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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?

Ode to Good Cancer

Alright, look. Yes, I’m writing this sarcastically. And also not totally sarcastically. Even my doctor said that he has learned to not ever call any cancer a “good” cancer. Yes, thyroid cancer has a standard of treatment and is highly curable and has a very good outcome rate. But you know what? I don’t want to have cancer. I have felt my life flip out and upside down and inside out and while I will likely be “fine” eventually, and recovered or whatever, there are lifelong implications of this that are not fun, easy, pleasant, or good. Still, I really do that its okay to ask me about it, I just had fun writing this little ditty and wanted to share.

Ode to Good Cancer

I’ve got the good cancer, that’s what they say

All my doc has to do is cut it away

Along with other necessary and perfectly functional body parts

Leaving me with a scar to rival the contemporary arts.

Oh and then there’s the hormone replacement, a daily pill

And finding the right dose could take weeks or months or years, still

It’s the good cancer. Except just about the time post-surgery that I’ll be feeling fine

there’s that minor dose of radioactive iodine.

The doctor will wear a mask and nuclear suit

But I will put the pill in my mouth, no dispute.

Then I’ll be all alone, a danger to society, for several days

My kidney, liver, salivary glands, taste buds, teeth, and more may start to decay.

Once out of isolation, I’m still not free

My body is full of radioactivity

Healthy cells might now be dying, making room for fresh disease

The only way to be sure, for the foreseeable future, is with regular blood tests and more biopsies.

And also? My family lives in Africa, in Djibouti, where healthcare barely exists

Which means my husband was on the other side of the planet while my neck bulged with carcinoma-filled cysts.

Sometimes I feel angry, sometimes I feel scared. Sometimes I feel fine, sad, deep, thankful, tired, happy, sick.

Lucky me! Lucky me! Good cancer chose me for its next pick.

You too? You have a good cancer? But…you’ve got all your hair!

Sure, you lack the energy to walk up the stairs

And your body temperature, weight, skin, emotional balance, sex drive have changed

And you toss and turn all night with dreams that make you feel deranged

You will have blood tests and scans and pills and new scares and strange aches for the rest of your life

And you fear you’re failing at work and at being a good friend, or mother, or wife.

No, medical bills aren’t what we’ve saved money for, me with twins in college at the time of first biopsy.

So it is hard to hear, “its a good cancer,” which might really mean, “Sure is good it didn’t happen to me!”

When we subject our bodies to poisonous “cures”

The line between good and bad radically blurs.

But seriously, non-cancer person, feel free to inquire about how I’m doing, I really don’t mind.

Just beware I might ask, “Would you like some of this cancer? Don’t worry, its the good kind!”

 

After I wrote this, I found other ‘odes’ about cancer. Here are a couple:

The Good Cancer (ode to Hodgkins Lymphoma)

Ode to fellow cancer warriors and survivors (this one is not so snarky)

Ode to My Hair (truth be told, two of my first questions to my doctor were: Am I going to lose my hair? and, How will this affect my weight? I know, so vain. But also? Honest. Cancer seems to bring out the honest.)

A poem about breast cancer

Cancer Poems

Cancer Candy

You know how when it rains, it pours?

My twins graduated and moved to two universities in the United States of America.

My husband remained in Djibouti to run our start-up, the International School of Djibouti.

My singleton, the youngest, returned to Kenya for school.

I stayed in MN to be close by while the older two transition to this country and new phase of life.

We recently made some organizational readjustments that were positive and complicated and also, to be honest, difficult, as most changes are.

Parenting adult kids is really hard, harder than I thought.

I turned in my book manuscript this week.

I told you recently that I started seeing a counselor for “stuff.”

And then, I recently bought this:

Why is a pile of sugary goodness on this list of challenges and changes?

Because I labeled it:

#cancercandy

Because I bought it a few hours after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Yeah.

Me, for whom health is a high value. Who takes doctor appointments and nutrition seriously, who loves to run because it makes me feel strong. Who was strict about natural family planning as birth control because I didn’t want to take hormones or pills. That person has cancer and will go on hormone therapy for the rest of her life.

I talked to my mother-in-law a few hours after the doctor’s phone call. She and my father-in-law are nurses, he was a cancer nurse. I asked what I needed to think about. She said,

“Today, you need to think: Shit. I have cancer. Tomorrow, you can ask questions.”

#bestmotherinlawadviceever

I took her advice literally and headed straight out to the grocery store for candy and ice cream.

What’s next?

A second biopsy on a suspicious lymph node. (*biopsy came back clean)

Then, surgery, removal of my whole thyroid and the monstrously large lump attached to it. We are trying to come up with a nickname for the beast but I’m revolted by all the family’s suggestions so far.

Then?

I don’t know yet.

I’ll try to keep writing. I’ll try not to write all the time about cancer, Lord knows there’s enough of that out there for you to read elsewhere. But I might because, Lord knows that’s what’s on my mind (and in my neck) these days.

I plan on being just fine.

But, my hope is not in odds or doctors or my own body.

I don’t rely on human plans, not even my own.

This is what some people call a “good” cancer, which means it is fairly treatable. I gotta say, I’m not ready to claim that yet. While I am thankful for many things (that there is treatment, that I’m here in the US for this time period, that I don’t feel sick at this point), it is still cancer. And cancer sucks. Cancer combined with an international life super sucks. The treatment will be hard, the disruption to our life will be hard, the future slightly foggy.

May I suggest a more appropriate response, if someone (like me) tells you they have thyroid cancer? Don’t say, “Well, lucky you, you got the good one!” Just say, “Shit. You have cancer. I’m so sorry.” Feel free to modify to “shoot” or “gosh darn” or whatever floats your boat.

I’ll let you know how all this pans out in the coming months.

Strong in the Broken: When Cancer and Life Collide

I’m a couple days late with this post. I blame it all on doing multi-state college tours with twin 17-year olds. It was awesome.

Today’s Strong in the Broken post is by Nicole Baldonado, a story of cancer and weakness and learning to rest.

“God, we can’t do it anymore.”

That was me, whispering in the shower, hoping the steaming water would burn away the headache that comes with crying all day.

My husband, Josh, had just told me he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Shock. God, how can this be happening? He’s thirty years old. We have a three-year old and a baby boy. Fears paraded endlessly through my mind.

People told us, “This is the cancer to get.” It’s one of the easiest to treat. They caught it early on, and the doctors are hopeful that Josh will be fine after treatment.

It still scared me to death. In the past few years, we’ve learned by experience that things don’t always “turn out ok” in the end. Or rather, “ok in the end” doesn’t always mean that someone is healed. Bad things do happen. And they happen to all of us. 

This post is an act of transparency. I’m not complaining or venting, and I can think of so many people who have it way harder than me. I’m telling you I understand life can be awful, painful, maddening. I’m honestly admitting that I get angry, become fearful, wallow in grief…but my God is gracious. And I’ll tell you how I know it…

We moved to Ukraine two and a half years ago. Within two months, we lost a baby to miscarriage. In addition to the grieving that comes with losing a baby, taking care of the medical needs was confusing, embarrassing, and fairly matter of fact. It made healing all the more difficult.

That same week, a dear friend in the States passed away unexpectedly. It was heartbreaking not to be with loved ones to grieve alongside them.

For the next six months, I was treated for chronic health problems and told that we should not try to get pregnant yet. Nothing seemed to work. The due date of our baby came and went, and we were still waiting. Any mom who has lost a baby knows that Baby’s due date is a sort of monument in your mind. That day was sad and full of questions without answers.

Eventually, we were overjoyed to get pregnant again!

At five weeks, I started bleeding. I will never forget laying on my living room floor, tears streaming and everything in me crying out, “Why, God?!” My doctor said it was a hemorrhage and gently informed us that the chance of Baby surviving was extremely small.

I was on complete bed rest for a week in the hospital and then for another month at home. No one knew if Baby was alive or not. We tried to make sense of conflicting recommendations from Ukrainian and American doctors. At the end of that month, the doctors told us it was a miracle Baby had made it, that only God had kept him alive. Medically, he should have died.

The pregnancy was stressful and painful, due to complications, but about eight months later, our precious Titus came along. I can’t express the joy and thankfulness we feel, looking at our little miracle.

When Titus was a week old, I woke up in the middle of the night with a high fever and violent chills. I was diagnosed with mastitis, a severe breast infection and told that I may have to quit nursing and have surgery. For the next month and a half, I battled mastitis three times, was misdiagnosed with thrush (another nursing-related infection), and had severe dermatitis.

Once the health problems were resolved, we were relieved to “get on with life as normal.” But as the weeks passed, “normal” didn’t seem quite right. I struggled with exhaustion and insomnia, woke up feeling like I was in a deep, dark hole, cried at stupid things throughout the day, battled with impatience and irritability. It wasn’t a bad day or even a bad week. I looked at my life – wonderful husband, healthy children, all our needs provided for – there was nothing to say I should be feeling the way I did. When Titus was ten months old, I was diagnosed with post-partum depression.

Around that time, we found out that my husband’s remote job, which had been our primary income, was being moved back to the States.

And then Josh went in for a routine physical. And they found cancer.

Thirty years old. A three-year old and almost one-year old. Married for six years. Cancer.

“God, we can’t do it anymore.”

Throughout all this craziness, my responses have not always been…well…ideal. I’ve gotten angry and questioned why God would allow things to happen. I’ve whined and complained and had little pity parties. I’ve given in to crippling fear and wanted to do nothing but lay in bed and hide from the world. I’ve wanted to quit…whatever that means.

On the other hand, I’ve also tried to do all the right things. Read my Bible, pray, go to church, have faith in God. Exercise, try to rest, eat well.

I grew up hearing about God’s grace, how we can’t do anything to deserve His love. But, still, throughout all these challenges, I’ve often thought, “God, You must be trying to teach me something. I’ll get it. I’ll read my Bible more. I’ll pray. I’ll have a good attitude…Then things will be ok.”

And then Josh said to me, “It’s cancer.”

And after a long day of impossible fears, I laid my head against the shower wall and whispered, “God, there’s not an ounce of strength left in me to believe. I can no longer “be strong and of good courage.” I’m tapped.

The next morning, I sat down with my Bible and devotional and actually thought: “Let the bartering begin.” “God, if I read my Bible enough, will you heal Josh? If I have enough faith, will everything be ok?”

And I began to read:

FAINT NOT!

How great is the temptation at this point! How the soul sinks, the heart grows sick, and the faith staggers under the keen trials and testings which come into our lives in times of special bereavement and suffering.

“I cannot bear up any longer, I am fainting under this providence. What shall I do? God tells me not to faint. But what can one do when he is fainting?”

What do you do when you are about to faint physically? You cannot do anything. You cease from your own doings. In your faintness, you fall upon the shoulder of some strong loved one. You lean hard. You rest. You lie still and trust.

It is so when we are tempted to faint under affliction. God’s message to us is not, “Be strong and of good courage,” for He knows our strength and courage have fled away. But it is that sweet word, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Selection, Streams in the Desert: 366 Daily Devotional Readings– May 10

Speechless.

Nothing had changed. Every circumstance was the same. Josh still had cancer. We still had no idea what would happen. But, it was like a tangible sense of sweet relief passed over me – in all my fear, all my exhaustion, all my anger, I didn’t have to be strong. God says, “Just rest.”

I’m not going to lie and say from that moment I stopped being fearful or sad or even angry at times. I’ve had my rants and freak-outs and burst into tears in the most public, embarrassing places.

But that’s the point. It’s not about us being strong or being a “good Christian” (whatever that is!). It’s not even that we don’t have to do those things…we literally can’t. There’s a blessing in that, because we know the One who can be strong – who is strength personified. The One who gave His very life so that we – in these moments of desperation – could hear Him say, “Be still. Know that I am God. Just rest.”

Nicole Baldonado is a social worker in L’viv, Ukraine with her husband and two kids. They’re part of a church plant and serve in pastoral support, community building, and discipleship. Nicole also has experience in human trafficking response work. She loves travel and is always on the hunt for a new cultural experience. Having grown up abroad, she’s now fulfilling a lifelong dream of raising her own kids inter-culturally. Nicole writes weekly about life at jnbmission.com and can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/jnbaldonado.