When I wrote my first blog post about being diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time my family was moving to London so that I could serve as the Senior Minister of the American International Church, I quoted a phrase learned from my mentor, the late Rev. Carl Schultz: Faith Faces Forward. That has been my mantra along this whole journey so far. It’s been a relentless season, with each day packed with new things to learn and do about cancer, ministry and life in the London.
In all the facing forward (and the weakness/fatigue of chemo), my writing has been neglected. I’m feeling its absence as a pile of unresolved emotions and untold stories, all of which need expression. As important as it is to face forward in faith and hope, I need some time to look backward, too. So much has happened in my outward life, my inward life has not yet had a chance to catch up. My body has changed during chemo, and it is about to change even more dramatically with surgery in two days. My ministry has changed, as I learn what kind of preacher, pastor and leader this new congregation requires. My home has changed, as that slow shift has taken place after the move to settle in to our new dwellings. My identity has changed, as I understand what it is to be an immigrant and an American in London. My home country has changed, as the election and its aftermath seem to have already brought about dramatic and harsh changes in the country we left behind.
I’ve been facing forward into all those many changes, like standing in the surf reacting to wave after wave–sometimes jumping, sometimes diving, sometimes crashing, always having just a moment to come up for air before another wave hits. We’ve made it through major church events and seasons, six rounds of chemo and many more tests and doctors visits and a hospital stay, transitioning my son into his new school, unpacking all but a few remaining boxes, and more. Every day I get up, look at what waves this day or week holds, and just keep going. Forward, forward, forward.
I need some time and space to look backward. Those emotions and stories wait for me, and my healing will not be complete until they are felt and told. In recent weeks, I’ve been feeling very down, and I know it is because the feelings and stories are building up without release. I told myself that I needed to make writing a priority, for my own mental health, but the waves kept coming. My family deserved my attention at the holidays, and I wanted us to celebrate well after such a hard year. My hands still get achy and stiff from the treatment, making typing or writing difficult and painful sometimes. Sunday’s always coming, pushing this work out of my mind to focus on the scripture and sermon for the week. Forward, forward, forward.
In two days, I’m having surgery. This will be a proper cancer surgery to remove the remaining tumor and hopefully get clear margins showing no more cancer cells in the area. Recent tests show that there is still no evidence it has moved to the lymph nodes, which is good news. Because of my size, it will be combined with a breast reduction surgery on that side. (A second surgery will follow this summer on the other side, to make me symmetrical again.) Again, the feelings are big–relief and accomplishment at reaching this important milestone and getting the tumor out at last, along with fear and sadness and confusion at realizing my body will be forever changed, even mutilated by this cancer journey. Y’all remember how much I had to write to talk about losing my hair? That was a temporary change. This is a permanent one. But I don’t have time or energy to write that post or work through all those feelings right now. Forward, forward, forward.
I’ve been planning for months for the recovery, making sure I’ve got church and life covered during the healing time, anticipating two weeks completely off before returning to any responsibilities. Last week, the nurse informed me that is likely not nearly enough time, so I’ve been scrambling to get extra coverage, cancel commitments I made thinking I’d be ready, and feeling anxious about just how difficult the physical healing will be. Forward, forward, forward.
If I’m honest, though, it’s not the physical pain ahead that gives me the most anxiety right now. It’s that big pile of feelings and stories awaiting. When I stop moving forward, forward, forward and just rest, rest, rest after surgery, I fear they will overwhelm me. In optimistic moments, I can imagine having time, energy and focus to write about it all, one story at a time, processing the emotions and beginning to heal. In pessimistic ones, I imagine lying in bed, too physically weak to write or talk or even reach out to friends, but with waves of feelings so big I might just drown. I’ve been in that lonely place a few times already during chemo (those moments are among the stories and feelings that need to be told), but the need to go forward, forward, forward always pulled me out. What happens when I stop moving?
Psalm 139 comes to my aid. The whole thing speaks to my heart, but especially this section:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
There is much in me that seeks to flee, from God and from those who love me, and just let the waves crash over. Sometimes I wish for the darkness to cover me, or at least to take to my bed and let the covers plunge me into darkness for days on end. But there is no escape from God, no escape from love. The love is there with us, whether we want it or not.
I know that because of you all, dear friends and readers and church folks old and new. I’ve tried running away, but it doesn’t work. Over the last two months, I have tried several times to disappear from social media, to check out and slip into silence, to isolate myself from everyone. Living in a whole other country, it’s my only connection to most of you, so I was hoping to just escape unnoticed and be forgotten. But you didn’t let me. You keep sending me messages, comments, e-mails, even cards and packages. You reached out when I went silent too long. You told me you were praying. You remembered important events in my life and treatment. Even if I ignored you, or just didn’t have the energy and stamina to reply, you stuck around. You wouldn’t let me go.
You, my beloveds, are more relentless than the waves trying to knock me down. And God, I trust, is more relentless still.
This is me not running away from the big pile of stories and feelings. This is me looking backward just enough to name the truth of how overwhelming those stories and feelings are, in hopes that will help me keep going forward until I can return to give them the attention they need and deserve. This is me trying not to reach for the darkness to cover me, but reach for the light of love. This is me saying thank you to all of you, because you are the ones pulling me forward, forward, forward by your love, encouragement and prayers, which won’t let go even when I try to fight them off. This is me giving thanks to God, because whether I ascend to heaven or make my bed in hell, She is still there, with me.
This is me feeling much better for having shared this one tiny part of the stories and feelings.
Bring on the next wave. I’ll jump, dive, crash and come up for air one more time, trusting in love to keep me afloat. Surgery in 48 hours.
This post is a look backward, as I am today set to receive my final chemo infusion. However, it’s been on my heart for the last six weeks, and I can’t talk about where I am now without talking about where I’ve been. I’m trying to catch up–not just for you, dear friends and family and readers, but for me. This has been a hard season, and writing helps me process all that I have been thinking and feeling. Sharing with you all makes me feel strong in claiming my story. Beware going in, this post is less chipper than my previous ones. This is a space to tell the truth of the good times and the hard ones. Keep reading, though, as I hope to write two more posts in short order that catch up to today.
I thought reaching the halfway point in my chemotherapy would feel better than this. I expected to feel like I hit a milestone. Since I weathered the first half fairly well and with good cheer, I expected to find myself encouraged that, like meeting the winter solstice, I could begin moving toward the light instead of the darkness.
Instead, reaching the halfway point of chemo in good cheer freed my mind and heart to ask the hard questions about all the treatment and uncertainty yet to come. The sense of accomplishment gave me room to deal with some of the spiritual, mental and emotional issues that I have not had time or energy to approach since my diagnosis. The blur of moving to London, first surgery, new job and chemo in the last three months made it so all I could do was keep going and push through. That was a gift, much like the numbness and denial of early grief. When that numbness subsides and the feelings break through, the pain floods in heavy and deep. Healing requires diving into the deep waters and learning to swim, surf, float through it. Halfway through chemo the dam of numbness gave way, and the flood took over with a host of questions and feelings.
The fear about side effects returned, as the second half of treatment contained a different set of drugs than the first. I entered the clinic as anxious about the fourth treatment as I was about the first one. (Those fears proved not unfounded, but that’s a story for the next post.) Unlike previous cycles, when I enjoyed the “feel-good” days leading up to treatment, I found myself filling with dread and fear about the new and unpredictable set of pains and side effects, likely harder than the first three rounds.
A new set of questions haunted me. Is the chemo working? What happens if it doesn’t? There’s no way to know until they go in for surgery and get a new pathology report. What will surgery be like? What kind of surgery will I need? When will it happen? How rough will the recovery be? Then comes radiation. How long will that last? I’m already so fatigued, and that is supposed to be as tiring (or more) than chemo, because it’s every day. How much work time will I miss? How will I keep up? Again, when will I know if this is working? (Just to be clear, the doctors have given me no cause to down the effectiveness of treatment, and I am holding on to that truth and trust–but it is natural to await proof that my cancer is responding as expected to the treatments.)
On top of all that, I am just getting tired of it. Halfway meant I had lost nine weeks already, and had another whole nine weeks to go. As a child, that was the length of an entire grading period in school. Half a school year in total, which always felt like an eternity. And that’s just chemo. Halfway through chemo isn’t halfway at all, with two surgeries and radiation ahead. Instead of feeling like I was headed into the light, it felt like a carnival ride that was lasting way too long.
If you know me at all in real life, you know that descriptions like “high-energy, hard-working, creative, cheerful, always upbeat” fit my usual self. Not my usual self during chemo. I wrote in my last post, many weeks ago, about my small world being enough. It stopped being satisfying about the time the halfway treatment arrived. I am tired of sleeping 12 hours a day, when I’m used to sleeping six or eight, and still being tired in the short hours I’m awake. I’m tired of “chemo brain” that makes it hard to concentrate, difficult to write (especially sermons), nearly impossible to read a book or some days even follow a television show. I’m tired of not going anywhere, except when work or family obligations demand it–and then planning days of rest on either side to make sure I can have the energy to go and the time to recover.
So halfway through chemo, instead of feeling like a triumph, felt like a realization that there is a long way there is yet to go. Chemo is cumulative, so each round leaves me weaker and more fatigued. The halfway point brought that truth home, as I am not bouncing back like I did in the earlier rounds.
Halfway marked the first time sadness and self-pity set in. Suddenly, instead of laying in bed longing to be well and get out, I found myself on good days still longing to crawl back in bed, away from the world and away from people and away from cancer. I felt grumpy, cranky and mopey. I barely shed any tears over cancer from the diagnosis through the beginning of chemo. At halfway, I began crying in the shower every morning. After eating good and healthy foods, and having little appetite for the first three rounds, the new drug has made me ravenous, and I’ve turned to my oldest emotional crutch: way too much junk food. I don’t feel guilty over it, but it’s a sign to me that I need to pay attention to my feelings.
Halfway was now six weeks ago, and today I go for my last infusion. I wish I could write that I was better now, that the cloud had lifted and my cheer restored. That wouldn’t be true, though. I still feel heavy these days, not just in fatigue of the body, but of the mind and spirit as well. The news isn’t chipper, but it is still good: I’ve been here before. I’ve known seasons of grief and hardship, and I know they don’t last forever. I have learned what I need to heal–space, time, a warm bed, comfy clothes, a good sappy movie, a deep escape into a good novel, conversation with friends, conversation with God, space to journal, time to weep and let all the feelings surface, time to remember who I am, time to take stock of what has changed, what is lost, what is gained. And, yes, probably all of these moments involve junk food, too.
Chemo is relentless, which means much of that deeper healing work will have to wait. In the meantime, trust that I do not despair. I persevere–surviving more than thriving, but that is all I need to do right now.
Plenty of good moments remain, which give me hope that more will follow. When things get low, I list them to myself. I love my work, and my new church has offered some beautiful, wonderful, glorious days in this time–the gift of many newcomers ready to engage, a Thanksgiving luncheon, the chance to help lead the Thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, deeper relationships with people in the congregation, and a fun day decorating for Christmas, with our children delighted to take the lead. My husband and son are wonderful, and they know how to take care of me–which is not easy for someone who doesn’t like to need care from anybody. My extended family, my parents and I have grown closer and more intimate through this process. A core group of friends receives all my complaints, need for prayer, TMI medical details, related inappropriate humor and curse words. They respond with instant encouragement, laughter and grace, as the situation demands. A wider group of friends send gifts and cards, weekly messages of encouragement, scripture and humor, and reminders of their prayers. My current church lets me work, and they also let me not work, as the day demands. They too offer prayers, soup, patience, flexibility and understanding. My former congregation has sent gifts, prayers and love in the kindest, most meaningful ways. All of you who read and respond here and on Facebook offer me much encouragement as well. I need people to listen–and by reading this, you do.
This week marked the beginning of Advent in the church. Yesterday, we lit the first candle of the Advent wreath, the candle for hope. This has always been a powerful moment for me, especially this year. Against the darkness and all alone, this first candle shines in the darkness, a tiny, fragile flicker of light. That’s where I am right now. Not shiny and bright, not basking in sunshine or under the bright stage lights, but holding on to hope, fragile and flickering against the darkness.
More to come soon, I hope, about the pathway between halfway and today’s last treatment. Thank you for listening, for praying, for supporting me along this journey.
rsSeveral folks have asked me to share my meditation from today’s service, which featured a performance of John Rutter’s Requiem in honor of Remembrance Day. So, here you go.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.
The Requiem invites us into the depths—to enter the depths of our soul and cry out to God in music and prayer. We echo the Psalmist: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”
Some of us show up to worship today feeling like we’ve been sent into the depths.
Others may feel like the week has finally lifted us out of the depths.
And I don’t just mean the U.S. election which has dominated so much news and many of our thoughts this week.
The tragic train crash in Croydon that took seven lives. The anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Paris. A bomb blast in Pakistan that killed dozens. The difficult peace accord between Colombia and FARC. Rising unrest in the Philippines. The ongoing battles and civilian casualties in Mosul and Aleppo.
And there were millions of personal depths as well—a bad diagnosis, a job loss, a family fallout, the death of a loved one, and so much more.
Living and loving in this world means coming to know the depths from time to time.
That’s why this Psalm is one of the most familiar and often-read, because it speaks to that human experience of the depths.
So what does it say?
First, the Psalmist points us to hope in God.
Like the Requiem, the Psalm tells the gospel story of darkness turning to light.
We are invited to wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning—through the night, trusting that the sun will rise again.
Second, the Psalmist confronts us with the truth—that sometimes our grief is caused by our own actions, our own sins. “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand?” Many of the depths we find ourselves in have human causes, and require human repentance to find solution and resolution.
Third, the Psalmist speaks of redemption—which is the place where God’s hope and our sinfulness intersect. Yes, human wrongdoing has caused and causes much suffering—but that does not stop God’s work of hope. “In you there is forgiveness,” the Psalmist sings, “so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” Our hope is not in our ability to get it right, but in God’s ability to forgive us and use us even when we get it wrong.
That’s why this Psalm about the depths speaks to the depths—because it offers no shallow, unrepentant comfort—but truth about the depth of our sin AND the truth about the depth of God’s forgiveness. Therein we find hope.
Remembrance Day is the embodiment of this Psalm and its meaning.
The great casualties and costs of war remind us of the damage we humans can do to one another, to life. They confront us with the catastrophic cost of human sin in suffering.
Yet, at the very same time, we remember the courage and sacrifice of those who served with bravery and honor, those who gave up their very lives for others—the work of hope and love.
Both of my grandfathers were veterans of the Second World War, and both went on to long careers in the military, one in the army and the other in the navy. When I grew old enough to become curious, I went to them to ask about their experiences in the war. They both refused to offer up the stories I sought. Instead, they gave a short, abrupt answer that was basically the same, delivered with an unwavering stare into my eyes. “War is terrible. I served because I hope and pray that you—and all my children and grandchildren—never have to.”
My friends, that is the message of the Psalm, the message of the Requiem, the message of Remembrance Day. From the depths, we know how quickly and easily we humans can slip into cruelty and callousness toward one another, which, before we know it, becomes violence and war. Yet we also know that God’s redemption is ever working hope in our midst.
To honor those who have sacrificed their lives in service is to work for a world in which our children and grandchildren never have to know the horrors of war. That begins here and now, as we commit ourselves to overcoming our prejudices, working toward justice, listening with compassion to those who disagree with us, standing against all who would foster hatred or violence, and intentionally seeking God’s grace and forgiveness for ourselves and for one another, knowing that we are likely to fail again and again. The depths will find us again, but so will hope and redemption.
In Remembrance, may we go out from this place with reverence, to serve God.
In Remembrance, may we honor the dead by working toward peace and justice for the living.
In Remembrance, may we put our hope in the Lord, for with God is unfailing love. Amen.
In my pastoral journey with people, I have often reflected that our world starts small and ends small. For the first days and weeks after our birth, our whole world is in someone’s arms, only as large as our tiny reach. As we grow, our world gets bigger–beyond our parents’ arms, beyond our home, beyond our town, out to everything we can explore in the wide world. Our horizons widen and we live a bigger, more expansive life. Then, as age and sometimes disability set in, our world begins to shrink again. I watch elders cease their world travels, then their driving about town, then going out at all, and sometimes even spending their last weeks and months confined to one room. In this human life, our world starts small, and it often ends small as well.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this observation as the chemotherapy cycle has shrunk my world. Just when we have moved to this amazing international city, ready to explore and broaden our world, my orbit has been reduced to its smallest ever.
For the last four weeks, my world has not been more than home, church and hospital, with few necessary (and energy-draining) exceptions. Anything else is beyond my capacity. I should have had a good week between cycles to get out and about, but I caught a nasty virus-turned-infection that knocked me down hard. It’s been two weeks and another treatment since that set in, and I’m still not recovered. (Yes, the doctors are on it.)
Chemo tired is a different kind of tired than I’ve ever experienced. The best comparison is to the first time you get out of bed after having the flu. You don’t have the flu misery anymore, the fever is gone, and you feel so much better you head for the shower. Only you realize halfway through the shower that it was a lot to take on, and you feel like you might pass out before you get the shampoo rinsed out. You might hold on to get the soap out, but then you fall into bed for a long nap to recover. That’s what chemo fatigue feels like to me. I get winded and light-headed, and absolutely must sit or risk falling over. I’m just weak, and I spend a lot of time lying down. We joke and refer to these as my “sad and pathetic days.”
Though I’m a little bit fatigued like that all the time, most days I am able to get up, shower and dress, rest, and then catch a bus that is close to my house and lands me close to church and hospital. (The Tube is too many steps.) I can go into my office and work for a few hours, then have the energy to walk down the street (not too far) for lunch. In the afternoon I can sit at church or hospital for a few more hours and have the energy to ride the bus home. When I get home, I usually need to lay down and rest for an hour or two. Then I get up and enjoy supper with my family, and go to sleep for the night the same time as B, around 8:30. If I am having a good energy day, I might try to wash a few dishes (I can’t make it through a whole meal’s worth), or clean up a bit to help J, or just lie on the couch to watch a TV show. In the last two weeks, I’ve had enough concentration to read again. Once or twice, we have made it out to eat, somewhere close. On Saturday, I was determined to make it to the library to return overdue books. It was a short, flat walk to the bus, just a few stops, then back again. The journey was too much. I got to the library and had to sit in a chair for 30 minutes, drifting off to sleep before I had energy to walk back out to catch the bus home. Today, I had arranged to take the day off so that we could have a family outing in London. J and B had to go without me. I slept until noon, took a shower and dressed, but then I needed to go back to bed. I am using my saved energy to write this instead, while they have an adventure.
My world is very small and simple. We smile as we call it “sad and pathetic.” But here’s the thing: it is enough.
I can hardly believe it, but it’s true. My small, simple world is all I need to be happy right now. I don’t have energy for extras, but I am able to do what I am meant to do–to be minister and mother, and even sometimes companion to my spouse. I am not doing my ministry work with the level of energy and flair that I would normally show, but I am capable of planning and leading Sunday services, tending to weekday business, learning about my new congregation, helping address some administrative issues and more. I am doing enough to make a contribution, and feel as though I am serving God and church right now. That is satisfying.
The same is true for parenting. I can’t take B to the park or the museum, but I have all the time he needs to tell me about his day. I can listen and ask questions and be present in ways that I probably would have been too busy to attend to at normal speed. Every day, we spend time together, even if it’s just with me sad and pathetic on the couch while he plays Minecraft. It feels like enough.
I don’t make a very equal partner to J right now. We have always tried to share the household responsibilities, but he’s doing everything for awhile. While he had planned on being a stay-at-home dad for our first year in London, neither of us planned on cancer. He is understanding and patient with me. I often need to be patient with him, because I want things done my way even when I can’t get up and do them–which is my problem, not his. I don’t have much time to stay up late for conversation, but I still feel like we are close. We are two independent spirits, even after 20 years together, but we are leaning into one another deeply right now. It is enough.
My world is so very small, but satisfying. We can laugh about being sad and pathetic because I am neither–not sad or pathetic at all. (Ok, maybe a little pathetic when I fall asleep all the time.)
From the outside, during all those years of pastoral ministry, I imagined that a huge grief descending as one’s world got smaller and smaller. There are definitely days now when I am disappointed I can’t do things, like see London or just finish unpacking from the move. I get frustrated by my inability to accomplish something as simple as changing the sheets or going out to a cafe to write my sermon. Even so, I am not feeling grief over my small world right now. I’m feeling a great deal of gratitude. Chemo may be slowing me down, but it has not robbed me of what I love and who I am. I am still able to serve as pastor, parent and partner, and those things bring me enormous joy and satisfaction. Yesterday, in spite of feeling poorly, I was able to prepare a special World Communion Service, leaning heavily on lay leaders to carry the Sunday morning leadership. It was wonderful! Then, we came home and watched B’s favorite team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, play here in London. I may have spent the afternoon lying on the couch, but I could cheer and enjoy the time with family. It was more than enough to make a good day, a good life.
My small world is full and rich, and I am grateful.
Some have worried that my silence here and on social media is a sign I’m not feeling well. Quite the opposite! For the last 8 days, I’ve felt great. I’m not 100%, but a good 95% every day. All of that energy has been poured into work and home, rather than blogging. It’s been a very busy start to the fall, as we’ve had back-to-school events, major church events (requiring some big prep), and an attempt to unpack as many more boxes as possible before I get knocked down again today, when I go for my second treatment. There are several posts waiting to be written, but after my last post about hair, I figured I should follow up with the rest of the story.
A few days after my first treatment, I went over to the MacMillan Cancer Centre to meet with N, who is their wig expert. Everyone raved about her skills, and they were right. The NHS subsidizes one synthetic wig for every cancer patient with hair loss, which keeps the costs manageable. (One of the posts waiting to be written is about how great the NHS has been so far.)
The process of choosing a wig involves looking through a catalogue of beautifully made-up models wearing perfectly styled wigs, and choosing three you think might look decent on your not-so-beautifully-made-up head. Then, when they come, you try them on and choose which one to keep. N led me through the process. As I knew going in, there is no wig to match my hair. There were some curly wigs, but let’s just say they were not my style (see below for some hilarity on this point). I tried to go for something in a similar color, and with some volume, because I couldn’t imagine having straight, flat hair.
They arrived a week later, and I took my husband and son with me to help me choose. My husband J has a great eye for these things, and I knew my son B would tell me by the look on his face if it was all wrong. Pictures and descriptions follow, but note that I still had all my hair when we were trying these on, so they sat a little bit high and funny on my head at the time. We had to use our imaginations, and you will too.
We tried on the three that I ordered, and only one was even passable. However, N jumped right in with more suggestions. It turns out she had a closet full of wigs others had ordered and not used, so I could choose from those as well. She lived up to her reputation as an expert–she pulled out a several that were much better than the ones I ordered from the catalogue, including the one I finally chose. In the end, I probably tried on at least a dozen wigs. However, we only bothered to photograph the finalists–plus one bonus just because it made me laugh.
This first one is the passable one of the three I ordered from the catalogue. It looked just like my hair when I was a little girl, up until around age 10 or 11, before the curls arrived in full force when I was 12 or 13. I had a bob cut with bangs, and my mother rolled the ends under on Sunday mornings and picture days. When I looked in the mirror, I still felt like myself, though a bit reincarnated from an earlier version. I also thought I looked like Velma from Scooby Doo, who I always liked anyway. It could have worked.
The second one I really wanted to love. My paternal aunt Carol Ann had long red hair. Hers was thick and wavy, and a differently styled cut, but it was always a signature beauty. In addition to being my favorite aunt, she also had breast cancer, and it took her life 17 years ago. I know that the medicine I receive today may have been able to save her life, and her spirit feels very close to me in this journey. I wanted to wear this wig as a tribute. It was a look that made me feel the most pretty, unique and striking. However, it also was a wig that would draw attention to my hair, and I wasn’t sure I wanted that. The cut wasn’t quite the image I’m trying to portray. It was odd (and a bit annoying) to have all that straight hair running down my shoulders.
I couldn’t quite figure out what didn’t sit right about it, because it did look good on me and I felt quite beautiful in it. J named it: it’s a very Southern look. I recognized it as soon as he said it. Now, I’m from Virginia, and I can rock the Southern belle charm when I want. But I don’t want to do it all of the time, and this look makes me feel like I should. It felt fun, but like playing dress up. It just didn’t capture the persona I inhabit every day at the office or in the pulpit. It’s also a more casual look, and I wanted something more professional. However, if I end up wearing wigs regularly, I’d go get this one for those days when I felt up to the fierceness of my Southern roots and the spirit of my Aunt Carol Ann.
Where we ended up was with one of N’s suggestions. Something totally different from my normal look, but conveying a sense of being put-together, ready to focus, professional and neat. And blonde! I was blonde like my son when I was younger, so it works well with my coloring. J saw it immediately as the best choice, but it took me a bit longer to warm up to it. He recognized that it fit my face and my style, and communicated the person I am and want to be in the world. (I told you he was good at this stuff.) B nodded along with some measure of relief on his face, like I looked “normal” in this one. That’s exactly what I was going for.
Ta-da! Remember I had a full head of curls tucked underneath, so it sits a bit high on my forehead, but I like it. J was right–it’s just right to look good without drawing attention. It’s easy, professional and ready-to-go. I mainly want a wig so that my lack of hair is not a distraction from my life. This one fits the bill perfectly. I’m pleased.
Ready for some fun, though?
N had a wig in her closet that is an exact match for my hair. It’s my natural color, and it imitates my natural curl perfectly. However, it’s about the worst haircut I could imagine. It’s just… not me. Not who I want to be. If I was trying to be a successful country music star in the 1980s, this would have been perfect. Maybe if I worked at Dollywood now. One time, days before my college graduation, I went for a haircut and ended up with something similar. I cried and cried and went back and made them cut it all short to fix it as well as possible. Every single haircut since then, I have given very, very specific instructions to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
This time, I laughed and laughed, took pictures to share, and then happily removed it from my head.
Behold: the curly mullet.
Thus continues the cancer-fighting strategy of finding laughter when you can, because there’s plenty of suffering to go around. We all got a good laugh out of this one, and I hope you do too. This is TOTALLY like my natural hair, doing exactly what it would do if I ever cut it in that fashion. But no. Just no. Not ever.
Unless Dolly Parton herself comes calling for a backup singer. I’d do it for you, Dolly.
Any day now, I’m going to lose my hair. It’s holding on for now, but the day I find the first clump in my hand, I’ll shear the rest of it.
Some people will think it’s silly and frivolous to get worked up about hair, but I have strong feelings about my hair. Strong feelings of love. I love my hair.
Like most women, I have a very long list of things I don’t like about my body, and a very short list of things I do. My hair. That’s my list of things I like. If you pressed me, I’d probably add my eyes and my legs. Those are pretty decent. Sure, most other things are tolerable. I have a healthy self-image, so I can’t think of anything I hate about my body. It’s just my body. But my hair? That brings me great joy, and I say without hesitation that I just love it.
I hit the lottery when it came to hair. It is thick and healthy and chock full of natural curl. It didn’t even get noticeably gray until I hit 40. (Yes, I do color it now—and it has been a lot of fun to experiment with some fun shades.) Curls are fun! You never know what shape they will take. They are sometimes thick and framing, sometimes wild and frizzy, sometimes sticking out at odd angles. I love waking up each day, or looking in the mirror after they dry (naturally, no blow-drying!) and seeing what shape they have taken that day. It’s a small pleasure I enjoy every day.
My hair takes little time or effort to style. On days I don’t wash it, it takes about 30 seconds. When I wash it, less than 5 minutes. Brush, shake, scrunch, apply gel, scrunch some more. The end. One rule of my hair: NEVER brush it when dry. So I only even brush a couple times a week, wet from the washing.
This means I get no credit for my hair. I don’t do anything to make it look the way it does. It is a gift, not something for which I can claim any credit. I think of it like a gift from God. Or, more accurately, when I need to be reminded about gifts from God, and how we are to stop and appreciate all the beauty God gives us, and how we do not earn the things we have in this life, I think about my hair. Seriously. You can have your flowers and birds and mountains. I get the gift of my hair.
I am going to miss seeing my hair in the mirror every day. I’m going to miss the wild little things it does, and the feel of it blowing around in the wind. I’m going to miss that one curl that gets in my line of vision, reminding me of the cuteness above. I’m going to miss running my fingers through it in the shower, and twirling it when I am tired, and lifting it up off my neck when I am hot. I’m going to miss pushing it behind me on the pillow so the curls don’t get squished, and deciding every third morning if I can go another day without washing it.
These things matter to me. They are an important part of my day, and they bring me a great deal of joy. I am working through some real grief at the loss of my hair. I’m not sensitive about being bald, I’m just sad to lose this thing I love about myself.
I am also realizing that some comments—while intended to be helpful and supportive—don’t help. So, friends and family, I’m telling you in advance what to say and what not to say. (And, to be clear, this is MY list, not a list for every woman losing her hair to cancer. YMMV.)
- Don’t tell me it will grow back.
First, because I know that. Every person who’s ever owned hair knows that it will grow back. I’ve endured bad haircuts and too-short haircuts and lived to tell about it, just like you.
Second, because it might not grow back—or at least not the way it was. Chemo changes your body in many ways, and the hair that grows back is often not the same as the hair you lost. In many cases, straight hair returns curly. My curly locks may get curlier. Or they may come back with no curl at all. I have to be prepared for this thing I love about myself to disappear. That doesn’t mean I don’t love myself anymore, because my self-esteem is not just about my hair. But it means that, whether the loss is temporary or forever, I am grieving it.
- Don’t tell me it’s only hair.
I know it’s only hair. I know it’s not who I am. I will happily lose my hair to keep my life, but it is still a loss and a grief. Dismissing it as “only hair” closes down the space for me to share what I am feeling.
Hair is just one of the losses induced by cancer, and one of the ones that is the easiest to talk about in a public way. I won’t talk about the other losses that are closer to the heart, like the loss of time, the important events in my son’s life I’ll likely miss, the opportunities for ministry I will not have energy to follow-up on, the books I miss reading because I can’t concentrate, the vacation I’d been waiting for but never got to enjoy. There are countless griefs you cannot see. This is the one you can, and one that seems alright to share and grieve more publicly. Please don’t dismiss it or close down the space for my sadness. I know it’s only hair, but I love my hair. A lot. So I get to be sad about losing it.
- Don’t tell me that I might keep it, if only…
I believe you when you say your friend ate only kale, did sixteen hours of yoga a day, stood on their head for an hour every night and therefore held onto their hair, so I could too. I’m still not going to do that. They offered me the use of a cold cap, which helps some people hold on to their hair. It was painful and uncomfortable, and I decided within minutes I didn’t need the added discomfort during treatment. It’s just not worth it. Every single doctor and nurse has told me it’s almost certain to go, and I’m not inclined to fight it. As much as I love my hair, I’m not willing do whatever it takes to keep it. I’ll let it go, and deal with whatever follows.
- Don’t tell me I’ll still be beautiful to you.
This one is hard to explain, and may be hard for you to hear and understand. It also may not be true for others, but it is for me.
First, there’s this: For me, losing my hair isn’t about feeling ugly or having you think I’m ugly. In fact, I didn’t even consider that some people would see me as ugly until people suddenly started reassuring me that THEY would still think I am beautiful. If anyone thinks that a cancer patient is ugly, they are just a jerk. If you are my friend, you don’t need to reassure me you aren’t a jerk. I know it already.
More deeply, though, is this: I don’t much care whether you think I’m beautiful. I don’t look the way I do to please you or anyone else. There is far too much emphasis in this world on women’s appearance. Ask any professional woman you know—clergy, lawyer, doctor, business executive, professor—and they’ll regale you with stories of inappropriate comments about their hair, clothes and make-up. And then they’ll regale you with stories of comments considered totally appropriate, but that still irritate because they provide further evidence that people (men and women) still judge women’s worth based on how they look. General opinions about our looks are usually a way of sidelining our ideas, or reminding us that being pleasing to look at is more important than our contributions, or simply re-establishing our place as objects rather than agents. When you tell me you still think I’m beautiful, it makes me wonder why my beauty (or lack thereof) matters to you, unless you are my spouse.
I’m not saying that I don’t care about my appearance. I care a lot about looking professional and put together, out of respect for the office I hold and the church and the God I serve. I can do that just fine when I’m bald. I can wear a wig when I don’t want to look like I have cancer, or a neatly-tied scarf to bring some fun color to the day. I even took a special class last week to learn some make-up skills, so that I can still look professional when my skin is wan and my eyes have dark circles. I care about my appearance enough so that it is not a distraction or an impediment to the work I am trying to do. That has nothing to do with whether or not you think I’m beautiful , so I don’t care to know.
So what instead? What do I want to hear from you right now? Here’s a list of ideas.
- Help me think about how much fun I could have with wigs. Be fun! Laugh about trying something completely different. A couple of women after church yesterday were giving me great encouragement about my new wig, followed by a Facebook post of a fashion icon with the same look. Perfect. Wonderful. Appreciated in every way. (Note: This is safer territory for women than men. Tread carefully if you are a guy.)
- Smile and say, “bald is beautiful.” (This one is a perfect go-to for guys already sporting the look.)
- Say, “you’re looking good, how are you feeling?” “Looking good” is not about beauty, it is about health and vitality. Asking the follow-up question indicates that you realize the outside may not match the inside, and gives me space to share.
- Send me fun scarves to try out, or suggest how to coordinate them liturgically.
- Acknowledge that my grief is real and that this whole cancer business just plain sucks.
- Tell me you can’t wait to see what I do with my new hair, whenever it arrives.
- Hold my hand and cry with me.
- Make jokes about teaching me how to use a curling iron and blow drier if needed. (I honestly don’t know how. I quit before I was 15.)
- Watch how I talk about my hair, my cancer and anything else, and match my mood and expressions. If I’m making jokes, you can too. If I’m serious, go there.
In the time since I first learned I would undergo chemo and lose my hair, I have been spending extra time enjoying it. I have taken extra selfies on good hair days (see all the pics in this post!), indulged in the expensive Pantene shampoo and conditioner instead of the store brand I usually use, spent extra time looking in the mirror, and generally trying to appreciate my hair for the gift that it is, before it goes away. Sometimes the best gifts from God do not last, and this might be one of them.
Today counts as Day 10 in the 21-day chemo cycle. Day 1 is infusion day, and it proceeds from there. It’s been a long 10 days. The short version is: I was really, really tired and loopy for days 1-4. It was foggy, but I could function. Chemo was going fine. And then suddenly it wasn’t. One of the side effects overcame me, and days 5-8 were really bad. I could barely get out of bed, and I had to leave in the middle of worship because I thought I might pass out. Days 9-10 have so far showed signs of improvement, and I’m feeling more like myself again. For the next round, we should be able to anticipate and head off the side effect, so things don’t get so bad.
There is a lot more to say about all the things that happened in those days, but I write to process my thoughts and feelings. That means looking smaller, breaking things down, capturing fleeting moments that somehow speak to something bigger. I tried writing about all of it, but I couldn’t do it. I don’t care to keep a log–I write to go deeper. That means all I can capture today is one small part of the story, one moment from Day 1. I am hoping, as I improve, to share some more moments along the way. It’s important to me to have this space, because I want witness. I want a witness, a written account of all that I am going through so that I can remember it. And I want witnesses, people who will hear the story and carry it with me.
So here’s just a bit of the story. There are more stories to come. Harder ones. But this is the one that I found myself ready to write tonight.
On my first chemo morning, I went to the office. Not the doctor’s office, but my office, the church office. I figured I should work while I still felt well, and I needed something to occupy my mind while I waited for my 12:45 appointment. I blasted through a pile of e-mails and thank-you notes, assuaging my guilt at the slow response time likely in my post-chemo days. When the time came, I took the quick walk to the MacMillan Cancer Centre.
It’s hard to describe how I felt walking in. Scared, of course–but not frightened of what might happen, or dreading the worst. Just anxious to find out what these drugs would actually do to me, how terrible I might feel, how hard this journey will be. At the same time, I was also relieved, and even a little bit excited to finally get started. Those killer cancer cells have been allowed to grow freely inside of me for too long, and I was ready to put a stop to them. I can’t get well until I get sick. A starting date gives me an ending date, a calendar and to-do list and countdown for the next 18 weeks. I’ve known about the cancer for nearly two months, and this was the first treatment or procedure that was actually going to fight it. At last, we’re taking steps to get me better, even if those steps will make me worse.
That’s the brave attitude I tried to keep and show when I arrived, checked in, and sat down to have my IV cannula put in. My facade was crumbling fast, though.
First of all, I didn’t expect them to go searching for a vein in the top of my forearm. Who looks for veins there? I usually have good, easy-to-find veins, but I also have been savoring a nice summer tan–making them quite invisible to the nurse’s assistant trying to locate one. She brought over a wastebasket filled with a bag of warm water, and had me soak my whole arm in it for 10 minutes. It was a little bit like memories of sleepovers, where you put someone’s hand in warm water because it supposedly makes them have to pee. It didn’t make me have to pee, but it did make my vein pop out so she could find it.
Second, the only way I can handle IV needles and blood draws is by pretending they aren’t happening. Before I learned this strategy, I would routinely pass out and/or vomit at the prospect. Now that I am older and wiser, I am cool as a cucumber–once I tell the person doing their job that I’m going to close my eyes, and that they need to talk to me anything that’s not happening to me right now. The poking and thumping and talk of finding veins made that hard to accomplish.
Thankfully, the nurse was gracious and we easily switched to a new topic. Usually, my “pretend I’m somewhere else, chatting with a new friend” strategy yields some lovely connections, as I ask after people’s kids, hobbies, television habits, vacations and sports loyalties. The conversation with my IV cannula nurse started out in a very typical London style: “So, your accent isn’t British. Where are you from?” (London is such an international city, it always seems there are more foreigners than Brits.) I can’t even remember who started it. It turns out she is from Iran, and has only been in the country for seven months. At six weeks, I was still the newer immigrant. She shared that she had traveled all over the world–Europe, Africa, Asia and even Canada and Mexico. “Not the United States?” I started, then realized: “Oh, it must be hard to get a visa on an Iranian passport.” Yes, of course. “And it would be just as hard to get a visa to visit Iran on a U.S. passport.” We talked about the various sites we wished we could see in one another’s home countries. I want to see ancient civilizations, she wants to see natural wonders. “Here we are,” she said, “just two ordinary people, talking and sharing just fine. Only the governments want us to be angry with each other.”
Amen. A beautiful moment of connection. A bond of peace across countries usually known for their mutual hostility.
But it was more than that. Something shifted for me in that conversation. This wasn’t just small talk to get me through the needle moment. This was God showing up for me, in the hands and voice of a Muslim immigrant. She reminded me why I’m here–to help God’s love bring people together. I am here (not just in London, but on the earth), by the grace of God, to open myself to moments of connection like this one, where we discover the love of God binds us, in spite of the barriers the world erects between us. I am here to witness moments like this one and share them with others, so that God’s love grows more real and tangible among us and in the world. That’s my ministry calling. I’ve served in many settings and done many tasks of leadership and ministry, but time and again I discover that this is my true work: naming the ways God’s love is at work in our midst, and helping people work through human differences by the power of those stories and God’s grace.
It’s that calling that has been providing me courage and strength in the cancer journey. I never had confidence that God would preserve my life. The doctors tell me they can, and I believe them, but I do not profess that God is keeping me protected. I’m not special. As a pastor, I have buried too many good people who died too soon to abide by the theology that God chooses favorites. My work keeps me close to the constant reality that I could be next. Faith provides instead the assurance that God will not leave me, no matter what; that resurrection is real and death is not the end; and that God can redeem anything, even cancer, even the cross.
My prayer life has also provided this confidence: God will preserve my call. God may or may not preserve my life, but the Spirit has convinced and convicted me that there is work ahead for me here in London–that same work of finding and naming God’s love that unites us all. It’s the work that my Iranian nurse did with me, in naming our common humanity. Her words of connection took me out of the fearful place and back into the faithful place–the one that knows God is with me, no matter what, and all I need to do is face forward and follow God’s call.
Though she is only a nurse’s aide here, my cannula nurse was trained as a highly skilled nurse supervisor in Iran. Once her English skills improve enough to pass the language test, her credentials will transfer. Her English seemed excellent to me, but I promised to pray for her as she studies and prepares. I hope to see her when I return for my next treatment, and maybe ask if she wants an English conversation partner to help her get ready.