This week, on July 9th, I’ll go for my 16th and final round of intravenous chemotherapy. I’m praying to the God I believe hears us, and asking that this is the last one I ever have to do intravenously, but also hopefully, at all. I am hoping for a pathology complete response, which would allow me to be done with active treatment after my surgery. While this end of five months of chemotherapy is a huge milestone, there are so many decisions I am faced with making with limited information, and many moving parts that organize themselves only during my upcoming surgery a month after chemo ends (like, the moving parts organize themselves while I’m under anesthesia). I’ll wake up to news I can’t choose about my next steps; about my immediate future. While I have the ability to choose what surgery I would like to have based on what I know now, which I know is a huge gift, I do not get to choose whether or not I have a pathology complete response, or whether or not this cancer beast recurs locally or if it recurs as Metastatic to another organ in the future.
Lately, these truths have felt heavy. Weighty. Like a door is in my face, and I can turn the knob, but I can’t open it. I do not get to know what is on the other side; like some cruel version of a gameshow, where the show host has the door opened for you exclaiming, “What’s behind door number three!” Only in this case, there is no cool prize, only cancer, or maybe not cancer. Those are the possibilities. Weighty.
Cancer has been in my body for a while. No one can say exactly how long. We just know it has been there and that it tried to grow aggressively before we had a chance to find it and kill it. I hold to the belief that God stopped it from spreading. I don’t know why. However, I felt his presence through all the prayers sent up on my behalf. The type of breast cancer I have (non-hormone driven or Triple Negative) spreads quickly, and unfortunately I did not go in to get checked as soon as I felt the lump; I waited close to two months to go to my primary care doctor for an initial check. I had developed a fear of germs post-partum with my second baby, coupled with the emergence of the global pandemic. I then had to wait another month, waking up daily with cancer still in my body, while I underwent all the tests necessary to finally begin chemotherapy.
As I sit in the kindness of the God I feel is near, real, and cares about each one of us despite all the pain we each encounter, I know I am held, kept, and loved, and I wonder what else will be a part of my story after waking up from this bilateral mastectomy surgery next month. I wonder what’s behind my door.
I find myself contemplating the facts, that the comforting possibility remains that my experience with cancer could end with healing and physical restoration, and that God is safe to hope in. Still, the uncertainty of what could come causes a lingering fear. The fear is like a moat that surrounds this fortress of hope I am attempting to live in. A fire breathing dragon lives in the moat, burning his fire-breath close to my fragile frame, and as I attempt to run across the bridge despite the dragon, and the moat, I realize the bridge is cracked. The foundation of the bridge is unstable, and the moat of fear and the dragon attempt to take me down. Some moments I can skip across the bridge positive I’ll make it across unscathed, while other moments I’m just as sure the crack in the bridge will give way without warning.
I live here; reluctantly hopeful, yet surrounded by things I fear. I notice there is only one imperfect way forward, across the unstable bridge, past the Moat, to the solid foundation of the Fortress, so I keep getting up. Like Anna in Frozen 2, I get up and I “do the next right thing,” which for me, like Anna, is to keep walking, despite the fear that inevitably wells up in my chest as I cautiously take each step. I keep moving forward. In an effort to keep going, and to strengthen my resolve, I look out at the moat of fear trying to keep me from feeling the safety and peace the Fortress brings, and I say truth to it:
“Well, good morning again, Moat. Did you know that everyone I’ve ever known that trusts in God is praying for my physical restoration”?
“Hey Moat. Happy Tuesday. Did you know that this Fortress of hope you surround is God’s?”
“Moat of fear, ‘God is my refuge and my fortress. My God, in whom I trust. He will cover [me] with his feathers, and under his wings [I] will find refuge; His faithfulness will be [my] shield’ (Psalm 91:1-4).”
In essence, I hope to get my message across to the Moat; that the Fortress it surrounds is solid, immovable, whole, totally Other. In fact, the Fortress has a name, and it is Jehovah-Rapha, God our Healer, who holds the power to redirect outcomes, and that is who I trust in; my foundation is the God who has the power to redirect outcomes.
Even as I speak truth to the Moat with conviction and surety, I wonder solemnly: will the Moat ever dry up? If so, how, or when?
Wincing, I breathe into my ribcage deeply and allow my long exhale fully out before I brave walking, really tiptoeing, with uncertainty across this cracked bridge of life suspended over the Moat of fear, finding confidence in one thing: the truth I believe of God as my Fortress; that I am not walking this unstable bridge alone. God is here with a “righteous right hand” to uphold and to strengthen me (Isaiah 41:10).
Allowing my face to soften, I keep breathing deep, and on an inhale, I capture God’s presence within my heart and remember more truths I believe; that every one of us moves without certainty of how our story will go; whether the bridge underneath us will give way to the Moat of fear, of what we hope will never happen to us. We hope, get disappointed, face fear, see beauty, and keep walking. Regardless of percentages or survival rates. Age, ethnicity, whether or not we have children. None of us is exempt from suffering; none of us is exempt from an end to this life. Like my favorite author, and a fellow cancer-haver, Kate Bowler says, “There is no cure for being human.”
We are here now, though. You and me; this warm Tuesday in July. Whatever is behind our next door, we cannot predict beforehand; we can hope it’s something beautiful. Something worth it, something that leaves a legacy, something that sparks joy; that brings people together, closer to peace, closer to our Creator, closer to the Fortress, across the Moat that attempts to hold us back. We can walk across the bridge towards the Fortress propelled by faith, and for me I find that faith in the nearness of the God of the Bible I have attempted to describe. And I believe this God is safe to hope in. Safe to hope for a way through, even the most frightening of Moats; safe to stand under the shadow of His wings, and find refuge, despite outcomes (though I do hope they are redirected such that I get to see my children grow up). Nonetheless, to live inside the shadow of the Fortress, regardless, and feel the peace there, despite circumstance.
I remember the truths I said to the Moat; I remember I believe “God is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). I remember, and I walk, moving closer to God who is my Fortress of hope, and I begin to cross the Moat of fear; regardless of all the uncertainty before me.
Take that, Moat. (Also, I’ll see you tomorrow).
* * *
The cold of winter has encompassed North Carolina now, Christmas came and went, and a new year began. I find myself three weeks from my first cancerversary. Last year, right after I wrote this, I finished chemotherapy, then had a bilateral mastectomy to flat, and on August 9th, 2021 I received news that humbled me. I wept as I slowly scrolled down the MyChart test results; I saw a lot of zeros. Then, my surgeon called to assure me that the zeros meant I had received a pathology complete response. This blew my mind, and brought me to my knees in gratitude. Still, at each morning’s wake, I greet the Moat of fear, breathe deep, and speak truth to it. “’His mercy is new every morning,’ Moat, ‘Great is His faithfulness’” (Lamentations 3:23). I pray, and I get onto the cracked bridge of life, and every day is one day further from diagnosis, one day closer to a less reluctant hope. I encounter obstacles my heart is not prepared to encounter, even now in survivorship. This week, January 4, 2022, I needed to go in and see my oncologist because I was convinced the scar thickening on my mastectomy line was a recurrence. Fear of recurrence, of Metastatic cancer, and of the chemo and medicines causing a new cancer, make up the waters of the Moat of fear, but each day, armed with God’s mercies anew, His strength in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), and I walk across. Deeper breaths, longer exhales, lots of self-talk reminders to myself and to the Moat: “God is my Fortress, My rock, in whom I take refuge” (Psalm 18:2). I still fear, and I still walk forward, hoping for so many more years of survivorship.