Holding Space

With Shelly Vaughn


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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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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.  🙂


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Family Visit

This weekend was filled with visitors and smiles. My parents, Greg, and Ali came for the weekend to spend some time out here. We finally celebrated Easter with an egg hunt and scavenger hunt from my mom. We also rode our bikes to go geocaching at the local park. Olivia had a pretty good wipeout on her bike and has some battle wounds to prove it. But she has been super tough and will be fine when her scrapes heal. If you see her limping around for a bit, you’ll know why.

Part of our Saturday afternoon also included a visit from my Aunt Dolly Kelly, cousin Diana Raub, and her two incredibly sweet children. Ben is her oldest (almost 4) and is my new BFF. Katie is a 1 year old climber with a smile as gorgeous as her momma’s. Back on my birthday, Aunt Dolly sent me a card saying she had something to give me in person when she could come out for a visit. So she made the trek out here to deliver- complete with homemade brownies and apple pie to fill our bellies.

I cannot say enough how much love and support I have felt from my family and how much her gift means to me. It’s a homemade bookmark, given with the sentiment “for when you write your book.” Thank you for the encouragement, Aunt Dolly… I needed it.

As she said with her own handmade creation- there are things she wished were different, parts that she doesn’t like, mistakes that only she notices. But isn’t that so true about everything in life? In every circumstance, there’s a point with where you just have to accept where things are and realize that there’s beauty in the imperfections. I’m working on that…

 


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1st Neighbor

Sunday’s lesson at church was part of a series about relationships and marriage. We were reminded that with our spouses we need to love unconditionally… one way… without compromise and without expectations in return. When both people do this, it can be a beautiful relationship that grows in the image of God.

Mark 12: 30-31 says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

I love that David A. Black encouraged us to make our spouse our “1st neighbor”.

This served as a poignant reminder of what a blessing it has been (and I don’t use that term lightly) to be the wife of Rob Vaughn. Thank you for being an incredible man of faith who has demonstrated this kind of unconditional love so vividly in the last year. I’m lucky to be your “1st neighbor”- a place in life I didn’t realize was going to be so special back when I was 15 and fell in love with you (with the long hair, rock and roll T-shirts, and wallet chain).

Tonight, he was recognized by his colleagues with a “Star Award” through the school district. Turns out, I’m not the only one who sees what a great man he is.  😉
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Pink Sisters

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This weekend turned out to be pretty sweet! I was lucky enough to meet this woman, Sally Gary. She is a Christian and fellow breast cancer survivor. In fact, her treatment has been just about a month behind mine. Some women refer to us breast cancer survivors as “pink sisters”. It’s cutesy, and comforting to some. I don’t know how I feel about it. I’m not one to love labels anyway… and I do try to avoid defining myself by my breast cancer experience. But I suppose it’s a simple way to show comradery and connectedness during a challenging time.

Our church hosted Sally’s visit which included 2 nights of dinner and some excellent, loving discussions at church on Sunday. She’s an amazing woman and if you ever have an opportunity to meet her or hear her speak you should do it without hesitation. She’s an author, too, if you’re up for some meaningful reading in the future. Hearing her speak about sensitive topics within the church was something I have been craving as a Christian. I’m so thankful to be a part of a church family who welcomed the discussion. But even more striking to me was seeing how she has gracefully accepted her cancer experience and not let that overshadow other parts of her life. And she is one heck of a listener. Though she does not have young children herself, she seemed to understand how deeply my role as mother has affected my thoughts and actions through treatment. So I guess if we are choosing labels here, I do proudly call her a “pink sister”; lovingly call her “sister in Christ”; and humbly call her a “friend”.


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Within Normal limits

I never know these days what might trigger some random memories or negative feelings for me. On Tuesday, it was during a training at work where we had to review protocol including how to put on sterile gloves. And it immediately took me back to my chemo treatments when I would stare at the nurses while they put on their gloves (secretly making sure they stayed sterile and didn’t accidentally touch something they shouldn’t). I wanted to leave the room because it suddenly felt suffocating and uncomfortable. But I quickly reminded myself that I just needed to get through it and get out of there to get it done. Today, it was during a follow-up visit (which is at least a little more predictable). When I first got there, I had to fill out the SAME paper I fill out every time. It’s the paper that every woman getting a mammogram or ultrasound fills out. The problem is- it has a ton of questions about breasts! And I don’t like having to answer those after my mastectomy. I know, I’m probably just being overly sensitive. But I did put an asterisk by the upsetting questions with a paragraph explaining suggestions for how they could make the form more sensitive to women after mastectomies. I know… chill out, right? But the stress level is always a little elevated there and I guess today I was in the mood to share my sensitivities. The poor tech who took me back to prepare- she got an earful of my suggestions. Then we went into that same room with awful mustard-colored walls where I had my first ultrasound. (Sidenote: I wonder if it would be ok to contact a manager and suggest they change the paint color? I’m not kidding. That’s how much it bothers me.) Although this time, i immediately got a report back with great news and that’s when my feelings did a 180. My paper from the dr said “right axillary lymph node within normal limits”. There it is folks- “within normal limits”!! I didn’t know how much I loved those words until I heard them about my lymph node today. This was the reactive lymph node that they’ve monitored since surgery. And after today’s report, I don’t have to have any more follow-ups for it!

And then… (it gets better)…. I left to get a haircut!!!! Can you believe it?! My hair was long enough to need an actual cut! I guess technically it was a “trim” but at least now it has a shape. The girl who did it specializes in cutting curls- and shared a wealth of information about how to take care of this new head of hair. Who knew there was an entirely different world out there for maintenance of curly hair?!? So, turned out to be a good day. 🙂 I am having some pain in my right arm where scar banding has formed. It runs up under my armpit down to the inside of my elbow and makes it pretty sore. So I’m heading back to PT tomorrow to try to loosen it up and see what stretches I need to be doing again. Other than that, I can’t complain. Moving right along…

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