The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

It’s been an odd week with random thoughts and emotions invading my quiet little world…and I know that this too shall pass, but for now, this is how I’m feeling, and to withhold this information or deny that these moments of confusion, hurt and fear even exist would seem shallow and insincere to the cycle of processing my journey through the cancer.

Last Friday morning I woke up to the first flu/cold that I’ve experienced since my diagnosis. Fever, chills, aches, sore throat and this awful fear that being sick would hurt my already weak immune system. From there, I started having dreams that the cancer was back, thus my sore throat. While awake and with every cough, I began panicking internally and could almost visualize the cancer spreading from my tongue through my neck down into my lungs. I allowed myself to wonder what it would be like if in fact I received the news of another tumor…how would I deal?…could I put myself through another round of treatment?…but then wait, the doctor was clear that I can only use radiation in this location once…what if they can’t do anymore treatment?…what then?…could I really survive another bout of this crap?

I’m quite sure that for anyone who’s gone through the fight against cancer the fear of it returning is more than normal, but for me, this is the first time I’ve really let myself process those anxieties. For the past 8 months I’ve been so absorbed and focused on “getting it done” that I never allowed myself any doubts that I wouldn’t kick this horrible disease in its ugly face! I verbalized my fears to my mom this week. She was gracious with comments that it’s all part of the process…that it would be abnormal not to have some thoughts of a reoccurrence. I’m thankful she listens to my ramblings without judgement or trying to shoosh them away with empty promises of a brilliant health for years to come.

That’s when I picked up a book recommended to me by my roommate. The story of a young woman who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 22, a former basketball player, in the prime of her life, merely months away from her college graduation, in the best physical shape of her life when she received “the call.” Her own mother was fighting a battle against breast cancer at the same time she was receiving chemo treatments. Oddly enough, the thing that affected me the most about her story was her description of all the support she had during treatment. I found myself envious of her as page after page she described each individual who came to her side, ending every paragraph with “she would do anything for me.”

I say this not to discount those who were there, because those who showed up were amazing and attentive and more than I could have asked for…but to say that you truly learn who is in your court during your most desperate moments is an understatement. When diagnosed with cancer, you expect to lose certain things: some weight, maybe some hair, for me I expected to lose my saliva, my taste, my ability to eat and swallow correctly, maybe some speech, but never in a million years, did I think that by having cancer I would lose my closest friends. A romantic relationship just newly formed weeks prior to my diagnosis did not stand up to the pressure of this illness…friends, those I considered extended family were nowhere to be found…and all the promises of being by my side through it all were met with an absence that spoke otherwise…not that I blame him or them…Cancer is messy and time-consuming and drains the energy of those brave enough to take more than just a peek into the situation. It demands unconventional hours, a willingness to clean up vomit in the middle of the night, drives to endless appointments, stays in the uncomfortable hospital chairs, feeding tubes in awkward places, hours of silence when there’s nothing more to be said and a strong spirit when the patient needs more than you can give…it’s dirty, it’s filled with disgusting medical procedures and side effects most don’t want to read about…it’s reality…it’s my reality.

I’ve tried my best to forgive those who have walked out of my life, but as with any loss, I’ve had to grieve those relationships and some days as it did this week, that sadness creeps back in and I have to deal with it all over again. I try to convince myself that they were just busy, or the therapist in me tries to excuse their behavior with a weak, “Some people just don’t know how to deal with this type of thing. Maybe they just didn’t know what to say.”…but mostly I’ve questioned why I wasn’t enough for them to stay. I go over and over in my head and try to figure out how things went from a place where I would do anything for that person to never hearing from them again. I think about the thousands of hours spent in intimate conversation to the deafening quiet on the other end of the telephone.

No matter how many ways I try to twist it, it still just hurts, so the best I can do at this point is acknowledge my losses, grieve them and learn from my own pain. I can be ever so thankful for those who did stick around and for those I never thought in a million years would become my support system. I can cherish the new relationships that have grown through the past several months and build a new foundation!

I know I will not be the last person to experience heartache, I will meet others in my situation, I will hear of marriages gone bad, homes lost to lack of finances, health that is deteriorating, loss of jobs and family members and friends who are unable to conceive…and when that time comes, I will need to step in, hold on for the wild ride and share in their good…their bad…and their ugly.

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Wonder Woman

In order from left to right: Kassidy, Kellsey, Kameron, Keeghan and Renee


“Mom, mom, mom, mom!” The constant chatter of Keeghan, Renee’s overly-verbal 3-year-old filled the Suburban as we traveled down the road to Nashville. For the second time this week, Keeghan lost his green Starbucks straw and from his broken-hearted response we assumed his world had come to a drastic end. “I need my straw! I need it! My green straw!” Silence eventually enveloped the car as he finally succumbed to his weariness and passed out for a nap. Relief flooded both our faces as we jokingly offered our thanks to the Lord for the quiet.

This past week, I traveled to Tennessee to visit my friend, Renee for five days. Renee and I go way back, having met our freshmen year of college when we both resided on the same dorm wing. That same year, when she started dating, Frank, a mutual friend of my brother-in-law’s, my sister’s and mine, we all became one happy non-related family. With hysterical inside jokes that date back to 1997, we have all walked our separate journeys but have maintained one of those friendships that you know no matter how much time passes between your last contact, you will always find a way to get back to that original state of intimacy where encouragement and the sharing of personal struggles is present. Friends like that don’t come around often and the older I become, the more I cherish those individuals with whom I can relax, let down my guard and be my completely honest self.

It has been at least six years since I have seen Frank and Renee as they relocated from California to Tennessee for Frank’s job with the Army. While I am off of work healing from my treatment of cancer, and since I can basically rest anywhere, I took the opportunity to visit their family for a few days. Frank is currently in Afghanistan for his 4th, yes, I said FOURTH tour of duty. He is scheduled to return home for a quick R & R soon and due to the fact that I have not seen them since they have added their 3 youngest children to the mix, I decided to take advantage of the chance to visit without interfering with Frank’s highly anticipated homecoming.

During my short visit, amidst the constant activity of raising her 5 children, one thing was very evident…Renee is as close to a modern-day “Wonder Woman” as I have met. Minus a costume designed of spandex and a bold cape, Renee exudes authority and courage, the likes of which would make She-Ra, The Princess of Power (twin sister of He-Man) immensely proud! In fact, after only the first day of living their schedule, it was quite clear that only the strength of a Mattel super hero could in fact mimic and be successful at the way Renee manages this household. With a structure that would make an admitted Type A personality envious, their days were closely monitored in order to fit all the activities in during the school week.

Just to give you a small preview, the house stirred anywhere between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m. Monday through Friday. Breakfast was served quickly as Renee assisted the younger children (Kennedy, age 6; Keeghan and Kellsey, both age 3…Kellsey was adopted from the Ukraine and joined them ten months ago) with dressing and feeding and directed the older two children, Kassidy, age 10 and Kameron, age 8… to double-check that their homework was in their backpacks and they were presentable for the day ahead. Chores were completed swiftly before leaving the house, and they all loaded into the car by 8:00 a.m. The vehicle was packed with car seats for those 6 and under and the oldest, Kassidy helped with getting the kids situated while Renee ensured everyone was safely buckled before leaving the driveway. Onto the “car circle” which is an anomaly all its own, Renee joined a line at the Elementary school where the P.E. coaches directed the endless stream of vehicles during the unloading and loading process of all the students. With extremely strict guidelines, Renee has learned to maneuver the circle with aptitude and the timing of a well oiled machine.

Next stop was school for Kellsey and then on the days he was scheduled, Keeghan also enjoyed attending preschool. Renee is currently homeschooling Kennedy for her Kindergarten year. After the children were deposited to their respective locations, it was off to therapy for Kennedy and sometimes Kellsey, depending on the day.

Both Kennedy and Kellsey have been diagnosed with Down Syndrome and are enrolled in a variety of services, including reading clinic, occupational therapy and speech therapy to encourage their individual growth and development. As I have not been privileged to be around a child with Down Syndrome on a daily basis, I was overcome with pride and a deep love for Renee’s two sweet girls as I witnessed firsthand the way she fights for her children, loves her children and advocates for their needs with tenacity and grace. It was beyond evident to me how well-cared for and adjusted Kennedy and Kellsey are and how intentional Renee is with providing a place for them to learn social skills and including them in all of the family activities. As a social worker, I have been trained in and work closely with families who have adopted children and recognize the daily strength it takes to successfully raise a child who has not always been in your care. There is a major period of transition that occurs in every adoption and to successfully guide a child who is not only adopted but diagnosed with a developmental disability takes a very strong, caring and passionate individual. Renee has worked hard to help transition Kellsey into their lives and it became very apparent to me when I repeatedly saw the sweet smile planted on Kellsey’s face that she is growing as a member of their family and is receiving all the love and care that every child needs and deserves.

In addition to her regular itinerary, Renee drives up to an hour each way to Nashville twice a week in order to take Kennedy for her services, making the entire venture an all day process once she drops off and returns back home with all of the children. Kennedy is also participating in a ballet and tap class once a week. It was so fun to observe her twirling with the other two youngsters in the class (when they weren’t taking turns flopping on the floor while the others marched around the studio), and I remembered with fondness my own hatred of the tights I had to wear as a kid for gymnastics when she tugged and adjusted them around her leotard.

After therapy, it was lunchtime and then back in line for the car circle. I learned quickly that we had to either wait an hour prior to the release of school in order to be in the front of the line, or wait an hour after the kids were released to finally approach the entrance where they must stay patiently for their parents to arrive. Needless to say, the hours spent in the car everyday gave us all the time needed to catch up on the past several years. By the time all of the children were retrieved, it was 4:00 p.m. when we got home each day. Once home, Kassidy and Kameron did their homework while dinner was prepared. During their free time, the kids played with one another, enjoying board games, toys and reading books. Without hesitation, at least one child would hold up arms to sit on my lap and throughout the course of the evening we cuddled and read books. I loved every minute, especially when all of the kids would join me on the couch for a reading marathon. By 8:00 p.m. the dinner dishes were washed, the living room was straightened and everyone was showered, in fresh pj’s and in bed.

This week, I experienced that no matter how well-behaved your children are and how much you love spending time with them, there is nothing like the quiet moments you have to yourself once the house is again still and you can take the time necessary to rejuvenate for the days to come. Renee and I were even blessed when her mom agreed to babysit so we could get in a movie (at a real theater!) Her mom also relocated to be near the family and is quick to offer her assistance when Renee needs an extra hand. It is evident how thankful Renee is to have her mom nearby who is willing to step in and support when necessary. On the drive to the movie, Renee admitted it was the first time she had been to the theater to see a “grown up movie” since her husband deployed this past March. You could almost see the stress exit her body as she sank into the plush seats with her beverage and sour patch gummy worms, and we laughed with abandon as the brainless entertainment took us away from the busy events of the day.

In her free time (wink, wink), Renee maintains a blog online to journal their adventures as a family and to document the ups and downs of the realities of cancer…Kennedy was recently pronounced in remission after a several year battle with Leukemia…the challenges and joys of being a parent (sometimes a single one when Frank is deployed) and helps bring awareness to others about Down Syndrome. She also chronicled their journey through the adoption process of bringing Kellsey home. The last night of my visit, Renee read with sadness, a comment from an individual who questioned her love for Kellsey as the writer basically thought Renee does not mention Kellsey enough in her blogs. Sparing the horrific details of the entire post, I’ll just explain that the person went on to leave a very hurtful statement that was posted publicly on Renee’s blog for all to see. It was so hard for me to sit back and watch as Renee defended herself to this person when all I really wanted to do was jump up in her defense and demand a recall of the post. The truth of the ugly matter is that until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes (which I tried to do this week) you have absolutely no idea what it is like from their perspective. Even though this isn’t a unique thought, it was so clear to me that night that we spend way too much time judging and pointing fingers at others, when in fact we should be focusing more on how to improve our own lives…our own faults. I went to bed that night extremely upset that my friend was hurting and I could do nothing to solve it. But it taught me a valuable lesson as well. There have been way too many times I have made rash judgments on others when I didn’t have the full truth, and more importantly, it really wasn’t any of my business to begin with. I am learning, yet again, how brilliant yet harsh the tongue can be when used incorrectly. I had to stop, evaluate and ask myself how often I judge myself as painfully as I do others…

Thursday night before my Friday afternoon departure, Renee amazed me even more when she agreed to help out a friend who needed someone to watch her two children for a few hours after school. I witnessed firsthand the sisterhood of military wives who step in and support one another while their husbands are deployed, and even though I’ve had the unique chance to live life with the military community on more than one occasion as an adult, it hit me all the more how strong the spouses are who are left behind when their mate goes off to war. These two women, bonded by the same circumstances did what was necessary to make a difficult time just a bit easier. I was reminded that regardless of political beliefs, it’s extremely important for us to support and pray for every soldier represented in our military and off fighting for the everyday freedoms we take for granted, but it’s as equally vital to acknowledge, lift up in prayer and lend a hand of help to those who are still at home.

I am thankful for my time in Tennessee…to have been fortunate enough to be a part of this family, to observe their comings and goings…to remember how small I am and how big this world is around me…I gained an education…a reminder that life really isn’t about me and those days when I’m feeling overwhelmed with my trials and thinking I can take some time to feel sorry for myself, I will recall my days in Tennessee and take a small shot at trying to live up to this very real, present day, Wonder Woman!

Beauty for Ashes

One of my favorite songs from the late 90’s was performed by a Christian recording artist by the name of Crystal Lewis. The song and the album, both entitled, “Beauty for Ashes” always had a melodic way of speaking to my soul whenever I felt weary, confused or overwhelmed with the journey ahead. The lyrics, copied below, allowed me to center my anxious thoughts back to God and helped me realize that there is a reason behind every ounce of pain and fear that I will experience in this lifetime. Not only is my pain seen by God, but He finds a way to use it for the greater benefit of myself and of others.

*He gives beauty for ashes
Strength for fear
Gladness for mourning
Peace for despair

When sorrow seems to surround you
When suffering hangs heavy oer your head
Know that tomorrow brings
Wholeness and healing
God knows your need
Just believe what He said

He gives beauty for ashes
Strength for fear
Gladness for mourning
Peace for despair

When what you’ve done keeps you from moving on
When fear wants to make itself at home in your heart
Know that forgiveness brings
Wholeness and healing
God knows your need
Just believe what He said

He gives beauty for ashes
Strength for fear
Gladness for mourning
Peace for despair

I once was lost but God has found me
Though I was bound Ive been set free
Ive been made righteous in His sight
A display of His splendor all can see

He gives beauty for ashes
Strength for fear
Gladness for mourning
Peace for despair

This can be a very difficult lesson, especially when we are in the midst of it. Looking for the good in every circumstance is the last thing that most of us want to do while doing our best just to survive. Most of the time it’s so much easier to hold onto anger, bitterness and depression than to work to a place of peace and hope and if we want to get really crazy, even finding humor through the hurt.

As mentioned in earlier blogs, being diagnosed with cancer was not the first battle I’ve had to deal with in my 31 years. At the age of 21, I lost my best friend, Natalie Dyck…she was 22 at the time, a recent college graduate of two weeks, full of joy, love and life when she was killed in a bus crash in Tanzania while on her way to teach English to the children in an African village. At the time, her death was by far the most horrific thing I’ve ever had to face, and it took me years to manuever my way through the unpredictable twists and turns of the grieving process. This past June marked the anniversary of her death, and even though it’s been 10 years, I’m still amazed at how often I think about picking up the phone to call her only to remember with sadness that she is no longer physically with us. I’m also astounded that even though there is still a wish for her to be here with me, the devastating ache I had in my heart for all those years as a constant reminder of her absence has lessened, and mostly I think of her with fond memories and a gladness that she is now in heaven with the Lord. While I was directly in mourning; however, I never thought I would come to a place of acceptance over such a huge loss. It wasn’t until I was able to place my focus on assisting others through the pain of losing a loved one that I could finally take my eyes off my own hurt and realize that there is a great big world out there desperate for the hope that I have learned to tap into because of my relationship with God. It wasn’t until I took my eyes off of my own situation that I was able to accept that the trials I’ve encountered in my life can be used to make the world around me a better place. As cliche as that sounds, if we’re not evaluating our hurt and applying the lessons learned to help others around us, then we’ve missed a huge opportunity to turn the ashes of our charred paths into the beauty of a renewed destiny.

This week, I was so encouraged to be able to do just that…Since my diagnosis, I’ve been searching for resources about Tongue/Oral Cancer and have been perplexed at how little awareness that’s out there about this life-altering illness. While it’s just as important to get the word out about other cancers, I’m baffled by the fact that this is one of the fasting growing cancers in the younger generations and there is very little education happening in our schools, our homes, our media and through our health providers regarding this topic. I have partnered with my dentist to do whatever necessary to inform as many as possible about Oral Cancer. My dentist, Dr. Craig Johnson, put an advertistment up in Sacramento Magazine this week to educate the readers. Check it out!http://www.sacmag.com/ADS/Sunriver_Dental_Care/sunriverdental.html

The advertisement explained the dangers of Oral Cancer and also provided a link to my blog. The article explained that 1 PERSON DIES EVERY HOUR from Oral Cancer. Historically, a diagnosis of Oral Cancer was given to individuals over the age of 40 with a past of heavy tobacco and/or alcohol consumption. Currently, there is research to indicate that a diagnosis of HPV16 (Human Papilloma Virus) is now leading to Oral Cancer in the younger population…teens, young adults, women and men like me in their early 30’s. HPV is a Sexually Transmitted Disease that was originally thought to affect women by potentially causing Cervical Cancer; however, now there is evidence that acknowledges engaging in oral sex can also lead to HPV which can also lead to Oral Cancer.

Oddly enough, the doctors are still unsure as to why I even had Tongue Cancer since I’ve never smoked, was a rare drinker and there was no HPV present in my pathology report. Nonetheless, this entire experience has provided me with a passion to get the word out and hopefully spark some conversation that brings about some major change. That advertisement is the first step in sharing my story! I refuse to let the last 8 months of my life go by without using it to bring awareness about the potential consequences of harmful lifestyle choices, but more importantly I desire to share hope to those who will be diagnosed in the future. Through my own trials, I have learned that I cannot stay quiet about the peace I’ve gained, nor can I walk around with an attitude of defeat. The plain and simple truth is that I’m a SURVIVOR! I’ve faced death head on, and because of God’s grace in my life, He’s allowing me to continue on, but what I do with that second chance is going to be up to me. So really the question remains…When faced with the trials that will most definitely come, what will be your attitude while walking through the process and what will you do with the pain? Will you continue to look at your pile of ashes as dreams destroyed, or will you use the hurt to reclaim your life for one of victory…one of beauty?

(Beauty For Ashes Lyrics by Crystal Lewis are the property of the respective authors, artists and labels, Beauty For Ashes Lyrics by Crystal Lewis are provided for educational purposes only , If you like the song, please buy relative CD. ),