Holding Space

With Shelly Vaughn


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I wonder if they’ll know…

I wonder if they’ll know…

That they are the reason people call me brave. Without them, I would not have gotten out of bed sometimes. Getting them ready for school meant getting up and moving when I’d rather stay in bed. Taking care of them while at my lowest, meant living.

That finding people to help with them has brought me closer to certain friends and has given me the gift of watching others love on my kids. Hearing people offer to help take them places has meant seeing light shine brightly from others.

That everytime someone has sent them a gift or a card it has made my heart fuller than gifts for myself. The first cards that came in the mail for them, from other siblings whose mom had been through cancer, remain two of the most cherished pieces of paper in our home.

That watching them sleep brings a sense of peace that is indescribable- it has been that way since they were babies.

How their giggles strike a chord deep inside of me- more beautiful than all the music I could ever listen to. Hearing them laugh with each other brings its own special peace in my soul- as I know they’re growing a special bond as sisters that no one else in the world will be able to relate to. And they’ll have each other long after Rob and I aren’t here.

That my biggest fear has not been for me leaving them. It’s that they would have to go through the grief of losing their mom.

That I worry more about how they are getting through this than how I am.

That I’m beyond proud of their resilience and sweet souls as we navigate these waters without guidance. What to say? How much to share? How to calm their worries. What is normal now? Should I tell them I’m scared? Should I let them see my scars? What does this mean for their futures? What if? What if not? My worries for them go far beyond anything for myself.

That caring for them, raising them, has been such a beautiful gift- given to us and wholly appreciated- now more than ever. We’ve been graciously given the task of raising these two beautiful, sweet, hilarious, emotional, loving souls. But they are not ours… they are His. Our Creator who made us, who knows them, who holds them through me. I am so thankful that they were created in my womb. The most miraculous feelings this body has ever known was growing those two inside of it. Though my body feels like it’s failing me now, it certainly didn’t then. The breasts that have recently caused such sorrow did their job to feed those two. These hormones that “fed” cancer also did their part to create life a decade ago. And I can be nothing but grateful for that.  

You know, chemo didn’t just make me feel bad- it made me feel like a different person. My best identity change was when I became a mother to my girls. It was planned, welcomed, expected. This year my identity changed- unplanned, unwelcomed, unexpected- so much that I couldn’t recognize myself. I was no longer strong, healthy, happy, easy going. Physical changes forced me to be ok with a body I couldn’t control. Emotional changes forced me to feel differently than ever before. That was an intentional “ly”. My emotional responses and interactions with others were so unlike anything I was used to. And one of the most noticeable struggles was how hard it was to laugh. It’s just so hard to do when your body is not well. But you know the two people who could make me laugh no matter what- those two beauties I have the privilege of calling my daughters. They are precious souls who show love just as often as they fight with each other. Thank you to everyone holding space with me who have loved on them. And to those of you who haven’t met them yet- you’re missing out. I think they’re a couple of the best humans I know. Watch for them to change your world…. just like they’ve changed mine.

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Grow through what you go through

Today, since I left work, I’ve been strangely hung up on the biological side of cancer and what my body just went through. And it really is crazy. So I thought I’d share a quick biology lesson on cancer (and Jessica Hartman may need to clarify if it’s wrong.)

Everyone has some cancer-ish cells in their body (there’s discrepancy about how to describe and label these cells). The cells need some kind of “trigger” to start dividing and become malignant. Many different factors can act as triggers- chemicals, environmental factors, dietary contributors, etc. And sometimes a person’s genetics dictates whether cells become malignant or not. Once “triggered”, the cancer cells no longer have normal checks and balances in place that control and limit cell division. So they grow out of control and rapidly divide. Chemo is treatment that kills all rapidly dividing cells in your body. So it kills those cancer cells, but also kills normal cells that are naturally rapidly dividing (blood cells; cells in the mouth, stomach, and bowel; and hair follicles). This is why chemo patients have low blood counts, mouth sores, nausea, diarrhea, and hair loss.

A little more info about my chemo drugs: Adriamycin is considered an “antitumor antibiotic”. It’s made from natural products produced by species of a soil fungus (I know… soil fungus?!?). Cytoxan is a drug that interferes with the duplication of DNA and the creation of RNA. And Taxol is a plant alkaloid- made from plants, specifically the bark of the Pacific Yew Tree. Then there are additional chemo drugs that other cancer patients use that are derived from the periwinkle plant, the May Apple plant, and the Asian “Happy Tree”.

So we have this unfair genetic predisposition (some of us), some cancer-potential cells already in our bodies, then an exposure to something that triggers them to multiply out of control. And the only way to stop it is to administer poison- made from plants with pleasant-sounding names like the Yew Tree and the “Happy tree” for goodness sake… can it be any more ironic?

I had something in my body that was growing out of control and could kill me- and I treated it with drugs that kill. It’s like a battle of which can be most deadly. And thankfully the one I was hoping for won out in my body. But the extent to which that needed to happen means that the rest of my body is still trying to recover- even 3 months after my last treatment. It’s a long process that I’m still trying to be patient with. It’s not easy; but after all that time of destruction on a cellular level, I’m thankful to be “building back up” again.

“Grow through what you go through.”


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No More Port!

Great news- I am getting my port taken out on Friday!! This Friday! Two days from now!! I’m so excited (if you can’t tell). I had an appointment scheduled for later in the month, but they called today to bump it up earlier. I know that treatment really isn’t done until radiation. But this port was so symbolic of the beginning of treatment… and the removal of it is symbolic that the end is near. That thing was my lifeline- I hate it and I love it all at once. I’m so glad to get it out of my body. OUT!! GONE!! Along with the cancer!
(Oh- and my return to work went well today. I had an appointment in the morning so it was a shorter day than usual. It was a nice way to ease back into things. And it was really great seeing my co-workers. Seeing them meant getting hugs from friends- which was actually really energizing and uplifting. I am thankful.)


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Deep Waters

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The girls went back to school today, starting 2nd and 4th grade this year. As the beginning of school marks the end of their summer break, I reflect back on what this summer has been like for them. I was so concerned that my issues would hinder their fun or make their memories of summer 2017 boring or miserable. Thanks to all of you who helped keep them entertained, and brought meals to us so that we could have more “down time” with them, I would say we collectively made their summer break pretty fun for them. It’s part of why I love this amazing group of people- not just holding space with me through this, but being part of the community/family keeping my girls playful and innocent.

There was one change with the girls this summer that I got to enjoy just recently. They have been to several big swimming pools this summer and had been telling me how well they can both swim now. It wasn’t until last week that I felt well enough to get out of the house with them and watch them swim at a friend’s house. They weren’t kidding. They’re swimming in deep water; jumping in without fear; and doing the handstands, flips, and underwater tea parties that every young girl should spend hours doing. It made me remember doing all of the same things with my sister, cousins, and friends every summer. It also made me think back to several years ago when we were members of Waterworks pool. The girls were both much younger and leery of the water. They would stand on the edge and hesitate to jump in the pool into my arms as I waited in the water. I knew they were safe no matter what, but they couldn’t feel it until they were actually in the water with arms around my neck and feet tucked around my waist feeling safe and secure again… and able to smile.

I can relate to that now in a different way. A cancer diagnosis suddenly threw me into water that I wasn’t ready for. It was so deep and frightening. My head barely stayed above the water at times and for a while I panicked- floundering around, reaching for anything around me to make me feel safe- just wishing I could be in a different place where my feet could safely touch the ground. But when I calmed enough, I could feel God’s arms right there. He was standing in the pool just waiting for me to realize He’s there to keep me safe in His embrace. To hold me in the deep water when I cannot stand on my own. So I feel Him now. I know He’s there. And I feel almost safe. Not enough that I’ve taken a breath and allowed myself to fully relax in His arms. (I don’t know when that will happen as I’ve heard from several survivors that the fear of recurrence is strong for a while.) But I feel like I’m getting so much closer to that now that I have the “all clear” from pathology. Honestly, I’d still like to be out of the pool watching from a chaise lounge as I sit poolside eating grapes in the warmth of summer. But you know what, I’m learning that I don’t get to choose where I want to be. But I can choose to trust that God’s got me no matter where I end up. 💕

“…You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand
And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine…”
– Oceans (Hillsong United)


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“It’s all gone”

“It’s all gone.” Those exact words came out of the surgeon’s mouth today when I asked him if he can definitely say if there’s any cancer left. I know he hinted at it during the last appointment, and I knew that the pathology report was suggesting that, but he never actually said the words. And I was scared to even ask because every other person I know with cancer doesn’t/hasn’t gotten a direct response like that. But I asked, and he said “It’s all gone”, and for the first time I actually let the joy and relief that comes with those words enter my being and feel it from the inside. I don’t know how to explain it. Like I knew it intellectually at the last appointment, but today I FEEL it… I FEEL free of cancer and he confirmed that it is gone!!! I cried, the nurses cried, and they sent me home with cupcakes.   It’s also easier to react to such good news now that I’m further in my recovery from surgery.

Along those lines, I’m continuing to recover well. My incisions are healing incredibly well. The surgeon was impressed and said, “I’ll do surgery on you any day.” The infected drain site is finally starting to look better, though is still the most uncomfortable part of this.

I started physical therapy this week and was totally impressed. The PT talked about things we’ll do to prevent lymphedema (swelling in the arm that happens when lymph nodes are removed and worsens with radiation.) She’ll also help me work on increasing range of motion with my right arm. And will help with reducing scar tissue and increasing skin movement around the incision sites. She was extremely knowledgeable about post-mastectomy needs and I’m looking forward to working through this with her. It feels good to know I can now be a little more active in my recovery instead of passively enduring stuff that is done to me.

(I still have radiation that will start in a few weeks… and I’ll keep you all posted on that as it gets closer. The dr said that radiation helps reduce the long term chance of localized recurrence. As much as I wish this was totally done, I’m willing to do another step if it means preventing this in the future.)

It’s been a good week and an especially good Friday! Also, I’m writing this as I watch the girls play “Just Dance”… that’ll put anyone in an amazing mood!   Love, Love!


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Looking Forward

I forgot to post from last week’s treatment… so I’ll do it tonight before tomorrow’s treatment. My friend, Christina Dawson, came with me. She was so helpful at the beginning of this diagnosis- helping me navigate this foreign world and connecting me with resources I have used over the last few months. It was nice to spend time with her as we’re nearing the end of chemo. I have 3 more treatments left now. I can do this… I can do 3 more!

The most notable improvement has been with my mouth sores. They are getting better and I am able to enjoy eating some foods. Mostly bland foods, but at least I can eat. My stomach is still getting used to knowing what to do with solids, but this will all improve over time.

My body is still very weak because of my weight loss and fatigue. I look forward to feeling well enough to start working out again and building some muscle. I’m not used to feeling so weak and tired for so long. The other side effects- neuropathy and bone pain continue to be tolerable.

One other difference- if you look very closely in just the right light you can see hair growing back on my head. It’s so light blonde that you can barely tell it’s there. I will continue to wash with shampoo and conditioner… can’t let a few hairs get greasy. Go Cavs and Go Pens! This is an exciting time of year… for a lot of things.

Addendum: not 10 minutes after I wrote that, I was complaining to Rob about how sore my fingernails are and whining that I don’t want to go to treatment tomorrow. I fluctuate from positive to negative just like that. Or maybe I’m always feeling some of both. Hard to describe, but it is what it is.


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Perspective

I had a funny conversation with the girls yesterday. Someone mentioned that they make American Girl dolls with no hair. Olivia said with excitement, “Mommy, you could get a look-a-like doll!” Then they proceeded to discuss the things that would make it a perfect match- including erasing half the eyebrows, pulling out most of the eyelashes, and having short brown fingernails. 😆  I added my own suggestion of dark circles under the eyes and tissues in the pocket.

At the beginning of this experience, the idea of those physical changes would’ve bothered me. But at this point, I can find the humor in it. I’m much more concerned with the non-cosmetic issues lately… enough to laugh at my kids discussing the cosmetic ones. Kids always do seem to humble us, right? No different when cancer is added to the equation in life.