday
Jun042014

Lies

Satan has a few favorite lies he likes to tell me, because he knows they will work.  They are especially successful at grabbing hold of my mind when I am physically diminished.  And they are frustratingly hard for me to fight, particularly because they are so familiar.  They start out as quiet little whispers inside my thoughts and grow until they are louder than most of the reality around me:

 

You are small.  You are worthless.  You are ugly.  You are damaged.  Your losses are too great for you to recover. Who are you now that they've chipped away more of your body and your identity?

 

My frustration over these lies is multi-faceted.  I hate how self-focused they are.  I despise the inward direction, because they distract me from the wonderful people right in front of me.  They create in me a sort-of twisted vanity, because I am thinking of myself (albeit unkindly) more than I am thinking of others, therefore making it much less likely that I will reach out to someone when they need it.  I also hate that their familiarity doesn't immediately help me recognize their falsehood.  Shouldn't I be able to disregard them immediately since I've battled them so many times before?  There are times when I am better at the fight.  When I am reading scripture, communing with other believers, and spending my time in service to others and God, I truly am less likely to even hear the lies much less believe them.  But when I am, say, recovering from surgery and my contribution to society consists of taking pain meds and resting a lot, the lies find their home in my heart rather easily.

 

Fortunately, I am not alone in this battle.  While I wish I was quicker to remember this each time, the Holy Spirit's presence in my soul does help me to recognize these lies for what they are.  In fact, over the past two years, I believe he has given me some reliable weapons against them.

 

I use the weapon of gratitude to combat self-pity.  When I feel broken or crushed by my losses, I count my blessings.  This sounds cliche', but it is vital to not slipping into despair.  My husband, my boys, my family, my friends, my students, my salvation, my health, my passions, my love of nature and books and food and movies all far outweigh any of my complaints.  And even if all of my list disappeared (which I cannot even fathom), I know that my salvation from eternal death and promise of eternal life would still be enough to cause me to praise God.  For even after Paul lost EVERYTHING, he said, "to live is Christ, to die is gain" (Phil. 1.21).

 

I use the weapons of joy and truth to combat insecurity and self-doubt.  The truth is that even on my darkest days, God gives me at least one moment when my heart overflows with joy.  When I woke up from this last surgery, I was in intense pain.  The nurses were working hard to find the right combo of pain meds to give me relief, and Ryan was holding my hand and trying to distract me.  It wasn't until around 2:00am the next morning that I started to feel a break from the pain, but during those long hours, I had to keep telling Ryan to stop making me laugh because it hurt.  My sweet husband's sense of humor has given every trial we've been through a level of light-heartedness that has often baffled the medical professionals around us. In those hours before I felt relief, this filled me with joy and reminded me that joy is God's gift to me because he loves me. How can I doubt myself when the God of the universe gives me such beautiful gifts during storms of pain?

 

And the truth I have been using to fight my insecurity is fairly new.  As I stand in front of the mirror and examine my new and very intense scars, I have stopped seeing my body as mangled.  Instead, I see the map of survival.  My body has made it through NINE surgeries these last two years!  That is so impressive.  God has brought me back to health NINE times!  So even though I have been discouraged by how slow this new recovery has gone, I can see the proof in my older scars that I will heal.  And how can I not see the beauty in my body, when every gash is a testimony to God's healing?  Even my not-flat-enough stomach is evidence that God has blessed me with the ability to carry three boys into this world.  I have started to see the strength represented in each stitch and stretch instead of the "damage."

 

Finally, I use the weapon of what the Bible says about who God is to combat all the other lies.  The truth is, the first lie is not a lie at all.  I really am small.  When Job finally gives into his friends and asks God why all of this turmoil has befallen him, God doesn't really answer his question.  Instead, God gives Job a glimpse of His power and workings in the universe (Job 39-41 are a truly awe-inpsiring read).  Job answers, "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted...Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know" (Job 42:2-3).  I am really small in the big picture of God's power and his plan for the universe, but I have gotten to benefit from the most beautiful part of his plan: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).  While I am small, I am not worthless.  In fact, God deemed that I was worth Jesus' life.  

 

In light of Satan's most recent attack on my heart, I have realized a new weapon: preparedness.  I know that Satan is going to come for me when I am weak and tired, and so I can prepare myself with scripture, communing with fellow believers, and spending my time in service to others and God.  I can ask forgiveness for not clinging to gratitude, joy, truth, and what the Bible says about God at the first hint of these lies and move forward in the light of those gifts from the God who loves me and would never lie to me.

 

May God protect you from the lies that easily find their way in your heart.  May you cling to gratitude, joy, truth, and scripture.  And may you see yourselves as beautiful, vitally important children of God.

 

Tuesday
May062014

How am I really doing?

 

 

I'm sure that most of you have been updated through my facebook, but I thought I'd start with an update and some explanation.  I had a small reconstruction procedure in January that was supposed to be a simple last step to the whole reconstruction process.  Ever since then, I have not been able to heal from the wound on my left side.  I've gone from disappointment and frustration to resigned acceptance as I've tried various methods to help the healing process, eventually starting wound therapy up at our local hospital.  While this has been inconvenient, it really hasn't gotten in the way of me living like a healthy person, and I have been so thankful for that. 

Last Tuesday, I woke up in the middle of the night in lots of pain.  I went up to the wound clinic in the wee hours of the morning, and through various phone calls and visits to doctors that day, I ended up in front of my plastic surgeon on Wendesday afternoon (thanks to my sweet daddy who dropped everything to take me to Medford and my superwoman gramma who dropped everything to watch Sawyer and Everett--Liam was worried about me and came with us).  By this time I was feverish, in intense pain and very obviously sick.  My normally optimistic surgeon told me, "This is really bad."  And so, into the hospital I went to be put on IV antibiotics and regular pain meds (yuck and phew!)  Ryan made the trip from San Franscisco in record time and was with me by late Wednesday night!

Over the next few days, I truly felt like I was in a battle.  Sometimes the antibiotics and I would be winning and I would feel so much better; sometimes the infection was definitely winning and I would feel wiped out.  But, on Saturday, God used the antibiotics to get the better of that darn infection, and they let me out to enjoy the romantic birthday weekend Ryan had planned before all this happened.  For 24 hours, Ryan did an amazing job of spoiling me rotten and distracting me everytime the despair would threaten to overwhelm me.  We laughed, because it felt a lot like when we sometimes are trying to hold off an impending melt-down with the boys by pointing out pretty stuff and handing them candy (which NEVER really happens, because we would never bribe our kiddos into good behavior with candy;-)

The sense of despair and doom comes from the fact that next Monday I have to undergo a surgery called a latissimus dorsi flap surgery.  I consulted with all of the doctors who have helped me battle cancer, and they agree that this is the best and perhaps only choice in moving forward.  As soon as I heard that I had a dangerous infection, I requested that they just take out the left implant and be done with it.  I know that I would have to grapple with the self-esteem issues that would arise with that, but I definitely did not and DO not want to go through major surgery again.  But the real problem is not trying to make sure I have what looks like a left breast; the real problem is that the skin on my left side has been so damaged by the radation that there's not much hope it will ever heal.  There's no blood supply, so there can't be any healing either (I'm sure there's an awesome metaphor in there somewhere...stay tuned:-)

The LAT FLAP surgery will create a new source of blood supply to my left side, giving me the best chance of ultimate healing.  So after much prayer, Ryan and I decided we agreed with the doctors.  Unfortunately, I know what this means: I know the pain that is in store for me through these next few months; I know what this will do to my loved ones, even though they are happy to be there for me; I know this means relying on everyone around me to meet my needs and my sons' needs; I know this means my husband having to serve me in hard ways, which he always does valiantly; I know that I will need to be brave and strong when I feel like my resevoir of those qualities is used up instead of stored up.

Fortunately, I know what this also means.  I know that I am never closer to my Lord or more comforted by his Spirit than when everything else--especially my health--is stripped away.  The instensity of my reliance on him is never stronger than in times of pain and dependence.  And this knowledge helps me to keep pushing forward.  

I also know that God never stops giving me reasons for joy, even when things are a bummer.  I have the best family and friend support in the world!  Every time the nurses came into my hospital room, they said, "Wow! It's a party in here!" because I had so many visitors (all the way from Klamath!)  I got balloons, flowers, gift cards, and--best of all--tons of encouragement through emails, phone calls, and texts.  My husband loves me like crazy, my boys think I'm amazing, and my family is ready to help in any way I need.  I am so blessed.

One of my dearest friends, Denise, emailed me this verse that I am claiming as my own through the next few months: "And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:7).

May you all feel this peace as you pass through your own valleys of pain and fields of joy.

Tuesday
Apr222014

TV shows and pillars of salt

I love TV, movies, Entertainment Weekly, People Magazine, YA novel series (I said that one in a whisper), and awards shows.  Ever since my much younger days when my brothers and I religiously watched Rugrats, I have had 3-5 shows that I loyally watch, and I’m definitely prone to binge reading a series of books in a few days that prove teenage girls are our only hope if the world falls apart (just finished the Divergent trilogy).  Just like my mama before me, I can tell you all about the social lives of celebrities and their movie resumes as well as a movie’s behind-the-scenes trivia.  I’m not sure where this fascination comes from, but I admit it—the entertainment business really entertains me.  

Two months into my stint as a mostly single mama, though, I am finding that I simply don’t have time for all of this.  The detectives of Law & Order: SVU have had to struggle on without me, and I have a mountain of unread magazines by my bed.  Not to mention that I haven’t even watched one single episode of this round of The Voice!  My TV thrills have come solely from wondering if Doc McStuffins will save her toys, as Disney Junior has become a very handy assistant in helping me distract my sons when I need to get something done. 

Therefore I have gone through an unintentional entertainment detox that I’m starting to think I may have desperately needed.  That coupled with reading three life-changing books (Love Does, More or Less, and Forgotten God) over the last few months has challenged me to ask myself in what ways I need to purify my life.  This has led me to then ask the even harder question: does my life look any different from the lives of those without Christ? 

I believe that, yes, overall it does.  But I do not think I have been as diligent or intentional as I need to be.  Recently, in a delayed-New-Year’s-resolution fury, I started reading the Bible from the very beginning.  I realized that pretty much ever since I had children, my Bible reading had become very sporadic and nonsensical.  I opened the Word and read it wherever my finger landed.  This isn’t necessarily bad, but it also meant that I was forgetting a lot of the stuff in there.  Many sermons or other people’s blog posts would make me wonder, “That’s in the Bible?!” I felt convinced I needed to figure that out for myself. 

Honestly, it has been one surprise after another, and I’m only in Genesis.  I was a lot younger the last time I read through Genesis, and I definitely don’t remember ever thinking that many of the stories applied to me.  I didn’t feel in danger of pretending Ryan was my brother in order to save my life or offering up my children to the horny men in my village in order to save my angel houseguests (Genesis 12:14-20 & 19:6-8).  The people in the beginning of the Bible were two-dimensional “heroes of faith” or “villains”, and their actions were puzzling. 

Lot’s story in particular always struck me as plain weird (Genesis 19).  God decides to destroy the evil cities, Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham pleads with God to spare the city if as many as ten righteous men can be found.  God agrees, but unfortunately, not even ten remain in the city walls.  But God does show mercy by sending two angels to go fetch Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family.  Lot tries to convince his daughter’s fiancés to escape with them, but the men laugh at Lot and remain in the city.  Right as Lot and his family walk out of the city walls, everything and everyone is destroyed.  Oh, and Lot’s wife looks back at the destruction and is turned into a pillar of salt.  Like I said—weird. 

Many thoughts clung to me this time through.  First of all, Lot did not seem all that righteous or worthy of saving.  I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s never been an admirable thing to offer your daughters up as sex slaves.  Realizing this helps me to recognize that it is not about Lot’s righteousness, but God’s mercy.  Also, the people in Lot’s life were not at all convinced by his pleas to save them.  They laughed at him and thought he was joking.  This shows me that Lot had not led a life that moved others to trust him.  Even though God chose to save him, perhaps for Abraham’s sake, Lot had let his surroundings mold him instead of the other way around. 

I recognize myself more often than I would like in this and other Genesis stories.  The themes of the people’s lives resonate with my own struggles and triumphs.  I, too, have daily opportunities to act out of fear or trust in God; I, too, need to choose to show my allegiance to God and not the world; and I, too, need to recognize that even in my “heroic” moments, God is the true hero of my story.  It really is never about my righteousness; it is always about his mercy. 

I am truly not sure how this will affect my choices about what I watch and read once I have more time to conscientiously make those choices (or maybe I won’t have “more time” until the boys leave the house and this will all be a non-issue for awhileJ), but I do know that I am feeling very convicted that I want my life to point to the Holy Spirit’s work in me, from the entertainment I pursue to the way I spend my money.  I want to live a life that so clearly points to God as my hero that if I told you all to leave your city and save yourselves, you would believe me. 

And yet, I know that I am very much a work in progress.  Because even as I am seeking to figure out what actionable changes this will mean for my life, I am a lot like Lot’s wife, looking longingly backward at The Bachelor and wondering if there’s a way to keep that around.  Perhaps I’m still just a pillar of salt. 

So, I invite your wise thoughts into this issue of being in the world and not of it.  I know I have definitely not landed on any solid conclusions, and I would love to know how you all navigate following God in a fallen world.  How does it affect what you watch? Buy? Do with your time? 

Wherever you fall on these issues, may you feel filled with the one who is truly the hero of all our stories.  May you feel rescued by a God who has pulled us from destruction.  And may you see that Jesus came in order that we “may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).   

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Mar112014

A letter to Grief

Sweet Grief, 

 

            I shrink from you and welcome you

            as a reminder of the beauty that once filled the hole in my heart.

            For at the start, dear Grief, you were my only connection to the life I had before

            I was torn apart.

 

            On that day, when she went away—never to play again on earthly piano keys—

            My heart’s cry became, “Please, Lord, please: peace, release, make the pain cease.”

 

            But it doesn’t stop; instead there’s a change

            and a surprising range of forms and shapes you take.

            And honestly, your fluidity, the way you rake across and shake my soul,

            makes me wish I could toss you to oblivion

            and close this hole

            for good.

 

            But would I really want you gone?

            You know, move on?

            Like some books say I should?

 

            What would forgetting be like?

            Setting my mind free from the spike of loss

            might actually be nice.

 

            But immediately I know the price would slice away too much of

            my life.

            I am the wife, mama, sister, friend I am because of her;

            every truth would start to blur without the anchor of her hand in writing my

            story:

            God’s glory in the face of pain would dim for me if I pushed you away

            just to allay this season of aching.

 

            So with quaking spirit, I accept it: here we are. 

            You pound on my scar, and yet—oh Grief—I will not deny your place.

 

For you stay

because she lived with grace.

 

Sincerely,

Caitlyn