(Note: Title is to be sung to the tune of The Knack’s “My Sharona”)

Today was my yearly mammogram. Given the results of last year’s mammogram and the cancer journey that followed, I was rather nervous about the outcome.

Thankfully, I go to an imaging center that has a doctor on site to read the films while you’re there. No waiting for a phone call a day or two later. I was able to walk out of there knowing there were no signs of trouble. See ya in another 12 months.

When I got the results, I realized just how stressed I’d been about this post-treatment milestone. It was as though a giant weight lifted off my shoulders. I’d made the appointment before Christmas, so I’ve been anticipating this appointment for over a month. And I entered the new year knowing I had the mammogram–and whatever it might reveal–waiting for me. As the nurse handed me the letter saying “no signs of cancer,” the fear I’d been holding at bay washed away in a moment and I could feel myself exhale fully for the first time in awhile.

It has been hard to embrace the new year not knowing whether I’d be facing another wild ride of medical procedures and treatments or a clean bill of health. So tonight, I’m having my own little, quiet new year’s celebration. Bring on 2016!

Breast Cancer Awareness Month through the Lens of a First-Year Survivor


Just in case you missed all the pink, it’s October–Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

It takes on a different meaning for me this year than in years past. This year, I view the health observance through the lens of someone who has recently lived through hearing “It’s breast cancer” and all of the fear, pain, uncertainty, discomfort, exhaustion, and blessings (yes, blessings) that come with diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

Up to now, I have been reluctant to say I am a cancer survivor. My experience was so much milder than many who have had breast cancer that I felt I hadn’t “earned” the title. I was also reluctant to bear that title because I did not want cancer to be part of my identity. But, I have realized that my experience with cancer IS part of who I am–as much as any life experience is, good or bad. And I can choose how to frame that experience–as good or bad.

So, I am choosing to use this month to speak out as someone who’s “been there”–to advocate for early detection and to reflect on lessons learned through my breast cancer journey.

First, the advocacy piece…  Women, if you’re over 40 and haven’t had a mammogram in the past year, talk to your doctor. Get an appointment and get screened. Yes, it’s unpleasant. Who wants to hug a cold, hard machine while having their breasts smashed into pancakes? But do it.

If your doctor says you don’t need a mammogram this year because you had one last year, consider pushing back. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which issues public health recommendations, has recently said that every couple of years is enough for women starting at age 50, though they add that when to start having mammograms and how often to have them should be an individual decision for each patient. You have a right to question your doctor if he or she says you don’t need it. The American College of Gynecologists still says every year starting at age 40.

A routine yearly mammogram found my cancer at age 44–and found it very early, when I had the best prognosis and easiest treatment possible. Had I waited another year, it could have been a much different story.

And the lessons learned through this experience? There are several, which can probably apply to probably most major life hurdles:

  • When recovering from surgery, nothing tastes as good as food your friends have prepared. It’s tempting to push away help because it makes you feel needy. But we all have times of need. Letting friends and family meet your needs not only helps you to cope with whatever trial you’re facing, but also helps to build connection and community.
  • Prayer is a powerful thing. At many times during testing, diagnosis, surgery, and radiation, I put out a call to friends to pray for me–for good results, for peace, for comfort. And I did my own fair share of praying myself. It had a very real effect in calming my nerves, changing my attitude, and bringing me a peace in the midst of fear or pain.
  • Worrying about tomorrow makes it harder to get through today. It was hard not to worry about upcoming procedures or treatments, to wonder about the outcome of surgery, to guess for how many weeks I’d feel tired, sore, and foggy from radiation treatments. But no one could predict the future; I just had to wait and see. Whether the day brought lots to think about and plan for, or was pretty much “normal,” it was helpful to try to live into each day and not jump mentally to the next. I didn’t always succeed at that–but it was so much better when I did.
  • No one will die if your house isn’t clean. For awhile I tried to keep up with everything I did before being diagnosed with cancer. But over time, I realized that, for a season, I had to slow down. You only have so much physical and mental energy. The house didn’t get tidied and cleaned as often. I didn’t do as many volunteer activities. And I even took a short leave of absence from work. What truly needed to get done, got done–sometimes by me, sometimes by other people. I think pride gets in the way, and we convince ourselves that if we don’t do all the stuff we’ve been doing, somehow life will fall apart. It doesn’t.
  • That which doesn’t kill you makes you…. different. I know, it’s supposed to be “…makes you stronger.” Not sure I agree with that saying in all cases. But any adversity–serious illness, divorce, job loss, death of a spouse, whatever it is–makes you see life a little differently. It gives you knowledge and experience you didn’t have before, that maybe you can share with others. (That’s already happened twice with women I know who have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.) It helps you appreciate even more those friends and family members who rally around you in your time of need. And a trying time can spur you to make changes in your life that might help you avoid a repeat of the trying time–whether that’s changing bad habits, starting healthy new habits, re-examining decisions, or re-evaluating relationships. It can be an opportunity for a life “reboot.”

I won’t go so far as to say I’m glad I had breast cancer. But, as one friend has encouraged, I will say I am proud to have gone through it and come out the other side. And I’m prepared to pass along any knowledge I’ve gained and share hope–most especially hope–with anyone who finds herself walking the same road.

To Every Thing There Is a Season

This week, after about 6 months of being a cancer patient, I’m done. Treatments have ended and most side effects are subsiding, and it’s like a switch was flipped in my brain—time to move on.

For the past several months, I’ve lived into the season of rest and healing, laying low, enjoying comfort food, and taking a break from exercise because I was sore and very tired. I gave myself permission to step away from the stress of work to finish up treatments and recover, and took frequent naps.

But now, it’s a new season. Time to get off the couch and exercise. Time to get back to eating right. Time to get back to health and put the “patient” designation behind me.

I’ve thought a lot lately about what I’m supposed to do with this cancer season. What impact does it have going forward? Am I supposed to be in some way changed or different as a result? And the answer I keep coming back to is, I don’t really know, but at this point, I don’t see this experience really being that different from any other. It’s just one of many seasons that has shaped and will shape who I am. Maybe it’ll end up having a big impact, and maybe not. Like many other experiences, I might not know exactly how it’s woven into the rest of my life until some later season, and I guess that’s OK.

An Uncomfortable New Title

Survivor. I have been reminded by a few folks that in just a week’s time, I will get to wear that moniker, when cancer treatments have ceased (with the exception of long-term drugs) and I can return to normal life. As normal as life is for anyone. It is a moniker I’m told I’ve earned and I should wear it with pride, knowing I’ve beaten the Cancer Beast.

But it is one I am uncomfortable with, and I’ll tell you why.

Generally speaking, cancer can be deadly. My experience with cancer, however, did not rise to life-threatening status. I was told from day one that my cancer was highly treatable and my prognosis excellent. I was told soon after that the genetic makeup of my tumor indicated a low likelihood of recurrence. Cancer wasn’t going to kill me this winter/spring—and maybe it won’t in the future. So, I don’t feel like I’ve done battle with a deadly foe.

The treatments I have gone through, although tedious and resulting in unpleasant side effects, have not entered the category of major adversity. Not to downplay the fatigue, soreness, and brain fog that have ensued, but I got pretty off easy. I never lost my appetite, lost my hair, couldn’t get out of bed, or cried in agony. I never faced a day where I thought, “I can’t endure this any more” but pushed on anyway. Again, not much of a fight on my end.

I know, cancer is cancer. It stinks no matter what the kind of cancer, what the type of treatment prescribed, and how long the course of treatment. It’s scary and disruptive and painful, emotionally and physically. And because it certainly can have dire consequences for some, I understand the need to give a major attaboy or attagirl to someone who’s lived through it and come out on the other side in relative good health.

But at the same time, why is cancer a sort of “king” of diseases? Why do we have a special, honored title for people who make it through cancer treatment but not for people who go through other diseases, whether acute or chronic?

What about other people with other diseases and conditions? Particularly those who don’t just have a season or a year of living with a disease, but year after year after year?

  • The man with muscular dystrophy who faces the loss of physical abilities little by little—yet greets each day with determination and grace and even manages to go on a mission trip with his family? What do we call him?
  • Or the woman who daily pricks her finger, adjusts her insulin pump, and tries not to worry about potential vision loss  or nerve damage from a lifetime of diabetes—yet takes every healthy step she can to live a full life with her husband and kids? What’s the special name for her?
  • The elderly parent who struggles with confusion and fear as he loses his faculties to Alzheimer’s Disease—yet still tries to interact with family members, friends, and nurses? What’s the badge of honor he wears?
  • Or the girl with severe asthma who relies on inhalers and nebulizers to keep breathing—yet still signs up for the softball team, determined to play just like the other kids. Does she get a special title?

And then there are those who don’t survive cancer. What of the mom who pursues every treatment and fights ’til cancer steals her very last breath? Or the man who decides to forgo punishing chemo treatments to live out his days without the associated side effects, knowing that it means far fewer days? What do we call those folks?

I’m not in any way advocating for removing the term “survivor” from the cancer vernacular. And I certainly don’t mean to discount the term, criticize it, or imply that others should ever hesitate to call themselves that, proudly wear the word on T-shirts, and celebrate that title every second if they want to.

All I’m saying is that I am struggling with the label as applied to me and my circumstances. It is one of the many words, concepts, and experiences I have wrestled with—and continue to wrestle with—on this cancer journey.

Same Stuff, Different Day—or Is It?


Going to radiation daily can start to feel like the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. Each day is the same, like someone hit the rewind button and is playing the scene over and over. The same steps to check in, same therapists and doctor, same patients coming and going. Same The Price Is Right on the waiting room TV. Same hard table and drafty treatment room.

I know the sights and sounds I’ll encounter, the faces I’ll meet each day. It’s easy to press the auto-pilot button and go through the motions like a robot.

Some days I fall into that mode—I know what to expect, and by and large, that’s all I experience.

But on other days, I manage to be a bit more present and notice things around me, and the drudgery of this process is lessened a little. Today, the lady in the time slot before mine finished her last treatment. She walked out of the doctor’s office with a smile on her face. I smiled silently with her in celebration. An older woman came in to the changing area right after me—I suspect she was there for her first radiation appointment, because she wore the same look of “I’m trying to be cheerful, but I’m really freaked out” that I had on my first day. My heart whispered a little prayer for her. A toddler issued an unspoken challenge to a smiling contest in the elevator. The little girl won, hands down, and my spirit was lifted as I walked to my appointment.

The radiation treatment experience is not unique in its repetition. Much of life centers on doing the same thing again and again. Whether interacting in the workplace, raising children, tending a garden, or even leading worship on Sundays, we can get so used to the processes and people that we stop fully engaging. Even things we love doing can start to feel rote and mundane when we do them all the time.

Unexpected diversions that interrupt our routines may capture our attention, if they’re big enough. But do we go into each day, into each one of our daily places and rhythms, expecting to see something worthy of note? Do we anticipate extraordinary moments—however small—in the midst of the ordinary? And do we pause and appreciate those things when they occur?

If we rise each day with the feeling of same stuff, different day, it’s likely we’ll get just that. If we begin the day, however, with a desire to experience something new and special—and we maintain an attentiveness to the world around us—odds are that desire will be fulfilled.