I know the Lord is always with me. I will not be shaken for He is right beside me. “Keep and protect me, O God, for in You, I have found refuge, and in You do I put my trust and hide myself. I have set the Lord continually before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Psalm 16: 1, 8 (Amplified Bible)
It was 2003, the week before fall break, and we were trying to decide whether to take our nine year old son to Disney World in Orlando or to California to do such things as drive along the western coast of the United States, see San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, etc., and view the massive redwood trees. The more we discussed it, California was winning out and we were excited to think about taking the big trip “way out west”, from Alabama. The anticipation of October’s crisp cool mornings had not been the same for us since our daughter, Barbara, had moved to Heaven in October of 2000, just three short-long years prior. Would we ever be able to look forward to October again? Planning this trip was a big step in that direction. We would be doing something fun and different and we knew that it would have been pleasing to Barbara. Perhaps God would let her peek down from Heaven so she would know about our trip. Thinking such thoughts seems almost “silly” when I stop to realize that Barbara’s experiences in Heaven would make even the mighty redwoods seem very small; ant sized, in comparison. Still, the thought of Barbara peeking down on us brings comfort to this mother’s human heart. God understands.
Bobby and I were discussing all of the above as we drove to the doctor’s office where I had been “summoned” a few days before, right in the middle of helping our oldest son move from our home of 21 years, to his new home. He had closed on it the day they called me in for the ultrasound, halting my efforts amidst the floor of boxes and cleaning products, not to mention interrupting the lifetime of memories I was “processing” while doing so. This “surprise” interruption came as I was experiencing a mixture of excitement for Clint and the private “trimming” of my heartstrings, the ones attached to my first born who was about to “fly the nest”…not good timing. I didn’t welcome the necessary “hesitation” from the task at hand, but I told myself the trip for the ultrasound would be only an afternoon detour.
Five days later while sitting on the examining table with my husband at my side, I told the surgeon of our plans for fall break, making a bit of small talk as we awaited his explanation to us of the ultrasound films he held in his hand. He’s been our family surgeon for many years; thus, we have become good friends. As I spoke of our upcoming vacation, I noticed that his neck and face flushed. It was slight, but unmistakable, as I blinked to recheck what I thought I’d seen. I’ve never told him I noticed this, but he certainly had no control over that involuntary blush, and it served to brace me for what he would tell me momentarily. You see, he already knew “what month it was” for us: the dreaded October. He had stood in the long line for hours at the funeral home just three years prior when Barbara moved to Heaven. He knew what he was about to tell me was likely to change our vacation plans…and then some. I am so blessed to have the ultimate in a skilled surgeon whose Christian character is evident by his everyday actions. He is also one who is thoughtful and considerate to explain things in terms that are easily understood, sensitively aware that the patient is processing the medical facts while simultaneously “digesting” the fact that, “Hey, this is me he’s talking about….those are my breasts he’s pointing to on those films.” I highly respect his expertise. He’s the ultimate package deal. Hard cash, nor insurance, covers that health benefit. Dr. George Nunn is a gift.
Dr. Nunn explained his and the radiologist’s concerns to us, pointing to the dark area on the ultrasound film that was “in question”. It had undefined edges, reminding me of what can be a bad characteristic where moles are concerned. Not good. He showed us other cysts on the films that were nothing to be concerned about, but this particular one was different. Even I could see a vivid difference. He explained to us that he would like to biopsy the area and further explained to us what would be in store IF it were malignant and the possibility of needing to take out more tissue… and that the size of any malignancy would determine the necessity of further treatments such as: chemotherapy and radiation. He was matter-of-fact and low key, but I knew he was wisely and thoughtfully educating me. I thought back to the uncontrollable blush that had escaped him earlier and felt that he feared the worst for me. I knew he could tell a lot from the x-ray films. His trained eye saw more than mine could. He “knew” what only the biopsy would confirm.
The following week, our family began a trip that was much further than California and while it in no way resembled a vacation, we were blessed beyond measure by treasures that God continuously sprinkled along our path over the next 7 months of surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. I am so grateful that journey began with Dr. Nunn, the first of many “medical angels” God would provide for me. Heartfelt gratitude is an understatement as I try to express my admiration, appreciation, and respect for the calling answered by people like my OBGYN, Dr. Gordon Bryars; my surgeon, Dr. George Nunn, and my oncologists: Dr. David Hinton, Dr. Mary Misischia, and Dr. Wade Young. I also give thanks for the countless “other earth angels” who have answered their calling. These “angels” at the doctor’s offices and God also has them stationed throughout Tuscaloosa’s DCH Cancer Treatment Center. These “angels” are disguised as volunteers who welcome everyone at the front door. They are also disguised as employees at the front desk, in the records department, the lab, imaging, the pharmacy, as chemo & radiation nurses, radiation therapists, oncologists, and it even includes those who keep the facilities clean. Yes, each has made an immeasurable difference in my life as God has sprinkled countless blessings through these individuals who listened and answered their life’s calling to give to people like me. I am blessed by their friendships and feel that they are family. They have walked every step of the way with me and lovingly given me an environment of safe haven and comfort. They have professionally, intentionally, and compassionately made my “journey” a “welcome place to be”, regardless of their own daily personal “assignments” or burdens. They have selflessly provided one of the most important “needed ingredients”, one that is impossible to label or list on “the bill”. They have determined to “make a difference in someone’s life”, which extends to inspiring us all to do the same on a daily basis, today and every day. God has blessed me abundantly through health professionals, family, friends, and countless other earth angels, each with his or her own personal “gift” that has proved to “make a difference in someone’s life”…mine.
I pray if you are reading this that you never have to take such a journey, but I want you to know that if you do, the breast cancer battle is doable. You CAN do it and at the onset, you are already a survivor. A positive faith and attitude fueled by prayer, Bible study, and “companion travelers” whose sources are the same, will assure you “safe journey” with many unexpected treasures of blessing along the well-worn path. Be sure to look for those hidden and obvious treasures that God will provide each day as you “travel” to your “end of treatment” destination. Isaiah 43:2 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior”. The Lord will make you stronger, refining you in the fire, as you trust and cling to Him. I am reminded of Zechariah 13: 9, “And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The Lord is my God.”
During our “fall break”, I had the lumpectomy, followed by further lumpectomy surgery the next week where my surgeon removed more tissue, just to be certain of clean margins. He also performed an axillary dissection. My lump was 2¼ cm in size, estrogen receptor positive, with one lymph node out of 15 being positive for malignancy. A few days later, my surgeon “installed” the Groshong catheter into my chest. Chemotherapy drugs would be administered through the catheter that would eliminate the need to find a new vein to stick each time. My nurse told me the catheter would be my best friend. My husband called it “the boob tube”, declaring he thought we had discovered Dolly’s secret. He smiled mischievously and said, “So that’s it. This must be what they use to inflate Dolly’s boobs.” I hid the bicycle pump. J
I had 16 weeks of dose dense chemo that consisted of 8 treatments, every two weeks: 4 treatments of Adriamycin/Cytoxan (known as “the red devil”) and 4 treatments of Taxol. It was a roller coaster ride where the bad days were really bad, but there were far more “okay” and good days than bad days. Remember that and keep it in focus if you ever journey this road: the good days out number the bad days. Keep thinking positive. My worst days were always the third and fourth days following a treatment. I took it one day at a time, and sometimes one minute at a time. I would usually have about a week of days in between treatments where I would feel pretty much “like myself”. Thirty-six consecutive days of radiation (except weekends) followed the sixteen weeks of chemotherapy. Radiation was a breeze for me in comparison to the chemo.
After crying about any possible scars I might have AND then giving thanks that I was spared mastectomy, it occurred to me that I shouldn’t even give a second’s thought to any small scars that might result from the lumpectomy, axillary dissection, and Groshong catheter. I scolded myself for those tears, realizing that such a concern should be insignificant in the scheme of things. Within a few days, I had also cried a bucket of tears over losing my hair. I realized early on that breast cancer involves a certain type of grief and I instinctively knew that as a grieving mother, this added “assignment” should pale in comparison to what we had endured thus far in missing Barbara. It occurred to me that this fact would make the breast cancer battle in some ways an easier blow to me than to someone who had perhaps not lost a child or suffered a similar tragedy. I could count the “accumulated grief time” as a positive where I would have undoubtedly learned some coping skills that I could apply in this situation; or I could consider the diagnosis something that would finish off my already depleted energy, due to the emotional drain of the “grief walk”. I experienced both sides of that coin, flipping it first one way and then the other. Ultimately, I decided the coping skills I had learned during my grief would be needed and valuable weapons for the breast cancer battle that was upon me. I decided real quickly that I must choose to continue to focus on the positive. I must strive to survive for myself and for my precious family. None of our family can begin to comprehend how one of us could miss another of us, in addition to missing Barbara. I must continue to believe with all of my heart that in trusting God, He would enable me, come what may. He did. He has. He always will. After working through my choices and determining once again that attitude and faith in God are everything, I pressed on. I decided that the only thing to do where my hair was concerned was to have fun with it since I had to “walk that way”, regardless. I had a choice and further determined that this “mandatory initiation” was not going to get the best of me. After all, my doctor and nurses even sent me flowers declaring that “Bald is beautiful!”, so why should I fear? I was on my way to looking a little more like Demi Moore each day. Wow, just think! I might even be mistaken for her, once I was bald! Oh well, it’s a nice fantasy. Did I see you grin at that thought? Me, too. J Just “entertaining” that idea and the craziness of it, sure made ME smile. Hmmm…G.I. Linda. Don’t worry. I made a quick decision to play it safe and get the wig. There would be no mistaking me for Demi Moore. No sirree! I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone that Demi might be living in Tuscaloosa.
The hair began falling out on day 12 after the first chemo treatment and by then I was ready to see it gone. For days, I would tump my head over the trashcan and brush thousands of hairs from my head. It fascinated me that it just fell out; the roots weren’t even holding on at all. I also kept those adhesive type lint rollers everywhere: in my car, in my purse, “better buy another one to use as I stand here in the check-out line”…you get the picture. After a few days of, “Hair, hair, everywhere”…I was more than ready to relinquish the remaining strands. My husband and youngest son buzzed it off once it was “wearing very thin”. My oldest son told me he just couldn’t bear being a part of the “ceremony”. I teased my boys that it was their perfect opportunity to give Mommy a Mohawk, but they said they just couldn’t do it. “Party poopers”, I said to Brandon and Bobby with a smile, wondering how in the world God got those words out of my mouth. I was trying to protect them from my pain. It broke my heart that they had to endure this with me, for me. I was determined to smile during the process, knowing it would break their hearts to shave my head bald and also knowing that they fully understood I could only tolerate receiving such a haircut, by their loving hands and eyes.
During the “episode” at the hands of my precious ”barbers”, I also gave a silent prayer of thanks to Brenda Ladun, a news anchor at ABC’s 33/40 in Birmingham, who is a breast cancer survivor. I had watched Brenda’s news broadcasts in admiration and prayer as she bravely and lovingly chose to include her viewers, allowing cameras to go with her in an effort to educate us during her months of surgeries and treatments. I had read Brenda’s book when it first came out, long before my breast cancer diagnosis. I had even commented to my husband when I was reading her book that Brenda would probably be surprised at the noticeable parallels I saw in her cancer walk and my grief walk. Upon my diagnosis, I went to the bookshelf to find Brenda’s book and noted where I had made a point to underline where she had shared the story of her husband shaving her head. I had written beside it, “Remember to do this, if this ever happens to me.” I knew then and there, that Brenda Ladun had the “best barber possible” and that my husband, too, would be my choice. Reading her experiences had proven to “prepare” my heart and mind for a similar road I would be required to travel. I thought of these parallels again when I read the breast cancer book presented to me by Sherry Skelton, one of my nurses and a dear friend. As I leafed through it, reading the well selected, encouraging quotes that covered many of the pages, I couldn’t help thinking that it seemed I was reading yet another grief book. The quotes would have applied to “both walks”. Upon mentioning this to my oncologist, Dr. Hinton said to me: “You’ve probably learned some coping skills during your grief, that will help you during this, too.” Interesting. His words confirmed to me that I’d made the right “choice” to consider that exact fact earlier, and his comments also further encouraged me to “hold that thought”. I could do this. If I could survive one moment of missing Barbara, I could survive cancer. I was equipped. God was my source and would enable me during the battle. No doubt about it.
After that “almost sacred” haircut, my husband kissed me from the back of my neck, all the way to the tip-top of my newly bald head. Those kisses brought indescribable healing to me and I gave thanks to God that He had blessed me with what my husband thought was a pretty, little, well rounded head. That was good enough for me. I also began giving thanks and praying as never before for my husband, who had also been “sentenced” to my diagnosis of cancer, knowing it was going to require a certain strength of him, for he would surely have the weight of my world on his shoulders. What a blessing Bobby was, as he went to every appointment with me and helped me keep track of things. One of my favorite things to do as I sat in the recliner receiving the chemotherapy drugs into my veins, was to read and pray Stormie Omartian’s prayer cards, “The Power Of A Praying Wife”. I was always surprised at how praying for Bobby refreshed and uplifted me. Such prayers provide a double blessing. God is listening. I encourage you to make it a priority to pray for your spouse on a very regular basis.
I learned during those months of treatment, that my husband has hidden nursing skills, though he claims he has had no formal education in the giving of Procrit shots and caring of Groshong catheters. One would think he’d received formal education, and I think the name of the secret institution where he attended those classes was “the College of ‘I Care A Lot’ ”. He was right there with me through every process and I couldn’t say enough about how he comforted me and gave me strength. I have never felt more loved. Often, I would sense Bobby staring at me as I sat before him, hiding first my bald head and later, my bald eyes; adjusting my hats a little lower as the months progressed. Every time I felt his gaze, I would dread looking up, thinking I must be such an undesirable sight. And every single time I felt him looking at me for what seemed like endless moments before I could bear to look up, I was always completely washed over with the most incredible look of love from deep within his eyes and face. The look held his heart. I knew that only a deep Christ-filled, unconditional love for me could enable such a softly penetrating look of love as the one he gave to me. It was a special embrace, to say the least. It’s something I have never before experienced and is one of the most precious gifts he’s ever given me and he gave it to me repeatedly. It was genuine and intense, from deep within him. I am a blessed woman to be married to this precious man. I’ve told him many times that he “gave me beautiful” when I was bald. He did the impossible to enable me to feel so loved amidst the many side effects of chemo, which should have made me feel anything but feminine and lovable. He and God had to have real teamwork to accomplish that. As the end of treatments approached, Bobby told me he was really going to miss rubbing my little bald head. I could hardly believe his comment or mine, but I heard myself tell him I was really going to miss that, too…and I meant it. God can do amazing things.
While we’re on the subject of the hair loss, I must tell you that it’s a real time saver to not have to wash, blow dry, curl, or fix your hair for 8 months. In no time, I was spoiled by such a lifestyle! I would just shake that wig, pop it on, and maybe pick through it a tiny bit. My hair took no more than 2 minutes per day! Eventually, I would go about my daily business and run my errands, etc., then toss that wig into the seat beside me for the drive home. It was so liberating to just cruise right down the road, oblivious to my bald head! Anyone that knows me would never believe I could feel comfortable doing such, but I did. It felt great. And it was the perfect “beach-do” as it began growing back. Just gel it, and go! The hair usually comes back darker and curly. Mine did, and I enjoyed watching it “evolve” as it came back to life. I really have to say that it’s surprising to me, but I thoroughly enjoyed the process as it evolved…one of those unexpected blessings.
In the following words, I will share with you some of the things that helped me during the “treatment journey”…
*Drinking lots of water each day
*Taking anti-nausea medication as prescribed
*Eating small amounts frequently (I especially loved buttermilk and wouldn’t be without it, and potato soup seemed to help with my underlying nausea, too. Scrambled egg sandwiches on toast, white cheddar popcorn, cantaloupe, and Cheez-It crackers were also favorites. During the bad days, I ate whatever it was that I felt I could tolerate. I made sure I ate something about every 2 hours and staying upright for at least 45 minutes was a good idea to help combat the nausea problems that could arise. I was told that keeping something on your tummy is one secret to keeping the nausea at bay. The anti-nausea medicines are also a huge blessing!
*Eating with plastic utensils and avoiding sugary drinks and desserts eliminated the “metal taste” that I’d heard the chemo might induce. Grape popsicles did seem to help, though, when I was nauseous. It was easy to avoid the soft drinks and a good time to break the habit. Water is now my favorite.
*During my treatment journey and as a rule, I strive to get in 5 fruits and veggies each day, lots of water, and I take a good multi-vitamin. I limit my red meat. A steak is a rare treat for me. I eat mostly fish and salmon now. (I keep in mind that the darker the fruit or veggie, the more anti-oxidants it provides. And I walk each day.)
*Good communication w/ my doctors and nurses was priority.
I carried a notebook to each doctor’s appointment/treatment. This
enabled me to have questions ready each time as I made thorough notes on
everything concerning treatment, side effects I was experiencing, etc. Bobby also
helped me take notes. A second set of ears was great since we were being given so much info during what was certainly a stressful situation.
*Good dental hygiene (I used a mouthwash called Biotene b/c it has no alcohol and I used a soft toothbrush to be protective of my gums during this time. I also used baking soda to brush my teeth.
*Twice-daily care of my Groshong catheter was a must, as directed by my doctors. I didn’t want to take a chance on getting infection around the Groshong site.
*I always carried my “chemo-day” bag, stocked with: water, gum, crackers, inspirational reading material, my Bible, my chemo notebook/diary, and my walkman, complete with a CD of the old songs Bobby and I dated to. (We still make a point to “date” to those songs. They also wake us up each morning.)
*During the 36 days of radiation, I continued to be sure to keep my body/skin hydrated by drinking lots of water and I applied 100% Aloe Vera gel immediately following the radiation treatment and several times a day. I also used vitamin E cream. I was told that keeping my skin hydrated was very important. I also wore cotton t-shirts a lot while at home. As the radiation progressed, I found Aquaphor by Eucerin to be helpful and also Xeroform, which is medicated gauze that I ordered through my pharmacist. (My radiation techs gave me my first Xeroforms.) I used the Aquaphor and Xeroform in addition to the aloe vera gel during the last couple of weeks due to the areas that began to burn a little and have a break down of the tissue. It wasn’t bad. The skin recovers very quickly. For the first half of the radiation treatments, I couldn’t even tell I was getting it. During the last half, I had a few days where I would feel a little fatigued in the evenings, so I just went to bed earlier on those days.
*The most important thing I did and do: I trusted and continue to trust Jesus to enable me to endure and persevere. I am weak, but He is strong. Yes, “Jesus Loves Me”. That’s the very first song I ever learned and it’s on the new gospel CD. I do the song a bit differently than one would be accustomed to singing or hearing it. I cherish God’s Word and “snack” on it throughout my days. I read somewhere that it is not enough to pray and ask for God’s help. The scriptures tell me that I must thank Him for the challenge and the opportunity to learn from it.
“In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” ~ I Thessalonians 5:18 (KJV)
“For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Romans 8: 18 (KJV)
“Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me”. Philippians 4:13 (KJV)
“And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” II Corinthians 12: 9 (KJV)
* * *
I need to share with you that I have found God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit profoundly present amidst my sufferings. As Anne Graham Lotz states in her book, Why?, I simply understand that I may not understand many things this side of Heaven. I’d like to carry Anne’s thoughts a bit further and add that I think once I get to Heaven, the “why’s” won’t matter. I won’t even ask. I will be overwhelmed by the presence of the One who got me through. That I have received the gift of salvation through the cross Jesus bore assures my arrival at His feet and that’s all that really matters. That is everything that matters. His assurance of eternal life and trusting Him to enable me to be about doing my purpose for Him during whatever is left of “my second on earth”, are my main focus. I must constantly strive to keep that focus. I am God’s vessel and He has placed within me a deep desire to comfort and encourage others to have faith in Him and to trust Him to enable them to endure and persevere, amidst any and all adversity. God is our source.
“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.”
John 14: 1 – 4 (KJV)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” John 3: 16, 17 (KJV)
* * *
C.H. Spurgeon said: “Joy also in this – that your sufferings, your losses and your persecutions shall make you a platform from which the more vigorously and with greater power you shall witness to Christ Jesus”.
“The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words. Then I went down to the potter’s house, and behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord. Behold, as this clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel.” Jeremiah 18: 1 – 6 (KJV)
* * *
I know that God is sovereign. He is the author and finisher of our faith. I choose to continue to trust Him to enable me. He has. He did. He will.
“Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6 (KJV)
“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
II Corinthians 4: 17, 18 (KJV)
* * *
I believe with all of my heart that as we continuously choose to have faith and trust God amidst our adversities, He will enable us to do our purpose. He will enable us to persevere, to make a difference for Him.
~ Linda Plowman Fikes ^j^
Copyright © 2005. All rights reserved.
Revised: 03/01/15 22:36:42 -0600.