Cancer Really Does a Number on People

I re-watched the show “Life Sentence” this weekend. It only ran for one season before it was cancelled, and it is drama to the max. Everything that can fall apart does—I’m talking divorce, drugs, jail, business failings, heart attacks, multiple love triangles, and cancer all in 13 episodes. Even though the CW was probably just trying to use “unexpectedly surviving cancer” as an interesting hook to draw in audiences, and even though it’s highly fictional and insane, it’s the third time I’ve watched the show.

The premise is that the protagonist Stella, played by Lucy Hale, has terminal cancer, so she lives life to the fullest and makes decisions based on only having 6 months left to live…but then her cancer is “cured.” (LOL did they consult an oncologist for the show?!? Based on Stella saying she’s not in remission; she’s “cured,” one wonders. Doctors don’t say “cured” with cancer; they say “remission.” I digress…) Suddenly, she faces “uncertain life” after having faced “certain death” for years, and she has to live with the consequences of living in the moment and living life to the fullest, starting with her marriage to a man she met on a last hurrah trip to Paris when both thought it would be a 6 month marriage at most.

My cancer had a really favorable prognosis, so I never felt like I was under a “death sentence.” Subsequently, I’ve also not felt like surviving cancer has been a life sentence. And virtually none of the dramatic events in the show happened to me. Still, I resonate with it if only for the underlying current running throughout of what a paradigm-shift cancer is. And in a much less dramatic way, the “What do you do with your life now that you have it back?” dilemma has been on my mind a time or two before.

Each time I’ve watched the show with all of its drama and all the fallout from Stella’s cancer—not just on her life but on each of her family members’ lives—I’ve thought, “Man, cancer really does a number on people.” I felt that again while binge watching the show a third time this weekend. No one’s left unaffected, or even really unscathed, likely the better description. It’s true in the series, and to a much less dramatic degree, it’s true of real life and cancer.

Two episodes in particular stand out as having moments similar to ones I’ve walked through. In the first instance, the family is selling their house, and Stella gives an emotional speech about how this is the place she always felt safe despite the terrifying uncertainty and odds she faced. I realized the first time I watched the series that that was 410—my childhood home—to me. Thank you, my parents’ Netflix account and the CW, for providing that free therapy for me to make that connection.

I found out I had cancer at a mall while everyone was Christmas shopping and probably escaping family on the day before Thanksgiving. What a bizarre and decidedly unsafe place to hear that news. I immediately drove home to my safe place, 410 Forest Oaks Drive, where, locked inside and closed off to passersby, mall loudspeaker announcements, and the world, we processed the news and started to make our plan of attack. And even though I moved on and away after cancer, 410 was super symbolic as a safe place for the next decade, a significant reason why selling it last year hit so hard.

The second moment which resonates so clearly is when Stella’s in the doctor’s office on a non-cancer-related visit, and the doctor says the innocuous phrase, “We ran a blood test” and pauses. Stella says, “Oh gosh. It’s back, isn’t it?!” It isn’t, in the end, but the news is about chemotherapy-related long term side effects. In terms of why this resonates, look: my cancer was the “good kind” and it’s not coming back at this point. I’m far more likely to come down with a secondary cancer related to my treatment for Hodgkin’s than I am to have a Hodgkin’s recurrence.

But that fact doesn’t mean when I find 3 swollen lymph nodes on the left side of my neck, I don’t start looking up what it could be if not Hodgkin’s—my equivalent of “Oh gosh. It’s back, isn’t it?” And even though I know they’re likely related to some random infection, that tumors don’t just “pop up” 3 in a row suddenly, and that tumors don’t usually hurt like one of these does, when these swollen lymph nodes haven’t gone away after a week, you better believe I’m starting to run through all the scenarios and potentialities for what I’ll do depending on news a, b, c, and more.

Here’s a glimpse into just some of my train of thought [neuroses?] along those lines:

  • “It’s 99% likely that’s it nothing, just some viral infection.”
  • Then, “Maybe it’s covid! I’d actually really prefer it to be covid over anything swollen lymph nodes on the left side of my neck could mean and have meant before.”
  • Then, “Well, if it’s Hodgkin’s, okay, great. I know how to do that.”
  • But then, “Almost 12 years out, I know my Hodgkin’s isn’t coming back…so if this isn’t Hodgkin’s, it’s gonna be a lot worse, and that’s an actual possibility.”
  • Then, “If it’s not Hodgkins, yikes, and it’s probably not great at this point if it originated somewhere else but has now traveled to my lymphatic system.”
  • And finally, “If it’s worse, do I fight it? Do I let this be my swan song and make a quick bucket list and start tackling it?”
  • Oh but there’s the special 2020 bonus: “Could I even do anything bucket-list-like in 2020 anyway when nothing’s open?”

These thoughts would surely lead to a clinical diagnosis of hypochondria or paranoia…for anyone but a cancer survivor, that is—and specifically a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor who just discovered 3 swollen lymph nodes on the left side of her neck (the Hodgkin’s side) which haven’t gone away for over a week now.

I genuinely do not think about cancer every day, or at least about my own cancer or about getting it again too often. But “Man, cancer really does a number on people” is my concluding thought when cancer creeps into the realm of possibilities and I go all-case-scenarios in my mind. I don’t think about it all the time, but it’s inescapable in some ways and inevitably comes back to mind. What’s hidden underneath that general conclusion I make—that cancer really does a number on people—is more likely the truth that I’m part of that people group. Cancer has done a number on ME, much as I don’t like to admit it.

I want to say I’ve totally moved on. I genuinely think I have in so many ways. It’s almost like cancer is the wound that’s scabbed over and so close to becoming a scar that you wouldn’t even notice it…but it’s still capable of bleeding since it hasn’t quite transformed into 100% scar yet.

It’s hard not to start cataloging everything else that’s been off lately, thinking, “What else have I missed? Will I find out I had all these symptoms I just wrote off?” And that’s not even because of my own experience since I found my only symptoms—tumors—by stage 2. I mean, I didn’t find the tumors in my chest, but because I had symptomless Hodgkin’s, the tumors above my collar bone were my only sign something was wrong, and praise the Lord I noticed those early. Wondering if there are other things I’ve missed now comes after my grandma, aunt, friend, athletic trainer, professor, and more have passed away from cancer after months of explaining away symptoms and being diagnosed too late as a result.

This weekend has felt paralyzing in some ways, but not because of fear. I’m not actually that afraid. I’ve been through “the worst” before, and I can hang (honestly because I know God will hang and give me what I need if it’s something). Rather, I think what’s paralyzing is the not knowing. If I can find out what’s going on, I can at least make a plan, but right now, I’m sitting between, “This is some painless viral infection that’ll go away totally on its own and I’ll roll my eyes about it” and “This is bad.” It’s hard to move to action because it genuinely might be nothing, but sitting around waiting just feels so aimless. There’s a shadow hovering, haunting. Doing anything or making any plans feels futile if life is about to be turned upside down again. But planning for the worst seems equally pointless and an overreaction when it’s likely just some rando-harmless infection I’ll be ashamed to have even mentioned.

So why mention it, then? I almost didn’t. It feels really self-indulgent and probably foolish to say anything when I think these are just swollen lymph nodes and they’re going away. On a basic level, if you want to pray that these swollen lymph nodes are what I very likely believe is that rando harmless infection, I’d love that. But I also thought I’d let you in on how life post-cancer looks sometimes. Most of the time, it’s super normal. But with the first strange symptom, all the potentialities are fair game, and I hate that.

I hate that any time I go in for any symptom of anything, the doctor I see WILL scan me or run the test even if it’s not what they’d do for 95% of their patients; that I will pay out of my deductible every single year without ever quite reaching the “now everything’s covered!” amount because we need to run a test or scan “just to be safe, given your health history.”

I don’t like the shadow of cancer that I genuinely keep at bay most of the time but which occasionally comes back, dredging up all of the past and threatening the present and future. I hate seeming like some wounded animal or vulnerable target, which is what I feel when things like this pop up. And I’m one of the lucky ones, by the way! I am in remission and have graduated from annual oncology checks. I realize that as I write and know how fortunate I am. Though 92% of the time, I’m great, that other 8% of the time—when I find the swollen lymph nodes or have unexplained symptoms elsewhere or watch a show like “Life Sentence”—is a weird and lonely place to inhabit (92/8 feels like the most accurate percentage split, btw. I actually debated what percentage I feel normal most of the time).

I think one of the nodes is shrinking as of today, and that’s good. Viral infection, likely. But man, what a strange and terrible space the intervening times between finding a symptom and waiting for it to wane or get tested can be. By this time next week, the nodes will very likely have gone away and I could’ve just never said anything. But as I’ve seen with most other aspects of cancer survivorship, if I’m feeling it and thinking these thoughts, I’m not the only one. Cancer really does do a number on people.

I try to usually have a point with what I write. Call it the English major and former teacher in me, but it feels meaningless for me to just write on and on with no true thesis or takeaway. Tonight’s point is different, however—just a window into what cancer can do. There’s so much it can’t do, but it sure does haunt and wreak havoc here and there. I’m so grateful for most of the small handful of friends and family I’ve told about these dumb lymph nodes following up with me to see if I’ve actually scheduled an appointment yet, pray with and for me, and just check on me. Especially in that lonely and weird space of not knowing, their follow up is huge.

I guess my point is: cancer patients and survivors out there, you’re not alone. You’re in a really lonely and strange place, but you’re not alone. If you know someone who’s a cancer patient or survivor, check in on them, listen to their concerns about health scares, and let them know when you’ve been praying for them. And to everyone cancer’s done a number on—patient, survivor, caregiver, loved one, bystander—I feel you and I get it. Hang in there. As the “Life Sentence” theme song says, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing; you’ll learn to live again.” You’ll learn to live again, maybe with a shadow and probably with some scars—both seen and unseen. Cancer really does a number on people, but it doesn’t have to have the final word, so keep learning to live again and again.

From Survivor’s Guilt to Stewardship

This past week was brutal at work, as Covid’s impact has had dramatic effects on our ability to fulfill our mission statement that we strengthen schools (something hard to do when schools are all over the place with plans and regulations right now). My company is going to be fine, but with so much uncertainty around school climates right now, we didn’t want to keep playing defense or be behind the curve. On Friday, layoffs and furloughs were announced, and I found myself “safe” and on our core team when many others are not anymore or are being asked to wait it out in furlough for a time.

These people are not bad at their jobs, they haven’t done anything wrong, and they’re not terrible humans; the opposite is true in every case. People who’ve been around for a decade longer than I’ve been with our company; people who’ve trained me—when I first started and even more recently for a new position this May; and people who’ve literally given me keys to their apartments and made me feel like I have community and a home in Southern California were impacted by furloughs or layoffs this week. 

I was talking with my friend Melissa, always a sage counselor and faithful listener, about the situation, and she said, “It sounds like you’re feeling some survivor’s guilt.” No stranger to my walk through cancer, the aftermath, and my ministry pursuits since then, Melissa has heard me share about this concept as a cancer survivor, and her words struck me deeply. I have been feeling that sense of survivor’s guilt with work this week.

If you haven’t heard of it, survivor’s guilt is a phenomenon experienced by those who’ve gone through trauma—from war veterans to survivors of natural disasters and traumatic events, and it’s something many cancer survivors experience.

Here’s what survivor’s guilt has looked like for me as a cancer survivor: for whatever reason—which I’ll probably never know this side of heaven—I’m alive when so many others are not. I didn’t do anything special or more heroic to make it and others didn’t do anything wrong or less brave.

What I’ve learned through cancer survivorship is that survivor’s guilt can leave you stuck, struggling with the “why” question, and focused on so many things you can’t do anything about. It’s a real and fair phenomenon, but, just as I learned in the early years of my cancer survivorship, if I believe that God is sovereign and good and has a plan—even when I can’t understand it or make sense of what’s happening all around me—then I believe I am called to turn that sense of survivor’s guilt into a posture of stewardship.

Survivor’s guilt says it’s not fair that I survived when others didn’t. That’s true, and I feel that—with cancer and with work now. But if I sit in a posture of survivor’s guilt, I’m stuck mourning that hard reality and it’s hard to move on.

Stewardship says because I’m alive, I now need to do something with my life, make my life count. Stewardship can acknowledge the unfairness of my survival, too—it’s not “fair” or “right” that I’m safe at work when others aren’t, but the reality is that I am safe right now. If I sit in a posture of stewardship, then knowing that—for whatever reason—I’m safe right now, I’m going to steward the heck out of that reality and do everything I can to make the opportunity before me count.


The shift from a posture of survivor’s guilt to stewardship came after a conversation with one of my Wheaton graduate school professors in 2013. Dr. Schultz, my Biblical Interpretations professor, and his wife had students over to their house for dessert and conversation a couple different times, so I signed up to drop by on one cold October night. We started talking, and Dr. Schultz shared that he had gone back and read my blog which I started writing when I was diagnosed with cancer during Wheaton undergrad five years earlier. I was honored but also quickly embarrassed because Dr. Schultz translated Hebrews, Isaiah, and many other books of the Bible for the NIV.

THE ACTUAL NIV, Y’ALL. 

I knew there had been human translators and committees, but I never thought about the actual individuals responsible for choosing one word over another and offering up the bound biblical translation all my memory verses had come from all my life.

After I stammered through a response, saying something like, “Oh, wow, that’s so nice and also, you really don’t need to be reading my blog,” Dr. Schultz asked me more about my book which had just come out and how I came to write it. He said something then that has changed my whole perspective on survivorship. He said, “It sounds like you feel a sense of stewardship with your cancer.”

I knew the word “stewardship” as a product of growing up in the church and 18 years of private, Christian education, but I’d always thought of it in terms of stewarding my resources—mostly financial resources, but also my time and talents. I’d never applied the idea to experiences we’ve walked through or the things God has done in our lives. It wasn’t a novel term but rather a novel application of the concept. That moment was profoundly impactful, putting words and clarity around something I’d been feeling for the past five years of cancer survivorship.

Dr. Schultz then shared about how he and his wife lost a daughter due to literal fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in the mid 1980s, and they had experienced that sense of stewardship afterward, wanting to make something of the loss, what they’d learned, and all that God had done in them and shown them through the tragedy.

I’m definitely not doing justice to their story, but I’m so grateful for that night and conversation because it was one of those “lighthouse moments,” shining a path through what had otherwise been a somewhat dark journey through survivorship and survivor’s guilt. What had bordered on feeling guilty at times for the fact that I was alive when so many others weren’t shifted to my feeling a sense of stewardship over the experience.

No longer was it a “for some ‘arbitrary’ reason, I’m alive, so I better do something with my life,” but it became a calling to steward the work God had done and continues to do. If I’m alive, I believe God’s got more in store for me, so I’m going to be a vessel with the time I’ve got, what I often refer to as “bonus time.” People will for sure get tired of hearing me talk about cancer, but I’m stewarding the heck out of what God has done in my life, which means I will keep talking about cancer and the wonders God did and things He’s since taught me until He tells me otherwise or brings me to Him.


Since Friday and the fallout from work, scenes from different movies and stories keep circling my brain as I’m processing all the emotions of this call to a new kind of stewardship in the workplace and with my job. I’ve been thinking of Avengers Endgame because it’s just so perfect anyway, but also because the heroes wade through survivor’s guilt versus stewardship in the first act of the movie. At one point, the character Black Widow says the heroes who survived Thanos’ snap owe it to everyone else who’s not in the room to try and fix things. The song “Seize the Day” from Newsies the Musical also keeps echoing, especially an early lyric where the main characters talk about fighting for their brothers who aren’t there to fight with them. Those feel appropriate as I’m now fired up to fight for our company to return to full strength and fight for those who’ve been laid off or furloughed.

But a scene from the final Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay, Part 2, has been most on that mental loop in my brain. In the scene, Katniss Everdeen starts to list names of people the heroes have lost along the way, people whose lives have been impacted by her quest to take down President Snow. In some cases, Katniss’s actions—borne of good intentions—have directly contributed to their deaths. Her words convey the deep sense of loss she feels as she implicitly wonders what all that loss was for. Peeta Mellark understands her question, answering that all of those deaths remind them that their lives were never theirs to begin with anyway. He adds that if Katniss stops now, the loss of those heroes will have been for nothing. But if she will continue on and finish this thing out, all those deaths and all that loss will mean something.

I realize, in light of cancer and real people losing their jobs this week, a fictional clip of a dystopian young adult series probably feels simultaneously too lighthearted and melodramatic, but I think the reason that scene keeps replaying in my mind’s eye is that it hits on the shift from survivor’s guilt to stewardship. Katniss is overwhelmed with survivor’s guilt in that initial moment in Tigress’s basement, unable to move on and think about next steps. But Peeta challenges and encourages her to steward the fact that she’s alive while others aren’t, making it count and finishing the job ahead of her.

That sounds like a lot of pressure, and it is if you’re a teenage girl trying to topple an authoritarian regime in a dystopian future. In some ways, it could sound like a lot of pressure for anyone feeling survivor’s guilt, thinking stewardship now means they’re responsible to make their lives count and make meaning of others’ loss. But because I know to my core that I am part of a larger Narrative, one in which the God of this universe is sovereign and all-powerful as He writes the story, stewardship doesn’t have to mean a ton of pressure.

Instead, it means living into our calling to steward our lives, our experiences, and our time, money, and talents, too. It means looking at what’s before me, whether it’s fair that I’m still alive or employed or not, and saying, “Okay, Lord, because You have given this to me, I’m going to give my best and do my very best with it.” I’m not responsible for saving anyone or anything because I’m not the Savior, but I serve the God who is, so I’m going to give my best as a vessel, as a steward. The only pressure I really have is the choice to sit in survivor’s guilt or move to stewardship.

If you’re feeling a sense of survivor’s guilt for any circumstance in your life, know that it’s a psychologically recognized phenomenon and fair to be feeling. But I encourage you to think of whatever you’ve been given in terms of stewardship rather than survivor’s guilt.

Let’s not feel pressure to singlehandedly carry the world on our shoulders in response to what we’ve been given—after all, it is for freedom we’ve been set free, healed, employed, and more. But instead let’s recognize with humility that God has—for whatever reason—protected us in some way, and let’s steward the heck out of what He’s given us, done for us, and called us to.

If we sit in survivor’s guilt, the gift of life, continuing employment, and whatever else we’re feeling guilty over can very well be wasted. But if we’ll move from survivor’s guilt to a posture of stewardship, serving as vessels for what God wants to do, we can rest in the fact that nothing—including loss along the way—is wasted in His economy, in the grander Narrative He is telling.

Confident in Hope

Every day, a notification pops up on my iCal at 7:55 a.m. with the names of 5 people to pray for, all cancer patients. Fun fact: it actually pops up on my iPad and my iPhone, but my iPad is half a second ahead of my iPhone, based on how that notification arrives. [Apple, can you look into this?!]

It started with my cousin Ashley’s name a couple years ago, and then I just kept adding to the daily calendar event. The once-“Pray for Ashley” became “and Sabrina” then “and Amy” then “and Ellison” and more; it started showing up on my screen with an ellipsis. If I had faithfully added to it with all those I’ve met and been asked to pray for, there would have been far more than 5 names, but while I didn’t type their names out, I mentally added them to that list and prayer time.

For me, this notification and these names are a daily reminder of the pain people are walking through and the burden of this terrible nemesis called cancer. Of those 5 names, 1 is in remission, and I thank God for that and for Ashley’s life. But now it’s also a daily reminder of the grief those 4 families and loved ones walk through daily, marred by the pain and loss cancer causes. I know there’s a lot going on right now and it can all feel overwhelming. In fact, I told my friend Monica that, if these are not the end times, I for SURE do not want to be around for them (probably not sound eschatology from a double Wheaton grad, I know. But you get the point).

I created this image after hearing about a loss of one of these five names over the weekend, someone who showed me great care and who prayed for me in my cancer battle, whose family is very near and dear to me. Life lived in the tension means my heart is broken again, for my friends and what they’re walking through as well as for the one who passed. I know in my head that’s odd and wrong since he is now healed and whole in the Savior’s presence, not wishing for a moment he were back here. Yet, I’m inclined to grieve for the years he won’t live, for the experiences his family won’t have with him, for what could have been.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it many times to come: life is complex. Grief is complex. Hope is real, and I know that earthly healing and victory over cancer are nothing in light of the eternal healing we have in Christ, yet pain and grief are real, too.

I love Ellie Holcomb, and the lyrics of her song “We’ve Got This Hope” keep coming to mind:

“Even when our hearts are breaking,
Even when our souls are shaking,
Oh, we’ve got this hope.
Even when the tears are falling,
Even when the night is calling,
Oh, we’ve got this hope.”

Lest that sound too rose-colored-glasses and happy-Christianese, it may help to know that Ellie wrote that album amidst her dad’s cancer diagnosis, so there’s nothing trite or trivial in those lyrics. No, they balance the complex reality of our eternal hope and present sorrow in this life lived in the tension. The best songs, the truest ones I put on repeat in the storms of life always do that.

Even when our hearts are breaking and the tears are falling, we’ve got this eternal hope in God. Even when the world feels like it’s imploding, we’ve got this hope in Him. The tears and broken hearts and world’s implosion don’t cease at that truth [though they could—looking at you, Psalm 46], but they’re mitigated in some ways by the reality that we live into our tears and broken hearts and we press on in an imploding world with the reminder Jesus gave: “…in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b).

The pain and loss, the racial injustice and systemic issues, the pandemics and chaos are real, yet so is the already-but-not-yet fact that He has overcome the world and is our Hope.

Today, I’m leaving this image here as a reminder, a “speaking myself into believing” anthem which I say and sing out loud to claim, remembering that we WILL see the goodness of the Lord. My confidence isn’t rooted in my own ability to believe that (which is weak and falters) or the things of this world (hello, dumpster fire that is 2020).

I will remain confident of hope because of who GOD is and because of His faithfulness amidst all the storms and chaos and injustices and sicknesses. He is still good, and He is still on His throne.

I’ve been tempted to remove the 4 names who have passed away from my daily notification because new names keep getting mentally added and because the daily reminder of their loss and so many others’ isn’t something I super want to think about daily at 7:55 a.m. But I think it’s something I may need, even though I don’t like it. It reminds me of the good work to be done, the gratitude I have for my healing and the healing of others I know and love, and the reality of living in the tension, something I would like to escape [please reopen, Disneyland], but which I know is a daily reality and calling as a believer.

I will remain confident that I will see the goodness of the Lord because I am called to do so by Jesus Himself, just as I am called to pursue justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God—no matter the dumpster fire of 2020, the loss of another to cancer, or prayers that didn’t end up how I hoped. And each day at 7:55 a.m. when that half-second-separated-double notification arrives, I will live in the tension and trust that He is working and that HE is the hope we’ve got amidst the sorrow of our lived experiences.

11 Years Post-Treatment (and everything’s different but also the same)

Wow, what a time. COVID season has been really interesting, and I wrote on some of what I’ve been processing through the other day and hope to publish it soon, but my first foray back into publishing my work here is on a different subject (though one which may still resonate amidst this strange time of illness, fear, and isolation). My mom just reminded me that today, May 14th, is the anniversary of my finishing chemotherapy. Maybe it’s the COVID craziness of days running together or maybe it’s that enough time has finally passed that every single cancerversary isn’t acutely seared into my consciousness, but it’s almost 5:00 p.m., I’ve been working since 6:00 a.m., and I just now realized the significance of May 14th.

May 14, 2009

I’m inclined to think it’s the former because cancer has actually been on my mind often lately. Still Waters has been at the forefront because of coronavirus, given that our retreat is scheduled for the end of June and our “target audience” is an immunocompromised population. Some would say that’s problematic against a pandemic, so it’s been occupying a lot of mental energy. Beyond that, I’ve had some great conversations with a friend in cancer ministry lately, discussing the heart we have for what we do and for the cancer community to know Jesus, while at the same time finding solidarity together in the fact that the subject matter weighs heavily and has led to burnout in some ways for both of us in the past year. Additionally, this week we learned of the painful loss to cancer of a 13 year old daughter of some family friends and a 4 year old daughter of some of our work family.

To top it off, one of my dearest friends and I talked for two hours on Friday about her cancer diagnosis and the fallout from that. She’s a little over a year out of treatment and a year and a half from her diagnosis—coincidentally, she was diagnosed the same day as I was but 10 years later. I met this friend a couple months after I finished chemotherapy, and her friendship, encouragement, and wisdom were an integral part of my healing process after I finished treatment and processed what the heck had just happened. We talk here and there, comment on each other’s social media often, and see each other when we’re in the same state, but we don’t talk about cancer all that often. When we do, though, everything comes flooding back because I remember being where she is and processing through what she’s feeling and thinking. 

If you’ve ever read any of my blog or my book or know me, you know I’ll bring up cancer—or joke about working in the “cancer card” for effect—and am not shy about the topic. But contrary to what many might think, it’s not always on my mind, and I’m grateful for that. In my call with my friend last Friday, we talked about the long-term effects of cancer, some of which can be physical but for us have been more mental and emotional. I’m so grateful to be able to talk with her and encourage her 11 years from the end of treatment, but I also hate that we have this new thing over which to deepen our friendship. I hate cancer and how it leaves no one untouched; cancer’s fallout is widespread and long-lasting.

Every time I think things have quieted down for a while, cancer pops back up and I’m reminded of my heart for people with and touched by cancer. The past 7 days have been a great example of that phenomenon. I don’t have any sage words or even anything new to add to the topic; I stand by what I wrote in my book and what I’ve written here before. What was true 5 years ago is true today, even if I process things with a different perspective and think about cancer slightly less frequently these days. But this I know and still believe, 11 years from finishing treatment: 

God is still good, life is still complex, and we are still living in the tension between sorrow and hope, between the rest, healing, and wholeness promised to us eternally and the reality that life is hard here on earth. I’m convinced more than ever about this fact, and life is no less complex today than it was 11 years ago—on the contrary, it’s probably more complex now as names get added to the list of those whom cancer has touched, and I know that list will only grow as time moves on.

Today I celebrate being cancer-free—and especially being chemo free because that stuff healed me but was also the worst. And yet, I celebrate cognizant of the reality that I can say “God is good” because I’m here to write about it. Survivor’s guilt (along with PTSD) is a real phenomenon with cancer survivors, and I’ve always been aware of the fact that I get to celebrate cancerversaries like this while others do not. There’s another point for my conviction that life is complex, lived in the tension of celebrating healing while mourning loss.

On the call last Friday, my friend and I were talking about cancer’s impact, about how my friend hoped that by not talking about it too much and with the passage of time, she wouldn’t think about cancer. Yet, she thinks about it often and it haunts her in some ways. We reminisced about how, five months after my treatment ended, I sat with her and she prayed for me to have hope and remember God’s goodness because, having made it through treatment to the other side, I had this haunting sensation that more bad things were in store, as if I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

What was my prayer request 10+ years ago has become her challenge now, and as we talked last week, we said how crazy it was that my concerns and prayer request would become her reality years later. She asked me some questions around healing and timelines and moving on, and I told her that I really hated what I was going to tell her and didn’t want to frighten her, but those kinds of things still haunt me in some ways today. They don’t haunt me to the same degree, and time has definitely turned those wounds into scabs and then scars, but we concluded that cancer isn’t really something you ever fully “move on” from.

I have moved forward for sure, and life today looks really normal (outside of running a cancer nonprofit, but that’s of my own volition and calling). But cancer is a paradigm-shifting diagnosis. In some ways it’s expanded my capacity to mourn with those who mourn, to minister to a broken and hurting world, and to use the bonus time I’ve been gifted through no merit of my own more intentionally than before. I can go on, but the point isn’t that cancer has forever haunted and broken me; the point is that cancer has forever impacted me, and I don’t think that’s going away.

With each new diagnosis I hear about, my heart will break and I will remember the terror of hearing the words “biopsy,” “cancer,” or anything else related to what most people fear above all else actually becoming my reality, now knowing what another friend or family is wading through. Cancerversaries like today will come, and it may take me all day to remember that I should have milked the opportunity to celebrate, but celebrate I will (because, hello?!? it’s cancer and that’s allowed. Fight me.). It may feel like strange territory to celebrate healing when so many I’ve known and loved don’t get to do the same, and I think I’ll always be sensitive to that in this complex, living-in-the-tension world we inhabit.

There’s a ton I’ve learned in these 11 years, a ton I believe about God’s goodness and faithfulness deep in my soul, and a ton of questions I may never have answers to. But today I’m thankful amidst so much sorrow to have the undeserved gift of healing, aware of the story I’m called to steward (which is really God’s story of working in my life anyway), and grateful for the healing He’s done in my life since treatment ended 11 years ago.

10 Years of Remission

IMG_7533Wow. Well the title is self-explanatory, and honestly, the picture will surprise exactly no one who even remotely knows me. Still, I have Thoughts. So here goes:

10 years of remission is a BIG deal. Sorry to those who hear me talk about remission and cancer or read my writing here on the subject. But also I’m not that sorry because it’s a BIG freaking deal.

I have lots of conversations in my head, mostly due to the fact that I’m highly indecisive and have the curse of seeing things from many perspectives and sides–though I’m starting to see that as a gift at times. Still, the inner critic or naysayer in me thinks, “Come on, Hannah; people don’t want to hear you banging the drum of cancer over and over again.” Or, the naysayer within argues that I shouldn’t celebrate so many dates or year after year, asking, “But Hannah, don’t you think you’re kind of milking this whole ‘cancerversary’ thing??”

Okay, first of all, naysayer within: CANCER. The Big C. The C Word. Maybe I’m holding on to the cancer card still, but I had cancer, and now I don’t. That’s a big freaking deal. And because of that, I feel like I’m allowed to celebrate multiple dates throughout the year and also year after year due to that simple reality.

But secondly (and more meaningfully): altars. All throughout scripture, God instructs His people to build altars as a way of commemorating the great things He has done. I think the concept of “altars” is important both individually and corporately.

I’ve had Psalm 145:4 framed on my wall across 3 states and at least 5 apartments with the phrase, “My Mission” written below it. It says, “One generation will commend Your works to the next; they will tell of Your mighty acts.” Corporately, I believe that our ministry on earth is to commend God’s works to the next generation–to “go and tell” what God has done to those around us and those who follow us. We may be in the 100th retelling of our stories, of what God has done and is doing in our lives, but for many listeners, it will be the first time they’re hearing those stories.

Individually, the idea of building an altar is a practice critical to my survival, a lifeline of sorts. If remembering these dates–my diagnosis date, my remission date, and my freedom from chemo date–and celebrating them is, at its most basic level, a way for me to remind myself of God’s goodness in my own life, then sign me up for that. Who doesn’t need those reminders?!?

I have many melancholic, pity-party days, days where I start to doubt and think, “When’s it my turn, Lord?!?” when I lose sight of all the amazing things He’s already done and focus instead on what I lack. So I will take any and all of the sobering moments of reflecting on God’s pure goodness and faithfulness via concrete examples in my own life that I can get. I need those reminders to get me through the valleys, the moments between revelation and hope, those “dark night of the soul” moments.

Scripture is also full of people who’ve forgotten God’s amazing work in their own lives–cue Israel in the 40 years of desert wandering or the cycle of sin-judgement-repentance in the era of judges or countless other examples. I forget, too, and I hate that I do; I so don’t want to be Israel, moving from mountaintop experience to grumbling all in a snap, so it’s important to remember.

I love everything about Lauren Daigle’s “Look Up Child” album, and the song “Remember” touches on this idea of altars and remembrance so poignantly. She sings:

“In the darkest hour, when I cannot breathe / Fear is on my chest, the weight of the world on me. / Everything is crashing down, everything I had known / When I wonder if I’m all alone /

I remember, I remember / You have always been faithful to me. / I remember, I remember / Even when my own eyes could not see. / You were there, always there /

I will lift my eyes even in the pain / Above all the lies, I know You can make a way. / I have seen giants fall, I have seen mountains move. / I have seen waters part because of You.”

The chorus repeats, as does the line, “I can’t stop thinking about Your goodness,” which crescendos into a strong and powerful anthem.

Those lyrics, along with so many Psalms, capture what 10 years of remission and “cancerversaries” mean to me: moments to remember that God has always been faithful to me–pre-cancer, during cancer, and post-cancer–and that He is good.

I have seen proverbial mountains move and waters part, and therefore, I will tell of His wonders and continue to celebrate the heck out of the good things He’s done–for the sake of the next generation and especially as a reminder to myself in the fearful, lonely, and doubting days. I choose to remember that He has always been good to me, and so today, I celebrate–once again–the gift of life and of the past decade plus the hope for tomorrow in Him.

The First Decade: Reflections on the last 10 years I only lived because of God’s grace + modern medicine, Part 3

So today is the 10 year mark from the calendar date when I was diagnosed with cancer. What a day that was then, and what a day it is today, ten years later, when one of my closest friends called to tell me she was diagnosed with cancer. Even 10 years later, I can still remember how I felt and what I thought, and talking with this dear friend today broke my heart as I thought about what she’s feeling and facing. Let the record show that I hate cancer for so many reasons.

I ran across an Instagram post this year where a cancer survivor celebrated her birthday as a “bonus birthday.” I loved that idea and have thought about it often in reflecting on the past decade. Since seeing that post, I’ve started to think of all the time since my diagnosis as “bonus time,” or time I wasn’t guaranteed. If we want to go theologically deep, we could talk about how, given that God is sovereign, I don’t think these “bonus years” were a surprise or unplanned. If we want to go medically deep, we could talk about how my lymphoma was much more treatable than other types of cancer (though, if left untreated, I wouldn’t be here today). Still, the feeling that I’ve been given bonus time and lived a decade of that bonus time persists.

Life is not how I planned. I for sure never imagined I’d live in California. (I am a Texan, after all.) My North Dallas roots trained me to think that, by now, I’d be married with multiple kids and a stay-at-home-mom. We don’t even have to talk about how much that’s not my life today. There are definitely times when I grieve the life I thought I’d have, times when I’m tired and lonely and wondering, in the spirit of a certain animated character, “When will my life begin?”

But I had a moment this fall when I realized that, while my life is not what I thought it would be, I’m alive, and that wasn’t a guarantee (nor is it guaranteed on a daily basis, if we’re being real). Instead of thinking of all the things that haven’t happened in my life to this point, I started thinking of all the amazing things that have happened, and especially in the last decade since the “bonus time clock” started. This seeing-the-bright-side-of-things is big for me—others can play Pollyanna’s “Glad Game” much more naturally than my cynical, melancholic self.

So in honor of my decade of bonus time, I started chronicling a list of some of the things I would never have known or done without the gift of this past decade, a decade marked by more risk than the previous 21 years combined. Some of these things are small, and some are much more significant, but all remind me to think of all the things this time God has given me has allowed versus all the things that haven’t come to fruition.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here goes my list of things this decade has entailed, a partial and incomplete list at best.

Without this decade of bonus time, I never would have:

–lived in Hawaii
–found my favorite place on earth, Lanikai Beach
–eaten a Teddy’s burger
–climbed Stairway to Heaven
–met Tariya Enos or watched her become Tariya Mukai and then Mama Mukai
–known any of my HBA or Hawaii ohana
–owned 2 surfboards (neither of which is currently in my possession…?)
–gotten my Master’s Degree
–been to England, Germany, Italy, Austria, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France, Turkey, Brazil, Israel, or Greece
–studied in the Holy Lands
–met Ellie, Emily, Lauren, Sarah, and all of the others on WIHL
–met Grace and Kevin Nielsen and their growing family
–grown to know Jesus more deeply as a result of grad school
–written a book
–started a non-profit
–met all those in the cancer community I’ve gotten to know
–met Aubrea, Krystal, Heather, Tonya, and other friends in San Diego
–met any of my Boosterthon Team/family
–stood by Melissa as she got married or watched her create multiple havens of hospitality while setting up a life in Atlanta
–discovered I actually love running (I thought I hated it)
–been a proud Disneyland Annual Passholder
–seen many of my friends marry and start families
–seen my extended family grow to the next generation
–seen my parents [break my heart first by leaving my childhood home and then] move to Hawaii
–met Patrick and gained a brother
–stood by my little sister as she married the love of her life
–watched my immediate family grow through trials to become even more amazing people of God
–understood God’s grace in a real way
–known the faithfulness of God in all seasons

These are just a start—there’s been so much that’s happened in the past decade that I can’t begin to capture everything. These things represent so many events and people that I never would have known if treatment and God’s provision hadn’t healed me. And when I think about that, I’m immensely grateful because what a loss it would be to have missed out on these friendships and events.

Granted, I wouldn’t have known loss in the way I do today because I wouldn’t have watched loved ones pass away from cancer or slowly realize long term friendships have run their course. Life is complex, and I know that today in a way 21-year-old-me never could have explained.

Life still has many unmet expectations and I know I will continue to be surprised by life in the future, but wow—what a gift these past 10 years of bonus time have been. When I think of all that I wouldn’t have witnessed, I’m humbled and also okay with all of the unmet expectations, all the things that haven’t happened in light of all of the great things God has done and blessed me with in this decade of bonus time.

The First Decade: Reflections on the last 10 years I only lived because of God’s grace + modern medicine, Part 2

Well, 10 years ago today, I was standing inside Delias at NorthPark Center, a mall in Dallas, when a doctor called to tell me I had cancer.

It was surreal enough to hear the words, “You have cancer,” but the setting made it even more bizarre.

deliasnorthpark

There’s a song by Jordin Sparks from around that time titled, “No Parade,” and the chorus says, “There was no parade, no lights flashing, no song to sing along the way.” She’s talking about the end of a relationship, but I’ve thought of those lyrics many times in the last decade when I think about hearing the news of cancer and of the day I started treatment.

I’m not saying I wanted a parade; the point is I think we imagine that kind of news having some sort of ceremony attached, something monumental where sirens sound or time stands still. There was nothing like that–people walked past me Christmas shopping, talking on the phone, making plans for Thanksgiving the next day, and more.

Looking back, it feels even more surreal–like, “Did that actually happen?” And though it feels so long ago and far away, my life in the past decade has been marked enough by cancer in terms of my passions, my personal and spiritual growth, and my ministry that I can’t deny the experience and its ongoing impact.

I wrote in my last post that I’d found my prayer journal from 2008-2009, and wow, was it interesting to read through. In rereading my book and my journal from that time, I’ve had some time to reflect, and though I don’t have anything profound to say, I have a couple thoughts I’d love to share.

 


The night before I got my official diagnosis at the mall, I knew things didn’t look good. No one schedules a biospy if they’re unconcerned, and they for sure don’t say it looks “suspicious of lymphoma” nonchalantly. So there was a sense of impending doom as I waited for the official word and prayed for a miracle (or in my case, a medical mistake).

When I found my journal last month, I started flipping through it, wondering what I would find. I hadn’t read through it in years; in fact, it had been in boxes in Texas since I moved to California in 2015 until my parents drove some stuff out here in January, and before that, it was in my orange bedroom in Dallas (R.I.P.) while I lived in Hawaii and went to grad school. As I flipped through it, I found an entry dated 11/25/2008, that night before I was officially branded with cancer.

Here’s what I found: I was really afraid. I prayed that, actually; the entry started, “Lord, I am scared.” I remember feeling vaguely scared, but we tend to gloss over memories as time goes by, so I didn’t remember actually verbalizing that fear. As I kept reading the entry, I was brought to tears as I read, “I don’t think I’ve used my time up to this point well—and I don’t want to ‘bargain’ with You [God], but it scares me to think of all the time wasted…if this is the end.”

Is it weird for me to shed tears for the terrified 21-year-old who wrote that, when it was literally me writing that, and things have turned out okay? I don’t want to overdramatize things, but I was trying hard to hold things together, and I read that now and take a big sigh, letting out the anxiety rooted deep in that girl’s soul, tearful today over the utter unknown she stood face to face with then.

Later, I wrote, “I’m scared more for the fact that my life to this point has not amounted to much other than my self-interest…” I’d like to think I could say something different today, and I hope in some ways I can. I’m still selfish and full of self-interest, but cancer launched me out into living a life with more risk and less safety, so in some ways, I can look back at the past 10 years and trace a life of greater impact than my timid 21-year-old self knew.

10 years on, it’s easy to feel a bit removed from the experience—though it has shaped my life and will always feel present in some ways. But I think about the girl who wrote this, the “younger me” of 21 years of age, and my heart goes out to her. On this side of things, I know what’s in store for her, and I believe one of God’s many mercies is that most of the time, He doesn’t tell us what’s in store.

“If this is the end….” Wow. Well, it wasn’t, but that was no guarantee. And though every day is a gift and no one ever knows when he or she will meet the end, having to stare down the question of, “Is this it?” was terrifying then and heartrending to read today.

Often it can feel like I’m pouring myself out—into the things I think God has called me to, into relationships, and into whatever is set before me—and not getting the same return or just ending up exhausted. Well, the “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too” lesson of this story for present-day-me is that I can’t get bitter over my exhaustion from pouring myself out or into the people and passions in my life. The alternative is 21-year-old-me coming face to face with the possibility that this might truly be the end and feeling like my life had made no impact, that I had only pursued self-interest.

The alternative to pouring myself out is filling myself up and knowing, when faced with my mortality, that I’ve squandered my life. It’s a good reality check for me: Would I rather feel like that younger me, terrified of having wasted the gift of life that God had given me, or like I do from time to time, exhausted from trying to walk faithfully and follow God’s calling, whatever that entails?

That reads as if I think I’m a martyr or saint—trust me; I don’t. I’m the actual worst, and I have daily evidence of that (especially while driving in California traffic). But on days when I let the pity party start, thinking that my life isn’t comfortable or how I expected, it’s a great reality check to think of the alternative, a sobering thought to confront 10 years ago and to remember today.

If there’s “a moral to this story,” it’s mostly to reflect but also to encourage myself–and maybe you–to make the most of the time we’re given. That’s actually the most pithy saying I could offer, except if you know me and if you had stood outside of Delias hearing you had cancer on the day before Thanksgiving like I did, hopefully you would understand there’s a lot of import to that seemingly trite saying. It’s been sobering to reread my fears and concerns about “if this is the end,” and it’s a great reminder to me today, 10 years later, to give myself to the larger narrative God has rather than to my own selfish and small pursuits.


Tonight, there’s so much I’m thankful for. I started making a list over the last month or so detailing many of the things that would never have happened if that call had truly signaled the end 10 years ago. I’d love to share that list over the next few days in the spirit of Thanksgiving, but for now, I’m profoundly thankful to be sitting here, writing, and living a life that isn’t what I expected but is genuinely a gift.

The First Decade*: Reflections on the last 10 years I only lived because of God’s grace + modern medicine, Part 1.

(*Michael W. Smith reference intentional)

I’m coming up on the 10 year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis this week. That reality has been present in the back of my mind for months, and I’ve been trying to think of how to honor this anniversary, or as we say in the cancer world, this “cancerversary.”

I’ve also been trying to figure out when to honor that since I got the call on the day before Thanksgiving, but that actual calendar date is the Monday after Thanksgiving this year. Plus, my mom wonders why I would even celebrate the anniversary of the day I got the news since that’s not exactly something worth celebrating. Should I celebrate on February 4th, the day I found out I was in remission? In some ways, that date seems fitting because it’s also World Cancer Day, and yet, I still had 4 more months of treatment, so though remission was an incredible victory, I was still in the trenches and feeling terrible. Should I celebrate May 14th, the day of my last chemo treatment when I knew I would finally start to feel better?

One of the reasons I’ve marked the day before Thanksgiving each year is because it’s such a meaningful time—yes, it was the day my world felt like it came to a halt as I looked “terminal illness” in the face, but it’s also a time to be grateful for all I have and all God has done in my life. In the years since November 2008, Thanksgiving has been that much more poignant for me as a time to celebrate the gift this life truly is. I might have flippantly said that in my previous 21 years—“Oh, life’s a gift!”—but I know that to be true in a profoundly real way now.

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Lazarus [Still] Died

If you read the title of this post and thought, “Well, obviously, Hannah…” and that’s a no-brainer for you, then keep reading. And if you didn’t think that, then definitely keep reading.

Here’s the thing: I know the story of Lazarus. I can’t overemphasize how many times I’ve heard it and learned about it. It’s amazing. But you know what? Not until I read a book this summer did I think about the fact that Lazarus still died.

I don’t mean that he died and Jesus famously wept and then even more famously raised him to life. I mean after all of that—the death, weeping, and resurrecting—Lazarus still died. For some reason, that thought had never once occurred to me.

“Okay, great…” you may be thinking, wondering what the point is. Well, the fact that Lazarus still died has been a transformative idea in my life and way of thinking over the past few months, and it’s had a significant impact on the way I view ministry and what I’m trying to do with Still Waters, the faith-based cancer retreat I’m starting.

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Called as Though We Are

I’ve been studying the book of Romans again lately, in part because I just finished a long study of Paul’s letters to Corinth and it’s believed Paul wrote Romans from Corinth, but also because I went back to Rome in April, an amazing trip provided courtesy of years of airline miles and the lowest AAdvantage award tickets I’ve seen to an international destination. Rome is also where Paul died, so I thought it would be great timing to study Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, given all I learned during Wheaton in the Holy Lands in 2014 in both Corinth and Rome plus all that I saw back in Rome this year.

The site remembered as the tomb of Paul at the Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura (St. Paul’s outside the Walls) in Rome.

I’m not super far—I like to take it slowly and use what I’ve learned (and taught) about literature over the years as I study, thinking through author, setting, purpose, tone, audience, and other narrative elements. Context matters—not just because “Context” is one of my top “strengthsquest” strengths, but because it adds so much to the message.

I’ve been learning much about grace over the past year and in reading Romans, but that’s for a future post. Today, I’m reflecting on what I think is one of the most hopeful partial verses from Scripture I’ve read in a long time: “…the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (Romans 4:17b).

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