Defined by Faith
Today marks three months of healing from a disease that proved to be much bigger than the slight pain and small symptoms that took me to the doctor in the first place.
It’s been three months since receiving the initial scans that revealed a mass in my appendix.
It’s been two months since my first surgery, an appendectomy, to remove what turned out to be a carcinoid tumor which is a type of neuroendocrine tumor and a slow-growing cancer. Because of the abnormal cells throughout the appendix, a second surgery was necessary.
It’s been one month since my second surgery, which was a right hemicolectomy to remove part of the right side of my colon and regional lymph nodes. This surgery revealed that the tumor has metastasized to one of the lymph nodes and some fatty tissues.
A cancer diagnosis has come piece-by-piece rather than one moment of understanding. At each appointment, with each test, and with each surgery, I learned more about what was going wrong in my body.
But I knew right from the beginning how I wanted to manage the fear of the unknown.
On March 19 in the midst of making my son’s birthday dinner and after days of waiting for results, I received a phone call from the first GI doctor I visited. (BTW, I’ve found that it’s not usually a good sign when the doctor calls with the results.)
On a random pad of paper by my phone, I scribbled the words “mass formed in appendix” and the name of the surgeon she had referred me to.
At the bottom, while still processing, I wrote this question and answer to myself:
How will I approach this? With optimism and faith.
Three months past that declaration, how am I doing? Physically, emotionally and spiritually?
Physically, I’ve weathered through a decent surgical recovery both times albeit with a rotator cuff injury that appeared after the first one and hasn’t healed yet. My pain, other than in my shoulder, is manageable without a lot of medication, but extreme fatigue has not let up for months.
I am doing more every week, not every day, but every week. I sleep a lot. I sleep late and take one or two naps every day. I don’t live in my pajamas, but I can still only wear jeans for a couple of hours. I’m trying to incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables, other meats and whole grains into my diet to see how I tolerate them. Some have been okay, others not so much.
The surgeon’s office has handed me over to a medical oncologist. We visited with this new doctor a little more than a week ago. He’s the one who will monitor me and determine further treatment. That treatment for now will be periodic blood work and scans for any additional tumors starting at the beginning of August and every few months after that.
Emotionally, I felt a huge relief from that visit. My outlook has changed from a day-by-day focus to one in which I feel I can plan our family vacation for the summer or brainstorm story ideas for my next book. I’ve begun to visualize life down the road.
During these three months, my perspective closed off from anything but the present day or two before me. While I have mourned these unexpected health changes and what they might mean for my future, my short-term outlook had more to do with the need to heal in the present.
Such a narrowly focused outlook brings its own emotional challenges. The oncologist tasked me with being observant of my body but not overly panicked. If anything will play tricks on your mind and heart, it’s watching your health without over watching it.
Spiritually, I return often in my thoughts to that spontaneous response written three months ago. To choose faith and optimism is also a minute-by-minute endeavor. It’s one thing to write it or read it and another to live it, even with the experience of challenges that have tested my faith before.
In the last month, a common phrase or variation of it seems to be everywhere I am just like a new dress or car you just bought and now see all over the town.
She was not defined by cancer. You are not defined by cancer. I am not defined by cancer.
I’m not sure I know what it means. Does it mean that cancer isn’t who you are or doesn’t change what you can do or who you will be?
No, cancer does not define me but how can this experience not define my perspective? Define how I see the future? Define how I spend my time? Define how I feel and think and act?
Any trial of any magnitude we face is bound to define how we will see and approach out future.
But what is that outlook, even in the bleakest of circumstances? If that leads to a poor outlook, despondency, lack of hope, anger or disbelief in things you’ve already learned, then I guess cancer or any trial or challenge will have defined us.
But what about the opposite? What if it improves our outlook and learning and growth, despite the circumstances?
A good friend wrote me this:
Isn’t it interesting how all of our lives we learn and study and teach about the Savior and how He takes over our burdens and our sins and our illnesses and then at some point we are asked and then expected to put all of these teachings into practice—apply it in real life—our lives!
Any of these things my friend mentions—burdens, sins, illness—can lead us to a crisis if we let it.
Or our faith can define our future.
Today has not been a great day of outward optimism. I cried in the shower because I can’t lift my arm. I snapped at my kids to vacuum up the floor because I couldn’t. I focused a lot on myself.
But even as mortal and imperfect as we are, because of Him, our Savior Jesus Christ, we can still choose faith. I’m clinging to my pledge to myself and to Him and to my family that I made back in March that whatever else this life brings, I will be defined by faith.