The Other Side of the Valley of Cancer

You might be surprised, disappointed or even angry to find so many issues in your life post treatment.  Recovery can be stunningly slower than your exptectations.  You may, or may not, look “fine” but you will be different in many ways.  Some will be temporary, some permanent.

I’ve developed four strategies to help me on the long climb out of the valley of cancer:  Maximize, Mitigate, Recouperate and  Trust, not necessarily in that order.

Maximize the skills, strength and abilities that have returned.  Praise God for the healing that has occurred, then ask Him to show you what you can do — with what you can do!

Mitigate your limitations.  Develop strategies to work around limitations that impact you routinely.  When I learned that other cancer survivors had difficulty writing an outline, I learned how to do a mind map.  My post-chemo brain seems to freeze up when I attempt to write an outline, but the mind map technique allows my thought processes to fly.  Once the mind map is complete, I’m able to easily convert it to an outline.  I’m faster with the two step process than I was writing an outline prior to chemo!

Recouperate.  Don’t “buck up” and pretend there are no more issues.  A life of praise and gratitude doesn’t mean you are sticking your head in the sand.  Praise and gratitude for the things you can do and the mitigation strategies you’ve identified so far free you to face your remaining limitations with God and seek all the ways in which He will lead you to recovery.  For me, this includes sleep, exercise, eating well, some key supplements and constantly consciously returning to praise, gratitude and laughter.

Trust in God’s Direction.  Where recovery seems uncertain — or impossible — return to praise for the things you can do and the mitigation strategies you’ve developed.  Remind yourself of the great God who is able to bring glory to His name through any circumstances.  Ponder the Red Sea.  You are called to be a willing participant in God’s plan for all mankind.  Sometimes the part in which we are cast gives us the honor of praying, like Christ, “Not my will, but thine be done.”  Are you willing to serve God with limitations?  We all have them, it’s just new ones that rub us so hard the wrong way.

I found it harder to trust God to help me after chemo than during it.  During chemo, my job was to keep a good attitude and “get through.”  It was tough, but all expectations on my performance were off.

Post chemo, however, expectations returned to their pre-cancer levels — but I did not.  I was no longer as smart or as energetic as I had been, and it has taken four years to get back to a place that seems similar to pre-cancer.  Even here, I have supplements that help me maintain mental clarity — that I dare not skip.  It has been a learning experience for me to trust God when I feel inadequate to do what is clearly my responsibility to accomplish.  God is not a genie:  not every answer is yes.  As I learned to trust Him with my life, live or die, I am learning to trust Him with my performance, succeed or fail.  I’m not done learning, I’m sure.

You are not alone.  Others are here with you.  Most importantly, God has allowed your path to lead to this place.  He has a gracious plan for your life.  I pray God’s blessings on you as you find it!

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When You Can’t Sleep, Pray

It was helpful to me to learn that other people going through cancer treatment had trouble sleeping.  My anti-nausea medication, Ativan, helped me when sleep was elusive, but you might need to ask the doctor for something specifically to help you with this. 

Years ago my sister Marnie ( mentioned that when she wakes in the night she says “Who do you want me to pray for, God?”  I have had precious times praying through a list of friends as I lay awake in bed.  Sometimes I will feel an intense burden to pray for one friend, and when that burden lifts, I fall right back asleep.  Sweet!  It is comforting to rejoice in the uninterrupted time to pray for whoever God brings to mind.  It takes “I should be sleeping” and turns it into “what an amazing opportunity to be used by God to pray for others.” 

During treatment, as I lay awake praying, I would frequently become aware of physical discomfort that was keeping me awake.  I needed pain killer, or anti-nausea, or other medication that had been prescribed, but I hadn’t taken it when I should.  In that case, I’d get up, take the medicine, lie back down and keep praying until sleep arrived.  If you can’t think of who to pray for, then start thanking God for things.  That’s fun too! 

Good night.

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Family Funnies During Cancer, Part 2

My husband and I decided if we were not afraid, our 6 and 10 year old daughters wouldn’t be afraid either.  We were careful to package scary news to make it as easy to hear as possible.  For example, when I told them I’d be having surgery (in one week), I had already arranged a sleepover invitation for each of my girls with a good friend. 

My oldest watched us to see how upset we were about the surgery.  When we seemed okay, she relaxed and prepared to enjoy herself.  When the surgery was postponed, she was nonchalant.

Not so my little one.  The promised sleepover made my surgery an exciting event, and she couldn’t wait.  When surgery was postponed, she was crushed.  We decided to have the sleepover anyway, with the promise of a second sleepover for the actual surgery.  After each chemo (8 treatments over 4 months), my little one kept asking me “How long until surgery?”  I’m proud and grateful we were able to maintain a happy home during my valley of cancer, but I would sometimes wonder if we overdid it.

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Family Fun During Cancer

My girls were 6 and 10 when I was diagnosed with cancer.  I typically wore a bandana around the house.  On the few days I went to work, I wore my wig.  It was summer in Florida, and that wig got hot and itchy, especially in the afternoons on the drive home. 

One day when I complained, my girls urged me to take the wig off.  They promised me no one would notice.  Finally, I could resist the temptation no longer.  I didn’t want to cause an accident, so I made sure I performed the “unveiling” at a stop light. 

Unfortunately, I drive a Toyota Solara with a sun roof, and immediately to our right was a jacked up pickup truck with a perfect view of my head through that peep-hole in the roof of the car.  My daughters scanned the neighboring vehicles looking for a reaction – and got more than they bargained for.

“Mom, that guy in the truck next to us, his eyes are bugging right out of his head!” 

We laughed then, and we still laugh now.  So much for no one will notice.

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Choosing to Laugh: At the Hospital, part 2

For example, my radiation team wrote on me with permanent marker almost every day. I decided, if I had to have permanent ink on my body, it better be purple. One technician searched, found and gave me my own purple pen, which I took back and forth with me each day. They would laugh when I prevented them from writing on me with “unacceptable” colors like green or orange, and gladly use the purple pen clipped onto my gown. It wasn`t much, but it helped us all focus on smiling. One day a new technician went into full “calm down the hysterical patient” mode in response to my teasing. I quickly apologized, explained I was not upset, but trying to be funny, and invited her to play along with me. The other technicians joined me in calming her down. That experience gave me more sympathy and understanding for their original restraint in joining me in laughter.

When my sister went into the hospital for intestinal surgery, I primed her with this joke: Why was the skeleton afraid to cross the road? Answer: It didn’t have any guts. It was so perfect for her audience that the nurses told it to everyone who came in the procedure room before my sister had a chance! Friends, taking care of us is not always the most joyful job. We need laughter, and it will bless the ones who care for us as well. Join Fran and I, and choose to laugh, especially on your way to the hospital.

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Choosing to Laugh: At the Hospital

Fran DiGiacomo was my mentor in laughing at cancer itself with her book “I’d Rather Do Chemo Than Clean Out the Garage: Choosing Laughter Over Tears.”  Her humor was life-giving to me. Unlike me, writing to you from the recovery side of this valley, Fran writes with the prespective of someone who knows she will be in treatment for the rest of her life — which she has chosen to enjoy! Fran developed a questionnaire for her surgery staff, and designed a special T-shirt to wear each time she checks into the hospital for surgery. I pray that you and I will not need to spend that much time in the hospital, but we can learn from her proactive approach.

Based on her inspiration, when I had to go to the hospital for a test or procedure, I would bring a joke to share. I’d first ask “Have you heard any good jokes today?” Although I was sad everyone said no, at least I didn’t have to worry that my joke was too lame, as it had zero competition. One joke from Fran’s book (which is NOT lame) is her definition for anesthesiologist, the doctor who stands behind you and passes gas. Thanks, Fran!

I need to warn you that your care providers may not laugh at your jokes unless you give them explicit permission. In their defense, not a lot of cancer patients are laughing. Too often, when a cancer patient says something melodramtic, they mean it. Remember I warned false anger can be a side effect? I appreciate my gentle care providers who choose not to laugh out of respect for the deep valley through which their patients travel. However, if you share with your caregivers that you are seeking laughter, they will join you, support and encourage you — and, dare I say it, appreciate you! You will be a breath of fresh air in their day, welcomed and enjoyed.

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Joy In Cancer Secret Three: Laughter

Cancer isn’t funny.  Cancer is big, it’s bad, and it’s awful; but my God is bigger, He’s better, and He’s awesome.  God is able to give His children joy in the middle of horror.

While you are in the Valley of Cancer, I encourage you to seek laughter.  Seek it, but don’t force it, and don’t fake it.  I don’t mean you should pretend you are having a good time.  Laughing and crying at the same time count.  In that moment, you have a choice.  Which are you going to hang onto?  Sometimes, tears are the right response.  Other times, laughter can be a lifeline.  When you can, grab it, and swing, baby, swing!

When you’re going through chemo, you are dealing with the side effects of the chemo, the medicine to help you deal with the side effects of chemo, and more to help you deal with the side effects of the side-effect management medicine. Honest.  No matter how grateful you are for this abundant display of amazing western pharmaceuticals, at some point looking at your vast array of pills and potions will be a multiple choice test:  laughter, tears or all of the above?  Proverbs 17:22 says that “laughter does the heart good like medicine.”  I’m suggesting you need to not only laugh when it gets ridiculous, but go beyond that to “take” laughter like medicine:  regularly and on purpose.

Chemo Half Way Day

During my valley of cancer, I looked for laughter.  Those silly e-mails I had been too busy to read were exactly what I wanted in my inbox.  I knew which friends to ask, and they came through with an avalanche. I accepted too cute as well as hysterical, and considered a weak, crooked smile (see my picture?) as a laughter success. 


In upcoming posts, I’ll share the ways I “took” my laughter medicine, including books, movies and comedians.  I’ll share things we laughed about together as a family, the Bible verses that made me laugh, and how I know God has a sense of humor. 

How do you take your laughter medicine?

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Creative Thanks During Cancer

What if tried and true words of thanks are blatantly inappropriate coming from a cancer patient? For example, “that tastes wonderful” doesn’t work when your taste buds are on vacation with your hair.  Dear friend with cancer, break out the Creative Thanks.

My friend’s husband brought a hot, home-cooked meal to our house.  As I walked towards the door to greet him, one smell of the food sent me straight to the bathroom.  When I was able to return several minutes later, I couldn’t even say the words “That smells delicious.” It was time to be creative.  Here’s what I said. “Thank you. As you can see, I’m in no shape to be cooking for my family, and they are hungry.”  Honest thanks, carefully worded.

As I lay in my recliner the next few days, I thanked God it had not been the cook delivering her own cooking.  How painful would it be to have someone throw up at one smell of your gift of food?  I recommend keeping well back when hot food is delivered. 

We need to take care of our volunteers by letting them know how much we appreciate their help.  You may not be able to say thanks immediately.  The nausea can come and go unexpectedly. One time the feelings going on in my body were so distracting it was hard to pay attention to what was happening around me.  In a healthy person, that would be rude. It may take all your effort, but try to express your gratitude, explain your limitations, and then let your precious volunteer decide how to move forward from there.

If you’re feeling bad enough that you need creative thanks, you’re likely to have some time to ponder how your response was received.  If it wasn’t Oscar-worthy the first time out, you’ll have time to think of better responses.  The more hysterical you word your thanks, the better, both for you while you’re lying there and for your friend when you see them next.  They’ll appreciate the effort – as much as you really did appreciate their help. 

Have you had to use creative thanks?

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Cancer Thankfulness Challenges (Gracious Receiver Part 2)

Saying thank you is normal common courtesy — except cancer is not normal.  Unexpected emotions can strike happy moments, catching you, and your friend, off guard.  I was surprised and a little embarrassed when I reacted poorly to the generosity of my friends, when food made me gag or gifts stressed me out.  I tried to say thank you as graciously as I could as soon as I could. 

A gift of tea tree oil lotion triggered an overwhelming need to scratch my arms. Where did that come from?  I (mostly) restrained myself, said thanks and stuffed the lotion toward the back of my overflowing medicine cabinet.  Imagine my surprise a few days later when a nurse recommended I purchase a lotion containing tea tree oil to deal with my suddenly parchment-dry, itchy and prone to infection skin.  God knew, and I’m thankful I accepted that gift gratefully.  I got back to the giver to share the praise of how God was using her gift. 

During chemo, a friend gave me a pink prayer candle with a cross on the side made of nails.  You’re thinking “cool,” but I got agitated.  When my friend left, I exploded into anger.  I had cancer and I was sick!  I felt like a stranger in my own body and this was something else new.  My medicine cabinet, cupboards and fridge were spitting pain pills, anti-nausea teas and unknown raw vegetables back out at me.  My life was out of control and my friend thought it was appropriate to require me to rearrange the knick-knacks in my house.  What was she thinking? 

Even in my anger, I knew it was not rational.  I love candles.  Was I truly grateful?  I was, and still am.  Once I calmed myself down, I knew exactly where that candle belonged, and I didn’t have to rearrange anything. 

Any gift or offer of help may trigger emotions about your cancer.  Chemo and side effect medication can create false emotions as easily as they create pain and nausea.  Be careful, dear friend, not to allow these unwelcome reactions to hurt the dear ones who are surrounding you with love and help.  When it happens (notice I didn’t say if), apologize as soon as you can, as honestly and lovingly as you can.

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Being a Gracious Receiver during Cancer, Part 1

My friend told me I was a gracious receiver. Really? Like most women, I find joy in my care of myself and my family. An offer of help made me admit my inability to fulfill “my” responsibilities, and sometimes I fear my frustration came out as ingratitude. It’s hard to be nice when you feel lousy, when you really want to say “go away and leave me alone in my misery.” Sometimes your first response to a generous heart may be “no, it’s too much,” not realizing how your words can hurt the ones trying to help. Because of God’s direction to me to seek praise, thankfulness and laughter, I worked at keeping my heart, and words, grateful. Here are three of the thoughts that helped me.

Help #1: Bruce Wilkinson’s book A Life God Rewards reminds us that God rewards those who do good deeds. I laughed when I read Hebrews 10:24, which says to “spur one another on to love and good deeds.” (NIV) You helper, me spur. I’d rather help than be helped, but I had been chosen for cancer, and I needed to accept this role with as much grace and gratitude as possible.

Help #2: If I felt like what someone was offering was too much, I would ask myself: “Would you rather do this for them, or have cancer?” In every case, I would have jumped at the opportunity to be giver rather than cancer patient/receiver.

Help #3: I believe we are only able to do good deeds if God enables us. Time and again I’ve watched God orchestrate opportunities for me to do good deeds for others. One day during chemo I “just happened” to drive by a linen store and realized I had a little time to fill before picking up my children at school. A friend who had lost everything in a flood had mentioned how odd it felt to not own linens. Here I was at the store where I had recently purchased great dish towels for myself. It felt so good to do something sweet for her while I was being the recipient of so much from others.

Remembering how God rewards good deeds, how much I needed what was being offered, and how fantastic it feels to give helped me be a gracious receiver.

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