Jesus > Cancer

Editor’s Note: In honor of Blood Cancer Awareness Month and Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, OTW is featuring articles from those who have personal experience with these cancers. We encourage you to give these articles a good read, and consider how you can get involved.

Me and Lynds at the Boston Public Library, June 2012

It was a cold January evening in Boston when my cozy little apartment began to fill up with dear friends bearing tasty desserts. My husband, Bobby, had planned a little gathering on my birthday. Although I was enjoying my time, I was fidgeting with my iPhone, making sure it was in a place where I could feel it vibrate if a call came in.

Back in California, my “bestie”, Lyndsay, was having blood tests done. In the previous days, she had unusual bruising, amongst other symptoms. As recommended by her primary care doctor, she had been staying at the hospital for “further testing”.

Sure enough, my phone buzzed. I looked down and read: “Clay”, our friend who was so kind to keep me informed in real time. Without hesitation, I went into the stairwell to take his call and hear the results of the blood test. Sure enough, it was the thing we feared… leukemia. I remember it so vividly.

As soon as was possible, I was on a five-hour flight to California that allotted some time for me to think and reflect on all that was going on. Typically, the first question we ask is, “Why did this happen to me/her/him? . . . or, “Why did GOD allow this to happen?”

I don’t claim to have all of the answers in life, but I am confident in the knowledge that we live in a fallen world, we are sinful in nature and susceptible to pain and suffering, but that one day our world will be completely redeemed. I know that is not an exhaustive answer, by any means. However, I had a different question to ask: “Through this suffering, what can I learn about Christ?”

Here were some of my thoughts that day:

I see cancer as a representation of sin. Not in the sense that one caused the other. But in the sense that it is ruthless, painful, and can ultimately lead to death. It takes over quickly, makes you weak, makes you afraid. You must confront it quickly, or it can become too large to conquer.

Chemo, is a savior to the person receiving the treatment and being spared from the death caused by the cancer. But chemo is also death. It is dangerous, but necessary. It kills as many white blood cells as possible, without killing the patient. It causes pain, illness and a plethora of symptoms.

When I think of the double effect of this treatment, life and death, I think of another powerful event in history that required death in order for life to spring. My Christ on the cross. I think of His death that was necessary to conquer our sin and to give us life. And I think of the pain that death caused our Lord, as His Father left Him to receive a treatment He never deserved, but was critical for reconciliation with us.  Death brings life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24 ESV

Lord, give my bravest friend in the world the strength to be weak, but fully dependent on Your grace. Heal her and make her like new. Please, make Your face to shine upon her and give her peace and be gracious to her. Only You know how to turn darkness into light and death into life. Amen.

That was in 2010… here we are now. If you read Lyndsay’s story that she published back in January, you know that she is cancer free! I’ve also seen my nephew, an aunt, and other relatives and friends battle some kind of cancer. I can’t be more grateful that God has brought them all through it. I am amazed at the resilience of the body and how amazingly advanced medicine has become/is becoming. I am also grateful for all of those who work so hard to discover new treatments for cancer, for those who donate their financial resources, for those who donate blood, etc.

I love it when God uses even painful experiences to reflect His love for us. It gives us the courage to battle, knowing that He joined us in our sufferings . . . and the hope of complete redemption of this life.

Posted in Adversity, Family, Grief & Loss, Health & Fitness, Theology & Philosophy | 2 Comments

Hope for a Cure

Editor’s Note: In honor of Blood Cancer Awareness Month and Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, OTW is featuring articles from those who have personal experience with these cancers. We encourage you to give these articles a good read, and consider how you can get involved.

I don’t have cancer, but I think about cancer all of the time. Why do we get cancer? Why is it that some cancers respond to therapy and some don’t? How do we predict who is going to respond? Can we cure cancer?

I think about it all the time because it is my job. I work in cancer drug discovery for a major pharmaceutical company. Before that, I did four years of postdoctoral studies dedicated just to finding how the cancer microenvironment controls tumor growth and metastasis. I love my job! I hate the cancer! So I fight, every day, for those people that do get cancer, with the hope that what I do can help give them life or least extend their life.

So, I go to work and I am fascinated every day by how much more I am going to find and learn about cancer, because before I can even think about new therapy, I need to understand the cancer. The idea is, if we can understand it, we can try to beat it.

And we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of how the cancer functions, but still so much more is lacking. For example, we can almost completely cure Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), because we know what makes that cancer grow. But with other cancers, it’s not always that simple all of the time.  Most cancers are extremely heterogeneous and adaptable, and that makes them hard to cure.

And yet, I still hope — I still believe — we can cure cancer! Why? I think it is a combination of drive, compassion, intellectual pursuit, hope, curiosity, desire to help, and commitment to never stop for the benefit of someone else. I am surrounded by like-minded people every day at work and that in itself is a great stimulus to continue to hope and give my best work.

And I think about family, friends and acquaintances that have cancer all the time, too. Sometimes people say that I should leave the emotional “stuff” behind, so to help focus better on the work that needs to be done. But I am an emotional person (I think most of us are) and though the pain is great, and I end up crying a lot, I find extreme motivation and strength to never give up, for them, through it all. So, I think being emotional does not hinder but helps me to give my best work.  And that is my promise for everybody that has ever had or has cancer — I am never going to give up the search for a cure! I hope that this brings hope for many in pain.


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When You Don’t Like Your Kids

Photo credit.

You know that thing that you’re always supposed to say when your kids are acting up? (And by “acting up” I mean behaving inappropriately, driving you crazy, whining and crying and not listening and pouting defiantly . . .)

You’re supposed to say: “I love you, but I don’t like this behavior.”

At least, that’s what I learned back when I was an elementary school teacher, and that’s what the handful of parenting books I’ve read all advise: Separate the behavior from the person. Let the child know that they’re loved and accepted, but that their behavior isn’t acceptable.

I think that probably IS the right thing to say when disciplining kids — or when dealing with anybody, really. I’m certainly thankful each and every day that who I am transcends my behavior at any particular moment. We all crave the security of unconditional love and forgiveness; I believe the correct term for this is “GRACE.”

But here’s a moment of brutal honesty: Sometimes, even as my lips are saying, “I love you, but I don’t like this behavior,” my heart is saying, “I love you, but right now I REALLY DON’T LIKE YOU AT ALL. NOT ONE SINGLE BIT! In fact, it is only by sheer force of will that I am continuing to be your mother at this moment.”

It was scary the first time this happened . . . and the second, and the tenth. . . . Because back when I was sagely reading up on discipline strategies, before having kids, I never expected that my own children could push my buttons so accurately, could enrage me so violently, could make me not like them. At least, not until they reached the teenage years. But my children are four, three, and one. They’re adorable. They’re much smaller than me. How could I NOT like them?!?

Of course, I DO LOVE my children. Even when they’re driving me crazy, I’d still throw myself in front of a runaway bus for them, if it came to that. (Thankfully, it hasn’t.) But what all those parenting books and teacher training seminars never mentioned was this:  in the moment, it’s almost impossible to separate the behavior from the child. When I say, “I love you, but I don’t like your behavior,” I’m not being totally honest. Or rather, I’m making a choice to say the right thing, while hoping that my feelings will follow in time. That’s something I do a lot as a parent . . . and as a person.

So, what’s this behavior that makes me want to rip out my eyeballs, forswear motherhood, and run to the nearest cafe for a lifetime of quiet solitude?

Well, since I’m being honest, when I step back to consider: It’s the behavior that most reminds me of myself. Impatience. Selfishness. Obsessive perfectionism. Clinging dependence. Senseless anxiety. All things I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to overcome and move beyond. When my children’s behavior pushes my buttons and enrages me, it’s usually because I’m inwardly saying, “Don’t DO this! Don’t BE this way! I know where this will take you ten, twenty, thirty years down the road!”

In other words, when I don’t like my children, I think it’s really because I still don’t totally like myself. . .

Which makes me wonder about God. You know: The Perfect Parent? I’ve often wondered how God is able to love us unconditionally when we so often behave toward Him the way my children behave toward me — and worse. I don’t think that God has my little problem of saying, “I love you, but not your behavior,” and not really meaning it. How does He DO that?

I reckon God can do this because He also doesn’t have my little problem of imperfection. When I act selfish or impatient or obsessive or anxious, it doesn’t remind God of Himself. He doesn’t have the kind of emotional baggage that I bring into my relationship with my children: I want to stop them from being like me. On the contrary, God knows that for me to become my best self requires being MORE like him. It doesn’t surprise or scare Him when I act up, so He doesn’t tear out His hair or pour Himself a scotch or lock Himself in the bathroom.

No; instead, God says, “I LOVE YOU. Also, when you’re ready, I can help you with that behavior.” Amazing grace.

Then, He gave me these kids. These kids who mirror me back to myself, who stretch my patience and love and anger to the limit.

I get the feeling God’s trying to tell me something. . . .

Posted in Being a Woman, Family, Parenting, Relationships, Theology & Philosophy, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

“Things We Don’t Understand…”

Editor’s Note: In honor of Blood Cancer Awareness Month and Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, OTW is featuring articles from those who have personal experience with these cancers. We encourage you to give these articles a good read, and consider how you can get involved.

My sweet baby girl had fallen asleep in my arms, her rosy cheeks so kissable. I was surprised she did, the music was so loud. I sat down on the flagstone steps, rocking her, and looked up into the night sky. The stars were bright, a perk to being in the mountains, away from the city. Twinkle lights around the dance floor sparkled. The full moon was peeking through the towering pine trees, trying to catch a glimpse of the action on the dance floor. I love the full moon. It was a perfect evening in the foothills.

The song changed and everyone on the dance floor screamed and cheered. I couldn’t help but laugh at their excitement, laughing also thinking of how much my sister-in-law dislikes that song.

“Do you ever feel, like a plastic bag drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?
Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin like a house of cards, one blow from caving in?”

As I sat there enjoying the chaos, a wheelchair passed next to me onto the dance floor. In it was a little girl, maybe eight years old, her dad behind her. He walked around the chair, took her hands and gently raised her to stand; she was shaky and unsure.

My breath caught in my chest.

Immediately people circled around her, cheered and made her feel like the best dancer on the floor.  As the song reached, “’Cause baby, you’re a firework. Come on, show ’em what you’re worth  . . .” her dad reached down, lifting her into his strong arms, and he danced, holding her close.

I couldn’t help the sobs, the tears, the ache in my chest. I thought to myself, “How did I get here?”  Then I saw him; his little stride, running through the crowd, more interested in playing than dancing.  He’s my four-year-old son, Nolan, and like the girl in the wheelchair, he has cancer.  Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia to be exact. The most common type of childhood cancer.

We were at Camp Okizu, it was the last night of Family Camp, and he’d had a great time. Camp Okizu is not your ordinary summer camp; you can’t write a check, or register early to get there. You have to have cancer.

The dance floor was full of children, parents and volunteers, all somehow touched, affected — lives changed, by cancer. You’d never know though, seeing the joy, happiness and fun happening on that evening.

Nolan was diagnosed on February 2, 2010, he was just eighteen months old.  That date is forever burned into my memory. You never think it’s going to be you. You never take your child to the pediatrician thinking that night you’ll be rushing him to the ICU. You never think that someone else’s blood will save your child’s life.

I thought I might try to explain in words how it feels to have a child with cancer . . .

Then I deleted all of it because it wasn’t enough. There are no words for it, there is so much that cannot be conveyed. Some things you simply have to feel to understand.  Like seeing the ocean, you cannot grasp its intensity or enormity until you have had its wind in your face, its roar in your ears.

As I think back over the last few years, it’s dizzying to think of all that my son and our family have endured together.  As I write this, my chest is aching with the familiar pangs of anxiety that have become normal to me.

There have also been beautiful moments, people with beautiful hearts that have stood with us. Shaved their heads, sent us on dates, cleaned our house, paid our bills, folded laundry, put a new stroller on our porch, brought us diapers, made us food, helped us laugh, let us cry.

I’ve never let myself ask the questions, “Why me? Why my son?”  Would I want someone else to have to face this? Never. Would I choose this again? No.  Am I grateful for the enormous capacity I now have to understand pain and heartache? Yes. Would I give back the lessons that I have learned? No.

Ingrid, another cancer mom that I have befriended during our visits to the infusion room and surgery center had this as her Facebook status the other day:

“Six months left of treatment and I wonder . . .

1) Is the cancer gone for good?
2) Will there be any lasting side effects?
3) Will Luc be able to go right into kindergarten after being frozen in time since he was twenty months old?
4)  Will I be able to start a new career at 40+?
5)  How do I/what does it mean to process the last 3.5 years?
6)   Am I going to have a total breakdown once I let my guard down?

Crap. It’s surprising how intimidating the next step is. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Six months feels like the day after tomorrow, but a lot can happen in the meantime. For now we keep on keepin’ on.”

I too can’t keep those thoughts out of my head lately.  It’s nice to see I’m not the only mom who feels this way. We have seven months and six days until the end of treatment. I am so happy and at the same exact moment scared out of my mind.

At a recent visit to our nurse practitioner who we have come to love, she said referring to post-treatment,  “. . . you can get back to normal . . . ”

I started crying.  I tearfully told her, “I don’t even know what normal is anymore.”

The truth is our normal won’t be the same ever again. We are not the same people, or the same family that we were. I look at pictures of myself and I think “I don’t recognize that girl anymore.” I see Nolan and think, “Where did my baby boy go?” I see the gray hairs that have appeared in Eli’s sideburns and know that those have been hard earned.  I see Liv and am grateful for the sunshine she brings. We are stronger, braver and enjoy our happy moments that much more. We choose to be happy anyway. The only thing we can do is hold tight to the things we have learned, the people we love, and march on.

Two (of the thousands) of things that I have learned through this whole situation/adventure/nightmare are that God is still good, and faithful, even in the midst of things we don’t understand. Also, the truth in the quote, “Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.”

Since September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month, I’d like to give a shout out to a few organizations that have been so wonderful to our family and countless others.

Please consider donating your time, money or blood!

The mission of Okizu is to provide peer support, respite, mentoring, and recreational programs to meet the needs of all members of families affected by childhood cancer.

It’s truly a phenomenal program. We had such a great, fun, relaxing time at camp, and are excited to go back over the years.

Their mission is to support children with cancer and their families by providing emotional, educational and financial support, while increasing awareness and funding research toward a cure.

All I have to say is Robyn Raphael is one incredibly amazing woman. Out of the tragedy of losing her son, she started KRM.

Because of their blood donors, volunteers, financial supporters and dedicated employees, patients are granted another day through the precious gift of blood. Their community-based, not-for-profit blood center provides blood and services throughout Northern and Central California and beyond — wherever and whenever the need. When you support BloodSource, yes, you do save lives.

I love, love, love the ladies at Blood Source!

Photos provided by Contributor, Amy Sandvos

Posted in Adversity, Family, Grief & Loss, Parenting | 6 Comments

Beauty and Its Beast

I was sitting across the lunch table from an adorable young mom of two daughters. She was describing the sticky situation she frequently finds herself in when out in public with her girls. Strangers often approach her and comment on how beautiful her two year old is, with well-intentioned exclamations about “Her eyes! . . . Her skin! . . . She’s stunning!”. Sounds like a dream come true, yes? Isn’t this the fantasy of every young mom when she sees that ultrasound and begins imagining proudly strolling the mall with her baby princess?

But she is a perceptive mom. I can see the empathy and concern in her eyes as she retells how she attempts to graciously accept the compliments, and at the same time, point out that she has another little girl sitting in the double stroller, too. A four year old, who is lovely in her own right, and absorbing every word of flattery directed at her little sister. Ouch.

We’ve all been here before. We’ve either been the concerned parent, the golden child, the passed over sister, or the complimentary passerby. At different times in my own history, I have played all four roles! Is there an escape route from this situation, or will Mom have to dress her youngest in sunglasses and a hoodie to even the playing field? Do people even think before they talk? How is it possible to simultaneously want to thank someone AND punch them in the face?

In reality, this scenario is fairly unavoidable. People mean well. When they see an adorable little girl, they are delighted, and they want to share that with you as her parent. Many of them will not have the wisdom and forethought to include both children equally in their accolades. Sometimes this mom will just have to say, “Thank you, and may I introduce my other beautiful daughter . . .” She cannot control whether others perceive her girls equally, but she can send a clear message to her precious four-year-old that her mommy sees and admires her too.

Beauty is a tricky thing. In part, it is godly. God created women to be beautiful. He intended for her beauty to be appreciated and admired and, someday, for an honorable man to be be so enthralled with it that he would leave his family and cleave to her for the rest of his life. But in our culture, beauty has also been reduced to a shallow combination of physical characteristics, and it has been perverted as a tool of power and manipulation. It’s a bit of a minefield for any female!

I only had a few minutes with this mom, and I wanted to encourage her. There are ways we help maintain balance in our homes when it comes to how we affirm our daughters. Is it appropriate to marvel at the beauty and radiance of your preschooler when she comes out of her room dressed in full princess regalia, in two different shoes and twelve coats of lip gloss? Absolutely! Should it be the focus of your affirmation? Definitely not. What we want to affirm most is character.

Character is the way we express our personality to the world, and it is something within our control. What are the attributes of your child that you want to see more of? Does she love to help? Does she share well? Does she freely forgive? Does she wait patiently? As a parent, it is your job to GO NUTS for this kind of stuff. Her beauty should get a reaction from you, but not the biggest, and certainly not most often.

All of us have been, and will be, in this situation. You will see a beautiful little girl prancing down the Target aisle. Your friend will stop by with her ridiculously adorable daughter, and she will smile and bound into your living room. You will be struck by the magical powers of her cuteness, and before you know it, it will come bubbling out of your mouth. It’s hard-wired in us to respond to beauty, to marvel at creation.

However, there is a war waging in the hearts of girls today; they are trying to discern, in their own way, what it means to be beautiful, and whether they fall into our society’s narrow definition of it. We don’t have to feed the beast of our culture. Let’s help parents out instead! Rather than commenting on her appearance, try one of these out:

“It is so nice to meet you!”
“Are you enjoying your day so far?”
“Read any good books lately?”
“What do you want to do when you grow up?”
“Would you tell me about that toy your holding?”

It seems silly and awkward that we should have to be so deliberate about responding to girls as individuals rather than reacting to them as objects to be critiqued and admired, but the truth is, we are a little bit brainwashed. I speak from experience. Anyone who knows me will tell you I love babies and little kids. I am that woman who will notice a set of antennae piggy tails from across the room and feel compelled to go over and gush. I almost can’t help it. Almost. I am a work in progress. But as a mother of two daughters, I have to be aware. Sometimes I need to ogle from afar and not call attention to another little girl’s appearance, because I know of a wonderful mom of a two- and four-year-old who would really appreciate it.

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