>>>Please Note: This is a very personal account of my breast cancer journey. It is not meant to be taken as medical advice or a guarantee of any kind for your personal journey or anyone you know. Each person is different with their own individual mind, body, spirit, and set of circumstances. References to breast cancer patients as “women” are not meant to undermine the fact that men- though a much smaller percentage- get breast cancer too. Some descriptions and images are graphic: these are meant to inform, not offend. Not all images are of me, but examples of procedures I experienced. Through the sharing of my personal experience, I truly hope to encourage you who are walking through the fire- in the Most Important Way.
Today, May 28, 2014, marks five years since my breast cancer diagnosis. I praise God for being here five years later to write this blog! In the medical community, this is a milestone- 98% of women diagnosed early are still alive five years later, considered “survivors.” I remember feeling that if I made it five years, I was “good to go”! Now I have to share something smart and humorous my 11-year-old son asked me after I informed him of the statistic. He said, “So mom, if your cancer returns and you die a week later, are you still considered a “survivor?” “…Well, I guess I would have been a survivor for five years and a week then!,” I said chuckling.
We all know the last thing cancer is, is funny. But my son was hitting on a truth- the five-year breast cancer survival rate is no guarantee for longevity. There are no guarantees in life. Life is full of all kinds of surprises, both good and bad. Getting breast cancer was a bad surprise, but compared to those who have had to endure excruciating treatments, daunting side effects of chemo and radiation, surgical removal of one or both breasts, spread of the cancer to other parts of the body, mental and emotional effects on self, family, friends, work, physical suffering or death, my own personal journey with breast cancer has been somewhat of a cake-walk. That being said, I have had my own chilling moments of fear along the way. But thanks be to God, they didn’t last long.
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10
I remember the strangest feeling when I got “the call.” I was pushing my shopping cart at the Walmart Superstore on 23 Mile and M-53 and my cell phone rang. It was my gynecologist. He was a very subdued man, monotoned with a calm demeanor, and this didn’t change as he handed me the news. I wasn’t initially alarmed at his call, though I should have been as there would be no other reason for him to call than to tell me my recent mammogram came back suspicious for cancer. And that’s exactly what he told me- and that I needed to schedule a biopsy ASAP. My knees gave way a bit as I leaned my weight into the shopping cart bar. How strange to be getting this news right there in the middle of Walmart when no one I knew was anywhere close by. I could hardly believe what he was telling me.
I waited of course until my husband returned home from work that night to give him the news. The color drained from his face, but he remained steady and rock solid, as always. I think that’s why God put him with me…my Steady Eddie! :). He listened, asked good questions, and was wonderfully hopeful and encouraging, and that has never stopped. I love that man dearly.
“… and the two shall become one.” – Matthew 19:5b
The biopsy was scheduled fast. There I was, hoisted up high on a cot face down with my right breast dangling exposed- I had little idea what to expect. I had watched a video to prepare, but nothing really prepares you. I had heard a few biopsy stories, but they were each surprisingly different. I was on that cot for what seemed like forever, probably because the entire time of being positioned to perfect stillness, staple gun-like clicking into my breast, repositioning and clicking again, I was waiting for a shooting pain that never came. Five large cores were excised and a special metal locator clip placed there in the breast. The biopsy itself was not painful, but the experience was the most unsettling I can remember in my life. Terribly disturbing and I hope I never have to do it again.
My biopsy results came back positive for ADH (atypical ductal hyperplasia) and LCIS (lobular carcinoma in-situ). I remember my doctor in his monotone voice explaining ADH as benign lesions that put me in a higher risk category for cancer- nothing too concerning… but LCIS was an early form of “pre-cancer” that was present in the breast lobule and had not broken out into the surrounding tissue to become “invasive”- more concerning. Doctor advised me to meet with a breast surgeon to discuss my options, at which point I switched hospital systems. If it turned out that I was going to need surgery, I knew where I wanted to be. So all my records were transferred to the new hospital, and my biopsy results were reviewed again. And here is where the visible sight of God’s Fathering over me begins. I say visible because I know He is caring for me every moment of my life.
“No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” – Joshua 1:5
I received a call from the doctor in my new hospital system almost immediately after they had received my biopsy sample and results. Their lab had decided to look at my tissue samples again, and they found something else- Invasive lobular cancer cells (ILC). GOD!! I knew what this meant. Suddenly, my treatment options and prognosis took on a whole new complexion. The first thing I did was find the signature of the examiner in the lab and call to thank him. He was shocked and said he’d never received a call directly from a patient like this before. I told him this was my life and he spotted something no one else did. His keen examination of my tissue samples made all the difference in the steps I would take to treat my cancer- had I not known the cells had broken through into the surrounding tissue, my conservative treatment would have opened the door for metastasized spread of the cancer through my body. A follow-up breast MRI confirmed his findings: “pathologically-proven malignancy.”
I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but it was during this period of time that I had the darkest night of panic. If the Devil didn’t inspire it, then he was no doubt laughing and rejoicing over it, as my thoughts aggressively cycloned into the vision of my life horrifically coming to an end. I remember thinking of one small black dot of cancer in my right breast that the Devil said he was going to use to multiply invasively through my body and torturously unravel every one of my breaths. My fear had gotten the best of me. I felt he had already started.
“You are of God, dear children, and have overcome him. Because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” – 1 John 4:4
I honestly can’t tell you why I allowed this horrible fear to inflate as it did in me before running to my Savior. But I can tell you that the instant I ran to Christ, my fear vanished. It was as though God was waiting as a Father does patiently for a child who is caught up in his own fumblings to turn around and cry to Him, “Abba! Father!” In those darkest of moments, I was choosing to put my trust in the flesh instead of in My Father’s Mighty Spirit! And the very moment I ran to Him- remembering all of His wonderful promises to me- He poured His Peace and Wisdom upon me, and they have never left. In my trust in God, I was commanding, “Get behind me Satan!!” Both Satan and fear fled.
Now I need to be clear- when I say, “remembering all of God’s wonderful promises to me,” that does not mean I trust God will always keep me free from pain and suffering! It means that I trust His Promise to love me until the end of time- that even when I walk through the fire, He will be with me…and that is Enough!
“But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your stead.” – Isaiah 43:1-3
“Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.” – Psalm 23:4
Jesus said to His disciples, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20b
I prepared to follow my breast surgeon’s 3-phase treatment advice: An immediate breast lumpectomy (excision of a lump of breast tissue where cancer is present) followed by 33 radiation treatments and a long-term regimen of oral hormone therapy. I praised God that traditional chemotherapy was not recommended as part of my treatment plan, probably because the cancer was caught so early. I honestly don’t know if I would have gone through with that.
As the date of my surgery approached, God pulled me closer and closer to Him in amazing ways. First, something unexpected and remarkable happened in the home of my dear friend Heather’s the week before surgery. She had asked me over to tell her more about my situation and I have no doubt to assess where I was spiritually and emotionally with all of this, being my sister in Christ. Heather had no idea I had been thinking heavily about verses on healing in the Bible that instruct to call church elders to pray over and anoint the sick for healing (James 5:14-15a), and I was considering contacting our church about this. Little did I know, Heather was close friend’s with one of our church elders, and right now his wife Robin was knocking at Heather’s front door!!! She was stopping by to drop something off, and Heather- having her usual presence of mind- took the opportunity to speak with her about me and ask if she would pray in the Spirit over me for healing. And Robin did, as she and Heather together laid hands on me in Jesus’s Name. I was being lifted up to The Lord right then and there! What precious exaltation in Christ! At the prayer’s end, the most wonderful feeling of relief and joy came over me… God is so good!!!!!
Another thing God did was begin speaking specific verses from His Word to me… many times each day I heard my Father whisper the same verses- 28 to 31 from Matthew, chapter 10– pouring His comfort onto me:
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
I never thought in my life I would rip something out of the Bible, but when my surgery day arrived, I went straight to those verses and tore them out. I held that precious Paper in my hand the whole day. My Bible still has a hole there, with a margin note to see Luke 12:4-7 for a similar passage! :). Here’s the actual piece I tore out—–>>>
I remember well the day of my surgery. It was a beautiful day outside. Ed and I dropped off our boys, Devin then 12 and Dillon then 6, at our dear friends Krista and Dan’s house for the day- then we headed for the hospital for my 9:30 a.m. check-in. Ed was great comfort to me in the waiting room, but when my name was called, he was not allowed to join me, so I would not see him again until surgery was over almost six hours later. As I left him, I was escorted to a seat in the hallway, as it turned out my room was not prepared. I opened my clutched hand to read my Father’s Words to my heart once again. A few minutes later, I was taken to my room, which turned out to be the first of a few areas I would move through before surgery. I remember it like a maze of specific preparatory steps, as I followed each technician’s instructions moving at exact times from one place to the next.
My preparation included a mammogram-guided “wire localization” procedure and “radio-tracer and dye injection for sentinel node mapping.”… Fancy words! Mammogram-guided wire localization is used to locate the malignant lesion for the surgeon and involves magnification of the breast image and insertion of a wire via needle into the exact location of the metal clip previously inserted during biopsy. A doctor and his assistant were waiting for me in this room. For some reason, that procedure turned out to be more complicated than expected, and within a few minutes the assistant was patting my back reassuring me while the young doctor climbed on a step-stool reaching around the mammo machine and over my head to access the insertion point, then down and up again from the other side. Hard to picture that, I know. He was clearly frustrated with his efforts, but finally was able to successfully pull out the needle with the wire remaining in place. The area had been numbed, so this was really not painful, but again, unnerving. My procedure was similar to the one pictured below, except I was not laying on my side but standing upright.
Next I was put in a wheelchair and rolled to a pass-through area where a rushed, but pleasant woman scrambled to organize my paperwork. She shoved my papers and x-rays in a large envelope, handed them to me, wished me well, and like clockwork someone arrived behind me grabbing the handles to roll me to the next area. My transporter was a nice woman, good at making small talk. She rolled me quite a ways- down a long corridor, past an office party of some kind, then to the elevator to the surgery floor. Finally, we arrived at a fresh-made cot with my name on the pillow… feeling special already! 😉 The nice lady gave me my gown and left. I changed and awaited instructions, and quickly realized I was moments away from the dye and tracer injection for sentinel node mapping- I had read this was not pleasant. Sentinel lymph nodes are the first nodes into which a tumor drains, and mapping traces the flow of lymph fluid to these nodes. Blue dye is injected, travels to and stains the nodes blue, thereby assisting the surgeon to find the correct lymph nodes, so this is a critical pre-surgical step. The surgeon determines during surgery whether excision of nodes is needed, which it turned out was necessary for me.
“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” – Exodus 14:14
A lady arrived and set up my saline and drug port via uncomfortable needles in my left hand. She was very caring and helpfully applied a warm compress to relieve pressure. I remember her name was Karen, and she sat down beside me as sedation began running through my veins. Seemingly out of nowhere, a large blonde woman with big eyes appeared in front of me and began talking very fast about what was going to happen next. I didn’t like her immediately- she had a cold catatonic stare and of her many emotionless rambling words, I only remember these: “Now this part is quite painful.” I often wonder if it’s better just to go ahead and do it rather than inspire anxiety in the patient with a heads up. This woman didn’t seem to care either way. And there was my Father once again the very moment I needed Him- I felt my hand being squeezed. It was Karen- she was still there beside me! She apparently saw my face change and whispered, “Don’t let what she said scare you, honey… your wire localization was probably worse than this will be.” I felt the tension leave me instantly. Thank You, Father!!
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” – 1 Peter 5:7
A tall, boyish-looking man with a friendly smile appeared- a welcome sight after TIGTHL (“This Is Going To Hurt Lady”) left. This was the doctor who would do my dye injection. His mild-mannered demeanor calmed me further. Or maybe it was the sedation kicking in. I was feeling very loose and spacey now, and his words distracted me from his ensuing actions. Strangely, he now seemed to appear immediately over me rather than having moved forward, like in a movie scene change. I think this is when he inserted a tube under my nipple (blue dye), then a second radio-tracer(?) His hands were fast. This was probably the painful part TIGTHL was talking about, but thank God I was too high to know it. Then they told my husband Ed to leave… when did he get in there anyway? The last thing I remember is being wheeled to the operating room and telling the people around me to make sure I was sedated enough, at which point someone said, “You won’t even make it awake to the room.” They were right.
I awoke in pain, hearing myself moaning (weird). I noticed a woman inserting something in the IV bag- probably a pain killer. I think Ed was to my right- I was awakening. The blood pressure cuff tightened and released several times. I sensed everyone rushing and I remember thinking about the 5:00 p.m. insurance company cut-off! Before I knew it, I was being wheeled out.
I don’t remember a lot after coming home, still largely sedated. I remember Ed went to get the boys and my dear friend Julie arrived with heavenly food- I was sooooo hungry! I must have eaten, but the night was a blur. Another friend of ours, Ellen, visited with food the next day- a day of being sore and tired. Ellen’s caring presence with homemade food was a welcome sight. Thank you Lord for dear friends, and food! 🙂
Two days later, our power went out, and our friends Mike and Michelle invited us over. As always, we had a lovely visit, and I was thankful to be feeling so much better at this point! More dear friends came over with food the next few days- Rose, Mary, Linda, Tierney… I must have gained 5 pounds in a week! Each visit meant so much to me and I will forever be grateful. The hands and feet of Christ!
“…but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy.” – Proverbs 14:21b
Soon after surgery, I received another HUGE blessing from God– my pathology reports from surgery came back negative! That meant NO cancer was found in tissue farthest from lesion (“clear margins”) and NO cancer was found in the sentinel lymph nodes removed- couldn’t have received a better result! Thank You, dear Lord! My surgeon was absolutely wonderful. Her skillful hands removed the perfect amount of tissue, and cosmetically, save for the hardly noticeable crescent incision scar, my breast looks just as it did prior to surgery.
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” – James 1:17
My breast tissue needed to heal completely before I could begin radiation treatments, so it was about six weeks later when I laid on the radiation table for the first time. This is something else I never imagined doing. I remember struggling mentally with this part of my treatment plan. It was one thing to cut out a piece of cancerous tissue, quite another to radiate healthy tissue. And not just a few sessions…33! Now, can you guess who was right there once again reassuring me?… YES! My SAVIOR!! Three weeks before treatments began, He sent a Spirit-filled sister in Christ to speak three critical words to me. — Jan and I were sitting at a table together, just the two of us, at a club my guitarist husband’s band was playing in (Jan’s hubby is the drummer). I was just starting to express my concern to Jan about radiation and balancing a medical response to my cancer with the knowledge of my Savior’s healing power, when right while I was talking, Jan’s eyes closed and her head bowed down. I thought she was either becoming emotional or praying, but her head jerked right back up, then back a few times, then breathing deep through her nose, she leaned forward, eyes still closed, and spoke a different language- one I’d never heard before. I have since tried to remember the phrase she uttered twice to me, but I can’t bring it to mind. I only know it was authoritative, and then I heard it. God spoke the English words through Jan to me- “All is well! All is well!” As she returned, her eyes opened and she smiled. She didn’t know what she had said, but spoke of God’s assurance that all was well with me. As I fell asleep that night, the vision of Jan speaking in tongues ran through my mind as my Lord assured me- “All is well, Nancy. Your cancer is negligible. I am in control. Do not worry. Trust me.”
“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” – Acts 2:4
“For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say.” – 1 Cor 14:13
I remember the need for absolute precision in the “simulation room” (preparation for radiation treatment). I was actually strapped down, needing to lie perfectly still as I would need to be each of the next 33 sessions, while light beams shot strategically to different points on my breast. Measurements were taken, and at each exact point, I was given a “tattoo” (never thought I’d get one of those either!)- just a few dots the size of a pencil point. The tattoos would be used each session over the next several weeks to guide the beams of radiation into the specific area the tumor had been. Radiologically, another MAJOR blessing was that my tumor was in the right breast- radiation directed to the left breast I was told had the added risk of touching the heart. PRAISE You, Lord!!!
Each session, I would check in, change into my gown, and go to the radiation waiting area- a very small room where usually only one or two ladies sat at a time. I tried to be aware if someone wanted to talk, and be ready to listen. Most were quiet, introspective, but some enjoyed filling the silence with conversation with a kindred spirit. There was only one woman I met the entire time who was visibly distraught. She was in the end stages of radiation and having some bad side effects. She was almost done with treatment, and I tried to encourage her. I remember feeling grateful in that waiting room, for so many things. I was thankful when I would see a woman come out of radiation on her brain. God knew what I could handle, and He spared me of many things I would only observe.
When my name was called, I was always greeted by a very pleasant staff who escorted me to the radiation room and meticulously positioned me on the cot- arms above head in supine position in my pre-made custom mold. After a few minutes of reassuring chatter and the reminder to remain perfectly still, staff would exit the room, I would hear the heavy door lock, and I would wait in dark silence for the mammoth 360 machine to begin moving ominously over me. This intimidating machine seemed to have a life of its own, and it’s slow rhythmic movements and sounds became almost predictable. My sessions grew into great times to talk to my Lord, and I remember thinking this monster machine could save my cells from dividing, but only God could save my soul.
My radiation treatments were clinically successful- I suffered only minor burns and some fatigue by the end, which both faded in time- no vomiting, thank You Lord! At my final visit, I got to ring the Big Brass Bell in the lobby, as all patients who complete radiation therapy do. Boy, did I ring that bell!… like it was the Liberty Bell! Below is a picture of me and Ed at my last session. You can’t see it, but I’m wearing a breast cancer shirt that says, “Fight Like A Girl!” 🙂
The final step of my 3-phase treatment was to begin taking a hormone drug called Tamoxifen, sometimes referred to as “oral chemo.” I was to be on this drug for FIVE YEARS! I had done my homework on this as well, and had a list of questions ready for my medical oncologist at first visit. Basically, Tamoxifen blocks estrogen from getting to the cells, and since estrogen can act as a magnet for cancer, this drug is recommended for a lot of breast cancer patients. My primary concern was the many adverse side effects I’d read about- many women had experienced severe bone aches, hot flashes, mood swings, changes in discharge, bleeding and weight gain. Still others- though significantly less- suffered the more serious blood clots/stroke, visual problems, liver issues, endometrial cancer and uterine sarcoma! My doctor assured me the percentage of patients having those serious side effects was minuscule, and that the cancer recurrence rate for patients choosing both radiation and Tamoxifen dropped another 3.5%- that was significant. Again, I went to my Lord and laid it before Him. I really didn’t want to take this drug, but it was advised given my personal breast cancer scenario, by the excellent doctors God had brought to me for my care.
My oncologist had told me I would know right away if I was going to have bad side effects from the Tamoxifen. So I prayed to Jesus as I swallowed my first pill. He gave me His Peace, as always. Nothing the first day. Nothing the second. Nothing the third. A week went by, two, three, four- nothing. My Father in Heaven was handing me yet ANOTHER HUGE BLESSING… my body was receiving the Tamoxifen amazingly well! Other than a momentary sensation of warmth in my neck, I had absolutely NO side effects!! And that has remained to this day- almost five years later! Praise Your Holy Name, Lord!!!
“You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.” – Psalm 32:7
“You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word.” – Psalm 119:114
The spiritual vs. medical response to my cancer was always on my heart. They needed to be reconciled or I would not have peace. If I felt I was making a choice in conflict with God’s Will, I would not make it. Being right with God was more important than being right with man’s plan of action for me. I found that at each and every turn, my Savior was right there reassuring me of His Provision and Care- that He stood high above all this and would not allow anything to happen without His consent.
“Many are the plans of a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” – Proverbs 19:21
“He will not let your foot slip-
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you-
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;” – Psalm 121:3-5
One sweet reminder God gave me along the way was that His disciple Luke was a doctor! (Col 4:14) In fact, the verses The Lord whispered continually to my heart from Matthew chapter 10 that I tore from the Bible and took to surgery are replicated in only one other book in the Bible- the book of Luke, chapter 12, verses 4-7.
There are so many ways God has blessed me and glorified Himself through my breast cancer journey, and I praise His Holy Name! Beyond the above, there have been many people God sent to inform and encourage me (some breast cancer survivors themselves), including wonderful Annette, Ed’s colleagues Julie and Renee, and Ellen’s friend Amy. Ed’s brother, Enzo, blessed me with tons of nutritional advice and information for my ongoing care and well-being. My dear friend Julie’s daughter, Crystal, honored me by participating in a breast cancer walk and putting my name on a pink candle bag lit a couple nights before surgery. ❤ Precious people God rushed to my side in prayer and/or deed (outside of my husband, sons, Mom and brother) included: Cousins Juli, Dawn, Doreen, and Angel, friends Dalva, Rose, Ellen, Hope/Jeff, Heather, Julie, Crystal, Briana, Ruth, Krista, Heather, Robin, Deb, Linda, Michelle, Tierney, Mae-Lin, Laurie, Julie, Michelle and Leslie. There were many more.. too many to list, but I am so grateful for your love!
The past five years have been ones of learning, growing, and leaning harder into God. I learned about the deadly impact of stress and how to avoid it, about good nutrition, exercise, and rest, and about consequences of neglecting oneself. But most importantly, I learned to lean harder into God each day… I believe that’s a big reason He allowed this to come into my life. He is such a passionate God, desiring intimacy with His children! I learned firsthand the value of suffering for ourselves and for others. When we walk with Jesus Christ, absolutely every bit of suffering in our lives is for a Divine Reason… to sharpen and mature us in our faith, to help others who are suffering through the comfort we’ve received from God, and to glorify the One True God who sent his son Jesus Christ to save us! He is the Master of bringing bright and beautiful things from the darkest times in our lives!
More than anything, I hope the sharing of my personal journey with breast cancer has encouraged you to put your complete hope and trust in the Living God! For He has plans for your future, and no matter what comes your way in life- you can be sure He will be right there to hold your hand and walk with you through the fire! TRUST IN HIM!!! There is NOTHING to fear with your eyes on Jesus Christ!!! He is your Savior and the Lover of your soul! God will bring unimaginable blessings from the trials in your life to you and others as you SUBMIT to HIM!
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiaah 29:11
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.” – Proverbs 3:5-7
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” – 2 Cor 1:3-4
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