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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Introducing: Still Waters Cancer Retreat

Last month, I wrote about “My Summer of Cliff Jumping” and promised to share more about Still Waters Cancer Retreat, the nonprofit I’m starting. Today is World Lymphoma Awareness Day, “a day dedicated to raising awareness of lymphoma, an increasingly common form of cancer” {which sounds just like what you’d think it is}. This retreat isn’t just those for lymphoma, but because lymphoma is part of my story, I figured today’s a pretty good day to follow through on my promise. So here goes!

The American Cancer Society publishes its Cancer Facts and Figures report each year {which I keep in my iBooks app on my phone and which is totally normal, right?}, and basically, the rates of cancer have been pretty steady for a while. They estimate that 41/100 men and 38/100 women will get cancer in their lifetimes, not including basal or squamous cell carcinomas, since those aren’t required to be reported. Check out the link here, if you, too, are also semi-morbid and want to read through them: ACS Facts and Figures.

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My Summer of Cliff Jumping

I figure it’s time to give an update on life and let you know what I’ve been working on that I’ve hinted about and which I’m so excited about. Here we go!

For those wondering where I’m living right now and what I’m doing, I quit my teaching job in California at the end of the school year, which means that since June, I have been unemployed, though in a planned way. As everyone started heading back to school over the last week or so, I realized this year is only the fourth in my 30 years where I have not had a first day of school. The other three go to the year when I wrote my book between stints teaching in Hawaii and my first two years of life (yeah, I went to 2-year-old preschool…apparently someone needed a break).

There were many reasons I quit my teaching job, but one of the biggest was because I’m in the process of starting a non-profit, and I knew that with my seven different roles at school, it was never going to happen. It’s sort of how I felt when I knew I needed to write my book but also knew there was no way that was going to happen while teaching high school English (a.k.a. grading papers and reading literature in my “time off”). For the past two years, God’s been reminding me of my heart for those with cancer, and for more than a year, I’ve been working on a vision of starting a faith-based cancer retreat (more on that later!).

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On [The Grace of] Turning 30

Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything here—and that’s for a couple of reasons.

1) I switched websites, and it’s still a little bit in shambles. The most frustrating part is that in the transfer, many of my old posts were lost. It sounds dramatic, but that’s been a bit painful because when I write, my words come from the heart. I pretty much fail all marketing guidelines which say to write short posts and publish them frequently so as to keep up a steady readership. I’ve always struggled with that, though, because I refuse to just write fluff in order to have published a post. So when I do post, it’s generally something that’s been on my heart for a while, something that comes from deep conviction and truth I’ve been learning. Losing those posts has gotten me a little disheartened and kept me away.

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A Complex Response for this Complex Life

Nine months later, I’m still here, keeping my head above water as I enter the final quarter of this school year. I won’t get too deeply into the specifics of my move to San Diego or the minutiae of my journey back to teaching high school English, but per my last post—on not knowing where I’m going—it’s been amazing to look back and see how God led me here. That’s another post for another time since this post has been on my heart for the past 6 months. However, I’m out in San Diego, I’m teaching English again, and I’m exhausted but confident that God brought me here for some reason.

Aside from my move, my adjustment out of grad school and back into the classroom, and some other events in our family, the past 6-8 months have been marked by some significant challenges. I honestly believe I’ve cried more tears in the past 8 months than in the past 8 years combined.

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The Valley

A year ago, I was in Israel, studying for 6 weeks with Wheaton in the Holy Lands. The trip began on May 17th and ran through June 28th, and we had to keep a daily journal of what we learned and did as part of the course, so I’ve been reading through each day’s journal entry one year later before I go to bed each night.

And wow. It’s been amazing for a number of reasons, but I’m finding that somehow the things I learned one year ago while in the Holy Lands are encouraging and teaching me each day today. The things I learned one year ago are really poignant for my life today, and as I read through each day’s journal entry from last year, it’s like the lessons from archaeological sites in Israel are casting light on my life at home in Fairview, Texas. Go figure. I think maybe the things I learned impacted me at the time, but since we learned so much and did so much in our typical 10-12 hour days “in the field,” it was hard to process everything, to make sense of it all and its impact on the rest of my life.

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