Friday, May 3, 2013

How cancer can lead to a positive awakening

This may be the first posting written by someone else within the pages of this blog.  I thought it was inspiring message when I heard it the first time last Sunday during church.  Cancer effects all of us, we know of someone we lost or have battled it ourselves.  It's our worst fear, but we can learn how to cope and live with it.  My wife was articulate and poised behind the podium - although once or twice she broke down while reading this.  I heard the sniffles and saw others wiping their eyes.  It's an inspirational story, not only about how Ali became a cancer survivor, but how this deadly disease transformed her faith - how she became a stronger - independent woman. I hope this inspires you.

Rev. Diane and I have spoken several times about sharing my faith story with the Congregation. I wasn’t ready for a long time. The preparation for today was difficult. Many of you know that I was diagnosed with cancer in June of 2011. But this isn’t a story about cancer, or beating cancer. It’s not about treatment and side effects. It’s about the most important relationships in our lives, and what happens when we recognize them as just that.

My story begins before my diagnosis. I was coming out of a very difficult time. Depressed, feeling worthless. I had just begun to realize it was my own responsibility to do something about that. I needed to answer for myself the age old question, “Who am I?’ So with the incredible support of my husband and children, I focused on my passion for public education, and ran for the Board of Education. On May 17th, I won my seat with a large margin, and felt like this was the beginning of a fabulous new journey. Just 2 weeks later, on June 1, I was diagnosed with Endometrial cancer; Stage 4b. My world came to a grinding halt.

Beyond the physical pain and illness was the emotional chaos. The fear. The questions. Terror. I tried to keep a brave face most of the time, but internally I was reeling. I spent some time contemplating, why? Not a self-pitying ‘why me?’, but a realistic, trying to understand, why?  What did I do to bring me here, to this place? Was I being punished? Was this diagnosis a message from God? What was He telling me? The Catholic guilt from my childhood had me recounting every misstep I ever took. Every regret. That is a very dark place; not one anyone should be in for very long. I tried to focus on being strong for everyone else. Not letting them know how scared I really was.

Less than a week after my complete hysterectomy, we came here to MSUCC for Emma’s confirmation. I was consumed with guilt because I was in no condition to throw Emma the party I had promised.  I was in a fog from medication, and so incredibly sad. I cried quietly. I was afraid I was dying. Afraid I wouldn’t be able to see my kids grow up. I didn’t know what was coming next. Fear of the unknown is the worst kind of fear.

When it was Emma’s turn, our entire family came forward to lay hands on Emma as Rev. Diane prayed over us all. In that moment, with Rev. Di’s hand on mine praying over Emma, I felt a calming sensation; a breeze from the top of my head down my back… and the tears stopped. I felt reassured, peaceful, comforted. And I knew God was with me- He loved me, regrets and all.
That day I remembered a quote that I had read in church long before: Faith is knowing that “When you come to the edge of all the light you have, and must take a step into the darkness of the unknown, one of two things will happen. Either there will be something solid for you to stand on - or you will be taught how to fly.” Faith. I realized as I dissected that quote, I have faith. I need to lean on my faith. Trust in God, talk to God. I knew I wasn’t going to fall into an abyss, I had faith.

I began praying more regularly. As Rev. Elaine has reminded all of us, prayer is a practice. And I practiced a lot. All my life, my prayers have begun with all of my thanks, and then move to “Could you please…” The more I prayed, the more I realized how much I had to be grateful for. Regardless of treatment, side effects, pain… I knew I was blessed many times over. My prayers of gratitude lifted my spirits no matter how I felt physically. I found myself stopping to offer thanks to God at the strangest times and places. In the middle of Uncle Guiseppe’s, in the car at a traffic light. I realized my prayers of gratitude were so abundant I nearly stopped the “Could you please” prayers. I never once prayed for God to take away my cancer. I prayed for strength, energy and for the people I loved. I prayed for God to stay by my side on this journey, no matter how long the road was. And I prayed that I would be open to the lessons I needed to learn.

If prayer is a practice, I believe faith is your relationship with God. Just like any other relationship, it requires time and attention. The bond I have, the connection I feel to God, is stronger now than ever before. And with that foundation, I found that I was more observant and open to everything around me. My inner strength seemed to double.  My attitude was more positive, and I began to recognize how much negativity I had been a part of for so many years before.

I paid more attention to my thoughts. The pervasive negative tone of my inner voice disturbed me. I realized I was in a terrible relationship… with myself. The voice in my head was so different from the voice I used to pray, or to speak to anyone else. I could hear the dissonance. Never good enough, strong enough, smart enough. If another person in my life that was that consistently critical I would have walked away a long time ago. But that was impossible, so I had to actively work on this relationship, too. Me, myself and I. The gratitude I offered to God shed light on all the good in me as well. When the negative attacks came I intentionally countered them. When I looked around the house and instinctively thought ‘I am a terrible housekeeper’- I would pause and say, ‘But I’m a good Mom’. I started to take credit for good things I had done, and not shy away from compliments as quickly. I began to see what God saw in me: An imperfect human being, doing the best she can.

It would be a lie to say that every moment of time since my diagnosis had been prayerfully blissful. I had weak moments. I endured 10 months of chemotherapy. Every three weeks I would go to the Cancer Center at Stony Brook. For 6 hours or so, I would sit in a chemo chair while medications were sent through an iv to destroy my cancer. As the treatments went on, it became increasingly difficult to get the iv in. My veins would collapse, and roll. I would spend the first 4 or 5 days after chemo treatment exhausted. I would have to sit and rest after getting dressed. I had a pulmonary embolism that could have killed me. I had nausea, strange shooting pains, and I lost all of my hair. I lost my eyebrows and lashes. I had to give myself injections daily. I had 30 rounds of radiation therapy.

There were moments that I did just cry. Usually in the car, or in the bathroom, occasionally in bed. I wouldn’t want anyone else to see. I wanted to shelter my family and friends from my sadness. So I would allow myself time alone to just be.  But the reality is that I was never alone. In those moments of sadness and fear, God was with me. No, I never heard His voice, or felt His physical touch.  But there is an amazing sense of strength and light that I would feel as I allowed myself that time. God’s warm embrace, His loving light. When I was done with that ‘me’ time, I was ready once again to keep moving forward.

I was surrounded by amazing people throughout my ordeal. I will be eternally grateful to God for the gift that is my husband. Mike has seen me at my best and worst… and he’s still here. Our relationship has grown and flourished in these difficult times. His support, and belief in me has given me the strength I needed to fight. My amazing children, teach me more everyday than you can imagine. My parents, brother and extended family exemplify love. Friends, co-workers, fellow UCC members. The selfless Caring Ministry here brought us food and comfort for months. All of these people are gifts from God… brought to me when I needed them the most.
So, my initial journey began with a question: Who am I? Well, I am many things to many people. I have many significant relationships. I stand here today, a cancer survivor… a grateful wife, mother and daughter.  But above all else, I am a faithful child of God. When I reached the end of my light, and could only see darkness, He didn’t just give me wings, He made sure I wasn’t flying alone.

God IS good… ALL the time.

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