HOPE OVERFLOWING

stories of grace, hope and life beyond cancer


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The uneasy dance of life and death – my fifth cancerversary

I am so often struck by the stark contrasts of this world, and particularly how sorrow and joy seem to be able to move together in a sort of uncomfortable dance, each one rising and receding in turn. It seems to me that life and death are so often the couple intertwined in this dance and I find their uneasy coexistence difficult to wrap my head around.

It is one of those weeks where I have a heightened awareness of both life and death. Life – because today is my cancerversary and marks five years since the day that rocked my world and I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. But also death – because yesterday I attended the funeral of a vibrant young woman called Sarah, who had recently celebrated her 32nd birthday and who got married last year and whose life was claimed by breast cancer just a few weeks ago. Yesterday we celebrated her life by marking her death.

The unfairness of this situation is not lost on me. As I sat in the church at the funeral yesterday wondering how granny was getting on with planting strawberries with the boys, I was reminded that it could quite easily have been my funeral that friends and family were gathering to attend. I was reminded that it didn’t have to have turned out like it did.

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As the family processed out of the church yesterday I was so struck by just how soon her life was claimed as her husband walked down the aisle out of the church, this time with no bride on his arm. This time he walked alone. I was struck by her untimely death by the presence of her grandparents at her funeral. Grandparents should not be burying their grandchildren. It’s just the wrong way around.

For me cancer plays a smaller and smaller role in my day to day life. But a few times a year when my hospital appointments roll around I have to engage with it once more. Almost two weeks ago I had my annual mammogram. It is always an event that I dread, not just because it is a pretty uncomfortable experience but rather because it always throws up worries that maybe all is not well after all. Perhaps the cancer has returned. This year I had my mammogram in the morning and in the afternoon we went away on holiday. We had the most glorious week away in the Cotswolds. The weather was gorgeous, the kids slept well every night and the days were filled with really fun outings. It was blissful, but occasionally the thought of my mammogram would creep back into my mind and I would wonder whether the postman had dropped a letter recalling me to the hospital through my post box yet.

The very first thing I did when we got back on Saturday was gather up the post and go through it all with a fine toothed comb looking for an envelope stamped with the hospital address. It wasn’t there. I hadn’t been recalled and I breathed a sigh of relief. I had somehow been granted a more time away from the clutches of this disease.

Sarah was the fifth young women in my sphere that has died from breast cancer in the past 12 months. Every few months I have been heartbroken at the news of another life taken and so celebrating my cancerversary this year feels very bitter sweet.

I am SO THANKFUL for another good year, to be healthy and to have the opportunity to enjoy a bit more of this life. I am so thankful for my family, my friends, my little business, opportunities to serve at church and in the community. I am so thankful that I am well enough to live a normal life and I feel blessed beyond measure. But today, in amongst it all I also feel so sad. I feel so sad for the lives gone, for the young children who have lost their mums and for the families who have lost daughters, sisters, aunties and friends.

I don’t know what it all means and I don’t know how to reconcile the unfairness of it all in my mind. I find that all I can do is cling on to the knowledge that it won’t always be this way and that one day all things will be made new and there will be no more sickness or crying or pain. But in the meantime, in the middle of the mess, these women encourage me to press on, to be thankful for each day, to run the race marked out for me and to choose to participate in the adventure.

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Why telling your story is so important

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I started this blog almost 5 years ago in the middle of the night whilst mid-chemotherapy and on a steroid induced high. Nobody told me not to take the steroids in the evening so wakeful nights were a feature of this phase of my life (although to be honest I am writing this late at night too, on my phone, because I have these thoughts pinging about in my head that need to be verbalised before sleep will come… I guess some things don’t change).

People sometimes ask me why I started blogging and for me the answer multi-faceted. I started blogging because I felt like I had to – I had something burning in my heart that needed to come out. I needed to be heard. I needed to wave my hand and say, “Hey! It’s me! I know all you see is a cancer patient at the lowest point of her life but that’s not all there is to me. I have something to give too even if it’s small.” I started blogging because I knew I needed to share stories of hope and grace because there is a lot of scary stuff out there on the internet when you are living the cancer story.

I started blogging because I wanted to tell a different story. I wanted to tell my story of pain and grief but also my story of hope and perseverance. I wanted to tell the story of what it is to be struck down but not destroyed because even in one’s darkest moments pain is not all there is to life and blessing is still there to be found.

So although that’s why I started, why I kept going with it (albeit in a much more stop-start way than I would ideally have liked) is because of the impacts that telling my story has had both on me and on others.

I think one of the things that I have found most wonderful and surprising about writing this blog is just how healing it has been to me. I am a list person, I always have been. When I have a lot going on I always make lists and I take great delight in crossing off the done items (I even always like to add one or two things that I’ve already done and cross them off immediately so as not to miss any of my accomplishments! Ha!) I find writing lists incredibly useful because they help me to get perspective about what is happening and what needs to be done. They help me to break things up into bite-sized chunks and to remember what needs doing and they help me not to get completely overwhelmed by life.

For me, writing this blog has fulfilled a similar purpose. It has helped me take a step back from the madness of day-to-day life and take stock. It has helped me to think about what things are overwhelming me and what things I am thankful for. It has helped me to really look for the hand of God in my life each step of the way and it has been hugely instrumental in helping me to process the trauma of cancer and in putting my broken little heart back together again.

One of the other amazing things that has come out of writing this little blog in this little corner of the internet is that as I have told my story it has connected me to others in the most wonderful way. When we tell our stories, when we are vulnerable, it can be costly. We open ourselves up to negative and judgemental comments or even if we don’t have any of those we open ourselves up to self-doubt and huge feelings of inadequacy (darn you WordPress statistics!) But, the flip-side is, by being vulnerable, by telling our stories of struggle, we also open ourselves up to community and connection. As we are vulnerable with our stories we give others permission to be vulnerable with theirs and that can create some beautiful community. As we tell our stories, no matter how normal or unremarkable we think they are, we can help to give a voice to others who may be grappling with their own stories or who may be having difficulty articulating what’s going on in their own life. As we share our stories we open the door for others to say, “Yes! Me too!”

And to me that is a beautiful thing and that is worth the cost and the inevitable vulnerability hangover that comes after sharing something that matters to us. So keep telling your stories folks. Whether it’s in a blog, a vlog or with friends over a coffee – whatever works for you. By showing who you really are you are offering a wonderful gift to those around you and that is definitely worth doing!

 


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Cancer and strawberry milkshakes!

So, Saturday 11 April was a pretty big day for me. I had meant to write a few thoughts about it on the actual day, but in the morning I walked 14.5 miles (23.5 kms) as part of my training for the Moonwalk marathon that I am doing next month, and it just about finished me off! I was barely able to have a decent conversation for the rest of the day let alone write something vaguely coherent!

But today, a few days on, my boy is back at nursery and I have a moment on this sunny Tuesday morning to reflect on this milestone

11 April was my cancerversary! (Yes, that it a real word! Well it is in my book!) It was my third cancerversary. Three years since the language of hospitals and treatment and prognosis stats entered my vocabulary and my everyday conversations. Three years since my normal changed beyond all recognition.

I always feel a little apprehensive as cancer milestones approach as sometimes I can be surprised and even completely blindsided by the intensity of my own emotions. How is this day really going to feel? How much of a big deal should I make of it? Should I mourn for what is lost? Should I dance that I am still alive? What is the appropriate response?

Despite my anticipation of the event lurking over me in the weeks before, in the end, the day was fairly low key. Epic walk in the morning (during which I got completely drenched in the rain), riverside pub trip in the afternoon with Some of Joel’s family and then an early dinner with my boys in a local diner.

We celebrated that I was still alive by sharing a strawberry milkshake!

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There were no tears and surprisingly no reminiscing. No rehashing of how it all felt on 11 April 2012. Rather there was plenty of laughing and chatting and answering of my little one’s questions… “Mummy, why does this restaurant have windows?”, “Who are those people Mummy?”, “I like Tyrannosaurus Rex’s! Which is your favourite dinosaur, Mummy?”

Joel did ask me if I wanted to talk about it, but I said no. I didn’t need to relive the trauma. It didn’t feel necessary or right. Rather, I just wanted to celebrate life! I just wanted to be normal.

The day before my cancerversary I was aimlessly scrolling through Facebook when I saw this quotation image:

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It really struck me. It is the message of Easter. But also, it spoke straight to my heart about the hope that has been restored to me through Christ. Through him, I am a resurrection person. I am part of the new life of the Easter story. Even though there have been places of huge pain and difficulty, hope can still rise up again.

Hope does and has risen in me.

I clicked on the link attached to the quotation and began to read the article. As I did this next quotation image similarly hit me straight between the eyes:

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Something deep in my Spirit said, “Yes!”

Because I am a resurrection person, because I know new life, because my hope has risen from the ashes, hosanna is my song. Thanksgiving is my song. Joy is my song!

So there it is! My third cancerversary has passed. It didn’t floor me. I was able to stand with my head held high and look to the future with hope, standing strong on the new life that Easter promises. What a gift!