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