I had the great pleasure of meeting Kris and her husband Charlie at a mutual friend's wedding in July of 2009. Simon wasn't with me but we connected over the fact that, like Simon, she and her husband both went to Notre Dame and after trying to figure out if they knew Simon (they didn't ... apparently everyone didn't know everyone like they did at Franciscan) we had a blast dancing the night away. We reconnected over email a couple of years ago and she graciously agreed to write a guest post. I was pleasantly surprised to see this in my inbox yesterday and if anything were to ever provide a profound amount of powerful perspective to me, this would absolutely be it. I can't thank her enough for being so willing to share her story with me and you.
Thank you, Grace, for extending the invitation to share a little bit of myself with you all here. Grace asked me to share because I, like her, battled cancer as a young mother. I am happy to report that I have now been in remission for a year and a half. I was diagnosed with StageIII choriocarcinoma five months after giving birth to my husband Charlie’s and my first child, Grace Magdalene.
Choriocarcinoma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that begins in the placenta. Most commonly, it develops in molar pregnancies, but in my case it developed after a healthy term pregnancy. Because of a long-term misdiagnosis my cancer was not caught until it had spread to my lungs and begun to compromise my liver. Had it not been diagnosed when it was and treated as aggressively as it was, my surgeon tells me that the cancer would have quickly spread to my brain, my prognosis would have been profoundly worse, and most likely this disease would have lead to my death. Acknowledging that is still very surreal for me, despite the inevitable welling eyes, racing heart and bended knees. I pray I always remain here on my knees. It is indeed where I am meant to be.
So, it’s been almost a year since Grace asked if I would like to write a guest post for her blog. Though I tried on many occasions to bring some cohesion to my experience, to speak to it in a way that was both true for me and meaningful for you, I never succeeded. In fact, I always ended up less aware of what it was exactly I had experienced and more conflicted about where exactly I was as a result of it all. There was just no way of neatly and honestly packaging what I was going through.
To be sure, cancer is that defining moment in my life, that experience that marks a major change, that divides my life into before and after. Life before cancer is a memory almost as foreign to me as a life I never lived. Dramatic, I know, but no exaggeration. I changed dramatically. My body changed, my mind changed, my heart changed. And it has been difficult to keep up with all the many places this leg of my journey has taken me, much less describe them to someone else. The one thing that was clear to me from day one was that things were changing, I was changing, and that I could never go back to who I had been before. I knew too much.
The change that my cancer brought, the new perspective it has offered, is taking a lot of time. Many times I feel I am taking two steps forward, one step back. This is partly just the nature of change, partly my own resistance to it. While I could beat myself up over my sluggishness, and at times I do, I will instead thank God for His patience. Thank Him that He takes the time to work with us, that this oh-so inefficient way of His is His Way, that He wants so much for us to see Him that He will continue to show us His face even when it is clear that we prefer our own.
As you might gather, the words I would have had to share a year ago, had I been prompt, are very different words than the words I have today. And the words I have today are very likely, and most hopefully, not the final word. I trust that what I do write is what Lord would have me share.
It’s not about me. That’s what cancer has taught me.
When I was diagnosed our daughter Grace was five months old. Charlie and I were just finding our footing in this new phase of our life together. Grace was a difficult infant, preferred crying to eating or sleeping, and often persuaded me to do the same. Those first months were traumatic and exhausting. When Charlie returned from work each night, he was greeted by two sobbing girls. In many ways I felt at that time like I was holding my breath until things settled down. I could not wait until we could return to “normal life”, a baby we could take out of the house, a resurrected social life, the return of personal hygiene, peace and quiet. My life again. I remember so often telling myself, “This, too, shall pass”. That is not exactly what happened.
I found myself in a clinic, hearing those most dreaded words at twenty seven years old, hearing my chances of one year survival, with a legitimate fear that I would never see that coveted day of peace. And, of course, I begged that I might never see the end of that trying time with my child, that I might always have the pleasure of those difficult days and sleepless nights. I understood then what an undeserved gift it is to be able to live for another and surrender all, how unworthy we are of sacrifice and how fiercely we should cherish it.
I began a very difficult chemotherapy regimen immediately after scans revealed the extensive grip the cancer had over my body. I had six days between each treatment, always just enough time to see the horizon only to be pumped with drugs that put it again out of sight. It was cruel and defeating; it was physical hell for me. I cried a lot. I cried in pain but the vast majority of my tears were not brought on by the treatment or the tumors. I cried because I was being robbed, I was losing everything. I cried because I could not hold my infant child. I cried as others took on the task of her daily care. I felt myself losing the capacity to find myself in my daughter, to conjoin our lives. I could not care for her. I could not care for my baby girl. Even writing this, I choke up thinking about it. It was intensely painful. And it was the beginning of a death in me.
My cancer experience, while perhaps not quite unique, is a specific kind of cancer experience. I found out pretty early in my treatment that it was working, and it was working remarkably well. So, apart from the early stages, our prayer was to be on the other side of this fight as quickly as the Lord could possibly work it out. We asked for quick and total healing, we asked for nothing less. Death became an outside chance, death was not where I seemed to be headed. I think this is why fear of death was able to take such a hold on me after my treatment ended. Christ, in His Mercy, was not preparing me for death, but I, in my own weakness, was spending ample time fearing it.
The period of time that I was receiving treatment was both the most difficult and the easiest time of this journey. The most difficult in terms of the physical toll, the overarching exhaustion, and emotional shock. But, thankfully, those were something I was given the grace to tolerate. It was a time of pretty incredible grace, actually. My fears were kept in pretty good check. Grave suffering has a way of bringing a sort of mental quiet, ever notice that? While there are certainly worries and anxieties that come along with this sort of trauma, I very often experienced a remarkable freedom from them in the moments of my suffering. I was living in pain, not fear of it. I simply did not have the time, energy, or desire to fear that which I was fighting.
So, during the months of medical treatment I experienced something unlike anything I ever have before. I experienced a sort of freedom from self. In some ways that sounds completely crazy. I mean, it was ALL about me. Our days were spent at my doctor’s appointments, my surgeries, orchestrated around my litany of meds, about my healthy food, my hospital stays, my chemotherapy sessions, my every pain. That is true, and for those providing my care and the care of my daughter, there was likely a constant worry over details and a nagging fear about my future. It wasn’t their suffering in the way it was mine, they waivered in and out of it and thus did not experience the stillness. But for me it was a kind of calm, a clarity of vision and an awareness of context. I stood in relation to God. I knew myself to be small and weak. I knew God to be my everything. I didn’t concern myself with how I could get through it all, because I knew so clearly that I couldn’t. This was His show, not mine.
It was clear to me that my life was not about my life; it was about my dependency, my need, my inability to lead my own life. What I desired was not something I could accomplish. Everywhere I turned, that is what I saw. Charlie’s and my parents took on the tasks of our daily lives and the care of our child, meals were made by friends and family, medical bills were paid, work schedules were shifted and forgone, we moved out of our home, big sacrifices were made by many. My life was not my own. The fabricated lines which marked “mine” and delineated my cherished independence had disappeared. I experienced a departure from that almighty fortress, the self-willed life.
This was both an devastating loss and an unparalleled freedom. It was both at once. I wept as I watched others take my place and in seeing this I grasped that my life was not truly mine in any lasting or meaningful way. I was not indispensible. I was seeing the Lord’s beautiful truth in the clearest, most painful, most reassuring terms. I wept and I sat in true humility. I don’t know if there is joy like there is in true humility. There is cheerier joy, but not more rightful joy.
My life is not about me.
As you know, treatment ended. My life started to slowly coagulate back into “my life”. It was as close to ecstasy as I’ve ever known. It was like being a child again, but with an awareness that children lack. Little things, to wake up with Grace in the middle of the night, to drive to the store on my own, to go for a walk, I felt explosive with joy at all of them. I knew, I experienced a strange physical assurance that each moment was something miraculous. Each moment was an opportunity to do something, something that somehow surpassed me while also fundamentally depending on me. I had a strong though verdant sense that this life was big, and it was about a lot more than me. The joy I knew was bigger than me. This second chance to live was beyond me.
Once out of the physical fight, I also began the very sizeable task of processing all that I had endured, of beginning to heal my spirit and reclaim my life. I had great joy in and gratitude to the Lord Who healed me. There was a strong desire to witness to His Love for me and return that Love to Him in a more committed way. I had an insatiable desire to connect with others. These were all true gifts. But, almost without my recognizing it, there also entered great fear. I am talking really, really big fear. All the fears I did not truly entertain when I was sick came at me with pent-up fury. At times I was completely overwhelmed.
My blood counts were constantly monitored for recurrence. I would drive myself crazy playing out the scenarios that my cancer had returned and I lost once again all that I had just recovered. Next time, I would dread, I will know what’s coming, suffer twice at once, and I will not be able to bear it. We did have a hand-full of truly scary moments: ER visits, persistent symptoms of tumors, worrisome test results; these fed and justified my fears. And my fears extended beyond my health. I recognized the fragility in everything. I carried a palpable, overwhelming awareness that suffering was everywhere. I knew acutely, not in my head but in my stomach, that it would be an ultimately unavoidable and ever-present reality in my life and the lives of every other person I knew, and it was a horrifying knowledge to carry.
My fears and this heavy knowledge slowly and quietly began to swallow me. Every day was a battle. I would call Charlie or my mom in the middle of the day sobbing, terrified by the weakness I saw around me. On the worst days, I would fall down on the floor crying out to the Lord to take this burden from me. I would literally scream, “Take it, Lord! I cannot do this another day!” And without conscious acknowledgment, out of pure human instinct and emotional exhaustion, I began living in defense mode, not challenging myself, wasting time and energy wishing that things would be easier, living in the fear of all that could go wrong and the pain of all that had been lost instead of truly looking to the freedom found in surrendering to God’s Will.
So, contradictions lived within me. I was both convicted that I was not in control and convinced that I ought to be. Every human impulse told me to fight to regain control; this would make everything so much easier. Avoid risk, take it easy, look out for number one, tread lightly. Basically, turn the heat down with the Lord (It’s too darn hot in here!), I’ve had faith enough for the time being, I’ll go ahead and indulge my fears, put myself back at the wheel… God will get it. After all, I deserved a break.
But a break I would not get. God had begun to reveal to me His vision for me, which was simply Himself, Christ crucified, and despite my own fiercely-held vision, I could never quite suppress that beautiful, painful, absolute image. I had experienced the life He was calling me to when I knew with certainty that He was all I had and everything else was “dust in the wind”. My power, my vision, my will, my fears, my successes and my failures, even my suffering : dust in the wind.
For a long time after treatment my fear and weakness were accompanied by an underlying sadness, a longing and an emptiness. I felt guilty in acknowledging this emptiness since I, after all, had been healed of the disease unlike so many others. I often traced this void back to the pain I had experienced and was still living on many levels, and I also supposed that I missed the intimacy with the Lord that is uniquely available in suffering. I suspect there is some truth in that. But, I now recognize that it was more than that. I longed to truly see Him again, to stand again in relation to Him, to in doing so to understand my life within His Will and His Work. There came a point when I knew this was exactly what the Lord was asking me to do. To acknowledge that I needed to join Him at the Cross, to die to myself, to join my suffering, past, present, and future, with His and allow it to transform my life. I knew that I needed to die in order to be freed from the bonds of fear and pain that so afflicted me. The Lord had shown me that sort of freedom in the midst of cancer, for He is a God who can transform any reality. And He was offering this transformed life to me again. This is what He wants for us.
Recognizing that I am not indispensable and that life is fleeting was not the place the Lord wanted me to remain and abide, it was only one small portion of the Truth. I needed to realize that recognizing our own futility is an invitation to a life that matters beyond what we can comprehend, a life of power and purpose and freedom we could not otherwise hope for, a life unthreatened for all eternity. That, after all, is what all the suffering is for. It’s not just a story of pain and struggle, or of the human spirit, or even of physical healing, but, like all suffering, it is meant to be a story of new life in Christ. If I remained at the helm, I would be overcome by the fear and the pain that I had known so well. It would kill me, I knew that. Suffering is a difficult reality in this life, and relinquishing control is as difficult. But far more difficult is a life without Christ, a life where we flounder in vain for control, a life where suffering is simply ours to endure and even after such endurance we are left broken and alone If I truly was going to reclaim my life, it would have to be in Him. I must, as Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity put it, become “a new humanity wherein He renews His mystery”.
It is in this way that the Lord is freeing me of my fears. I would never be able to handle the pains in my chests so reminiscent of tumors, the possibility of future infertility, the difficulty of (God-willing!) future pregnancies, the miles of healing still unfinished, the knowledge that we will continue to experience suffering, I would never be able to handle these realities if I allowed them to be my reality. I am grasping each day at the reality Christ offers me. My fears are not evaporating. I am not sure that someone can surmount these fears by sheer will, I certainly can’t fathom it. What is happening, instead, is that my fears are being rendered obsolete. I ask God for the grace to understand every corner of my existence as His. I ask Him to bring me to dwell in that place of grace that He has revealed to me, where I knew my dependence, where nothing was mine, where everything is His. Nothing can threaten us in that place. Everything is His and everything is always working for His Good. Like everyone else, I am free to not accept or recognize this reality, but recognizing it is what He is calling me to do. It’s what He wants from all of us. We are His. Our only purpose is to look to the cross and follow Him.
We were created to live for another, to surrender all. That and only that is our trajectory. So, think about that. Nothing, not sickness, death, infertility, poverty, or any other number hardships or struggles can prevent us from doing everything that we were meant to do and being exactly who we were created to be. Only we can get in the way of that. We are each living our way to that realization. And, one day we will celebrate perfect union with our Lord. Until then, we must struggle to accept our struggles under the darkness and the light of Christ’s cross. Let us pray to be obedient enough to take ourselves out of the center of our pain. Our vision cleared, we will see the Lord’s outstretched arms. He beckons us to see our pain as His and rest in Him.