Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Matter of Choice

I bet you can guess the one person from Scripture I've been thinking a lot about over the past month...

You got it! JOB.

His story is pretty fascinating (depressing, but fascinating none the less). Here's a guy who lost everything, I mean... everything! He lost all his livestock - his oxen, his donkeys, his sheep, and his camels; he lost his servants... that's all his livelihood. He lost his sons; he lost his daughters; he even lost his health! He got painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. The only thing he didn't lose was his nagging wife and his judgmental friends. Can you imagine? What a bad week!

I can't help but empathize with Job. He's a guy who's just doing his best to serve the Lord and then... wham! life takes a completely unexpected detour. He's hit with pain like he's never experienced before and I can't imagine that he didn't have a million questions for God in the process. His head must have been spinning! Then, on top of it all, his wife tells him that he should just curse God and die, and his friends are convinced that he must have sinned to deserve such punishment from the Lord. I mean, wasn't he already beaten down enough by his circumstances?

Yet, Job did the unexpected (or maybe it's better stated - he didn't do the expected). Job 1:22 says, "In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing." Then in 2:10, he goes on to say something utterly profound... "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" That single question hit me like a ton of bricks. Will I soak up all the good God has for me, but then shake my fist and rail against him when trouble comes? May it never be!

Beyond that one life-shaping question, there are some important things I've learned from my partner in suffering, Job. First of all, as the readers of this tale, we have a distinct insight into the back-story. We see Satan going before the Lord. We see God almost bragging to him about Job's righteousness and we see God giving Satan permission to bring demise to Job as a test of his faithfulness. The one thing I never really recognized before this is that Job is not given that same insight. In fact, through fourty-two chapters, he's never given that insight! Job just finds himself square in the middle of unforseen and inexplicable circumstances. He finds his world rocked by pain and loss, and he's never given the answer why. Yet, through it all, he does not sin. In fact, he worships God in the midst of his anguish!

How does he do it? I mean, did he not have any feelings or doubts? Was he some kind of super-believer or something? I don't think so. I think Job was an everyday kind of guy with feelings, doubts, dreams and fears... just like the rest of us. Job was a man who made a choice. He was faced with suffering like few people have ever known and he made a choice. He chose to remain faithful to God.

In the midst of my own trial, I've come to realize that I am who I am based on my choices alone. I can choose to be angry about my circumstances; I can choose to let them bring me down and be depressed; just as well, I can choose to thank God for all things in my life - good and bad; and I can choose to remain faithful and worship him. I never realized before this how much of my faith really comes down to a matter of my will. In every circumstance I face, whether good or bad, I choose how I will respond to it. So, in this circumstance, I choose to keep my focus on my God. I choose in faith to believe that he's working something greater through this. I choose to worship him in the midst of my suffering.

What about you? Every one of us faces trials. Every one of us has some kind of difficult circumstance in our life. What will you choose in the midst of it?

Friday, March 27, 2009

From Out of a Very Dark Place

Well, it's been a while since I've written... and with good reason -

As I said before, my treatment in the hospital went very well... easy in fact, which, I learned, was to be expected. In the days following, I went on quite a ride while the chemo meds coursed through my system. I started out feeling tired like I had been on an all-nighter with my youth group kids. After sleeping, I awoke to feel not rested, but even more exhausted like I had been on a month-long marathon youth event! Then there were the three days of really feeling it... nausea, migraine, dizziness, flu-like symptoms, etc. I can't remember a time when I felt worse in my life! Needless to say, it was not a pleasant week for me. However, every day since I have very gradually felt better and better and I was told that, all in all, I tolerated treatment very well. I'm sure I'll be feeling right back to my old self again just before I head back in for round two on Monday, April 6th!

During this difficult time, I was reminded of a passage that has comforted me in the past - Romans 5:1-5:

"Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us."

Those of us who have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ stand in a unique position of grace. We have the privilege from this position to understand at least a bit of the end result of our suffering. As we go through suffering, it produces in us perseverance. That perseverance produces character, and as our character is developed, it produces hope... a hope that understands that suffering is never in vain because God is at work molding us through it.

I've only ever looked at this development of hope in us in terms of emotional trials. I've never been in a position in which I've had to trust God through such a dark time physically. How do you rejoice in suffering when you feel so absolutely miserable?

There's something that pain does to us spiritually. It has a uniqe way of robbing us of all the frills and non-necessities that we stuff between ourselves and God. When we're stripped of all that we naturally depend on or take for granted, the only hope we have is to turn to God to get through it... and the awesome thing is, he's always there for us when we finally do turn to him! Believe me, there were moments throughout this past week when I felt the presence of God so tangibly that I almost thought I could reach out and touch him sitting next to me on the couch. And as I waited for my symptoms to subside, I had time to contemplate the purpose of suffering in my life. Would I accept it willingly? Would I learn from it all that God wanted me to? Or would I take it begrudgingly and miss the valuable lessons hidden within the pain?

Far too often, I find myself only looking at the surface of the difficult circumstances in my life. I whine and complain because I don't want to go through the pain of tough times... if only I would look closer, I would see! I'm learning that suffering is a privilege. Yes, you read that right... suffering is a privilege! You see, I know myself well enough to know that I'm far too stubborn and hard-headed to become the person I'm meant to be without the sharp pain that suffering brings. Only then, do I get stripped of all that clouds my vision. Only then, do I seem to truly place my focus and faith squarely on God and nothing else. Only then, do I begin to look hard for what he is trying to shape within me. Suffering reminds me that God is hard at work doing something far greater in my life than what I tend to spend my energy on!

Now of course, no one signs up willingly for suffering... yet, we can still rejoice when difficult times hit because we know that God can use our suffering to make us just a little more like the kind of people he longs for us to be - the kind of people who reflect him a bit more with each passing day.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Update from Room 625

I just wanted to let you know how treatment's going now that I'm finally settled in my hospital room...

Well, praise the Lord -- another couple of unexpected "yeses" came my way today! As it turns out, the first big drop of this coaster ride wasn't as bad as I had imagined it to be after all (at least so far... we're still not done yet)! Isn't it crazy how often we get unnecessarily anxious over that which God can... and wants to... take care of for us?

So far, so good! This morning, I started by receiving a bunch of anti-nausea medications along with Benadryl. Immediately following, they started giving me my 24-hour chemotherapy medication. It's a smaller dose spanned out over a long time, so I've had very little (as in almost zero) nauseousness from it. I was tired for a while as the Benadryl wore off, but other than that... I feel pretty good right now! So join me in praising God for this tremendous gift!

In addition, I realized today how often I completely miss the "little" gifts and and mercies God blesses me with every day. As I sat (for hours) in the Infusion Center waiting for a room to open up for me, I saw two people who had recently had the same port implanted as I did. Both of them had complications and had to postpone their treatment. I didn't even think to thank God that everything went so smoothly with my new port when we accessed it this morning with no problems at all! I certainly did later, though! Have you had anything like that happen in your life today? Did you miss a gift from God in the moment? If so, you've still got time to stop and thank the Lord for how good he is to you! Go ahead, do it now... I'll still be here.

Glad you're back! Now, let's continue with my treatment update:

When my current medication is completed tomorrow, they will give me another round of anti-nausea medications and Benadry. Then, I will get a 1-hour dose of another chemotherapy medication. That one might pack more of a punch because the dosage is higher and faster, so please pray that my physical symptoms aren't bad from that one.

Once I'm through with that medication, I'll be sent home to wait out the next week to ten days to see how I'm affected by all these medications (again, more lessons in patience and trust). I might have nausea; I'll definitely be exhausted; and my hair will begin to fall out in clumps... but I am confident that God will get me through it -- no matter how physically difficult it is!

"As for God, his way is perfect; the Word of the Lord is flawless. He is a shield to all who take refuge in him. For who is God besides the Lord and who is the Rock aside from our God? It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect." ~Psalm 18:30-32

The Dreaded Top of the Hill

It's the night before my first chemo treatment and I can't sleep. I've got a familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach - one I've never been very fond of.

You know the feeling... you've been having a blast all day at an amusement park with friends, riding the rides and laughing as everything whizzes by you in a blur. Then, somehow, your friends talk you into going on the biggest, scariest-looking roller coaster in the whole park. Against your better judgment, you strap in and silently pray for your life as the ride begins to move... slowly at first. You hear chains clank beneath you as the coaster is pulled up what can only be the tallest metal hill known to mankind, all the while more and more atmosphere is separating you from the precious ground below. Your palms sweat and you find yourself praying again, this time that the engineers really did know what they were doing when they put this crazy contraption together. The long, slow haul up is bad enough, but it's not the worst part. The worst part is that lingering moment at the top of the hill. That moment when you're staring straight down the dreaded first drop wondering just how bad it's going to be. It's that moment you're no longer under the control of anything but gravity, which is about to kick in... and fast. This is one scary moment!

I think it's the anticipation that gets me so anxious every time. It's a taunting moment when you're just lingering there at the top thinking how bad this is going to be and knowing there's no way out of it now. All you can do is wait for your stomach to drop out and your heart to race as you begin to experience gravity in all its glory. Now, I consider myself a bit of a roller coaster fan... but no matter how great the ride is, I've (obviously) never been a fan of that first drop. I much more enjoy the twists, turns, and loops afterwards. The problem is, you can't get through any of those if you don't commit to that first drop!

That's where I find myself tonight - at the top of my first big hill. I'm locked into this crazy ride of chemotherapy... wishing I could get out of it, but knowing it's inevitable. How sick am I going to feel? How much pain will I be in? How bad will the exhaustion be? There are butterflies in my stomach and I'm doing everything I can to keep myself distracted from obsessing over how bad this ride might be. The more the anxiety builds in me, the more I'm reminded of Philippians 4:6 - "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, with prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God."

Sometimes I wish there was an exclusion clause in passages like that. Wouldn't it be nice if Paul had said something more like, "Do not be anxious about anything... except, of course, when you face marital problems, rebellious children, job loss, and chemotherapy!" That would make more sense (at least to me). There are certain things in life that just naturally make us anxious. It's a normal response in difficult situations. Yet, this verse is not a mere suggestion. It is a command - DO NOT be anxious for ANYTHING! That's a tall order if you ask me! Instead of getting overwhelmed and upset, when anxiety wells up within us, we are instructed to go to our knees. We are to bring all of those emotions, fears, doubts, and questions to God. Don't worry, he can handle it. Philippians 4:7 proves it. When we cast our anxiety on God, he promises something wonderful - "and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus." What an amazing promise!

When we make the choice to let go of our anxiety and cling to Jesus, he can do something miraculous in our hearts. He can replace our anxiety with peace in the craziest of circumstances.... and not just any peace - a peace that makes no human sense! That is, by far, one of my favorite promises of Scripture (and, boy, am I clinging to it tonight). I can't explain it. It's a supernatural thing. All I know is, whether I feel it or not in this moment, God is right here with me on this ride and he is going to see me through it... however rough it may be. Tonight, I'm praying for his peace that transcends all understanding - because that's the only kind of peace that's worth having in this type of situation.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Post-Surgery Update

Just wanted to fill everyone in...

This past week was a rough week for me as I had to manage pain without Ibuprofen in preparation for surgery. However, the surgery went well today. The doctor was able to implant the port with no complications. He also did a thorough exam and found out that my reproductive organs are full with cancer (not that this is new news really, but it certainly explains the amount of pain I've been dealing with). The good news is that he also checked my colon and bladder and found no signs of cancer there. Finally, I feel like I've gotten one "yes" to my prayers!

I have to admit that I've been hesitant to be hopeful for any positive answers to prayer because I seemed to keep getting so many "no's" all along. Yet, today, we finally got a bit of good news officially confirmed. I'm not a superstitious person by any stretch of the imagination, but I can't help but think that maybe my willingness to stare superstition in the face and have surgery done on Friday the 13th was good for my morale. Hopefully this one little "yes" will be the beginning of an onslaught of "yeses" as I proceed forward through treatment!

The doctor is eager to get my treatments started, so Monday is the big day. I'll be in the hospital from Monday morning until Tuesday evening and then I just have to see how the medicines affect me physically throughout the week. Please pray that my symptoms aren't too bad. Also, pray that I am able to manage my pain with reasonable measures - without having to take stronger medications. Finally, please pray that the chemotherapy is very affective and we begin to make some great progress on getting rid of the cancer in my body. Thanks so much for all your support! As I've said before, it's carrying me through!

On another note, I'm looking forward to sharing a bunch of devotional thoughts that have blessed me through this crazy journey so far... but for tonight, I'm still a bit groggy from the cocktail of drugs they gave me for surgery, so I'll leave you with this promise:

"How priceless is [God's] unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of [his] wings.... For with [him] is the fountain of life; in [his] light we see light." ~ Psalm 36:7, 9

Isn't it great to know that no matter how good or bad we feel about our circumstances, God is always there for us to love, protect, and guide us?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Update #1

Many of you are interested in hearing the practical details of my progress. Because there's a whole network of people praying for me who aren't all connected in the same way, I wanted to find one general location that everyone can go to learn of my progress. This blog seems to be the best answer for that, so here's the first installment of what I'm sure will become an ongoing process of updates...

Though I was originally told by my gynecologist that I have endometrial cancer, I have now been officially labeled as a cervical cancer patient by my oncologist. Based on his physical examination and how my symptoms developed, he believes this is a more appropriate diagnosis. We may never know the exact origin of the cancer, but that won't affect how it's dealt with.

The biggest thing I was hoping for and many of you were praying for was that the cancer wouldn't have already spread beyond my pelvic region. However, after having a PET/CT Scan done on Monday, I met with my oncologist yesterday and learned that the cancer has spread beyond my pelvic region to my lungs and my right kidney. I have several small spots on both of my lungs (the largest of which is almost the size of a quarter on my right lung) and I have a small blockage in my right kidney. It's most likely that it spread through my lymphatic system. Who would've thought?!? I've felt perfectly healthy other than the pelvic pain I've been experiencing over the past few months!

Additionally, because the cancer has traveled out of my pelvic region, it's now officially labeled as stage 4 cervical cancer. Now, for those of you who will go online and look up the statistics, let me warn you: it's not pretty! The five-year survival rate for this type of cancer that has spread to this extent is only 15-20%... BUT my doctor reassured me that, though we have to appreciate the statistics for the reality they present, we also have to keep in mind that they span every case, which would include women who are much older and women who have underlying medical conditions. I am young and otherwise very healthy, so my doctor keeps telling me that they're going to get me through this... so THAT is what we must focus on!

So now what's next? Over the course of the next week, I've got a lot that I'll have to get in order and then the wheels start spinning and they won't be stopping for quite some time. I have an outpatient surgery scheduled for Friday, the 13th, to do more biopsies of my reproductive organs and to implant a port in my chest for chemotherapy (from what I'm told, the port will make the process of intaking the medications much, much easier). Then only a couple days later, I'm scheduled for my first chemo treatment on Monday, the 16th.

I'll be doing six treatments, one every three weeks for 4 1/2 to 5 months. After the third treatment, we'll do another PET/CT scan to see if the cancer is responding and receding.... and then another at the end of the six treatments. Our hope is to get it to clear up completely in the distant sites and then deal with treating my pelvis locally afterwards with radiation. Only after we make it to that point will we have any idea if I'll need to have a hysterectomy. All we can do is take it one step at a time. It's a real lesson in patience for me!

My doctor did say that we're behind the eight ball and I'm in for a rough five months, as the treatments he's going to be giving me will be very aggressive. For each treatment, I'll be given two different types of chemo medication and I'll be in the hospital overnight... and then I'll be dealing with two to four days of nausea, a week to ten days of exhaustion, and possible numbness or tingling in my hands and feet after each treatment. Also (and here's the icing on the cake), within five days of my very first treatment, I'm going to start losing my hair... all of it, eyebrows and eyelashes included! Needless to say, all of this information was a lot to take in and I'm still processing everything, but I'm continuing to go to God with my fears and concerns and trust his plan. It's daunting and at moments overwhelming, but I know my God is bigger than all this! Besides, I'm already strapped in and heading up the first hill of this rollercoaster ride. There's no backing out now, so what's the point of dwelling on the negatives? I might as well do my best to stay focused on what God is doing through all this and look for his amazing work, right?

Thank you so much for your continued prayers as I go through this journey. In the midst of a million emotions, they really are carrying me through! There's a part of me that's almost afraid to ask for more prayer because it feels like every answer I've received so far has been a no... but the fact is, "Prayer Changes Things!" Please pray that the cancer responds well to this cycle of chemotherapy and that we're able to get me back to full health with reasonable measures. I'm still hopeful that this doesn't have to drag on for a rediculously long time. You can also continue to pray for my strength, faith, and testimony through this experience. I know God uses trials like these to shape us and do things that we otherwise would not see him do. I'm trusting that he'll work through this in many ways... both in me and in the lives of my family, friends, church, and youth group. Thanks for joining me through this as we see what God is up to!

Monday, March 2, 2009

One Phone Call from Our Knees

My life always seems to have a soundtrack running in the background. Music is somehow woven into every major event I've ever experienced... and this one is no different.

A little history first... Two summers ago, I lost my dog (who was like my four-legged, furry only child) to lymphoma. I was devastated at the prospect of losing her, but I was able to take her on one last vacation and we enjoyed walking on the beach and playing in the waves before she was too sick to do much of anything. On that trip, I happened to pick up a CD I had been wanting for some time... Mat Kearney's Nothing Left to Lose. As it turns out, Mat became one of my favorite artists as his songs, like Wait and In the Middle, ministered to my heart in one of the darkest times of my life. His was the only music I listened to through my time of depression after I lost her and somehow his lyrics saw me through to the other side where I was able to experience joy again.

Fast-forward to the present... Two days after I got my recent earth-shattering diagnosis of cancer, I happened to get a promotional email for Mat's new album, City of Black and White. I went to the website to check out his new single, Closer to Love, and these were the first words I heard coming through my computer:

She got the call today
One out of the gray
And when the smoke cleared
It took her breath away
She said she didn't believe
It could happen to me
I guess we're all one phone call from our knees
We're gonna get there soon

If every building falls
And all the stars fade
We'll still be singing this song
The one they can't take away
I'm gonna get there soon
She's gonna be there too
Cryin' in her room
Prayin' Lord come through
We're gonna get there soon

Oh it's your light
Oh it's your way
Pull me out of the dark
Just to shoulder the weight
Cryin' out now
From so far away
You pull me closer to love...

How it is that this guy whom I've never met could speak so clearly to my immediate situation I cannot explain apart from the providence of God. There are two key thoughts that struck me to my core when I heard this song. They are as follows:

"I guess we're all one phone call from our knees"
How many days of my life have I spent completely oblivious to how fragile life really is? How few times have I stopped to thank God for all the wondrous little gifts he gives me each day? Far too many... and far too few. Most days we fritter away focused on all the things we think are so vitally important. We get upset about traffic jams, throw temper tantrums over difficult people in our lives, and worry away the hours trying to get that all-important project or issue taken care of. Meanwhile we're ignorant to how very unimportant all those things really are. In one phone call, my life was turned upside-down... and all of a sudden things began to come into sharp perspective. In one phone call, I was driven to my knees. In one phone call, I was rendered helpless to fix my own situation. In one phone call, I came face to face with the reality that only God is in control of my days and my destiny. It may not be a phone call for you. It may be something completely different... but rest assured, it will happen. Some day, you will be faced with the reality of how fragile life is. How will you respond when it happens?

"If every building falls and all the stars fade, we'll still be singing this song - the one they can't take away"
What is your response to difficult situations? Do you complain... get depressed... get angry at God? Do you praise him... look for him to work in new ways? Let's face it - when we're driven to our knees, it can be difficult to be positive. When all of life comes crashing down around us, it can be difficult to look up. Yet, the best posture to take when one is on one's knees is to do exactly that - look up. As a Christian, I am privileged to be able to stand amidst the rubble that is currently my life. I was so thankful to be reminded in this song that no matter how bad things get, I have a song to sing... and no one, nothing can take that away. Psalm 96:1-2 says, "Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth; sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day." The fact is, no matter how bad things get in this life, it's only temporary! I have the promise of eternity with my heavenly Father.. and more than that, I have the promise that God is with me through it all right now. He is still in control and working all things for my good (Romans 8:28). It may not all make sense to me and I may not like some of the turns my life may take, but I still have a song in my heart... one that God put there and no one can take away from me! I have been saved from my sins, taken from death and given life (and a life that I don't deserve at that)! God is at work in and around me! That is a song that even cancer can't take away. Yes, no matter how difficult things may be, we can have a song to sing through it all! So... are you singing?