Saturday, January 9, 2016

Cancer is too real to be ignored

I am a breast cancer survivor. It's been eighteen years since the day of that discovery when I found myself having to take it all in then to find myself in the midst of a number of surgeries, radiation treatments,a prolonged chemotherapy  regime, hair loss, nausea, and a plethora of diagnostic tests and biopsies to follow with the threat that my invasive cancer would return with a vengeance. I also came to realize we don't go through these times alone, for everything about our lives affect the lives of others. 
Even though years have passed since my first cancer revelation, the concern and fears for a return or a new cancer is in the back of both the doctors' minds as well as we who go through it. It has not been an easy time for me, for my husband, or for my family. We, unfortunately, continue to live with the possibility that mom and wife might once again have to go through the difficult experience and that other members of our family might be about to go through the same. If it wasn't for God and His grace I know it would have been much more difficult for us all. 
Recently, I discovered I am also a BRCA 1+ mutant.  It suggests that because of the numerous other members of my family both near and far who have gone through their own cancer experiences, I am not the  only one who carries this gene mutation. It appears to be rampant in my family's history.
We all carry the BRCA gene, I don't know if you knew. The gene itself is a normal thing, but the BRCA 1+ and 2+ mutations are not. The list of mutations that are related to BRCA add to the abnormalities we have to face. These particular ones run in high risk families including my own. The mutation along with a list of those others that surround it puts a woman and a man at very high risk for future cancers --  breast cancers, ovarian cancers, pancreatic cancers, several other forms of cancer. 
Learning of this has made me realize I have more likely than not passed along this mutation to my children, My children, in turn, could have passed it along to theirs. I've put my children and children's children at the same risk as me. I have put my daughter at risk for I have recently learned, she, too, has discovered she has also joined the BRCA1+ family.
Because I carry the BRCA mutation, and I've already had cancer once, I made a choice I thought I would never have to make. After going through my last open biopsy this previous Summer (I've lost count of how many I've gone through over the last several years -- Really there are too many to count), I finally decided enough was enough. It was then I decided to be tested; it was then I chose to get a (survivor) prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction as well as the prophylactic hysterectomy that would lower my risk for ovarian cancer and be necessary regardless of the difficulties i might have by going through the experiences. (Reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy is something completely different from augmentive surgery which is more for the purpose of aesthetics' sake).  
I knew this wouldn't be easy for me or for my husband. I knew there might be difficulties for me during this process, and indeed I was correct about that. I'm no spring chicken anymore. I have this uncanny way of catching all the side effects one might catch in the process of cancer elimination. Because of past radiation and chemotherapy, infections abound inside my body (fun) but that's another story.
I will get through this and I am blessed to have a husband whose care for me has shown itself in the ways he's cared for me through this trying time. And for the sake oft my family  I know this is right. At least this can be one area of my life that will remove the fear my family has that I might get breast cancer again or ovarian cancer as has happened to so many others in this family of mine through the last several decades. This experience will take one step of worry off the table. 
With the prayers of loved ones, God can deal with the rest as it comes. He always has and always will.
For my family and likely for yours, I'm sure you will agree, cancer is too real to be ignored. 
My author friend Claire Fullerton has written a timely feature which deals with the very cancer of which I speak. I believe her feature is appropriate for anyone reading this now who've experienced cancer in their families. I hope it will minister to you as it has today to me. 

One of Us Has Breast Cancer
by Claire Fullerton

After a year and three months, we're just now coming up for air.  Surprisingly, it has taken this long to rise to the top, for we have been overwhelmed ever since we got the news that one of us has breast cancer.  I come from the south and grew up in a tight-knit circle of friends that can best be likened to the workings of a bee hive, so when something happens to one of us, in many ways, it happens to us all. 

It's funny the way the unexpected presents itself, how you never see it coming and how you can be going along with your life, making your plans and assume that they're going to be a certainty by virtue of the fact that you've made them.  That's exactly where things stood when we got the news about Tama.

One of us from our enclave in the South now lives in Sun Valley, Idaho.  Her name is Louise and she's the larger than life, funny one.  Louise has a sense of humor that literally reduces her to tears, and it tends to be contagious. She's also the organizer and plan maker who got it in her head one day to have Tama and me fly out to her home in the mountains for an extended weekend.  Tama and I immediately fell in line: our husbands were alerted, our dates were set, and our plane tickets were secured. Tama and I were on our way; she from her home in Memphis and I from mine in L.A.  Eight days before our scheduled departure, my phone rang.  I looked at the display illuminating Louise's name and thought, "No doubt some sort of instruction is coming," but it turned out that wasn't the case.  When I picked up the phone, Louise was crying.

 "What is it?" I asked. 

"Tama has breast cancer," Louise said without preamble.

"What?" I questioned again, only this time, with an entirely different inflection.  This time, I meant two things: Did I hear you correctly?  How in the world could this possibly be true?

I'll say this about all of us reared in the South: we know how to do. We know how to step up, we know the perfect gesture for everything, no matter what you're talking about, and we know how to meet all of life's emergencies. We pretty much slide into an automated code of proper behavior because that's what our Southern mothers passed down to us. We don't talk about it amongst ourselves, it's all just the way things are because it was expected of us while growing up, and now we expect it from each other.

"What should we do? "I asked Louise, because it was the first thing that sprang to mind.

"I think we should call off ya'll coming out here," Louise said.

"Alright, is that what Tama wants to do?" I asked.

"Tama doesn't know what she wants to do. Her family is freaking out," Louise reported.

"I'm not going to call her today- when did she find out?"

"Yesterday," Louise interjected. "They called with her mammogram results, said they found a mass and wanted to do a biopsy, which Tama didn't bother to tell us, and now they're telling her it's cancer. Now she's telling us."

"I don't even know what to say," I exhaled.

"Call Tama tomorrow anyway," Louise directed. 

You have to know Tama. I spent many years thinking Tama was the quiet sort but now I know better; Tama just doesn't let on.  What she is, is a woman of few words.  She's not one of those superfluous talkers; she simply contributes to a conversation with as few words as possible and leaves the floor to everybody else.  She doesn't feel the need to position herself front and center, and this is exactly why Louise and I have always deferred to her. 

"Hey Tama, Louise called me," I said to her on the phone the next day.

"It's always something," Tama said. 

"Seriously, is there anything I can do?"

"Yes, come over here and tell my kids I'm not dead yet," Tama said, deflecting the gravity of the moment. 

The three of us went on that way for days, backing and forthing over the telephone, vacillating between drama and sarcasm, comparing thoughts and notes and ideas and stories of who has gone through something similar and achieved a happy outcome, until Tama's doctors presented her with a concrete, step-by-step agenda that would begin within the month.

For somebody handed a rule book on conduct at birth, I was still uncertain of what to say or do for my childhood friend. One has to have a frame of reference in some things and I just didn't have one for breast cancer, or any other serious illness that came down the pike for one of us. 

"We need to get a plan," Louise declared over the phone.

"Good idea," I said.

"I think ya'll should still come out here," she said. "Tama says she may as well wait out here for the inevitable."

"Alright, let's airlift Tama on outta there, we may as well," I agreed.

I've found out that it's the little things you do in support of a friend who has breast cancer that end up truly mattering.  For four unscheduled days, we followed Tama's lead, monitoring the understandable, yet unpredictable fluidity of her emotions and finding the delicate balance between activity and restorative reprieve.   We had lunch with Louise's friends in Sun Valley, went shopping and took long walks on the mountain trails. When Tama teared up, we teared up ( Ya'll, let me cry now because I'm not going to cry in front of my husband or my kids when I get home," Tama said) and when the look on her otherwise stoic face suggested she was overwhelmed, we simply retreated to Louise's house and took a nap, no matter the time of day.  We spent a lot of time talking about our intertwined childhoods, our histories and our families, yet oddly enough, we didn't spend a lot of time dwelling on what was to come for Tama in the following months.  For whatever reason, Tama just wanted to be, and Louise and I had the unspoken graciousness to just be right alongside her. 

It's been a year and three months now, and in that time, the harrowing, incremental dynamic of Tama's breast cancer has included multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, hair loss, on-going hives and reconstructive surgery.  As friends in support, Louise and I kept vigil by demanding blow-by-blow details, sending presents, making phone calls and hanging on every twist and turn of her progress.  It appears that the worst is behind her, as there is no sign of the cancer's return, Tama's hair has grown back beautifully and she looks and feels like a glowing million dollars.  

In my heart of hearts, I believe that Tama will forever be one of the fortunate breast cancer survivors, and although there were times during her travails when I questioned whether anything I could do would ever be enough, since then I have realized that it is enough just to try and it is enough just to be there in support and camaraderie alongside your friend.


With God's grace, we can survive these difficult times with the help of one another. How important it is to be an encouragement to a friend or loved one when he or she needs it most. I hope you will make yourself available to those you care about when they need you the most.  i pray they will be there for you.  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Handmaidens of the Lord

The Handmaiden

As women of God we are given various traits of character.  Do you recognize some of yours?

Mary, the young handmaiden of God, was not so different from you or me.  She had faith, she was obedient, she was quiet in spirit, humble of heart, meditative, tender-hearted, and she chose to be a willing servant. Mary was loving, very devout, and truly blessed.  

But Mary, like us, was in need of a savior, declaring it so in the Scriptures and in her prayers. 

Her story is a familiar one. To the scoffers her story is difficult to believe for it was and is a miracle, real and alive then, continuing to be after over 2000 years. 

I've often wondered what might have gone through Mary’s mind when she discovered she was going to be pregnant and carry the Son of the Most High.  

I came across a Diary the other day.  It’s possible the hand-written journal was hers.  Let me read to you what it said and you can decide for yourself.

Dear Diary. I must write this down for it is a miracle which i must share with someone. 

I was just sitting on the floor of my room looking out my window.  The sunbeams  poured in on my face as they flooded through the panes.  I had been daydreaming  most of the day, just thinking…about things.  That sort of thing happens a lot when you’re fourteen, like me.

While I sat there in the dust, I overheard a few old ladies carrying on in the other room. They were talking about me.  I probably shouldn’t have been listening but I was. 

Here is what I heard.

“Did you go to the betrothal yesterday?” asked one.
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” said another.  “I cried.”
“It was so beautiful,” added a third.

“Well,” said the first, “it’s about time something was done. I had heard a while backJoe got himself a wife.  He’s getting up there in age – needs some kids around the shop. At his pace, he can't keep at his job all alone for much longer.”
“But he’s too old for HER!” the oldest one in the room said to the others. “The girl is only fourteen," she spouted a bit too noisily. "Joe is nowhere near twenty like other young men who should be showing interest in her. Indeed, the man is well over 30 years old ... maybe even more.”
“Oh well,” I heard someone say before they left the room. “You know how it is with some of these youngsters these days.  They’ll marry anybody just to get away from home."

Before the door closed, their voices faded after someone said,  "I  Wonder if Mary can cook.”
I went back to my daydreaming shortly after that.  

Betrothed!  They didn't have it quite right for I was actually engaged.  I could hardly wait for my year to be over so that Joseph and I could have the actual wedding ceremony. I knew it was part of tradition.  All the other girls had to wait. I was no different.

I continued my daydreaming, until I suddenly heard this loud voice behind me.  

“Greetings, you, who are highly favored.  The Lord is with         you!”

I looked up I saw this huge figure of a man standing over me.  It scared me.  After all, I was just a peasant girl.  What could he want of me?

“Do not be afraid Mary,” he said.  “You have found favor          with God.”

What did he mean favor with God?  Who was this man?

“You will be with child, a son will be born, and you will name        him Jesus” 

Oh goodness! I thought.  He must not have known I was not yet married

Even so, he went on. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him his father David’s throne; He will reign in Jacob’s house – His kingdom will never end.”

King David? Had he been speaking about him?  

I knew I was his descendant (one of many) but this meant my son would be the prophesied Messiah of old.  Hearing this, I was stunned!  But the man sounded insistent. 

Was he an angel?  I had to respond.

“How can this be?” I asked him.  “I am but a virgin” (He just had to have known I wasn’t yet married.)

Then he explained. “Dear child – the Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the most high will overshadow you. The holy one to be born will be the Son of God!”

My thoughts raced and I pondered not too little.  If this should be true, who would ever believe me?  What would Joseph say?  Most likely he would write me up a divorcement as soon as I started showing and leave me home with mother!  My son would be …. well, I didn’t dare say the word.  The neighbors would shun him from the beginning.  

I almost started crying.  I felt sick inside.  What would I do? My son would be so ill treated.  I would be an outcast!  I felt trapped.  I’d have to live at home forever or perhaps I would get stoned to death? 

I didn't yet lift my eyes. In truth,  I didn’t know what to say.
I started to weigh the situation carefully.  I knew what I had to do. I decided to count the cost.  I was beginning to see, this wasn’t about me at all.  

God had chosen me to do something special for Him!  I had to be obedient to His wishes.  Even though it might cost me everything, I had to consider it all.  How much did I really love God?  

I knew the answer then – I would do it.  I would say yes.  I would be willing.

I looked up at the man-angel.  After a second's pause, I said to him, “I am the Lord’s handmaiden. Let it be to me according to your word.”

He smiled at me and the next thing I knew, he was gone.  At that moment, I felt God’s love like never before, but it was even more than that.  Because of my decision as the Lord’s handmaiden, I knew my God was truly pleased with me. 

My prayer that came a moment later like a poetic melody said it all. 

     My soul magnifies the Lord 
My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior 
He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant
Behold henceforth all generations will call  me blessed 
for He who is mighty has done great things for  me. 
Holy is His name.
Mary made a decision to be the Lord’s servant, a handmaiden of God. She made the heartfelt choice to do what He asked of her -- to do His will no matter what it was. Her character traits were evident by her actions. 

You and I as the Lord’s handmaidens are also asked to serve God from our hearts. We are asked to choose rightly, to do as He asks of us, to do His will even if it takes us out of our comfort zones. Are we willing like Mary to be obedient to His wishes for us? 

We are not Mary, but we are the Lord's servants. As women of God, we have made our decisions to be his handmaidens for this day and age. We have our faith, we make decisions to be obedient, to be quiet in spirit, humble of heart, meditative, tender-hearted,  willing servants. 

Mary was loving, devout, truly blessed.  But Mary,  like us, knew she was in need of a savior and declared it so in her prayer. 

Like Mary, when we  choose to do those things God asks of us, we, too, can feel His love for us like never before. 

Mary pleased the Lord. Her character was evident by her actions. 

 What traits of character are evident in our lives today?