Additional Thoughts on the Loneliest Year

Since I last posted (see “The Loneliest Year of My Life”), I’ve been talking with more people who’ve felt as I have this year, and I’ve talked with others in different situations who have been through the wringer in their own way this year.

I feel like I missed some things in my last post, partly because some of the context for my loneliness is in a post I wrote in May but haven’t yet shared and partly because my last post was already long (shocking, I know). So I wanted to add three more clarifying thoughts, or three “footnotes.”

First of all, Covid has not caused my loneliness. That’s been lurking beneath the surface for the past couple years, and it really ramped up in January, sparking a frien-tervention before Covid even became forefront in our consciousness. Covid has, however, magnified my loneliness because of the resultant and even sometimes needed isolation. So isolation during Covid has exacerbated the struggle I’ve been sitting in for a while. I don’t know why it feels important for me to say that, but it does.

Maybe it’s because I don’t want to give “2020” and “covid” too much personified power, but maybe it’s also because I know once Covid “ends” and stay at home orders lift, the loneliness will likely still be there. There will just be more distractions and ways to divert my attention from the pain of that loneliness.

Secondly, I said it in my last post and I 100% mean it: This is not an indictment of anyone for not reaching out or for closing their doors and homes. In 2020 it feels like we have to have a million disclaimers about everything we say so as not to offend, but I’m hopeful that at the end of the day, we can give more benefit of the doubt to others and trust their hearts—who we know them to be—rather than supposed offenses in social media and tone-less words on a screen or page.

I digress though. Back to my second point. One of the things I learned with much more angst when walking through cancer was to be grateful for those who show up rather than disappointed by those who don’t. So many people showed up then—many unexpectedly!—so I wasn’t dwelling on who didn’t show up most of the time. But afterwards, I looked back and it took the slightest bit of conscious effort not to note the absence or void of some I assumed would have shown up.

I got over it—and pretty quickly at that—because of who did show up, and I learned in processing that many people just don’t show up because they have no idea where to start or how to do so, or because they’re going through their own muddled mess. Let me tell you: It is far more fulfilling to look around and be grateful for who shows up and then look up and see how God has provided than to look around and count anyone who’s absent.

In this season, I’ve leaned on that lesson much more readily and less painfully (progress, woohoo!). I am sincerely grateful for those who’ve shown up, opened doors and lives, and been the lifeline in this season. I’m not keeping track of who has closed doors nor marking people on the naughty list (had to; it’s December).

In addition to having (hopefully) more maturity than when I was 21 and struggling with those who showed up and didn’t, I also have learned tons about grace in the past few years. “Grace” is what my name means, and the more I learn about it, the less I know I have inside and more I need to receive from God. I am the worst, but God’s holding me to a standard of grace, not perfection or success, so I’m getting much better at resting in my worst-ness.

Furthermore on the grace train, in this season, I have 100% NOT shown up for people. Hopefully that hasn’t been across the board—I’d like to think I’ve shown up for at least one person in 2020—but I’ve pretty much been working off of a 2 month delay with following up and being intentional and even just responding to texts and DMs this year. There’s not going to be any way I can actually explain it to you since, if ya girl can throw up some sardonic post on her Instagram story, one would think she should be able to respond to a text.

All I can say is that my head and emotions have felt at or above capacity for much of this year. That doesn’t make logical sense for why I can do one thing and then not simply respond to a text, but when your brain is over capacity, the logic center is a shamble shack (it’s science). I know that makes no sense, but when your brain is a shamble shack, the logic center is thrown off, so that reinforces my point—there is no logical reason because there is no logic happening with my 2 month delay and failure to show up.

I’m not sharing that as an excuse—remember, I’m the worst and I know that. I share about my shamble shack capacity struggles and ineptitude at responding this year because I know if that’s where I’m at, others who “haven’t shown up” this year are probably fighting off their own shambles in some capacity (because truly, we all are and could all use more empathy and compassion since 2020 is the shambliest of all shacks).

In wrapping up my second point, the challenge is to look around and make the choice to be grateful for those who’ve shown up. And the second part of that challenge is to extend more grace and empathy to those who haven’t while praising God for what He has given and how He has provided.

My final point is this: I know that last post was dark and probably heavy. Much of 2020 has been just that, and seasons of 2018 and 2019 have been, too. “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices” has long been one of the most sobering and poignant song lyrics for me. But if you look back just a bit further in “O Holy Night,” the lyrics right before my favorite lines are equally powerful: “Long lay the world in sin and error, pining til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

This previous couplet is why “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices” is my favorite. The incarnation—God showing up!—is my thrill of hope and the reason why my weary shamble shack self rejoices. Out of my being the worst, the most in need of grace, and the least proficient at living up to my name PLUS my brokenness in the pit and deep loneliness—out of all that, Christ appeared and the soul felt its worth.

Wow. That is why the pit hasn’t swallowed me in this apparently never-ending season. It’s probably come close, but that thrill of hope, where Christ chose to enter in through the incarnation, to enter into my mess and to choose that knowing how shambley I am—that is why my weary heart rejoices. And it’s able to because I know Him and my soul feels its worth in Him alone.

I don’t have a spouse or my own family I’m building, if I stay in California I will never own a home, my job was tenuous this year, my rent increased as my pay got cut, my health is often an annoying hassle, and I fail at even simply just showing up for people who’ve shown up for me and aren’t asking a ton. Let me reassure you that my soul isn’t feeling its worth from anything but the incarnation, from Christ entering in. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again and again: read Steve Garber’s Visions of Vocation for more on the hope and profundity of the incarnation (not a theology book, though, so #understandable).

To summarize: Covid hasn’t caused this deep loneliness, though it has certainly magnified it and stripped away any veneer of distraction from it. Amidst this, I’m grateful for the gift of those who have shown up, for their presence and open doors, and I’m reminded to look around at those who’ve shown up then look up in gratitude rather than taking stock of who hasn’t shown up. That is a way more freeing posture, especially when I have failed to show up for others, too, in this season.

And finally, my experience has been that there are some really dark days. I hate being so self-referential, and I know we all have different experiences, but I’m also convinced most of us walk through those really dark days. This is not the first time I have sat in seasons of loneliness and pain, and it won’t be the last. The reason I have hope amidst that is because out of the long seasons of waiting, of “pining” for relief and rescue, the incarnation happened. Christ chose to enter in to our world and mess, causing the “soul to feel its worth” and bringing that thrill of hope a very weary world is desperate for.

The end. Off to work I go (also had to). Please don’t let any of this or my shamble shack self stop you from reaching out. I’m working on cutting my 2 month delay to merely a 1 month delay, I promise. But in the meantime, I’m resting in grace and the hope of the incarnation.

The Loneliest Year of my Life

2020 has not been the hardest year of my life (cancer card), but it has certainly been the loneliest. It’s very likely been that way for a lot of people across the board.

I’ve had multiple friends stay really low-key and quarantined, which for them means taking their spouse and children on family road trips and not seeing anyone else. Or they’ve bubbled with their parents nearby.
What’s the equivalent for a single person who doesn’t have roommates and all her family lives in different states? I quarantine/do “bubbled” household vacations with…Netflix? That’s coming from someone split on the introvert/extrovert spectrum, so I can only imagine the pain and deep loneliness for single, roommate-less people without family nearby who are also high extroverts.

Before anyone gets upset and thinks this is an indictment of them (gosh, 2020 is exhausting), it’s not. Also, I’m not looking for a trophy or medal for “you had it the hardest” pity. I don’t think I’ve had it the hardest by ANY means. It’s just been uniquely challenging with its isolation.

I’ve actually had my core group in CA invite me over—and more importantly—IN to their lives in this season. Because truly, that’s what others isolating themselves with their family unit feels like: a closed door to their lives from my place of already-deep loneliness before covid hit.

It’s been a long season of having friends who are cautious saying, “Hey, we’re just kind of isolating with our household” which is great and admirable and I GET it. We’re literally being told to do that. But then I start to wonder, “Am I just really selfish for wanting to see people and not caring about covid deaths?” until I realize that for some friends, isolating with their household means family vacations in a bubble or road trips with the 4-6 people of their immediate family unit. Again, does isolating with my household or bubble vacationing for me mean more time on my iPad but in a new location?

I genuinely know that people are being cautious and NOT callous by isolating or insulating, but over time, it starts to feel like closed doors. I know we have to be cautious, but there’s also a cost in that.

Again, this is not an indictment of anyone and not meant to shame anyone. It’s just to share a perspective that, at least among my friends, is somewhat unique since most of my friends and acquaintances are married, have kids, and/or live near family.

This season has genuinely made me grateful for those who, instead of hunkering down and shutting doors, have reached out and invited me in. I’m so grateful for people like Jerri and Stephen Middleton—both of whom have been really cautious and covid-safe—and yet, they have invited me into their world amidst that caution because they see the cost and toll. They have been a lifeline and gift. Where others are closing doors—100% understandably!— the Middletons have opened their door despite their own caution with the virus, and that’s been a gift.

Or take my core friend group which has been cautious and covid-safe overall. None of us has thrown caution to the wind and been crazy, but what would seem wrong and unsafe to others has been a lifeline in a suffocating season. They’ve said, “Hannah, get in the car and come see and spend the night with us.” Again, they’ve opened doors in a world where there’s been a lot of insulating and closing of doors. My friend group and the Middletons may have done it just because it’s who they are, but I also think they’ve been very intentional about saying, “Hey, let’s take care of our friend.”

My parents were a lifeline in May, letting me crash with them for a month during the first stay at home order after 6 weeks alone in my 1 bedroom apartment; my small group has been an encouragement out of the depths; my cousin and her husband inviting me on their trip in October was life-giving and a breath of fresh air; my sister and brother in law rescued me for Easter; my boss called early on recognizing that I’m in a uniquely isolated situation; and these friends above have been a lifeline locally.

This is going to sound really dramatic, but let me tell you: masks may well save lives, but so have these friends’ actions.

Cancer was severely isolating in some ways, though I’ve written about how people rallied around me and I felt such an incredible sense of community. It’s isolating in the sense that few people around you truly get what’s going on and what you’re going through. Even if you’re surrounded by people, you’re the one getting filled with chemo at the end of the day; you’re the one losing your hair.

But this season has been isolating on a whole other level. During cancer people tried to understand and they rallied around me, and I so appreciate that. During Covid, people are intentionally closing doors—which I know is what we’re being told and mandated to do, and it’s probably wise for public physical health—but hopefully you can see the challenge.

All of this when I’d like to consider myself well-adjusted with some good community (and I see a psychiatrist every month—not actually for counseling, but every time I know I could bring it up when my doc asks how life is going). So if that’s how I’m feeling, I just can’t imagine what it’s like out there. It’s been challenging and there’s really no better word for it than utterly lonely.

On top of all of the other ways the world has felt stalled in covid, it also feels like I’m sitting out another year of my life as the clock ticks, while my friends continue to build their families and I continue to sit alone under stay at home guidelines and orders in my apartment, watching some of my hopes slip even further out of view.

I know it’s not all sunshine and rainbows and that being stuck with a spouse and kids has had its own challenges. I’m 100% sure I would be so sick of a spouse or kids or roommate or family after 9 months at home with them. I’m not saying it’s been a walk in the park for others because I’m sure it would drive me crazy, and I don’t know a single person who’s coming out of 2020 unscathed in some or multiple ways. I’m saying that at end of the day, most people I know are isolating or at home with someone who either chose them or is stuck with them, and I’ve got lots of streaming apps.

I try to have a point to what I write, a “complete thought” of sorts. There’s not really one today.

I have friends whom I love arguing with me about the need for stay at home orders as I sit alone in my apartment, writing in the dark, feeling suffocated by another stay at home order that will go through Christmas. Travel is now “restricted” (though the state said they know they can’t enforce that, lol), and I know I will be judged by friends I love dearly and one-time acquaintances who follow me for some reason (honored, but nothing to see here) for traveling over Christmas. I also know that the pervading weight on my chest in view of 3 weeks of isolation even more strict than what I’ve been experiencing for 8 months since the last stay at home order means if I don’t travel to see loved ones for Christmas, the odds of me keeping my head above water for these next 3 weeks are not in my favor.

In May, I wrote a post which I haven’t yet shared because it’s probably the most honest and vulnerable thing I’ve written over the years. It feels too much—maybe too raw or just too honest. This one’s a close second. But I keep coming back to it and thinking I should share because I know there are others out there feeling as I am.

So maybe that’s the point of this post: to put words to what I know some of my other single, roommateless, and sometimes family-less friends are feeling, too. And if you read this and can be the Middletons or the “Wildcats 4ever” text thread or my parents, cousin, and small group to someone out there struggling under intensified isolation, be the lifeline, the open door they may be desperate for.

Jesus is my Rock, this I know. And I have spent some intense time with Him and had some raw and frequent, guttural conversations with Him this year (I know that’s not really the right use of guttural, but words escape how to describe some of my prayers from the depths). He has reached down from on high to sustain me despite the isolation—something He knows more deeply and profoundly than I do. He has also extended these few lifelines to me this year, and I am profoundly grateful. If I ever recover enough of myself out of this, I hope to repay them in kind.

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.


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.

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.