by Irene Toews
I have attended Whyte Ridge Baptist Church for about 7 years. I was originally asked to share my story at the 2014 Ladies Retreat. The theme for our weekend was Transforming Encounters with Jesus.
Well, for the last 14 months I have been experiencing a transformation in my life, also known as breast cancer. When asked if I would consider allowing my story to be put on the website, I had to take a deep breath. Once its “online” it’s out there. When I got home I remembered I had promised God I would share whenever and with whoever asked.
When I think of the word “transforming” I am grateful that it is not Transformed. I believe no matter where we are in our life, we are in a perpetual process of being transformed. There are some days I say to God, “really, we are still working on that area of my life.” I picture God and its like he rolls his eyes and says back to me: “Yes Irene, we are STILL working on that area of your life.”
The Day My Life Changed
On Wednesday, July 24, 2013, my life changed. I thought “I haven’t done a breast check for a while.” So as I sat on my couch, I did a quick check. First the right, and wait…, what was that? Quickly I checked the left, no lumps. Again I checked the right. My heart sank and my mind raced with questions. Maybe it’s the way I’m sitting, or I know, I’ve gained weight. However, I knew what it was by the size of the lump. When I pressed on it, it didn’t hurt. I tried to push the all the crazy thoughts out of my head trying deny what I already knew. That didn’t work well so the next day I called my doctor for an appointment. I was scheduled for a mammogram and the following week a biopsy.
During this time I was in a bit of a fog. I can’t remember who I told about the lump or if I asked for prayer. I know I was praying. On September 11, 2013, during the biopsy, I was told I would be immediately referred to a surgeon. I asked if it could be removed with a lumpectomy. The doc said “not with this type of malignancy”.
It was strange hearing the word malignancy, aka CANCER, spoken and it was referring to me and my body. How could this be? I have worked in Medical Administration for 20+ years and have had to call people in for appointments so the doctor could tell them they have cancer, but ME! Again the fog and survival mode kicked in. I got dressed and walked out of the clinic. A friend had driven me to the appointment, and as we walked down the street to the car I said “I have Breast Cancer.” I said it so casual it was like I just asked, “so you want to go for coffee.” I was trying to be normal, not fall apart right there on Tache. But then it would be normal to fall apart after being told you have cancer, right?
Independence is a Hard Thing to Give Up
Be normal. Be Strong. Be Independent. I was thinking how do I tell my family? What will happen to my job? Is this a hereditary thing—do the women in my family have the gene? I was glad my parents were not around anymore to see me go through this. And yet, I needed them at this time, …and will I die? My independence and life were being threatened. I was scared and lonely, more now than ever. I am a 54 year old single woman. What will I do? Where will I go? Who will be there for me?
The next hard step was to call my family to let them know. I had told my oldest brother about the biopsy. Now I had to confirm the diagnosis — I have breast cancer. I also called a few friends and cousins and the word spread quickly. Every time I say the words breast cancer, even to this day, it did not and does not feel real. I am still processing so much.
Oh yes by this time there were many tears. Yet there were things that had to get done before life was no longer normal. I wanted someone to hold me while I cried into my pillow in the middle of the night. One of my nieces said to my brother will she never catch a break. My family and friends were sad, angry, and concerned. This cancer didn’t just affect me.
I’ve use the analogy of a freight train to describe how I felt about this cancer thing. Remember in cartoons the damsel in distress tied to the train tracks waiting for her rescuer to come and save her from getting run over by the train. Well, that’s what I pictured. Me, standing on the tracks, tied tightly by cancer. All the while my friends and family were standing beside the tracks yelling, trying to get the train to stop. Yet it still came barreling down the tracks towards me.
When it hit me, amazingly, it didn’t knock me down. Yes, I may have swayed with each car hitting me, but to me, each car was a phase or step in the process. It was hard to watch those on the side of the tracks being concerned for me, worrying, praying, and watching me go through all the surgery, the treatments. I felt sometimes I needed to be the strong one in this and not let them know how scared I really was. Being independent is a hard thing to give up.
During this time I prayed or inwardly pleaded—some may have called it yelling—with God to give me strength to do what I had to do and get me through this and, oh, by the way, WHY ME? I never liked when I asked my parents “why” and they came back with “because I said so.” I had to trust God, my Father, in this and everything, because HE SAID SO.
Fast forward through medical tests, appointments, and decisions. The big one, do I have one mastectomy or two?
October 29, 2013, at 5:45 in the morning, my brother and sister drove me to the hospital. I walked in knowing within a few short hours I was going to have my double mastectomy and reconstruction. This was a very surreal moment. Yet as I walked in I wondered how am I walking without grabbing on to the exit doors to avoid going into the hospital.
I know there were many people praying for me at this time. I remember praying just as they were putting me to sleep, asking God to guide the hands of the surgeons and to keep the cancer cells out of the lymph nodes. The cancer they did find in the first lymph node was so small it was not measurable. Praise God, I was released from the Health Sciences Center after a few days.
During all of this, somewhere in my mind, I knew chemotherapy and radiation were in my future. This scared me.
Once I got home it was nice to be in my own safe place. My cousin had sent over a Tempur-Pedic bed and this allowed me to sleep in a sitting position with my knees bent. Due to the surgery this is how I had sleep for 2 months. My Christmas present to myself last year was to sleep in my own bed on Christmas Eve. It felt great — it felt normal.
After 8-10 weeks of recovery I started getting ready for my next step in treatments. Chemotherapy, losing my hair and toenails, feeling sick, and food tasting like sand for 4+months. I joked, at least my taste buds got to go to the beach last winter. I needed 24/7 care for 4-5 days after each treatment.
I’m a little independent in case you haven’t noticed a theme here. However, being dependent rather than independent was a pleasure and a challenge for me. My caregivers made my meals, cleaned my house, sat with me. They distracted me with humour and what was going on in their lives. I was learning to be dependent on others.
When we are independent we do not ask for help quickly or easily. I had learned from a young age to fix it, figure it out for myself, put myself last. Now this may be a bit of a Mennonite thing — help others, fix others, do for others first. My mom’s test to see if we were really sick was if you’re staying home from school, then you can do the dishes or vacuum, or clean the bathrooms. We went to school a lot.☺ It was hard to feel helpless. I had people say they were surprised at how healthy I looked and sounded during this time. Yet trying to do things that would normally take a short time was a daunting task for me.
After my first treatment of chemo I did okay for the first few days. Slight flu-like symptoms. Days 3-5 kicked in and I had already sent my “care-giver” home. Why keep her here when I can do this myself. Bad decision. Again I was fighting with my independence.
I was so sick. The anti-nausea drugs kept the nausea away but the side effects were awful. I was weak. I was able to get my coffee, water or a piece of toast. I didn’t eat much those days and I was so doped up I couldn’t talk much. I remember a friend called to see how I was and all I said was too tired to talk and hung up. During that week I prayed to die! Really I did. I pleaded with God to take me home. I did not think I had the strength or ability to do another day, never mind five more rounds of chemotherapy. He obviously did not answer that prayer.
I started losing my hair on day 12 after my first treatment. My friend Sue is a former hairdresser so she came over and shaved my head for me. We both cried that night.
Rounds 2-6 were better. I stopped one of the anti-nausea drugs. I was able to arrange for people to stay with me till day 5. They tagged teamed a lot. Some of my neighbours mentioned that I must be popular; they had never seen so many people going in and out of my house. I did assure them I was not popular, just well cared for.
I am still amazed at the many people that came to take care of me. I felt I didn’t deserve it. I’ve not done enough for these people for them to care so much. I know I am loved by God, not by how much I do, He just loves me. Again, at times it’s hard to get my brain/heart around this concept. Satan loves to tell me I’m not good enough to be loved. I’m learning to take a deep breath and a brave step forward out of my comfort zone to ask for help. I can testify to the fact that the blessings I have received in allowing people to care out-weigh the fears of asking for help or being thought of a burden to others.
During my treatments and recovery there were so many friends from church, my Life Group, and my family that were there in body and prayers, phone calls, emails, food, snow shoveling, and so much more. I missed going to church on a regular basis; when I did go I was amazed and so blessed at the many different people that came up to me and said we pray for you every day. I wanted to say who are you people to care so much. I sometimes wanted to ask who are you because I didn’t know their names or couldn’t remember.
Through all of this, I sometimes found it hard to pray, read my Bible, focus on God and His will. I knew God had a plan. I knew this from verses like Jeremiah 29:11:
For I know the plans I have for you, DECLARES the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.
And Hebrews 13:5:
Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.
Back when I first knew I had cancer, I drove to a quiet spot and opened my Mom’s bible. Now my parent’s had passed way 1 1/2 years earlier and I had been the main go-to child during the last years of their life. That was and is a whole different transforming experience in my life. Anyway, Mom’s Bible had been in my car since her passing. I opened her Bible and read where it fell open to Ezekiel 37:4-5…
Dry bones, listen to what the Lord is saying to you, “I, the Lord God, will put breath in you, and once again you will live. I will wrap you with muscles and skin and breathe life into you. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”
Whenever, I would share a concern or problem with my Mom or Dad, Mom always would have a verse of comfort or encouragement, not to mention their prayers. Please know, I don’t adhere to crossed over loved ones speaking to you, but I felt that this is a verse she would have shared. I know it is out of context, but it was a comfort all the same.
In my darkest moments, a song or verse would come to mind and I would contemplate or sing the words till they penetrated my heart and mind and soul. “When Peace like a River, attendeth my way, When Sorrows like sea billows roll. IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL”. That was my Dad’s favorite song.
Philippians 4:4-7 says:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice…. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
So I kept saying and singing, to God be the Glory. Sometimes over and over till it penetrated my being.
It helped me to pray for friends and family going through their own issues and many others who needed God to touch their lives. I know have a God who loves me and is not surprised by my circumstances. He knew before I was born what I would go through in this life.
When asked am I mad at God, I often tell people I was angry at times, yes. But I know in my heart He loves me and will never do anything to pull the rug out from under me just for fun. So I trust Him.
God is Still Working
So where am I in this transforming encounter with Jesus? I’m still transforming, he is still working on me. I’m still learning to trust, ask for help, and make prayer and study a bigger priority. I am apprehensive for what He will ask of me, where I will share this experience, and what the future holds health wise.
In closing, one of the books I read this winter was the Prayer Box, by Lisa Wingate. It has this prayer about God’s Grace.
“Yet amid all of this, there is the water of Grace. It flows in all directions, seeping into the hidden crevices, the darkest spaces. The water of Grace, is a sponge to the lips. A trickle and then a flood of hope, the river moves into the mountain stone by stone slowly widening its path, going over each of us, cutting into each of us, washing the places that are hard, that would separate us from one another, from you, among us and within us. After the Storm all are equal, all wanting, all needing, all in need of the water of Grace from one another and from you.”
I praise God and thank Him for loving me enough to give me family, friends, and a church family like Whyte Ridge. It’s your love and prayers that helped get me through this year. And I thank God He is NOT finished with me yet.