That Time You Had Cancer -- Yep, you read that right.
I’m not a fan of the word journey. It is my opinion that pop culture, social media, and those wooden plaques at Hobby Lobby have abused the word by giving weighty meaning to actions that simply aren’t an expedition. Landscaping a yard or retiling a bathroom are no more a journey than when I walk my fifty-six pound golden retriever puppy around the block. Maybe there are old bricks in the ground or a pipe where you want to plant your azaleas? Maybe the grout is the wrong shade of white for your shower? Maybe I stepped in another dog’s mess while picking up my own dog’s? Aggravations? Yes. Journeys? No. Unless there’s a brigade of enemy fire on the next street over, and my dog and I face famine and a snowstorm as we risk our lives heading home, no journey was experienced in the making of my dog’s walk — or your garden or your shower.
But even this modern lingo skeptic recognizes that sometimes you don’t have to be an explorer or a pioneer to experience a journey. Road tripping with three children, getting a flat, and waiting for Triple A on the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere Alabama with one 20 oz. bottle of Dr. Pepper and a bag of Doritos to share between the lot of you? That could be the start of a journey.
As would cancer. If you’re open to it.
Recently, I was diagnosed with rectal cancer. The prognosis looks good. I appear to have caught it early and by accident. What appeared to be concerning, and led me to an approved complete colonoscopy, had absolutely nothing to do with the tiny tumor at the base of my bum. This week, I’ll have a big ass (pun intended) surgery and if the surrounding lymph nodes show no sign of cancer, I may even avoid chemotherapy. It’s a best case scenario, considering my circumstances and considering my only other experience with cancer was my father’s pancreatic cancer, which was horrific, heartbreaking, and traumatizing. That is not the journey I will be on. My gut knows this. My head knows this, and most of the time, my heart knows this too.
Still, I am tempted to raise my fist and cry out, “Why me? Why?” The week waiting for the results of the initial biopsies involved a lot of fist raising. Waiting for the results of scans and scopes and each poke and prod I have taken these last two weeks has also included a fair amount of despair and anger. Lots of anger. I have three young children. I’m only 42. While you’re on the corner chatting with the other moms after drop-off about your coconut shrimp air fryer recipe or the online sale at Lululemon, I’m figuring out how to tell my nine-year-old her mom has cancer.
Then I saw a small wooden sign in a history classroom where I was subbing one morning, the day after I knew I had cancer. “Embrace the journey,” the sign read. It probably came from Hobby Lobby. It was probably purchased to inspire sophomores to accept the challenge of World Geography with the same kind of spirit as Lewis and Clark. But that morning, that sign was my first sign that what’s ahead of me isn’t a death sentence or a reason to write a farewell blog, sign my will, and give up, or anything remotely defeatist. On the contrary, I have the opportunity to explore depths of myself I’ve never seen before, to learn just how strong I am, just how much I can carry, what I believe, what kind of person I want to be, and what truly matters to me. It’s a chance to lean on my husband and see love’s power. It’s a time when I can be an unforgettable example to my children of faith over fear. It is the embarkment on a journey that could take me from one seemingly happy place (now) to a position in life I never knew was possible (what comes after kicking butt cancer's butt). Great change begins in moments of great discomfort. We have thousands of stories to pull from, of people who persevered and triumphed over adversity.
So why not me?
Yet, I’ve discovered I’m an impatient patient, with all this time to sit and wait lately. Waiting for biopsy results, waiting to be seen by a doctor, waiting to muster the courage to say out loud, “I have cancer.” I never knew how hard it is to say that. It’s not like saying, “This is my husband,” for the first time while on your honeymoon at some Mexican beach bar and thinking how adult you sound. It’s not like peering down at a teeny tiny bundle and saying, “Hi, Baby. I’m your Mama” for the first time. For me, saying I have cancer feels dark, twisted, and alien. So, often I just say nothing.
I’m waiting for healing. I’m waiting to think about the future and really daydream with no “well, if this turns out the way I hope” strings attached. I’m waiting to not just say that I trust God, but to really feel it from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. And I’ll be honest, some days I don’t. I’m often scared, tempted by evil thoughts to not believe what my heart is telling me. And my heart is telling me that I see God in all of this. Not “hope” or “love” or “the universe” or any word I’ve ever used in this blog over these three-plus years to represent God, so as to not ruffle feathers. Not today, friends. Those feathers will smooth out. I mean, God, the one and only. The Big Guy. Yes, He is all up in this journey.
I see Him in the fact that my husband’s company, just two weeks before my diagnosis, went indefinitely virtual, allowing him to accompany me to all of my appointments and be home every day of my six week recovery. I see God in that my mother, my spiritual advisor, lives with me, near me, as I face cancer. I see God’s role in my oncologist. It just so happens that the oncologist recommended to me is the same one who took care of my dad, a doctor who comforts me, knows my family history, and who changed her schedule the instant she realized who I was and saw me immediately. I see God’s work in my surgeon. The top surgeon in town for my intricate procedure just happens to be good friends with a good friend. I see God in the ice storm that occurred this week and freed up slots for MRIs, scopes, CT scans, appointments with nutritionists, genetic counselors, and other doctors. My case is moving so swiftly, I can barely keep my head straight, whipping from one office to the next, and all because of that storm. And I even see God in those pesky seven pounds I’ve been griping about for the last year. They turned out to be a gift. In all the stress, I’ve lost those pounds and more and was told yesterday by my doctor that, had I not had the extra pounds, there would be concern about me being underweight. Go figure. No. Go God.
So here I am a living Hobby Lobby plaque. I’m not discovering new territories or mapping out new routes through the ocean, but I am charting out new places within me, and I like what I see. Things about me that were brought on by the cancer. Things I hope stick. The other day, The Girl’s ballet shoes were spread apart and abandoned in the living room, along with about ten fidgets, five scrunchies, and a fuzzy pen. As I gathered them up I thought, “Oh thank you God for this beautiful, messy daughter. I love her so much.” A month ago I’d have cursed under my breath as I tossed the crap on her bed. One morning last week, to rouse my sleepy kids on the way to school, I sang silly songs I learned at away camp, instead of staring blankly at the road and sipping my coffee. They exited the car laughing and my heart swelled. Last Sunday afternoon I willingly watched Godzilla movies with the boys. The kind where the English doesn’t match up with the actors’ lips and the special effects are, well, special. We ended up watching a series of really bad, but hilarious movie trailers like Killer Sofa. (Yes, a sofa with fangs and a vengeance. Remarkably, it is rated two out of five stars.) I’d have given those movies no more than a glance up and a courtesy laugh before the cancer. I’ve played board games when I’d normally be binge watching Netflix. I’ve held my husband’s hand and kissed him in public after seventeen years of feigning contempt for PDA.
But he has been my rock through this. He won’t cater to my fears and keeps me off Google. He refuses to let my faith slip under his watch, and what’s more, he makes inappropriate jokes on loop. I laugh a lot during cancer, and I owe that to him and his undying commitment to my happiness. My children are little warriors. They are leaning on their faith, something fierce. I can’t tell you how much comfort I take in that. So I ask more questions about their lives than usual. I let bedtime linger. I really, really listen to all of them, and it’s not because I think I’m going to die. It’s because when your world is shaken, you grab hold of that which means the most to you. Everything else falls to the wayside, and you realize how little you needed.
I know enough to know that I will be okay. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I say it takes a merry madcap band of an amazing husband, resilient kids, a wise mom, supportive sisters, a silly brother, devoted girlfriends, superb caregivers, and a strong faith to kick butt cancer in the butt. And I’ve got that. I am blessed. Science is on my side on this one, and God is in control. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, it says “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is in a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” I’m ready for the new. I am listening patiently for the new. I am watching intently for the new. And when I see it, I will follow. It is mine to embrace, and forge full steam ahead. It may not be the journey I had planned, but it may also be the journey I was born to live.
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