Category Archives: Breast Cancer

Reflection on my first “Cancerversary”

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About this time one year ago, I was headed home from a church council meeting when I received a call from “Unknown.” On a hunch I pulled over and took the call. It was my primary  care physician–bless her–with the news I had already been steeling myself to receive. “Your biopsies were positive,” she said.

Yep, my old teacher cancer had returned after 14 years, metastasizing to my rib, back, hip, peritoneal and lung fluid (ascites). My very kind and thorough doctor promised to try to get me in with an oncologist in whom she had absolute trust, and she did. Within a couple of weeks I was receiving “palliative” chemotherapy every week (talk about a sobering turn of events). Taxol knocked out the problem with the ascites in short order, and to-date the existing lesions have remained stable with no new spots present on this summer’s CT scan.

Today (September 20, 2019) I celebrate this strange sort of anniversary, my first METS “Cancerversary.” It’s been a strange year indeed, with changes, losses, and a new measure of normal that has included:

  • Going from pink hair to no hair (but cool hats) to salt-and-pepper wavy hair,
  • Transitioning from working 50-70 hours a week to medical disability (I prefer to refer to it as my unplanned sabbatical),
  • Grieving the loss of the pastoral vocation that I truly love (at least the way I’ve been accustomed to ministering to others),
  • Trying to figure out what to do with myself now that I’m living in what my oncology team graciously refers to as “retirement,”
  • Watching myself age about a decade in twelve months,
  • Slurping more green smoothies, eating more salads and beans, and drinking more anti-cancer tea than I’d ever thought a human could consume,
  • Learning a new “normal” thanks to a variety of chemo side effects,
  • Discovering that multi-tasking and grossly overstuffed schedules are highly overrated,
  • and learning that, yes Sharron, our bodies really do have limits and if you push it too far for too long there will be a price to pay.

Yes, there’s been a fair share of loss and grief and pain in these last 365 days. But the yucky stuff will never get the last word in my life. There have also been some amazing gifts and “aha moments” during this trip around the sun with cancer. Here are a few highlights:

  • The very first thing I do every morning before my feet hit the floor is say “Thank you, God, for another day of life.” And I MEAN it with all my heart. Life is so precious and fleeting and beautiful. We need to celebrate every single day.
  • My beloved husband and I have found ways to spend more quality time together and savor every moment that we can squeeze out of each day.
  • Relationships with family and friends have taken on new poignancy, meaning, and vitality. I love and value you all SO much!
  • Emotions and chronological time are like amusement park rides–just hang on and prepare for change. Nothing lasts. Not pain. Not sadness. Not fear. Not joy. Not even the present moment (which is the very best place to be, I’m learning).
  • Cancer is not a death sentence. It’s a LIFE sentence. You learn while living with cancer what it means to savor life and appreciate everything. (Well most of the time. There have been a few moments that just plain suck.)
  • Creation is absolutely amazing. If I want to hug a tree, I will hug that tree for all I’m worth. I’ll smile at and speak to strangers. I can spend an hour just watching our new cat and marveling at how brilliant she is. I thank the plants before harvesting their bounty in our garden. So much of life takes on a brighter hue and vibrancy when you realize that we all contain the imprint of the universe and the breath of the Creator’s Spirit. Everyone matters and is beloved. Realizing and embracing this will change your life–trust me on this.
  • Hope is real. Attitude matters. Naps are bliss. Love wins.

So cancer, my teacher and companion, happy first anniversary. I can’t say that you’re my number one choice for how this life thing is going to play itself out, but here we are. So thank you for all that you’ve taught me this year about appreciating people, creation, and the present moment. Thank you for finally getting me to grind my overworked gears to a screeching halt so that I can finally listen for the Spirit’s whisper and divine direction. And, thank you for teaching me how to live better and love better. Yes, thank you.

That said, I still have a lot of living and learning to do, so let’s blow out the anniversary candle, raise high the glass of green smoothie, and keep on keepin’ on. L’Chaim!

(Photo: Jens Comiotto-Mayer, Creative Commons. Thanks!)

 

Receiving the Cancer Participation Award

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Hi friends! It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, but I’m back today to share with you the news that I have received the decidedly average Cancer Participation Award*. What is that, you may ask? Well, let’s put it this way: I had hoped at my most recent oncology check-up to find myself in possession of a first place award (i.e. news that my cancer had gone into remission). No such luck! Even though I’ve trained hard

  • drinking pond scum,
  • jumping on my mini-tramp,
  • eating enough salad, legumes, nuts, and seeds to make me feel like a Chia Pet,
  • praying/meditating,
  • practicing yoga,
  • and sweating to the oldies in the far infrared ray sauna (oh, wait–I AM the oldie thanks to the prune-shriveling and estrogen-blocking effects of letrozole),

my estrogen positive metastatic stage IV breast cancer is still present and accounted for and hanging out in my rib, spine, and hip. Woohoo!

Yes, despite all of this life-with-cancer training and healthy living the results of my July CT scan show absolutely no change from the January scan. That is good news, right? Yes. It means there is no progression to sideline me. I give thanks for that. But, typical human that I am, I had hoped for more.

“Is this the best we can expect?” my beloved spouse asked my oncologist as she stared intently at the monitor on which my latest results were displayed.

“Yes,” she said. And then she paused. “Well, no. I would have liked to see some regression with this protocol.

“But this is still good news,” she added. “And we have lots of tools yet at our disposal.”

Drat! Not even the second place award of some regression. Sigh.

Clearly my friend cancer still has a few things to teach me. Maybe I’m a slow learner? Perhaps this chemo cocktail is not the right one for me? Whatever the case, I’m still here and raising my glasses of pond scum and herb tea in the air. It’s been less than 11 months since I received that fateful phone call from my family practice physician, and I am most definitely not ready to throw in the towel on this precious thing we call life.

The downside? I won’t be able to return to work/ministry at the end of August. I still need to continue the focus on wellness and mind/body/spirit health and work faithfully with my oncology team. I need to listen and watch for the Spirit’s movements and design for my life. I need to live every precious moment to the best of my ability–not taking one second for granted.

Yes, I will take that cancer participation award and do so gladly. I have a lot more living to do, and I look forward to sharing the journey with you. Your prayers, intentions, beautiful cards and remembrances, calls and encouragement mean the world to me. You help keep me strong. Thank you for that. No matter how this journey ultimately plays out, cancer will not have the last word. It is my belief that thanks to The Christ, death has already been defeated for all of us. And that’s some very good news.

So, beloved and faithful team, here’s the cheer of the day in honor of the preciousness of life. Keep your eyes, hearts, and hands open. Be surprised by joy. Don’t despair. And…

Two, four, six, eight: Participate! Participate!

Life’s too short to let it fly past.

Get in the game; make each day last!

Two, four, six, eight: Participate! Participate!

*The medal is for illustration purposes only. It’s from the 2000 Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon. I won second place for my age division that year. The marathon I’m training for now is life, and there is indeed joy in the journey (pond scum and all)!

Remember that you are (star)dust…

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Ash Wednesday held new meaning for me this year with the stage IV cancer diagnosis. I’m six days in to my unplanned medical sabbatical (what I prefer to call my time on medical disability), and it’s been sobering to observe my body finally coming off of the adrenaline high that kept me going for far too long. This day has given me the permission to speak truth: I am tired. I am weary. My body needs this time of rest if there’s any chance to recover, heal, and hear those magic words “No Evidence of Disease.” I won’t get there by depending on myself or any imagined “super hero” abilities to defy death and appear magically in control.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These are the powerful and painful words my friend and colleague said as she marked my forehead with ashes this morning. I deliberately chose the quiet chapel service at the church she serves because I needed safe space to experience this moment in a new way, in the shadow of dis-ease and with the words “terminal” and “palliative” still ringing in my ears.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not throwing in the towel. I’m not crying “uncle” to the cancer cells. Not a chance! What I am doing is entering the season of Lent by acknowledging that the shadow of death is just over my shoulder, and my hope lies in God and God alone. But this is true for all of us. None of us is promised more than the present moment; we just choose to live like we have an unlimited span of life ahead. We can wipe that cross off our foreheads, but we can’t erase the truth of it.

Yep, nothing like Ash Wednesday and a cancer diagnosis to set the record straight. This is also a powerful gift to carry into the 40 days of Lent. Without this journey to the cross, without death, there can be no resurrection and no promise of real and lasting life. Only by walking the road to Jerusalem with Jesus and looking unflinchingly at death is there lasting hope or reason to live for something beyond oneself. This is the only path to the risen Christ.

Death will come for all of us–sooner or later. Deny it all you want; it won’t change the truth of it. Every day is a gift of God. Every breath is Spirit-infused. All of creation is held together in Christ. Or, as Eugene Peterson so beautifully renders this idea in The Message (Colossians 1:18b-20):

“From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.”

None of us makes it to Easter without the painful reality of Lent. We need that ash cross to tattoo truth smack between our eyes. But here’s the thing: we are not just the dust you dump out of the vacuum bag into the rubbish bin. We are stardust. We are inextricably linked to one another, to all of creation, and to the Christ.

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As my friend marked that ashen cross on my forehead and said those somber words, I took courage and comfort in knowing there is so much more. Cancer may strip me of all my illusions of security, invincibility, and layers of self-defined identity and worth, but it will never have the last word. That belongs to God, and here is truth for me–and for you, for all of us: “Remember that you are the stuff of stardust, and to stardust you shall return.”

(Photos: sblezard and Gianni, Creative Commons License. Thanks!)

 

 

In Praise of “Pond Scum”

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My morning “pond scum” ingredients. YUM!

Most of us living in North America fail the adequate nutrition test. In the land where Congress classed pizza as a vegetable (yes, really), it’s no wonder that getting enough servings of nutritious fruits and vegetables can be a challenge for the average American diner. I’ve always been a relatively healthy eater: I try to buy organic and local when I can, I’ve been mostly vegetarian for five+ years, and functionally vegan for almost three years. Cheese was my major fail in managing a completely vegan diet, but then we all have our challenges.

Enter a diagnosis of estrogen positive, stage IV breast cancer in September, 2018. Bye, bye cheese; hello full-on vegan diet! It was time to get 110% serious about nutrition. After all, diet appears to be partially responsible for some 30-40% of all cancers. More research is needed, but I’m with Hippocrates who knew the value of nutrition centuries before vegan was hip.

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.  — Hippocrates

My family and friends have become well acquainted with what I affectionately call my “pond scum” drinks. These green concoctions earned their name because, well, they LOOK like pond scum. The taste is actually a quite delicious combination of banana, apple, carrot, dark leafy greens (kale, Swiss chard, spinach are my favorites), blueberries, and filtered water, all whirled into a smoothie in my handy Ninja. The morning version includes a scoop of Greens First powder that delivers an extra 15+ servings of fruits, veggies, and antioxidents. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

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Some of my favorite cookbooks. I also drink a LOT of herb tea in lovely mugs, like this Yogi brand DeTox tea.

I’m not suggesting that everyone choose a 100% vegan diet and forego caffeine, sugar, oils, and alcohol. This is my choice to give my body every chance possible to heal itself in combination with western allopathic medicine (i.e. chemotherapy). I’ve been influenced by the work of T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D.,John McDougall, M.D.Joel Fuhrman, M.D., and Forks over Knives. What I am suggesting is that you consider some diet changes before you are diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or other serious illness.

When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need. — ancient Ayurvedic proverb

Sure, diet isn’t everything when it comes to health, but it is a major component. I’ll be citing the book Radical Remission frequently over the next few months because it’s had a huge impact on my approach to addressing my cancer. In this book, author and researcher Kelly Turner, Ph.D., explores nine key factors that cancer survivors share. Guess what? Radically altering your diet is one of those nine factors. In fact, it’s the very first factor Turner addresses. Your diet really does matter.

If you’re in great health, give thanks. If you feel that your health is slipping and you know that stress, lack of exercise, and a bad diet are markers of your lifestyle, take a deep breath and consider some changes–FAST. If you are dealing with cancer or another serious illness, consider how a healthier diet might be able to support your treatments. Do, however, include your care providers in discussions about nutrition and any supplements or complementary therapies you are considering. Above all, nurture your spiritual life and check out what your sacred texts have to say about food and nutrition. You might be surprised. In the meantime, I raise my glass of “pond scum” to your health–and to mine. Be blessed!

Disclaimer: I’m definitely not a health professional, but I’m in the business of learning all that I can to try to cajole my cancer into radical remission. If I can be of any help to you, great! Just know that what I write are my own opinions and reflect my own experience. When you find yourself living with a life-threatening illness or chronic condition, YOU are your best advocate. Learn all that you can, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or get additional professional opinions.

Hair Today. Gone Tomorrow.

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Today’s topic is about chemo and hair loss, although there’s a whole lot more going on than just the demise of my dearly beloved fierce pink tresses. The real subjects are attachments, fear, and letting go–three much more powerful issues that affect not only those in cancer treatment but pretty much all human beings at some point in life.

I went through the whole hair loss thing with the first cancer experience. Taking what measure of control I could, I had my head shaved and sent the ponytail to Locks of Love. It really didn’t bother me that much that I can remember. Perhaps it was because I was sure it would grow back, AND I’d have the added benefit of an outrageously expensive but effective perm. (Note: You have to look for the small bright spots and opportunities to laugh when dealing with cancer or any other life-threatening medical condition.)

Ready for chemo in 2004 with a pony tail for Locks of Love

This time felt different. Perhaps it was the difficulty of letting go of that brave, bright color my daughter so lovingly applied to my hair–a hot pink badge of courage. Maybe it was the comments from folks that this time my hair might not grow back like it did a decade plus ago; after all we’re dealing with long term treatment now as opposed to a once and done experience. It could be the reality of just one more indignity and loss of the illusion of control. After pondering the situation for a couple of months and getting used to my rad baldness and wardrobe of really cool hats, I think it’s something more–something that affects virtually all of us. That something is the power of attachments and the fear of letting go.

You see, the initial tears and sadness of having my beloved shave my head have given way to acceptance and even a kind of love for my bald look. It’s sassy. It’s real. It doesn’t try to pretend that my shorn skull is a fashion statement rather than a side effect of chemo. It’s not, in short, a cover-up of all that’s happening in my life. And therein lies the dilemma.

I am now quite okay with my bald pate and the many lovely, quirky, and precious caps and hats that so many friends and family have made and/or given (I treasure your love and care. Thank you!). Yet sometimes I wonder if I’m becoming too attached to the present state of being. You’d probably never know I am living with stage four cancer if it weren’t for a shiny noggin (and the persistent fatigue). After all, bald IS beautiful, and I’ve embraced rocking the look.

My Buddhist friends will say that nothing lasts. The Buddha teaches that almost all of our struggles–anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration, grief, worry, despair, etc.–all stem from one source: being too tightly attached to something or someone. Jesus had a few things to say about attachments and possessions, too (Check out Mark 10:17-31, Luke 6:32-36, Luke 12:15, Luke 14:33, Luke 15:11-32, Luke 18:18-22, Matthew 5:1-7:29, Matthew 6:2-4, Matthew 6:19-25, Matthew 16:24-26, Matthew 23:25-26 to get started. Pastor, teach thyself!).

I can understand how past attachments may have contributed to my present state of dis-ease, and I confess that for me letting go is definitely not as easy as I would like for it to be. I also know I’m not alone. If it was easy to let go there would be far fewer struggles and pain. We humans are not experts at holding loosely to our lives, possessions, and relationships. Sure, some things are easier to let go of than others, but we all have our “sticky stuff” that prevents us from being truly free.

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To learn to let go of attachments takes intention and practice. Whether you choose prayer, meditation, or some other discipline, the important thing I’m learning is to be gentle with oneself in the process. My most difficult attachment is to the value (both real and perceived) of my vocational life. I’ve been taught to work hard, to work until the job is done, and to do the very best work possible. Unfortunately, a good teaching has become over time both a coping mechanism to avoid dealing with past pain in my life and an attachment that is detrimental to my overall health and well-being (not to mention that of my loved ones). I could definitely take a regular seat in an Overworkers Anonymous meeting!

And here’s the thing: There is no badge of honor for working oneself to the bone, to ill health, or to death. My friends, don’t wait for the death part to figure this out, no matter what attachment(s) to which you may be clinging with ferocity. Learn to let go while you have the choice and opportunity. Do it better than I have done until now. Don’t wait for cancer, heartbreak, or other life altering event to stop you in your tracks and force you to learn. Oh, and rock your wonderful self just as you are. You are enough. You are beloved! It’s okay to let go and be you.

Note: Need somewhere to start? Check out Leo Baubuta’s blog post “The Zen Habits Guide to Letting Go of Attachments.” He offers five practices you may find helpful.

 

 

Chemo Friday Reflection

 

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Ports make life so much easier!

Receiving a diagnosis of a terminal illness (cloaked in the more palatable guise of something that’s going to be treated as a long-term chronic condition but that is 98% guaranteed to kill you at some point) can be a real buzz kill. I can’t say how it goes for other folks, but here’s how it went down for me.

First there’s numbness. It was difficult to wrap my head around the facts. I knew deep down inside the cancer was back; I could feel it quite literally in my metastases-hollowing bones, ascites-distended belly, and painfully swollen ankles. Part of me wanted to burst into tears and echo Scarlett O’Hara’s quotable line from Gone with the Wind: “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” Still another part of me wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and holler “La La La La La La La!” while floating in a dreamy hot pink kayak down that river called denial.

By contrast, the fierce, optimistic part of me kept saying “Suck it up, buttercup! Live your one-precious-poetry-of-Mary-Oliver-infused life like there’s no tomorrow! You’ve got this thing.” And when I ceased talking and thinking long enough, the still, small voice of God whispers from deep in my gut: “Just be. Stop. Stop doing. Cease fretting. Listen. I am with you.”

All the voices. All the feels and emotions. Just b-r-e-a-t-h-e. Just l-i-v-e.

It’s been four weeks since my official diagnosis, just shy of one calendar month. As of today I’ll have had three Taxol treatments, downed 23 quarts of super greens and antioxidant smoothies (love my collards, kale, and spinach!), ingested two bottles of enhanced Transfer Factor, four cups of special herb tea each day, multiple rounds of barley grass tablets, and a nightly bubbly akalyzer beverage. Add to that a delicious mostly raw, whole foods vegan diet (not very practical for church potlucks), and for the most part I feel and look better physically than I have in ages. My morning weight has dropped into the mid-120s, and were it not for the fatigue, I think I could go out and run a 10K with no trouble at all. Even the effects of the chemo have been minimal and manageable.

My biggest challenge in response to the diagnosis? Slowing down. I can no longer keep up the 12- to 14-hour work days I had been used to “managing.” And you know what? That’s a good thing. A healthy thing. A stewardship of life and Sabbath thing. Thank you, cancer, for teaching this hard-headed, over-achieving, duty-bound woman about priorities. We miss so much of life in our furious multi-tasking, our need to accomplish, to please, to do good, to achieve, to matter, etc. etc. etc. One might assume I would have learned a thing or two in my first go-round with breast cancer 14 years ago. Clearly, there’s still some learnin’ to be done: “Fall down seven, get up eight.”

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#Thrive pose for Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day (10/13) 

My strongest medicine? It’s not the Taxol or the vegan diet and supergreens. It’s G-R-A-T-I-T-U-D-E. I am so grateful for the number of people who are walking life’s journey with me. My beloved husband, our children and extended family, friends and colleagues all have rallied to form a hammock of support and care. It’s a beautiful and amazing thing to behold.

Your friendship and solidarity–evidenced through cards, letters, flowers, books, chemo kits, encouraging words, time and presence, and above all your prayers–mean so much. Thank you. You lift my spirits. You help keep me grounded and focused. You point to all that truly matters. Thank you. Gratitude is indeed strong medicine, and your accompaniment and prayers have served me up a big dose of it in beloved community near and far. Thank you.

Now back to working on slowing down. To be continued…

When the other shoe drops…

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You’ve probably heard the expression “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Its origin is in the tight tenement quarters of nineteenth century New York City, when tenants could hear the shoes of their upstairs neighbors hitting the floor above them, and it’s come to express that feeling of waiting for the inevitable to happen. For some cancer survivors “waiting for the other shoe to drop” is that ball of emotional junk you stuff deep down inside of yourself because you know those rogue cells could cut loose again at any moment.

For me, that other big pink brassy platform heel of cancer dropped officially on Friday, September 28, when my beloved and I sat in the office of my new oncologist to receive the official results of a bone biopsy. Yes, I am now living with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer. In one afternoon, the trajectory of our lives took a BIG detour.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s not all doom and gloom. I kind of suspected this was happening from my symptoms and all of the subsequent tests–ultrasounds, CT scan, paracentesis, thoracentesis, biopsy, bloodwork. It felt as if my old teacher cancer was back for another round of real-life education. My oncologist is optimistic that my cancer can be treated as a chronic medical condition like diabetes or heart disease. She talks in terms of years rather than going home and getting my affairs in order. Evidently I have options, a rather strange thing to ponder when your body has just gone into full scale rebellion against you.

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The treatment wheels are already in motion. I had my first round of chemo last Friday (Taxol), and I’ll have a port placed this week to make all the required infusions, blood draws, etc. easier. I’ve started a whole foods diet complete with a quart a day of super greens smoothies, some special herb tea, supplements designed to boost my immune system, and I’m continuing my yoga and meditation. We’re also exploring alternative therapies such as using a far infrared spa, reiki, and Ayurvedic treatments.

I’m going in with my eyes wide open: my life (our family’s life) is forever changed. Nothing can be taken for granted now. Every single day is precious. There is no cure for my cancer–at least not now. Strangely, I am at peace with this about 95% of the time. The other five percent I alternate among feelings of anger, profound sadness, terror, and fear. Yet, I trust that God’s got this and is right here with me. I truly believe that whatever happens tomorrow or next year or whenever, it will be okay.

I have the most amazing husband on the face of the planet. We have a strong family network that has already sprung into action to love, support, and pray for us. We have awesome adult children, and wonderful colleagues and friends. And, I am blessed to serve a congregation that is truly a light in our community, a loving and vulnerable expression of Christ’s Body, and a group of folks who love one another (and yours truly) for exactly who God made us all to be. Friends, it just doesn’t get much better than that.

Sure, the return of cancer sucks. There’s really no better way to say it. But it will not define me, confine me, or rob me of my joy. There’s entirely too much life to live, too much of God’s good creation to stand in awe of, and too many wonderful people with whom to be in relationship.

What do you do when cancer drops the other shoe on you? You pick it up, put it on, dye your hair bright pink, and start dancing! I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

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(Note: The shoes are for illustrative purposes only. There is NO way I could even walk in these beasts! They were borrowed from my daughter, Maggie, who also gave me my new pink hairdo.)