With those words, the direction of my life changed. I walked back into a McDonalds where my husband and friends were waiting for me while I talked to the doctor on the phone. (The McDonalds was a below ground one that had poor reception and I had to walk to our nearby hotel lobby to return the call and take notes.) I remember telling Art and Kenneth and Agnes "He says there's cancer," and that my lip trembled while I said those words. In spite of my mother dying of breast cancer metastases, I can say I knew very little about the disease or what such a diagnosis even meant.
I remember Agnes praying and using the words, "Vickie's cancer." I remember it being a very unreal sensation ... my name had been made into a possessive noun, with an apostrophe "s" being added to it with a disease being that which was possessed. I almost immediately went into inner denial ... I did NOT possess a disease such as this.
I spent the next ten days taking a crash course in breast cancer. I was at a retreat with about 40 other people, but in no way did I want to be the center of attention. I was surrounded by people who loved me, but looking back, I see how little any of us recognized the shock I was in. One person told me he found me "resistant" to receiving prayer. In hindsight, I know that while I was intellectually wrapping my brain around what was going on, I was in no way emotionally able to do the same. This gives me greater insight for my interactions with newly diagnosed women now. It really is quite enough to just say, "I'm so sorry," and to remain a constant presence in their lives.
Fast forward to later in the year. I had been declared free of disease in September 2012 and had finished active treatments on November 29. I was struggling with the emotional aftermath of such an intense year. As a family, we had been thrown into a situation that changed our lives every way that could be changed. We had dealt with a potentially fatal illness, said goodbye to beloved friends, moved halfway around the world, put our children in American public schools for the first time in their lives, and we were all dealing with reverse culture shock that is poorly understood by those who haven't lived abroad for an extensive period of time. I often struggled with feelings of loss and not knowing what the heck I was supposed to be doing in the United States. We had a calling to China (known and confirmed by many) but felt our return to the US was driven by health and not by divine direction. This was especially difficult for me. I also struggled on how to live following the gift of a miracle. I learned that I was probably experiencing some form of post traumatic stress syndrome, but I didn't know how to deal with it. I started looking for a counselor who could be sensitive to my particular situation.
In the meantime, I also experienced extreme neck pain. I remember telling my friend, Cynthia, that I felt like such a wuss ... that I had gone through cancer treatments, but that my back was almost literally laying me flat. I have a high pain threshold, but the back pain had me taking prescription pain relievers to no avail. I talked to my brother-in-law (a spine specialist), and he said it sounded like a herniated disk and recommended an MRI. I even talked to a physical therapist to find out how to find a good PT for a herniated disk.
I had my first follow-up appointment with my oncologist on December 20, 2012. She ordered the MRI for my entire spine and it was set up for January 2, 2013.
In January 2012 upon my first diagnosis, I wrote the following words:
"You never know when your life will change. I can think of several momentous changes in my life . . . when my family moved from Oklahoma to Mississippi; my personally choosing to follow Jesus at age 9 (and subsequently realizing that I shouldn't lie or exaggerate anymore!); my first date; my first move to China in 1989; my mother's death in 1989; my first date with my now-husband; having children; our move to China in 2005, etc. These are big changes that in many ways could have been anticipated, but in many ways could not have been anticipated."
January 3, 2013 (one year ago today) contained yet another defining moment in my life. I was with my elderly parents-in-law as they visited friends of theirs in San Jose. I was sitting in the corner of the room and noticed I didn't have good cell phone reception there. My back was also hurting, so I got up and stood in another part of the room to stretch. Almost immediately, my phone rang! (I claim divine intervention on this one!) I looked at the others and said, "It's my doctor" and took the call. When I heard my oncologist's voice, I immediately knew I was not going to be getting good news.
Throughout the time I had the pain, I had mentioned to Art my concern that I had bone metastases. He didn't think it was possible since the tumor removed in September was cancer free. I had also spoken to two radiation oncologists about my concern and both them didn't think it was likely (didn't say it wasn't possible) to be bone mets. Deep down, though, I think I knew.
"Vickie, you have significant disease up and down your spine."
And with those words, my life's journey changed yet again. My immediate response was literally, "What's next?" and a plan was put into motion. There were lots of appointments with lots of doctors and I gained a new appreciation for medical personnel of all kinds. I met with specialists, had more scans and my life as a woman with an additional identity label of "terminal cancer patient" began.
One of the humorous points of that particular day was when my mother-in-law asked me what the doctor said. I told her that I had cancer in my back and neither she nor I knew what to say after that. I then took her and my father-in-law and their two octogenarian friends out to lunch! I didn't know what else to do. They ordered food and I excused myself to make some phone calls. Calling Art while he was at work to give him such news remains one of my most painful memories of this journey.
It's been an eventful year. I've had plenty of ups and plenty of downs. I think the ups have outnumbered the downs, but at least I've become more comfortable in admitting the downs and embracing them for what they are. I've never considered myself much of an emotional "feeler" but this year has changed that. Coming to grips with my own mortality is teaching me a lot. At times, I feel very much a part of a larger circle of relationships and at other times, I feel very much alone.
I understand that I frighten people. I frighten women who have had breast cancer because I'm the "walking dead" of the disease they hope that will never return to their bodies (and of course, I hope the same for them!). I frighten organizations like the Komen Foundation because I'm not one of their triumphant pink survivors who can echo their mantra "early detection saves lives" because I did everything they recommended and still didn't get an early detection. I frighten women who have never had breast cancer because I'm still significantly younger than the average age of diagnosis (62) and they know that they could still be diagnosed with the same disease. I frighten my children because they know I can die and that things can change very quickly. I frighten those who are afraid to die at any age, much less at an age that is younger than an expected life span.
Being the face of fear, whether it's spoken or not, is a difficult role to live. Because of this, I seek out those who are walking similar journeys. Even that it difficult, though, because we all know we are making relationships which are going to result in death.
I lost five friends to cancer this year, ranging from age 2 - 57. Whether I knew them personally and had face-to-face interactions with them or whether I knew them via the internet and had only email and phone conversations with them, their passing remains extremely painful. I mourn Christina, Debbie, Janie, Franca and Michelle. My life is richer as a result of their being a part of it.
One year ago, my life changed. Today, my life is changing again. Tomorrow, it will change yet again. A friend of mine posted this the other day and it resonated with me:
"They say you live once. It's not true. You only die once and live every day." (Julie Munesco)
So very true. I am alive today. God willing, I'll be alive tomorrow. I have abundant life in Christ and my definition of abundance includes fully trusting HIM for this day. At times, I will waver in that trust, but for today, the only day that I have right now, I am simply being abundant.
I will have a physical death one day, but it won't be the end of me. Until then, I will continue my mantra, "If I'm not dead, I'm not done." This is, of course, referring to my physical life on earth, because after my death, I won't be done either, but I think all of you know what I mean.
My God's grace and peace be with you throughout this day and throughout any days he gives you and me in the future.
Happy New Year!