Have you noticed that it seems like every social app these days likes to remind you of where you were at this time ‘XY’ number of years ago? I mean Facebook shows me my updates and I get photo reminders from the app I use to store photos. Friends share their updates and their photos which bring up my history as well. Normally I love those, but this time of year is always a bit of a mixed bag for me. No matter what I was doing 5 or 7 or 10 years ago, I can pretty much nail every detail from where I was 4 years ago.
The spring of 2014 was full of promise for me. I had a script in production and I was really enjoying my time on the set. Though I had written or contributed to several productions on networks and even in a few features, this was my first script where I had sole credit. It was a completely different feeling being on set as the writer as opposed to marketing or social media. I admit I was riding a bit of a high with my career at this point. When you’re riding high, you know you’re going to come down at some point, right?
A few days after I got back from set, I received a diagnosis of cancer. In my tongue. Yeah, I know. Four years out and it is still really weird, right? I mean who gets cancer in their tongue? Apparently, me. Very long story made short: I ended up having a large portion of my tongue removed and replaced with the inside of my wrist. I didn’t speak for nearly a year and didn’t really eat (more than protein shakes!) for about 18 months or so. Oh and for those who are curious, the cancer manifested as sores on my tongue. Like canker sores. And they got bad because they came and went with my hormones. Every month as my body cycled through hormonal changes, they would ‘calm down’ and recede and then flare up again. I went to the doctor but my GP diagnosed it as a side effect of getting older. Heading toward menopausal years, women’s bodies get really messed up. It made sense to me. No, I didn’t get a second opinion. Why would I? I didn’t mind the first one! But I went to an ENT specialist when it started affecting my ability to eat. THAT is when the cancer actually got diagnosed.
I don’t necessarily like looking back at those ‘where were you’ posts during this time of year. And let me tell you, that bugs me. Spring has always been one of my favorite times of the year. There’s so much promise in spring. Everything feels fresh and new after cold, sleepy winter months. My daughter was born in May (on Mother’s Day actually – I became a mom on Mother’s Day. How cool is that?) and I got married in May so I could enjoy the flowers in bloom. But that spring sort of reset the bar on everything for me. I missed my daughter’s birthday celebration. I was fresh out of ICU for my anniversary celebration. And I had lost all touch with anything in my business. Everything in my life focused on the next breath. Quite literally. (You can see more about the actual journey – I blogged about it here.)
Now, four years later, I can relax a little easier as I look back. I still have challenges with my eating. I think that portion of my world will always have some layer of challenge for me just because of the nature of the beast.I mean I had 8 of my teeth pulled. The entire inside of my mouth is still damaged from radiation treatments. My tongue doesn’t work the way everyone else’s does. But honestly, none of that really bothers me anymore. It is what it is. I can’t reverse it or change it or go back and do things differently. I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I had the ability to time travel, would I do things differently? Would I get that second opinion? Heck yeah. I would fix all of those things if I could go back in time. But at the same time, I would never want to lose the knowledge I gained during my cancer journey. If it meant getting rid of that, I’d probably have to stay where I am.
Whoa – what? People are always a little stunned when I answer that question. It’s the truth though. That was the hardest time in my life. It reset every priority I ever thought I had. There were days (quite a few) when I thought I would never get past this particular stretch of my journey. It left me scarred. I still deal with pretty hefty bouts of anxiety – which is something I never had prior to having cancer. Do I wish I’d missed all of those things? Of course!
But at the same time, I learned who the gems in my life were. Those are the people that you sometimes don’t quite recognize as someone spectacular until pressure pulls away all of the masks to see who and what they really are. That’s when they come up next to you, hold you up, love you, and shine more brilliantly than the brightest diamond. I had a few people in my life that I was certain were diamonds in the rough, but it turned out they were really just dirt. Sounds harsh doesn’t it? But when you are facing a cancer diagnosis and you call a friend for prayer, the last thing you need or want to hear is questions about what sin you have in your life that caused your cancer. (No, really! True story!) Those people crumbled and fell away to dust. I shook that – and them – from my feet.
A lot of people talk about taking life one day at a time. Pick up your cross daily and follow God. That’s really good advice. I keep it in the back of my head all the time. It’s not unusual for my family to hear me say “Oh I need to end this day so I can reboot and start another one fresh tomorrow.” The problem comes when you feel each and every second (86,400 of them) in that 24 hour period. I found out that when you can’t breathe, you can see the world crystal clearly. At least I could. In fact, things around me seemed to happen in slow motion. Each of those seconds feels like an hour and you really do wonder if this room and these people are going to be the last things you see. When you are immobile on a table undergoing a procedure but you can’t tell anyone that you’re awake and you can feel it all, you learn a lot about how strong your faith actually is. I admit it. There were moments I wasn’t sure my faith was strong enough to get me to the next breath, let alone the next day.
I also learned that praying for others and putting them first isn’t just cherry picking life lessons from the Bible that sound pretty. When you’re in the middle of your biggest storm, it really does help to focus on others. Asking for what they need, how you can help and how you can pray for them will take the focus off of you. It seemed counterproductive when I couldn’t get out of bed to ask others how I could help them. But at the same time I was getting messages and phone calls and texts from loved ones telling me that they were praying for me. My other friends weren’t getting that. I was able to be Moses and let others stabilize me and hold my arms for me while I prayed for the needs of the people I loved. It helped me so much I’m tempted to say it was selfish.
The lessons I learned during that time were invaluable to me. If I could go back and erase the cancer, I would not want to erase those things that learned because of the cancer. I earned every bit of that wisdom. Not the knowledge. Anyone can read a book or a blog or watch a video and have the knowledge. There’s something deeper that comes when you experience it firsthand. When you see the battle from inside yourself, only you understand that inner monologue. And the voice of God. And the peace you can get in the storm.
Four years later, what do I know? I weigh every word that comes out of my mouth because I remember what silence was like. I like to think I make better choices. (I probably don’t, but don’t tell me that!) I know that my kids are the most beautiful thing I see every day and being able to tell them how amazing they are is a blessing beyond measure. I know that I am blessed with teenagers who enjoy spending time with me. And I know that if I’m going to claim loudly and proudly to the world that God has a plan for me, I’d better be ready to accept the not so pretty parts of that plan right along with the blessings. Because I trust Him for every breath.