Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lessons from a Breast Cancer Journey

Errin and I at her breast cancer benefit last December.
Last September my sister rocked my world when she told me she had breast cancer.  BOOM.  Stake through the heart.  I hugged her close and told her we had a battle to fight and that I would be with her every step of the way.  I'm a woman of action so I dried my tears, told her to boot up her computer and got on the phone ASAP to make an appointment with the first available surgeon at the Piper Breast Center at Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis.

As I was dialing the phone, I had no idea who to ask for and told the woman on the line I wanted the very best doctor they had.  Of course she responded by telling me that ALL their doctors were good.  I had begun praying even before I made the call that God would direct us to the surgeon that would best be able to help my sister.  We made the appointment and a few days later were sitting in the examining room with Dr. D. 

He did a good job of masking his alarm when he examined my sister but I saw it.  BOOM.  Another stake through the heart.  Then he excused himself and returned with a breast cancer oncologist who "just happened" to be out in the hall so that she could examine Errin.  Very unconventional and spoke to the seriousness of the situation.  BOOM.  They looked at Errin's labwork and spoke of their hope that she would be estrogen positive so that she could take powerful preventative drugs to protect her against recurrences.  BOOM.  BOOM.  BOOM.  She was negative on all three counts.  They have a term for patients like that:  Triple Negative.  BOOM.

The scans were inconclusive but it looked as though the extremely aggressive tumor which they defined as "huge" had already penetrated the chest wall.  BOOM.  They also told us that the scans showed lymph node involvement.  BOOM. 

Meanwhile, I'm praying, over and over again:  "Please don't let it be inflammatory breast cancer, please don't let it be inflammatory breast cancer..."  as I had lost a friend to IBC a few years ago and knew how dire that prognosis was.  So, when our very kind and concerned surgeon looked at us and told us that, indeed, it was inflammatory breast cancer, my stoicism crumbled and tears began leaking from the corners of my eyes.  BOOM.  Final stake through my poor heart that just couldn't take any more grim diagnoses.  My sister, bless her heart, turned to look at me and said in a surprised tone, "You're crying."  Yes.  Yes, I was.  I tried all the tricks:  blinking rapidly, looking up at the ceiling, trying to focus.  None of it worked.  She, on the other hand, was calm and collected.  Huh. 

That was a very dark day and the boatload of testing that followed only served to support all the negative news that the doctors had shared with us.  As they wheeled her in for her MRI that same day, I ran from the room looking for a lifeline.  Praise God, I found it in Pastor Larry from our church.  I hardly remember our conversation (besides my literally gasping for air) but what stands out was his pronouncement that God was faithful and sufficient.  NO MATTER WHAT.  No matter what the future held, I had to trust God, even with my beloved sister. 

The days ahead held more painful doctor appointments with yet more negative assessments but as our church and friends and family and Errin's customers and business associates began to pray, a strange thing began to happen.  The fear that gripped my heart began to loosen.  I began to truly hope and believe in Errin's healing.  I began sleeping and eating again.  In the midst of the many doctor appointments, chemo treatments and more, life returned to a sort of normalcy.

Fast forward four months to Errin's double mastectomy on Monday.  Dr. D. was there, the man of the hour and after many hours spent in the waiting room he met with us after the surgery to tell us that it had gone well and, contrary to their earlier belief, the chest wall was not involved.  The lymph nodes on the left side that had been biopsied earlier in the day were clear and cancer-free as well.  Praise God!  The good news was finally rolling in and left us in a somewhat euphoric daze.  Hours later when we were finally able to see and talk with Errin she shared what the radiologist that morning had shared with her:  He'd worked at a number of hospitals for many years and if he or a loved one needed the kind of surgery Errin had, he told her he would choose Dr. D. over all the other doctors he knew.  That man, that doctor, in his opinion, was the best.  The very best.  Why was I not surprised?  God hadn't deserted us during our hour of need.  On the contrary, He had been guiding our every move.

Today my sister comes home from the hospital and she was given wonderful news before leaving:  The lymph nodes on the right side, the ones that were enlarged and that the doctors believed to be cancerous were benign!  No cancer!  So here I am, thanking God again for the gift of His healing in my sister's life.  When we look at a situation through our own eyes, it is easy to despair and lose faith.  God asks us to trust Him, even when the prognosis is dire.  Especially when the prognosis is dire.  As life kept hammering her, Errin never gave up hope.  She wasn't interested in statistics then and still isn't today.  What an inspiration she is to me and so many others. 

BOOM.  The hammer and stake have been laid to rest and the tears I weep today are tears of joy.  Perhaps the tools that I despised were not objects meant to harm me but instruments used to chisel away doubt, indifference and self-reliance.  It appears the lessons I fear the most have the greatest potential to teach me what I need to learn.