Monday, March 28, 2011

God's Hand in Our Affliction (Psalm 119)

Psalm 119 is one of my all-time favorite psalms, but I had never noticed how frequently it addresses the issue of affliction until I read this blog post by Justin Taylor.

A few observations from Psalm 119:

God’s painful discipline of his children always has a redemptive purpose and is done in faithful love. 67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. 71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. 75 I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.

God’s life-giving promise is a comfort in time of affliction. 50 This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.

God’s word sustains us through affliction. 92 If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.

God can deliver us from affliction, and we can cry out for life. 153 Look on my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law. 107 I am severely afflicted; give me life, O Lord, according to your word!

When Erin and I are discouraged by issues related to her health, it is both comforting and convicting to be reminded of these truths from God's Word. It is a comfort to know that the affliction of Erin's cancer is not out of God's control or designed to harm her, but in God's control and designed for our good. But it is also convicting because too often we lack the hope that God's Word can sustain us in affliction because our natural inclination is to believe that the only solution to our affliction is to be free from affliction. And too often we lack the faith that will cause us to cry out to God in prayer because our natural inclination is to bring out thoughts and complaints to those we can see. As Erin prepares for another chemotherapy treatment tomorrow (Tuesday, March 29th), please pray that God would be changing our hearts, causing them to be more consistent and bold in trusting in these comforting and convicting promises from God's Word.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Medical Update

This week has been an odd mix of progress and complexity for me medically.

In terms of progress, I made my last post-operative trip to Charleston on Tuesday and everything seems to be healing well and on track for reconstructive surgery in the Fall. Also, as of Wednesday I am officially one-thirf of the way through my current round of chemotherapy; I have completed four treatments and have eight more to go. [By the way, I don't necessarily have a regular day for chemotherapy. My first two treatments were on Thursdays, my most recent two were on Wednesdays, and my next one is on Tuesday. When I go in for treatment mostly depends on when I can coordinate my schedule with my doctor's schedule.] For those who are dealing with long-term illnesses like cancer, it is encouraging to be able to step back from the seemingly endless appointments and procedures and see that real progress is being made with each step that is taken. The process of dealing with my cancer is far from over, but day-by-day, progress is being made and that is reassuring.

While certain benchmarks of progress were made this week, my overall health has seemed more complex for some reason this week. My current chemotherapy drug has always made me slightly nauseous and very easily fatigued, but I have been struggling with other things as well. I won't go into detail about my various symptoms; I'll just say that my body has just been off balance lately (and sometimes literally). In some ways I think my body must be confused by the potpourri of medications I am taking. It is one thing for me to keep track of my medications (in fact, Matt just installed a new medicine cabinet in our bathroom to hold them all), but it is another for my body to process and adjust to them appropriately. Anyway, I am hoping that I can gain some greater physical stability in the coming week.

As you have the opportunity, please pray that God would give me and my doctors wisdom about how to treat my cancer and keep my body relatively healthy. And please continue to pray that God would sustain me and my family during these tedious weeks of chemotherapy. As far as we know, we are really only about half-way through with my total cancer treatment (the anticipated finish line is towards the end of 2011). It has been a long process already, but there is so much more to do. So please pray for us to persevere by faith as we trust in God to give us the physical, emotional, and spiritual stregnth we need to run this race well.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Praying for Wisdom

It is always a blessing to talk with other moms. This morning I  went to our bi-weekly MOPS meeting that meets at our church. I enjoy being able to have conversations with other moms without 3 little children hanging off of every part of me! I also had a chance to talk to more moms while I was at a Bible Study tonight. Between being a mom and having cancer, one thing that has been on my mind quite a bit lately has been the need for wisdom. Wisdom in being a parent is definitely one of the most consistent things that I pray for. I pray for wisdom in dealing with practical day-to-day tasks and transitions, and also wisdom in dealing with the large-scale emotional and spiritual needs of my children. 

Practically speaking, I have been trying to figure out my middle child, Hudson. I have found that there is a lot of intensity, drama, and transition that comes with a two year old boy. For example, Hudson keeps telling me he wants to go potty on the big boy potty. You would think this would be music to any mom’s ears, right? But I keep telling him, “We will a little later,“ or “Maybe tomorrow.“ Every once in a while I will muster up enough energy to take his diaper off let him sit…and sit some more…and 10 minutes later take him off with a battle because he never went, then put his diaper back on. Honestly, I have been telling myself that I will tackle that when I am “all better”. But here’s the wisdom issue: No one really knows when I will be better except for God. So even with a simple practical thing like potty training I need to remind myself to go to God in prayer and ask him to give me wisdom, energy, and consistency I need to do this task.  

We have also been dealing with getting Hudson to sleep in a “big boy bed.” We put him in his big boy bed around Christmas and he did great for a couple months. Every once in a while he would get out and we would have to deal with him. But then he began getting out of bed consistently - both before going to sleep and sometimes in the middle of the night. It was leading to him not getting enough sleep at night and beginning to really effect his attitude. Especially since I was sleeping in the recliner in the living room and could not deal with him in the middle of the night, we figured the best thing to do was to temporarily put him back in the crib. So he slept very well in his crib for several weeks. Then one night, while I was sleeping on the recliner, I heard some strange noises coming from behind me. I got very scared thinking an intruder was in the house. I slowly looked behind me and there was Hudson…sitting on top of his train table just staring at me. (I have to admit, it was almost as scary as someone breaking in!) I put him back in his crib and he went right back to sleep. But the next morning when Matt went in to his room to get him up there was Hudson…sitting on top of his changing table! I am thankful that he seems to be able to get in and out of his crib with much grace, but of course I would be even more thankful if he didn’t get out at all. Again, here’s the wisdom issue: when do we transition him back to his big boy bed? After praying about this and really taking a look at my son’s personality and what works with HIM, I realized we needed to try a little positive reinforcement. So as of yesterday we now have a Thomas the Train sticker chart; he will get a sticker to put on the chart every morning that he stays in bed all night. It has only been one night, but it has worked! I hope this keeps working because Samuel needs to transition to the crib in Hudson’s room. Right now Samuel is rapidly growing out of the pack and play he is sleeping in…in our closet! J

Then there are the wisdom issues in dealing with the emotional spiritual needs of my children. I have begun to notice a pattern with my oldest daughter, Lydia. When Matt and I are getting ready to go to one of my doctor’s appointments her attitude seems to change. I always take time to talk with her about my sickness and try to help her to understand what is happening with me. She tries to be very brave, but some times she crumbles into sadness and tears. One day someone mentioned to me that she seemed upset. So I asked her why she was upset and she told me a story about seeing a bee. I thought maybe that could be the issue, but maybe there is more. Again, the wisdom issue: Do I keeping on digging because I am suspicious there is more to her sadness or do I let her tell me in her own time if there is really something else that is bothering her? I decided to keep digging. I asked her if she was upset that I went to the doctor. She responded saying,  “Yes! Your medicine is NOT making you better!” This opened a door for us to explain how my medicine is working. Even more importantly, it gave us a chance to tell her that God is taking care of me and he will always take care of her. 

It is hard to see my children having to deal with the effects of my cancer, weather it is in practical ways or emotional ways. But it is a good reminder to me that I am not in complete control of their lives. I can’t have my hand in every detail of their lives - even when I am healthy. I have to trust that ultimately God will take care of them. In the meantime, it is my responsibility to pray diligently for each of them and to pray that God will give me the wisdom I need as a mom to take care of them and love them as He would.

“My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, there will be a future, and your hope will not be cut off.”
Proverbs 24:13-14

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A God Who Sometimes Says No

People have blessed me in so many ways during my battle with cancer - from providing generous financial help, to delivering delicious home-cooked meals, to giving up personal time to babysit my kids, to sending notes of encouragement, and the list goes on. All of these things have been incredibly helpful and encouraging.

But perhaps the best thing anyone do for me during this season of my life is to pray for me - for healing, for wisdom and patience, for emotional strength, for faith and hope, and for God to glorify Himself through me. The Bible teaches that prayer isn't just positive thinking or merely wishing certain things, but it is actually our means of communicating with the one true God. God promises to hear and to answer every prayer that is offered to Him by faith and in Jesus' name. He has given us the gift of prayer to cast our cares upon Him and to ask for Him to work in our lives. And so that is why I often include specific prayer requests in my blog posts.

The trick is that God does not promise to answer every prayer in the way we hope He will. He is not a magic genie who is obligated to fulfill our requests. As Jesus taught in the Lord's Prayer, we should pray for God's will to be done, not ours. That seems to make good sense when it comes to people praying for selfish or evil things. But what about when our prayers are for good things - for instance, for someone to be healed from cancer - why would God not agree to answer such a prayer with healing? Or to put it more personally: why would God allow my cancer to spread to my lymph nodes when so many people were praying that would not happen? If I have been praying so hard from the beginning that I would not have to do radiation, then why would God deny my request and have me do radiation?

In God's good timing, this past Sunday our pastor, John Fender, addressed this very topic in his sermon on Deuteronomy 3:23-29, "A God Who Sometimes Says No." He does a fantastic job of answering this perplexing question that countless Christians have faced throughout history. It was a great help to me - especially during this time - and I pray it will be a help to many of you as well.

A God Who Sometimes Says No from John Fender on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Family Days

God never gives us more than we can handle and always provides what we need just when we need it. And God provided just what we needed: two restful family days.

Through the generosity of family and friends, God provided Matt and I with a 24-hour mini-vacation in Hilton Head Island yesterday and today (3/14-15). The past couple weeks have been very hard on both of us, so this brief time away could not have come at a better time. It was so nice to be in a different place and to not have to think or talk about being sick, about cancer, about doctors, etc. We were able to just relax and enjoy God's creation together.

Today we came back from Hilton Head to celebrate Lydia's 4th birthday. It is so hard to believe that my little girl is growing up so fast! I am so thankful for my sweet, thoughtful, precious Lydia.

I am so thankful for everyone who has been praying for me and encouraging me throughout this process, especially during the past two weeks. This journey has taught me so much what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ. 

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.
Philippians 1:3-5

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cast Your Burden On the Lord

This has been a very hard week...easily one of the hardest I have faced so far in my journey through cancer.

On Tuesday I had two procedures: one in Charleston in the morning and one in Savannah in the afternoon. The appointment in Charleston was with my plastic surgeon, Dr. O'Niell. I have been going to see him weekly for post-operative visits since my surgery on February 11th. He checked to make sure everything was healing well and then injected about 100 cc's of saline into each of my chest expanders. The expansions are usually somewhat painful, but this time I experienced a very sharp, intense pain in my back immediately after he expanded my right side. The doctor expected it to go away over the course of the day, so we went on to our next procedure back in Savannah.

The procedure in Savannah was for installing a port for chemotherapy. Most of my veins are unusable due to the cancer in my lymph nodes and previous chemotherapy treatments, so the port will give direct access to my blood stream without having to tap into a new vein at each treatment. As we walked into the vascular surgeon's outpatient office I had a very unsettled feeling, but wasn't sure why. After getting a saline IV started and doing some paperwork, a doctor came and said that the surgeon that was supposed to do the procedure today was not available, so he was going to fill in. I nodded and smiled, but inside I was quietly hoping that didn't mean he was the second-string doctor! We told him that my oncologist wanted me to get a port in my arm, but he disagreed with that recommendation and told us it would be best to put the port in my chest. We were a little confused with his reasoning for doing a chest port, but we figured this was his specialty so hwe should trust his advice.

When he finished going over the basics of the procedure with me the nurses brought me back to the procedure room. I was hoping for a nurse to give me a more detailed explanation of the procedure and what to expect, but she didn't say too much. I asked if and when I would get pain medicine. The nurse told me they would give me pain medicine through my IV before they began the procedure. Then she had me lay flat on the table (which hurt extremely bad because of the downward pressure on my newly-expanded expanders) and she began spreading a surgical prep solution on my chest and neck. Without warning, the nurse draped a blue paper cloth over me from head to toe. I could not see anything or breath well and because of my severe chest pain, I wasn't able to remove the cloth from my face.

The next thing I knew, everyone left the room and I was lying on the table alone, struggling to fight the pain and the claustrophobia. I'll never forget what I heard next: the nurses were shouting down the hallway, "Hey, who is doing this surgery? Is it Dr. Haresh or Dr. DeChamplain? Where are we putting the port? Oh, I thought it was in the arm?” Needless to say, these were not very comforting comments. I would like to think that the people who were about to cut into my carotid artery knew what they were doing! Finally, a doctor came in...but it not the doctor who had spoken to me earlier. I could tell this new doctor was a woman from her voice, but she did not speak to me and I never saw her face. Finally, about half-way through the procedure, one of the nurses noticed my body beginning to convulse because of the pain. She lifted up the blue paper and saw tears streaming from my eyes. Surprised, she asked, “Are you okay?" I wanted to say, “Oh, yes I am doing wonderful today…and how are you?” But all I could say was, "Um…no…I'm in horrible pain." Finally, they gave me some pain medicine (though it didn't kick in until after the 30-minute procedure was complete) and they finished up the procedure. All in all, it was a pretty miserable experience.

Throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening I continued to have the sharp pain that I had from the expansion. It got so severe around 1am that we called my plastic surgeon's office. Though he was not even on call, my doctor was willing to talk with us for nearly 30 minutes. He even gave me his personal cell phone number in case I needed to call him back or text him with a question. After discussing my symptoms, he suggested either going to the ER or coming in to see him the next day. We decided to manage the pain with medication that night and to go see him first thing in the morning. such a kind and thoughtful doctor. So at 5:45am on Wednesday we began driving back to Charleston for my 8:30am appointment. At the appointment, Dr. O'Neill removed about half of the saline he had injected into my right side the day before, hoping that the reduction would mean less pressure and pain. Thankfully, throughout the day that is exactly what happened.

And today, Thursday, was chemo. Now to be honest, with all of the pain I experienced on Tuesday and Wednesday, the LAST thing in the world I wanted to do today was to experience more pain or to add nausea into the equation. I was at the end of my rope physically and emotionally and did not think I could handle one more thing going wrong. Thankfully, in general, everything did go okay. But wouldn't you know it, they ended up not even using my port! The area around the port was still so tender from the installation that we decided to use a normal vein for one more week.

I've had several hard days in my journey so far, but today was probably one of my hardest days. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually I am just exhausted. It's been a day of longing for my heavenly home! During a particulary hard moment during chemo today Matt handed me his iPhone. I looked at the screen and the title said, "Psalm 55." I looked at him and said, “Matt, I honestly don't feel like reading the Bible right now.” He said, "I know - that's why you need to read it," and he put it right in front of my face. I guess when you are married to a pastor there is no getting away from God’s Word…especially when he has it on his iPhone! Reluctantly, I read Psalm 55. The passage - a psalm of lament - was a perfect fit for my mood. Here are verses 4-8 and 22a:
My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. And I say, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter from the raging wind and tempest.” Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.
As I read David's cries of anguish and his reminder of God's sustaining hand, I instantly felt my heart soften its spirit and lighten its load. Sometimes we may not “feel” like reading God's Word, or praying, or going to church, but when we do we realize that these are the primary ways God relates to us and encourages our hearts. Thanks be to the Lord for His grace, mercy, and friendship to us when our hearts are weak!

After this very hard and exhausting week of doctors appointments, I am excited to say I do not have any more appointments until next Wednesday! Also, I am looking forward to a short getaway with Matt (on Monday) and Lydia's 4th birthday (on Tuesday). Hopefully I am feeling well for both of those things. I am still fighting pain from the expansion and a bit of nausea from the chemo treatment, so I'd appreciate your prayers that those would be done with soon.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Hard Road Before Us

The past several days have been a bit discouraging for Erin and I. In addition to the practical stress of going to 2-3 doctors appointments each week, managing half a dozen medications, and caring for three our three little ones, we have been wrestling through a few particularly difficult realities.

1. An unusually hard recovery. Erin has continued to have a very hard time recovering from her surgery on February 11th. She is healing, but the process has been unusually long, painful, and tiring. She has constant pain in her chest, partially due to the normal aches and pains of recovering from major surgery and partially due to the follow-up adjustments to her temporary breast expanders. She has also been very fatigued. Between chemotherapy, surgery, and medications, her body has been through a lot in the last few months.

2. An uncertain chemotherapy plan. Though she is still struggling to make a full recovery from her surgery, Erin begins a new round of chemotherapy today (March 3rd). She will be taking a drug which she has not had before (Abraxane) once a week for twelve weeks. While the side-effects of this drug are normally less severe than the drugs she had during her first round of chemotherapy, we're uncertain how she will tolerate her treatment. She will probably experience a certain amount of nausea and fatigue, but we're hoping she doesn't re-lose her hair (she has had about a 1/4-inch of hair grow back since the end of her first round of chemotherapy).

3. An unexpectedly hard road ahead. A month ago, we expected her surgery to be the last major hurdle of her cancer treatment. But with the discovery that the had spread and formed a tumor in a lymph node ("upgrading" her cancer from Stage 1 to Stage 2A), she will need to do radiation this Summer and reconstructive surgery this Fall. In many ways, things will get harder for Erin before they get better.

While there are so many things we are thankful for (Erin's cancer is only Stage 2A, Erin's new round of chemo should be easier than before, we have had a ton of help from family and friends with childcare, meals, etc.), the reality is that Erin's day-to-day life is very hard (despite the smile on her face) and will continue to be hard for the better part of 2011. We can rejoice and be glad that God has been faithful to supply our every need in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19) to this point, and we know we can trust Him to continue to do that in the future. But we still have to walk the road before us by faith and with hope, virtues that do not come naturally for anyone.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.
Psalm 43:5