Friday, December 30, 2011

Medical Update: A Smooth Surgery (Finally)

Posted by Matt Fray

As most of you know, Erin had surgery this morning in Charleston. She was in surgery from about 7:30am to 12:30pm, and is resting fairly comfortably now.

Compared to her previous surgeries, this one seemed to be very smooth. There were no surprises (like the discovery of more cancer February) and no difficulties (like her blood vessel problems in October). When I talked to her in the recovery area afterwards, she was sleepy and in pain, but she said that she felt far better than she had after her other surgeries. We are both so very thankful for this wonderful blessing and answer to many prayers!

As far as we know, the surgery seems to have accomplished what was intended. Two very basic things were done: the removal of her chest port, and the removal of several internal stitches which had not dissolved. And two more complex things were done: the removal of a "mystery lump" in her lower abdomen (which turned out to be another stitch and scar tissue), and a second attempt at reconstruction on her left chest (which involved taking a section of skin from the back of her left shoulder and placing it on her chest). The surgeon was very happy with how the reconstruction went (especially compared to the previous attempt), and Erin is happy that progress was made.

Lord willing, Erin's recovery will be as smooth as her surgery. Her surgeon will check in on her tomorrow morning to make sure everything is healing well, and then she can go home either Saturday or Sunday depending on how she is doing.

Thank you all for your continued prayers and encouragement!

UPDATE: I did forget one "not smooth" part of Erin's surgery. At some point during the surgery or recovery, her right eye got cut, which is causing her a lot of pain. However, she just got some prescription eye drops and the cut should be much better in 24 hours.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Medical Update: Erin's Surgery Tomorrow

Posted by Matt Fray

Tomorrow (Friday, December 30th), Erin will have one more surgery. This will be her fifth and final major cancer-related surgery this year. For an overview of what this surgery involves, you can read about it in her previous blog post. The surgery should last about 4 hours and she should be able to go home by Sunday.

While we are grateful for many things relating to this surgery (a good doctor, a surgery date before the New Year, loving family and friends who will help us with childcare and meals), we are both really dreading going through the surgery process once more. In many ways (physically, emotionally, spiritually), Erin is not quite over her ordeal in October, so it is hard to think about her taking on another challenge. I think she feels like a weary runner who is just two miles away from completing a marathon, only to discover that the last two miles of the course are uphill. Even though the finish line is closer than it has ever been, it is hard to muster the mental and physical strength needed to run the race well to its completion.

Of course, God is teaching us a lot about how to persevere through the hard times of life. When afflictions come, whatever their nature, God does not desire us to have an arrogant resilience nor a faithless despair. Rather, God calls us to trust in his sovereign presence and power, and by that trust to persevere in faith. The Puritan pastor Thomas Lye put it this way:

Times of adversity are seasonable times to trust in God. When we have no bread to eat, or water to drink, but only afflictions and astonishments, this is a time not for over-grieving, murmuring, sinking, desponding, despairing, but for trusting. In a tempest a believer must cast his anchor upward. Trust is a believer’s choicest antidote against fainting, swooning, and sinking…God often brings his people such afflictions that they do not know what to do. He does this that they might know what he can do. God is with his people at all times, but he is most sweetly with them in the worst of times.

More than once in recent weeks Erin and I have found ourselves fighting against the natural responses of grieving and murmuring as we have thought about tomorrow's surgery. We have had to ask God to give us the childlike faith he calls us to have (Luke 18:17) and the peace that passes understanding that he alone gives (Philippians 4:7).

As Erin goes in for her surgery tomorrow, please pray for three specific things. First, please pray that God would give us faith and peace. Those things have not come easily to either of us lately, and they are especially needed over the next few days. Second, please pray that the surgery would go smoothly. For those of you who have been keeping up with Erin personally or through this blog, you know that she doesn’t have a very good track record in terms of smooth surgeries, so it will only be by God’s special grace if this one goes well! Third, please pray for Lydia, Hudson, and Samuel, and for the family and friends who will care for them over the next few days. We are so thankful for those who are helping out, but will still be hard to be apart from them once more.

Thank you so much for your faithful prayers and encouragement! I will be sure to post another medical update following Erin's surgery tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Medical Update: One More Surgery

Yesterday I had my final post-operative appointment with my surgeon at MUSC in Charleston. Overall, he was pleased with my body's recovery from my surgery in October. However, he did recommend that I have one more surgery in the coming weeks. I am not necessarily excited about going through another surgery, but this surgery will accomplish some good things and will not cost us anything since it will happen before the end of the calendar year.

Compared to my previous surgeries, this one should be relatively minor. The surgeon will do four things: (1) repair some scarring on my abdomen, (2) remove my chest port (the device that was used to administer my chemotherapy), (3) examine a painful lump in my lower abdomen, and (4) reconstruct a breast on my left side. Based on my previous consultations with my surgeon, I did not think I had any good reconstruction options available (the options were either too invasive or too complicated). But in my appointment yesterday my surgeon said I did have one more option: he could perform a TAP (or TDAP) Flap, a basic but reliable reconstructive procedure. I am very glad that I have this reconstructive option, and am thankful that my surgeon took the time to come up with a solution that is right for my particular situation.

My surgery is scheduled for December 30th. Please pray that God will give me peace as I prepare, one more time (hopefully one last time), for surgery and the recovery to follow. And please pray that the surgery itself would go smoothly and be successful in every way.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Encouragement of Jesus' Suffering and Sympathy

As we enter this Christmas season, I have found myself continually reminding my children what Christmas means and why we celebrate it for a whole month. All of us, especially our children, are surrounded by wrong ideas about Christmas, and so it is so important to keep the real meaning of Christmas in the forefront of our minds. Christmas is the celebration of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, becoming a human being in order to save us from our sin.

Sometimes I forget the fact that Jesus’ life as a human being was a life very much like ours. I was reminded of this recently from something I read as a part of my daily Bible reading. [By the way, if you are looking for an easy and organized approach to reading the Bible and you have an Apple device, I highly recommend the Reading Plan app.] In Hebrews 4:14-16 we are reminded that Jesus lived a life of weakness, suffering, and temptation, just like us. The only difference is that Jesus never sinned.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Reflecting on the details of the life Jesus lived on this earth is both humbling and encouraging. It is humbling because it reminds us that our sin was the reason he came to earth and experienced weakness, suffering, temptation, and ultimately, death. And it is encouraging because, as the verses above tell us, Jesus’ experience on earth makes him able to sympathize with us as we deal with our weaknesses, sufferings, and temptations. And as we go struggle with those things, we can look to Jesus not only for sympathy, but also for mercy and grace. None of us can deal with something like suffering without sinning. In fact, suffering usually reveals more of our sins to us, forcing us to see our need for Jesus’ mercy and grace.

As we enter this Christmas season, I am praying that I will keep the realities of Jesus’ birth and life in the forefront of my mind. And I am praying that Jesus’ sympathy, mercy, and grace will continue to be a great comfort and encouragement to me as I continue on in this life of weakness, suffering, and temptation.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Blessings

I was so blessed to be able to spend Thanksgiving with my family this past week. We traveled up to Lookout Mountain, Georgia, to be with my aunt and uncle, my cousins and their families, my grandparents, my mom and her husband, and my sisters and their families; that’s a total of 26 people comprised of 9 family units representing four generations. Needless to say, some of the logistics were a bit crazy (fourteen of us – including six children under the age of five – stayed in one three bedroom house). But to be together, and to be reminded of God’s covenant faithfulness to those four generations, was a fun and beautiful thing. It has been hard for me to live far away from my family, especially during this past year, so I really value the time I am able to spend with them.

It was especially neat to sit down with all 26 people in one room and spend time hearing how the Lord has been working in each family’s life over the past year. I shared about how I have seen God care for my body and my soul in this past year. Last Thanksgiving, I had just started losing my hair because of my chemotherapy treatments, and I was dealing with a harsh allergic reaction to the contrast dye used in a recent MRI. This Thanksgiving, I am cancer free and can point to a multitude of things God has taught me through both good circumstances and hard circumstances. I am so thankful for what God has done in this past year!

During our family’s last meal together my grandfather read Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

            For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
            a time to be born, and a time to die;
            a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
            a time to kill, and a time to heal;
            a time to break down, and a time to build up;
            a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
            a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
            a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
            a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
            a time to seek, and a time to lose;
            a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
            a time to tear, and a time to sew;
            a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
            a time to love, and a time to hate;
            a time for war, and a time for peace.

It was neat to reflect on how these verses applied to my year, as well as to those of my other family members. God has given me times to heal, times to weep, times to laugh, times to embrace, times to speak, times to lose, and times to love. Not all of those times have been easy, but they have all been given to me in God’s wisdom and faithfulness. What a comfort it is to know that our times are in His hands (Psalm 31:15)!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hope for Savannah

Over the past few months, I have had the privilege to work together with a wonderful organization here in Savannah called Hope for Savannah. It is a Christian ministry that reaches out to people who are dealing with serious illnesses and to their families. Their goal is to show these families that there can be "hope" even in the midst of hard times by pointing them to Jesus Christ, the only Savior from sin and source of true life. They also work hard to meet a lot of the practical needs of the patients and their families.

There are many ways to learn more about Hope for Savannah and to help them minister to patients and their families. Obviously, you can pray for this ministry and those it is reaching. Another easy thing you can do is to “like” their Facebook page. They regularly send out prayer requests, volunteer updates, and fundraising information. You can also check out their website, which they are currently in the process of updating.

One of the features they are adding to their website is a series of videos about different people’s experiences with major illnesses, and their testimony about finding hope in Christ. A few weeks ago they came to our house to do a video with Matt and me. You can check out the video below.

I pray that God will continue to use Hope for Savannah to show others that our true hope is in Christ!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Stubbornness vs. Steadfast Love

Many times in the past month I have questioned why God has allowed such physical and emotional trials. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in October of 2010, I felt as if God had put this cancer in my life in order draw me closer to Him. He did that as He repeatedly opened my eyes to see and confess my sin, trust in His goodness, and be strengthened by His grace. Every time I “learned my lesson,” I thought the road would end there. But then another physical trial would come and the “trial-confession-trust-strength” cycle would repeat itself in a new set of circumstances.

But after this last surgery my faith was weak. The “trial” phase was painfully long and I was just plain tired of being "strengthened" by God in this way. At times, I was angry and stubbornly resisted any thought that God could strengthen me after such a physically exhausting and emotionally discouraging process.

But sure enough, though it took a little longer, God still pulled me back to him. I was once again reminded that He will not let me go, even when I am pushing Him away. My stubbornness is no match for His steadfast love.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Faithful Husband

I have been feeling better and better over the past several days. This next week will be my first week watching all three kids by myself and I am looking forward to having that quality time with them. My pain from the surgery is lessening and my blood levels are getting higher and higher. Through God's reminders to me in his Word, and through the encouragement and prayers of God's people my heart has been strengthened as well.

I was in to see my oncologist yesterday and everything looked good. They decided to have me get a shot in order to keep me from getting recurring cysts. They also decided to run a genetic test for a blood clotting disorder. If it turns out that I have this gene I will have to stop my Tamoxifen (the cancer medicine that I am taking for 5 years). Please pray that this test would come back with no genetic sign.

As I look back over this past month, I have realized just how thankful I am for my husband. He stayed by my side every day in the hospital. He has taken care of all three kids, and has been the one to coordinate help with childcare if we have needed it. He has cooked meals, cleaned the house, washed clothes, bathed children, and this weekend he even painted part of the house! And he did all this while working at church preparing lessons, planning activities, and shepherding the congregation. Matt has had a lot on his plate in this past year, but he has faithfully taken care of his family and has never stopped encouraging us through God's Word. The only way I know to thank him is to be the best wife I can be and encourage him daily in the same way he has for me. Thanks, Mattie, for being such a wonderful and faithful husband and for reflecting the Bible's command, "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."

I have had fun this week hanging out with my younger sister Bekah. She came in town all the way from Colorado to help me this week. This was a big sacrifice for her because she has two little ones at home about the same ages as Samuel and Hudson. I understand first hand how hard it can be to be away from your children. Little did she know what she was getting herself into when she agreed to come: not only are my kids "slightly" noisy and active, but she got roped into helping paint part of our house as well! Thanks so much Bekah!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Weakness to Strength

These past few weeks have been harder than I had imagined they would be. Along with a painful recovery process, I have been struggling with many emotions, as well, like frustration, sadness, and loneliness. And so many “why questions” have been going through my mind. Why did part of my reconstruction not work? Why has my recovery been so hard? Why do I continue to have more and more painful health issues? And why do I feel so lonely?

After being reminded of the same Scripture passage by a couple different people, I realized God may be trying to show me something. Hard headed as I am, it took me a few times to read it and actually apply it to myself. The passage is Isaiah 40:28-31. 

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted, but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

This passage describes exactly how I have been feeling: faint, weary, and exhausted – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But God is never faint or weary in any way. He is infinite in strength and stands ready to give that strength to those who wait for Him. And so through the strength God supplies, I can mount up with wings like eagles; I can run and not be weary; I can walk and not faint.

Will this happen if I continue to focus on and worry about my weariness? No. Jesus commands me not to worry, and I must look to the strength God supplies. I need to let go of my worries and trust that God will, once again, take my hand and lead me through this season of life. Only He has the power to soften a hard heart and strengthen a weak heart. And so it is my prayer that He will continue to both soften and strengthen my heart so that I will trust that His plan for me is good.

I would appreciate continued prayer for my healing. Most likely, I will not be able to have any reconstruction done in the next few years and I am realizing that my chest might not ever be "normal" again. Those things are hard to deal with, but I know that I am beautiful in God’s sight.

I also want to thank those of you who have been helping Matt and me with the kids. You have been a great blessing to us and we certainly could not go through this recovery process without you!

Hudson, Lydia, and Samuel at our church's Fall Festival with Matt's mom.

Movie night with the kids.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Medical Update: A Chest Half-Full (Not Half-Empty)

As most of you know, I had reconstructive surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston last Wednesday (10/12). Following the ten-hour surgery (in which tissue from my abdomen was used to reconstruct my chest), I had two main complications that were both related to my blood system.

I began bleeding internally in my chest on the Friday morning following the surgery (10/14). The loss of blood made me incredibly weak and really messed up my blood levels, so I had to have a blood transfusion to stabilize me. It took several days for my body to recover from that difficulty, but I was finally able to go home from the hospital the following Wednesday (10/19).

Some MUSC residents discussing my internal bleeding.
It was so good to be able to be home and see the kids. The night before we returned home I was looking through pictures of the kids on my phone and I just couldn’t stop crying. I missed them so much! God was so gracious in allowing me to be able to come home to see my babies. As it turns out, I was only able to spend a day with them before returning to the hospital in Charleston.

Hudson and Samuel getting ready to watch the Cardinals play in the NLCS.

Lydia at Hudson and Samuel's train-themed birthday party.
The day after I returned from the hospital (Thursday, 10/20) I developed a blood clot on the left side of my chest. I began having significant pain, swelling, and bleeding from my incisions, so I knew something was definitely wrong. Shortly after midnight I called my surgeon and described my symptoms. He told me to come back to Charleston immediately so he could see what was happening and to make a decision about what to do. Thankfully, my mom was in town to help with the kids, so she came to the house and Matt and I made the long, painful, nerve-wrecking drive to Charleston. Matt hates driving when he is tired and he hadn’t gone to bed before I began having problems, so that drive was especially hard for him.

We arrived at the hospital at 3am on Friday morning (10/21) and it was quickly determined that I needed surgery to resolve the situation. The clot was in the vein dedicated to taking blood away from my newly formed tissue flap on my left chest. If the vein remained clotted, the tissue flap would be consumed by blood and would die. So in order to preserve my reconstructed left chest, surgery was absolutely necessary. I was in surgery from 6:30am to 10:30am, allowing the surgeons to remove the clot and repair the vein. My surgeon was not sure what caused the vein to clot, but was pleased with the quality of the vein following surgery. He and his team were very diligent in checking the vein regularly for healthy blood flow, and it initially appeared to be working well.

Heading towards the operating room before my final surgery.
But about twenty-four hours after the vein repair surgery, on Saturday morning (10/22), I once again started having pain, swelling, and bleeding in my left chest. My surgeon quickly came to the hospital and sure enough, there was no blood flowing through the vein. For the second time in two days, the vein had clotted. And for the second time in two days, I had to go back into surgery. Sadly, despite their best efforts, my surgeon was not able to repair the vein. In one last attempt to save my reconstructed chest, he removed a vein from my left ankle and attempted to connect that to my tissue and chest vein. But after about an hour, that new hybrid vein clotted as well. My arteries were delivering blood to my chest, but I had no vein to pump the blood out again. There was nothing left to do except remove the tissue transplant. My surgeon had spent months preparing my chest to receive these two tissue transplants, and had spent dozens of hours in the operating room attaching and forming the tissue in order to restore my chest’s natural shape. But now one of the transplants was going to die; it literally had to be cut out and thrown away. My surgeon and his team have performed over five hundred of these surgeries, and I was the first person who has ever lost a transplant due to vein failure. 

When I woke up in the recovery room I asked myself, “I wonder if I have missed any of the Cardinals game (Game 3 of the World Series).” And after the surgeon told me that I had lost my reconstruction, my mind quickly shifted to the seriousness of the situation and I asked myself, “Why would God allow this to happen? Isn’t it enough to have cancer? Isn’t it enough to have complications in my cancer treatments? Isn’t it enough to have multiple blood transfusions and surgeries to sustain reconstructions? Why would God put me through all of this just to have half of my new chest thrown away?” I waited for answers, truths, and Bible verses that I had hidden in my heart to pop into my head. Quick, easy answers didn't come. But a phrase from 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 kept coming to mind, “You are not your own. You were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body.” I may not have all of the answers to my questions, but God's call on me is the same: glorify me, glorify me in your body, glorify me even in your broken body.

For my chest to be broken is very discouraging – both for me and for my surgeon. My body is only half-way repaired, and his work was only half-way successful. But to borrow and modify a common saying, my perspective on the situation is this: “my chest is half-full, not half-empty.” Sure, it’s discouraging that the left side of my reconstruction was lost after so much work. And it’s very discouraging that I am now left with no good options for reconstruction on that side. But I am so thankful for my surgeon’s hard work, and I truly am thankful that half of my reconstructive surgery was successful. As Matt has reminded me, the shape of my chest doesn’t change my beauty one bit. And as God’s Word has reminded me, my beauty isn’t defined by the shape of my body, but by the quality of my soul.

In the days and weeks to come I hope to be able to discern more answers to some of my "why" questions. But for now, I can take comfort and joy in the fact that God is good, faithful, and will be glorified even in this tough situation. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Cardinals won their game last night thanks to a record-breaking performance by Albert Pujols…and that I get to watch them again tonight. Go Redbirds!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Medical Update: Progress

Posted by Matt Fray

After a couple days of difficulty, Erin is finally making some good progress in her recovery from her surgery. Though the doctors are still watching her carefully for blood loss and infection, her body is growing stronger. She is off her IV's, has been up and out of bed for a few minutes several times today, and is eating better as well. She might not feel like she is getting better (she is still very tired and is frequently in pain), but she really is doing much better.

If she keeps working hard to eat well and keeps her body active, and if she isn't slowed by any more complications, we should return home on Tuesday or Wednesday. It will be wonderful to get home; we're eager to see the kids, and I'm excited about being able to sleep in bed instead of a chair! We are so thankful for the family and friends that are helping care for Lydia, Hudson, and Samuel while we are here in Charleston.

As you pray for Erin, please pray especially for her perseverance in this recovery process. She has had and will have to push through a lot of pain and discomfort - even for basic tasks like finding a comfortable position to sleep in, moving across a room, and eating. Pray that she would have the determination to do what is necessary to strengthen her body, and that her hope and joy in Christ would be steadfast all the while. Also, please pray for grace and patience for me as I help care for her here in the hospital and at home. Pray that I would be faithful to serve her in humility and love in deeds of service, words of encouragement, and spiritual nurture just as God in Christ has done for me (Matthew 20:28; Ephesians 5:28-30; Philippians 2:3-8).

In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh,
but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church,
because we are members of his body.
Ephesians 5:28-30 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Medical Update: A Slow Recovery

Posted by Matt Fray

As most of you know, Erin had reconstructive surgery on Wednesday. She made good improvement on Thursday, getting her pain under better control and, though it was very difficult, even got out of bed to sit in a chair for an hour or so. But her recovery process slowed down on Friday.

For those of you who don't have the time or desire to read the medical play-by-play, here's the authorized Cliff Notes version:
  • Erin began having internal bleeding in her chest on Friday morning. 
  • She lost enough blood that she needed to have some blood infused on Friday evening. 
  • She is now being monitored to see if her body will heal the bleeding itself or if surgery is required.
And for those of you who appreciate medical details, or who love Erin so much they want to know everything that is going on, or who simply have spare time on their hands today, here's the unabridged version:

  • Erin began having internal bleeding in her chest on Friday morning. Throughout the morning she became increasingly weak and pale (even her lips turned white). In addition, her temperature and heart rate were rising steadily, her blood pressure was falling, and bruises were appearing on her chest. So in the afternoon the doctors did an ultrasound (to check for excess fluid in her chest) an some blood tests (to measure her hemoglobin count, which helps indicate blood loss). The ultrasound did show excess fluid and her hemoglobin count was very low (a normal hemoglobin count for a female is 12, and hers was at 4). While some blood loss is normal following surgery (because of the blood thinner used during and after surgery), she was losing too much.
  • She lost enough blood that she needed to have some blood infused on Friday evening. While the doctors wanted to avoid giving her blood (because it risks the viability of the transplanted tissue), they determined that the blood loss was affecting her overall health in such a way that she really needed the infusion. So on Friday evening she was given 3 units of blood. She quickly regained her color and strength (enough to watch the Cardinals win Game 5 of the NCLS), her hemoglobin count rose to 8, and we both got a good night's sleep.  
  • She is now being monitored to see if her body will heal the bleeding itself or if surgery is required. While her improvement last night was encouraging, it will take a day or so to see if her body continues to improve. So far today she does seem to be maintaining her strength (as you can see in the picture to the right, she even got out of bed to sit in a chair for a while this morning), though her hemoglobin count is down to 6 (it is normal for the hemoglobin to rise dramatically following an infusion and then fall slightly). Her doctor came by about an hour ago and he said he anticipates that her blood loss will stop now (since the blood thinner is completely out of her system) and that her body will be able to absorb any lost blood. However, there is still the possibility that a surgery would be needed at some point if the problem persists.
We are very thankful that Erin's condition has improved since yesterday. Please continue to pray that God would heal her body so that she can avoid another surgery. Lord willing, she will continue improving and will be able to go home on Monday.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Medical Update: Yesterday's Surgery

Posted by Matt Fray

As most of you know, Erin had reconstructive surgery yesterday at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston, South Carolina. The procedure she had done is fairly new, first developed by a surgeon here in Charleston several years ago, and involves taking skin tissue from the abdomen to reconstruct "natural tissue" breasts.

The surgery was scheduled to take 6-8 hours, but they worked on Erin for just over 10 hours. Apparently the doctors had a little trouble reattaching the venous vein on Erin's left side, so they took their time to make sure it was attached well and providing good blood flow. Though it made for a long day for me sitting in the waiting room (along with our pastor, John Fender), I'm thankful for good doctors who care more about doing things right than doing things quickly! The most encouraging part of Erin's surgery is that it appears that all of the transplanted tissue is infection free and will survive successfully. Whenever tissue is transplanted, there are risks of infection and tissue decay, so we are very thankful that neither of those appear to be issues for Erin.

I first saw Erin about an hour after she came out of surgery. Despite being highly medicated and in great pain, her first words to me were, "How was your day? Did you get a lot of work done? When does the Cardinals game start?" For those of you who know Erin well, I'm sure her interest in my day and her excitement about the Cardinals playoffs run come as no surprise to you. Still, since I am someone who struggles with being self-centered, Erin's selflessness never ceases to amaze me. In sickness and in health, in busyness and in boredom, Erin consistently disregards her own issues in order to focus on the needs of her husband, her children, and her friends.

Erin spent the night in the ICU, partially due to a shortage of rooms in the normal post-surgery wing, but also to allow her to have greater attention from the nursing staff. The nurses in the normal post-surgery wing are each responsible for 4-5 patients, but in the ICU they are only responsible for 2. I'm thankful that she is being taken care of so well! And I'm thankful that the ICU staff allowed me to stay in the room with Erin last night, since ordinarily visitors are only allowed in the ICU for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. Lord willing, Erin will require less attention throughout the day today and she can move to a normal room where she can get more rest. The care in the ICU is great, but it's also less private and more noisy than a normal room.

As you pray for Erin's recovery, please pray especially that her pain will subside so that she will be able to get some sleep. And you can pray that she will gain enough strength to begin getting out of bed and moving around a little bit, as that will help her recovery.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My Body Rests Secure

Matt and I are in Charleston tonight, getting ready for my reconstructive surgery which is scheduled for 7am tomorrow morning. Lord willing, this will be the end of a long road in dealing with my cancer and I am thankful that it is almost over.

Since I will be in the hospital for the next five days and will miss being with my boys on their birthdays (Samuel will be 1 tomorrow and Hudson will be 3 on Sunday), we celebrated their birthdays this past weekend. I can’t believe that Samuel is already a year old! He has become quite a tough, fast, and energetic little boy, but he is as sweet as can be! He tends to need his cuddle with mommy in between climbing the table and getting into the toilet. J 

On the other hand, it seems like Hudson has been two years old forever – so I am very glad he is turning three. He has developed quite a personality; always the comedian and always very particular about things (for instance, if you try calling him “buddy” or “son,” he will firmly remind you that his name is Hudson). I am so blessed by all three of my precious children! 

I am so thankful that my sister Katie came in town today from St. Louis to take care of the kids for the next several days. I am sure she would appreciate your prayers! J It was hard to say goodbye to the kids this morning, especially Lydia because she is very aware of what is going on. She remembers what it was like the last time I had surgery, so she has not been looking forward to the next several weeks. But I know that they will have so much fun with Auntie KK, Matt's mom, and my mom as they each come help out over the next two weeks!

Before I left town I was able to visit my friend Elizabeth St. Clair as she was in the hospital having baby boy number three! It brought back mixed emotions being at the same hospital, in a very similar delivery room, with the same doctor, exactly one year ago when I was having Samuel. It was sad thinking about the events that led to me finding out about my cancer, but it gave me joy thinking that I have come so far only through the help of my faithful savior Jesus Christ. And of course it gives me great joy to know that Elizabeth will be welcoming another beautiful boy to her sweet family!

It is intimidating and overwhelming thinking about tomorrow and the weeks of recovery to come, but God’s Word is a tremendous source of comfort. A friend of mine recently pointed me to Psalm 16:8-11, which says,

I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.  Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

On the eve of major surgery, it is an unspeakable comfort to know that not only my soul, but also my body rests secure in God’s hands!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Medical Update: Preparing for Reconstructive Surgery

Matt and I went to Charleston yesterday for two pre-op appointments for my reconstructive surgery which is scheduled for next Wednesday, October 12th, at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). It was a long day, but it was good to spend time alone with Matt and to get everything ready for the surgery. Still, it was not fun to think about having the surgery. For the past six weeks, I have been healthier, stronger, and more active than any time in the past year, so it is hard to think about going back into surgery and dealing with another long recovery process.

You may remember that our original plan was to have this surgery at the same time as my double mastectomy in February, but they had to cancel the reconstructive part of the surgery because they discovered a second tumor in my lymph nodes. So after more chemotherapy and radiation, it is finally time for reconstruction. The reconstructive surgery I will be having is called a DIEP (Deep Interior Epigastric Perforator) Flap surgery. This is a specialized surgery that is only performed regularly at a few hospitals throughout the country, MUSC being one of them. As the name indicates, the surgery involves removing interior tissue from the abdomen and using it to reform the breasts. If you want to learn more about the surgery, you can watch a short informational video about the DIEP Flap surgery here. The surgery should last about 6-8 hours. Following the surgery, I will probably spend 4-5 days in the hospital for my initial recovery, though it will take around 6 weeks to make a full recovery. 

After my appointments in Charleston, we made the two-hour trip back home and arrived just a few minutes before the youth group from our church came over for Bible Study. I love having the youth group over - they have such energy and joy, and it is a privilege to help them understand God's Word! We ended the evening around the fire pit in the backyard, enjoying s'mores and a time of prayer for my surgery as well as several other needs in the group. It is so amazing that God invites us to cast our cares on Him, the God of the universe! To think that He hears us, loves us, and will answer our prayers is an amazing reality I too often take for granted.

As we prepare for my surgery, I would appreciate your prayers. Please pray that the surgery is a success and that my recovery would go smoothly. Also, please pray for the kids while Matt and I are in Charleston for the surgery and initial recovery. My older sister will be here with the kids for the first several days, and then Matt's mom will come for a few days. And pray for Matt, especially when we return home and he has to balance caring for me, the kids, and keeping up with his work responsibilities. Thank you so much for your prayers and support!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Voices and Faces Interview

As I mentioned in a previous post, several weeks ago I was invited to be one of ten breast cancer survivors to share the story of my battle with cancer through an annual breast cancer awareness campaign called Voices and Faces of Breast Cancer Survivorship. The campaign is sponsored by the Savannah Chapter of the American Cancer Society. They launched the campaign this past Saturday with a luncheon and fashion show with this year's survivors serving as the models. My outfit was not something I would have picked for myself, but it was fun to participate in this great event.
The media sponsor of the Voices and Faces campaign is WSAV, Savannah's local NBC station. They are airing short television ads during October with clips from interviews they did with each survivor. You can check out my thirty-second television ad here, or you can watch my six-minute interview below.

Please pray that God would use these videos to point people to the hope we have in God and His Word!

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Rainbow Reminder

I was reminded tonight of God’s faithfulness in a very simple way. I looked outside and saw a beautiful double rainbow. It reached all the way across the sky. After a few weeks of daily trials and hardships it was such a beautiful reminder of the promises that God gave to Noah. After 40 days of rain, God promised He would never flood the earth again, and the rainbow was the symbol of that promise. The rainbow was also the sign of the covenant relationship that God had with Noah and his descendants. In Genesis 9:13-17, God says,

“This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.  Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

Our God is gracious, loving, faithful, and stronger than any trial in this life. And I am so thankful that He gives us reminders of those truths, even visible reminders like rainbows, just when we need them.  

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Voices and Faces

God has given me a really neat opportunity to share the story of my cancer journey. As you may know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Each October the American Cancer Society of Savannah sponsors a breast cancer awareness campaign called Voices and Faces of Breast Cancer Survivorship, which highlights the stories several local women who have gone or are currently going through cancer treatments for breast cancer. The campaign kicks off October 1st with a luncheon and fashion show, and commercials featuring the survivors will run on W-SAV throughout the month.

A few months ago I was chosen to be one of the survivors featured in the campaign. When the people at W-SAV filmed my interview for the commercials, I was able to emphasize how my cancer journey has been all about God's love and faithfulness to me and my hope of true life in Jesus Christ. I was also able to tell the story of how my dad's cancer journey has shaped my cancer journey. I will post the video of that commercial when it becomes available.

For now, I think I need to prepare my runway walk for Saturday's fashion show so that I don't end up like some of the models in the video below!

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Ultimate Metastasis

As I have mentioned before, my father, Rodney Stortz, was a pastor in St. Louis, Missouri, and battled with liver cancer for several years before dying in March of 2003 at the age of 52. He was such an amazing example to me in so many ways, especially in how to go through suffering with deep faith and true joy. And in God’s providence, he kept a diary during his battle with cancer that has been a continual encouragement to me during my battle with cancer.

But my dad was not our only family member who was a pastor that died of cancer. Matt’s uncle, Dan Fray, was a pastor in Red Wing, Minnesota for several years and died of stomach cancer in 1988 at the age of 38. A few days ago, one of Matt’s relatives sent me a copy of an article that Dan wrote for his church newsletter that was later reprinted in the Covenant Companion magazine. It is a wonderful reminder of what gives me joy in my journey: not the promise of physical healing, but the promise of spiritual life through Jesus Christ.

“The Ultimate Metastasis” by Daniel B. Fray

Metastasis. An ugly, fear-filled word referring to the transfer of malignant disease from one part of the body to another – part of the cancer jargon all too familiar to victims of the dread disease. It is a word I have had to hear concerning my own body, and a word I pray I will not soon hear again.

Metastasis. A word I never thought could carry any but the ugliest of connotations has recently taken on for me one clear facet of hope.

It happened as I was scanning my Greek New Testament one day (anyone impressed?) in search of sermon material. The passage was Colossians 1:13,14, which reads in the Revised Standard Version: “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

The emphasis on transferred is mine. The Greek verb took me by surprise – delightful, pleasingly ironic surprise! It comes from the same root as that ugly word, metastasis. Ultimately, God has in mind to work a total metastasis in our bodies, changing the status of our mortal bodies to something full of life and totally beyond our understanding! But even now, the transfer already complete in the spiritual sense for God’s children. We have redemption, we have forgiveness, we have been “metastasized” into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.

Cancer has the power to take us captive on a metastatic journey from life to death. Only God can reverse the process. All of us are on that journey to death, some farther along the way than others. The unspiritual person draws comfort from the illusion that death is only “natural,” even asserting (despite the logical contradiction) that death is just a stage of life. The spiritual person labors under no such illusion. We know that death is the intruder, the last enemy, the usurper, the product of sin and not of God’s good plan.

Edith Schaeffer, in her book, Forever Music (Thomas Nelson, 1986), makes the point well. “How can anyone say that death is natural? The natural thing is to have a person be a whole person. The silent body, the unmoving body, the unbreathing lungs are unnatural to family members who have just felt the pressure of a hand (pressure commanded by a brain), who have just heard a communication verbalized (also by a living brain) so short a time before. Death is a part of death. Death is abnormal to a living person; it is not a part of life.”

The point of Shaeffer’s book is that there is a “forever music” to be enjoyed by God’s people in a “forever life,” a life death cannot cancel out!

So let us praise God for our great inheritance, our redemption, our forgiveness, our “ultimate metastasis” from darkness to the light of God’s kingdom!

Friday, September 9, 2011

After the Last Tear Falls

I have been thinking a lot about the events of 9/11 over the past few days. My husband will be preaching a sermon this Sunday (the 10th anniversary of 9/11) about how Jesus commands us to love our enemies just as God loved us when we were his enemies. And so this week we have been watching a lot of the documentaries on TV related to 9/11. It is so amazing and sad to realize just how many people have been effected by just one event on one day. Once again I have been reminded just how much suffering there is in this world! 

In comparison to a big event like 9/11, I feel like my health issues are so small. Of course, everyone has their struggles - and no matter the size or intensity of the struggles, they are equally real for those who are experiencing them. It all makes me long for the day when pain and death will be no more and every tear will be wiped away. I was reminded of that promise by a friend this past week: "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:4)."

The song, "After the Last Tear Falls," by Andrew Peterson really captures the truth of that promise, and our longing for it, so clearly. I encourage you to listen to it and read the lyrics (below). 

"After the Last Tear Falls" by Andrew Peterson
After the last tear fall, after the last secret's told, 
After the last bullet tears through flesh and bone,
After the last child starve, and the last girl walks the boulevard, 
After the last year that's just too hard.

There is love; love, love, love.
There is love; love, love, love. 
There is love.

After the last disgrace, after the last lie to save some face, 
After the last brutal jab from a poison tongue,
After the last dirty politician, after the last meal down at the mission, 
After the last lonely night in prison. 

And in the end, the end is oceans and oceans of love and love again.
We'll see how the tears that have fallen, were caught in the palms,
Of the Giver of love and the Lover of all.
And we'll look back on these tears as old tales.

'Cause after the last plan fails, after the last siren wails,
After the last young husband sails off to join the war,
After the last "this marriage is over,"
After the last young girl's innocence is stolen,
After the last years of silence that won't let a heart open. 

Finally, thank you for all of the prayers for Hudson's surgery. It went very well and he is making a smooth recovery!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I've Already Started to Forget...

This past Sunday our pastor, John Fender, preached a very eye-opening and convicting sermon called, "God and Our Forgetfulness." The sermon was on Deuteronomy 8 where Moses repeatedly tells the people of Israel to remember what God has done (delivering them from Egypt) and said (the Ten Commandments) as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. Moses knew it was easy to be aware of those things during the difficult times in Egypt and the wilderness, but it would be harder to remember those things when they began enjoying the rest and comfort of the Promised Land. In other words, we need to fight against our natural tendency to become complacent in our faith when life gets comfortable. If we don't "feel" our need for Christ it is easy to forget about him and become lazy about depending on him completely.

The sermon helped me realize that I so easily fall into complacency. In many ways, I have already started to forget what God has taught me in the past year. I need to remember that God's word is true all the time and I should be trusting in it all the time. In going through cancer, I have been forced to look to God and I have been trying hard to see how he is using this for my good and his glory. More than anything else, I have seen God's faithfulness to me through people's prayers, encouraging words, and acts of help and support. I have seen God's faithfulness through wise doctors and good medical reports. But I have already started to forget these things! I have found myself once again trying to control my life and my circumstances and not looking to God and his truth on a daily basis.

Of course, God knows my heart and is always working to build my faith whenever it is weakening. Since this sermon was preached on Sunday I have found out about two new things I will need to depend on God for. On Monday, I found out that Hudson will have a surgery next Thursday (9/8) to remove his tonsils and adenoids. It is one thing for me to have surgery and be the one experiencing the pain, discomfort and uncertainty, but when it is my child that is something completely different. I have not experienced one of my children having surgery before, so I will certainly have to depend on God to take care of Hudson and to give me peace. Also, I found out today that I will have my reconstructive surgery six weeks from today on Samuel's first birthday (10/12). I am a bit nervous about having surgery again, both for what it will mean for me and for what it will mean for my family. But God has proved his faithfulness to care for every detail before, and he will do it again.

Please pray me in all this. And pray for my dear, sweet Hudson. Pray that he will have peace that passes all understanding and that this experience, in some way, will bring his heart (and mine) closer to Christ.

God and our Forgetfulness from John Fender on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Medical Update

I am very thankful to be done with my cancer treatments, but in terms of my overall health things have not been going too smoothly since I finished radiation last month. In some ways, I have had to resign myself to the fact that my burden in life, at least for now, is my physical body and its sickness. This is the second time that the “end” of my health problems seemed to be in sight, but in the blink of an eye the road continued. The first time was my surgery in February. When I went in for surgery I was supposed to wake up and be done with everything, but when I woke up I found out they found more cancer and I would need to have more treatments and surgery. Now, within a few weeks of finishing my treatments, I have developed a very large cyst, a tear in my hip, and some other health problems that are causing me to be very weak and fatigued.

While my burden right now is with my body, some people are dealing with just as much if not more in other areas: emotions, finances, relationships, or spiritual life. So I have been thinking a lot about the comfort and hope that God gives us when our road seems lonely and never ending. At our wedding, Matt and I recited the first question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism as a reminder that our ultimate comfort is not in each other, but in Jesus Christ. The catechism question asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” And the answer says, 

That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by His Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
What an incredible reminder this is for me! These words help to bring me back to the simple truth that Christ is my faithful Savior and that I can live for him wholeheartedly. If God watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without it being a part of his will, then he definitely is also watching over every pain and weakness in my body. And somehow, though it is hard for me to endure right now, he is using it all for HIS good and HIS glory. Not only is God in control of all things, but he is faithful – he is, “my faithful savior Jesus Christ.” He does not need to prove his faithfulness over and over again (though he does) because he gave us the ultimate proof of his faithfulness in fulfilling his promise to save us even when we did not deserve it, and even when it meant the death of his own son. I pray that God will continually use those truths to make me wholeheartedly willing and ready to live for him!

I met with my surgeon today to plan for the reconstructive surgery that I will have in October. Since I have healed well from radiation (that’s at least one health issue to be thankful for), he gave me the “go ahead” to schedule the surgery for early October (provided my other health issues do not interfere between now and then). Since my surgeon is in Charleston, South Carolina (a two-hour drive from Pooler) we decided to spend the day there as a family. We spent the morning at the children’s museum and the afternoon in the doctor’s office. The kids had just about as much fun at both places! They enjoyed looking out over the city from the doctor’s seventh-floor office. Apparently there was an earthquake while we were up there too. We did not notice it, but the doctor and several other people said they noticed the building moving a bit.

I would greatly appreciate continued prayers for my health as I battle these remaining health issues. Please pray that the doctors would have wisdom in treating me and that I would patiently wait for God to heal me in his perfect timing.