Monday, December 24, 2018

Nowhere Grace Cannot Go

A few days after my last post, my dad received his final diagnosis - mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer with few treatment options, especially for someone as weak as he has become. Our family has been reeling from the shock of Dad's rapid decline, his diagnosis and what it means, and our sudden shift from grown children to parental caretakers. We were just starting to make our way forward in this new path when we were dealt another devastating blow.

On Saturday, while I was visiting my in-laws for Christmas, Mom, in VA, fell down the outside stairs at her house, landing full-force on her left knee and crushing her tibia and fibula. She was rushed to the hospital where they've done one surgery so far and will be sent up to UVA Medical Center for a second surgery after the swelling goes down. They've told us she won't be able to walk for three months. Not to mention that their house isn't handicap-accessible and it seems unreasonable to expect she'll be able to go back there until after she's healed.

To me, it feels like more than I can bear. The back-and-forth in caring for Dad and his appointments and treatment was leaving me exhausted and in pain, missing my husband and my Luna dog - and yet, someone needs to do those things. How we are now going to care for two completely incapacitated parents that can't stay in the same house, I don't know.

And yet, God reminds me of His truth through this Advent devotional I'm way behind in reading. December 11's entry challenged me this afternoon: The secret to the abundant life is "to believe that God is where you doubt He can be." John Owen is quoted here as saying, "Nobody, no sin, (no illness or overwhelming circumstances) should lead to despair when the cure of God's sovereign, almighty grace is engaged." The author extrapolates, "Nobody and no situation - no sin, no mess, no decision - meets the diagnosis of despair. Because of God's cure of amazing grace. [...] No situation is more hopeless than your Savior is graceful." (The Greatest Gift, by Ann Voskamp)

So I fling myself on His grace yet again, board the plane that takes me back into the fray, and believe He will meet me there. "In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us" (Rom. 8:37).

Sunday, December 2, 2018

It Wasn't Supposed to Be This Way

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This line has been running through my head all week. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I’m the one with stage four cancer. I “took one for the team” - got cancer and, subsequently, uncovered the fact that our family carries the BRCA2 genetic mutation and is at much higher risk for certain cancers. I got cancer so that my brother and sister, who both carry the mutation, didn’t have to. I liked to think that I helped them stay cancer-free due to awareness of their risk, close monitoring, and preventative surgery. That’s what a big sister does – she leads the way, breaks in the parents, and watches out for her little brother and sister.

But danger was lurking somewhere else. When we found out I had the BRCA2 mutation, we knew it must have come from one of my parents. Turns out it was my dad. BRCA mutations aren’t as dangerous for men, although they do elevate the risk of certain cancers; it’s just not as much as in women. So him getting cancer wasn’t on my radar at all. A family shouldn’t have to deal with more than one member diagnosed with a terminal disease anyway.

And yet - on Thursday, we found out that my dad has stage four cancer in his lung. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was going to be the one to die first. There was, at least, that one mercy from being diagnosed with terminal cancer – I wouldn’t have to see my family get old and die. With Beth March, I would be “the one going ahead.” And I still may be. But I am stable, and my dad’s situation doesn’t look good.

He is currently in the hospital, recovering from the exploratory surgery that found the cancer and attempted to stop the fluid building up in his lung, at least for a while. We anxiously await the pathology results that will tell us the type of cancer and what the treatment options could be. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

And that is what God says every time He sees suffering in this world: “It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This isn’t how I created the world to be. This isn’t what I want for my children.” He grieves when we grieve, and He hates death even more than we do. So He sent His Son, the physical incarnation of God that we celebrate this time of year. He was sent to earth to live and die and defeat the power of death. Death is swallowed up in victory! And so we may walk through “the valley of the shadow of death,” but this death is just a shadow; it can’t kill us forever, for we will be raised with Him. We do not grieve as those who have no hope. And yet, we grieve. Will you pray for us?

Monday, September 17, 2018

I'm Not Dead Yet!

For everyone who wasn't able to make it to my party, I wanted to share the night with you anyway. I was so blessed to see or hear from many friends and family; your presence and/or words to me will be treasured always. 

My favorite color has always been yellow and, being such a cheery color, it just seem natural that it would be the chosen color for party decorations. Imagine our thrill when we discovered that the weekend of my party was also the annual all-you-can-pick sunflowers event at Hope Field about an hour from our house (seriously, it's called HOPE Field!). We loaded up the cars and made the trip over to stuff the car full of gorgeous blooms:

God also gave us a gorgeous day for picking! It had been so hot earlier in the week, but picking day was only about 83 degrees - still warm, but not scorching. Thank you, Jesus!

I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone who made the party possible. My in-laws came up from Chattanooga to get our house ready and to do whatever else we needed. Andrea's mom also came up from NC to lend her hands in the kitchen and in making our decorating ideas come to life. My sister worked late into the night to get our kitchen cabinets painted in time for the party debut, not to mention all her help planning the party with Andrea! Husbands and kids strung up lights, hung up signs and balloons, moved heavy objects, set up the sound system, and made runs to the store, while my brother and sister-in-law took photos of the evening and my niece painted a scripture sign for me. Although I was still completely exhausted by the end of the event, all this help made the party possible and allowed me the strength and energy to focus on my guests and enjoy the time. My special night truly could not have happened without them and I'm so grateful.

Look at the magical space we created!

I forced everyone to pose for a picture with me so I can remember each one who shared this day with me. I felt so loved!

Some brave souls also shared memories or special thoughts with the group. While we, sadly, didn't get all the sweet words shared that night recorded, I do have the words I shared, words for those who came and for all who couldn't come:
I want to thank you all for coming to help me celebrate that I’M NOT DEAD YET! This all seems so surreal. Like someone else’s life. Who am I to have 50 people come celebrate my life?? It’s like something you read about happening to other people. It means so much to me that you would care about me and make the effort to come today. You know, having cancer is a gift - it forces you, and those around you, to be aware of your own mortality. To remember that we are not promised unlimited days on earth. And it forces people to actually show up at your party. LOL 
Three years is a special milestone for me because, on the day I was diagnosed, I read that three years is the average life expectancy for a stage 4 breast cancer patient. Now my doctor later assured me that he felt I had much longer than that, but the only statistic I can find even now still says three years. And not only have I lived three years, I’m still on my first treatment! This is huge, because there are only a certain number of treatments and once your body has figured out how to beat them, there’s nothing else to do. 
So we celebrate tonight for THREE years and ONE treatment. But even if I get news next week that my cancer has spread, I want to testify that God is good. He is good to give me three years and He is good if I don’t get another three years. 
We are all here tonight because I once told God that I had a boring testimony. Big mistake. Haha. Just kidding. But seriously - if you want God to show up big in your life, you’re probably going to have to go through some hard stuff. If you can do it all on your own, where’s the room for God to work? I didn’t know all this when I started and my first Hard Thing almost crushed me. But once I recovered from that and realized all that God had done in me and all I had learned about Him through the process, I thought it was something I was ready to take on again. So I told God that. And as soon as it left my mouth I took it back, because I realized I had basically just said, “Give me more Hard Things!” What idiot says that? LOL And then, in all seriousness, I said it again - "Take me to the next level. I believe knowing You more is worth it."
And I was diagnosed with stage 2 cancer at 31. And He showed up in such big ways and taught me more than I could ever have learned otherwise. It took me several years to stop reeling from that adventure, but when I did, I told God I’d be up for another Hard Thing - and cancer round two began. A little bit harder and a little bit worse. Haha. 
I would like to encourage you not to shy away from Hard Things. Don’t pray that God will take them away or spare your loved ones from them. They are hard because they have the greatest reward. If you want to know our suffering Savior, you are going to need to suffer, too. Now I don’t think you need to go out and buy a wardrobe of hair shirts, but be open to paths that might lead to suffering. We can’t sing about wanting to go deeper with God and growing closer to Him and then run the other way when we are faced with the opportunity to do so. 
Hard Things are not necessarily bad things. I want to circle back to the fact that we’re all here tonight because I once told God that I had a boring testimony. So many of you I would never have known if it weren’t for Hard Things. They forced my life to change in ways that brought you into it. And then God used you to help me through all the Hard Things. You all brought meals and did my grocery shopping, you cleaned my house, went to doctor’s appointments with me or gave me rides, sent me encouraging notes or little presents to brighten each day, helped in creative ways from out of town - paying for Netflix, sending books, treats, comfy clothes, kitchen tools to make healthy meals and gift cards for eating out. You helped me shave my head, made me hats when I was bald, did projects at home for me, helped me move (numerous times!), had me over for tea or coffee, prayed for me or organized prayer gatherings, befriended me when we had nothing in common except cancer, and read my blog. I recently found this soapstone candle holder from Kenya. It shows five people holding hands in a circle around the candle’s flame. I thought this was the perfect illustration of how I feel about going through this illness - it takes a village, or a great circle of friends. God knew I needed you. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Death, Where Is Your Sting?

This week, three years ago, my oncologist confirmed what we had seen on my scans a few weeks prior - my cancer had returned and was now in my spine. As soon as I had read the radiologist's report, I looked up the unfamiliar words online - "osseous metastasis," "pathologic fracture" - and realized I now had stage four breast cancer, metastatic breast cancer, incurable breast cancer, terminal breast cancer.

I'd never known anyone with stage four breast cancer, but I knew that some cancers kill within months. Google had the stat I was looking for: average life expectancy = three years. Not months, but not many years for a 35-year-old, either. I wasn't even going to make it to my 40th birthday.

That is what I thought then. I didn't think I'd live to see today. Because today is more than three years from my diagnosis. I beat the statistic! (If you've studied the enneagram, you understand how happy this makes a Three like me. LOL.) And, praise God, I'm still on my first treatment.

As a refresher, metastatic breast cancer is treated differently than early stage breast cancer. Early stage gets the big guns - usually a cocktail of different IV chemos that take you to the brink of death, but ultimately let you live. End stage approaches treatment differently. It's a given that you're going to die; they just want to keep the cancer from growing and spreading further for as long as possible. They also want to maintain a good quality of life, so you don't get the miserable IV chemo until there is nothing else to offer you. They start you on a treatment course and pray your body takes a long time to figure out how to become immune to it. Eventually, though, it will stop working and then they switch you to another drug that targets the cancer in a different way. You keep doing this until there are no more drugs to try. And then you die. So to still be on my very first treatment, three years in, is amazing! Every day beyond the three-year prognosis seems like bonus time to me.

I plan to celebrate this in a huge way. Why should all my friends and family come to my funeral when they could come see me while I'm alive? So I'm throwing myself a party. A time to celebrate life and friendship and God's goodness. I read this verse a week ago and have claimed it for this time: "I will not die, but I will live and proclaim what the Lord has done" (Ps. 118:17).

Every day we are given is a gift from God. He knows all the days ordained for us and has planned each one. For now, He has seen fit to grant me more time on earth and we are thankful. I still may not make it to my 40th birthday; it's over a year away. If I don't, that will be a gift, too; one that is harder to acknowledge as good, but a gift nonetheless.

How can I say that? How can dying young be a gift? How can God be good when there's cancer and suffering and death? Because those things don't win. Death doesn't get the final say. Sure, it will seem for a while like death wins. Even Jesus died and was buried. But He didn't stay in the tomb. He came back to life! We have a God who beat death! And now that death has been beaten, it is permanently defeated. It will not hold me forever; I will be raised to new life, just as you can be.

We've been singing this song at church the past few weeks and it feels like an anthem for this time:
Praise the King (song info)
There's a reason why the curse of sin is broken
There's a reason why the darkness runs from light
There's a reason why we stand here now forgiven
Jesus is alive
There's a reason why we are not overtaken
There's a reason why we sing on through the night
There's a reason why our hope remains eternal
Jesus is alive
Praise the King, He is risen
Praise the King, He's alive
Praise the King, death's defeated
Hallelujah, He's alive
Hallelujah, He's alive
There's a reason why our hearts can be courageous
There's a reason why the dead are made alive
There's a reason why we share His resurrection
Jesus is alive, oh, He's alive
The grave could not ignore it when all of heaven's roaring
Hell, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?
The world cannot ignore it when all the saints are roaring
Hell, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?
Praise the King, He is risen
Praise the King, He's alive
Praise the King, death's defeated
Hallelujah, He's alive
Hallelujah, He's alive
Of course, I cry when I sing this. It isn't easy thinking about impending death. But I do not grieve without hope. I thumb my nose at death. It doesn't get the final say. So please, come celebrate with me! Everyone is invited, even if we've never met and you're just a lurker on my blog. Let's get together and celebrate the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Let's make more memories! Just contact me using the form on the right and I will send you all the details.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Farewell Tour

(Warning: picture heavy post)
In December 2014, my husband and I purchased our first house together. Charlottesville is an expensive market for real estate, so we chose a fixer upper (before it was a show or a hashtag). I believe there is something in us that longs to see the old made new again, the ugly erased by beauty, the forgotten and rejected beloved once more. And so we set our hearts and bodies to this test.

While we lived here, it just felt like the house of never-ending projects. But, as I was writing my last blog post, I realized that we really had accomplished a lot for this little place. And I want to celebrate that here today with before and after shots of our house. Welcome to 1234 Holmes Avenue! #bestaddressever

Our sad little house was stuck in the 70s, with orangey oak trim and doors, wood paneling, avocado appliances and all, so the first thing I tackled was painting all. the. things. Trim, doors, walls, hardware, door knobs, air vents...

Living room BEFORE:

Living room AFTER:

A little paint goes a long way, doesn't it?

The kitchen is the room that saw the biggest transformation (and took the most work!).
Kitchen BEFORE:

When we bought the house, we thought that the kitchen was basically a blank slate to make into anything we wanted. Boy, were we wrong! There were all kind of constraints that made a better layout challenging - the entrance to the basement, the entrance to the living room, the exterior door leading to the deck, the big windows that let in so much light, and the electrical panel located in a prime cabinet spot. It took months of brainstorming and measuring to come up with the new floorplan - and then we had to actually do it! Here are some in-progress shots:

(getting help from Paco, our foster dog at the time)

We tried to reuse the existing cabinets by painting them, but we ended up with this sticky mess that even my dad's garage full of chemicals couldn't penetrate. But some of the old cabinets did find their way to Kevin's workroom in the basement, so all was not lost.

Behold the final result!
Kitchen AFTER:

We love DIY saving money, so we furnished our space with stuff we made, found, inherited, or bought used at the Habitat Store or on Craiglist. The built-in breakfast nook is made up of two sets of kitchen nook table and chairs (like this) we bought on Craigslist, sanded down, and stained/painted, then reassembled to make this set that fits the space perfectly. I love how it turned out!

The basement also saw some big changes, including removing a wall that was flimsy enough Kevin took it down one night while I was out for dinner with friends. He also painted all the ceiling tiles to get rid of the dingy (smoke-stained?) tinge, which was not accomplished in one night, and put in new flooring.

Basement BEFORE:

Basement AFTER:

And look at these cute Pinterest-inspired stairs! (Special shout out to my sister for making my ambitious idea a reality.)

In the bedrooms, all that was really needed was to paint the trim and doors (which sounds like no big deal, but that oak trim takes A LOT of coats of paint to cover!).

Master BEFORE:

Master AFTER:

The other two bedrooms were so blah they didn't even get before shots, but here are the AFTERs:

The bathrooms were sorely in need of style and updating.
Master bath BEFORE:

Master bath AFTER:

Hall bath BEFORE:
Hall bath AFTER:

That concludes our home tour. Thanks for indulging me on this departure from my usual blog fare. Marie Kondo says that we should thank our belongings before we get rid of them and I guess that is kind of what I'm doing with this post. Thank you, house. We learned a lot from you. We hope you find another family to love you.

Monday, April 16, 2018

What Will Not Be and What Is to Come

Three years ago, Kevin and I bought a house. We were excited about what our future held and this house was well-situated between UVA, where I worked, and highway 29, which Kevin took to work. However, the real estate market in Charlottesville is expensive, so we bought a house that needed a little love. It had been built in the early ‘70s and was pretty much still in original condition, avocado appliances, paneled walls and all. But I see potential in almost everything and we weren’t afraid of a little work. Making things pretty again is something I love.

So we energetically jumped into projects; I painted almost every surface, including the trim and doors, which were that dated orange-y oak, and Kevin gutted the kitchen, reconfigured it, and rebuilt it. He also laid new flooring in the basement and painted the drop-ceiling tiles. But after all this work, we still felt there was work left to do. Our enthusiasm had waned considerably - but all that potential!

And then my back pain started. And a couple of months later, I found out my breast cancer had returned and had spread to my spine, causing a fracture there. My ability to work on the house was severely limited and the treatment I began caused fatigue that left no energy for anything other than my paying job. We reached a stand-still on the house.

Our life circumstances had also changed considerably. We bought this house not knowing exactly what the future held, but hoping that our family would grow in some way. The double blow of losing my ovaries to a cancer scare and then the very real cancer recurrence in my spine ended that hope. It was just going to be the two of us from here on out. Empty bedrooms seemed to mock me.

A year went by, and then some, and I eventually had to leave work permanently. Now I am home all day in a house that feels unfinished, seeing all that “potential” and yet not able to do anything about it. We did hire some help and finished off a few more projects, but I began to realize that what was needed to make this house a place I enjoyed being in all day every day, a space with views of the outdoors and warm, sunny spots for reading, a place where I didn’t see things to improve everywhere I looked, was going to require hiring a crew and living through a pretty big reno. Maybe do-able for some, but not for someone who is home all day trying to rest.

So we’ve decided to sell and move to a place that fits where we are now in life. I love looking at real estate and have been searching available listings for months now. So I didn’t expect to be hit with a wave of grief when we went out looking at places. Who could predict buying a house would be emotionally hard? But when you think about it, when people try to sell you a house, they are really selling you an idea of what your future could look like – a place where you’re going to see your kids grow up, where you’re going to grow old together, a place you can pass down to future generations. And none of that will happen for me.

We don’t need three or four bedrooms, a playroom, or a tire swing. We don’t need to be within walking distance of the elementary school. We don’t need an open concept living area so I can keep an eye on the kids while I cook.

Not to mention the thought of meeting new neighbors, inevitably having to explain our situation and seeing their pity, their nervousness about what to say, and their realization that we have zero common ground on which to build a relationship. I like fitting in. I like having commonalities with people and being relatable. And I just feel so horribly awkward now.

There are things cancer takes that you never think of. Losing hopes and dreams is hard; losing connections with people is even harder. I avoid small talk with strangers like the plague and if I can’t avoid it, I am artful in keeping the conversation from drifting toward anything personal about me. I hate living this way. I hate not being 100% real with everyone I meet. I hate being different from everyone else. I hate feeling sad when I search for houses. I want something happy to look forward to.

There is the promise that “everything sad is coming untrue,” as Tolkien says through Samwise Gamgee in The Return of the King. “Behold, I am making all things new,” is what will happen at the end of the age (Rev. 21:5). It is this thought that keeps me going when despair could take over. The Bible says that we will receive one hundredfold in the life to come what we have lost in this life (Mark 10:29-30). So I grieve what will not be in this life, look forward to the days of restoration, and try to find joy by living and focusing my thoughts on the present moment.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

To the Newly Diagnosed Woman (Or To Myself Three Years Ago)

Recently, I was asked what I would tell a woman newly diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. So I thought back to when I was newly diagnosed; not the day I got my official diagnosis, but the day I first learned that there was something concerning on my scan.

It was the day before my best friend’s wedding, a day that was already full with a bridal luncheon, reception setup, and the rehearsal/rehearsal dinner, not to mention trying to catch up with friends who had come in from out of town for the wedding. My doctor had ordered the CT scan after I complained of persistent back pain and I planned to squeeze it in that morning before my bridesmaid duties kicked in. If I had known the news that would come, I think I would have scheduled it a different day. But I was also having a bone scan on Monday, so I didn’t expect to know anything until after both tests were done.

Sometime during the bridal luncheon, however, I missed a call from my oncologist, who left me a message asking me to call him. I also got an automatic notification that he had scheduled an appointment for me on Tuesday. I had a terrible sense that something was wrong.

I wasn’t able to reach my oncologist with my return call, so I pulled up the radiologist’s report on my own. I didn’t understand a lot of the words it used, but Google was oh-so-kind to tell me that these were all associated with bone injuries caused by cancer that had spread. And so I looked up “breast cancer that has spread” and started seeing words like “incurable” and “terminal.”

Terminal?? How long did I have? Google knew the answer to that, too – three years, it told me. Three years? Three years?!?! How could that be? I was only 35. I had just had to accept that I would never have biological children (surgery to remove my ovaries was scheduled for the coming Wednesday) and now my very life was being taken away, too. The enormity of it all overwhelmed me and I sobbed in the car on the way to set up for the wedding reception.

I am now four months from that three-year mark. I am still on the very first treatment they offered me.

So what would I tell a woman newly diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer? I would tell her that she’s just been given a life sentence, it’s true, but it’s not (yet) a death sentence. I’m almost to that three year statistic and there are still many more treatments left to try against my cancer, not to mention any new treatments that are being created right now. And these treatments aren’t the same as the ones you take for early stage breast cancer. You’re not at the cancer center once a week, getting pumped full of toxins; you’re at home, taking pills a couple of times a day. Do you feel awesome? Not really. At least I don’t. But I don’t want to die every day, like I did when I was on chemo. I have less energy (sometimes a lot less). I have pain from the cancer-induced fracture in my spine. But I’m still here and the quality of my life is still pretty decent. I even look “normal.” People often forget I’m sick or are surprised when I tell them.

So yes, newly-diagnosed friend, breast cancer is now with you to stay. Maybe you should step up your timeline for completing the things on your bucket list, but don’t pick out your funeral outfit yet. Styles may change by the time you die.