It’s the eve of my last scheduled chemotherapy. But actually, I postponed it for another week. We, all five of us, are going on vacation. We are taking a few days off, and will be back Sunday. Part of this vacation will include the “Shaw family reunion”. I’ve made sure to really leave my impression, as we decorated my head (and hand) with henna again, while I impatiently wait for my hair to return. It should be sprouting any day now, as the Taxol doesn’t generally keep the hair away. So, I have my final treatment of chemotherapy on 7/26/04. After that, I should be starting the weekly Herceptin treatments, and will continue with that as long as I can endure. I am relieved to be nearly done with treatment. But I’m nervous about it as well. I’m already on a 3 month schedule with Dr. Patel, and won’t be getting scans again until September.
So I’m still in treatment, with maybe even another 12 months of Herceptin to get through. And yet, I’m also winding down. How do I gracefully get myself from being a person who “has” cancer to a person who “had” cancer? People ask me about my medical issues, and each time it is painful for me to come up with the appropriate answer. In that 3 seconds of deathly silence as I contemplate my answer, there lies over a year of built up emotion, memories of the six surgeries and 10 chemotherapy treatments I have endured, all the words of my long letters, and an uncertainty of what is to come. And at the end of that 3 seconds, the words that still come out are “I have cancer”. Someday, at the end of that 3 seconds I will be able to say “I had cancer”, and then someday even after that my 3 seconds will be less than a second. A small bump in the really long road. I do not know if this cancer has made a vow with my body and will continue with me, although silently, along this road. But I do know that to “have” is to hold. When we have something, I mean truly have it, we hold it. We embrace it. And I did embrace my cancer like an empty vessel embraces the substance that seeks to fill it. This has been a part of who I am. It’s not the definitive end of my experience, but it has melded itself to my inner walls and has forever changed who I am. So, in that 3 seconds still lies the biggest unanswered question: did I return that vow with my cancer for life? Am I holding on? Or am I letting go?
Sometimes, well ok, all of the time, it comes down to faith, whatever that “it” is at the moment. I was listening to Jon Courson yesterday morning and he was talking about how too much analysis leads to paralysis. You know, he says, the type of situation when you dance yourself in circles about what God is doing or wants you to do, even to the point of giving up by choosing to just go watch TV rather than take any action. Yes, fear, doubt, uncertainty can immobilize. Yes, it leads to paralysis. But faith seems that much more brilliant in the darkness of fear. I mean, take a lamp out into the sunlight and it seems so ineffectual. Take that same lamp into a dark room and it’s effective purpose has such an impact that the entire room depends on it. This is an undeniable truth. And yet, Jesus, in all His simplicity and meekness, left us with these words, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. What did He mean by that? Well, I do know this: little children, children that are in that pre-operational stage Piaget talked about, don’t question things. They haven’t the cognitive ability, or desire, to analyze things. They just are. They just do. And they just believe. They believe in fairies, and in santas, in bunnies who lay plastic eggs filled with candy, and even in Jesus, who hung on the cross with nails in his hands and a crown of thorns on his head. And somehow, Jesus wants us to be like that. Not to put pagan rituals on an equal level with Him. No, He never suggested that. And there is an inherent difference between the tu-tued fairy with her wand, silky purse full of teeth, and pocket full of change and the Jesus that I know. Even pre-operational children can sense this. But somehow Jesus wants us to be like little children. To not question. To not be paralyzed by fear of uncertainty.
Oswald Chambers shares with us in today’s devotional:
There is no thrill for us in walking, yet it is the test for all of our
steady and enduring qualities. To “walk and not faint” is the highest
stretch possible as a measure of strength. The word walk is used in the
Bible to express the character of a person— “. . . John . . . looking at
Jesus as He walked . . . said, ’Behold the Lamb of God!’ ” ( John
1:35-36 ). There is nothing abstract or obscure in the Bible; everything
is vivid and real. God does not say, “Be spiritual,” but He says, “Walk
before Me . . .” ( Genesis 17:1 ).
When we are in an unhealthy condition either physically or emotionally,
we always look for thrills in life. In our physical life this leads to
our efforts to counterfeit the work of the Holy Spirit; in our emotional
life it leads to obsessions and to the destruction of our morality; and
in our spiritual life, if we insist on pursuing only thrills, on
mounting up “with wings like eagles” ( Isaiah 40:31 ), it will result in
the destruction of our spirituality.
Having the reality of God’s presence is not dependent on our being in a
particular circumstance or place, but is only dependent on our
determination to keep the Lord before us continually. Our problems arise
when we refuse to place our trust in the reality of His presence. The
experience the psalmist speaks of—”We will not fear, even though ” (
Psalm 46:2 )— will be ours once we are grounded on the truth of the
reality of God’s presence, not just a simple awareness of it, but an
understanding of the reality of it. Then we will exclaim, “He has been
here all the time!” At critical moments in our lives it is necessary to
ask God for guidance, but it should be unnecessary to be constantly
saying, “Oh, Lord, direct me in this, and in that.” Of course He will,
and in fact, He is doing it already! If our everyday decisions are not
according to His will, He will press through them, bringing restraint to
our spirit. Then we must be quiet and wait for the direction of His
So I am quietly waiting for His direction and am learning to believe like a child when people tell me that I am healed from cancer. Maybe those “word of faith” people have something to offer after all. Perhaps they just present it in a way that’s so simplistic it almost seems shallow to my over-intellectual mind? Maybe I need to become like a little child and just believe. Oswald is always so timely in his devotions.
Last letter I talked about wanting to throw a brick through the window of Kern Radiology. It was just a thought, and I’m not an impulsive person. But, that may have struck some people as being out of character even for my thought life. The truth is, until you go through any type of major illness, it’s hard to understand the depth and degree that the medical “system” can be harsh. I will never forget the time I was waiting for my port to be flushed (it regularly has to be “flushed” with fluids to keep the line clear and from clotting). The nurses at the facility I usually do not go to for my port flushes were changing shifts. The leaving nurse was going through the transition with the arriving nurse, and as they walked down the row of patients, the nurse was referring to the patients by their procedures. “This one’s a port flush. This one’s a blood pressure check. This one’s a lab”. And on and on. Being a social worker, I had always thought nursing was the ‘other’ helping profession. This past year I have learned that some nurses are not about helping, but about carrying out their responsibilities with precision and proper technique, using only the most accurate medical terminology to talk about it. To them we are not people, we are “patients”- patients not with lives, with families, with fears, with first names given tot hem by their parents, but patients who come attached with “procedures”. Yes, very sterile. Fortunately, most oncology nurses go into the practice because they are compassionate. It takes a person strong in heart to maintain hope even in the face of death on a daily basis.
I wrote before about watching the movie “The Doctor”. My friend and cancer sister who recommended that movie was right- it’s a movie I reflect back on a lot. The hope in that movie, as a cancer patient watching it, was that a doctor, my doctor, may actually have the ability to learn empathy. But that hope was challenged too, when one day I waited an hour for a routine weekly blood draw. When I was finally called into the back, I discovered the reason for my long wait- there was only one phlebotomist on staff that day. As Mona and I did our usual relational chatter, another nurse, unknown to me, walks up and says to Mona, “there’s a doctor out there in the waiting room, and he’s waited for his blood draw long enough. You need to take him next”. It didn’t seem to matter what number he was in the line. His status as a fellow physician somehow granted him a “flashpass”. I heard this “doctor” talking in the waiting room. He was complaining about how he had patients waiting for him in his waiting room too. I’m sure I had clients waiting for me as well. But somehow his patients became so much more important than my clients, because after all, being a doctor is the most important job in the world. With that type of “system”, how can any doctor-turned-patient ever truly develop empathy?
So I’m watching one of the shows I really enjoy, The Residents. If you haven’t seen it, it comes on Discovery Health and it’s a weekly, hour long “reality” show. I know, I’m sick of those too. But I don’t watch much TV. And some shows really do convey reality more than some others. So this show is about the lives of medical interns. And this particular episode was about oncology. The show featured the life of a young African American woman with three small children and an infant. She was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant. So here she’s going through all of this cancer stuff. And she’s sitting on her bed, camera faced towards her in the tradition of the best of ‘Real World’ confessionals, and she’s talking about how rough it is going through chemo and having to get up in the wee hours to feed her infant and early in the morning to care for her children. Sleep is a luxury for anyone who has an infant to care for, as you may know. So, the door slings open and her three children pile in, one by one getting on her bed. She’s calmly talking to them, as they seem oblivious to her condition, and in their childlike naivete, they begin jumping up and down on the bed. So you see the camera record the face of this mother, too tired to give an expression, as her back is to her children who are wildly jumping up and down on the bed. She nicely convinces them to go play in their rooms, and like a whirlwind that touched ground and dissipated, they all jump off the bed and run off to their rooms. Mom asks them to shut the door behind them, which they fail to do in their excitement. She gives a desperate look into the camera, mutters a few words, and gets up to close the door for a few moments of rest. The next scene shows her at her oncology appointment. Her onc is asking about nausea. Mom admits that the first three days are rough and she vomits frequently. So the onc asks her if she is taking the prescribed anti-nausea medications. Mom replies “no”, because they make her sleep. Before Mom can explain any more, the oncologist, who should already know that Mom has an infant to care for at home, tells Mom in an authoritarian tone that she needs to take her medications as prescribed. I felt her pain. I cried for her, and for me too. I wanted to write her a letter just to tell her someone understands and she’s not alone. We Mom’s “suck it up and drive on”, even if it means enduring the nausea for our children. And it is a thankless job. Now that’s reality.
I’ve been contending with my lymphedema this past month. I finally got my compression sleeve, and I’ve been going to physical therapy three times a week. The swelling and pain has significantly decreased, but the first few visits were rough, as Richard, my PT, massaged the fluids up into my armpit cavity. The deep kneading when you have excessive lymphatic fluid built up feels a lot like applying pressure on an abscess. Excruciating pain. The first couple of times all I could do was grimace my face and rock my bent knees back and forth as I laid on the table. Richard’s funny. He would tell me to “relax”. “Ya, just try to relax while I hurt you”, I replied back as we both laughed. Other than the massage, I spend about an hour doing stretching and strengthening exercises for my hands, arms, shoulders, and back. I actually enjoy this because I can measure the progress I’ve made. I work hard when I’m there, and I leave feeling good about it. It is healing. There’s a particular picture on the wall near the table I lay on for my massage. It is of a man, in Birks, jumping from one large rocky mesa to another. But the gulf between the two is large enough to make it a major risk, and add the fact that the mesas are at a high altitude, and the risk seems downright insane. The caption underneath says something about taking risks to reach your goals. Every time I look at that, all I can think is how I would never try something like that. Have you heard Tim McGraw’s new song, “Live Like You Were Dying”? If you were to live like you were dying, how would your life be different? I still haven’t really figured that out for myself………………