Monday, November 3, 2014

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you annoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy should follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.



Psalm 23. It’s followed me since the first week of my diagnosis. The Sunday after I heard I have breast cancer we went to church in a blur. I sat there searching for something, some type of understanding. The sermon was about Psalm 23. The pastor started to paint a picture of a person who was very driven but overwhelmed with life. She traveled for work constantly and carried her cell phone everywhere. Vacations were not true vacations. Family time was never left undisturbed. Sleep was quick and somewhat of an annoyance. Work came first. The cell phone, emails, money….it all came first. The point of the sermon was that you need to simplify your life. Let God care about the stuff that stresses you out- put it in His hands and you’ll never want. He’ll take care of it, but only if you trust Him. But if you don’t trust then you will constantly carry it all on your own shoulders. So then what? Well, there’s a point when something’s gotta give and you might end up needing to lie down in green pastures. I listened to this sermon and something happened, I started making horrible heaving sounds and tears ran down my face. This WAS me.

***

“It’s going to come back.”

These are the words spoken by my oncologist after he asked me how much I wanted to know. It’s going to come back….not it might, but going. I was re-staged with advanced breast cancer after my surgery and final pathology report. Staged with 3C and deemed “chemo resistant” was what he considered a death sentence some day. I took this information in and did everything in my power to make him wrong. But only 2 short months later and he was right. While driving in for my monthly check up with him I just happened to put my hand by my clavicle and felt a very small familiar lump. He ordered a PET scan, a cancer patient’s worst nightmare. On September 3rd, our third anniversary, Ben and I learned that the cancer was back in 6 lymph nodes all over my left side. The next day I got even worse news. They finally got the full report back and there’s a 1 cm spot on my right lung that lit up- potentially cancer.

So started the many appointments….back to back, every day….to devise a plan. I met with Radiation again. This was something I never felt good about doing because I was told my cancer was going to come back distantly (metastasized) and I knew radiation didn’t do one darn thing about that. They told me that if I was “normal” (meaning that the cancer would have responded to initial treatment) that we would not do radiation right away; we’d go back to chemo. But, since I was “chemo resistant” that it was best to do radiation now to alleviate symptoms and keep me comfortable. So my initial reaction was “then what?”. They told me we would send my tissue in for genome sequencing testing, and hope to find a targeted approach similar to what I was doing with Tamoxifen and the endocrine/hormonal therapies I’m on. But, this would not save me. This would just prolong my life and most likely not very long. They said I would have to try chemo again and hope it works. Of course, I can put two and two together. If they want to do the radiation first to alleviate my pain it’s because they aren’t confident that the chemo is going to work. And so begins my journey for yet another option.

Wednesday and Thursday I got the news. Friday I met with Radiation. Monday I talked to an alternative doctor out of Canada. Tuesday I met with my oncologist here in MN. Wednesday I was on a flight for Reno.

I decided to go to Reno to work with world renowned integrative oncologist, Dr. Forsythe. Some may know him as the doctor that Susan Somers touts in her books. He’s also known as a maverick doctor that has had his share of run-ins with the FDA (a-whole-nother topic that will find its way in my blog at a later date). Dr. Forsythe doesn’t believe that I am what they call “chemo resistant”. He uses a chemo sensitivity test where they ship your blood to Greece and they test it among every chemo known to man (as well as a number of different supplements and homeopathic treatments). You get a report back that tells you what chemotherapies are effective on your own tumor cells. For once, I have a doctor that does what I’ve asked all along- to look at each person’s disease individually because every cancer is unique. It has boggled my mind that we are still using the same 3 chemos for breast cancer for the last 40 years. Everyone gets the same classic cocktail. Why? Clearly the cancer I’m dealing with is different. When I asked my doctor here in MN what chemo he was planning on using for me he said he was going to pick a standard one they use for metastatic breast cancer. I don’t have many more chances here to just keep throwing chemo darts and hope that they stick. I decided my best option was to not just pick a chemo out of the sky but use a more targeted approach with the Greek test. I found out that I have 3 chemos that my tumor cells are very sensitive to.

While in Reno I received what they call IPT (Insulin Potentiated Therapy) chemo. It’s administered with insulin and only requires 10% of the regular dose. This means less side-effects and most importantly it doesn’t wreak havoc on my immune system. Chemo kills fast growing cells, that includes cancer but also the cells in your marrow, gut, mouth, and hair. My white and red blood cells got hit hard on my first go-round with these nasty drugs. Going through it again, with hardly any recovery time, means my body most likely couldn’t handle a full dose. The theory on IPT administered chemo is based on the fact that cancer cells have many more insulin receptors than normal cells. They administer the insulin and chemo at the same time and the cancer cells suck it up, like a targeted smart bomb! Even better, they administer the insulin and chemo while bringing your blood sugar to a depressed state. At this point your normal cells turn to oxygen to survive but the cancer cells are anaerobic and still need sugar. They are literally starving right at that moment that the insulin/chemo mix enters your body. It’s like bringing them to their knees and then hitting them right then!

***

Trust has always been something I’ve had a problem with. It’s why I always had the need to be in control. In work and college I couldn’t delegate activities, I just did it myself, because I knew it would get done and it would be right. It’s why I couldn’t detach from work; I couldn’t trust anyone else caring for my deals. I had a hard time trusting anyone with my heart until I met my husband. Sadly, I also had a hard time trusting God. I’m not sure if it was because I didn’t fully believe there was a God or if it was because He never felt close to me. But through cancer God has become real to me.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.

I believe that God uses many of our struggles to reveal Himself. This is probably why He allows them to happen. Because many times without them we would go on with our life never taking time to truly question our existence. It’s sad, but many of us take advantage of our God, only turning to Him when we need something. God has been with me through every moment of this journey. There are times where I cannot doubt His presence; moments where I will start praying because I am overwhelmed and scared and just at that time I will get a text or a call from someone He sends to help. We’ve had so many coincidental and beautiful things happen to us during this time.

your rod and your staff, they comfort me

Sometimes His presence in this journey is subtle, sometime there’s no doubt he’s guiding my path. Early this past spring Ben and I were looking for a church to call home and one Sunday we impulsively rerouted our way to a church that I saw on my map app that looked closer. We ended up really liking it and started to make regular attendance for a couple months. While Amari was in the hospital we got a call from the church secretary asking if the pastor could come see us. While visiting he shared with Ben that he knew what he was going through. And he wasn’t just saying this….our pastor began to tell us that in the late 90s his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer while she was pregnant. She was the exact same age as me and she found out during the same point in her pregnancy. At that time they did not feel that chemo during pregnancy was safe and she did not want to take the risk. She gave her life to make sure her unborn baby was safe. It was heartbreaking to hear. But, even more, at that moment I knew that God had planted us at that church during this time for a reason. To physically see The Master’s hand in my life makes me feel so blessed.

I know that there are some cancer survivors that take offense to the idea when someone refers to their disease as a blessing but I’m not going to apologize for saying that in my situation I believe it is. I’ve been stripped of my health, my hair, my career and money, and my energy yet I’ve never felt more blessed. When you are faced with the fact that there is a chance that your time here on earth is limited and in fact, may be sooner than you expected, you begin to only focus on the things that matter and all the other distractions subside. I find thankfulness in everything. Through my diagnosis I’ve got to see the beauty in people, resiliency from other survivors that inspire me, and incredible generosity through the outpouring of support. I will never be the same. My heart is overflowing with love because I’ve seen how much people can pull together to help someone in need. I’ve seen God move powerfully and I feel so grateful and even special that He chose to move in my life. Maybe I needed this to happen to save me from where I was….someone who took things for granted….someone who was a slave to her cell phone….someone who needed to take a break and lay down in green pastures.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

It’s easy to trust God in everything when you’ve had to learn to trust Him with your life and even more, your child’s life. I now know that no matter what, everything will work out for the greater good. With that promise, I have no fear. I used to pray to God to help me trust Him. What a blessing that He turned around this terrible situation and used it to provide me with the one thing that always hindered my joy. Learning to trust has taken away my anxiety, my need for perfection, and has given me time and mindshare to appreciate life fully!

The morning of my surgery we got a big surprise. Not only was our pastor sitting in the waiting room at 6 am but so was Ben’s family’s pastor. He came all the way from Hector. Before they took me away he asked if he could pray for me. He read Psalm 23.

During the short time I was in remission I went to a Monday night church service because I was feeling scared. I had a pain in my chest that wouldn’t go away. The sermon that night was on Psalm 23. This time the pastor focused on God’s healing and restoring to health. I was praying to God to help me not focus on the chest pain and to eliminate my fear. Right at that time I sneezed once and my chest popped. Coincidence? Maybe. But the pain in my chest was alleviated and it took away my worry. Just when I needed it. Just when I asked.

Psalm 23….It’s followed me everywhere it seems. When something is revealed to you over and over it would make good sense for you to take notice. How comforting to know that I am promised goodness and mercy. Yes, the cancer came back. Yes, I’m fighting for my life and some days are very hard. But, I’m not going at this alone. He’s here…..and He knows how I feel because He already bore my sickness for me at the cross.

19 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. (Beautifully written, by the way) You and I don't know each other but I recall Ben's sweet little face as I had him in music in elementary school. Our hearts and prayers go out to you both as you go through this struggle. You have found the greatest treasure in coming to know and depend upon your Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ! May His presence give you peace and may His mighty hand of healing rest upon you. Jean (and Gene) Kirgiss

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  2. Blessings to you and your beautiful family, Athena!! My name is Lynn Cihlar Johnson, I am Lori Cihlar's sister! Lori has been sharing your story with me as you move through your cancer journey, as well as your faith journey! One of my best friends is going through her own journey with breast cancer, therefore, breast cancer is a common topic when Lori and I get together! God is such a blessing to us during good times and bad, continue to keep Him in the forefront and rely on His strength. Treasure the special daughter that you and your husband created, she ultimately is God's gift to you!! Heartfelt hugs to you and your family! XXXOOO

    Lynn Johnson

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  3. Hello, I came across your story on our local news channel's website. I read your story and was astounded at your amazing strength and faith in this journey of your life. At a time when some might lie down and give up in defeat you give it all up to God instead of turning away like some might choose to do. I hope your story is a source of hope and inspiration for others especially for your little one. No matter what the outcome God knows first. Our bodies are of this world but our hearts and souls are His if we choose them to be. Through his blood, beauty, and grace we are healed and set free. Prayers of supernatural healing for you and your family as you trek through this season.

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  4. Hello, I came across your story on Yahoo's front page. Something about your story inspired me to click the link to your blog, and so here I am! Your story is inspiring, and I'm sure it is helping far more people than you could ever imagine. The internet makes the world a smaller place, and it allows people who don't know you to send you positive thoughts and prayers. So, from my family to yours, healing thoughts and prayers being sent your way. And thank you for sharing your story.

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. Because you are looking at alternative treatments. Check out www.EPTworks.com , I am praying for you and your family!

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  7. I found your site through yahoo.com and I wanted to say that we will be praying for you. My husband and I have five children and on our 13th anniversary he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. God has been providing for us, upholding us, and caring for us. He was in remission was 8 months. Your blog is so special for all who read it. We will keep you and your family in prayer.
    I recently started my own site documenting our journey at cribkeeper.com if you'd like to read about us. Blessings to you as you walk forward! Melissa

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  8. Athena,
    Imagine my shock when after doing exactly what you mentioned in this blog; slowing down, turning off the cellphone, closing the social media accounts that take too much time away from the more important things in life, that I find your story here. I know the profound effect you have had on my life this past year but now look at what you are continuing to do for complete strangers. Your hope, strength and gratitude is something we all admire and aspire to. The way that you appreciate everything even when you are faced with this battle just astounds me and you have truly opened my eyes. God does provide and gives us what we need if we just believe and trust. You have contributed to my realization of that. You were strong and such a fierce go getter many years back when we worked together. I was so envious of you back then but no deals or signed contracts compare to the strength and perseverance you have shown throughout this past year. I only wish I could be as strong as you are. I am thinking and praying for you and your beautiful family. Bless you. Tama Kerber

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  9. Thank you everyone for the beautiful comments. It blesses me to hear that my story can impact others and it inspires me to hear of others' fights. We appreciate all of the support and prayers. God is working here....just coming to know Him is my miracle!

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  10. Nicely written-Great information.Thanks for sharing it with us.Please also visit my MIL-STD 810 page and let me know what you think.

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  11. What a beautiful, beautiful story. I loved reading this. I know Athena is with Jesus now, but I love the way her story still lingers for those of us who struggle with anxiety and perfectionism, and need to trust our great God who really is in control, and invites us to trust Him.

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  12. What a beautiful, beautiful story. I loved reading this. I know Athena is with Jesus now, but I love the way her story still lingers for those of us who struggle with anxiety and perfectionism, and need to trust our great God who really is in control, and invites us to trust Him.

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  13. I am so glad I got the chance to read Athena's last post. She, through her written words, has given me a fresh perspective on faith, control, trust in God, and joy. I am so sorry to know she is gone from this earth, but the words and impact she left behind are tremendous. God has used her in a mighty way, and will continue to do so.

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  14. I read about this blog in a German newspaper, and I am really sorry that Athena has left this world but happy at the same time because her pain is gone and she is resting now in the arms of our God!

    Its incredible how situations like this take everything out of us but leave us with the only things that matter: family, love and God.

    I am sure that Athena's baby will grow up to be a great person who will learn a lot about her example.

    Thank you Athena for your wonderful words and your strenght, your life and your message will continue to touch other people.

    Doris Mera C.

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