"2009 has been a year of blessing, a year of pilgrimage, a year of seeking God’s peace, purpose and healing."
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who set their hearts on pilgrimage. When they walk through the Valley of Weeping it will become a place of refreshing streams, where pools of blessing collect after the rains! Psalm 84:5-6
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping
it will become a place of refreshing streams,
where pools of blessing collect after the rains!
God has blessed me throughout my life, even when I didn't realize it was his hand protecting me and his gifts equipping me.
In 2008 I was particularly aware of my blessed life: married for 27 years to Dennis, the love of my life; mother of wonderful 11-year-old twins; newly retired after 24 prosperous years with HP and at age 50 able to pursue new creative, God-inspired paths, including book publishing. I was being spiritually fed and challenged in my own time with God and through my involvement at Resurrection Fellowship, the kids' school (Resurrection Christian School, where I serve on the Board of Directors) and other organizations such as The Alpha Center where I volunteered.
Throughout 2008 I was nurturing my new-found passion for designing and publishing books that proclaim God's glory through scripture, photographs and stories of people's lives. I named my new business Splendor Books, based on the verses in Isaiah 61 that describe what I believe is God's call on my life. My desire is to be someone that God can use for his glory and that my life work might be "for the display of his splendor" (Isaiah 61:3). You can see some of the books I produced by visiting my bookstore: http://www.pressedinpress.com.
I was humbled to see how my books touched people. I was also intrigued that many of my book projects were focused on helping people through valley periods in their lives. This caused me to dig even deeper in scripture and books like Billy Graham's Death and the Life After and Bob Sorge's Pain, Perplexity and Promotion, Secrets of the Secret Place and In His Face.
It also caused me to ask God why he was drawing me to this when I had no personal experience with such deep suffering. In November 2008, it became quite obvious why.
In November 2008, I had just returned from a vision trip to China and was beginning to work on a new book to capture my thoughts and images from the trip. Going for my annual mammogram was just another appointment in my busy schedule and my only worry was that I'd be on time. On the forms I filled out I did note that I'd occasionally feel a slight twinge in my left breast, but I couldn't feel any lump or obvious signs of anything wrong. Having always been healthy and blessed with a family with no history of breast cancer or other diseases, I treated regular check-ups and screenings as another confirmation of my good health and good insurance.
A few days later my nurse called to tell me that my mammogram showed a spot that needed to be rechecked. I scheduled an appointment at the Breast Diagnostics Center and a week later went in for the first of dozens and dozens of visits to my new "home away from home" -- the Poudre Valley Hospital Harmony Campus.
A week later, the second mammogram and ultrasound confirmed that the spot was small (~1 cm) but "suspicious" because its star-shaped appearance is typical of breast cancer tumors. When I heard the radiologist explain this, I had a sense that it was cancer, but I didn't have a particularly strong reaction, mostly just a sense of "wow, what an odd thing to be happening to me" and "okay, God, please be with me through this."
It took another week to get me in for a needle biopsy (with October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, November, I learned, is always extra busy for the breast diagnostics center, oncologists and surgeons). My appointment was on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and I was told not to expect the results until the following week. So I was left to chill out (literally, with an ice pack in my bra...whose sick idea was that???), assuming the worst but hoping to get a "good news" call.
The call came Friday night at 6:00 and I was surprised that it was my primary care doctor calling, not the radiologist. He explained that the cells removed during the biopsy were cancerous -- invasive ductal carcinoma. But the "good news" was the tumor was still small though "aggressive" (fast growing) and probably something that could be treated with a lumpectomy (rather than a mastectomy) and with radiation and estrogen blocking hormone therapy (and not chemotherapy too). Not until February did I learn that the initial pathology screening misdiagnosed the estrogen status of the tumor so the "no chemo" prediction turned out to be wrong...but it was nice going through the first two months thinking I'd avoid it.
Purpose and Peace
"You're a tough lady. You'll do fine. We'll be here for you." My doctor's words were true, to an extent, but in my heart I knew they only told part of the story. Most importantly, Jesus was here for me and I knew that he would never leave me nor forsake me no matter what lay ahead (Hebrews 13:5.). Even though I might walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I didn't need to be afraid (Psalm 23:4).
I immediately felt a divine purpose in what I would be going through. Not that I believed God gave me cancer, but that he knew I would go through this and had prepared me over the years for this moment and for this journey. The work I had been doing over the past year came into focus and I found the books I had done for others were now ministering to me in fresh ways. And I had a strange sense of excitement and anticipation for what lay ahead. Purpose, pressing in, and peace -- a wonderful place to begin this journey.
It wasn't quite as easy for Dennis to feel this peace. Initially he was terrified (his words) at the thought of me dying, afraid for himself and for Hannah and Hugh. His struggles with memory loss and fears about his future came into sharp focus. He wrestled with the truth that Pastor Bill shared with us: experiencing a personal revelation of God's "perfect love drives out all fear" (John 10:10) and when we personally experience God's consuming love, we learn to trust him and his path for our life, whether or not we fully understand the path (Proverbs 3:5).
Parenting and Pressing In
We waited a week before telling our children. For me it was hard to not share this immediately, but we wanted to have processed it enough ourselves to be able to support them when as they heard it for the first time (and not the other way around!). My biggest comfort was also my biggest concern: just nine months earlier two beautiful Resurrection Christian School students, Hope and Brianna, had died of cancer, after courageous and faith filled battles. We prayed for them often and came to love them and be inspired by their deep relationships with Jesus. I was comforted to know that Hannah and Hugh had grown spiritually mature beyond their 11 years through this experience, but I was also concerned that their only experience with cancer involved death.
A few days before we were going to tell Hannah and Hugh, I met with their 5th grade teacher, Steven Woodall, together with Lauren Benzel, the principal, and Angie Miller, another 5th grade teacher. Again, I had an overwhelming sense of God's peace and perfect planning. All three of these Godly adults had shepherded the RCS students through the years of Hope and Brianna's illnesses. Mr. Woodall had been Hope's teacher when she died and he and Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Benzel had ministered to Hope's grieving classmates throughout the rest of the year. Knowing that they would be there for our children, every minute of the school day -- to talk, to pray and to help them grow deeper and deeper into God -- was priceless to me. I couldn't have anticipated how amazing it was to be prayed for everyday by students, staff and parents at RCS. Intensely humbling...and powerful.
We held our family meeting after an extra nice Friday night dinner and a short movie. There's no way to smoothly transition from "How was school today?" to "We need to share something important with you" but we managed to hold it together as we shared as clearly and calmly as we could. Both kids were stunned, but listened carefully and began processing as best they could. We talked about how we didn't know exactly what would be ahead but that Jesus would be with us all and that we could all grow deeper in him through this and be a light and encouragement to others to draw close to him.
Hugh teared up, which really touched me since I hadn't seen him cry for quite awhile. Hannah looked wide-eyed, shell shocked. But then, ever the nurturer and problem solver she told me, "If you do need to have a mastectomy, I've heard that you can reconstruct a breast using body fat from another part of your body." Believe me, as soon as I put that word out to my family and friends, I had enough body fat offers to make ten new breasts! The perfect choice for someone who wants to do more than make a casserole.
Later that night Hannah got out a paper she had written on the night Hope died, not knowing at the time that Hope had passed away that afternoon. It was Psalm 116 and Hannah told me that she felt it was a word for me too: "I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy... The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the LORD : 'O LORD, save me!' ...when I was in great need, he saved me."
Since then I have received many confirmations from God during my own quiet time with him as well as from other people who have been praying for me: God will see me through this and use this for his glory.
December was a whirlwind of appointments and tests and more appointments (oh, and Christmas festivities too). Our focus was on selecting an oncologist and a surgeon and getting surgery scheduled as soon as possible, albeit with Breast Cancer Awareness Month backlogs and Christmas vacations slowing down the process. When it was obvious I wouldn’t get in for surgery until after Christmas I elected to enjoy Christmas vacation and wait until the kids had gone back to school.
Surgery, Times 3
January 6th I had a lumpectomy, removing a chunk the size of a golf ball surrounding the tumor itself, which was less than ½ an inch in diameter. At the same time, the surgeon removed 12 lymph nodes in my armpit – the nodes determined to be the most likely for cancer cells to escape to. Thankfully, the pathology report showed that every node was cancer free (“node negative”) validating that this was a Stage 1 breast cancer with a relatively good prognosis.
With this good news came the disappointing news that I’d need a second surgery because the pathologists had found cancer cells on one margin of the chunk removed during the lumpectomy. I had to heal for a month before the surgeon could perform the redo (or “rescission” as the surgeon calls it) and then heal another month before starting treatment. So, instead of being done with everything by the end of February as I’d originally estimated, it would be well into April before I’d be done with radiation…or so I thought.
As it turned out, further testing of the tumor (including an amazing Oncotype D tumor gene mapping) showed the tumor to be so-called Triple Negative Breast Cancer. This was completely contrary to the original pathology report that determined the tumor to be estrogen positive –- and meant a completely different treatment plan than we’d originally expected (chemo + radiation, instead of radiation + 5 years of estrogen blocking medication).
Triple Negative means the cancer cells do not have receptors for three common cancer cell growth factors (estrogen, progesterone and HER-2). There are targeted treatments for each of these growth factors that are quite effective at reducing the rates of cancer recurrence (estrogen blockers in the case of estrogen positive cancers). Without targeted treatments for Triple Negative the recurrence rates are somewhat higher than other types of breast cancer, but on the other hand, chemotherapy is often quite effective at eliminating the cancer. I never would have dreamed that I'd get a disease with its own foundation (The TNBC Foundation)!
I wasn’t happy to learn that I’d need chemotherapy, but I felt peaceful about getting through it. I also felt like it was part of my overall journey to experience breast cancer healing so that I could minister to more women who faced that journey as well. And, hey, I wouldn’t have to take the five years of hormone blocking drugs that would zoom me into early menopause.
Doing chemo also meant that I needed a third surgery to implant a port in my chest. The port is a devise the size of a walnut that sits just under the skin below the collar bone and has a tube feeding directly into a vein going to the heart. Instead of having to hunt around for a vein to administer the chemo drugs, the nurse can put the needle directly into the port and hit gold on the first try. It feels kind of creepy to the touch and visibly sticks out, but is basically painless. This was another in-and-out the same day surgery and by this time I knew which were the best post-op snacks at the surgery center (popsicles, pudding...but stay away from the tappicoa, and Sprite). I'll get my port out shortly after I finish radiation and will certainly throw some kind of Port's Out Party.
I started chemo the last week in March and finished in early July. I received 4 cycles of Adriamycin and Cytoxan and 4 cycles of Taxol spaced out every two weeks (so called “dense dose ACT” treatment). Each treatment took 5-6 hours followed the next day by several hours of hydration drips, so I became quite familiar with the chemo center facilities!
When I started chemo I started writing a blog to share my experiences and to keep my family and friends updated. You can watch the progression of my hair loss and read more about the nitty gritty of chemo and radiation treatments by visiting my blog: http://www.carolynehart.blogspot.com/.
Chemo was definitely an intense experience but I don’t look back on it with any regret or bad feelings. I was fortunate to not have any nausea. My sense of taste changed and my appetite decreased (in terms of feeling hungry) but I was always able to eat and stay hydrated. Some women gain weight from chemo drugs; I lost about 20 pounds and was grateful to be back at my pre-kids, early 30’s weight – without the pain of dieting and exercising! I did have some issues with painful mouth sores, a cough that took a long time to go away (thanks to low white cell/infection fighting ability), anemia from low red cells, but medications, time and perfectly timed touches from God kept those all manageable. Even though I was supposed to be very careful about being around germy environments, I continued to go to church and school and stores and fared ok.
The most consistent memory of chemo was the intense fatigue and “chemo fog.” Physically and mentally it felt like I was swimming through Jello or like being really jet lagged and trying to stay active to get on a new time zone, in spite of just wanting to go to sleep. With each set of drugs (the A/C for the first 4 cycles and Taxol for the last 4) the timing and intensity of the chemo fog rolling in was very predictable. And thankfully, the timing of it rolling out was also like clockwork.
With A/C, I was wiped out the week of chemo but by Saturday I felt good and by Monday, and for the full week until my next treatment I felt virtually normal. With Taxol, I was hyped up and very energetic chemo day and the day after (Monday and Tuesday), thanks to steroids in the treatment, but at noon on Wednesday the fog hit and left at 6 p.m. Friday. But with Taxol, I never really bounced back to normal, staying tired and slow moving, even though I could think clearly.
The thing I most appreciated about the chemo phase was the extended periods of resting with God I had. It was great to be able to press into Him and not feel rushed or distracted since I had put so much of my normal life on hold. I made the kids' school and after school activities a priority, getting to the kids' soccer and football practices and games and coming by the school regularly. Making school lunches and getting dinner on the table was the other "must do" but many nights we had meals prepared by friends and neighbors, an amazing blessing. And having many, many friends and even acquaintances telling me they were praying for me was intensely humbling, comforting and strengthening.
Anticipating and then experiencing the process of losing my hair was fascinating and surreal. I was intrigued to watch the rapid progression from mere shedding to huge clumps of hair falling out, leaving no way to hide the dramatic change. Even with some of my hair refusing to fall out, the rest was so pathetically thin that I had to start wearing scarves or a wig in public. I finally concluded that no amount of chemo was going to cause all of it to fall out so we held a head shaving party. I was happy to discover that God gave me a beautifully shaped bald head and throughout the summer I enjoyed the simplicity and beauty of my tan, clean shaven head.
Six weeks after my last chemo treatment I started radiation. As I write this in early September, I'm a few weeks into the routine of daily visits to the clinic for my 2 minutes of radiation therapy. The environment and process is so different than with chemo (quick, private and, so far, painless and without side effects). I'm told to expect radiation skin burns and fatigue in a few weeks, but at this point the only change is to my daily schedule.
I'm also enjoying getting my energy...and my hair...back. This renewed energy has been wonderful! I feel like I'm in creative hyperdrive after shifting down to low gear for most of the year. Besides developing this website and writing this story (sorry it's so long but I'll blame it on pent up energy), I'm also working on my first Post B.C. books. The first is called Radiation Rhema with scriptures and photos for each of the 33 days of radiation. Several other books are jostling for the next spot; I'm betting on RhemaTherapy (a book of scriptures and photos to get through chemotherapy with).
Radiation Rhema: Faith in the Fire
February 2010 update: I'm excited to announce that Radiation Rhema: Faith in the Fire is now published and ministering to people across the country. Through word of mouth friends are learning about it and giving it to their friends and family facing cancer or other intense health challenges. The stories I'm hearing back of people encouraged and drawn to God's Word for truth, peace and healing are my reward! You can browse through a full copy of it on-line as well as purchase personally signed copies on my website: http://www.pressedinpress.com/.
If you or someone you care about is facing cancer, I'd like to offer my prayers and my encouragement to you. You can send me a note (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll get in touch with you to chat.
Everyone's experience is different, but I found it was invaluable to have other women who were farther along in the healing journey to talk with. Knowing that their journeys were intense but also victorious in many ways, helped me to know that I could get through this too. And knowing that Jesus sustained them and had repeatedly proven his love for me, I started this journey trusting in his power and perfect plan.
If we could sit down for a cup of coffee together (actually herbal tea or a smoothie, my new post B.C. drinks), I'd share this "girlfriend's advise" with you:
2. Savor this time with family and friends. Let your family and friends shower you with affection and help and prayers. I was amazed to see how my immediate family rallied around me, making special trips to visit, frequent calls and sending e-mails, cards and gifts (thank you!!!). I was also humbled to see how many friends reached out to me throughout the year -- a visible and staggering reminder of the many, many people who care about me and my family.
If you don't have friends that will pray for you and with you, find some. Don't hesitate to get in touch with me as a starter.
Build friendships with other believers going through what you're going through. Sarah and Lynda and I didn't know each other well until we started getting together for lunch every other Monday, but I now consider them precious girlfriends. We dubbed ourselves the B&B Club (Boobs & Books). Each time we got together we shared the latest developments with our treatments and our lives...keeping each other abreast, uplifted and giggling if not jiggling. We also found that we encouraged the staff at the restaurant and other customers who regularly came up to us to share their survivor stories. Just like each of the women featured on this website, you have a rich story to share and an opportunity to impact others.
3. Savor this time with yourself. You'll get to discover new things about yourself (even if it's silly things like what you look like without hair) and you may experience things you've never experienced, good and bad. Allow yourself to "be in the moment" taking one day at a time. Rest when you need to rest. Eat when you need to eat. Cry when you need to cry. Laugh out loud as often as you can. Get some new comfy pajamas for lounging. Treat yourself to things that make you feel beautiful on the outside (for me, it was beautiful scarves, some new summer clothes and sandals, and always wearing makeup when I was out of the house). Indulge yourself in activities you normally don't take the time to do; for me, it was reading books in the middle of the day and working on New York Times Acrostic puzzles (thanks to my sister).
4. Focus on how big God is. Having a positive attitude is certainly valuable. My doctors told me many times how impressed they were with my "positive attitude" and how much that helps with cancer patient's positive outcomes. But I can't say strongly enough, that a positive attitude alone won't get you through the dark times you'll go through, especially when you're alone at night. That's when having a relationship with Jesus is INVALUABLE.
When I'd wake up in the middle of the night because of worry or discomfort...or just a full bladder from all of the water I had to drink, focusing on God was the only thing that kept me from getting scared or dwelling on thoughts that would rob me of sleep and peace of mind. I kept a cassette player with the Bible on tape to listen to if I couldn't quickly fall back asleep.
Two other things I did to keep focused on the bigness of God and not the bigness of my challenges: (1) I tried to avoid spending hours and hours on the internet reading about cancer at the expense of spending time reading about God; 10:1 Bible:Internet time way more empowering than visa versa. (2) I also tried to filter the prognosis my doctors gave me (which is based on statistics for large groups of people) by first asking, "Jesus, what do YOU say about MY prognosis and what I should be doing?" I wasn't discounting my doctors' advice or treatment options, I just wasn't putting all of my trust in them alone, but rather in God alone, using various treatments to heal me if that is his will.
5. Look for God's plan. I don't believe God gives us cancer, but I do believe he allows us to have cancer and will use it for our eternal good and his glory, if we let him. By seeking to see his plan and his purpose through this journey, I have found hope and strength to walk through this -- hope and strength that only come from knowing Jesus. Part of my life purpose is to share that hope with others, and through this cancer journey, I pray that I'll be able to share it with you and many others whom I might not have otherwise connected with. I know that Jesus loves you more than you can imagine. You can trust him to walk with you each step of this eternal journey.
This song is "You Poured It Out" written by Jorie Henderson. It comes from Jorie's CD, "Songs of Deliverance" © 2008 Jorie Henderson. You can learn more about Jorie by visiting www.myspace.com/joriemusic. Her music is available for purchase on iTunes (http://www.apple.com/search/ipoditunes/?q=jorie) and on cdbaby (http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/Jorie).