Category: Cancer


I cleaned out our attic this week.  It’s only June – not even Summer yet according to the calendar – but the Atlanta area is already enduring temperatures way up in the 90s.  My goal was to work in the mornings before the heat soared past unbearable.  However, anyone who knows me knows that once I get started on a ‘project’, it’s hard for me to stop.  I’m like a freight train on crack. 

So I climbed the stairs, took a few steps onto the plywood flooring and looked around. Wow. I think there must be something about insulation, duct-taped boxes, and intense heat that promotes reproduction.  Where did all this stuff come from?  I found suitcases, Christmas decorations, papers from previous school years, air filters, clothes, and toys.  It seemed easy enough to begin editing.  I started with broken toys (how did they end up in the attic and not the trash can?)  I then moved on to parts and pieces of incomplete Christmas decorations (repeat previous question).  Clothes that no one in my family will ever wear again, luggage long past its prime, and a collection of stuffed animals that would rival FAO Schwartz brought back great memories, despite the fact that I was beginning to look and feel like I was at boot camp in the desert.

Going through each box with just enough detail to make sure I wouldn’t regret our Friday morning visit from the trash man, I was quickly filling the bags beside me.  Then I found it.  The box with Rachel’s costume from her dance recital six years ago.  It was an adorable bright yellow top and skirt that felt something like a cross between vinyl and plastic with black taffeta everywhere (literally).  Her group danced to Rascall Flatt’s Life is a Highway.  I remember her practically floating down the stairs to show her Daddy after we had the whole outfit perfectly in place, complete with slicked back her hair and makeup. She was beaming and her Daddy was speechless.

Next, I came across a collection of sports cars that Alex collected when he was much younger.  I remember the various Christmas and birthday celebrations when he received them and how he studied them, learned about the make and model, discovered all the parts that would open and close, and proudly displayed them in his room.  His favorite by far was the truck his Granddaddy gave him, a replica of his own. Alex kept a very special place reserved just for that truck and it was very often the first one he showcased when anyone else admired his collection.

With the heat sweltering and my eyes stinging from sweat running down my face, I was about ready to call it a day. My stomach told me it was well past lunchtime but I decided to go through one more stack before descending into the comfort of the air conditioned hallway. I moved a small blue blanket that a family friend had made for Stephen’s crib and opened the box underneath where I saw a stack of cards and some computer-printed sheets of paper. 

And I started reading.  “Dawn, we are praying for you and your family every day”; “Please know that Heaven is being bombarded with your name!”; “Our children pray for you and Baby Hood every morning before breakfast”; “So sorry to hear that you must undergo another surgery”; “Praying for you as you begin your chemotherapy treatments”; “Please let us know if we can do anything for you”; “You and Richard are a testimony of God’s strength and grace”; “I love your short hair!”; “The Lord brings you to mind several times each day and I am asking Him to give you strength and courage”; “Thank you for your updates by email…it helps me pray specifically for everyone in your family”; “You look fabulous with a bald head!”  More cards.  More Scripture passages.  More prayers.  Countless emails and notes of encouragement. 

I have no idea how long I sat on the floor of our attic reading those precious notes of encouragement, remembering like it was yesterday.  But what really made my heart swell was the realization that nearly ten years later I remain close to almost everyone who sent those cards, notes, and letters.  How it blessed me to realize that these friends and family have shared the good, the bad, the ugly, and the miracles of life with us! 

I was drenched when I slowly, carefully, came down those rickety stairs and closed the ‘trap door’.  But my spirit felt uplifted. Encouraged. Strong.

Eight years in the attic.  And still so very close to my heart.

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I have a dear friend whose husband is undergoing a stem cell transplant this very day to fight a rare form of cancer his doctors discovered a few months ago.  Turns out, because he is a diabetic, there is a specific protein used as a marker at his checkups.  A spike in that protein marker was the red flag that alerted his medical team to do more testing, thus finding the cancer.  His prognosis is good, very good in fact.  As I shared coffee and a bit of an emotional visit with his wife recently, she said almost in passing, “for all the hassle of [her husband] being a diabetic, it may very well be what saves his life.”

When I was diagnosed with cancer almost ten years ago, our midwife found a lump in my breast at my 8-week “well baby” check.  I wasn’t scheduled to have a mammogram for several months and there was no reason the midwife should have examined my breasts that day.  But she did.  They could very well have shrugged it off as hormones related to the pregnancy.  But they didn’t.  And the pregnancy with my third child  may very well be what saved my life.

After my first surgery – a lumpectomy – I developed an infection at the surgery site.  Our doctor was dumbfounded as it was extremely rare for an infection to occur with what he referred to as a ‘clean’ surgery.  I was on antibiotics for ten days before we could schedule the next surgery.  Because of the Christmas holiday and a skeleton crew in the lab, there was a delay getting the results.  This caused a delay scheduling the third surgery, a mastectomy.  At the time, we were frustrated with the multiple surgeries which delayed the start of chemotherapy.  After my chemo treatments ended we had a very narrow window in which to deliver Stephen before I began radiation.  The last week before he was born Stephen gained enough weight to avoid going to the NICU.  If there had been only one surgery on the front end, I would have started chemo several weeks earlier.  Stephen would have been born several weeks earlier, meaning he would most certainly have had days or even weeks in the NICU.

We all have had experiences similar to this.  Maybe not cancer, or diabetes, but what about the time you walked to your car and realized you had left something you needed in the house?  You took those few seconds or even a minute to go back inside.  And as you were driving you came upon a horrible accident, one that you could very well have been involved in had you left on time.  Little things like a forgotten item, big things like cancer or diabetes, every day, seemingly insignificant, sometimes frightening or frustrating.  May I encourage you to be mindful of today – and even thankful for – the speed bumps?

This past Friday evening I had the privilege to walk the Survivor’s Lap during the opening ceremonies of the Cherokee County Relay for Life.  My daughter’s best friend, Meghan, had joined a team from her middle school to raise funds for the American Cancer Society – the “Official Sponsor of Birthdays”.  When we arrived at the high school hosting the event, it looked somewhat like the inner circle of the Daytona 500.  Brightly colored tents everywhere, loud celebratory music blasting from the speakers on the stage, and a huge inflatable birthday cake covered in blow-up candles.  It was a long drive to the school, the traffic was terrible (go figure – Friday afternoon at 5pm), and it was one of the first really hot days we’ve had here in the area.

I was wearing my “The Chemo Made Me Do It” t-shirt with a pink breast cancer ribbon on it.  The kids and I walked around from tent to tent admiring all the creative ways people show their support and raise funds for cancer research.  Rachel and Stephen excitedly pulled me in the direction of the Survivor Wall of Fame and helped me sign it, adding their own personal touch to my autograph. 

To say that I attend these events with mixed emotions is an understatement of epic proportions.  It is with a deeply grateful heart and tremendous pride that I call myself a ‘survivor’ and I have gained laser precision accuracy at spotting others in the same camp.  There’s something a little different about us and unless you are one, there’s no way to explain it.  We simply know each other.  But I have to admit, there is an indescribable pit in my stomach that rears its ugly head when I see a man, woman, or child walking around with the telltale ill-fitting baseball cap.  It forces me to remember.  It smacks me in the face and screams, “I almost had you, too”.  And as proud as I am to be a survivor – as strong as I feel every day – it is my ghost whisperer.  An unexpected ache or pain or an unusual lack of energy always provokes the inevitable “what if it’s back?” in the deep recesses of my mind.

Thankfully, my kids were with me and Meghan was happy to introduce me to her classmates/team members.  The emcee for the event called all the survivors to gather around the stage and after a beautifully patriotic national anthem, we all sang Happy Birthday to each other.  Rachel and Stephen were on either side of me and before we started the first lap we heard a couple of stories from other survivors who had joined the celebration.  One young man was diagnosed with colon cancer barely a year ago and shared about his treatments and prognosis.  His young wife and son were sitting on the grass as close as they could get to the front of the stage, obviously proud of their warrior husband and dad who was fighting hard and winning his battle.

Then we heard from a young lady (barely 19 years of age) who is preparing for surgery this week.  She has had FOUR cancer diagnoses in the last few years.  Four!  She is a beautiful young lady, full of energy and a positive spirit.  She talked about her cancer as if she were sharing with us her volleyball schedule.  I felt some very familiar emotions start to rise as she shared about the support of her family and friends, and the daily conflict of emotions.  She even made a statement that I remember jokingly sharing upon my initial diagnosis, “I’m too stubborn to let cancer beat me.” 

As I was standing there I met two other ladies, Donna and Laurie, who less than a year ago were photographed at the lake together enjoying each other’s friendship, their families, and life in general.  And here they stood this night, both diagnosed within weeks of each other, currently in treatment, and bald.  I briefly shared my story with them and introduced them to my little hero (Stephen) and my private nurse (Rachel).  We chatted as only survivor sisters can and then Laurie looked at me and said, “can I ask you a question?”  “Sure. Anything.”  She looked at me for a few long seconds and asked, “Is that your real hair?”  I smiled.  “Yes, every single strand of it.”  Smiles.  Hugs.  Hope.

We walked the survivor lap, my children and I, arm in arm.  To see several hundred people standing on the inside track clapping, cheering, and waving was incredibly moving.  Tears.  I couldn’t speak, and my kids don’t see me like that very often.  Rachel held my hand a little tighter.  Stephen put his arm around my waist.  And then I rounded that last curve and looked up.  Meghan was standing there with her team, clapping and cheering like crazy.  It got the best of all of us and as I started to run to meet her, she and the others broke away and ran right towards us.  We met in a huge circle of hugs and cheers and smiles.  And we walked that final stretch together.   I turned around and looked back through the crowd of other survivors.  A few paces back, Donna and Laurie were walking arm in arm surrounded by their circle of friends.  Our eyes met and we exchanged a ‘thumbs up’.  New friends.  New heroes.  And a fresh reminder that beauty is often found in the most unexpected places.

About two years after my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment I hit an emotional wall.  And hit it hard.  I was struggling to wrap my brain around why so many thousands of women, a few of those thousands personal friends of mine, die from this disease.  Some pass peacefully, others in horrific pain.  Why, God?  Why did you take her and leave me here?  Those women had families, too.  They were nice people who were courteous and kind and respectful and raised their children right and made Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter magical for their families.  They worked miracles on a shoestring budget, sewed buttons on shirts and patched jeans, and never let the Tooth Fairy forget that baby tooth placed carefully under a pillow.  So why take them and leave me?  Most days I would say I like them a lot better than I like myself.

I imagine this morning and for many mornings to come there are an awful lot of folks in the Southeast who are asking that same question.  I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning watching the news, tracking the storms, looking out the window, listening, waiting.  And all I heard was rain.  Hard rain at times but nothing more.  I watched those storms make an inverted ‘v’ right across the area where I grocery shop, pick up my dry cleaning, and take my children to school. This morning not even a tree branch is out of place in my backyard.  The sapling cherry tree that I planted just a few weeks ago actually looks like it grew a bit overnight.

Obviously, I don’t have an answer that will cause people to sit back, throw up their hands and say, “oh, now I get it.  Now I understand.”  However, I can offer this: understanding the ‘why’ of life, at least for me, is a daily exercise for my heart and head.  When I reflect back over my almost ten years of being a ‘loud and proud’ cancer survivor, it’s the little things that help me keep it all in perspective.  When I see another woman who is obviously going through treatment, I don’t hesitate to touch her arm and ask her how she’s feeling.  What is her diagnosis?  How is treatment going? Does she have a strong support system around her? And I try never to forget to tell her she’s beautiful.  She’s strong.  And she’s a survivor every day that she wrestles her foe to the ground.

For many of us life goes on today just like it did yesterday.  Let us not forget to be tender, merciful, kind, patient, and gentle with those for whom life will never be the same.

I’m a cancer survivor.  Ten years this Fall.  So is my Mom.  And my mother-in-law.  My Mom and I both had breast cancer.  I was diagnosed first and felt a strangely comforting familiarity when she was diagnosed almost two years later.  I knew what might possibly lie ahead for her.  I knew I could be her advocate for the best possible care because I had learned the lingo, knew the doctors, and understood that ‘chemo cocktails’ were not served on a pretty little silver tray at a party.  Thankfully, my Mom had one surgery followed by radiation.  No chemotherapy, which for her tiny frame might very well have been more deadly than the cancer they found.

A few short months later my mother-in-law was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  Again, I felt to some degree that I could serve as her advocate.  I asked questions, a lot of questions, to the obvious annoyance of her doctor.  After a disastrous first round of chemotherapy, she found a new oncologist: mine.  Even so, chemotherapy was very difficult for her.  Everything that could possibly have gone wrong went wrong with every treatment.  But she is one of the kindest, most gracious, strongest Southern women I know and she now counts herself among the few who survive this ghost cancer that gives no warning, no symptoms, nothing.

Several years have passed and she, as a result of the chemo, suffers from neuropathy.  I had never heard of neuropathy before she was diagnosed.  Apparently, it is a long-term side effect of her chemotherapy.  Basically it means that she, at times, either feels debilitating tingles or numbness in her extremities – she either feels pain or she feels nothing in her hands and feet.  So much so that last year as she was leaving a movie theatre, she fell and broke her nose.  Couldn’t catch herself with her hands to break the fall.  As a follow-up to this ordeal with her oncologist as she was explaining what had happened, he looked at her and quietly stated, “This is your gift of life.  Your neuropathy means you are still here, still alive, still capable of struggle.” 

As she related this appointment that evening over dinner, it hit me: there are times in life when pain is our gift of life.  It means we are here to experience the struggle, the hardship, the emotion, the heartbreak of LIFE itself.  What is the alternative?  To feel nothing.  To be so numb that nothing reaches our soul.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like pain any more than the next person, but given the choice to never feel anything again, I’d like to think I would choose the pain. 

Wherever you find yourself on this Saturday before Easter, I’d like to encourage you and even challenge you to embrace your pain.  It may very well be your gift of Life.

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