WHIZZ!! That's the quiet, rushing, white noise only heard in my mind's ear as life moved swiftly into each tomorrow. But, it did not start out that way.
Kindergarten…my Mom cried as I started my first day. How excited I was to be a big girl with a place to be and something to do! It seemed an eternity I waited to break out of the single digit age group and then…it finally arrived: ten years old – double digits!! I felt older, certainly more grown up. But, still I quickly looked to the next milestone. The wait to become a teenager seemed everlasting. Oh how life seemed to dillydally as it moved at a snail's pace. I crossed the thirteen-threshold only to wait in impatient anticipation for sixteen – glorious, free sixteen! I got my first car, a used silver Toyota Corolla which stretched my confining boundaries and gave life a new momentum. Yet, it still seemed to creep as high school demanded just two more years of me before reaching the premier adult year – the coveted eighteen!
WHIZZ!! The pace of life was quickening, but I barely noticed. I needed now to be twenty one. I needed to be validated and confirmed in the age group of "real adults." I needed to proudly display my ID with an indignant, almost defiant squaring of my shoulders to anyone who dared to think my appearance youthful.
BANG!! I swung my over-sized, ego-mallet against the gong of life. I watched in adoration as the ripples of my actions waved out from me and into and through others, leaving them effected by my presence. I proudly wielded my newfound impact, looking for ways to be somebody, to feel important. Life began to truly whiz by in my happy delusion that its break neck speed would simply go on forever.
BANG!! My precious first born came when I reached the age of thirty. He was a natural pathway on the road of a life with real meaning. His presence caused the ego-driven actions of my twenties to retire in place of a reverence for that which was of far greater importance than my self-love. He inspired self-sacrifice. My ears began to prick up to that rushing, white noise of time passing in my mind's ear…it was not so quiet anymore. My second precious gift from God was born. I now had two little markers of time, growing so fast I could hardly believe I ever thought it took eternity to span two years. When my third and final child was born, time was moving with such blinding speed that it felt as if I hardly allowed a week to pass since my previous birth.
God revealed that "bang" is merely a whisper. He delivered a BOOM!! in my life that equaled a force in excess of all the banging around I ever did in my lifetime. It came crashing down on me with the authoritative destruction of an atom bomb, dropping with irregular waves like thunder.
BOOM!! came the voice of the nurse as my milk-filled, nursing breasts leaked life's liquid gold on the mammogram machine. "I'm scared with you." she said solemnly. The mammogram revealed immediately that my right breast was riddled with calcification. The doctor and nurse sacrificed their Christmas lunch party to give me urgent attention and whisked me into an immediate biopsy. So it began…a seed of fear was planted and fertilized well on that day.
My nurse case manager delivered the confirming BOOM!! that solidified my suspicion that a life forever changed was barreling down the tracks at my wide-eyed and white-knuckled self. "You have Invasive Ductal Carcinoma…Breast Cancer" she said matter-of-factly. Like the metallic scent and prickly heat that lingers after a close lightening strike, my senses over-loaded and I was reduced to paralyzed silence. A vacuum of stunned inactivity that seemed ceaseless overcame me.
The whirlwind of appointments that ensued left me feeling like I had boarded a runaway train with no scheduled stops, no final destination. I was no longer in control of my own life, no longer cruising in willful ignorance of the reality that life is finite. My oncologist and surgeons mapped out a plan. Neo-adjuvant therapy…neo-adjuvant. Neo-what? What does that mean?! I had an urge to slow everything down so I could understand it better – procrastinate myself into a false sense of comfort. But, I was on the runaway train and I certainly was not the engineer. I was the reluctant passenger holding on tightly to my dear life!
Neo-adjuvant chemotherapy was planned in order to shrink the tumor prior to mastectomy. Just the week before my first infusion, Lifetime Movie Network played a movie written by Geralyn Lucas called, "Why I Wore Red Lipstick to My Mastectomy." In it a young woman like my self was battling for her life against breast cancer. The nurses brought out an IV bag of glowing green liquid labeled with the skull and crossbones symbol at her first infusion. My scared eyes searched for the same noxious concoction to be presented as my chemical weapon. But, mine arrived in two forms – one orange and one clear…no glowing green slime like the stuff ordinary people fall into and emerge with super-powers. I cried as it began to drip – each drop stinging my heart as I was helplessly subordinate to the destruction it would bring my body. The plan was in place and underway: Neo-adjuvant chemo, mastectomy and another round of chemo followed by radiation. After that, in my estimation, life would return to something almost normal.
It began with my hair…oh my hair. I wore it long for all of my 35 years. I assigned my attractiveness to its soft, shiny length. "Not everyone's hair falls out" my oncologist said in an effort to offer encouragement. I scheduled with my hairdresser to try that edgy bob I always admired, but never dared to venture. Heck – what did I have to lose? I would certainly hate the new style and welcome the baldness, wouldn't I? Nope. I loved it! I told my hairdresser I was upset with him for giving me a beautiful style that I enjoyed…for a mere three weeks. And then it was gone. All gone.
I continued to work and made every effort to do all that I could in the name of normalcy. Never in my life had I allowed myself to slow down. I am the type that takes multi-tasking to a new dimension. Free time is an unfamiliar set of four letter words in my vocabulary. But, cancer gives no consideration to your drive or compunctions.
Breast Cancer therapy served to deconstruct all that I defined as my femininity. My long hair, my breast, my eyelashes, steroids gave me unwanted weight, my nails took a beating and I could not get pedicures due to my compromised immune system. What was left?! Would my rear fall on the floor as one more part of me waving the white flag to cancer?? Thankfully, it never did. From the destruction, a new sense of self began to form. How valuable were those things – how effective at defining me as a woman?? A new me was brewing…
Chemo ended and my mastectomy came next. They removed my diseased tissue and placed a tissue expander in its place. I derived comfort from that bag of saline. I looked in the mirror at the mound that was strangely higher than the natural breast (and conspicuously missing a nipple) and felt a sense that everything would eventually be OK. I had mapped out the descent into the pit of despair that would accompany the treatment. By my approximation, the mastectomy was the bottom of that pit. Everything from there would be on the way out, no matter how physically demanding it might be.
"Your margins were not clear, April. Your tumor had spikes into your lower layers of skin. We have to remove the tissue expander and some of your skin. You will require a skin graft from your thigh." I felt like Alice In Wonderland falling, falling, falling down an endless pit. The weeks that followed that surgery found me feeling hopeless despair. I could not look in the mirror. I felt that all I had prepared myself to troop through was dashed and I was left with a hideous skin graft that resembled an ugly mix of spam and road kill.
I sat on the edge of my bed the day I worked up the nerve to look at the wound and cried tears from deep in my soul. My daughter, Moriah, came to me with great concern, "Mama – are you sad?!" "Yes, Mo – Mommy's owie is making me cry." And she hugged me with a long, deliberate squeeze. Then she peered with conviction in my eyes and told me, "Mama – you are making Jesus cry. And you have to STOP! And that's the Truth." It was like a light came on in the darkness I had allowed to grip my soul. God is never at a loss for getting His message heard. Through my daughter, He reached to me and I grabbed His hand for the climb out of the pit that day.
I managed to get through the second round of chemo. I approached radiation with the idea it would be the cake walk portion of the treatment. I came to the hospital every day for eight weeks, except weekends, for about 30 minutes of treatment. On my first day, I met a woman in the waiting area who was nearly done with her treatments. She told me, "I'll take chemo over radiation any day!" I could not understand such a notion. But – as I entered my fourth week of treatment, I began to get it. As horrible as the radiation burns became, complete with open and oozing wounds, in just two short weeks after completion my skin was healed with only a somewhat darker shade as a remnant of the procedure. And during the treatments, my hair began to grow back! Life was going to be OK – I was going to be OK!
September 11 is the day I was born as a breast cancer survivor. A day of infamy infused with brand new meaning, a day worth celebrating!
I have told you my story, the process. But what I left out must be communicated. I cycled through emotions of fear, anger, confusion and despair and spent varying amounts of time wallowing in each one over and over again.
There are several keys to surviving the battle with cancer and emerging from it a whole and happy woman:
1) Draw close to those whom you love and love you. Allow them to come and do things for you. Their acts of service allow them to feel a part of the battle and allow you to give your body the break it needs while it fights to overcome the disease.
2) Save the cards, notes, emails and gifts people will send to encourage you. It became a treasure chest of positivity for me. A place to be reminded that I was not battling alone. I had prayer warriors across the US petitioning the Lord for my healing.
3) Allow yourself to experience the negative emotions and reach out to your closest friends and family to let those feelings out. Cry, be angry, admit you are scared. Holding it in and putting on a façade that everything is manageable is counter-intuitive to the
healing your body is trying to perform. No one can endure the battle of cancer in a state of constant joy. It is human and acceptable to experience moments of defeat. The key is not to dwell there.
4) If you have a relationship with the Lord, draw nearer to Him than ever before by reading His word constantly. Just as in the book of Daniel, God will walk through the fire with you. Cancer will be the tool He uses to grow you in Him and He gives the strength you need when you keep your heart focused squarely on Him.
5) Talk openly about your cancer, even to your children. My son was five at diagnosis and we did not spare him the truth. He eagerly listened and gathered all the information we could give him. He was part of the battle and is proud to fight with me. My three year old, Moriah, found ways to be a part of the team as well. Sometimes offering me a hug and kiss out of nowhere and telling me, "That will make your cancer feel better."
6) You can't always look healthy through the treatments. Going in public bald or showing other signs that you are engaged in war can give you the opportunity to share invaluable awareness with someone. You may be the image that sticks in their head when they decide to do their first Breast Self Exam. You never know how you may positively impact someone by allowing your battle to be seen.
Crazy, Sexy Cancer warrior Kris Carr said, "Why, when we are challenged to survive, do we give ourselves permission to truly live?" Let's not spend a long time exploring the answer to that question and immediately get down to the business of living. Cancer sharpens your ability to discern what is important. Cut out the stuff that is not – the stuff that causes anxiety or stress. Life's one priority is survival! And no one can discount the unstoppable life force within each of us that finds a way to overcome, even in the face of a seemingly impossible situation like cancer.
WHIZZ, BANG, BOOM! Life is so unpredictable, crazy, fast and yet slow at times. Can it be that I have settled into a precarious friendship with my breast cancer? I believe so. It has served to slow my pace to savor the moments I used to sail through. It has given me a love and appreciation for the moments I can not control. Breast Cancer taught me to choose joy which in turn fosters hope. Breast Cancer caused a light to shine in me that was never present before. It is now my purpose in life to truly live!