Dear Pat,

You asked me what I’ve learned from The Cancer, and it didn’t bother me in the least because after all we hadn’t seen each other in over 10 years, and if you hadn’t brought it up, The Cancer might have sat there in the booth casting its elephant shaped shadow over our conversation. It’s an interesting question, for which you may have expected a clichéd answer, but might have suspected that’s not really what you’d get from me. Sometimes people say that having The Cancer has made them appreciate life more. Well, I don’t think I had a lack of appreciation for life before, but I told you what I didn’t appreciate enough: nose hairs and eyelashes. It’s astounding how much stuff gets in your eyes without lashes to protect them, and it’s crazy how many random nasal drips you have when there are no nose hairs to keep them corralled.

I told you about being follicularly challenged, but our conversation moved on to other things, and later I didn’t really feel like I’d given you a good answer. Thinking about your question, I remembered that when I was in the middle of that summer of chemo, I was waiting at the orthodontist one day and decided to write down on tiny Post-its some things I had learned. I only found two of those, but the central theme was the same for all of them as I recall: Your life is now. Sounds strangely like a Mellencamp lyric, perhaps because it is.

At any rate, if there is one thing that I’ve learned—not from The Cancer, but from God, who allowed me to go through this process—it’s that we don’t get to pick our situation, only what we do with the moment. And there is value in every moment. I don’t mean that in a sappy “life is precious because The Cancer tried to kill me” sort of way, but in a “we need to make it count” sort of way. What I wrote on that first Post-it was this: Say the kind things you think, but don’t always communicate. Don’t waste an opportunity to show love to people.

We don’t have to do what the world considers to be something big with our lives. Sometimes the small things are really the big things. But we need to do those now, because we have no guarantee that we’ll have the opportunity or ability to do them at any other time. So, that’s the big lesson, according to me. I hope I’ve answered your question a little better this time. Thanks for making me think—I’m so glad you’re my friend.

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About Canoes & Cancer

(Back in January, I spoke at a women’s ministry event.  It was a cruise themed brunch entitled “Sailing the Crystal Seas.”  I was asked to speak on navigating life’s stormy gales.  It took me a while to decide to do it.  Not because I’m afraid to speak in public, but because I felt like many people already had me up on this inspirational cancer girl pedestal, and I didn’t want to pretend to be some sort of role model.  In the end, I didn’t have a good reason not to speak, so I did.  The space constraints of the old blog site prevented me from publishing it back then, but that’s not a problem here.  For some reason I feel impressed to publish it today.)   

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I grew up canoeing.  Our family got a canoe when I was about 7 years old, and we spent a lot of time during the summer canoeing on Big Raccoon Creek.  Not too long after we got the canoe, my dad and I entered a parent/child canoe race that was part of what used to be known as the Banks of the Wabash Festival.  The race was a sprint—I believe about ¼ mile.  If I remember correctly, it was from the old river bridge to some point along the bank at Fairbanks Park.  When it came time to race, I remember sitting in the front of the canoe, pouring every ounce of effort I had into paddling, as family and friends watched from the river bank.  I remember thinking how fast we were going, and how speedy we must look to the folks on the shore. 

Of course, to hear my dad tell it years later, my contribution was not the powerful paddle strokes that I thought I was using.  Instead, they were poorly timed, badly executed, and succeeded more in slowing us down than speeding us up. 

Nevertheless, we won first place. 

This, my friends, is my first place trophy from that race.  Can’t you just hear the crowd cheering?  At 30 years old it’s a little worse for the wear…the plate which held the event name was lost somewhere alone the way, and sometimes it kind of comes unscrewed and ends up all cockeyed…and that may be due in part to the fact that I loved to show it off and tell the story of how we won a canoe race on the river.  Of course, I usually left out one little detail when I was bragging.

We were the only ones in the race.

I was thinking about my canoe because Women of Joy had asked me to tie into the whole sea-faring/cruise theme.  There’s quite a contrast between my canoe and a cruise ship, and it occurred to me that it was a pretty good analogy. 

In a canoe, we’re in control.  And canoes are great for navigating streams and rivers, lakes and ponds.  I like to compare this to the everyday, mundane circumstances of life.  God has given us the intelligence, and the ability to handle these types of things without consulting him.  For example, I’ll bet that most of us don’t stand in the grocery store and pray over the various products asking for God’s guidance.  “Lord Jesus, I want to do your will.  I know Dawn cuts grease and takes it away, but Lord there is also Palmolive, which softens hands while you do the dishes.   I just ask that you make it abundantly clear to me which dish soap is the one you’d have me to use.”  

We don’t do that, because we don’t need to.  God has not only given us the ability to make such decisions, but He’s given us the freedom to do so, as well.  We’re in our canoe.  The water is calm.  The decisions are ours.  No problem.  Hopefully, we make wise decisions based on the brains God has given us and our personal preferences.  If so—wooo!—look at us!  First place!

But, calm inland waters are not the only ones we will navigate in life.  We often find ourselves out in the ocean.  Even when calm, the ocean is not really a good place to be in a canoe.  Canoes aren’t made for that sort of thing, but many times we try to stay in them anyway.  Our successes with the mundane make us think that we’re somehow skilled enough to remain in control despite the fact that we simply are not equipped to do so. 

And there’s something else about canoes:  they’re not very big.  We can only carry so much in the way of provisions.  If we have to be on the ocean for a long time—and we do—how will we ever carry enough supplies to make the trip?  And forget canoeing the stormy seas.  You’ll soon find yourself hanging onto your capsized canoe trying desperately to maintain control while the provisions you did bring sink.  “What will I do?  How can I fix this situation?” you think.  Completely self-focused, without nourishment, and hanging desperately to our upside down boat, we can’t even take care ourselves, let alone anyone else.

What we really need is to be on a vessel that is big enough to navigate the ocean.  One that is steady in the waves, and secure even in the storms.  A ship that has plenty of space to store everything we need for our journey.  We need to be on a cruise ship, but there’s a catch to that: we will not be in control.  In fact, we will have to trust God to be in control. 

When you’re standing on the deck of the cruise ship, the decision to trust God can seem easy.  You’re already there.  Of course it’s better than being tossed around in a canoe.  Duh!  Besides, check out the buffet! 

But, when you’ve canoed out into the ocean, and the waves start getting high and fierce, and between the salt water burning your eyes and the smothering waves crashing over your head, your fear may be so great that you won’t dare let go of your canoe to grab a life preserver thrown from the ship. 

Can I just say that Satan loves that?  He loves to see us clinging to what we think we can control as we are overcome by waves.  He loves to feed fear to that part of us that needs to let go of the canoe and grab the life preserver.  He loves seeing us doubt whether or not to put our trust in God.  We have a choice to make: Do we grab the life preserver?  Or cling to our canoe?  We may not be in control of the waves, or even the canoe, but we have control over our choices. 

Hopefully, we choose to put our faith in God.   

When Jody asked me to speak, she mentioned something to the effect of everyone being anxious to hear how I keep my focus on God, and how that has helped me through this past year.  I thought, “Oh, I’m SUCH a fake!  Is that really how I come off?  Like I’ve got it all together, and it’s because I’m so very holy that I just breeze right through whatever happens?”  Let me enlighten you.

My friends, I’m no role model.  I’m not always focused on God.  I don’t pray as much as I should. I have wrestled with God for control of my situation more than once.  Still don’t believe me?  Do you want to know what the first thing was that I thought upon hearing that I had cancer?  I thought, AT GOD, “I hate you.”  

I’ve never told anyone that—because I’m ashamed that I ever thought it.  But, I needed to make clear to you that what you see in me that you call strength is not me at all.  It’s God’s grace—given to me not because I deserve it, or because I’m so focused, or at all holy—but because that’s what He does for his children when they are broken. 

Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

People often say to me, “I don’t know how you manage.  I couldn’t do it.”  I really don’t even understand a comment like that.  I want to ask them if they think this was optional and I chose it.  Perhaps they think one day God said, “Hey what do you think about some cancer?” And I was like, “What a great opportunity for me to show everyone how well I’ll cope!  Bring it on!” 

We don’t get to choose our circumstances.  But, we still have a choice.

In movie The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo, the ring bearer says, I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”  Gandalf replies,  “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

We need to realize that all life is not about us.  We can either get all wrapped up in our circumstances, or choose to focus on something beside ourselves.  I can tell you from my own experience that focusing on self is counter-productive.  When we focus on ourselves, we focus on what we can do and what we think we can control.  The only thing we really control is our attitude and our actions.  Beyond that, we’re just wrestling with God.

When we wrestle with God, we’re playing right into Satan’s hands.  He wants us not to trust God.  He wants to feed our doubts and fears. The devil is opportunistic.  If we beat ourselves up, if we work ourselves into a frenzy of fear, if we wallow in self-pity, we’re basically doing his work for him, and he’s happy to let us.  No matter what our situation, our choice boils down to this: Either we trust God, or we let Satan get the best of us.

I remember a few months back I was boo-hooing to a friend about the fact that I was going to have to have a mastectomy.  This was one of those days where I was just completely in meltdown mode.  She said, “Can you still fulfill God’s purpose for you without that breast?”  What could I say?  I had to admit that I could.  Yet I was still all wrapped up in myself, and at first I was kind of annoyed with her for asking.  “Yes,” I grumbled, I could still fulfill God’s purpose, blah, blah, blah, “BUT….” I started in again.  She wouldn’t leave me alone though, and I finally saw how self-focused I was being.

 Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m still not thrilled about giving up a breast.  You won’t hear me say ”Gee, I hope I can have another mastectomy for the glory of God!  In fact, my only regret is that I don’t have more breasts to sacrifice.”  If I do have another mastectomy, I’ll wish that it didn’t have to be so. 

It’s not wrong to grieve for our losses in life.  God created us with the ability to feel deeply.  However, we cannot build permanent homes in the desert.  God has better places in mind for us.  We must trust God, and keep moving.

Acts 26:16  says “Now get up and stand on your feet.  I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you.”

Can someone tell me what the first word of that passage was?  It was now.  Now.  Not “when I’ve got it all together”.  Not “when I get through this”. Not “when I’m as wise as so-and-so”.  Now.  Wherever you are—there is value there.  There is opportunity there.  God has work for you to do.  Don’t focus on yourself to the point of becoming cross-eyed and miss seeing the opportunities around you.

Now get up and stand on your feet. 

Spiritual Quicksand

This blog has been great therapy for me. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and the mental exercise has been good for overcoming chemo brain. However, sometimes I’m struggling, and I don’t have anything witty to say. In fact, anything I do have to say would probably be decidedly not witty and uninspiring. That’s precisely the reason why you haven’t heard from me in over a week and a half. It’s like Cowboy Bob used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

I was in meltdown mode on Sunday. It’s amazing how you can be in a church full of people, or at home with your family, and feel all alone. But that’s exactly how I felt. It was as if I was holding myself together with a fraying thread, and it was just a matter of time before it would completely unravel.

Yesterday, I talked to someone who loves me, and she gave me what amounted to a spiritual kick in the butt. You see, I was trying to do it myself. But I don’t have the strength for this—which is why I’ve been a basket case. The bible says that God will give us strength, and not only that, if we let Him, He will fight our battles for us. However, I often decide to wrestle with these things myself. I’m a control freak that way. The problem is that this time I bit off more than I could chew. Satan has a hayday with this type of scenario. When I’m feeling alone, he whispers, “That’s right, you are alone…nobody understands…nobody wants to hear about it if you’re not happy inspirational cancer girl…” When I think about my surgery, he says, “Gee, it’s too bad you’re going to be maimed in a few days…you know that reconstruction won’t look natural, whenever you finally have it…I wonder if you husband will be able to stand the sight of it…”

I can’t fight that kind of thing myself. Before I know it, I’ve been dragged down into it like it’s spiritual quicksand. I kick and thrash, but it only makes matters worse. Only when I recognize that that my self-focused methods aren’t productive, and that I need to instead focus on God, do I calm down enough to stop sinking. This time, it took someone standing on the edge of the pit holding out God’s Word like a life-saving tree limb to pull me out.

I hesitated to post all this, because I know everyone is expecting something funny. Especially if you’re new here, you may be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute…you tricked me! I thought this was supposed to be funny.” Folks, I’m not super human. Most of the time, I am fairly positive, and I do find humor in a lot of the things I’ve gone through. But to pretend to always be happy-snappy would be dishonest. As I said before, my blog is therapeutic for me. I do get a kick out of entertaining and informing people, but I also want to be real. I certainly don’t want someone else who is going through the same sort of thing to be discouraged because they’re not handling it as well as they think I must be.

And hear this: When I am weak, it’s not because God can’t or won’t strengthen me. It’s because I’m trying to rely on my own strength. When I finally admit that I’m at the end of myself, and I say, “Lord, I cannot handle this. I am giving it to you” that is when I become what many of you call strong.

Deep Thoughts

I spent 2 hours at the orthodontist Friday, at the end of which I found out that they’re ready to “begin treatment”. She’s been going to the orthodontist for 2-1/2 years now, so what that really means is that they’re ready to start preparing her for braces. I thought to myself, “Great! I’ve had all those bags of money sitting around, taking up space, now I can just bring them along to the next appointment. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with those! What a blessing!”

Believe it or not, I spent some of that wait time not only thinking, but reflecting. I decided to jot down things I’ve learned from this whole cancer experience so that I could share some of them with you guys. By the way, mini Post-its and felt tip pens are not, I repeat, not the best tools for writing down such things. But, it was either that or my hand.

*I’ve learned to appreciate normal. The ability to do the things I’d do during the course of everyday life. Tasting. Having nose hairs–do you have any idea how much your nose runs without those things? Not having to schedule things based on whether it’s “good week” or “bad week”. Being pain-free. I’m 36 for crying out loud! Yet, it seems to me that lately a lot of my time has been spent living the life of someone much older with all the bone aching, doctor visiting, and pill popping. I relish normal these days. Even when I have to wait 2 hours at the orthodontist—hey at least I feel like being there!

*When you’re bald, scarves make you look like a cancer patient. Cute hats are better. Just plain bald shocks people, but seems to actually make them more at ease—as long as you have a good attitude and a smile—after the initial shock wears off. Plain bald, especially with the right accessories, says, “Hey—I’ve got cancer, but you know what? I’m still very much alive and kicking!”

*Most people who go through this sort of thing say that they learned that they’re stronger than they thought. In my case, I’ve learned that I’m not as strong as I thought. I’ve always been stubborn and had the attitude that I could do just about anything (except algebra) through sheer willpower. However, this time I was in over my head. Yeah, I’ve made it this far, but at my lowest points it was not by any strength of my own. In fact, being Miss Tough Stubborn Pants worked to my disadvantage, I think. It’s very difficult to go from having the mindset that you can do whatever you set your mind to do, to literally not being able to do the simplest thing. What a tragic day it is when you find out that your ego was full of crap, and you’ve been woefully misled all these years. The talents and abilities that I have are given to me by God to use, but I don’t own them.
 

God Treats

Many of you have heard me refer to what I call God Treats. God Treats are happy little surprises that God provides just to let you know that He knows you well (and still likes you in spite of it) and hasn’t forgotten about you. They’re not generic, but usually pretty specific to your particular likes and wants. They’re not basic things that you need…they’re extra little goodies that you want and enjoy. Hence why I call them treats.

Last week, I had two such treats, both by way of friends who were unsuspecting instruments of God.

A tiny bit of history, for those who may not know…I’m a foodie. In fact, I’m a little snobby about my food most of the time. No pre-fabricated vittles here, no Ma’am, only that which is made from scratch, using things like real butter and no MSG thankyouverymuch. However, this chemo has me craving, curiously, that goopy substance commonly referred to as nacho cheese. (Yeah, I don’t know why either.) I hadn’t voiced this craving to anyone. I’d simply savored my ballpark pretzel–or at least I’d enjoyed using it as a carrier for the much coveted nacho cheese goo.

On Wednesday after my last treatment, Molly called and said, “I’m coming out, what do you want for lunch?” I told her the only thing that sounded good was a baked potato, so she promised to bring taters and sour cream. End of conversation. Lo and behold, when she arrived what to my wondering eyes should appear from her bag o’ groceries? Nacho cheese. She said, because she was almost sure I’d turn my nose up at it, “They had these buy one, get one free…I didn’t know if you’d want one or not.” Want one? *swoon* Did I ever! That, my friends, was God Treat number one.

Then, on Sunday morning I was getting ready for church. I whine to Hubster, “I need some summer shirts” as I’m trying to figure out what to wear. Now, it’s not like I’m running around naked or anything, so maybe saying I “need” them was a little strong. But, sometimes your wardrobe just needs a little jumpstart–and especially when you’re bald and all of a sudden you have to totally change your style to match your head or your funky new cowboy hat.

Fast forward to me at church running into my friend Diana who tells me that her daughter is cleaning out her closet and they brought me a couple of shirts. HELLO! God Treat Alert. Is that cool or what?

So, thanks to my friends for allowing themselves to be used by God to give me the little treats that perk me up. And thanks to God for not only providing the basic stuff, but the fun extra stuff, too.