It has been 12 years today since I was diagnosed with cancer. It was one of the hardest days of my life. This blog is something I wrote during that time and then edited to be the beginning of a book about my journey. I have never finished the book, but I did want to mark this anniversary 12 extra years of life…so here is the story of the last day of my B.C. (Before Cancer) life. Sorry, but I don’t have any pictures of that time…you’ll have to imagine it. It’s a long blog…but it’s important.
I remember the exact place I was when I heard the words, “You have cancer.” What the office looked like, the face of the doctor, the reaction of my husband is like a snapshot that can be recalled in an instant. I was in a doctor’s office examining room, sitting in a chair and Bill was standing by my side. The doctor had called earlier in the day and asked me to come in following a procedure to remove polyps from my uterus. I knew in my head it probably wasn’t good, hence I asked my husband to come along. I figured when a doctor calls you and asks you to come after office hours on a Friday afternoon it cannot be good.
“Let’s not borrow trouble.” Bill said. “It may not be bad.”
In reality, he was as scared as I was when we drove into the parking lot and climbed the stairs. We held hands, in mostly silence, while we waited for the doctor. She was in quickly and started with “There are a couple of things we need to talk about.” The first one? Diabetes. My blood test came back showing some glucose issues, but I had a feeling the other shoe was about to drop when she said, “But we are going to put the diabetes on the back burner for a minute.”
I knew then. My heart knew. There is only one thing that can put diabetes on the back burner. Bill squeezed my hand, he knew too. Waiting for the words to be spoken were the longest seconds…like slow motion. I prayed to God to hold me up. I braced myself for the physical impact I knew was coming, and then she said it.
“The cells we found are cancer.”
My hands covered my face. Tears came unbidden. I doubled over as though I had been punched in the stomach. Gasp. Air…I needed air. I had to remind myself to breathe. Bill had his arm around me, and was already slipping into the caretaker role trying to shield me from the pain. The doctor said to take a minute. There were tears in her compassionate eyes. Bill was on his knee, holding my head to his chest, stroking my hair. I could hear his heart beating 100 mph and feel his quick breaths.
He kicked into labor coach mode. “Deep breaths,” he told me. In. Out. In. Out. One or two breaths, and the questions started coming in my mind. They were having a tug of war with thoughts of my girl and three boys. Four children ages 10, 12, 14, 16, what did this mean for them I wondered. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Slow motion switched to fast forward in my brain. My need for information won the tug of war, and I sat up ready to hear the rest.
The thing was, there wasn’t a whole lot more to tell. This was totally new to me. I guess I expected to know how far it had spread, what the treatment would be, and how bad it was. I mean, I knew NOTHING about cancer. Never known anybody with it up close, until Bill’s mom, Louise. But I was still watching her from an observer’s chair not as a participant. Other than her, I had never heard more than a report on a prayer list. My mind was in a fog and trying to formulate the right questions, but I didn’t even know what to ask.
Bill was asking something about what was next. I nodded. That seemed to be a good question…yes what is next…good one. So we listened, trying to take it in. More tears came when I heard the words surgery…next week…tests…blood work…pre-op. I have a phobia of all things medical. This had to be my worst nightmare. I was thinking, someone please wake me up. Please.
My doctor tried to give us hope that maybe we caught it early, and if it hadn’t spread, I would only need surgery and that would be it. Honestly, she didn’t know for sure. So, we left her, with a hug and a referral to an oncologist for the next week. She gave us her home phone number. She was the first doctor, in a long line of those to come, who would do so. It was my first indicator that I was in a new land…a doctor’s home number. I put on my bravest “determined to fight” face and thanked her for being so kind. I noticed, even in my fog, that as we left, her head hung. She hated this as much as I did.
From the doctor’s office, we took the long ride home. I was grateful for that 30-minute ride. Time. I needed some time. The rate at which we had to absorb this life shattering news is much too fast, I think. I learned the very first day in Cancerland that life around you doesn’t stop just because your world is off its axis. It was culture shock, this new scary place. The immediate emotional response got pushed to the side as I started arranging the details.
In the haze, I went into mom mode. The kids. Yes. We needed to tell them. Seemed logical. Seemed important. Where were they? Bill reminded me they were with his mom. There was a play that night…they were in it. All four of them. Bill was the musical director. I was thinking, How do we do this? SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME HOW TO DO THIS! Who were we supposed to tell? When? All the details were overwhelming while I was still processing the news. At one point, Bill had to pull off the road so we could talk and cry…and pray. That’s it! We should pray. So we did. Peace. Calm. Clarity of mind. Ahhh. That was better. Nothing is impossible. All things through Christ. A familiar comfort washed over me. The Faithful one proved himself once again. I could think. Calls were made.
Bill’s mom, in the midst of her chemo for breast cancer, cried when she heard. She left the room she was in so the kids wouldn’t see her crying on the phone. She offered to buy my wig, even though we didn’t yet know if I would need one. She said she would drive the kids to the performance…without a word. Bill drove me home. I decided not to attend the play. It was the only time I have ever missed one. As a musician, he dressed all in black and I hoped he didn’t have to do it again anytime soon for my funeral. It was a fleeting thought…one that I banished as soon as I recognized where it was leading me. Bill worried about leaving me alone. I told him I was going to call my mom. The plan was set, and we went through the motions to carry it out. After the play we would tell the children.
One minute after the door closed, the phone rang. It was Mom. Her heart knew something was not right. Moms always know. She asked about my appointment. Whenever my mom asks me how I am, the truth floods out through blubbery tears. This time it took me a minute to fight back the tears enough to say, “It isn’t good, Mom.” She said she figured it wasn’t since she hadn’t heard from me. When I told her it was cancer, through her tears she said, “Can I come?” I said “Will you please?” Notice that the tears were flowing at every turn? It is expected in Cancerland. It is a very emotional place.
While I waited for her to arrive, I avoided the ringing phone by unplugging it. In her worry for me, my daughter Hannah, had told friends that I had to return to the doctor. They were calling to check on me. Sweet. They did not suspect that the news would be as bad as it was. At the same time, my husband was avoiding people waiting for the curtain to open. We agreed no one was to know until after we told the kids. So, we were silent. Each of us was in our own fog.
I was alone. At home. Normally, it would be a rare treat, that night it was hard. I took the time to process my feelings. I wept. I wailed. I sat. Finally, I cried out to God. I poured out my fears, and there were many of them. I was honest in my doubts, because I knew he could handle my honesty. I was angry. I was scared to leave my kids behind. I was mad that I might have to. I thought it unfair and I said so. I wrestled with him. He knows me well. He knew I would tire of wrestling eventually. He waited on me. God waited on ME. How crazy is that? Like an exhausted two-year-old after a tantrum, I finally flopped down in my waiting chair. It is where I wait on God. It is where he meets me, and has always met me in my desperate moments. Then once I was silent, he spoke.
“Will you allow me to show myself strong in this new place you find yourself? Will you be transparent and honest in your pain? Can you share this with others so they will see my strength holding you up in your weakness? I am at work in you. Do you trust me?”
My answer was one word, but it was difficult to say, because I knew what it meant. I had said this word to him before, and pain was always the result, as he burned away the dross to form me in his image. This time I knew the pain will be physical. I waited, and considered, and thought before I answered. He wasn’t doing things my way. I did not know the outcome. I asked and he wouldn’t tell me. I pondered. I considered what he was asking of me. Not only to walk the road, but to do it in a public way (whatever that meant)…to be open and share my tears. My fear of needles and microphones all rolled into one long road with twists I couldn’t see and an end I did not know. The truth is that there was no choice, at least not about the road I was to walk. How I was to walk it was where the choice lied. With a heavy heart that was sober in its knowing, I gave him my answer.
“Yes. I choose to trust you, even with my life. I put it on the altar and will give it up if it is what you require of me. Absolutely, yes.”
He smiled. Joy flooded my soul. Peace rushed in. Strength rose up. I felt his strength even as I trembled in fear of what would be asked of me. I sat and rested in my new-found courage. I found the secret place nearest to his heart. I heard his heartbeat for me. I knew he was for me and would be with me. He would never leave me…rather he would lead me…and carry me…and hold me up. He would be my source. He was and is my breath. He was and is my life. On this important day, I cherished my time alone with him to settle the matter in my heart.
Mom arrived. I fell into her arms and the tears started again. We hugged without words for a long time. We didn’t need words, the tears spoke loudly. She sat and we talked. I told her what we knew and our plan for telling the kids in just a few short hours. I was honest about my fears, and my faith. Our time together was precious. God gave his comfort through Mom. I was grateful for that gift and how it always arrived just when I needed it. In the blink of an eye, my time with her was up. With more hugs and prayers, she left me. I wanted to know when the tears would dry up or if I should expect a never-ending supply over the next months.
Bill was on his way with the kids. They were bucking him, and wanted to go out with friends after the show. He insisted they come home without telling them the importance of why. A hard ride for him, knowing what was coming and not saying. I was at home bracing myself, and reminded God of his promise to me for strength. They arrived, frustrated to be home and not with friends. It made the family meeting difficult to get started with pouting faces and crossed arms. We plunged ahead.
I was fighting with my tears from the beginning. I was having difficulty putting on a strong front, and then God reminded me of my promise to show my pain. I agonized over doing that with my children. I mean, it was my role to protect them from pain, right? I was supposed to assure them everything would be alright, not to worry, not to be scared…all of that. Right? So here I was, right in the very beginning, hours from my diagnosis and already I was being stretched in my trust of God’s word to me.
Bill said the C word because I couldn’t speak it. The frustration they had from before, melted away. Each child had their own reaction. I was smothered with hugs, teary kisses and statements whispered in my ear. “Mom, I don’t want you to die.” My heart was broken, tears spilled into their hair. I tried to reassure them I would do my best not to die. I tried to lighten the possibility, but I was also honest that we did not know what would happen and we needed to pray.
One said, “You are going to be fine. I know it.” I saw the variety of temperaments already. We filled them in on what we knew, which was very little. We asked for their help through the process and off they went. It would take some time to tell how they were doing. Kids are resilient and bounce back much quicker than adults, but I also knew in the days ahead we were likely to see differing reactions…as varied as their personalities. I worried and reminded God of my kids…and how they still needed me. I was not yet ready to let them go. I prayed I did not have to. The hardest moment was over. It was a relief on a very emotional day. Once people knew, I no longer had to hold it as a secret. The most important people were with me, supporting me. It was a burden lifted and my time-marking day ended. It was the last “before cancer” day of my life. All the rest would be “after cancer.”