January 26, 2013

CANCER X 4: the Facts, Faith, and Feelings [2/2]

Part 2

The Facts, Faith, and Feelings

Sister Sue Tracy

Fast forward ahead to July 1998 – I was in good health, finished my final tamoxifen after daily double doses for five full years and had returned to Grand Rapids to be director of holistic health at Dominican Center. I began to put my fingers in many pies of the cancer healing world such as the American Cancer Society, church cancer support groups, Gilda’s Club fledgling beginnings (it didn’t officially open until 2-15-01), Casting for Recovery and Chrysalis Community retreats to mention a few.

During my July 1999 oncology check-up, Dr. Kathleen Yost discovered two lumps in my neck that wouldn’t give her peace until they were removed. Boom – a new primary site determined to be Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Again numbness prevailed. I drove back to Dominican Center and blurted to Mary Jane, one of our massage therapists, “I don’t like being director of holistic health and having cancer a third time!” Her gentle response, “Sue, remember that we’re all human beings first.”

The next two weeks were inundated with a muga scan, CT scans, ultrasound and a bone marrow test when I left the office with two gauze “bumper stickers” on my behind. Diagnosis: Stage 1 (localized in the neck), large diffuse B cell, intermediate grade NHL… the flavor of cancer #3.

So there I was back into active cancer treatments. Only this regimen would be much harder than the Toledo protocol. Again I felt like a sponge as people poured in support and wisdom nuggets. One card read, “Courage is faith that has said its prayers.” An e-mail arrived with “When you come to the end of all that is light and all that lies ahead is the darkness of the unknown, faith tells you that one of two things will happen: either you will stand on solid ground or you will be taught how to fly!”

The most impacting message came from my namesake niece Susanne Tracy who is a general surgeon in Canada but was in medical school when she wrote, “Aunt Sue, I want the BIG C (Christ, that is) to conquer the little c (cancer).” The story of this is published in Praying Through Cancer: Set Your Heart Free from Fear. It is a 90 day Christian devotional for women on the cancer journey. My anecdotal story is Day #7.

Yes, I lost all my hair and enjoyed asking people to avoid bad hair days in honor of those of us who had no hair at all. I purchased three wigs from Paula Young’s mail order. They even had names: Genie, Jackie and Sweet Nothing (which did NOT whisper sweet nothings in my ear!) Yes, my energy would get depleted. 3-5 days after the treatment I would feel like a wind-up toy that could function but when unwound would stop. I simply had to flop and plop to honor this rare state of affairs for me. It wasn’t easy to learn how to befriend a more mild and mellow Sue but I also knew deep down that this too would pass and I wouldn’t be fixated in fatigueforever.

In the midst of all the above, I also semi-vowed I was NOT going to let cancer take my humor away. I’m pretty much known as the Funny Nun around western Michigan and even had a gig during the 2012 Laugh Fest when 150+ folks let themselves come to experience “Laff Jest for the Health of It.” I look for it in any shape and form. After my final prednisone that caused mood swings from hope to despair, from trust to doubt, to wondering if I should be planning my own funeral, I called my oncology nurse, Carol, and shared, “Carol, I’m reporting into my parole officer. I’ve ingested my final drug, promise never to take one again and I want to be untethered.” We laugh together about this now 14 years later and I still call her my beloved “parole officer.”

Post-treatment plunged me into regular check-ups every few weeks and months. In August, 2000, the CT scan showed an inch-long mass on my thyroid. The ultrasound showed it to be solid which increased suspicion of a possible malignancy. At this point I really wondered if my lot in life is to see how many different cancers I can meet and beat, God-willing. So I consented to a recommended right thyroid lobectomy. Yes, I was knee-deep in anxiety, preoccupation, fragileness and shaky trust.

Dr. Jay LaBine’s report indicated “a multi-nodular hyperplasia within a normal variant range.” Actually the word I heard the loudest and clung to was NORMAL. Jay and I have become valued friends and have breakfast about three times a year. I still occasionally tell him, “Jay, I love to tell people that you’re the only man I’ve ever allowed to put a knife to my neck!” We’ve had good laughs over this and many other aspects of life at large.

Since then I’ve had numerous basal skin cancers excised, frozen off, burned off – eliminated. None of them has manifested squamous cell or melanoma, the most invasive of skin cancers. For this I’m grateful though I wouldn’t skip a dermatologist appointment with Dr. Richard Ashack – ever.

All of the above gives a glimpse into what I affirm is God’s graciousness in keeping me alive on planet Earth – though I’ve heard and believe that the retirement plan is Out Of This World. I pray I will welcome that moment of release when the time is right for me in God’s overall plan.

I fully believe that heaven and earth are mysteriously intertwined. We are privileged to enter this life with its ups, downs and in betweens. We’re invited by the heart of our life circumstances to embrace the grace inherent in our own life journeys. Everything that comes our way in terms of illness, dis-ease or setbacks are, to me, invitations to enter into them wholeheartedly in our own unique ways. There is no exact right or wrong way.

This cancer life journey has opened so many avenues of blessings. Presently I am an oncology chaplain at Spectrum Health’s in-patient units and the out-patient Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion. February 12, 2013, marks thirteen years there and I cherish the privilege of walking with folks who are newly diagnosed, in for surgery or treatments, back for setbacks or side-effects and yes, those dying. This is the mission that God has spared me to be immersed in and I’m heart warmed and humbled by the opportunities that present themselves day by day at the hospital and/or during the 50-60 speaking engagements I’m also invited to take part in throughout Michigan and elsewhere.

Two quotes have become exceedingly special to me and I entrust them to you here: (1) Live remembering life is a mystery to be lived and not a problem to be solved. (2) Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that You and I together can’t handle.” I bid you God’s grace-embrace one blink-swallow-breath-heart beat at a time.

Joyfully ever-always,

Sister Sue Tracy, OP

myHeart thanks Sister Sue for putting another face on the reality of late effects of cancer therapy, another person that someone out there might connect with or be encouraged by, and as always, we give thanks ongoing for her loving support of myHeart, yourHands.

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