Cancer, Health, Recent Stories

Deb’s Story – The Sea Remains The Sea

I will never forget our first morning in Australia. The previous day my family and I had boarded a plane in rainy, grey England to fly to the other side of the world. We landed in Australia at night but the following morning we woke up to the most blinding sunshine. It was incredible. Parrots of vibrant colours flitted by our apartment, filling the air with their raucous screeching. In the garden below an enormous, monitor lizard reclined in the sun. It was all so wonderful and exotic. It felt like we had landed in paradise.

It had not been an easy decision to leave the UK. We enjoyed our life there and left behind many close friendships but my South African born husband had never adjusted to the cooler climate with short winter days. We left the UK in search of sunshine and found it in abundance on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. Our two daughters aged five and nine started school and our new life began to take shape. Life was good, we were settling in and building new friendships blissfully unaware that our new-found paradise was soon to be turned on its head.

I found a lump in my breast.

I had it checked and was reassured that ‘I had nothing to worry about.’ For more than a year that lump remained unattended to. Unbeknownst to me, it had started growing and spreading. When I returned to the doctor she said there were now two lumps. I could tell by her face that she was worried. She encouraged me to go for further tests and a biopsy as soon as possible. I was registered to attend a women’s conference that weekend so I booked in the tests for the following week when I returned. I knew in my heart what was to come.

Even before the diagnosis it felt like God was preparing me for what was ahead. The timing of the women’s conference was perfect. I returned with a full heart and a refreshed spirit. I went in for the necessary tests, and biopsies and as I sat in the doctor’s office awaiting my results I already knew what she was going to say. This promise from God from settled my heart.

‘Be still and know that I am God.’
Psalm 46 :10’

I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and my life became consumed with endless appointments. I had a never-ending parade of people who wanted to examine my bare chest and our days became treatment focussed. I have heard some people say that you should not let cancer take over your life, but when you are in the throes of treatment sadly you have very little choice. After my initial surgery I began chemotherapy, this was followed by radiotherapy and then another IV drug called Herceptin every three weeks for a year.

I would love to say that I powered through the cancer journey strong, with unshakeable faith, but the truth is that there were times when my faith was shaken. Emotional fatigue and physical exhaustion can take you to dark places. Cancer treatment is often described as riding a rollercoaster and there were many times I wanted to refund my ticket. I could accept that I had to walk this road, but I struggled with the fact my girls had to walk it too. We didn’t have family support in Australia at the time and we were still deepening our friendship relationships. Who would be looking out for my daughters if I couldn’t? My husband was going through exams and we were faced with the prospect of having to leave Australia due to my diagnosis and the limitations of our visa. It was an incredibly stressful and overwhelming time but through it all, it was in trusting Gods love for me and His purpose for my life, that held me steady.

‘You answer me and encourage me by giving me the strength I need.’
Psalm 138:3

I have loved God since I was a little girl. When going through the heartache and struggle that came with the cancer road, I had to choose to believe the truths that had been stored up in my heart over a lifetime of knowing Him. This didn’t make it easy though. When I sang Christ is enough for me at church, did I really mean it? Was He really enough or did my health, my appearance, my relationships carry more value than a relationship with Him? I had to face the possibility that I might not survive this journey. Did I trust God with my children and their future?

‘When I’m convinced that I cannot go another step. You sweep me into your mighty arms and carry me the rest of the way.’
Deuteronomy 33:27

It was amazing to see Gods tender hand carry me through this time, often in the most unexpected ways. Cards would arrive at just the right moment, a gift through the post would surprise me just when I needed it. The mums from school and other friends delivered meals for weeks. I was so incredibly grateful for this – at least I knew the family was being fed. On one particular occasion, I was thinking to myself that I would love to try Osso Bucco. Don’t ask me why, I had never even had it before but it was on my mind all day. The next morning a meal delivery arrived from a friend, a delicious package labelled Osso Bucco. It was moments like this that reminded me that God is always present. It was like a kiss from heaven.

Navigating cancer with two young children brought both struggle and strength. I struggled physically with treatments that left me sick and exhausted and often unable to give my girls the level of care and nurture that I so desperately wanted to give them. Yet it was also my love and commitment to them that gave me the strength to endure that treatment. I so desperately wanted to be there to see them grow up and flourish in their own lives.

Our girls were also the source of great joy, at times offering a very unique perspective on what we were facing. We were quite open with the girls regarding my diagnosis so inevitably there were lots of questions. We had been talking about reconstructive surgery when one of the girls said, ‘Well mum does that mean if they take some of your tummy to make a new boob that it will rumble when you’re hungry?’ Or, ‘Mum what if you lose your prosthesis in the sea while swimming? How do we tell the lifesavers they need to go and rescue your breast?’ On another occasion when we had an appointment with the surgeon he asked the girls to wait outside. Afterwards my eldest daughter who was now 12 said, ‘So mum what was that about, why did we have to leave?’ I explained to her that the Doctor wasn’t sure how much they knew about me losing my breast. ‘Oh, mum how silly. What did he think we thought happened, that it just fell off one night when you were sleeping?’ Never a dull moment with those two, that’s for sure.

Having cancer really impacts your sense of identity. As a woman, our sense of value is often linked to external things. How do we look? What hairstyle do we have, what clothes do we wear, what do we do? Cancer treatment impacts all of these things. I lost my breast, my hair, my clothing choices were much more about comfort than being fashionable and my ability to function in my normal roles and responsibilities was significantly compromised. I remember so clearly a day where I was confronted with this reality.

I stepped out of the shower and saw myself, naked, in the bathroom mirror. I had no hair, a scar across my chest, pale skin and oh my, did I look tired! It was hard to reconcile that the person looking back at me, was actually me. A shadow of my former self. Yet in that same moment I heard a gentle whisper from heaven speak directly to my heart,

 ‘You are more than the sum of your parts. I see you. I have your heart.’

This was a profound moment for me. That deep knowing that outward appearance really isn’t what matters. There is nothing wrong with looking after it of course, but actually, what is of real value, is who we are on the inside. It is what is often unseen, that matters most, and that is what we need to attend to. I know God can heal a sick body but I absolutely believe that He is more interested in healing our hearts.

Journeying through cancer treatment is not for the fainthearted. Your body, mind and spirit are stretched well beyond what you feel is possible. If you are out and about and you see a woman wearing a headscarf, please don’t be afraid to look her in the eye and smile. Having cancer and going through all of the necessary treatments can be incredibly isolating. When people bow their heads when they see you, or even make a wide berth as they pass, you can be left feeling very alone. A warm smile and kind word can go a long way to help a cancer patient remember that they are so much more than their diagnosis. Its’ all about touching the heart – isn’t it?

My experience with cancer was also a time of awakening. I felt God show me the importance of valuing myself, not in an arrogant, self-indulgent way, but in the realisation that I had to give myself the same value and consideration I sought to give others. I now fully recognise the importance of tending to my own heart, to take time to listen to my own thoughts and feelings rather than brushing them aside. I no longer feel guilty about pressing pause and giving myself permission to rest, connect with God and experience a time of refreshing. It sounds funny saying that having cancer made me more selfish, ha-ha, but I suppose there is truth in that. I do know that if I take good care of myself, then I am in a much better position to take care of those around me.

Throughout my cancer journey I wrote a blog. It was an efficient way to communicate with friends and family all over the world but it was also very therapeutic. This poem from Henri Nouwen was the last post that I shared. It means as much to me today as it did on that last day of treatment. A beautiful reminder that although I do not know what the future may hold I am very confident about WHO, holds my future.

Dear Lord
Today I thought of the words of Vincent van Gogh.
‘Is it true there is an ebb and flow, but the sea remains the sea?’

Lord you are the sea.
Although I may experience many ups and downs in my emotions and often feel great shifts in my inner life – You remain the same……

There are days of sadness and days of joy, there are feelings of guilt and feelings of gratitude, there are moments of failure and moments of success, but all of them are embraced by your unwavering love.

My only real temptation is to doubt your love….
To remove myself from the healing radiance of your love….
To do these things is to move into the darkness of despair.

O Lord sea of love and goodness.
Let me not fear too much the storms and winds of my daily life – and let me know that there is ebb and flow 
And the sea remains the sea.

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