Sunday, January 3, 2016

Epiphany and Gifts - A message of Hope.

This is the text from the message I delivered to my church family on January 3, 2016. Please ignore the grammar as this is more of a "notes" than an exact presentation. I went off script and basically used this as an outline, but I touched on every part of this text.  It was an honor to speak and hopefully someone came away with something positive from the experience.  



Good morning and Happy New Year.  Today is Epiphany Sunday.  This time during the Christmas Season represents the gifts brought by the Wise Men to the manger.  It also marks the end of the Christmas season.  When I read about this I thought about the Christmas season in today’s time verses the Christmas season during the time of the birth of Jesus.  We think of Christmas with excitement, anticipation leading up to one specific day – Christmas Day.  Then it is often followed by a sudden letdown, like someone bursting a bubble.  Before this day, we have special church services, parties, gift giving and goodies, but once the presents have been opened and we have had too much food and celebration all in one day, we are left with a mess to clean up, sometimes too many bills and stress from overindulging for just one day.  But according to biblical history.  The Christmas season BEGINS with Christmas Day, the day of Jesus’ birth and continues afterward for 12 days, celebrating the joyous times ending with the epiphany, the journey to bring gifts to a special baby.  So today marks the last Sunday of the Christmas season and the delivery of special gifts. 

Back in the fall, Pat stopped me as I was leaving a church dinner and said, “You need to tell your story and I would like for you to do that on January 3rd.”  This threw me for a loop and I just looked at her and said, “Umm, I don’t think I can do that.”  She had said this to me several times before while visiting me after surgeries or while I was hospitalized, but it never crossed my mind that there was even a “story to tell.  She asked me to think about it and I promised I would, but I had absolutely no intention of speaking in front of a crowd, even my church family whom I love dearly.  I have recently been struggling with horrible anxiety and panic attacks, I’ve been at probably the lowest point in my life over the past few months, I’m emotional and more dramatic than usual, which can be really dramatic. I’ve had days when I just struggled to get out of bed and days when I truly felt like giving up on life itself.  I was given hormone medicine to deal with my cancer, then because of a reaction suddenly taken off of them, leaving me all over the place, emotionally.  I often cry for no reason, yell at those who love me for no reason, seem irritated for no reason and panic to the point of not being able to breathe. I’m not the person that should be speaking in front of a crowd right now.  But then one day, several weeks after I was asked, I sent Pat a text message and told her that I would speak on January 3rd if she still needed me to.  As soon as I pressed send on the phone, I thought what in the world have I done?  I actually sent this in the middle of the medication reaction which caused me to do many irrational things over several days.   But, Pat was excited and I didn’t’ have the heart to tell her it was a mistake.  So here I am, a nervous wreck, up here speaking to you and I hope that I will get through this without having an anxiety attack and that you will come away with something positive by the end.

The past few weeks have been a struggle for me trying to decide what to say, AND what not to say.  I met with Pat just before Christmas because I still had no idea what I was supposed to speak about.  When we met, I told her that I just didn’t know what she expected me to say. She told me that the Sunday I would be speaking is Epiphany Sunday, which was perfect because she wanted me to speak to you about the gifts I have been given over the past several years.  I thought, WELL SHE HAS the wrong person.  I’m sure the look on my face threw her for a loop but I thought she must be crazy to think that I had been given any GIFTS in the past several years.  She had been right there and witnessed all that I have been going through and she wanted me to talk to you about gifts?

Who am I to speak about some wonderful gifts I’ve received?  I told her that I just didn’t think I could do this because right now in my life I’m not really in a good, positive place.  If I stand here and speak honestly, I feel broken.  I feel bitter sometimes and angry on many days.  I’m tired, I feel physically sick most of the time, and weak and frustrated.  I’ve been diagnosed with cancer twice in just over three years.  I’ve had three major surgeries, nearly died and had so many follow up procedures that required being put to sleep that I’ve lost track.  I could talk about losing my esophagus or part of my breast.  I could talk about going months without being able to eat or drink, with a feeding tube attached to my body or living with several chest tubes draining because of excessive fluid in my lungs.  I could talk about throwing up almost every day over the past years, or the exhaustion and sick feeling from radiation.  I could talk about being displaced from a job that I loved.  I could talk about all of the negative things.  It is so easy to have a pity party, but I have to talk about gifts? Pat smiled and said, “Yes, speak about where you are right now in your life because sometimes the gifts come when we are most broken”. 

Over the next days I began to really think about our conversation and what gifts I may have not recognized.  So I am going to tell you about my gifts in the midst of my struggles.

In 2012, I was diagnosed with Esophageal Cancer, then Barrett’s Esophagus.  I began a rollercoaster ride of physical and emotional ups and downs that many people could not comprehend.  Three years later, just as I was beginning to feel like my life was on the way back to “normal”, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer.  The first cancer nearly killed me physically, the second diagnosis has nearly killed me emotionally. 

There are so many cliché’s, catchphrases and symbols related to cancer.  These are often attempts to help make the person struggling with cancer feel better about their situation.  My first experience with cancer was so different from my second.  The first time, my situation was rare and there weren’t many resources to help me learn what to expect. Things moved so quickly after my diagnosis that I didn’t’ have time to think, or process what was happening.  I didn’t have much opportunity to experience the whole “cancer support world”.  I had many surgeries, things went terribly wrong and I was left without cancer, but fighting for my life due to the aftermath of having your esophagus removed, and having things go “wrong” during the procedure.  When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I felt like somebody hit me between the eyes and knocked me to the floor.  When I came to terms with hearing the word “cancer” again so soon, I thought “OK, you know what to expect, let’s get moving”.  I soon realized that breast cancer is completely different from esophageal cancer.  Things moved much slower with breast cancer.  I was diagnosed in May, and left waiting for what seemed like an eternity for a plan of treatment.  The first illness, I had someone with me almost the entire time, it was almost mandatory.  It seemed like time stood still while I recovered.  This time, I felt so alone.  I was on at a stand still, while everyone else’s life continued on without me.  Others lives do not stop because you have cancer and that was difficult for me to handle.   I know that I was not truly alone in this, but I felt lonely and lost.  During this waiting period was when I began to be overwhelmed with the cancer cliché’s – and I began to despise them. Some of them were:

It’s your journey – NO – It is like someone has kidnapped me, locked me in the trunk and is taking me to a place I’ve been before and would rather not return to.

Or

That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – No, I was strong the first time, this time I’m weak, scared and feel like I don’t have it in me to fight.

Or

Fight like a girl – Well I was always told that “girls don’t fight” so where does that fit in?

Or

You’re a Survivor – Ok that one is true, I AM just trying to survive through this nightmare, but I don’t think that is what they mean.

And then there was so much pink – pink shirts, pink hats, pink decals and stickers and bags.  I tried so hard to buy into the “pink”.  I had pink shirts and notebooks and pens and bags and bracelets, but the truth is, I never liked the color pink before my cancer and now the color pink just makes me sick to my stomach sometimes.

And I’ve heard a million times “You look great!” and “You don’t look sick”.  I know it is always well meaning and positive, but sometimes I’d just like to show you my insides so you can see how messed up I really am.  Trust me, you wouldn’t want me to “LOOK” as sick as I am.

So here I am on this “journey”, trying to convince myself that I’m strong and I’m a fighter and a survivor, all the while I feel sick and frustrated and angry and scared. This was not the life I have dreamed of.  And it is not a battle I want.  I’ve always struggled with being a negative thinker.  I’ve made so many mistakes in my life.  I’ve failed over and over again.  I have a job that makes me feel stuck with little chance for advancement.  I have a lot of uncertainty in my relationships and I have been battling with cancer for almost 4 years. I feel beat up and like a failure most of the time.  It’s so easy for me to recognize the negative, but I’ve had to work to change the way I normally think over the past days so that I can get to a place where I can tell you about some of the gifts. 

1.     When I returned to work after my first illness, I was placed in a different job.  I have struggled with this because I felt like I was being punished for being sick.   My dream had always been to have a job that allowed me to travel so as I felt healthier, I thought more about finding a new job.  I stumbled across a job that really intrigued me.  It was traveling as an instructional software coach.  I had teaching experience and had given software instruction to adults, so I was excited at this possibility.  I applied for the job and went through 3 interviews, making it to the final decision.  I didn’t get the job.  As upsetting as it was, I now realize that God was giving me a gift.  I have a stable job, where I’ve been working for over a decade.  I have health insurance and accumulated sick and paid days over time, which I would desperately need later when I was diagnosed a second time with cancer.  I had no idea at the time, but now I see this was a gift from God. I'm thankful to have my job.

2.     There have been times when I’ve had no idea how I was going to pay bills, or financial obligations, especially since being ill.  I’ve worried many days and nights about my debt.  God has provided for me each time that I was to the point of not having enough.  I’ve received anonymous donations in mailed cards, gift cards for restaurants during days I was in radiation and waiting for my paycheck to arrive.  I was given a donation from my church family just as I was trying to figure out how to pay for a hotel during radiation.  This is only an example of the wonderful financial gifts I’ve received that eased the burden of the past few years. A gift from God, through caring friends and even strangers.

3.     I am a single mother. Raising a child alone is not easy, believe me sometimes it was a huge struggle and I’ve felt like a failure more times than I want to admit. God gave me the gift of a beautiful daughter that I was able to provide for and help guide into a wonderful, successful young woman.  Looking at her now, I can see that this was God’s most precious gift to me.  I’m so thankful for this gift. 

4.     My parents sacrificed tremendously for me.  Always seeming to help me out of bad decisions and the obstacles of life as a single mom.  They were there without fail during my first illness and gave so much.  When I was diagnosed a second time, I was stubborn, trying to handle it alone because I felt like such a burden.  This stubbornness and determination lead me to feel very alone and abandoned during my second cancer situation.  God gave me the gift of parents who are still with me and have given unselfishly throughout my life and most recently during my illness.  They NEVER fail to be there for me supporting me and helping me along the way.

5.     I was originally sent to UNC after my first diagnosis.  I decided to get a second opinion and called Duke.  With that phone call, God gave me the gift of a caring, knowledgeable, medical team that would see me through years of healing.  In particular, he led me to a nurse practitioner named Kathy, who has been my biggest advocate and medical blessing through all of this.  When I was diagnosed with the breast cancer, the first person I contacted was Kathy at Duke.  Even though this wasn’t her department, she immediately formed a team of surgeons and oncologists to help me through my breast cancer. Kathy has been a blessing to me from the very beginning and has become a lifelong friend.  God gave me the gift of Kathy being the one who answered my call to Duke that first day.  She listened to my story, took my case to the right doctors and has seen me through every little medical issue since then.  

6.     God has also given me many angels on earth during this struggle.

The first was a lady who contacted me on Facebook just after my first diagnosis.  She is well known in the community, although I had never met her before.  She sent me a heartwarming message and asked to meet me.  Just prior to my first surgery, my mom drove me to a parking lot in uptown Rockingham, where I met Cathy Wilson.  She gave me a devotional book, prayed with me and promised to keep me in her thoughts.  She has steadfastly been there to encourage me, pray for me and offer her loving support, even in the midst of her own struggles and those of her family.  She is a gift.

The second angel on earth was the emergency room doctor at Moore Regional the night I was taken in, near death.  Dr. Strobel, sat outside of my door, constantly on the phone with Duke and worked tirelessly, along with his team to keep me alive until the helicopter arrived.  There were times that even he was fearful I wouldn’t make it, but he never gave up on me.  A year after that night, I learned that Dr. Strobel not only had his church family pray for me during the weeks after that night, but he continued to pray for me with his family and check on my progress along the way through a mutual friend.   I’m alive today because of the gift of Dr. Strobel.

Along with Dr. Strobel that night in the ER, was another angel on earth named Beth.  I didn’t remember Beth from that night.  The doctors told me that they were going to put me on life support because I was struggling too hard on my own.  They couldn’t get me vented, and had to call the heart center.  I was completely out of it to the point that I literally saw lights and was speaking to my Aunt who had passed away recently. I think I might have been pretty close to the end.  I don’t remember anything after them telling me they were putting me on a ventilator.  Almost a year after that night, I ran into an old childhood friend, Beth.  She began talking about the night I was in the ER and how bad it was.  I learned that my childhood friend Beth and the nurse Beth were the same person.  She not only helped get the ventilator placed, but sat by my side until the helicopter arrived.  Beth is a gift.

Back in the summer, my radiation was at 7am each morning, five days a week for a month.  I was miserable from the beginning.  I didn’t want to be there.  I whined to myself how this wasn’t fair and I was just angry with the world.  I went every day and tried to put on the brave face and smile, all the while feeling bitter.  I watched people in the waiting room, with loved ones and friends and I always felt so alone.  I would fight back tears so that the radiation team wouldn’t know how difficult this was for me.  One morning after a tough appointment I was waiting for my car.  I was irritated and beginning to get horrible anxiety.  I sat on a bench and could just feel the anger and resentment building as I waited for the valet to bring my car.  A man who I had spoken to each morning in passing came and sat beside me. His name was Larry.  Our appointments were back to back so we saw each other every morning and always said hello.  We began watching people around us as we waited.  I was still irritated, but noticed a calmness in the man beside me.  We watched as people were arguing with the valets and security about their cars and the traffic and how busy it was and how slow they were.   Larry, in his calm voice looked at me with a big smile and said, “I guess they’ve never dealt with cancer like us, or they would realize how those little things don’t matter”.  I realized how I had been just as guilty of letting the little things get to me as all of those around me, even as I was battling cancer.  Larry and I both were dealing with cancer, but Larry was so positive and I was only seeing the negative.  Larry, his wife and I ended up spending quite a bit of time together during those weeks.  Both of them had a positive, calming outlook that carried me through some tough days.  As I got to know them, and opened up to them about my life I realized that although our lives outside of cancer were completely different, we shared a very strong bond.  I still keep in touch with them today and know that God sent Mr. Larry and Mrs. Kathy to me as a gift.

7.     God has given me the gift of placing Spencer in my life.  He also has a calming, positive outlook on things which is such a good balance to my negative, anxiety, overreacting self.  I’m not sure how he can sometimes handle me when I’m angry at some little thing completely out of my control, or when I spontaneously burst into tears for no reason, or when I am ready to just give up and move on because things aren’t perfect.  No matter what, he always remains calm, and is so sure everything will be ok, even as I tell him how wrong he is.

God has given me a loving church family, friends that continue to stay in my life even when I retreat and put up walls, and the strength to continue to face every obstacle placed in front of me.  These are just a few of the gifts I have been given through this journey and I’m so thankful for all of them.

So Pat was right – I have received many gifts from God. These gifts may not have been wrapped in pretty packages, or placed right before me so that they were instantly recognizable as gifts, but they are still most precious.   I hope that one day, as I continue on this path, I will feel less broken and more like things are coming into a good positive place in my life. I’m a work in progress and I’m still pretty wrecked, but as I continue to heal both physically and emotionally, and as I move forward, I pray that God continues to send these wonderful life gifts my way and I also pray that I find the wisdom to recognize them when they are placed in front of me.

In closing, I’d like to say that we all have struggles and things we are dealing with.  My struggles are no worse than the things you may be going through.  As we transition into a new year, with a fresh start and clean slate, I hope that we can all better recognize the true gifts that God places at our feet, just as the wise men traveled to place such important gifts at the foot of the manger, so long ago.  Let’s bow our heads as I say a prayer:

Dear Lord,
As we go out into your world, and continue our journey through life, Lord please help us to remember that not all of your gifts are wrapped in pretty paper.  Give us thankful eyes to see all of your wonderful gifts in disguise.  Amen





Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Blessings!


I plan to write more about my experience in the hospital when I'm stronger.  Today, I just wanted to write something about blessings.

I have learned that blessings can come in the most unexpected forms, from the most unexpected places and the most unexpected people.  Sometimes we recognize blessings right away.  Sometimes it isn't until much later that we realize we received an unrecognized blessing.

Over the past weeks, I have received so many blessings I can't imagine listing them all.  Many of those blessings came from people who I would least expect.  I am so thankful for the blessings God has put before me recently, but more than that, I'm thankful for the new ability to recognize how blessed I am.

I've gained so much strength and faith through this experience.  I could have never imagined that such a horrible time in my life would end up being the biggest blessing of all, in so many ways.

I've said many times that I am a lucky girl.  A friend of mine recently reminded me that I'm not lucky................I am BLESSED!

I hope to continue to write more about my experience as I get settled at home and become stronger.

Right now, I just want to thank everyone who took the time to pray, help, listen and be there for me.  You will never know how much those small gestures mean to me.  THANK YOU!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Let Go and Let God!

One of the toughest things I have had to learn over the past weeks is how to let things go.  By nature, I have always wanted to "fix" the people and things around me. 

One of the first things my GI doctor told me when he gave me my original test results was "It is important for you to make yourself a number one priority." I thought I'd know how to fight for myself because I'm so good at fighting for others, but it hasn't been that easy. I have no idea how to put myself first.

Not once have I felt sorry for myself during this time.  I've tried to stay positive and make the best decisions in order to get through this and on the other side of it.  I am amazed and so blessed to have the wonderful support and the many prayers from friends and strangers.  Its overwhelming to say the least.  It has also been difficult to accept this outpouring of support at times.  If you have known me for any amount of time, you know that I am very hard on myself. No one loves beating myself up more than me.  I'm better at it than any of my enemies. There have recently been times that I have thought I don't deserve all of the support because what I am going through must surely be God's way of punishing me for all of the "bad" things I have done in my life.  A part of me feels that this is my sentenence for my past mistakes both big and small.  That is the part that has been so difficult to let go.

I have made so many mistakes in my life. I have hurt people and I have been hurt.  I'll bet there is not a person out there who hasn't made mistakes becuase none of us are perfect, but I beat myself up forever over my past mistakes - big or small. 

I'm trying to learn that I've punished myself enough for my past mistakes and now its time to let it all go and move forward.  I am a good person.  I am a caring person and I deserve the best chance in the world to get through this illness and live a healthy, happy life.  If someone believes otherwise, its time to remove them from my life, pray for them and let it go.

As tomorrow approaches, I can't help but be nervous and scared about my future.  I honestly don't know what the next days, weeks and months will bring but I do know I've made the best decision I can for my health and well being in hte long term and now I have to put the rest in God's hands.

I have been blessed in so many ways recently and those are the thoughts and blessings I'm choosing help to carry me forward.  The next days and weeks will require every ounce of strength I have and negative thoughts and hurtful people can no longer have room in my head and heart.  Its time for me to learn that I cannot fix everything and everyone around me so now I'm concentrating "fixing me". 

One of my former co-workers gave me a tiny box with several dolls.  They are Guatemalan Worry Dolls. The legend is that people in Guatemala, especially children use the dolls to help shed their worries.  You tell each doll one of your worries, then place the doll under your pillow before you go to bed as you say a prayer.  The doll will take away your anxiety for that worry and leave you to sleep peacefully waking the next morning with the worry behind you.  I will be sleeping with the dolls under my pillow tonight.



I have felt the love and prayers each day as I approach my surgery and it helps me let go of all the other stuff.  I know that God has this and the only thing left for me to do is be ready to work hard at recovering so that I can live a full, meaningful life.  Tomorrow is my second chance to begin a new "normal".  I'm ready.

Psalm 55:22 Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cancer Sucks - Life Interrupted


My first experience with cancer was during my teen years when my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Eventually, the cancer spread to the bones and although she fought a long hard battle, cancer won the war.  I didn't really understand what cancer meant at that time but I knew I hated the word.  At 17 years old, I drove my Nanny to Pinehurst and waited while she had chemotherapy treatment.  I'll never forget how sick she was and how hard she battled for her life during that time.  I'll also always remember the last time I saw her and how much it hurt to lose someone I loved so much before I was ready.

My next personal experience with cancer was when my aunt was diagnosed with a form of leukemia.  She battled cancer for years and thought she had beat it several times.  I thought if anyone could win against this disease it was Faye Carpenter.  She was the toughest person I knew, but in the end cancer won the war.  This time, I watched cancer take an emotional toll on my daughter when she lost her favorite aunt and someone who she had such a close relationship with.  That was one of the most difficult times of our life and I prayed I would never again have to see my daughter experience the pain of knowing someone she loves has cancer.

Almost a year to the date of my Aunt Faye's death, cancer deicded to attack my family again.  This time the battle is with me.  Now, that word I hate so badly, the word that has taken so many of my loved ones is now trying to take me on.  If you know me, you know I often joke that things rarely go "my way".  I seem to have to fight harder than most for everything and my life has been one hard knock after another.  Some of this is my own fault and the result of bad decisions and some of it just dropped into my life for reasons unknown.  I've often complained that my life is difficult, that I have to fight for every little thing and that I always seem to need to work harder than most for much less.   I know now that was God's way of making me strong and preparing me for this battle. 

For as far back as I remember I have worked 2 jobs, sometimes 3 to support my little family.  I always took for granted the thought that things were going along well, that I was making it and my life was "working".  I never realized that things were fine as long as every little thing went as planned without interruptions or unexpected problems.  Every once in awhile a little snag would come along but I was able to figure out a way to get by and keep moving forward.  Then came cancer.  I'm learning that cancer is nothing like the little snags in my life plan I have experienced before.  Cancer tries to not only destroy your body, but your financial state, your emotional state and the entire life you have taken for granted.

I hate that cancer is making my life so difficult.  I hate that it has interrupted my plans and taken away my ability to make decisions.  I know I'm going to need to get past the anger of how this disease is trying to destroy my life and I'm going to learn to handle this and keep battling.  I can learn to be tougher than I was.  The one thing I hate more than what cancer is doing to me is having to watch what MY cancer is doing to my family.  I can handle just about anything.  I can deal with what cancer is trying to do to my life, but when I see cancer hurt my family it makes me more angry than anyone can imagine.  

I have always tried to take care of the people in my life.  I try to make everyone happy.  It bothers me when people around me are sad or in need.  This characteristic has gotten me in trouble more times than I'd like to admit, but its my nature and I'm not sure it will ever change.  I don't really know how to put myself first or take care of me and that will probably be one of the hardest lessons throughout this.  I want to make everything OK for the people I love.  I feel a tremendous amount of guilt when I see the burdens they are dealing with because of me. I'm not sure how to deal with those emotions. I don't like that cancer is trying to take over my life but I HATE that it is trying to destroy the happiness of the people I love the most.

I saw a poster recently with 2 powerful words - "Cancer Sucks".  That about sums it up.  This disease is evil and can strike anyone without notice, but it doesn't stop with the one whose body it invades.  It takes over the lives of everyone around its target and for that I hate cancer!