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When Health Issues Interrupt a Life Overseas

Quick link: 6 Good Things about a Cancerous Life Overseas

I forgot to let you know that last week I wrote about what I am learning to be thankful for as I walk through cancer for A Life Overseas. It is similar to what I shared on the blog yesterday, about gratitude, sorry for the repetitive nature of the two posts!

But it is also different, because there are some specific things I’ve learned about living overseas through this experience. Like how meaningful it is that people from a variety of faith backgrounds love me and are praying for me, or that people literally pray around the clock because of the time change and knowing people all over the world.

Not gonna lie, doing this while we maintain our life abroad sucks. It is not awesome and I do not recommend it. It certainly makes a lot of things harder.

But, it also makes me intensely more grateful, helps me take less for granted, reminds me tangibly of the power of community, makes me thankful for my diverse friendships.

And apparently, God had a plan for my life. That plan included the superb timing of me getting cancer while living in a country that has the medical prowess to detect and treat it. #miracles

But, ahem, God? What about my husband? One big perk of marriage is having a companion for life’s junk. I don’t like that part of this plan, that part that has him in Djibouti and me in Minnesota, and there is a poor telephone and internet connection and so instead of beating around the bush with something like, “The doctor found papillary thyroid carcinoma,” or, “the test results aren’t exactly awesome,” or even, “They found cancer,” which would imply it was not exactly me, or mine, or inside my body, I had to shout, to be very clear and to make sure he got the message before the internet shut off, “I HAVE CANCER!!!!!” (again, those darn exclamation points).

Anyway. My point is that this international life is hard and beautiful and amazing and sometimes, it really really stinks. Sometimes it means periods of unwanted and un-chosen separation. It means money spent changing plane tickets at the last minute. It means feeling divided. It means lonely grief. Work and team and home on one side of the ocean. Sick wife or worried husband on the other side.

But there are good things, too, about a cancerous life overseas. #learninggratitude #perspective

There are incredible aspects of the life overseas that truly manifest, to my surprise to be honest, during times of pain, grief, confusion, and sorrow…

Click here to read the rest of 6 Good Things about a Cancerous Life Overseas

10 Cancer Thanksgivings and Some Grief

In 2018, 53,990 new cases of thyroid cancer were diagnosed. So, I am going to make a list of 53,990 things I’m thankful for, in honor of each case.

Just kidding.

My tumor was 3.5 cm. So, I’m going to make a list of 3.5 things I’m thankful for.

Just kidding.

In the week post-surgery, I took approximately 72 pills. So, I’m going to make a list of 72 things I’m thankful for.

Just kidding.

How about 10?

10 seems like a reasonable number.

But first, this was hard for me to write. Thankfulness is a choice and its one I am consciously fighting for in this season.

Yesterday I visited Last City Church in St. Paul to hear Austin Channing Brown speak, author of I’m Still Here, black dignity in a world made for whiteness. Read it. The pastor opened the prayer time by saying she wasn’t going to force a Thanksgiving prayer, even as it is Thanksgiving week. She said (I loosely quote), “Some people are angry and grieving. Some of you have lost something. Or have had something taken from you. Some of you are lonely and confused.”

I started to cry. As I sat, all by myself because my family is not here, less than two weeks post-thyroidectomy, with cancer still in my body and radioactive iodine treatment in my future, grieving what I’ve lost and what was taken from me. And I felt free to feel it all. All the sadness and anger and frustration and confusion and loneliness. And then, rising right up alongside it, surprising to me, was gratitude.

So I guess I’m saying the two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I wonder if they actually belong together. I can’t be truly thankful if I don’t let myself feel the sadness. And the sadness is empty if I don’t see all I have to be thankful for. I want to think about that some more. But, this post is long enough already, so here’s my list, written through tears.

Here are 10 Cancer Things I’m Thankful For

Timing. 15 years ago, I made a plan to be in Minnesota this fall, for the first semester of college of our twins. Never would have told you, fifteen years ago, that I’d get cancer at the same time.

Location. Minnesota, especially in a house by the lake or a farm in the countryside, is an idyllic a place for recovery. The United States, where clinics are clean and wild animal-free, hospitals have equipment and electricity and trained medical professionals, and where pharmacies are stocked with legitimate medications that are not expired.

Insurance. I mostly complain about insurance. Because, let’s face it, it sucks. There is nothing easy, simple, or clear-cut about health insurance. But. I have not paid full price for all these procedures, not even close. So that helps soothe the pain of paying for that insurance, which we have barely used in 15 years. My husband and I are employed and we have access to insurance. I don’t take any of that for granted.

Dr. D. and Dr. D My doctors are easy to relate with and don’t laugh at my questions about hair falling out or gaining weight or hot flashes. They did laugh at some of my jokes. Family practitioner noticed the lump and said, “Check that out. Quickly.” Surgeon didn’t balk at photographing the thyroid after he removed it. They take my disease and pain and family situation seriously. I’ve seen many other doctors and nurses throughout this and they have all been compassionate, professional, and personable. I even got a hand-written get well card from the OR nurses.

My Community. Starting with my husband, who has had to endure this mostly away from me, he is a rock star. My kids, who can’t be bothered with worry and are happy to be properly awed by the thyroid photo, are also rock stars. My parents, who have born the brunt of caring for me.  My in-laws who have been steady and loving and so helpful with everything from providing pumpkins for carving to nursing advice. My siblings who make me laugh until I cry. Friends who drive across states and cities and bring flowers, candy, socks, books, hugs, food, listening ears and their own stories. Phone calls and emails.

My Scar. I like scars. Of course that is easier to say now that I’m borderline old. But, I find them fascinating. Each one is unique and carries a particular story of trauma, and of healing. I don’t like trauma, not saying that, but none of us gets out of this scar-free, and I value the story-telling power of the marks on our bodies. This scar on my neck tells me all these things I’m thankful for: the body, medical care, community, health. The scar across my belly tells me Henry and I survived a dangerous birth. If you have a scar, I might ask about it. Because a scar isn’t just the story of the wounding, but the story of the healing. Of the mother tenderly, agonizingly, rubbing burn cream into her infant daughter’s neck, night after night for a year, singing to her baby, thankful for life. The story of the teenager, bravely dressing the salty, gushing wound of his cousin, ensuring he doesn’t lose a toe over the long, bumpy ride to the ER from the remote beach. The story of my mom being an adventurous, climbing kid (imagine!). Jesus has scars, too. Even in his resurrected body. Think about that.

My Body. So many parts! So much is going on this body! I had no idea. Of course we think about limbs, hearts, lungs, skin, brain. But there are all these wacky small body parts that don’t get much attention and yet, ooh boy, they matter. And I’m thankful for all of them, more aware of them, less likely to take them for granted.

The Body. The body of believers. Sometimes I can sink into borderline cynicism about American Christianity. But then I experience The Body and I’m humbly reminded that we are an imperfect family, like every family. I’m awed by the generosity of time and money, affection and kindness, from strangers and acquaintances and dear friends. I mean blown away to the point of tears, consistently. The Body here has loved me well, while I am away from my family and my team in Djibouti.

My Weakness. This is another tough one. I don’t like it. But I guess I can still be thankful for it. I don’t like that my quads trembled when I walked up and down stairs or that a fifteen-minute walk made me take a nap. I don’t like that when I spoke to a group of women 6 days after surgery, my voice shook and by the time I sat down, my entire body was shaking. From standing up. But. In my weakness, God is strong. And now I understand a little bit better what that means. In my weakness, people were strong for me. They wrapped a coat around my shoulders. They laid a hand on my back to steady my breathing. They offered encouraging words. In my weakness, the Body, each of them an image bearer and a temple in themselves, was revealed as strong. And, weakness teaches humility and patience. Sigh. Hard lessons to learn and lessons that are never fully learned.

Jesus. Especially the scarred Jesus of resurrection hope. Jesus who touches lepers and bleeding women, who cares about hunger and loneliness, who knows hunger and loneliness. Jesus who tenderly protects a vulnerable woman and who violently overturns money changers’ tables. Jesus who is not afraid of our sorrow, or anger, or fear, or regret, or confusion, or weakness.

What are you thankful for this year?

By |November 19th, 2018|Categories: cancer|Tags: , , |9 Comments

The Day My Heart Grew Three Sizes

I’m like the Grinch.

September 27, Dr. D called and told me I had cancer and my heart grew three sizes that day.

It had already been growing exponentially since May while my family faced a private pain, since 2015, since living abroad, since loving refugees.

I don’t think my heart was as small as the Grinch’s was to begin with, but neither am I certain it was all that much bigger.

It is so easy to judge someone else, to criticize a choice, to doubt an intention, to question a behavior. So easy to not see people with compassion, to not turn to mercy first.

Three days after my cancer diagnosis, I drove to church and parked in the absolute closest spot to the front door that wasn’t a handicapped spot. I know we are supposed to park far and sit close. I was feeling sad, scared, overwhelmed, and alone and I just parked there.

My mom was with me and I said, “#blamethecancer.” Mostly to laugh, but partly in seriousness.

She said, “You just never know what is going on for someone.”

#sotrue

**

Yesterday, five days post surgery, I went for a walk. Sunday morning, cold, snowy, quiet, crunching boots. I walked about as fast as a snail. A man with a puppy passed me. He’s seen me running almost every day for the past few months and here I was, still in my pajamas, inching my way down the road. I wondered what was happening in his life lately and how he was doing. We smiled and greeted each other. I felt a warmth bubble up in my chest, like a love balloon.

It sounds so dorky, cheesey, cliché. But I loved the man and his puppy. Walking together, sniffing all the sniffy things, crunching in the snow, cheeks pink from cold.

I don’t know what was going on for him. Maybe everything was going alright in his life and heart and home. Maybe he had received a piece of earth-shattering news. Maybe he was in between, like most of us, partly whole and partly broken.

But a love balloon went up from my chest, across the street, and popped over his head. He doesn’t know that happened. That’s okay.

**

As I walked past houses, I thought about what happened behind the windows. This home lost a teenage son to suicide. This home has breast cancer. This home lost their teenage son to suicide, the other boy’s best friend. This home struggles to pay bills. This home has an adult child with special needs. This home is filled with refugees and I don’t know if they could even name all they have lost. Some of the homes I don’t know but I can imagine. Loneliness, anger, fear, anxiety.

We are the walking wounded.

**

Walking through these wounding things can make us bitter and angry.

Or it can grow our hearts three sizes in one day.

I hope your heart grows. I hope, when someone roars ahead of you in the parking lot or when someone ignores you at a party or when someone speaks abruptly to you, that you choose empathy, that you pop love balloons over them.

Because you just never know what private pain someone is nursing, or what secret delight.

You just never know.

And I want to be big-hearted. I want my own griefs and pains to make space in my heart for those of others, the known and the unknown.

It was a lovely, healing walk.

 

Does this all sound really dorky?

#blamethecancer

(how long can I use that to excuse whacko behavior?)

By |November 12th, 2018|Categories: cancer|Tags: , , , |10 Comments

My Thyroid Cancer, Emotions and the Photo

I don’t want to gross anyone out by a sudden pop-up on Instagram or Facebook of my insides but lots of people asked to see the tumor photo. So I’m posting it here.

Talk about vulnerability.

Showing off my innards.

That long string is not a hair, as my husband tried to tease me in my post-surgery drug-induced delirium. Its a stitch. I promise.

I have a wide range of emotions when I look at the picture.

Awe, the body really is fearfully and wonderfully made.

Humbled by human fragility.

Glad, that Dr. D took me seriously and snapped the photo and also that he and my other docs took the lump seriously and are good doctors.

Sad, that the good thyroid is gone.

Mad, to be honest, because we were doing just fine, my thyroid and I and now my body is out of whack, at least for a while.

Relieved, surprised (look the size of that thing!), and still kinda in shock that this is my body. My cancer body.

Thankful for faith. Some people say those of us with faith are weak and leaning on crutches. I say, “Amen to that.” Life hurts, loving people is scary. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have a refuge to run to.

Thankful for community. For all the doctors and nurses who love me and who are begging to see the photo (you guys are hilarious). For all who have sent messages or cancer sucks mugs or soft blankets and socks and treats and flowers and lotion and tea and prayers and more.

Dizzy, oh wait no, that’s just the drugs talking. Because yeah, I’m on a lot of drugs now, so sure the emotions could be coming from one of the 10-16 pills a day I’m taking.

Amazing, how one photo can call up all that. Anyway.

Here’s the first of many rounds of daily pills (aka actual cancer candy) and then below is the thyroid.

Do not scroll down if you don’t want to see.

 

Not too hard to see which side is messed up, huh?

A Goodbye Letter to My Thyroid

Dear Thyroid,

This is not your fault.

You have done nothing wrong. You work just fine and you’ve worked just fine for forty years now.

You keep me from being too cold or too hot, you keep my hair from falling out and my body from shrinking or growing abnormally. You help me maintain emotional stability (my husband might question your total efficacy on this point) and keep my bones from crumbling. You keep my heart rate steady and my period regular. You kept me from being too tired or not tired enough and you keep my hands from trembling and my eyelids from twitching. You help my memory, regulate my fertility (thanks for the three delightful children), and keep my muscles from becoming overly stiff. Oh, and who can forget, thank you for your contribution to regular bowel movements.

Basically, you’ve kept my body at a reasonably functional level and I barely knew you existed.

And now? Now, poor dear perfect thyroid, we must part ways. I don’t blame you, this isn’t your fault. Some kind of alien creature has taken up residence in my body and it decided you looked like the best home around. Doctor D has to remove the alien before it spreads around and in that process, he will have to remove you, too.

I’m sorry.

I will bounce back. I’ll be on the rebound, as they say, and will turn to replacement thyroid hormones. I hope you don’t feel bad about being so easily replaced, just know I’d rather have you. But I can’t.

I wish we could have stayed together for all time. Alas. I will go on living (barring an unforeseen problem during surgery, I guess there are no guarantees, right?) and you will go to the pathology lab for further testing.

I did ask Doctor D if I could keep you, or have you back later.

He said no. Some blah-blah about pathology tests and hazardous waste.

I asked him to take a picture of you and he agreed, so, there’s that.

It is weird to think of part of my body being removed, being separated from me.

I mean, I’ve had three humans inside me and they all came out, but they weren’t me. They were just inside me. You, thyroid, are part of me. And now you have to die. Maybe I’m being overly dramatic, but that just feels weird and not a good weird.

So anyway, thank you and I’m sorry.

Here’s to one more night together and then, tomorrow, its snip-snip and au revoir, salama, nabad gelyo, go in peace.

By |November 5th, 2018|Categories: cancer|Tags: , , |8 Comments