October 8, 2013. This is a date etched in our family’s memory. It is the date of my first cancer surgery to remove the tumors in my colon and liver. It was the first time I had ever been under anesthesia, and the first time I had a major surgery. After being diagnosed in March with stage four cancer, and after five months of chemotherapy, on October 8, 2013 I headed into a 9.5 hour surgery to finalize the process. I had thousands of prayers going up from prayer warriors across the nation and globe, all praying for the report that the surgery would be successful and I would come out of it cancer free. And….I did! The liver and colon surgeons told us that the tumors were removed and there was no cancer in the linings or margins. Though the recovery was rough, the news was a miracle! Even the doctors admitted that this was a difficult case, but they were determined, as was I, that we would tackle this and win! Today is the five year anniversary of this major victory.
Two weeks ago my youngest son Micah turned 18. Since he was now an adult, he could legally get a tattoo. He had been planning the design for his first tattoo for a few months. I remember in August, he was talking with his buddy Hayden about their tattoo designs. I said to them, “Remember you have to be 18 to get a tattoo, and a tattoo is for life so be really smart….” And then I remembered, “Holy shit, my kid is going to be 18 in a month—this is getting real!” Micah was serious about his tattoo. He knew what he wanted. He had researched fonts and designs, so he made an appointment with a tattoo artist who had been recommended to him, and one week after he turned 18, he got his first tattoo. His first ink is this: X.VIII.MMX111 on his right forearm. He had told me a few weeks before what it stood for and why he chose it, and I had a long mom cry when I found out, and I still weep as I look his tattoo. He chose the date October 8, 2013 in Roman numerals to commemorate the date of my first surgery when I came out cancer free. My baby (well okay he is 18, but he is always my baby) planned and designed and created his first tattoo to memorialize a date that celebrated my life, but also the life of our family.
Micah was in sixth grade and Noah in ninth grade when I was first diagnosed. Those are tender and difficult ages in which to navigate life, but then they found out I had cancer—a cancer that did not have a good prognosis at all--which made for a frightening and anxious road ahead. I remember clearly the day Greg and I sat down with them and told them the news. We attempted to be completely straightforward and honest about the cancer diagnosis and what the doctors had told us. We explained that I would have chemotherapy, and what that meant—that mom would have some side effects, that I might be weak and tired a lot of the time, and that this would end in a surgery that would entail a two-three month recovery. We told them that we wanted them to share any feelings and fears with us and we told them to please be free to talk with friends or their Young Life leaders or anyone who would listen and help if they felt they couldn’t talk with us about their feelings. We told them that it was okay to feel scared, anxious, angry, frustrated and any other emotion that they might not even be able to name. We told them that this was a new road to all of us, and that we would need to navigate it together. We told them that we would be honest with them through the process and that we would pray everyday as a family. Noah’s first response was, “We will pray through this mom.” Micah was a little more aloof and detached (reminder—he was an 11 year old sixth grader) and he responded, “Yah, we will pray.” We told them to take their time to process all this and that we would be there for them every step of the way.
As chemotherapy began and my body began to change a little—my hair began to thin out; I needed to take naps, and once a week for 48 hours, I had to carry a chemo bag around that was attached to a port in my chest. It was those days that made it more real, and made it look like I was sick. I am sure it was scary for my boys. We kept communication open, and as surgery came closer, I think all of us were carrying anxiety and fear in our hearts that we couldn’t really describe or explain. It was ours to deal with and pray through. It was also during this time that my husband stepped up to the plate in huge ways. He was the one who got up in the morning to make lunches and get them off to school. He was the one who took them to sports practices and games. (Through everything I tried to get to every game, no matter what). He was the one who did the grocery shopping and the laundry and the cleaning. Things were different in our household, and though I tried my best to make things look as normal as possible, everyone knew inside their hearts that things were not normal, that mom was sick, and that mom was going to have a big surgery that she may or may not come out of. I prayed daily (hourly) for my boys—for my boys to have strength, for them to be able to cry, for them to be able to cry out to God as well, for them to keep their faith despite this storm.
I remember with crystal clarity the day of surgery. We had to be at the hospital at 5:30 am, so it was dark and chilly when we left and as we walked out into the morning dawn, my driveway and fountain were lit up with mason jars filled with candles and words like hope, faith, love, and dream written on each jar. This was the work of my dear friend Mary—who had been a rock for me through this whole journey. Of course, my day then started with tears, lots of tears-- of gratitude for all the people who had surrounded me during this time. I was filled with love for these friends, yet scared, but also filled with hope. Friends met us at the hospital, ready to pray all day in the waiting room as I spent my 9.5 hours in surgery and then two hours in recovery. I remember waking up after surgery, groggy and saying hilarious things (I heard later about my non sensical conversations under medication.) But there when I woke up, tired and in a haze, were my husband and my sweet boys, holding my hands and leaning over me with love, faith, and the most precious and beautiful smiles I have ever seen.
When we received the news that the surgery was successful, we realized, each in our own hearts and our own ways, what a miracle this was. As I look back at these five years, I am still in awe that I am a walking, living miracle.
It hasn’t been easy. Nine months after the first surgery, in July 2014, we discovered that the cancer had returned, this time in my lung. Once again, we had our family conversation. Once again we came together as a family and prayed. Once again I had another surgery—which was successful-- and for 2.5 years I was cancer free! Then last year, in May 2017, I found out the cancer had returned to my lung again. Last September I had another surgery, this time removing the lower right lobe of my lung, and once again the surgery was successful. Even though the surgery was successful, this year has been extremely difficult. We found out that my cancer markers continue to rise, yet scans cannot find any cancer. It has been a year of waiting, a year of anxiety and a year of fear. And yet, we as a family have learned that when we give this anxiety and fear to the Lord, and we continue to pray, that with Christ, we get through those hard times. We cling to the promises that God will “never leave us nor forsake us.” We cling to the promises in His Word that with His strength we will have courage that we never thought possible. It still isn’t easy. It doesn’t make the fear or pain go away. But it reminds us that we have ONE who suffered before us, who knows our pain and our fears. And we go on, living under the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.
My boys have processed these fears and anxieties in their own ways and they have come out stronger and with an even deeper faith. They amaze me with their hope and resilience. We have all grown through this, and our family’s priorities have changed immensely. We say yes to family and friends and no to anything that is not in sync with our values and that is not life giving to us.
I know my boys have had a rough road as they have dealt with a mom with cancer for the past five years. But when my youngest decides to get his first tattoo with the date October 8, 2013 on his forearm, a tattoo that will be with him for life, a tattoo that screams “I love my mom and I have hope”-- I know that God has been with him, that God has been with us, and for that I am forever grateful. I am blessed. I am blessed. I am blessed.