Holding Space

With Shelly Vaughn


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Answer to Prayer

Sometimes things can really jump out as being an answer to prayer. This past week, I had one of those moments and I really wanted to share with everyone.

Every single parent reading this knows that you always worry more about your kids than yourself. With my surgery scheduled for Tuesday, I was putting a lot of thought into what my girls would be doing that day. Last weekend, I realized that Olivia had been asking several times about details for tuesday and what time things would be happening. I paused for a moment and said, “Are you ok with everything, Olivia?” and she broke down. Not in an 11-yr old dramatic way. But in a soft, sweet, innocent way as she just said, “I’m scared.”

I hugged her and said “tell me what scares you about this?” and her response was “because of what happened with Mariah’s mom.” Remember that Mariah is her friend whose mom went in for mastectomy surgery and passed away 3 weeks later from an infection. So no matter what I could say to her, there’s no way to take that thought out of her little mind. I reassured her as much as I could and prayed with her.

Then, one night later, I had to break the news to her that her classmate passed away. Keith had been fighting a form of childhood cancer for several years and we knew that it would be happening soon. But man, seeing those giant tears roll down my baby’s face was heartbreaking. A while later, she said “I feel like I’m still sad about Mariah’s mom and now I’m sad about Keith on top of it. I wish the sadness wasn’t so close together.”

So here I am, worried about her for days, wondering if I should send her to school onTuesday to distract her (she didn’t want this at first because Mariah was in school when her mom died and got called to the office to leave.) Or maybe I should let her come to the hospital, though that’s a long stressful day even for adults to wait. I even thought maybe I’d have her grandma take her out for a fun day instead of school… but then Liana might feel left out.

So on Wednesday I came home from work and told Olivia that we should sit and talk about plans for Tuesday. Her response, given through bright eyes and a big smile, was “Oh yeah, I have to go to school that day! I’m really excited to go!!” She went on to explain that there was a famous author coming to her class and their class is going to read her upcoming book and help edit it! That the author wants feedback from children who are the age of the target audience. And in some way (at least what Olivia said), their class will be credited when the book is published. Side note- she keeps mentioning that the author’s husband is British and will be there too, and she’s so excited to hear his accent.

If you know me well, you know what my next step was- contact that author and let her know what this means to us. So I found her email online and sent a message to her and to Olivia’s teachers. It explained my upcoming surgery and let them know this wasn’t just another school activity, this was an answer to prayer.

The author’s name is Shelley Pearsall. She wrote back to me- that same day. She thanked me for the email and said that it meant a lot to her. You see- she’s a breast cancer survivor! She had a bilateral mastectomy last year! This is her first time back to work with students since her time off for treatment. So she understands this in a much deeper way than most. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Crazy, isn’t it?!

So, lift your jaw and catch your breath. Then go buy a book written by Shelley Pearsall, knowing she is a special woman and will be helping my daughter on a day full of anxiety. I’m so thankful i know my daughter will be taken care of that day in the most perfect way.


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Miles To Go…

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I could probably write a book just about my experience with the Akron Marathon from a couple of weeks ago. I could, but I won’t. I’ll instead try to summarize and hit the highlights in a post here.

Shortest possible summary: It was physically really hard, but emotionally amazing.

Best attempt at a real summary:
I’ve participated in 9 of these races- 7 relay teams and 2 half marathons. This was my worst (slowest) and my best (because I did it). It could’ve easily been just another race, if there weren’t sweet moments all through that day that made me smile:

1. It’s hard to sleep the night before a race… it always is. But guess what time I woke up and looked at the clock- 3:54 am. Guess what my grandma’s house number is- 354. Thanks, Grandma. 🙂

2. My tattoo on my foot says “Miles to go…” So our team name was “Miles together.” I ran the race of my life with the girls who have been my friends since middle school. Together, we can get through anything- like cancer and marathons.

Trisha ran the 4th leg of the race and I ran the 5th leg. Which means she handed off the slap bracelet to me. It’s not quite as seamless as a relay handoff in the Olympics. But when your twin sister is the one right before you, it requires a quick, tight hug in the middle of the road. An embrace I won’t forget- with my mom, our daughters, and my cousin, Terry, watching and holding the most encouraging signs ever.

My lucky number is 11. Guess what our team’s pace was- 11:11!

3. The shirt I wore during the race said “survivor” on the back. At one point in the race (shortly after “cardiac hill” for those who know the race route), an older man ran up beside me and smiled. He pointed to his own shirt that said “Living With Breast Cancer”. He simply said “what kind did you have?”… and that started a simple but inspiring conversation during the hardest part of my hardest race. He said that his wife has stage 4 cancer and he runs in support of her. As a reminder to LIVE with whatever we’re given. After a few minutes, my breath was getting heavier while his was not. I told him I needed to walk for a few minutes and he graciously thanked me for inspiring him to finish his marathon. This guy, nearing the end of a 26.2 mile race, was inspired by this girl walking partway through her 5 mile race. If I would ever see him again, I would tell him how much HE inspired ME. I am so grateful that he literally crossed my path during the race.

4. Those of you who knew my friend, Allie, know how much she took care of herself and her body. She ran a lot and completed the Akron Marathon when she was healthy. When she was fighting her own battle with cancer, I bought a headband that says “Livestrong Armstrong”- the headband I have had with me for every race since then. Even if I’m not the athlete she was, I still think of her all the time when I’m running.

There are thousands of people who participate in the marathon. And there are shuttles that take people to different relay legs. As I walked onto the shuttle to take me to the start of my leg, I immediately heard someone call my name. Sitting right across from me was Brittany Armstrong. Brit is my friend, a sister in Christ, and the mother to Allie’s daughters. Brit eventually married Allie’s husband, Adam, and somehow completely gracefully stepped into huge shoes. I cannot imagine the challenges that their family has experienced, but I know that the situation was prayed for by so many people- especially Allie. Seeing Brit that day inevitably made me think of Allie… a lot. I felt her presence in a way that’s hard to explain without sounding totally strange. I have a unique understanding of some of the thoughts that my friend surely had about her husband and daughters before she passed away. Which makes me also have a new appreciation for the beautiful, healthy runner who is raising those precious children and loving her husband the way that would make Allie smile.

And guess who I kept seeing during my actual run even after we said goodbye at the shuttle- Brit! We ran the same leg of the race. I would pass her, she would pass me… and that happened quite a few times over the miles we ran. I saw my friend, Brit, and I thought of my friend, Allie. And both things made me thankful.

5. The last best memory of the day- racing down the finish line. As I probably could’ve predicted if I thought much about it- my sister and teammates screamed loudly along the sidelines with high-pitch squeals of excitement and encouragement. But just before I got to them- there was Rob. Cheering for me during one of the most symbolic moments of my life. His strong voice rising above the hundreds of people along that finish line. I saw the smile on his face and wasn’t sure whose was bigger- his or mine.

You see, the race ends in the Akron baseball stadium with a champion finish line. All of the spectators fill the stadium seats. But runners are allowed to stay on the field and cheer on the finishers from the field. The week before the race, Rob decided to join a relay team. I didn’t realize until he mentioned that he did it so that he could be on the field to watch me finish. So sweet, right?! And I’ll be forever thankful that he chose to do that because his high-5 along that finish line was one of my favorite ever!!

Lots of details to cherish. Lots of joy to be felt. Lots of life to be lived.

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Beautiful Music and Amazing Friends

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Another memorable evening- so grateful for life and friendships. These women mean the world to me. But when we’re all so busy with families and work, evenings out are few and far between. Tonight we made it happen and went to the Lauren Daigle concert. Beautiful music and amazing friends made the night oh-so-sweet. Thank you, God, for these treasured friends in my life… and for healing me so that I can still enjoy times like these.

“Truth is, You know what tomorrow brings.
There’s not a day ahead You have not seen.
So, in all things be my life and breath.
I want what You want Lord and nothing less.”


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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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Diagnosis day

Diagnosis day (recalling this day from 2017): It’s fascinating to me that words (sound waves that our auditory nerves perceive and interpret) can become so ingrained in our memories that we never forget them. Of course, I remember the day my girls were born and the dr saying “It’s a girl!” I remember when my mom called me in March 2007 and said “Amy’s gone.” And I still remember back in February of 1996 when Rob first said “I think I love you.” I can hear each of those phrases so vividly in my mind. This day last year is when another one was added to the list. “Dr. Fenton wants to see you this afternoon.” And just like that… my. world. stopped.

Remember that earlier in the week I told the doctor that it was ok to call me if they got the biopsy results on Friday. I was at work and missed the call, so there was a message to call Lisa at Dr. Fenton’s office. I honestly thought that it was going to be a quick phone call to tell me I was fine. Then Lisa said those words- “Dr. Fenton wants to see you this afternoon.” My stomach dropped lower than I knew it could. I can’t imagine what my face looked like. I knew what that meant. All I could say was “Ok.” Lisa, this woman who works for the dr office, has an impossible job… and does it so well. She knew that I knew. And simply said “Do you want to know what it is?”
Yes.
“Invasive, poorly-differentiated ductal carcinoma.”
Ok. Can you say that again so I can write it down? (I couldn’t even process that she was saying “poorly”… i thought she meant “pourly”- which isn’t even a word.) Once I got it written down, she told me to come in at 3:15 to meet with the doctor. She started telling me that I would meet with a nurse navigator who will help me through all of my appointments. I could not even process what she was saying to me, and she knew it. So she told me to call my husband and she would see me in a couple of hours and the doctor would explain everything then.

I hung up and stared at the phone. What just happened? What are these words scratched on this post-it note? That’s not me. That’s not my diagnosis. This isn’t real. What do I do?

I called Rob, shaking, crying, in shock… somehow I guess I told him the news. In a matter of a couple of minutes he knew and was on his way to come to my work. Wait… I’m at work. I have a student coming in today. I have patients to see and work to do. There was only one other person at work that day who knew that I even had a biopsy- Kristen Lautenbach- so I called her and asked her to come to my office. I told her and she hugged me and I cried… a lot. Thankfully, she said she would handle everything at work- she would find the student and make sure she had someone else to go with that day. She would handle canceling my patients. Honestly, I don’t have a clue what else she did… I just know she handled it. She was sitting next to me when I sat at the computer to google these new words that would become part of my vocabulary. And she wisely told me to stop. Her advice, which stuck with me through so much of my experience- “just be a patient”. It was against my initial instinct- I wanted to look this up and learn and analyze and figure it out. I needed to know facts. I needed some numbers. She knew better. She had me close my laptop. And she gave me a hug while I cried until my best friend came to the door.

Rob has always had an amazing ability to keep me calm. Seeing him walk into my space in that time of uncertainty for both of us was a different feeling. I’ve been hugging that man since I was 15 years old. But the hug in that moment carried more meaning than any other embrace we’ve had. It immediately reminded me that we were a team… we would get through whatever was about to happen. I am loved. I am supported. This guy is here to do it with me.

And then, I remembered that I had to call my sister. She knew I was about to return that voicemail to the dr office. She’s been waiting for me to call her back and tell her. She would know the second that she heard my voice. And she did. The conversation was mostly one of disbelief- on both sides. And ended with her saying she was leaving PA then and she’d be in Ohio in a couple of hours.

Rob and I left to go home for those couple of hours until the appointment. Just enough time to get some things taken care of around the house and eat some lunch (though I don’t think I ate anything). Olivia had plans to go to PA for the weekend, which we wanted her to keep. So I packed up her bags so she’d be ready to go. I set out some stuff for dinner, as my friend Carrie King Donnell would come to the house and be here for the girls when they got home from school- she would get them dinner then take them where they needed to be.

Two hours has never gone so fast, nor so slowly, in my entire life. Eventually it was time to go see the doctor- Trisha and Rob were with me in an appointment i’m sure none of us will forget. The nurse navigator came in first and handed me a bag with a pink pillow and breast cancer items and information- it was like a weird goodie bag that I got for having the diagnosis. It was full of random things that I wanted nothing to do with. The doctor eventually came in- straight faced as he read that pathology report out loud. He explained the terminology well and gave me a synopsis of my treatment plan… which included chemo. I had known several people with breast cancer who had surgery and radiation and was so hoping that would be my plan as well. There’s something about the idea of chemo- getting so sick (and looking the part) that is so upsetting. Skipping over some of the details here (because this really isn’t meant to be a novel), we finished up with his appointment and he was able to schedule me to see an oncologist at the same hospital right away. So we got my “breast cancer goodie bag” and headed across the street to meet the person who would save my life.

Dr. Rehmus- my oncologist. I vividly remember meeting her, too. We were sitting at a round table, but she pulled out two of the chairs, faced them toward each other and said “let’s talk.” We sat face-to-face for a few minutes while she gave me the overview of what was about to happen. I’ve heard that when a person experiences trauma, their cognition level typically reverts to about a 4th grade level. After this experience I can say that is definitely true. She was explaining cancer and my pathology in such simple terms so I could understand them… she did it perfectly. She was serious and smart, and I knew I liked her. She’s a no-nonsense kind of doctor and that’s what you need in this kind of experience. She is also extremely knowledgable in research, which I appreciated.

When the appointment was over, Rob picked up Olivia and took her to meet his parents in PA. Trisha and I were at our house- processing what just happened then planning to make the next hardest phone calls- to tell my parents. Let me say that as hard as it is to hear bad news, it’s harder to be the one who has to say it. To know that you’re about to cause heartbreak. To know you’re about to ruin someone’s day. It’s an impossible thing to do. Thank goodness Trisha was here- I made her do the hard part. She broke the news initially, then I talked to them and shared what info I knew. My brother wasn’t home, so I would try to call him again the next day. And that was enough for one night- time to wrap up this terrible day.

Dr. Rehmus had prescribed Ativan for me that night… and it was very helpful. It helped me to fall asleep which my body desperately needed. The next morning, there was a split second when my brain was awake but my eyes weren’t even opened yet, that I hoped it was all a bad dream. And just as quickly as that moment came, it was gone. And I was about to wake up in my new reality- as a cancer patient.


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January 11, 2017..

January 11, 2017… I was so scared because I knew I had a lump in my breast but was still waiting to have a biopsy. Those days feel like eternity when you have to wait. But then my world stopped and my concerns were overshadowed by my friend’s sudden grief- for her daughter had just passed away. It was sudden and unexpected and shocking when I heard it. And my friend dealt with it with an amazing demonstration of grace and love that I admired so deeply (the kind that we think of when we read about Jesus). I cannot imagine the pain of losing a child… I am so sad for my friends who have carried that in their lives. You know who you are… and I pray for you often. It was a strange thing to go a funeral of a young child- so peaceful but so sad for us on this side of heaven. I remember her sparkly shoes and painted fingernails… striking me uncomfortably close having my own girls close to her age. Perhaps it put me in the right place mentally- about to deal with my own challenge that would never seem as hard as what I had just witnessed. Hug your babies a little extra tonight. And say a prayer for my friend- God will know who mean.  💕

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