The Girl’s Guide to Cancer

What cancer can do is limited.

What God can do is not.

My battle with cancer has always been about looking forward. However, as today marks one year since I went under the knife to have a brain tumor removed, I find myself reflecting upon my journey so far. My path through this valley has been aided, my hand held by many incredible women who walked parallel to me in their own lives. Looking at how far I’ve come, I see it fit that I begin to offer my advice to those fighting their own battles behind me. A wonderful woman I know once said “Advice is just that: advice – a person’s opinion. Take it or leave it, but know you are free to do as God calls you regardless.” And so the Girl’s Guide to Cancer began to take shape. The first installation, that is; the battle, the people, and the beauty.

And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord, and I will be the glory in her midst.

Zechariah 2:5

No matter the situation: stage, grade, location of the cancer, your age or ability to financially handle medical bills, hearing the words “you have cancer” will shake you. Your diagnosis means a long journey of hills, valleys, and trials to come. Every person’s reaction to their diagnosis is their own, though I encourage you to ask God to show you His plan in this. If you struggle with this, I highly recommend either finding a devotional written specifically for cancer patients, or reading God Will Carry You Through. Growing distant from God will only increase the pain you feel, whether its physical or emotional. Instead, know “He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge.” This verse was the first that came to mind in a still, sterile hospital room one year ago. And with it came the comfort in knowing “all the days ordained for me were written in [His] book before one of them came to be.” Learning that God is greater than this and finding joy in the journey ahead is essential to your health. You must learn that this is the path God planned for you when He created you, and only He can give it purpose. Remember the life of Paul, a devoted servant of Christ, was often spent praising through hardship. Isaiah chapter 40 is another piece of scripture I hold very dearly, and called on consistently during my hospital stay. God does not tell us there won’t be deep waters to tread, or fire to walk through, but rather that He will be at our side, that we won’t drown or be burned. This is why you need God to fight cancer. God will give us more than we can handle so that we learn to lay it at His feet, repeatedly. I had to learn to cast my fear on Him with every hourly neurological test in the hospital after brain surgery. I had to learn to do so before each monthly oncologist appointment and bi-monthly MRI. I will  have to learn to do so during my yearly checks until I reach remission. Cancer is a long battle, and God is our greatest protector, but we must remember to let Him fight for us and be still. Let Him work in you, and you will then be raised up as a member of an army of Godly women, stronger warriors than before. Some of us have less hair, some less physical strength, but you are never alone. This journey will be heartbreaking: it will be difficult and painful and frustrating, but remember the words of C.S. Lewis. “Hardships prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

The people around you are a gift from God. Don’t take that for granted. When I was diagnosed, my family focused on each other and God, which meant between lengthy insurance calls and office visits that involved driving to Dallas, dinner was an afterthought. Fortunately, we were blessed with friends who brought us cooked dinners, ready to eat when we returned home after a day of tests. Cancer highlights the value of the closest friends God has blessed us with. Aside from being an inner circle we knew we could share private worries about tests and appointments with, they organized meal drop-off, hosted prayer groups, and drove me to treatment on the rare occasions my parents couldn’t. Your family in Christ will not only lift you up in prayer and support you in your fight, they will remind you to turn to Him in incredible ways. I was given chemo care kits, chocolate chip muffins (talk about “eat[ing] your food with gladness”), along with incredible devotionals. For those wondering, Streams in the Desert and Embraced are two of my favorite reminders of God’s love. These devotionals were given to me by two incredible women because I shared with them not just my physical ailments, but my spiritual worries. Communication with those close to you means they can lift you up to God when you can’t do it yourself anymore, and allows them to intercede between you and the world. Hair loss is common during cancer, and, in the words of one of my incredible P.A.’s, “takes away the choice” of who you tell. Well-wishes and promises of prayers are still appreciated to this day, though after enough phone calls and conversations are interrupted to be reminded you have cancer by someone you don’t know from Adam, having a close friend to politely send said stranger along their way is a blessing. Be warned, having cancer often leaves total strangers feeling entitled to know private, personal details about your life and health. It’s hard not to comply with answering such questions and requests, as they are often posed out of misguided compassion. They are not, however, entitled, and you needn’t comply. There is no harm in politely telling someone who is performing a medical inquisition on you that you appreciate their kindness, but need to be on your way. Any time you feel overwhelmed with attention, remember how many complete strangers have prayed for you. Matthew 18:15 reminds us “Do not forget to show kindness to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.” Just as you are a blessing to others, let others be to you!

You are altogether beautiful, my darling, beautiful in every way.

Song of Solomon 2:4

Here’s the rub, y’all. The part where I get real and all pretenses about bravely and beautifully fighting cancer are erased. Cancer is ugly. Don’t wash your hair for a week after brain surgery, lose all your hair, too tired to shower, turn moon-faced and baggy-eyed from steroids ugly. Yet you aren’t. I’ll be completely honest, you probably will think so. I just finished a month on steroids and headed straight to Hawaii. Male-pattern-baldness hair, troublesome skin, and fifteen pounds of water weight in tow. I didn’t want to wear shorts, let alone a swimsuit. Yet after taking in God’s awesome majesty, and countless reassurances from my parents, I felt beautiful. Whether I rocked the beach is a matter of opinion, but I am beautiful, all the same. Peter tells us “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” It is incredibly tough to feel beautiful when you barely have the energy to pick out your outfit, but turning inward to find worth, as well as surrounding yourself with a crowd of believers who affirm that voice within you that continues to know the truth, is what you need most now. In the words of the same brilliant woman who told us how to take advice above, “Don’t waste your cancer.” Not only will considering this some misfortune or punishment you are enduring embitter you towards God, it will rob you of any chance at following the path He has made for you. Use this as a chance to deepen your faith every time you worry, center yourself on God every time you lose hope, and ask your family of believers to hold you up when you are feeling weak. Fill yourself with the spirit and others will find an unspeakable beauty within you, whether you see it or not. “But who can feel ugly, when their heart feels joy?” -C.S. Lewis

You were assigned this mountain to show it can be moved. But remember, you are not moving it alone. There is an entire family of believers waiting to guide you through and help you each step of the way, to lead you to the rock when you fall short. One day you will be there. Until then, I am. Tap the “comment” or “contact” button and I will help you as best I can, even if all I can do is pray, or attempt to connect you with someone who can.

“Today rest in knowing the same God who holds the universe together is holding you, and He will not let you go”

In the spirit of the upcoming holiday season, The Cheerful Heart is raising money to support St. Jude in their fight to heal every child with cancer and find a cure, so one day no one ever has to hear the words “you have cancer.” If you would like to donate to St. Jude, click this paragraph. Please leave a comment below with how much or who you donated for so I can keep a tally!

Advertisements

What Cancer Patients Won’t Tell You

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” – 1 Corinthians 12:27

“Cancer does not have a face until it’s yours or someone you know.”        -Anthony Del Monte

 

Cancer is a mystery illness to a majority of the population. New patients are no stranger to this. Upon diagnosis, I realized I knew next to nothing. Would I need a port for my specific type of chemo? How long is radiation? What I didn’t think to wonder was how it would change the everyday of my life. This blog post is a list of things your family member or friend with cancer may not think to or want to tell you: the good, the bad, and the educational.

           1. Cancer is different for everyone

Location, stage or grade, and metastasis all change cancer from one person to the next through treatment and reaction to said treatment. Just because the patient you know has cancer, doesn’t mean they’re going to be getting chemo through a port, sitting in a hospital, like in the movies. I didn’t. Not needing a port implanted, or to drive to Dallas for chemotherapy has been an incredible blessing, but I still get incredibly sick while I’m on my chemo. That said, please do not offer up unsolicited medical advice. We know you are trying to help, and we appreciate that. But just because going to General Hospital and being treated by Doctor Zhivago was the best treatment plan for your second-cousin’s friend’s mother’s uncle, doesn’t mean it’ll work for us. You’ll often just be causing uncertainty to creep in. Unless you are a close friend or family member, your prayers are all we need.

2. Lots of cancer fighters and survivors feel guilt

Many people cannot continue working or living as they did before while undergoing cancer treatment, and often feel guilty for impacting those around us. When I arrived home after my surgery, I required constant supervision, and felt guilt for inconveniencing the sweet women who volunteered to do so. Knowing how expensive my surgery was, I felt guilty when my mother took off work early to drive me to radiation for six weeks. Once we win our battle with cancer, we often feel guilt for surviving, or having it easier than other survivors. Knowing this could help you offer your support if one of your friends is struggling with guilt, even if they don’t offer this up.

3. Staring Isn’t Caring

I understand a quick glance, or a double take when I’m out in public. Chances are, I don’t even notice them. I’m bald. Even today, in 2018, a shaved head is unique, specifically when unaccompanied by tattoos and gauges, which some people rock but I am far too meek for. Along with the notable baldness, some of us may have scars; some of us may look bedraggled and tired. It’s human instinct to take an extended look at someone out of the ordinary. This is, however, no excuse for the wide-eyed gawking we’re sometimes met with. My radiologist mentioned once how losing your hair took away your choice to “be” a cancer patient to an extent. It takes what is otherwise your little secret and turns you into a walking billboard for sickness. Staring strangers, be warned. If I catch you staring, I will stare back until you notice we’re caught in a stare-down. This will likely leave you feeling awkward (“Why is she staring at me??”) and, ultimately, embarrassed (“Oh, crud, she noticed me staring at her!”). I know this is fighting fire with fire, but it’s the only way I’ve found to teach these prying people a lesson and turn an otherwise embarrassing reminder into a devilishly fun moment.

4. Look, Kids!

My boyfriend noticed something was out of the ordinary one day at lunch when I began beaming from ear to ear over his shoulder. Glancing to the booth behind us, he found himself facing a wide-eyed one-year old, absolutely enthralled by me. Or, more specifically, the ‘do I’m rocking. My mother has always been a firm believer in treating others properly: she raised my brother and me not to turn away and ignore someone abnormal. While this is a natural reaction when you see someone clearly out of the ordinary, it often invalidates them as a person and makes them feel invisible. Myself included, many people with physical scars or disabilities prefer you teach your child to treat us as they would any other stranger: look, acknowledge, then look away. Where my opinion may differ from that of others is that I enjoy interaction with children. I am never too busy nor too tired to answer a child’s questions about my cancer or my hair. They are still figuring out how our world works. If speaking with me will give them an understanding they didn’t have before, or just answer their question “Mommy, why is she bald?” then I am more than happy to do so. And whose day wouldn’t be brightened by a chat with a curious toddler?

5. Be Careful with Compliments

Having cancer is like being transformed into a D-list celebrity of the worst kind. It’s like being pregnant in a world where people legal must touch your stomach. What I’m getting at here is the cancer fairy appears and *poofs* away your privacy and personal space when you are in public. Compliments, specifically from strangers, can be double-edged swords. An unknown, unexpected touch on your arm, paired with a sympathetic gaze and a “You look beautiful,” often leave me feeling anything but. Instead, it interrupts my conversation to remind me of my baldness, my cancer, my obvious ailment. If you cannot think of a compliment other than the pitying “you look so good,” please know we receive these compliments sincerely from those around us. My boyfriend won’t breathe without telling me he thinks I am beautiful, because he knows there are moments now when I look in the mirror and disagree. Your prayers are appreciated and felt, regardless of whether you awkwardly tell a stranger they’re pretty and that you’re praying for them or not. If you see or know someone with cancer, and you want to give them a smile, as I often have, evaluate your compliment with this in mind: if you wouldn’t say it to someone without cancer, don’t say it to someone with cancer. Compliments like those we received before our diagnoses give us a sense of normalcy and remind us that we’re the same people we were before all this, not just a cancer patient. There have been days I talked about the Starbucks barista who complimented my brows for hours. Unbeknownst to her, I lost my brows due to radiation, and spent fifteen minutes drawing them in each morning. Compliments about my hair they aren’t cancer specific make me beam. I’m sure it’s obvious, from the bald crown and shining scar this wasn’t my choice, but saying “I love your hair! I wish I was brave enough to go short” makes me forget, for a second, that this wasn’t my choice. (Side note: almost all of these compliments were given to me by Starbucks baristas. You guys are the best!) If you actually know a cancer patient, you can rely on safe go-to’s like: “You look so healthy,” and “You brighten the room.” Beyond that, my rule of thumb is the best way to make someone’s day.

6. Endurance Isn’t Everything

Endurance isn’t everything. And no, I’m not talking about running a 5K. I couldn’t do that before I was seven months into a year-long chemotherapy regimen. Many cancer patients don’t spend much time out of the house. Even if our white blood cell counts aren’t low enough to worry about every germ or puff of dust, we may no longer be able to accompany you to a six-hour day of riding roller coasters in the Summer heat. That said, please don’t stop inviting us to things. We are still your friends and like to feel considered, even if our immediate response is to bail on the outing you planned, or ask if it can be altered. Looking to score points as the best cancer supporter ever? Plan family or friend outings with the patient you know in mind. That isn’t to say you should change your life to accommodate them, but indoor events and limiting outdoor time for planned events ensure you can enjoy their company as long as possible. Planning events that don’t run late into the night, or stray far from the home of the patient, are a relief, and allow them to feel a part of the festivities without overworking themselves.

7. Digestive Issues

Chemo affects everyone differently, but the consensus among most patients and survivors I know is this: our poor gastrointestinal systems. We bounce from nausea to gas to cramping in minutes. When we do eat, that is, when our appetite makes a rare appearance, we must limit ourselves to foods high in the vitamins, fiber and minerals we’re missing from not eating enough. (i.e. healthy food) Chemo can also cause you to develop sudden food intolerances, all of which are temporary. At least, that’s what I tell myself, because a world without ice cream and cheesecake is not a world worth living in. That is, of course, according to my stomach. This in mind, many of us wouldn’t ask that you alter your dinner plans for us, but that you respect our choices. If we only eat two bites, please don’t think we dislike your food or urge us to eat more. We loved your food, we wish we could engorge ourselves more, but our appetites or bodies are advising us otherwise. We’ll get there one day! And when we do, we expect you to take us out for our favorite dessert.

8. Talking About It / Offering Care

Concern for your friends with cancer can be shown in many ways, but often, it’s unclear where the lines of courtesy and privacy are. There is no standard of etiquette when speaking to someone with cancer, but my rule of thumb is as follows. If you have the person’s number of contact information and speak with them regularly, you are welcome to check-in. This is the magic of the technology age. What would be awkward to ask in the aisles of a grocery store can be typed out and sent off, letting the person know you care while giving them an appropriate amount of time to construct a response as caring as you. If you don’t know us well enough to do the above, please check in with someone closer to us. Most cancer patients have a ring of close supporters, family and friends that know them well who organize their outer circle of supporters. My boyfriend is my point of contact, and started a group text with over twenty of our friends to update them on my surgery and treatment. These people are a great resource to get information from or organize help through when it might be difficult for us. If you are close enough to help us, feel free to offer. A specific offer of help goes farther thank a simple one. You are twice as likely to be taken up on “Can I drop off dinner on Tuesday night at 7?” than “Call me if you need anything!” One of the hardest things for cancer patients to learn is to accept help, so offering specific help instead of leaving an open-ended invitation we might feel bad taking you up on is the best thing you can do. Often, the simplest acts of support have a bigger impact than you know. Letters and cards we can look through when our spirits are low are cherished; I still have many of mine hanging in my room. Meals, too, are an incredible blessing to the recipient family. Homemade or ordered from a restaurant, it meant one less thing my mom needed to consider after working an eight-hour school day and a three-hour round-trip drive to radiation, thanks to the kindness of whomever dropped dinner on our doorstep that night. If you wish to visit or drop something off with the patient, we would love to thank you and pray with you. Just ask us or our contact before you pop in! As a chemo patient who spends most of her time at home, having a friend visit with a gift or just to entertain me with their time is the truest gift I receive, within the comfort of my own home.

 

Whether the help you give those you know who are struggling in their lives, with cancer or otherwise, is through meals, time, or prayers, each moment of it is felt. Cancer is an uphill battle, and not an easy one to win, so we rely heavily on the body of believers we are surrounded by, which reveals itself in the struggle, to hold us to Him and carry us through.

 

“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially those who are of the household of faith.” – Galatians 6:10

An Open Letter to my momma

Momma,

You are an angel, as is every mother. They give their babies baths, sleep with them on difficult nights, ensure they’re healthy and cared for. Most people forget to be thankful for these little blessings, as they receive them when they, too, are no bigger than a teddy bear.

Thank you, Momma.

Thank you for holding a semi-conscious me on my bathroom floor the night this all started, for telling me you were there, and that the help I know you were dying to give me was coming, in case I didn’t know. Thank you for holding me close so I wouldn’t slip away from you when I passed out again and again; for reassuring me and kissing my head when I told you I thought I was dying, even though I’m sure you worried I was too.

Thank you, Momma.

For smoothing the back of my hand with your thumb, for pulling me up against you when we found out what I had. You doubted what we were doing to treat it and how, but I know each double-check of a doctor or hospital was a double-check that I would be sitting across from you today. Thank you.

Thank you, Momma.

Thank you for sitting in my hospital bed with me as I cried in pain, because in those hot and pain-chased moments, your cool hand on my bare back and your calming voice were an oasis of relief. Thank you for the nights in hospital I couldn’t sleep until 4 a.m. because of medication and “neuro checks”, where you stayed up listening to Michael Scott until I’m sure you dreamed about him.

Thank you, Momma.

Thank you for ignoring my embarrassed testiness, for washing my hair when stretching to do so still was to tender. I’m sure it was a sight easier to wash my hair when I was a baby, before I dared doubting you knew what you were doing. For doing so when I trusted you to avoid hurting my stitches far more than I trusted myself. For brushing my hair so I still felt like myself – well, as much as I could. For giving up your bed from the night it started to sleep at my side, for making me wake you up every time I had to go to the bathroom, just so you knew I made it back okay.

Thank you, Momma.

For being strong in seeing your own mother pass, for showing me the faith I feel in myself, that you knew she was free. Thank you for all the days you drove me out to radiation and stayed with me, though I know you wanted to be holding onto her. Thank you for the days you came home early from her bedside because I was too tired to keep my eyes open, and know I wish I could’ve given you more time.

Thank you, Momma.

Because every time you look at me and are amazed with my resolve, poise, and faith, that’s you. I can’t take credit for being who I am, though I think I’m made out to be a better person than in reality, because that’s you and dad. I didn’t wake myself up and drive myself to church growing up. I didn’t suggest family Bible study when the Devil got the best of me at wake-up time. You raised me to be a firm, trusting Christian, and I can never offer you enough thanks for that. What I’m equally thankful for is how you turned to God in this, making it the easiest thing in the world for me to do the same.

The past six months have given you lots of firsts you’re never prepared for, and you turned to God with each one of them. You showed me how to face challenges head on, build a community around myself, and support them in their struggles the same way they do with mine. You’ve edited my blogs, viewed the Pinterest outfit I just had to show you when it was 3 a.m. and I was hopped up on steroids, offered a cool rag for my head when my chemo made me so sick I couldn’t leave the house. The friends you’ve made who formed prayer circles around me, the school you work at where you raise up more children than myself on a straight path (you are a true angel for that, I couldn’t do it), and the outlets you’ve created for me to share my story are all truer blessings than I could ever sing your praises for. Here’s to many more years of heart-to-hearts, movie marathons, and sitting next to you because I have nothing nice to say. 😉 Thanks for all the years you’ve been a Proverbs 31 package, Mom!

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”

Trusting His Timing

Don’t mistake God’s patience for His absence. His timing is perfect, and His presence is constant. He is always with you! ~Deuteronomy 31:6

In the beginning of my journey with cancer three months ago, it did not occur to me to question God, nor not to trust His purpose in it. A child who doesn’t know how to swim will hesitate to jump into deep water without a parent. They may, however, trust themselves to venture out into the shallows, only to find trouble, as I’m sure many public pool lifeguards can attest. In the same way, when life starts to level out to normal again, I begin to focus inward and rely on my own intuition to handle situations – sounds like I could use a re-read of my own words! Recently, I allowed myself to handle stress and difficulty, and found that returned nothing but more of the same. If I remember to turn to Him, however, I can re-center and not only be more fully equipped to handle life’s challenges, but He can use me as an ambassador to Christianity.

Last week, after eighty-three years on earth and sixty-one as a devoted wife, my Grandmother went home. The first close family death I’ve experienced since before I was too young to understand, her death left me empty with sadness, yet let me rest on the knowledge she was so much better for it. The day before I was supposed to finish radiation, my grandfather called us: my sweet grandmother wasn’t long for the world. We drove down that night and sat at her bedside, reminiscing over the life she’d enjoyed for over eighty years. I was exhausted, and still trying to realize she was leaving us when my dad drove me the two hour drive back home at ten-thirty that night. I sat in bed for an hour, head in my hands, praying to God, asking Him how he could do this to my mother, who’d struggled to watch her own mother battle illness and dementia. She’d remained faithful through that, through my diagnosis, and treatment. We were so close to a break in treatment, a minuscule break in her stress. How could he do this? Then, as usual, God answered my prayers, and I realized I’d been wrong.  His decision to call her home wasn’t about me, or my mother, or what we thought we could handle; it was about my grandmother. Strokes and Dementia left her fighting to stay with us, and He was calling her home so she could rest and watch over us. So, at 11:45 at night, I sent my mother what would be my final words to my Grandmomma:

“Grandmomma, in the past few months I have come to view death drastically different than I did before. Going into my eight-hour brain surgery, I didn’t fear not waking up. I knew if God wanted me, he would take me, and I would be overjoyed for it. For that reason, I am not sad for you. My heart is broken that we’re losing you, but I’m so endlessly happy for you. Your leaving is so painful for us because we have no ability to fathom the joy and love God is about to welcome you home with. You’ll get to see your parents again, you’ll be just as able-bodied and beautiful as you are in that photograph you sent Granddad while he was stationed overseas, where your skirt is splayed across the end of the bed like an old Hollywood glamour shot. You’ve fought so long to stay with your family and see your newest great-grandson come into the world. Remember God’s promise to us in Matthew 11:28: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soul.’ Grandmommy, I cry at losing you here, but I also cry in happiness that you are headed somewhere more beautiful than we could ever understand, free of pain, struggle, and stress under the eyes of God. Your prosperity is not tied to your Earthly body, but to the kingdom of God, and that is the truest act of love He could ever show us. I love you so much, Grandmom. Remember to be an angel in Heaven for Momma and me when you get there; we need you right now. And say hello to John and Ruth Frier from my family. You’re all our angels now.”

God’s timing is perfect, though it’s hard for us to recognize that sometimes, when his timing is related to losing a loved one, or a life-altering diagnosis. As with most things, time allows you to look back and realize part of why God chose when He did for this chapter of your life. If I were not still living at home, or on my parents’ insurance, I would be handling bills and trying to take care of myself, instead of focusing on healing and spreading His word. His timing in this, however, is easy to understand, and to praise Him for: after weeks of blood testing and treatment, I get a month off. Free from radiation, chemo pills, lab tests. It comes right at my family’s Spring Break, where we plan on spending every minute enjoying life together with an appreciation we didn’t have enough of last year. In the positive, it is easy to find God’s reasoning for his timing. In harder times is when we must go to Him and open ourselves to understanding why He chose this timing.

Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but someday you will.” ~John 13:7

Losing my Crowning Glory

“He calls me beautiful one.”

-Song of Solomon 2:13

Cancer means sickness, that much is obvious. What you may not think about upon diagnosis, however, are the losses and rules in your life you will now have hand-delivered to you by cancer, because a tumor taking up residence in your brain isn’t enough to deal with. Chemo and radiation, I’ve noticed, are far less significant to my mental health than still feeling like “me”. During my first day of radiation, my mother had me change into a hospital gown, concerned the neck of my sweater was too high and would interfere with the treatment. She sent a huffy young woman into the dressing room; what she got back was a mess of tears and complaints, sniffled through sobs. Looking at myself in the mirror, I wasn’t me. I was a brain cancer patient, a sickly girl woefully unequipped to climb the mountain she was facing. My mother, for the sake of us both, let me change back before praying with me, reminding me that while I am unequipped, God isn’t. The incident left me with a realization: as important as it has been to me that those around me maintained some sense of normalcy, I craved that feeling too. I wanted to know that, despite my circumstances and what I was going through, I was still me. Having over a golf ball sized chunk of brain mass removed from your skull during a six hour surgery leaves you wondering if you’re all still there, and once you figure out you are, its a feeling you want to hold on to. Each morning, though I’m home alone and the only people I’ll see outside of my family that day are my radiation techs, I get ready the same way I did when I was attending classes on campus. Things have changed: I can’t use certain creams or foundations due to radiation, the dark circles under my eyes have grown (despite my frequent naps from radiation exhaustion), and there’s far less hair to style; but I am still me.

The Bible tells women that “true beauty begins inside,” that our beauty “should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes.” This in mind, I gathered myself after my diagnosis and focused inward; if I am fortified and beautiful inside, my outward changes will have less effect on my outlook. As a medical student and avid internet learner, I wasn’t shocked at the suggestion of losing my hair. If anything, I was determined: this was merely another obstacle in my journey for me to overcome, something God was using to turn my focus inward. Shortly after surgery, left home-bound and bored, I began looking up pixie cuts I thought would fit my face, sending my boyfriend and family members each one for their opinion. I made the decision to donate my eleven plus inches to Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths, which works with the American Cancer Society to provide free wigs to adult cancer patients. Just because I no longer consider my hair my “crowning glory” and am ready to let go, does not mean another woman has made the same decision, and it was very important to me to help the others I now share an unconventional camaraderie with. Small gestures can change someone’s life during a time like this; I only hope my hair would do the same. And no, Dad, I’m not just doing it to get my own hair back as a wig!

This led to me, sitting in my stylist’s chair two weeks ago, hair cut to my neck, showing her photos of my desired hairstyle. “This is short!” she declared, as if I hadn’t noticed, then turning to my mother for nervous backup. “Lana, this is short! This is, like, an inch!” My mother merely smiled back and nodded, and the cutting began. As someone who has never rocked a haircut above shoulder level in my life, razors and scissors so close to my ear were a more precarious procedure than brain surgery. Or so it seemed, as I was unconscious during the latter. The final result was exactly what I wanted: short, sassy, easy to manage. While I do miss the curls and comfort of longer tresses at times, I don’t miss the time or effort. I certainly won’t miss it as it starts to go. Two weeks into radiation, I am already seeing the slightest thinning of my longer swath of hair, left that way to cover my scar, which, ironically, is where the effects of radiation hair loss will be most compounded. Each time I run my hand through the wet strands in the shower, I come out with a collection of golden hair between my fingers, lying as lackluster and lifeless as strands of thread. Though it isn’t easy to watch yourself begin to bald at twenty (I don’t want to look like my old man that much!), five inches are easier to lose than twenty-something. My hair may no longer be my crowning glory, but that’s fine. I’ve traded in my crown for battle gear. I have been chosen for such a time as this to become a warrior: a member of the army of God and in my fight against cancer. I am sure I will soon lose my hair, my skin may be jaundiced, I may wear my exhaustion on my face, but I will glow with the beauty of being a child of God from the inside out. Don’t wait to work on your inner beauty until the you are under the threat of having your outer beauty stripped away. Use His light to beautify yourself within as well, and you will be considered beautiful, prepared for all life has in store for you as an ambassador of God.

 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” -1 Peter 3:3-4

Don’t Hide the Hardships

“But who can feel ugly when their heart feels joy.” ~C.S. Lewis

The diagnosis of brain cancer brings with it many things to adorn you with: a closeness to God, a camaraderie with the other patients in the Oncology suite, and the body of Christ in full force. It also gains you the armor and markings of a warrior, though a less impressive looking warrior than any in the history books. Pin-prick IV marks, a nice, recognizable scar (if you’re lucky like me, it means stubborn baby hair regrowth, too), and, a new addition since Monday, a radiation mask.

Radiation for brain cancer is a tricky thing. The goal of radiation is to target and kill the cancerous cells in the tumor with concentrated beams of energy, though hitting any accidental bystander brain cells could have serious consequences. Since my tumor sits within my short term memory, it could make me a spacey, confused individual. It’s okay, Phoebe was always my favorite character on FRIENDS anyways. The radiation mask exists to hold my head in the exact same position every day I receive radiation to ensure they hit the target spot-on. They wet a mesh plastic mask in warm water, and stretch it over your face like elastic. It forms precisely to your skin and slowly dries in place as they run a CT scan to see your brain’s exact position within the mask. I’ve learned (looking at the photos above) that radiation therapy masks for brain cancer make you look a bit monstrous, but at least I only have to take my earrings off for therapy, and don’t have to worry about changing into a hospital gown. The vain, fashion-obsessed side of me breathed a sigh of relief when I found that out.

After the mask was made, my family met with my Nurse Practitioner, Katie, who will manage my case on a more personal level. As the nurse practitioner, she’s stuck discussing the hard stuff with me, the side effects that the doctors don’t bother much with (as they are busy calculating my radiation dosage), but which can make the treatment a lot less stomach-able.  We discussed the tiredness that comes with therapy, the potential for radiation burns, which can be worsened by any sun exposure. Fortunately, we both acknowledged that my alabaster skin had given me a plethora of experience in avoiding sun exposure. Combating burns is hardly a foreign concept to me.

Then came what seems to be the most buzzed about side effect: the hair. Radiation causes hair loss at the site of treatment. Coupled with the hair loss from chemotherapy, my hair will likely have jumped the metaphorical ship by the end of the year. Before she even mentioned this, however, Katie commented on my scar. She discussed how good it looked (for a stitched together strip of scalp), and mentioned what she considers one of the toughest parts of hair loss: you lose your right to choose. To a lesser extent, this is the same effect of my surgery scar. It’s not a choice whether or not I let people know what’s going on; everyone knows. The first two weeks after surgery, I worked tirelessly to style it, or cover it with a beanie. I wasn’t embarrassed, but wanted to preserve the normalcy of my family and myself when out in public, to not feel eyes linger on me for just a moment too long before pretending they were actually staring at something else. Not that people stare out of malice; I have done this before myself, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a natural human reaction to wonder and feel concern for someone with a clear sign of sickness or injury.

Perhaps what I struggled most with adapting to was church. Vain though it was, leaving my scar uncovered seemed to lessen the formality and work I put into looking my Sunday best. Aside from that fact, there’s only so much you can do with hairspray and a comb to hide something without looking like you’re from the 1980’s. I feared, though I knew no one gave it a second notice, having my scar so exposed was somehow disrespectful, or distracting from the message. Over time, though, I became used to it. It was a part of me, something God allowed to happen so that through this, I could glorify Him. Why wouldn’t He want me to wear it proudly, so that anyone who sees it may be reminded of the great things He can do through us, of what He can save us from? Remembering that, I nodded in response to Katie, telling her this has always been a public journey for me, and reminded myself this is only to serve His purpose.

In eight weeks, I could look just as I do now, with the exception of a new, spunky short haircut to make my life easier. I could also be bald, with a scalp as red as roses. Neither result matters. True, one may attract more attention and be harder to deal with, but I will wear it as a badge of honor in my fight against cancer and in my fight to bring others to God. Do not be afraid to show your flaws, they show others God accepts and loves us in spite of them. Do not be afraid to show your pain, it shows you were strong enough to endure what God carried you through. God has made you new, “he calls [you] beautiful.” Do not let the enemy tell you that you are otherwise. Your scars, whether visible or invisible to the naked eye, are proof you are fighting for Him.

“My prayer is that when I die, all of Hell rejoices that I am out of the fight.” ~C.S. Lewis

Children Laughing, People Passing

God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown Him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. -Hebrews 6:10

The story of the first Christmas teaches us about a number of things: God’s ability to use people the world considers unworthy, His love and forgiveness, and the power of those God uses. Joseph and Mary, both young and poor, depended on strangers’ kindness to help them reach Bethlehem and provide what meager birthplace they could for Christ. I have praised God over and over since the start of my journey for the kindness of those around me, strangers or not. My family knows God can truly use anyone, but I am blessed to be surrounded by the Body of Christ, who pray continually and worship Him beside me, so that I am living by His side through this.

 

The week before my surgery, two family friends were coming over for a planning session with my mother. These sweet women, gifts from God and caretakers to those around them, had taken up the responsibility (read: massive undertaking) of coordinating the help our community wanted to give us: the meal drop-off’s, the care packages, the offers of extra help getting my brother to school. Having just awoke from my long winter’s nap,  of which there were many when I was on my pre-surgery medication, my mother encouraged me to stay on the couch as she went to the door. Moments later, she backtracked on her initial offer, and hurriedly called me to the entryway. I lazily sidled to the front, only to find both myself and her in tears moments later at who stood greeting us. Over fifty people stood on our steps and front lawn, spilling out into the street when there was no more room in our yard to hold them all. Teachers from my mother’s school, boys from my brother’s former high school gymnastics team, scouts and parents from Troop 989; all stood ready to face this with us. I would attempt to explain the joy and power of the Spirit that welled up in me at that moment, the security of knowing I could surely face this with a body of Christ like this surrounding me, but there are no words to describe it. We were called to the center of the circle so the crowd of believers could pray over us, and hands were placed, one after another after another, onto our shoulders. The power of feeling Christ around you, of physically feeling each and every hand on your shoulders as you are prayed over, is unspeakable. It fills you with the kind of fortified and immovable strength that makes you think you could move mountains, if God so willed it. I made it my mission to hug and thank each person there that night; some were faces I had known for years, some I had never met before. Regardless of the familiarity of a face: ages old or completely unknown, the love was the same from each embrace to the next. They are each the body of Christ, ready to lift me up in this, and gifts from God. That night lifted me higher and closer to God than perhaps ever before in my life, left me holding on to Him and ready to face the days ahead. The message of the night was clear. There is a battle ahead, but God has given me an earthly army in the body of Christ to hold me close to Him when I am fearful. They replenish my soul when I am weary. They give me strength when I am faint.

 

Two weeks after surgery, my mom got a text from close family friends. They said they were coming over for dinner, no negotiating, and asked where they should bring dinner from. Let me take a moment, here, to thank each family, friend, and teacher who has brought my family dinner. You don’t understand, until you’re in this situation, how much effort it takes to prepare and cook a meal. My parents work all day and come home to their second job: me. Add to that the fact that my mother was sleeping in my room up to two weeks after surgery for fear I would have another syncopal episode, and you get the picture. She was exhausted. Your meals truly were a blessing. They were one less thing my parents had to worry about, and one more hour we could spend as a family, thanking God we are still together and laughing with one another. Thank you. 

“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” ~Luke 6:38

The night Mr. Mike and Ms. Tena offered to bring us dinner the choice of “where from”, of course, fell to me. As the “sick person” of the family, I get to choose where we eat now pretty consistently. As someone who could never decide where to eat before my surgery (which has only made my indecision worse), I am not thrilled by this. This night in particular, however, the decision was an easy one. Steroids are crazy things, and the only thing I’d been constantly craving since surgery was food that was greasy and devoid of nutritional value, which paired well with the “no exercising” orders from my Occupational Therapist. This led to our formal dining room filled with people, gathered around the gleaming mahogany of our beautiful table, a wedding gift of my parents’. My mother’s linen Poinsettia Christmas tablecloth was already laid out across it in preparation for the Christmas Eve festivities to come. And on top of that? Styrofoam plates laden with the cheapest, greasiest, most delicious fast-food chicken you can find in the South. Or anywhere, since it is a well-known fact the South’s offerings of fried chicken are better than that of the North. Mashed potatoes, gravy, and fries made our plates bend under the weight of the food, and the room resonated with laughter. Ms. Tena and Mr. Mike, I can’t thank you enough for that. Your visit filled me with so much joy and strength. Looking around the room for a moment, my parents weren’t remembering hospital visits, or medication times, or researching variations of gene mutations that affect types of chemo needed; they were enjoying the company and conversation, with joyful hearts and eyes teary from laughter. It was a blessing and a strength, and I will never be able to describe the gift from God you were to my family that night, or Christmas Eve, or each night you have been there throughout this journey.

 

I have always loved the holidays, in part, because of the people. Even those I don’t know bring me that holiday warmth I’ve written about. Thousands upon thousands of adults, of different backgrounds and views, work tirelessly each year towards one goal: to keep Santa alive in the hearts of children. Much closer to my heart, however, are the people who pass in and out of our house over the course of these two months. The friends, family, and community members who bring with them blessings of gifts, prayers, and joyful spirits. John 3:16 explains that God gave us the gift of eternal life through His Son. With Him came the gift of the Holy Spirit, then the body of Christ. Each year at Christmas, we seek to be more like Him by giving of ourselves, as the body of Christ filled with the Holy Spirit, to others. So often this is overshadowed by the shine and material promises of the presents lying patient under the tree, but this Christmas has been different, for many reasons. I am constantly reminded of the true gift through the believers around me: in them and of them. You are letting His light shine through you, and I praise God He has blessed me with such a strong community of believers, especially around the holidays, to fill my home and my family’s hearts with love, joy, and blessings. You are becoming more like Him every day, leaving us awash in His light as we stand, facing the path God has created for me, with your hands on our shoulders.

Christmas may be past; but just as God’s gift to us lasts, so do the effects of your kindness and prayers. You offer a testimony with each act of faith and assistance to us.

“And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” ~1 John 5:11