Restoration

The tech nurse was just about done, and as she disconnected the electrodes she used in the exam,  she smiled.

“Well,” she said, “I don’t want to steal the doctor’s thunder, but… things are looking pretty good.”

It was probably a good thing I wasn’t still hooked up because I was sure my heart just skipped a beat.

It was February, and the time had come for another echocardiogram. This is a type of sonogram of the heart.  It looks at valve function, how the ventricles communicate, and measures cardiac output called Ejection Fraction (EF).  Two years ago my EF was about half at what it should be (>30), which, as a heart failure patient, was not surprising (but as a new heart patient, very).  At that time, my cardiologist said that with medicine and diet changes, we would see improvement, but in honesty, it was not likely my heart would ever return fully to normal function.  And indeed, after the first year, my EF had not improved very much at all.

Coming into this examination, I did not know what to expect, yet I couldn’t help but remain hopeful.  I had been diligent with my medications and diet, and my quality of life had definitely improved.  And, of course, I had been praying every day, thanking God for the healing work He was doing in my body.  So either I was truly getting better, or I only felt like I was getting better.  Now was the day to find out which.  So after the remark by the tech nurse, I was eager for my doctor’s appointment that followed.

My cardiologist confirmed that great news immediately.  It was so good, in fact, that my heart was now functioning in the normal range!  Albeit on the low-end of the normal range, but still, within the normal range.  She said that now she wouldn’t even be surprised to see further improvement.  What a wonderful, fantastic, ecstatic, incredible day it had suddenly become.  We jumped up and hugged, and laughed, and called in my favorite cardio nurse, and we all celebrated together.

“Sometimes the medicine just takes longer to work in some people,” she said, and then added, “I know your faith has had a lot to do with this also.”

Damn right.

Wow.  And wow again.  I couldn’t wait to tell my husband, the kids, my parents, siblings, friends, and well,  just anyone who cared to listen!  Joy and more joy was the order of the day.  I also recalled the moment in December, when my sister (and sister in Christ) told me she had gotten a word from God for me for the New Year.  Now, if anyone ever tells you that, you make sure to stop everything you are doing and listen.  Her word for me was: Restoration.

Indeed.

————————-

I once said, “sometimes we find ourselves in a place where we least expect it.”  Now, instead of that place being cancer, or heart failure, that place is wholeness and healing.  I feel so blessed, very blessed, to be where I am today.  I never want anyone to wish it away… wish that I didn’t have to go through what I did, because there has been so much growing, so much learning, so much faith-building, and so much intimacy with the Lord during this very difficult journey.  I am proof that in all things God can make good for those who love Him*.  He has never left my side, He has shown up for me in new ways, He has heard every prayer, and He has spoken life over me.  Through it all I felt His love, His hope, and His peace like no other time in my life.

So if you have doubt, you remember me.  And if you need encouragement, you call me.  And if you need prayer, you ask me.  We will take these things to God together.

If I should ever again face something that could take my life, I will gladly put myself into the arms of God once more.  He may choose to bring me through it, or choose to bring me home.  But no matter what He chooses, I choose Him.  And today by His grace I can say, I am.

*Romans 8:28

All portions of this blog are ©Lynnea Washburn.  All rights reserved.

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Affairs of the Heart

(Note: what was intended as a short break from my blog ran a bit longer than expected.  Thanks for hanging in there.)

Two years ago this April… and for the second time in my life… I was told to “put my affairs in order”.  Never a good thing to hear.  But what I still wonder is, what exactly are “My Affairs”, and what is their proper order?

As it turns out, the kind of chemotherapy that I had needed to kill my cancer has a well-documented history of causing Cardiomyopathy (Heart Failure).  Although the chemo dosage I received was well below the levels commonly known to cause this, it happened none the less.  We knew it was a risk, but if we wanted the best odds of surviving the cancer, it was a risk we simply had to accept.

The most difficult part of living with Heart Failure is the possibility of dying from it.  When the heart is only pumping half as strong as it should, it could stop at any time.  Thankfully, there is treatment: a combination of medication and diet changes that will prolong life. Water pills to help the kidneys work, beta blockers to help the heart pump stronger, and a low sodium/low fluid intake.  Getting the medication to the effective level desired is a long, slow process that for me, took close to a year to complete.

Eight months into the regimen, my doctor determined that unfortunately, my heart had made very little improvement, which meant I would also need a defibrillator device inserted into my chest. With my own set of “paddles” wired into my heart, in the event my heart should stop or fibrillate, I would get a shock that would correct it, and save my life.  Of course, I was told that it would feel like getting kicked in the chest by a horse.  Wonderful.  Still, better than the alternative.

It was during this time that I found myself living with a new companion, the little dark cloud over my shoulder named Sudden Death.  It followed me where ever I went.  Each night I prayed to God to let me to wake up the next morning.  Each morning, I thanked God for His answer.  I constantly reminded myself that in all things God can make good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.*  I worked hard at getting my emotions out of the way, to lean on His strength because mine was sorely insufficient, and to trust, trust, trust God for each day.  It was hard work.

“Are you sure, God?” was my persistent question.  “Are you sure… after the cancer… this is what we are doing?”  The questions only started there.

“Why am I going through another wilderness with you, Lord?  If this is where you want me to be, then what am I to understand here?  What is it that you want Lord?  From me… through this?  Am I to walk here for the rest of my life?”  For months I asked these things of God.  I wrote long open letters to Him, asking for more faith, acknowledging my weaknesses, my bewilderment, expressing my gratitude for what He had already delivered me from, asking forgiveness for my doubts about where I was now.  Although I knew I was loved, and I knew He was with me, make no mistake, I was really struggling.  Struggling to understand, or perhaps… struggling to accept.  Clearly I didn’t agree with it.  Clearly I thought God had made a mistake.

Then, after many months, an answer came.  In a word: Yield.

From a book called One in a Million.**

Once the book was opened, revelations came tumbling out.  It was as if God plucked that book off my shelf, plopped down next to me on the couch, opened a page and started reading aloud.  It was really quite incredible.  That book had been sitting there for so long, it dawned on me that God had put the answers in my hands long before I had formed the questions in my mind.  Right there, in black and white, was a reply to every single question I had written out to God.  Literally.

Clarity followed.  I was reminded of all that I had learned in my walk through the wilderness called cancer.  It was there that I had gotten to know God more intimately than I had ever known Him before.  It was there that I learned I was not as capable as I thought I was, but God would step into my weakness and provide me with the hope, determination, and strength I could no longer muster.  It was there that I experienced a profound humbling that revealed the depth of my belief.  Which was then tested, and cemented.  It was there that I had made the choice to go anywhere with God than to stay where I was without Him.  So, you see, after wondering for so long what I was doing here, in a way, you could way that I was here… by choice.

Now it was time to yield.  Yield to the wilderness, for through it, we will have the privilege to experience God anew.  Yield to it, and through it, He will continue to grow us into the people he knows we can be.  Yield to the wilderness, for He uses it to prepare us for the abundant life He has promised.***  The wilderness can hone, perfect, strengthen, humble, grow obedience, courage, hope and faith.

And in the peace that has followed these many months of wondering (wandering), I realized two more things.  One; at some point the cloud called Sudden Death suddenly vaporized, and two; I found that My Affairs, the ones that truly matter, were being put in order after all.

*Romans 8:28

**One in a Million, copyright 2010 Priscilla Shirer, B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN

***Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Copyright Lynnea Washburn.  All rights reserved.

Act II

I was checking off my last-minute errands before we took off to Mexico the next day.  It was a vacation I finally felt well enough to enjoy, except for this little bout with a pesky chest infection.  No matter, I thought, another round of antibiotics should do the trick, and I was just leaving the doctor’s office with prescription in hand.  I should have known it was bad sign when the nurse came running out after me as I headed to my car after the chest x-ray.

“Can you come back in?” she asked, “The doctor would like to speak with you.”

Crap.  They found something.

A million things ran through my mind in that short walk back to his office.  My health had been returning steadily.  It had been almost four years of clean scans since my cancer treatment.  Had the lymphoma returned?  Could it be?  But these symptoms were different.  I couldn’t catch my breath after walking ten yards, my heart pounded after walking upstairs, and I couldn’t sleep due to a constant cough.  Nothing like before.  It wasn’t the same script.

Doctor N gave me that same sideways look I had seen once before.  Uh oh, I thought.

“You may have Cardiomyopathy,” he said.

“I don’t know what that is, but it has something to do with the heart…?”

“Yes, its heart damage.  Most likely caused by the chemotherapy,” he continued.  Knowing of my vacation plans he said, “You need to have an echocardiogram immediately.  I’m setting up an appointment for you downtown this afternoon, and I’m working on getting you in to see a cardiologist.”  I only learned later he had been writing “STAT” on everything all along.

Like a book you are partway through before you realize you’ve read it before (except you don’t remember the ending), this was all way too familiar.  Numbly I drove downtown, knowing the way to the hospital by rote, which allowed me too much time to ponder what this all really meant.

After the echocardiogram was done, the tech nurse asked if I could wait a minute.  She wanted to have a cardiologist check it before I left.  As more and more time ticked away, I began to realize they were debating whether they should let me go.  Finally, the nurse said I could leave, but that Doctor N would be calling me.  I got as far as the lobby outside the exam room when my phone rang.

Good news just doesn’t travel this quickly, and I knew what he was going to say even before he got the words out.  “As I suspected, you do have Cardiomyopathy.  You have an urgent appointment Monday morning to see the cardiologist.  We decided to let you go home now instead of admitting you, but Lynnea. you. cannot. go. to. Mexico.”

I sat, eyes brimming, as fear egged on emotions that I fought to contain.

“I’m so sorry,” he continued, “I know it’s not what you wanted to hear, but this is extremely serious.  If something were to happen… you may not come back.”  As that idea sunk in, I knew he was right, and although I could barely form the words, I said I would be at the appointment on Monday.

Now what.  What in the world was I dealing with?  How serious is “serious”?  What about the trip?  We’re leaving in the morning.  No wait, I’m not leaving.  Should they still go?  They should go.  Will they?  They won’t want to.  Am I safe to stay alone?  What if…?  What a mess.

Of course the first thing my husband and I did when I got home was to go to the internet and seek out as much information as possible.  That’s when we learned that… oh… Cardiomyopathy is Heart Failure.  All my symptoms were there… and, ohh… the possibility of organ transplant… and ohhh…. the possibility of sudden death.  That’s when the reading stopped.  Cue ton of bricks.

We looked at each other, held on tight, let the tears flow until we found our breath.  Shaking my head and straightening, I said,  “Well.  We’ve been here before, haven’t we?”  Conceding nods.  We both know the mantra that comes next.

“You and I both know that if it is time for me to go, then no one, and nothing, will prevent that from happening.  And, if it is not time for me to go, then no one, and nothing, can make that happen.”

If it had not been for the cancer, I would not have known this to be true.

I could not believe I was in this place again, but now was not the time to think about that.  We only had a few hours to sort things out, tell the family, and make a new plan.  It was emotional, messy, difficult, hard, hard work.  Finally, with the help of my parents, a plan emerged that we could reluctantly live with.  I would stay, my oldest son would be there with me until my parents flew in the next evening.  My husband, son and girlfriend would go to Mexico as planned with the understanding if they decided to turn around and come home at any time, they could.

So marked the inauspicious beginning of Act II; Heart Failure.

And although my heart didn’t stop working at that time, it surely felt like it was breaking.  Clearly Mexico was not where God wanted me to go.  But I couldn’t help but ask Him ~ then where in the world, God, are we heading now?

To Begin Again

Watching hair grow is like taking a snail for a walk across the Sahara desert.

Strangely, as soon as fuzz appeared on my head, my wig didn’t feel like me anymore.  This was surprising considering how it had made me feel completely like myself at the beginning.  But after eight months, it felt like the old me, the chemo me, the sick me, and I was ready to leave that me behind.  Although I was still a frightful sight for the general public, around the house I would sport my five o’clock shadow style.

My inching hair was outward evidence of an inward healing that was equally as slow.  Although I had days of aching joints, deep tiredness and very foggy thinking, I began to see small improvements over time. A bit more physical strength here, a longer period of activity there, a little less needed sleep to make it through the day.  I was making progress.

As the chemo mist lifted, I began to see more clearly.  But what I saw simply overwhelmed me.  So much catching up needed to be done.  The house needed repair, the yard needed tending, furniture needed replacing, work needed work, and our bank account left a lot to be desired.  There was too much to do, too much money needed to do it, and it was all going to take too much time.  Things were a mess, and improvement seemed unattainable.  I simply felt… behind.  And for some reason, being behind was an awful, horrible, terrible thing.  It meant that I had lost.

And the reality was, I did lose something.  I lost time I could not reclaim.  Try as I may, I could not possibly catch up for the previous year.  It was gone.  I had to let go of something I never really had a grasp of anyway, and I had to stop beating myself up about it.  Yes, I had won the battle, but I needed to cede that it had cost me something.  And I had to acknowledge that what it cost me was well worth what I had won.  This is obvious, and still, it is a process.

One of the reasons recovery takes so long is that the damage inflicted from the struggle can be so far-reaching.  It can touch all the events that make up the daily flow of our lives, reach all the people we know, and affect our total being; our emotions, our minds, and our physical bodies all the way down to the cell level.

So yes.  It takes time.  But what I found was that before you can even begin to move forward, you must start by leaving what is behind behind you.  I had to accept my reality, grieve what was lost, forgive myself even though it was not my fault, and then to lay it all down at God’s feet.  Only then could I turn my eyes to the next sunrise, be grateful for the new day, and realize how blessed I was to have the chance to begin again.

Sunrise © Lynnea Washburn

All portions of this blog are copyright Lynnea Washburn.  All rights reserved.

This is a late addition to this post (because at first I chickened out):

To save you the journey through the Sahara Desert with a snail leading the way, I’ve compressed my hair-raising experience from three years down to a minute and a half.

Deep breath, here I go… if I don’t share it now, I may never.  If I can get through it, so can you.

Walking through Water

Healing.  It’s a slow walk tempered by an elusive resistance that you are unable to fully grasp and move out of your way.  Some days you feel you’ve made great strides, other days you feel your feet are stuck in muck.

With treatment over I was eager to reclaim my life.  As much as I wanted to simply put everything behind me and pick up exactly where I left off, that really isn’t how it works.  For the next five years,  I would be under close supervision.  Year one would include a scan every three months, year two, every four months, year three to year five, every six months.  The first year was critical, as it held the highest probability for the cancer to return.

But I really wasn’t listening to any of that.  I knew I was done.  In fact, I had arranged for my port to be removed by a practitioner shortly after my last treatment.  Afterwards, when I arrived for my first post-treatment evaluation, my onocologist was shocked.

“You did what?!”

“I had it taken out.  I don’t need it any more,” I said.

He sort of fell back upon his chair as he muttered something about that was “ballsy”.  I swore I thought I had heard him give me the green light to remove it.  Guess I was being too selective in my hearing, too literal, too confident, or simply too eager.  What he did say was that I could have it removed after the chemo was done. What he didn’t say was that we might need to use it for chemo again.

Nope. We will not be doing that.  I was certain of it, and I was proven right in the end.

For me, getting that port out was a huge proactive step away from illness.  I had always hated it, and the way it made me feel so… alien.  I felt I belonged in a science fiction movie where you get plugged into a slimy entity that simultaneously provides you with sustenance while it poisons you slowly.  You endure the chill of the swab, the noise of juicy suction, the heat in your veins.  You dare not break the tether for you know the alternative is far worse.  I craved to be rid of it.  When not in use, it often sent waves of pain down my left arm, making me fear I was having heart attacks.  Where ever I went, I had felt it’s invisible chains keeping me linked to the chemotherapy chair. The day that tie was finally broken, it was as if I was finally free, to run again… to run fast… to run away.

Ah… but healing.  You start off with a bang, excited and pent up and ready to sprint like the wind.  But it’s a lot like running full speed into water, all the motions are there, but the minute you reach it, you hit a wall.  No matter how fast you were when you entered this seemingly benign substance, it immediately forces all your efforts into slow motion.  That’s when you realize you better readjust, for it turns out you’re in a long distance event after all.  A five year matter at least, perhaps longer.

In many ways, Overcoming the Cancer was the preliminary heat in a new contest called Overcoming the Treatment.  Turns out they’re both Olympic events, albeit in very different ways.  Now, triumph would be measured in the smallest of gains over the longest of periods with the most consistency of effort.  Like walking through deep water.  So you plod.  You keep going.  One heavy foot in front of the other.  You don’t quit, for there is no going back.  No way.  You remember how God had shown up for you in the past.  And you trust.  You keep the faith that you are getting somewhere.  That you are healing.  And with the grace of God, you will prevail.

Water Lily 1 ©Lynnea Washburn

All portions of this blog are ©Lynnea Washburn.  All rights reserved.

The Day

“Your tumor is gone,” he said.  My mouth dropped open.  “What?”

“Your large tumor is gone, and all the other lymph nodes except one are back to their normal size,” my doctor said, “and that, we believe, is only scar tissue.”

My eyes filled, and blinking back the tears, I asked if he’d wouldn’t mind telling me that again, I wanted to hear it again, I needed to hear it again.  He knew, and obliged… about five times in all.

My husband and I sat stunned and then quickly found each others arms, and held on for the emotional ride that followed.  Tears poured out with relief unimaginable, words lost in overwhelming gratitude.  A joy never understood until now rushed in and filled every corner of my mind, my heart, my soul.  A complete release overcame me like I had never known before.  It was over.  A new breath of life filled me, breathing in relief, exhaling release.  Relief, release.  And I began to pray.

What I had claimed all along, that my God was bigger than my cancer, was now a reality.  What I believed from the start, that the treatment would work in accordance to His plan, was now a fact.  But to have this day come, and to hear the words “your tumor is gone”, was not something I had allowed myself to imagine.  It took time before I could find my voice and repeat the words out loud for fear I might somehow jinx the results.

What I didn’t know was that the next several months would be critical in keeping the cancer at bay.  But I didn’t need to know that now.  It was gone.  I had won.  That’s all I needed to know.  The Day of dancing, The Day of singing, The Day of praise had come.  The Day of good news, of laughter, of living completely unbound was here.  It was The Day my future was returned.  Life was mine, and it was mine right now.  How interesting that it came after I had surrendered completely to God.  I was on a cloud that could not be brought down for anything.

How I longed for the extraordinary ordinariness that had been missing in my life.  How refreshing it would be to operate from a viewpoint that did not center on me.  I was looking forward to looking outward.  Yet, it is only after the battle that one can take stock of what’s left on the battlefield, and just because my cancer was gone was not the same as if it had never happened.  Yes, there was collateral damage to contend with, and yes, there was incredible bounty as well, but all that could wait for tomorrow.  Today was a new day with new hope.

In my profound gratitude, I spent time simply residing in the love of God.  Grateful that His will for me aligned with the answer to my prayer, the intimate cry of my heart, spoken prior to the coming news of The Day.  Lord, mold me, use me, shape me to become who you want me to be.  Use my cancer to do your work.  How can I serve you through this Lord?  Use my cancer to make me… into anything you want.  You know how much I love my children Lord, my heart overflows with love for them.  Allow me a full and healthy life so I may raise them completely, let me experience the joy of their lives.  I know you must feel the same way towards me that I feel towards them.  It is impossible to express.  I pray, Lord, that you will heal me completely.  Thank you Lord.  Amen.

And amen.

Queen Anne's Lace/Welcome Home ©Lynnea Washburn

The Edge of Life

I’ve been to the edge of life. I have leaned over the void with an outstretched arm.  I have tilted perilously.  I have strained back and grasped onto my lifeline, made of the things I love.  My children, my husband, my world.  I have teetered this way, and that.  This is how the edge is.  To be sure, it is a solitary place.  Only room for one.  And there, and only there, a single question hangs in the air.

What.  Do.  You.  Believe?

Odd.  I was a bit put off by the question.  I was pretty certain I knew what I believed.  But then… there is knowing what you believe in theory, and there is knowing what you believe in reality.  There’s put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is knowing.  There’s put-your-life-on-it knowing.  So although I was taken aback by the question, I realized there was a good reason for its asking.  I spent time with this, mulling it over in my mind.

All the while, I just couldn’t get my thoughts away from a certain Old Testament story that always chilled me to the bone.  The one about God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac to Him.*  I could not fathom what the father must have been going through as he set out to obey God.  I could not begin to understand the level of faith that he must have had as he made preparations to carry it out.  I simply did not think I would ever be able to have that kind of faith, to put something you love so dearly so completely into God’s hands.  This story always haunted me, but why so much more now?

Then I realized.  God was speaking.  He was asking me if I was willing to put what I held most dear into His hands.  He was asking me if I would offer up the one thing I was fighting so hard to keep.  My very life.   All of it.  My boys, my husband, my family, my friends, my present, my future.  Would I trust Him to do what He wanted with it?  If I truly believed, would I surrender all?

I had a choice, and just like Abraham, it seemed there was no good choice.  I could say yes to God and possibly lose my life.  I could say no to God and possibly live the rest of my life without Him.  For me, the latter was simply not an option.  I realized that more than anything, I wanted to be where God was, instead of where He was not.  No matter where that led me.  Be assured, this was difficult.  It was not easy to bind all the things of my life together, prepare the tinder, and set them upon the altar.  Fighting back my own will, I knew this was exactly what I needed to do.  Then I was reminded that once Abraham set Isaac upon the altar, God let His plan be known, and He supplied an animal to be sacrificed in his place.

So with that, I slowly opened my firmly clutched fists, and gave everything over to Him.

My chemo treatment was complete.  All that could be done was done, and now it was The Time of Waiting.  Waiting for the medicine to work, or not. Waiting for the scan results, good or bad.  Waiting for an answer, whatever it may be.  I was in no rush.  There was no point.  For I knew this: if my whole world were to fall away, I would still be with God, and somehow, some way… it would all be okay.

* * * * *

Often, before God acts, He asks us to first believe.  In this way He grows a great faith in us.  Sometimes it takes being at life’s edge before we truly know what it means to believe.  Sometimes when we are most afraid, we must offer our Isaac up, give it all to Him, and simply trust.  Once we do, God shows up, and lets us know He’s been there all along.

*Genesis 22: 1-18