Holding Space

With Shelly Vaughn


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“Holding space for another person is incredibly profound. When you hold space for someone, you bring your entire presence to them. You walk along with them without judgment, sharing their journey to an unknown destination. Yet you’re completely willing to end up wherever they need to go. You give your heart, let go of control, and offer unconditional support. And when you do both of you heal, grow, and transform.”


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“Life is such a big word”

“Life is such a big word.”
That’s what Liana said to me in a quiet conversation last night before bed. I don’t think she realized quite how profound it was.

Let me back up to Thursday this week. It was our anniversary and Rob and I spent the day having fun at Cedar Point. He had never been there and I was there once as a teenager. Taking a day off to laugh and hang out was the perfect thing for us.

Although the analogy is cliche, I can’t not use it here: The roller coaster of emotions that day was as extreme as the real coasters we had just ridden.

After we were home and the girls were in bed, I heard some devastating news about a friend of mine. She’s a fellow breast cancer survivor and her daughter is one of Olivia’s best friends. I may have mentioned in the past that I’ve always felt like our girls were meant to be in class together (along with one other close friend of theirs) because all 3 of their moms have been through cancer. Julie Nawrocky Reis was 5 years out from hers, I was diagnosed in 2017, and Jen was diagnosed shortly after me. It’s a unique thing for 10 year old girls to bond over, but special that they had each other and could relate to each other in a way that other little girls don’t understand.

Jen went through all of the difficult treatments and surgeries last year and heard just a couple of weeks ago that her MRI was clear! She was excited to move forward with life. And her heart was 1,000% devoted to her daughter, Mariah.
But she had a sudden illness hit her this week and was hospitalized on Wednesday. We heard Thursday night that she had passed away. Sudden, shocking, heartbreaking.

Telling Olivia about this yesterday was one of the saddest conversations I’ve ever had with anyone. She keeps crying and saying that she’s so sad for her friend, Mariah. And she doesn’t know how someone can live without a mom. See… heartbreaking.

I will update more on myself another day soon. I’m fine.

But today, please keep Mariah in your prayers. There’s a sweet little girl today feeling what it’s like to wake up without her mom. Jen’s fun-loving spirit will always be remembered. And our community will do our best to support Mariah as Jen would want us to. But the silent conversations with herself at bedtime and when she’s feeling lonely or confused can only be healed and encouraged through God’s voice. So please pray for her today.. and tomorrow… and every time you think of it.

Liana was so right- “life” IS a big word. A big deal. A big thing to grasp. So big that our minds can’t figure it out (at least mine can’t). But I know that right now I’m thankful for another day on this earth. It’s a beautiful day in Ohio, so I’m off to enjoy it with some family time.

Love and hugs to everyone.


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Miracle

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“When I see your face I see a miracle.”

Those are the beautiful words that a friend told me yesterday at church. It caught me off guard and brought me to tears.

I believe that God is powerful enough to make miracles happen. But I do not use the term “miracle” lightly. (Nor the word “blessed”… but that’s a story for another post.)

I was fortunate enough to witness two miracles when my babies grew within me and were born into this world. But I never thought of myself as a miracle.

My friend’s comment yesterday made me feel humbled and honored… and guilty. Humbled and honored that God could have chosen ME to be a testament to his power to heal. But guilty that I haven’t recognized that in myself yet.

Of course, the skeptical/oppositional side of my personality thinks of those who are not healed. Why wouldn’t God choose them to be a testament to His power? Why would He not grant that same miracle of healing to those who seem to have prayed even harder and longer, and honored Him in their lives more than I have?

It just doesn’t make sense. And for a logically-minded sensible girl, this is when my soul feels so conflicted. I’m usually always thinking of the flip side of comments. My response is often “but if… then what does that mean when the opposite happens?” But today- this wonderful, beautiful day- I’m not questioning anything.

Today I got “all clear” results from a CT scan! This is my first scan since treatment has been completed. I know that the doctors said my cancer was gone before, but today was the actual proof! And apparently I needed that proof for the incredible weight to be lifted.

I’ve heard people say that you don’t realize the weight you’re carrying until it’s gone. That is SO true. I was so scared that treatment really didn’t get rid of all of the cancer. I was so hesitant to praise the Lord who healed me. That’s hard to admit because I know I should be praising Him regardless of the outcome. But it’s true. I was so worried that there was still cancer somewhere in me and that I would be hearing bad news from this scan. I was finishing projects around the house, organizing the girls’ rooms, trying to get caught up on laundry- all preparing to hear bad news this week.

To those of you who know the white-knuckling anxiety that precedes a post cancer scan: I’m sorry if I didn’t recognize the immeasurable fear that builds up until you get the result. For those of you who haven’t been through it yourself: I’m thankful this has not been a part of your life.

Stressful doesn’t begin to describe it. But there is a perfect word to describe getting the results you’re hoping to hear- “freeing”. Free of the fear and anxiety, free of disease, free of the immediacy to cross things off your list. It feels amazing. If good things make you feel like you’re “on cloud 9” then I’m “on cloud 1,000”.

I have been reserved in my praise to the God who made me, who has made a way for me to get through this, who has placed each one of you in my life to pray for me. But today I wholeheartedly praise Him for my life. He did this. He healed me and I do have proof of that now. I am a curly-haired testament to His power. I hope you all see that as I confidently and proudly claim it now.

I’m alive and healed. And that’s the kind of news that warrants ice cream for dinner.  💗


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Taking Back July 26th

As my friend put it: Today I’m taking back July 26th.

This was the day of my surgery last year when I got rid of cancer but had to sacrifice a big part of my femininity. So I have mixed feelings about last year. But not this one.
Today was great.

I had a consult with a different plastic surgeon who I LOVED! She’s a female and I felt so comfortable with her. For as hard as reconstruction will be, I’m confident in working with her through it all. (It won’t be for several more months… I’ll keep you posted.)

To top off the night, in order to really take back today and remember it positively, I got a new tattoo! The phrase is from the poem I remember my dad reading to us when we were young. And it’s in my mom’s handwriting.  ❤️ I’ve got “miles to go” on these feet- with cancer behind me and God out in front.


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Settled

You know the feeling you get when you sit on a beach chair at the edge of the shore and you bury your feet a little in the sand? The sand that isn’t totally dry but gets slightly moistened by the waves every once in a while. The sun beating down to warm your skin. With each shallow wave, your feet sink a little further down in the sand. There’s a sweet spot- after a few waves but before too long of waiting there- when it feels just right. Settled. Not rooted; still moveable…. but settled.

That peaceful, comfortable, settled feeling is how my soul feels tonight.

I have had a whirlwind two weeks that included seeing so many people from home. It started with our Caldwell family reunion in Wildwood, NJ (A week with the Caldwells… yes, please!). Then Rob and I were able to spend some time in Nashville without the girls for a couple of days hearing some amazingly smart, inspirational speakers and hanging out with friends. We turned right around to go to Pennsylvania for my 20 year high school class reunion. (How did 20 years go by already?!) Squeezed in a family birthday party for Olivia at Hoss’s (a favorite PA restaurant). And topped it off this afternoon with a graduation party for my cousin, Elizabeth- which ended up being like a reunion on the other side of my family.

In the middle of that busyness I also went to the funeral of a friend’s father. It was heartbreaking to see the grief and sadness that cancer caused another family. But (with a capital  😎, the man was faithful and is in heaven now. And it was inspirational hearing how he responded to his circumstances that led him there.

I’ve so enjoyed all of this time spent with family and friends- hugging those who have only been connected through technology for many years. I had long-overdue conversations with three cousins who have been through cancer- learning more details of their experiences. My “little” cousin (who I held all the time when he was a baby) is now a daddy and I met his baby girl. I felt such a sense of hope and love seeing that the next generation is growing up and starting to change the world. I loved it! And was reminded 10-fold why I am so lucky to have been born into the family I was, at the time that I was.

Friends, family, laughter, tears, hugs and a lot of Western PA accents in the last two weeks. The best way I can describe it is “soul-settling”. I hope other people can feel this sometimes because it’s amazing. Cancer treatments held me back last summer… that’s not happening this year!


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Survivor

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My all-time favorite class in high school was Language Studies with Dr. Wansor. I loved it! Studying words and semantics and how it affects people- yes, please! I could’ve sat in that class all day. It may have been the only text book I actually read my senior year. (Wait- I think I also read my Sociology book- that was another good one.) It’s no surprise that I got a degree in a field where I can study language for a living. It’s also probably why I get hung up on semantics sometimes… sorry about that.

Today is “National Cancer Survivors Day”. I’ve never heard of it before (and I kind of think we should get free ice cream or something today, right? I mean- National donut day, coffee day, mother’s day- you get free stuff on those ones.) Anyway, I think it’s the perfect day to share my thoughts on the word “survivor”, and a few other definitions within the cancer world.

A “survivor” is anyone diagnosed with cancer. Any person, any stage, any cancer- from the moment of diagnosis you become a survivor. Because unless/until you’re no longer here on earth, you are surviving. It’s not a term used just for those who no longer have the disease (which is how most people use it). So yes, the person living with stage 4 cancer is a survivor. The person just diagnosed and given a few weeks to live- they’re a survivor, too. And the 38 year old woman in Ohio who continues to show no signs of the breast cancer that was removed from her during a mastectomy last summer- she’s a survivor as well.  😉

Another term that I learned last year- “previvor”. These are women who have been identified as having a high risk for breast cancer (usually because they were found to have a mutation of the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene). They are women who know that their risk of getting cancer is so high, that they choose to have a mastectomy and often hysterectomy to prevent ever getting the disease. Most of the time, these women get immediate reconstruction after their mastectomy. These women are brave- they are doing something very significant and serious in hopes of never hearing the words “breast cancer” from their doctors. In case you need an example- this is Angelina Jolie. She was brave with what she did and I never want to minimize that. But she did not have breast cancer. And it’s offensive to those who actually have cancer to compare them to her (or other previvors).

And while we’re thinking about different stories… I’m going to try to explain how things are perceived by a person on this side of the disease. As my doctors have said- “every cancer is different”. There are so many different kinds of breast cancer with different stages and pathologies. Your kind of breast cancer dictates your course of treatment- whether you’ll have chemo, radiation, surgery, or which combination of the three.

This means that some women don’t need chemo, some don’t need radiation, some have a lumpectomy and some a full mastectomy. Of those who have mastectomies, some choose to “live flat”, some “live flat” against their choice, and some have immediate reconstruction. So it’s quite a range- from women who have a mastectomy and immediate reconstruction (many people don’t even know these women have had cancer) to those who have all three treatments and no reconstruction. The experiences are drastically different. After living through the extreme side of the spectrum, I apologetically feel like women who are on the other side of where this treatment pendulum swings are lucky. It’s not a feeling I’m proud of. But it’s real. When you’re talking with someone going through treatment, remember that it is not helpful when you compare their experience to someone who didn’t have the same treatment (especially if it’s perceived as “easier” in some way).

But here’s the thing I always come back around to: every woman facing breast cancer, regardless of the extent of their treatment, has been dramatically shaped by their experience. It’s most likely the “biggest” thing in their life (or at least very high on the list). It has likely affected their relationships with friends and family. Every one of them has faced mortality and lost the innocence of assuming a long life. And every one of them lives with the fear of recurrence- whether they think about it constantly or occasionally. Whether they acknowledge it or distract themselves from it. They are different than they were before cancer; living a life forever-changed by that disease. Their sense of comfort was broken by one word. But brokenness can be a beautiful thing- because it allows light to shine through.

Today I want to acknowledge and celebrate the light shining through every cancer survivor. Sending love to you all.


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6 Months Later

Today is May 20- which means it has been 6 months since my very last treatment! It feels like a milestone chunk of time has passed… and I really like that.  🙂

I’m feeling good and loving all of this nice weather. We’ve been spending time outdoors riding bikes, geocaching, and playing outside. The girls have a ton of fun activities happening at the end of the school year… and it’s nice to feel well for all of them this year. At their dance rehearsal last week, my friend reminded me that at last year’s rehearsal I couldn’t eat (remember my survival on slushies?!?) and had to constantly use my “magic mouthwash” just to tolerate the pain from the mouth sores. I’m thankful for those reminders to keep my perspective straight.

I have a few random cancer topics I’d like to post about… and today feels like the appropriate time to talk about recovery. When I was first diagnosed, my treatment plan had the long-term goal of “cure” (sums it up well, huh?) At a recent follow-up appointment, I asked my oncologist when we can say I met my goal. The answer was a groaning “5 years from now”. Yep- in order to actually get to say I’m cured, I have to be cancer free for 5 years. But I’m 6 months into that now, so I’m 1/10 of the way there!!

So then people ask about “remission”, “cancer free”, and “no evidence of disease”…. All terms used to describe cancer recovery at one point or another. “Remission” means that they don’t think there’s any cancer left… but they can never be sure. Cancer is so tricky and is dormant in so many people- it doesn’t become life threatening until it starts growing uncontrollably. So it’s hard to definitively say that it’s gone. “Remission” is a term used outside of my cancer world, and I’ve never heard it from any of the medical professionals I’ve been with. So when people ask if I’m in “remission”, I guess the answer is “yes”… it just feels awkward to classify something in a way that my doctor’s don’t.

Doctors are more likely to use the current term “no evidence of disease” or “NED”. This is their clearer way of saying that they don’t see evidence of any more cancer. This doesn’t commit them to saying it’s gone or cured… but they don’t see any signs of it anymore. So this is probably the term I would use if I had to choose one… because I’ve heard doctors actually use it. The caveat- they use it after PET scans, MRIs or CT scans, and I haven’t had any of those…. Because they don’t think I need them because we don’t have reason to believe there’s any cancer left.  🙂 (Yep- that just looped around into a big question mark.)

As people read through that, they may think “just be happy that it’s gone” or “why worry about the terminology”. It’s something that I struggle with because I SO
desperately want to feel “cured” and move on. My hesitation is two-fold:

1- Cancer caught me off-guard. I knew I had a high risk of it because of my family history. But I never imagined I would have to deal with it in my 30s. So part of my caution is a protective measure to prevent that again.

2- I still feel like a patient. I take oral chemo pills as part of the clinical trial I participate in. I take hormone blockers that have their own lovely (said sarcastically) side effects. I go to a zillion appointments all of the time- with my oncologist, research nurse, surgeon, endocrinologist, and radiation oncologist. They are mostly just 6 week follow-ups, but when you have so many different follow-ups they feel like they happen every week. I also have random other appointments and bloodwork to do- like my bone density test last week. So when other moms are trying to remember their grocery list to pick up on their way home from work, I have to add in a stop by the dr for a kidney ultrasound (and remember not to pee beforehand because they need a full bladder). I miss the days without all of this extra stuff. My right arm and side are sore and partially numb still- without the range of motion I used to have. I need to do stretches every day or it starts to get tight and painful. (When they say that the radiation effects last 6-12 months, they weren’t joking.) And, the obvious physical issue of “living flat” as I wait for reconstruction.

I love my life. I have moments and days of such sweet joy. But sometimes at the end of a really great day, I think “what would that day have been like for my family if I wasn’t there?”. I don’t know if that’s morbid or depressing, or just another perspective I have that other people don’t. But I’ve talked to other survivors about it and they have the same thoughts… so I figured I should share. And when people ask about my recovery and healing, now you know why the answers are more complicated than it seems they should be.

As many of you continue to ask what to pray for, I ask that you pray that this can be easier for me. That I can more simply live without so many thoughts about how I answer questions. That I can emotionally “move on” from this a little faster. For now, until I feel more confident with anything else, if someone asks how I’m doing or if I’m “cured” or in “remission” I’m going to stick to my answer of “I’m happy to be alive.”


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Happy Mothers Day

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Pink… so much pink. I’m not opposed to the color in a general sense. But when I had breast cancer I developed a particular distaste for it. Everything had a pink ribbon on it!

Why did some people embrace this so (seemingly) easily? Why do some women get the diagnosis and immediately wear all of the pink ribbon gear they can get their hands on? Why did I cringe inside when I saw it? How could some women get pink ribbon tattoos and I could barely even wear a plain pink shirt without feeling a little sting? I think it has something to do with the extent that people identify with (and embrace) what they are going through. Clearly, I didn’t do either of those much at the time.

Today is Mother’s Day 2018. A day that I get to really celebrate my role in life as mommy to the two best girls I know. I was able to smile and appreciate it with a sense of joy that’s deeper than other days- especially as I think back to how I felt (physically) on this day last year during chemo. Rob planned a perfect day today and I loved it. The girls still fought in the car, I overdid it on our trampoline, and I didn’t get any of the laundry done that I had planned on. But “perfect” doesn’t mean that things don’t go wrong… I think it just means that things turn out ok.

You know how I know things are turning out ok?… Today I intentionally and proudly wore pink.  🙂