Fragile: Handle With Care

Thirty three years ago, we brought home our firstborn. Confident in my ability to care for an infant, after all, I was a nurse with some experience in the newborn nursery; I went about my motherly duties as if I were a pro. I mastered the “football hold” of sticking my little one’s head under running water for a daily shampoo without getting water in his ears.  Instead of disposable diapers I opted for the diaper service and quickly learned to change diapers with the speed and precision of a Nascar pit crew! Two weeks into motherhood, my confidence was shaken when my precious little one contracted a cold. How could this be? I had done everything right and kept him at home, even limiting visitors to keep down the possibility of infections in the first tender month of life. As I remember it, my husband came home with a cold and, well, you know the rest of the story. Arriving at the pediatrician’s office, the first thing I remember him saying as he entered the exam room was “Well, it didn’t take you long to make him sick!” Not exactly what to say to a new mother as I burst into tears explaining how my perfect mothering skills had been thwarted by my husband’s cold.

Six weeks into chemo, my skills have once again been thwarted by a nasty cold. It certainly didn’t take me very long to get sick! How could this be?  I had taken every precaution. I washed my hands at least a hundred times a day. I stopped shaking hands and giving hugs at church to minimize the possibility of contracting something. I washed raw food with soap and water before eating it. I kept my distance from everyone. I wore disposable gloves to pump gas and kept hand sanitizer in my purse. Still, even with my best efforts, somehow I contracted a cold. What I wasn’t prepared for was how severe a cold is for someone on chemo. I should have the words “Fragile: Handle With Care” stamped on my forehead!  Because chemo suppresses the body’s defense mechanisms, my body is in a constant state of fragility. Something that I could previously have endured with little more than a runny nose and maybe a few sneezes suddenly is a major event, relegating me to bed for days unable to do anything due to weakness. My body now takes longer to begin healing and healing is slower than I have ever experienced. 

Sometimes, even with our best efforts, things happen. Even with my best mothering skills, my infant got sick. And, despite my best efforts at keeping germs and viruses at bay, one slipped in. My body is fragile right now because of chemotherapy but my spirit remains strong. Even in my moments of weakness, when I wondered how much more my body could endure, there was a deep assurance that God had not abandoned me. 

Faith is trusting in God regardless of what God is allowing to happen in our lives. The Apostle Paul knew this well. He learned to trust God even in the midst of hardship. He was content with whatever came his way. He endured a “thorn in his side” that God did not remove. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes it clear that our weaknesses are to be used for God’s glory: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness…for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  I am fragile but God is handling me with great care!

Shedding

Velvet

Velvet

Over the years, Gary and I have shared our home with many cats so I feel like I am an expert on the subject of shedding…especially when it comes to cat hair!  One of our kitties, Velvet, was a prolific shedder! Velvet was everything her name implied. She was jet black with a tiny white spot on her tummy. Her fur was as soft as velvet and shiny as a new penny. But lurking under that fabulous top coat was an undercoat, softer than down, which, was always shedding in what seemed like giant clumps! These furry balls seemed to have supernatural powers which enabled them to cling to every surface. I know what you are thinking – why not just comb this cat to dislodge the undercoat and problem solved?  Not so fast my friends!  Combing was helpful but, the very next day, more furry patches would appear on the carpet, sofa, bed, and everywhere else Velvet decided to lie during her 22 hours of sleep each day! Velvet has since gone to kitty heaven which I thought would solve my war on shedding. Think again.

Once again, I have become an expert on shedding, only this time, it is my hair that can be found on every surface around the house. Some chemo medications cause you to lose your hair. In my case, Adriamycin and Cytoxan are the culprits. In preparation for this, I asked my beautician to cut my hair super short. Then my chemo schedule had to be pushed forward so my hair grew before my first chemo. After my second chemo treatment, my scalp became extremely sore; too sore to touch. Once the soreness set in, my hair started falling out; first in single hairs, then in huge clumps. Sleeping became difficult because it hurt to lie down. But the worst part is the loose hairs, everywhere and in everything. I’ve tried to keep them contained under my little snood (this is the name for those slouchy hats chemo patients wear) but they just keep finding a way to get loose! I thought about having my hair buzzed off but my scalp has just been too sore. So morning and evening, I grit my teeth and run my fingers through my hair to dislodge as many as possible and contain them in the trash.

The physical pain of hair loss is very real. But, the psychological pain has been, at times, almost suffocating. I know it sounds vain, but my hair has always been a part of my identity as a woman. I was able to accept turning prematurely gray; in fact, I flaunted it! But losing one’s hair is in a different league than having a headful of gray ones. The first time I mustered up the nerve to face myself in the mirror after most of my hair had fallen out I experienced a visceral, gut reaction. I didn’t recognize the woman staring back at me. Suddenly I felt very different, as if my exterior had been subverted overnight. I tried to hide my bald head from my husband because I felt so unattractive. Deep in my innermost being I have always known that hair, like clothes, is nothing more than window dressing. But when you lose the window dressing, it tests you. There is a voice that tries its best to tell you that you are broken, defeated.  My faith says otherwise.

My hair is a part of me but it doesn’t define who I am. The real me is inside. Under the surface I am the same person I was before cancer. God says I am beautiful, just as I am.  I am far more than the sum of my exterior. My true identity is that of God’s beloved child, hair or no hair. I am strong, beautiful, and whole because God has created me in God’s image. I am not broken. And nothing, not even cancer, can steal that promise from me.

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful,  I know that full well.”  Psalm 139:14

Daily Bread

Growing up on a farm, I’ve had a lot of experience with waiting. Farming is as much about timing and patience as it is about planting and harvesting. On the farm there are four seasons: planting, growing, harvesting and waiting. I am sure you are familiar with the first three seasons; however, the season of waiting is not as well defined as it intermingles itself in and around the other seasons.  It is a time mixed with anticipation, wonder, watchfulness, and dormancy.  After we plant the seeds we then must wait for them to burst open the doors of their prisons, their tiny heads fixated toward the sunlight. Each type of seed has a different waiting period before it bursts forth and you must be patient not to scratch the ground too soon looking for that first little escapee; otherwise, you will disturb its delicate root system sending the seedling to an early grave. Waiting for harvesting is particularly frustrating. I can hardly wait to pull that first tomato. As soon as there is an inkling of pink, I circle like a hawk waiting for the kill, my mouth drooling in anticipation as the pink color creeps over the first side, then the next, until it finally engulfs the entire sphere and its color changing from pink to bright red. Pulling the tomato too soon results in a half ripe tomato which then must be ripened in the window sill, forever changing the taste. Everyone knows the best flavor comes when the tomato is allowed to ripen on the vine. But…to get that glorious taste…we must wait.

Life with cancer is filled with seasons of waiting. Even before any treatment can begin, one must wait what seems like an eternity for appointments with specialists: surgeon, radiologist, oncologist, geneticist and so forth. Pathology reports take at least a week to arrive in your surgeon’s inbox while your mind rehearses every possibility that you’ve been able to ascertain from the internet. Every week you nervously wait on lab reports that determine if you can have another chemo treatment, risk eating a salad, go out in public, or if you’re confined at home on lockdown. After a chemo treatment, you wait for the dreaded side effects to set in: gastrointestinal ailments of all kinds, joint pain, weakness, low blood counts, headache or other insults to your body that you’ve read about, been warned about, and now wait to see if they will happen. There is the waiting for your hair to fall out but that’s another story. On a much larger scale, there is the waiting to see if the cancer will return. This is my second cancer journey. Five years ago I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Still waiting.

All of life is filled with waiting. I think that’s why Jesus taught us to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.”  We are to depend on God for just what we need for one day. Nothing more. We are to pray for our needs for this day, trusting that God will provide all that is required to navigate the day’s challenges. In our praying, waiting is no longer the enemy but a vehicle through which God speaks.  As we wait, seeds sprout, tomatoes ripen, and God sustains us in ways beyond our capacity to understand. It all begins with “our daily bread.”

Lemonade

I love lemonade. My favorite is the diet lemonade at Chick-fil-a. Several years ago I got hooked on it and since then it has been a special delight. The only problem is that the lines at Chick-fil-a are so long that I usually just skip going there altogether. So…I’ve learned that other lemonades are a close second, especially Crystal Light, and I can make that at home and carry it with me to work, thus eliminating the waiting in line at Chick-fil-a. Sometimes you just have to make the best of a situation, even if it’s not exactly what you want.

For the past five months, there have been a lot of lemons in my life. To begin with, my mother died in December from leukemia. She fought a good fight for eight long months; at one point, we thought she had achieved remission but it was only a temporary stay of five short weeks. When her leukemia came back, it came back with a vengeance as most cancers do when they recur, and none of the chemotherapeutic agents would touch it. I miss her. Grieving over the death of a loved one comes in waves, especially over the course of the first year. Some of the big waves you expect and you survive them; others come when you least expect them. Some of the waves knock you down; others gently wash over you, but all are filled with memories and a sense of loss. I am in my “year of firsts” as I experience all of life’s milestones for the first time without my mother. My birthday was especially hard as it was the first time in my life that I didn’t get a card from mom. And Mother’s Day is right around the corner. I am already bracing myself for this big wave.

Before I could even find time to grieve for mom, I found the lump in my breast – in mid-January to be exact.  More lemons.  It felt like being hit over and over with a hard ball as I’ve endured one test after the other, two surgeries, and the suffocating news of the final diagnosis. For once, I am glad that my mother isn’t here because my illness would have worried her too much.

Last week, my father was placed in Hospice care. Right now, he’s still at home with multiple caregivers. I’ve known this was coming for some time as dad has been slowly “melting away,” much like a snowman does as the temperature rises above freezing. First the carrot nose falls off, followed by the rocks that have been carefully placed to form eyes, mouth, and, of course, the buttons. Then the perfectly round shapes that form the body become uneven as the temperature continues to rise.  Bit by bit, dad’s functioning and cognitive abilities are leaving. I’ve not been able to spend much time with him recently due to my surgeries; then he caught a cold and developed an infection both necessitating that I stay away. Now, he doesn’t know me any longer. More lemons.

Last week I passed two little girls with a lemonade stand in their front yard. It was spring break and they were excited to get an early start on their summer project. Of course I stopped and purchased a cup. They used the good stuff – Crystal Light. Drinking my lemonade, I was reminded of whose I am. I belong to God. Cancer does not define who I am. I am a beloved child of The Almighty!

Cancer wants all of your time. It demands your attention with the doctor visits, the chemo treatments, the entire pharmacy of medications that you have to take to keep the side effects at bay. Every time I look in the mirror I am reminded that I have cancer. More lemons. If you let it, cancer will consume you. So what do we do when life gives us lemons?  Make lemonade, of course!

Pastor Debra's Journey through Breast Cancer

When I was six years old, our family moved into a new house. It was absolutely the most exhilarating thing that had happened in my six short years! For weeks prior to the move, I was giddy with excitement, imagining the wonders of my new pink bedroom decked out with new furniture. No one else in the family was getting new furniture – just me – so you can understand the complete ecstasy that had overtaken my childlike senses! My new room was at the end of the hall, a graduation of sorts, as I was now old enough to be away from the constant watchful eye of my parents. There was just one small glitch in the plan: my twelve year old brother’s room was beside mine and I could, on occasion, hear what he was up to in his room. “Boy noises” I liked to call them. Nonetheless, my new room proved to be everything I had imagined until one night I heard a bump… followed by another bump. Not just a little bump but a GREAT BIG BUMP; the kind of noise that makes a six year old certain that someone or something is creeping down the hall with nefarious intentions. For weeks, every time I went to bed, I heard the bumps until finally, I could no longer contain my fright and I began screaming for help. Of course, as soon as my mother started down the hall to see what on earth the matter was, the bumps ceased. This was repeated over and over. Pretty soon, Debra was in a heap of trouble, that is, until my mother, in her wisdom, figured out that my brother was responsible for the mysterious “bumps in the night!” For years to come, every time I heard any sort of bump in the night, my heart would begin to race as my mind took me back to the terror of my sixth year.

Earlier this year, the bump in the night returned; but this time, it appeared as two small dimples and a lump in the side of my breast. Once again, my heart began to race and I was immediately transported back to my childhood memories of a threat slowly but methodically making its way toward me. This time, however, it wasn’t a brotherly joke. This time it was a cruel twist of fate.  I had done everything a woman should do to prevent breast cancer. In my mind I rehearsed all the ways I had taken proper care of myself: regular checkups, weight under control,  exercise,  breast feeding my babies.  After a host of testing, surgery to remove the tumor and a lymph node biopsy, my husband and I are sitting in the oncologist office hearing that I have stage III metastatic breast cancer.  My heart raced. I wanted to throw up. I had to tell myself to breathe. Numbness set in. This was bigger than any bump in the night.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Cancer makes you vulnerable both physically and emotionally. Your body has been invaded. Your life is turned upside down and inside out. Suddenly you are weaker than you ever thought possible. But in the midst of weakness and vulnerability, in the terror of bumps in the night, I have found peace. It is the grace that Christ gives. I am surrounded by people who are supporting me and praying daily for my healing. Beloved friends in Christ have shaved their heads in solidarity. Whatever my needs are for the day, Christ has exceeded them. In my vulnerability, Christ’s power has been made visibly plain for others to see. “Therefore I am content with weakness; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Glory to God!

 

    From goulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties
    And things that go bump in the night
    Good Lord, deliver us!

This was recorded in The Cornish and West Country Litany, 1926