Asking God for a Non-Literal Break

A friend of mine, Julia, announced that she’ll be writing for an ecumenical Millennial Christian feminist blog, Grace & Feminism. Given that I tend to enjoy reading actually-feminist Christian writers, am technically a Millennial, and deeply respect Julia, I decided to check out the blog.

The third or fourth post that I read in the course of my poking around the site made me pause.  It contained the line “I was so tired of God using me for other people to find strength”, shortly followed by the question: “do you know how taxing it can be when you’re the one inspiring others because of how crappy your life is…?”

It almost seemed like a response to something I had near yelled at my counselor the day before: “My name isn’t Job!” That exclamation had been followed by sort of rant that boiled down to me stating the various difficulties of the past few years, with particular emphasis on the past year, and stating “I think I’ve coped pretty fucking gracefully with…” before each difficulty. I then remarked that, while I don’t necessarily believe that God causes the bad things in our lives to happen, the only purpose I could see for me tripping and breaking a bone in my right hand was, well, to break me.

x-ray of right hand with a break at the base of the 5th metacarpal

See, I’m right-handed and not at all ambidextrous, so having a cast on my right hand eliminates most of the activities that have helped me to cope “pretty fucking gracefully” – as I so eloquently put it. I can’t quietly journal by hand when I wake up in the middle of the night, nor easily type, so coping by writing is suddenly much harder and full of its own frustrations. I can’t tie my own tennis shoes, so escaping for a walk without needing help is right out the proverbial door. Most of my yoga modifications involve using my arms and hands for balance, so losing myself in yoga seems unlikely. And, well, the whole coloring thing is right out, since my three-year-old nephew has better fine motor control right now than I do with my left hand. Even reading is harder, though thankfully I can manage that with some modifications and difficulty in how I hold a book or my Kindle. In short, most of my coping mechanisms, habits diligently developed because of how crappy aspects of my life has been over the past few years, seem to have been taken from me just as I have to deal with a shitload of other crap.

I don’t want to miscommunicate here. Overall, to paraphrase one far greater than I am: although I dearly wish that this cup had passed me by, I am grateful that some good has come out of it. I have genuinely hoped that my mourning might make me better able to be of service to others who mourn. I have also hoped that by writing about my cancer as honestly as I can that I might be of some small service to others who struggle, that they might find some use in reading my words. I truly am grateful and proud whenever anyone says that I’ve helped or inspired them. It means more to me than I know how to say.

That, well, said, it was wonderful to read that someone else who likely agrees with the idea of hoping that her difficulties serve others has struggled with wanting to not be the damn inspirational movie of the week. I’ve never yelled at God, “I’m tired of you using my pain to help other people. I need something good!” However, I have certainly yelled at God that I’m tired and that I need something good.

I was once asked by someone in mourning why I hadn’t lost my faith despite everything that has happened. I remember being surprised by the question and assuring the individual that I don’t entirely understand myself why I haven’t lost my faith. I shared something similar to what that Millennial feminist Christian writer shared about herself – that of course I had felt rage at God, but that I didn’t think God minded me yelling and that I still strongly felt that God was with me in my suffering. God walks every awful step with me. I believe that with all my heart. Yet, I still yell at God for not protecting me, for allowing a life so full of promise and hope become cluttered with pain, grief, and distress.

My grumblings this past month have been anything but graceful! Rather, they have been full of pain and rage and tears. They have included the wailing question of why this stupid, relatively-small-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things bone fracture happened on top of every-fucking-thing else that has happened and that I am still dealing with and struggling through. Despite all that, I do still think that God is okay with me yelling heavenward. In fact, I still think God finds ways to remind me of that and comfort me.

I drafted the first 800 words of this post over a week ago. Then it sat on my laptop waiting for me to edit and publish it, but something held me back. As honest as I try to be, something about this post felt like that old metaphor of writing being simply opening up a vein and bleeding. It’s not easy to hold the concepts of 100% belief alongside the reality of rage and deep distress without feeling guilt or like my faith simply isn’t strong enough. What finally made me decide to finish and publish this post? Well, it was one of those reminders I attribute to God.

My husband and I went to a Wednesday service this week. During service we read Psalms 116. As we read it with the rest of the congregants, verse 10 stood out to me. It echoed in my head and would not leave. It seemed almost like an insistent whisper saying that maybe somebody needed the same reminder that I did. Maybe it’s simply hubris, but it felt like God telling me that I needed to finish and publish this post that I was tempted to keep hidden and unpublished.

What was verse 10? Well, in the book used in that Episcopalian service, the words of Psalm 116:10 were as follows:

I believed, even when I said, ‘I have been brought very low.’ In my distress I said, “no one can be trusted.”

Stronger Than My Body

Two years ago today I had a scan whose results made me believe that I was essentially cancer free. Of course, oncologists are careful to use the word “remission” instead of “cured,” but to the average patient, remission feels like a sentence has been lifted. It seems like suddenly there are possibilities and futures that you worried were denied to you. For me, I began to lose the fear that had walked beside me ever since learning that what was thought to be a benign fibroid was actually a cancerous tumor with a worrisome prognosis. In retrospect, I wasn’t actually cancer free at all and my life was only going to get more difficult, but I remember that feeling of fear lifting away from me.

Ever since last Friday, I’ve had fear in the back of my head every moment I’ve been awake. The only exception was the hour I spent at Third Space Wellness working one-on-one with my amazing yoga instructor. During that time I felt strong, in the moment, and capable. I did Warrior 3 for the first time in possibly over two years. It was a supported Warrior 3 with blocks, but I did it and I felt so strong as I worked and concentrated on holding the position.

Afterward, once I’d caught and slowed my breath, my instructor asked how it was. “Fun. Really hard, but fun,” I said. After class I told her that it was the first hour in a week where I hadn’t been afraid. I almost cried while telling her that because I wasn’t sure I could explain what a gift that was. I think, from the hug that she gave me, that she understood.

In some ways, fear is familiar to me at this point. Most of the time I’m able to move past it and it’s not as constant a companion as one might expect. Common, yes, but not constant. However this past week, except for during that class, it’s been a constant companion. I’ve been able to sometimes push it down and it hasn’t kept me from laughing or finding joy and hope, but the fear has been a constant companion to every other emotion and moment. It’s caused me to sometimes break down and sob. The other morning I texted a friend who I knew was unlikely to be at work because I could not stop crying long enough to open a bottle of Ativan less than two feet away from me. I did eventually stop crying. I did find the courage to take the next right step and act like a functional adult rather than sit frozen in my bedroom.

I had a scan on Friday, December 29. That scan showed that my sarcomas have grown. It’s only a few millimeters per sarcoma, but any growth is bad. My doctor talked with my husband, sister, and me for about an hour, discussing my options. I tried to be a “proper” adult and take dutiful notes. I was determined to be strong and a “good” patient who takes control of her care. At one point Jarrod reached over and gently took my notebook and pen from me because I was crying too much to really see the page clearly.

We have a plan. To be completely accurate, we have two plans — a plan A and a plan B because plan A depends on what the radiation oncologists think. Plan A would involve me continuing to get Olaratumab (the wonder drug that has given me a great quality of life) in January, plus a week where I’d have four days of radiation with a day off in between each session. The sessions would be an hour long and intensely focused. After returning from our honeymoon, I’d go on a particular daily chemo pill. If radiation doesn’t agree, I’d go on that daily pill in January with hopefully enough time before leaving for Oceana to figure out and minimize all the side effects. Then, I’d take the pills with me to Australia and New Zealand and take them there, stopping them a few days before big energy days such as when we go trail riding in the Blue Mountains.

I’m grateful to still go on my honeymoon. I’m grateful to have the best doctors and to have incredibly supportive family and friends. I’m still hopeful that a miracle (or miraculous breakthrough) will happen. The pill works (keeps stable) about 40-50% of sarcoma patients for 4-5 months if I understood right. At the point where it stops working, I’d go on another treatment. One possible, though very rare side effect, is a hole developing in the lungs. The reason that happens (very very very rarely) is because for a few rare patients in that 40-50%, the drug actually shrinks the sarcomas. So, I’m focusing on that. Not the hole, but the teeny tiny possibility of shrinkage. Maybe this is how I get my miracle.

All that said, I’m scared. The day after the scan Jarrod and I had some friends over (if you’re local and didn’t get invited, it’s not personal, just assume that J and I flaked — we do that a lot lately). It was wonderful to spend most of the evening not thinking about the scan, but it was never far from my mind and even with multiple glasses of wine, fear never left me.

I’m afraid of not being able to be stabilized again. I’m also afraid of the treatments and their side effects. The past few months on Olaratumab have been incredible. I’ve had energy and regrown my eyebrows! I had started to think about Olaratumab as a long-term “new normal” and to be okay with treatment so often because the rest of the time I felt so good.

I’m scared, but I’m trying to be brave. I’m trying to remember that I really do just need to take the next right step. I have the best people and new discoveries are constantly being made. As we were leaving, I asked my doctor for reassurance that I shouldn’t give up hope. “I don’t see any reason not to have hope,” he said. He’s always been honest with me so if that brilliant doctor still has hope, so will I. No matter the odds, I can always choose to have hope. Like Supergirl, I believe in hope.

Crocheted Superbunnygirl and Flashbunny speeding across a chemo window
Superbunnygirl and Flashbunny from Hooked and Loopy

When I told my friend Cyana, she told me that I’m stronger than my body. Apparently it’s something she picked up from a 60-year-old ballerina. No matter what 2018 brings, I am choosing to believe Cyana. I am choosing to believe that I am stronger than my body. I can fight and find strength to endure treatments whether medications or radiation and all the side effects those may bring.

I am afraid, but I have hope. I have stage 4 sarcomas that are growing, but I am stronger than my body. I will have faith.

Dangerously Divine Is Perfect for a Dangerous World

There’s an old saying attributed to G.K. Chesterton:

Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.

Although I love the saying, in my head I always amend “or better yet, befriended” to the end of it. Two authors are mainly responsible for that — Patricia Wrede and Deborah Blake. I highly recommend both if you like strong heroines and magic. Patricia Wrede I first read as a kid, but still enjoy as an adult. Deborah Blake I wouldn’t recommend for kids unless you have mature readers. Both authors are on my short list of books I read when I need a reminder of how to find courage.

Deborah Blake is not only an incredible author, but a genuinely amazing person and friend. She was kind enough to send me an ARC of her newest book, “Dangerously Divine” which is now out for purchase today! Go buy it, I’ll wait.

gray cat with Dangerously Divine ARC
Toby approves of Deborah Blake.

You want more than just an imperative command from me to entice you to purchase a book? Fine, I guess I can understand that. So, let me tell you a bit about the book, the fictional world it’s a part of, and why I love it so much.

Dangerously Divine is the second book in Deborah’s Broken Rider series that are a continuation of her Baba Yagas series. You don’t have to read her Baba Yaga series to thoroughly enjoy her Broken Rider series, although I love that series as much as the Broken Rider series. I absolutely love Deborah’s take on the Baba Yaga myth that is the backbone to the shared world. It fits into my (admittedly not massive) understanding of Russian fairy tales, while still being fiercely feminist stories of strong women. The women in both series are strong, though imperfect. Their flaws make them more inspiring heroines. The men are also a far cry from too-perfect-to-be-true male characters, and thus more believable. Despite the magic, Deborah makes her heroines and heroes seem like actual people who could inhabit our real world.

Dangerously Divine focuses on Gregori Sun who is trying to discover a new path in life now that his old life has been taken from him. He needs to find both spiritual healing and a way to save his life. Although the cure I need is unlikely to come through magic, I can identify with Gregori. Like Gregori, I thought that I had a calling and something outside my control took that calling away from me. Like Gregori, I struggle not only with a physical ailment but with figuring out my path.

Gregori’s search takes him to a Buddhist monastery in Minneapolis that allows laypeople to live and study with the monks, so long as they follow certain rules. Unlike Gregori, I’m unlikely to try either Minnesota or any sort of monastery to figure out my path. While studying, Gregory meets Ciera, a librarian in Minneapolis who helps homeless and runaway teens for deeply personal reasons. Ciera is full of strength and courage that she has honed out of necessity and a desire to keep others from falling into the same traps that once caught her.

Reading about people overcoming unlikely odds and finding courage even when afraid, reminds me that such things are possible. Books like Dangerously Divine do more than entertain me or distract me from pain or frustration — they help me stay hopeful and continue to do all I can to fight my disease. I know that bad things exist, books like Deborah Blake’s remind me that bad things, no matter how big and bad, don’t have to win.

Realistic Stability

I’m not at all sure how we’ve gotten to November 20th. I’ve been meaning to write this post for awhile now, but things kept getting in the way. Sometimes fun activities, sometimes exhaustion, sometimes my brain just feeling fuzzy and unable to string two coherent sentences together.

So, I’ll make this short and sweet. As of my latest scan (end of October), my sarcomas are pretty much stable, one of my blood clots is gone, and the clot in my lungs is neither growing nor blocking anything important! This is a good result and the best that could have realistically been expected.

The downside of being an optimist? You don’t always have realistic expectations. I understood that my treatment is meant to stabilize my sarcomas, not shrink them, and I knew that my blood thinner is meant to keep my clots from getting bigger, not eliminate them. However, hearing the news that Friday didn’t result in the giddy glee it ought to have.

Instead, I felt hollow. It wasn’t bad news, but it wasn’t the news I’d wanted. Then, of course, I felt horribly guilty and spoiled for wanting more than I’d gotten. It was like being 9 years old and disappointed that my parents hadn’t changed their minds and gotten me a live pony for Christmas. That disappointment was always quickly followed by guilt because I had one of the best collections of model horses, in addition to weekly riding lessons at Rocky River Riding where I got to ride lots of different ponies and horses.

Bay pony with a young Bethany
Just one of the ponies I was lucky enough to compete with in horse shows

In retrospect, this was a far better deal than if I’d been given an actual pony. Of course, when I told my sister this (over a week later because I suck with expressing my guilt), she was brilliant in the best big sister way. Laura simply replied, “Wishing for a pony is legit. Especially when a pony is ‘having less cancer.'”

As I said, it’s the downside of being an optimist. I believe so strongly that a literal miracle will happen that it’s hard to remember to celebrate when I get normal, realistic good news. My next scan is at the end of December, a few days after Christmas. Hopefully this time if/when I get good-but-not-miraculous news, I’ll rejoice instead of feeling hollow that I didn’t get my pony.

There are enough other difficulties that I need to remember to celebrate the wins however they come. I’m coping with a newly-diagnosed asthmatic cat (inhalers for kitties are not cheap and my cat is not easy to medicate, just saying), the holidays that bring up my grief as though it’s new and fresh, and general other life stuff because life doesn’t stop just because you’re dealing with a big and awful thing.

Courage and Confidence Aren’t Constant, and That’s Okay

Facebook memories are full of good, bad, and neutral images and posts from the past decade or so that I’ve been on that social media platform. Sometimes they stop me in my tracks, other times they help me move on. The first memory to pop up in today’s memories falls solidly in the second category.

Facebook status about how cat poop might help fight ovarian cancer. My post reads: Admittedly, I didn't have ovarian cancer, but part of me smiled at the idea that a parasite from cats might be the key to one cure for cancer.

Seeing this memory pop up in my FB feed made me smile and gave me hope after a night of horrible sleep, bad dreams, and worst-case-scenario worries.

People tell me that I have a great attitude about all of this (pulmonary embolism, stage iv sarcomas, etc), which is true, sort of. People tell me that I display courage and confidence, grace and humor — but that’s just what gets shown most often to the public.

I don’t always have a positive attitude, tons of confidence, courage for the upcoming twists in the road, and a good sense of humor. I think I do have grace though, even if not in the way that we often think of one acting gracefully.

I have grace in that I’m blessed with a husband who responds to my 6 a.m. panicked searching for ativan by waking up and finding it for me, along with the other meds that help my brain calm down. That he does this despite getting very little sleep himself due to waking up throughout the night both when I woke up or whenever my breathing sounded odd, makes him even more of a hero. That same husband then made me breakfast with delicious coffee made with beans from our favorite coffee shop (Kefa Cafe) that reminds me of the great world outside our apartment full of our community that supports us in love. I also received a text from my friend and former fencing coach with a cute cat that made me laugh and smile. And all of these things together made it possible for me to get out of bed, throw a load of laundry in the washer, and attempt to do what I can with this day.

It’s not going to be a perfect day. I’m due for another Lovenox shot in my belly in 5 hours or so and that’ll sting and make me tear up, but it’ll be given to me by a kind friend who never ceases to make me smile and find courage.

I don’t always need a lot of courage, just enough to take the next right step, even if that’s sometimes curling up with a glass of chocolate milk and a good book. Today it’ll involve some time in prayer and then calling my senators to again stress my opposition to S. 720. S. 720 is a bill that infringes on free speech rights by potentially making it illegal for individuals, churches, and businesses (many of whom already participate) to participate in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

Whether or not one agrees with supporting apartheid-like conditions and settlements that the international community has agreed are illegal, surely we can all agree that criminalizing boycotts is highly un-American. Unfortunately, one of my senators, Ben Cardin, didn’t seem to have read the bill that a lobbying group gave him before he sponsored it, based on his comments so far to the press. He’s said that he wants to “reword” the bill, but I want him to revoke his support. If you’re in favor of maintaining free speech rights in the United States, regardless of your views on Israel, please contact your senators to voice your opposition to S. 720. The ACLU has a great primer on the bill in regards to free speech. If you don’t trust the ACLU, Mondoweiss has a summary of positions from groups including Jewish Voices for Peace and J Street.

It’ll take some spoons and some courage to make those calls, but I believe it’s the next right thing I can do that will contribute to peace and goodness in the world. I can’t control cancer research. I can make sure my senator knows I’m paying attention and disagree with him on this issue.