ARTICLES BY COLLEEN CHAO

Category: Cancer

Category: Cancer

woman in desperate and anxiety sitting alone
Cancer

To chemo or not to chemo?

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, I was adamantly againstchemotherapy and resolved to heal myself with the help of an alternative doctor/clinic/protocol. I’d spent the last decade eating like a nutritionist (“let food be thy medicine!”), ridding my home of chemicals, and working with fantastic naturopaths. I knew firsthand the benefits of addressing disease systemically—not just covering up symptoms with meds. Surprisingly, it was my integrative doctor who convinced me that my unique diagnosis demanded chemo. She referred me to a top-notch oncology clinic AND a Chinese medicine oncologist. I’m convinced that I survived the rigors of chemo—and that it was so effectual—because I was so well supported by my integrative team! With my terminal diagnosis two years ago (what a miracle to write that! two years!!), I DREADED (and that’s an understatement) enduring chemo again—not just for 12 rounds this time, but indefinitely. So I resolved to find an alternative cancer clinic instead of spending my final days on the chemo torture rack. I ended up at a world-class clinic in St. George (10/10 recommend!), but the cancer was spreading like wildfire, and, once again, it was a naturopathic oncologist who convinced me that combining chemo with a rigorous naturopathic protocol would be the most effective means to battle my aggressive cancer. I’m grateful for both Western and alternative medicine. Alongside chemo, I’ve done everything from Viscum shots to colon hydrotherapy. I’ve had the best doctors in both worlds. But I’m even more grateful for the work God has done in my heart. I’m no longer “for” or “against” any approach to cancer treatment. I understand why some people swear by chemo and others refuse it. Some people are healed at alternative cancer clinics—others are not. And while I work hard at my health, my ultimate goal is not self-preservation but rather, making the most of the days God has entrusted to me, living and loving fully, whether that’s at an alternative clinic or in a chair in the chemo ward. And when I die, it won’t be because my treatment plan failed—but because my work here is done and Jesus wants me Home!

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Cancer

A story for kids (especially those who are hurting)

Several years ago I wrote a story for my son whose world had been turned upside-down by both chronic illness and my first cancer diagnosis. As a mom, I longed to create a gentle place for Jeremy to process his grief, so I asked God to help me do things like keep an open dialogue with him, create joy in our family even through the hardest days, and track down support for him within our community. I also wanted to address his suffering in a creative, disarming way, so I asked God to help me wield the language of story, putting words to those tenderest places of a child’s grieving heart. Even as I wrote Out of the Shadow World, I prayed it would care not only for Jeremy, but also for other kids who have been touched by cancer, chronic illness, and grief of many other kinds. While I’m not a child therapist nor am I an authority on kids’ suffering, my heart beats big to share the comfort our family has received from God through many years of walking together through various sufferings.** This story is one of the ways I can share that comfort—gently addressing themes of grief and pain and death through adventure, friendship, and a touch of zany humor. What a joy it would be to care for a child in your life who’s suffering right now. I’ve included Chapter One here so you can get a feel for the story. . . ~ ~ ~ CHAPTER ONE: THE CLIMBING TREE Pax Jackson was a ten-year-old boy who didn’t know if he’d make it to his eleventh birthday.  He had gray eyes, a bald head where thick curls used to grow, and a little more of his dad’s dark skin than his mom’s fair complexion. He also had a nagging cough that rattled his bony body and kept him up at night. Instead of shoving his homework into his backpack and rushing to catch the bus home from school that afternoon, he sat on the back deck of his family’s log cabin, dangling his feet over the edge and watching a fat lizard do push-ups in the warm sun. With the sound of his own wheezing loud in his ears, he didn’t notice the squeak of the school bus brakes on the street out front.  Jayni Suko was a petite ten-year-old girl with almond eyes and paper-straight black hair. Stepping off the school bus, she bent forward under the weight of a bulging backpack as she made a detour toward the house next door. She bounded up the driveway of Pax’s home and hurried around to the backyard.  “Pax!” Jayni ran up the steps of the deck, dropped her backpack, and sat down beside her friend. She studied Pax’s face. “We missed you at school. This a bad day?”  “Yeah.” A smile peeked out through the dark circles around his eyes. “What’d I miss?”  “Not much. Miss Halpin gave me your homework but said if you weren’t feeling up to it, don’t worry. She’ll help you catch up later.”  Jayni pulled two tattered textbooks out of her backpack and a few wrinkled worksheets and plopped them between her and Pax.  Pax only glanced at his homework, then turned away.  Jayni followed his gaze out over a sloping hill peppered with pine trees.  Jayni was the youngest daughter of the Suko family who’d moved next door to the Jacksons almost twelve years ago. The Sukos and Jacksons had become fast friends, and when Pax and Jayni were born two years later, the neighborhood had grown a little louder and a lot more fun. Jayni looked over at Pax. “You okay?”  “Yeah, I guess.” Pax’s voice softened. “I’m glad you’re here.” The friends sat in silence. The lizard darted away and disappeared under the deck. Pax took a deep, rattly breath.  “Do you think you could make it down to the Climbing Tree?” Jayni asked. “I can help you.”  “’Course I can, Spitfire. And I don’t need any help.”  Spitfire was Pax’s nickname for Jayni. He’d read it once in a book about dragons and knights, and it seemed to fit his friend who was as fiery and fearless as a dragon.  Jayni laughed as she hopped up. “I just have to be home by dinner, so we’ve got two hours. Let’s go!”  Jayni reached down for Pax’s hand, but he pushed it away, eager to prove he was stronger than he looked.  The two friends descended the deck steps and scampered down a small bank covered in crunchy pine needles. Their footfalls stirred the scent of a thousand Christmas trees into the warm spring air. Pax paused to catch his breath along the way. Ten steps forward, a right at the boulder, a hop across the stream—and there stood the Climbing Tree, like a giant with an oversized head of shaggy hair.  They’d discovered the enormous oak when they were just six years old, and they’d been returning ever since—to dream up stories, build forts, and talk about important kid stuff, like the proper ratio of ketchup to French fry. Sometimes on the weekends or holidays, they’d pack snacks and books and blankets, and read under the expansive branches till the sun got sleepy.  This is also where they’d had their biggest fight, the summer they were seven. And where they’d run to take refuge two years ago—on the day Pax got his diagnosis. Jayni beat Pax to the tree and lifted a thick, drooping branch high so he could pass underneath. But Pax grabbed the branch himself and waited for Jayni to enter first. She shot him a withering look but marched inside anyway. When Pax let go of the branch, it swished and thudded against the ground. Now safely beneath the canopy of branches, the children headed straight to their favorite spots. Pax chose a low broad limb and slung his body over it like a sloth, arms and legs dangling free.  Jayni

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Cancer

Cancer Updates 2023

September 21 (This was a brief update I posted on Instagram…) Okay, I’ve guzzled two cups of organic black decaf low-acid mold-free coffee and am ready to attempt an update. ? I’ll say it again: There’s no vocab for this journey, so I just kind of stab at words and pray they make a wee bit of sense. I’ve had only one infusion since April—due to my increasing intolerance of treatment + Long Covid + major dental work (chemo bullies teeth!). After months of prayer and anguishing through pros and cons, I decided in late July to end all treatment, at least for the foreseeable future. (When it comes to these decisions, it feels like your options are: “Would you rather jump out of a plane without a parachute or be thrown into the ocean tied to an anchor?” ?) I knew the odds were great that the cancer would take over within months, but I decided to cross that bridge once I came to it. However, as soon as I made my decision, the cancer made a comeback. I decided to do one more infusion, get a PET scan done, then make a revised decision based on those results. During the pandemic, I was asked before PET scans, “Did you recently have Covid?”—because Covid can remain in the lymph nodes and look just like cancer. Lo and behold, the “cancer comeback” was in fact Covid’s perfect mimicry. The infection I contracted June 1 not only was acting like cancer but also created a pericardial effusion (fluid in the sac around the heart that can lead to heart failure). What a rollercoaster this continues to be! I’m shocked and overjoyed that God continues to hold back the cancer in my spine, hips, ribs, chest, and lymph nodes! It’s also a heavy reality to not know what to do next: my body is intolerant of treatment, I’m utterly exhausted, and it’s complicated and even dangerous for me to get sick. I’m still on my rigorous naturopathic protocol. When my doctor said, “Whatever you’re doing, it’s working!” I laughed and said, “Well, I do rub castor oil on all my metastases.” ? (I omitted detailing my myriad other strange practices. Ha!) But I quickly added, “I absolutely believe God holds my days and his hand is on this cancer, holding it back till it’s time for me to go Home.” I believe that with all my heart, and in all the complexity and confusion of this journey, that is a solid truth I can rest in. “All my days were written in your book and planned before a single one of them began.” (Ps.139:16) One of my prayers is that I won’t make too much of terminal cancer—that I’ll be able to communicate the experience without magnifying it. My story is so much more than this suffering. But it’s a tricky balance, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get it right. I do know that there is so much life to be lived today, even within these physical limitations and deep weariness. There are fresh new mercies and undeserved joys wherever I turn. The pic above is one of those joys: two of my besties visited last month. ? Posting with the prayer that this will encourage some of you in your own hard… ~ ~ ~ August 30 “She smiles a lot. Her zygomat muscles are strong,” my dentist said matter-of-factly to his assistant. I lay there, mouth cranked wide open, as Dr. Jacobsen twisted and wrenched out a second decaying molar (compliments of chemo). “She must be happy,” his dental assistant chirped in reply. I nodded and caveman-grunted an affirmative. I am happy. But it’s a costly kind of happiness. I wish my mouth wasn’t out of commission. There’s a story behind this smile . . . ~ ~ ~ Elisabeth Elliot asked, What is the great symbol of the Christian faith? It’s a symbol of suffering. That is what the Christian faith is all about. It deals head-on with this question of suffering . . . Is God paying attention? If so, why doesn’t He do something? The subject can only be approached by the cross. That old, rugged cross so despised by the world. The very worst thing that ever happened in human history turns out to be the very best thing because it saved me. It saves the world. And so God’s love, which was represented, demonstrated to us in His giving His Son Jesus to die on the cross, has been brought together in harmony with suffering. You see, this is the crux of the question . . . It’s only in the cross that we can begin to harmonize this seeming contradiction between suffering and love. And we will never understand suffering unless we understand the love of God. (Suffering is Never for Nothing, pp. 13-14, 34) The past three months have been dark and heavy. I’ve been short on words. God has removed the intimate experience of his presence and let me grope in the darkness, clawing for grace to make it one moment at a time. It’s been physically grueling as well as psychologically exhausting. As long-term treatment’s ever-compounding side effects have demanded more and more of my body, I’ve grappled with the impossible decision, Is it time to end treatment since I’m becoming increasingly intolerant of it? How much more can I take? (By the way… I have a standup comedy bit for this: “Would you rather jump out of an airplane without a parachute or jump into the deepest ocean with an anchor tied around your neck? How to choose, how to choose…”) But facial muscles don’t lie. I do smile a lot and laugh almost as often—as many of you well know. 😉 (Fun fact: I was teased in elementary school for how much I smiled, and I’ve had many people tell me over the years, “I thought you were fake when I first met you” and “You don’t

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gray soil pathway between grass
Cancer

Why hasn’t God healed me?

I used to think suffering was meant to teach me lessons—hard but good life lessons—and as soon as I learned what God wanted me to learn, my suffering would come to an end.  I see things so differently now. Suffering isn’t a classroom—it’s an invitation into the heart of God. The greatest thing I can do with my life is love God and love people (Matthew 22:36-40), so whatever furthers that goal has to, ultimately, be insanely good for me—and for those my life touches.  And in my own experience, it has been pain and grief and loss and long waits and distress and brokenness that have best helped me experience Jesus’ perfect love—and best enlarged my heart to love others in a way I never could have imagined twenty-five years ago. (We see this reality all over the Word. See Philippians 3:10 and Psalm 119:71 for starters.)  I haven’t effortlessly embraced hardships in my life, and I haven’t easily accepted cancer. Not by a long shot. After both diagnoses, I wrestled long and hard with God, with lots of sobbing sessions in the dark corners of my closet, processing with family and besties and counselors, searching Scripture and asking hard questions. Lots of sleepless nights grieving harder than I thought my heart could endure.  But if, for me, terminal cancer is the way into greater love for both God and people—then it is a gift, not a linear lesson to be learned as quickly as possible. My present suffering will only get harder and harder, and it won’t end until I die, but every day I’m pressed further and further into God’s heart—and that enables me to walk through “the valley of the shadow of death” with a God who also “leads me beside quiet waters” and “restores my soul” (see Psalm 23). Mysteriously enough, the process of walking with him through that valley and beside those waters is what teaches me how to better love and care for others.  God may heal me yet, but only if my healing presses me further into Love. Only if healing can eternally accomplish what terminal cancer cannot.  So my prayer has not been for a miracle, but for more days here to love God and love people, and I fight toward that end, especially for the sake of my husband and my son. The pressing question is no longer, “Why doesn’t God heal me?” but, “What if healing would rob me of a life of love?”

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Cancer

Our cancer journey

If you know me, you’ve heard me say again and again, “Cancer doesn’t have the corner on the market of suffering.” Nor does cancer define me. (In fact, it’s one of the shorter chapters in my life’s story.) So I’m often hesitant to overemphasize or overshare details of it. There are many other kinds of suffering, some far worse than a terminal diagnosis. Plus, by nature I’m a private person (not quiet, but private!), so posting personal information online always feels like I’m high diving into a bathtub: equal parts scary and foolish. Anyone else feel me on this? 😉 But over the years I’ve learned that this online space can be a gift—a unique way to share the love of Jesus and encourage others. And because many of you are also walking through cancer (your own or your loved one’s), I think it could be helpful if I share a few more details of our journey with you. Reading others’ experiences with cancer has helped me over these years: to normalize some of the crazy, to validate some of the hard, to strengthen me for the next step. All that to say—I hope this summary of our cancer journey is helpful, not scary or overwhelming. I hope too that you can picture me sitting here at my desk with a mug of hot black decaf coffee, writing this account with miraculous peace, blown away by a God who has woven his extraordinary goodness into every dark detail and grief-filled day of the past five years. I’ll say it again: God never ever cheats his children—he always out-gives them. May you feel the truth of that even as you read this summary. ~ ~ ~ In July 2017, I felt a pea-sized lump in my right breast as I showered. After a long, complicated testing process, I was diagnosed with cancer (stage 2B, IDC, triple positive, Chek2) on November 7. A slew of appointments and scans followed, and we formed my treatment team (medical oncologist, surgical oncologist, reconstructive/plastic surgeon, integrative MD, and holistic oncologist). Three days before Christmas, I had my right sentinel lymph node removed and my port placed. (The pea-sized mass was now bigger than a golf ball.) Twelve weekly rounds of neo-adjuvant chemo (Taxol, Carboplatin, Herceptin, Perjeta) began January 12, 2018. In May, a few weeks after my twelfth and final dose, I had a double-mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. We rejoiced over the news that the cancer was gone, and I began maintenance chemo and hormone therapy. In October 2018 I had a follow-up corrective surgery, at which time my port was also removed. By February 2019 all surgeries and treatments were officially wrapped up, my hair was making a quick comeback, and I felt better overall. It was just 19 months from mass discovery to treatment’s end—and although I still struggled with chronic infections and some lingering side effects, I felt confident the cancer was gone for good. When I found a little lump on my neck in August 2020, my oncologist ordered a PET scan—which insurance refused to approve. A less comprehensive scan was approved instead, and the results came back clear. That was December 2020. One month later, I felt the faintest pain in my right arm pit as I applied deodorant—and a few weeks after that, my right ribs and hip began hurting. I initially assumed I’d injured them in a HIIT workout (hello there, middle age), but when the pain in my armpit grew into a palpable lump, I grew suspicious. We began the testing process all over again, even as our family packed to move out of state. Two days before our move, I had multiple lymph nodes biopsied—and one week later (5 days after we landed in Idaho), I received the results via a telemedicine appointment: the cancer was back. I quickly established with a reputable cancer center in Boise, navigated another insurance debacle, which pushed off all medical care for a month—but I eventually had a PET scan, and on June 2, 2021, heard the worst: stage four. Incurable. The cancer was on my spine, ribs, hips, and in my lymph nodes. Within weeks, it spread to my chest wall as well. The metastases were growing like wildfire, causing increasing pain that soon made it difficult for me to do simple tasks such as dress, walk, drive, and cook. I couldn’t imagine surviving even one year—though I was resolved to live fully every last day God would give me with my husband and son. In June 2021 I spent two weeks at an integrative clinic in St. George, where I was able to resolve some of my chronic infections, fortify my body, and find holistic support and supplements for the rigorous journey ahead. When I returned, I had a new port placed and chemo began (Taxol, Herceptin, Perjeta), as well as hormone therapy. With a few breaks along the way (since my body overreacts to chemo in a number of ways), I finished 12 rounds of Taxol in November 2021, then continued on Herceptin and Perjeta (often referred to as “maintenance chemo,” but technically immunotherapy). Because I was not able to tolerate hormone therapy—the goal of which is to starve estrogen-hungry cancer and thereby “buy me more time”—I opted for a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (i.e., they yanked out my ovaries and fallopian tubes, ha!) this past May, resulting in Instapot Menopause (thank you, Lis, for that term of perfection). In September, due to my body’s struggle to tolerate perpetual maintenance chemo, I took a month off (glorious, glorious month!). Currently I’m back to infusions every three weeks and I’m continuing my protocol of naturopathic treatments. (On a side note: many people message me with a variety of cancer cures, but I’m so grateful for and perfectly at peace with how God has led us to wed allopathic and naturopathic treatments for my body’s unique needs and cancer diagnosis.) God is graciously using these myriad treatments and daily protocols to

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Cancer

Cancer Updates 2022

As I did in 2021, I’m posting some of the email updates I send to friends and family. I typically edit these down a bit for public consumption—but I share them here with the hope that they will encourage you as you walk through your own sufferings. March 8, 2022 Hello, dear friends! Thank you, thank you for your continued messages of love and encouragement. I’m mortified at how behind I am in replying to you all, but please know how much your words care for me (for us) and what a lifeline they are. I know your lives are crazy-busy, so it makes your gift of time and encouragement all the more precious to me. I’ve appreciated some of your questions in recent months, and I thought it might be helpful to make this update into a Q-&-A of sorts. 🙂 I’ve concluded that cancer and its treatments are just plain ol’ confusing and difficult to make sense of (much less explain), and I’ve done a marvelous job of throwing out just enough details and terminology to cause mass confusion. Ha! So I’ll try to sort some of it out for you here, and you can just read the ones that interest you and skip over the others: Wait, what? You’re still doing chemo? Yes, it’s totally confusing! In July ’21, I started on a trifecta of chemotherapy: Taxol, Herceptin, and Perjeta. Taxol is the drug that kills rapidly dividing cells, which is why it’s so effective at killing cancer cells (as well as hair, brows, lashes, etc.). But because it is so harmful to the body, standard-of-care limits Taxol to twelve doses. I had my twelfth dose at the end of November, so now I’m on Herceptin and Perjeta only, and those are administered every three weeks instead of every week. Herceptin and Perjeta aren’t technically chemotherapy by definition, but they are administered and referred to as if they were. They are “targeted therapy medicines that treat HER2-positive breast cancer by blocking the cancer cells’ ability to receive growth signals.”(1) HER2 is “a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2″(2), and if I understand correctly, about 1 in 5 breast cancer patients are positive for this receptor like I am. Herceptin and Perjeta still make me sick and tired but much less so than Taxol. I have daily waves of energy that I ride (and enjoy!) in between trips to the bathroom and the recliner. Haha. Taxol will be back on the table once hormone therapy cannot hold the aggressive cancer at bay. But for now, I’m so grateful for a break! And for The Return of Some Hair. 🙂 Why can’t chemo and surgery get all the cancer like it did last time? It’s a great question. Because chemo kills only rapidly dividing cells, it can effectively kill (or, at the least, significantly shrink) localized cancer tumors. Think of it as cleaning crud out of a toilet. The crud is contained in the bowl, and a good cleaning solution and some elbow grease will do the job. But cancer that is widespread (referred to as “distant”) in the body means that not only are the cancer cells in widespread circulation, but the cancer stem cells are as well—and those stem cells are NOT rapidly dividing, therefore they cannot be killed by chemo nor removed by surgery. They will continue to grow cancer wherever they circulate. As opposed to that mess contained in a toilet bowl, this is akin to cleaning up a major sewage spill in the ocean. In 2017, my cancer was found only in my right breast, and while it was incredibly aggressive and fast-growing, it was contained—it had not yet spread to my lymph nodes and beyond. So the chemo effectively shrunk the tumor to a size that could safely be removed surgically. As of Spring 2021, the cancer stem cells are present all over my body and can’t be eradicated by chemo or surgery. So chemo can temporarily hold back the onslaught, but eventually the cancer finds new pathways around the drugs. Why not stop the toxic treatments and get to the root of your cancer with natural methods and treatments? Again, a great question—and one we’ve asked ourselves. This was a hard series of conversations and decisions at the outset of both diagnoses—but especially with this terminal diagnosis. I’m super-duper sensitive to most medicines, so I’ve always tended toward natural cures and treatments. And I long ago pooh-poohed sugar and processed foods, chemical cleaners in our home, aluminum deodorants, etc. In other words, I’m a fan of all things natural. 🙂 But every cancer diagnosis is complex and unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. With my particular diagnosis and the aggressive nature of my cancer, I don’t have the luxury of time to experiment with a zero-medicine or extreme-natural-treatment approach. Which is why we’ve decided to wed the two worlds–making the most of both allopathic and naturopathic treatments. (1) https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/perjeta-plus-herceptin-and-chemo-shows-benefits (2) https://www.mayoclinic.org/breast-cancer/expert-answers/faq-20058066 What’s the purpose of your hormone therapy? My hormone therapy is two-pronged: there’s an every-third-month Zoladex injection (it shoots what looks like a big grain of white rice into my belly), which shuts down my ovaries (and therefore the estrogen that feeds my cancer), and there’s a daily oral pill that kills the circulating estrogen in my body (that originates in the gut, etc.). Starving the cancer of estrogen is another way of slowing its growth, so while I absolutely loathe the side-effects of hormone therapy, I’m grateful for it. 🙂 How often are you getting scans done? I love my oncologist’s approach to scans at this stage of things: we let my symptoms or the appearance of new masses dictate my scan schedule. So if my appetite decreases, or I experience new pain, or I find a new mass, etc., we run the appropriate scan. Last week I was in for another ultrasound—and a follow-up ultrasound plus a biopsy may be

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Cancer

Cancer Updates 2021

Dear readers, Below is a collection of emails I’ve sent to friends regarding my second, and terminal, cancer diagnosis. I’ve edited out the more personal information so that these updates can be passed along freely. My prayer is that the beauty of Jesus shines brightly into many hearts out of our family’s present darkness. He is better than life itself— Colleen May 12, 2021Hello, dear friends!Just four months ago, we had no idea we’d be moving out of state—nor that we’d be facing a second cancer diagnosis. So much has changed in such a short time, yet as John Snyder so beautifully puts it, God remains our unaltered environment.For those of you who appreciate the cliff notes version, here it is—On April 28, five days after moving into our new house, we got the results of my biopsy: cancer in the lymph nodes. We immediately looked into two reputable cancer institutes here and chose to transfer my care from City of Hope in Southern California to an esteemed medical center in the heart of our capital city—and just 25 minutes from our new home. What a gift to be so close to my care this time around!Within the next week or two we should know more conclusively what stage the cancer is (how far it’s spread in my body) and what my treatment plan looks like. At this point it seems likely we’ll begin with chemo—so I’m enjoying my hair and eyelashes and eyebrows more than you can imagine.For those of you who like the unabridged version, read on.Yes, it’s crazy to be back here. To hear the words “it’s cancer” again. To know in gritty detail what all this means. The first several days after diagnosis were dark and full of tears. I wept because my body is not a healthy and strong body, and much physical suffering is ahead. I wept even more because I could not bear the grief of what this means for my dear husband. But I wept the most—out of deep and unspeakable places of my soul—because I’m a mom of a 9-year-old boy and there are no words for what goes on in a mama’s heart when faced with her mortality.The first night of my diagnosis, my son laid in bed next to me and wept, “I don’t want you to die, Mom.” And “Why did God let you get cancer a second time?”And this might sound strange, but those are sacred parenting moments. Moments so painful yet so utterly precious, you can almost feel God’s breath on you as you gently walk your child through grief to hope, reminding him of what you so desperately need to remember yourself: this life is just a blink, whether you die at 20 or 95, and none of us is promised tomorrow. Today is a gift, and if God fills it with suffering, it’s because he loves us too much to let us waste our lives on pathetic little earth-pleasures. He wants to give us breathtaking treasure that lasts forever—and suffering is often the means by which he gives it.After those first few weeping days and nights, I’ve experienced a peace and joy and calm-down-to-my-bones that just doesn’t make sense on a human level. God is with me, he is with my husband, he is with my son and—as I told one of my doctors—that is our hope.“I sought the Lord, and he answered me and rescued me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant with joy; their faces will never be ashamed.” Psalm 34:4-5Thank you for standing with us and praying for us. I’ll keep you updated as we know more. We love you so so much, friends–Colleen (for Eddie too) May 29, 2021Friends, thank you so much for your outpouring of love these past few weeks! We have felt so cared for—not only by you long-time friends but also by our new friends and neighbors here in Idaho. We are so grateful. I’m behind in responding to your messages, but please know how much your words mean to this words-of-encouragement girl. I feel strengthened for the journey through you!Okay, for you cliff-notes folks:On May 14th I met with my new medical oncologist. She is incredibly knowledgeable and compassionate, and she listened with concern when I described what the last 12-week chemo cocktail did to me. Because my cancer is classified as “advanced” (as it is a recurrence), she hopes to get me approved for a stage-4 clinical trial that hopefully will behave less like a wicked stepmother and more like an annoying coworker. Ha!Like last time, insurance issues have pushed back our timeline by a couple of weeks, but my doctor is expediting everything she can on her end so that we don’t waste time in beginning treatment. While I won’t have my first test results till this Wednesday, we do already know that my treatment plan will begin with chemo, followed by surgery then radiation. (We still won’t know what stage the cancer is, how widespread it is, till the third or fourth week of June. They are scanning EVERYTHING. I mean, we will know if the cancer is in my left pinky toenail, okay?)Now for those of you who can hang with the verbose version….The first time around we were shocked to discover that cancer is a full-time job—and that the normal stresses of life don’t sit on the bench just because cancer is playing first string. To look into the future even two weeks can feel completely overwhelming. So I’m working at staying present and grateful in the moment: I remind myself to stop and feel the cool breeze on my skin, quietly soak in the sight of E and J, or enjoy the taste of my hot black (albeit, decaf) coffee. I’ll admit, some days it’s arduous work for me to look for and appreciate the good things. But regardless of how I feel at any given moment, the truth is, each day is

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person holding orange pen
Cancer

Three years ago today

Three years ago today, my phone rang with terrible news. My doctor’s office called to inform me they finally had the results of my three-and-a-half months of medical testing. When they wouldn’t disclose the results over the phone, I knew exactly what they were.  This past week I revisited my journals surrounding that phone call and the diagnosis that followed several hours later. In Scripture, God often calls his people to remember where they have come from and how good he has been to them. And so, today I’m inviting you to look with me over my shoulder and marvel at God’s breathtaking kindness. Here is how he loved on me in the days just before and after my cancer diagnosis…… Friday, November 3, 2017 Good morning, Abba. This morning I’m thankful for a better night’s sleep—and so much peace from yesterday afternoon till about an hour ago. That was a beautiful gift from You, and I thank You for it.  Dear child of Mine, I was so happy to give you that sleep and peace. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you walk through fire you will not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  I see you right now: your head tight and pounding, your neck and shoulders scrunched up, your breathing shallow. This wait has been grueling, and while I’ve protected you with My peace and joy from much of its toll, I’ve still made you walk through an enormously long and complicated waiting process. I know it’s been anguishing, especially as it all comes to a head this week.  I can hear you too, beloved: wondering how you could move from this level of exhaustion (these past three months of a new demanding job have been intense) and weariness into a cancer diagnosis. I hear your anxious thoughts, “What will we do financially with such awful insurance?” and “How can I juggle all that I’m already responsible for and then add cancer treatment?”  I hear those thoughts, dear Colleen, and I care about them. I care to change your thoughts from anxiety to peace and trust and surrender and hope and joy.  I also know how big this is for you. You’re feeling the scope and enormity of these past ten years of chronic illness and insomnia and wondering how I could drop you in the middle of something so potentially awful. Right when you were feeling well for the first time in a decade. I know you are tasting the freedom and joy of dynamic community and you finally have bandwidth for all these incredible relationships, and you feel like this could be isolating again, overwhelming, 100 steps backward. I know this feels insurmountable to you, even when you are so willing to trust Me and surrender to My will. I am glad to be with you and treat your weakness tenderly. I am beside you at this very moment. Above you, overshadowing you with My wings. I am behind and before you, and NOTHING can touch you apart from My good and kind and loving will.  I can do something about this, dear heart. I have everything you need to wait through another day as you wonder, “Cancer or not?” Monday, November 6, 2017 Thank You, Abba, for giving me a supernatural anticipation of Your goodness, no matter what my biopsy results. It was almost a wave of excitement yesterday, the culmination of long waiting and arduous weeks of medical fiascos, to know with such certainty that “this lump is a gift” (as You told me many weeks ago). I believe that more than ever, and now with pending results—any moment receiving a phone call—I know You are going to unfold goodness to me as I have yet not known. Wednesday, November 8, 2017 “This lump is a gift,” You said a few months ago. And then yesterday we finally heard the diagnosis: ductal carcinoma, invasive. Cancer. And You stretched out Your hands with that gift, and said again, “I am with you. Don’t fear. I have redeemed you and called you by name—you are Mine. As you pass through these waters, I am with you, and through these rivers, I will not let them overwhelm you. As you walk through this fire, it will not burn you; the flame won’t consume you.” And Jeremy, in all his tender-heartedness and teary eyes last night, asked Eddie to read the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. And after Eddie finished, Jeremy said, “There are four of us in our family.”  Four in the furnace. Four in this family.  This morning he said, “Sorry that you’re having cancer.” And I smiled and thanked him and told him I’m not fearful because You’re with me. He said, “And He’s teaching me in this too. What you told me last night—to strengthen me.” Lord, I know You will not waste this in his life.  And as I begin to read text after text from people who love me and who care—I know You’re not wasting this in anyone’s life. You use suffering so wisely. So tenderly. So powerfully.  Thank You for the two skies You painted for me yesterday: the first on my way to meet Eddie to drive to the doctor’s office—those dark, angry, jagged clouds in the shape of arms and hands (almost angels wings) reaching down from heaven, out of a beautiful blue, puffy-clouded sky. And then the second sky on our way home after the news: it was picture-perfect, like pink, foamy waves on fire. One sky said, “I know what this is for you. I am angry at sin and the toll it has taken on you. And I don’t willingly afflict you with this. I am distressed in your distress.” And the other sky said, “I am making all things beautiful. I will make a thousand beautiful things out of this (even more than a thousand), and I am with you.

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patient with iv line
Beauty

The good news about bad news

In the past decade, going to the doctor has felt a bit like guzzling apple cider vinegar while walking barefoot on hot coals. Not exactly my idea of fun. Thursday’s appointment was no exception—bad news again. Not necessarily cancer, but a complicated cocktail of issues my doctor believes first set my cancer into motion. And the complicated solutions are (once again) breathtakingly expensive, time-consuming, and don’t come with any guarantees. As I began to recover from the firehose of new test results, I sensed God with me in a special way. “I know you’re not surprised by this,” I quietly told him. “I know you have everything I need for this.” But I’m sure you know as well as I do that trusting God doesn’t mean skirting around the tough emotions that surface on dark days. So even while I was full of faith, I also felt deeply discouraged—sad that I have a broken body, that I can’t seem to string together three weeks of good health. My heart was heavy. I reached for my Bible, opened to the Psalms, and read two verses (just two)—before it struck me with new force that while my body is a bad news factory, this Book is nothing but good news. The best news. And when I sit in it—when I linger in these precious Pages—my heart is grown strong with hope. In this world, my body might continue to be weak; but in his Word, my spirit is a triathlete. The Apostle Paul put it this way: So we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16) Okay, and get this: God’s good news DOESN’T COST A THING. It’s free, free, free. Can we just steep in the beauty of this for a moment? The best of doctors and clinicians and institutions have, in essence, said to me, “We’re not entirely sure what’s going wrong in your body, and we’re even less sure of whether or not we can cure you. But let’s give it our best shot.” This then sets into motion The Medical Bill Marathon, a financial feat so grueling it could send a strong man into the fetal position in two seconds flat. But in striking contrast, God himself perfectly diagnosed our (infinitely bigger) problem, then offered us a 100%-guaranteed cure that cost him everything and us nothing. The Perfect Physician was also the Cure, and the Cure was also the Generous Bill-payer. This is the best news in the history of the world. Every time I open my Bible, every time I recall a promise from these Pages, good news wins. So let the bad news come—it will soon be buried with my bones anyway (whether in one year or fifty). But good news gains momentum. Like the beautiful picture painted in Ezekiel 47, God’s goodness starts as a gentle trickle in our life, but it won’t stop till it’s a rushing river that flows deep and wide, bringing life to everything it touches. Dear one, when we make a habit of looking for that goodness—which requires us to lift our eyes from our singleness, sickness, infertility, divorce, empty bank account, lost loved one, wounded relationship—we begin to understand that bad news on this side of eternity is sort of like stubbing your toe on the way to collect your billion-dollar inheritance. Okay, so I stubbed my toe again this past week. But I’m sitting here wealthy beyond compare, spoiled by a Rich and Wonderful Daddy, who loves me beyond anything I will ever deserve. He’s taking my unwanted test results and physical limitations and deep disappointments and working so much good in my life, I don’t know what to do with it all. Seriously. It’s crazy. Susan Huntington once wrote, “Afflictions are sent for our profit, and if we do not profit by them, the fault is entirely our own.” I’ve missed out on some amazing blessings along the way because I was so eager to avoid suffering. But whenever I’ve wrapped my arms around the hardships, when I’ve viewed them as a means of experiencing more of Christ—the blessings flow like a rushing river. What bad news have you heard recently, dear one? What feels like an insurmountable discouragement to you today? That is exactly where God wants to bring you so much good, it will take your breath away.  

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Cancer

Of cancer, gifts, and gratitude

Yesterday felt heavy and strange as we closed the door on 2018. What a year. Twelve months ago today, I was recovering from the first of several surgeries and staring chemo in the face. I’d already spent five months hopping from one doctor’s office to another, being jabbed, smashed, scanned, diagnosed, and told what my chances of survival were. I’ll never be able to fully describe those last months of 2017. They were the deep end of the pool, that’s for sure. So when we woke on January 1, 2018, Eddie and I completely forgot it was New Year’s Day. It was Life-and-Death Year, so everything else felt trivial, superfluous. But somewhere along the way, 2018 became The Year of Joy. Every dark day was marked with beauty and kindness and community, and even laughter. (There is no way to laugh through chemo unless a great God is with you.) It was the year when this Shadow World lost a little more of its hold on me. When I cared a lot less about what people thought of me—and a lot more about how I could love them better. It was the year I could not give anything but learned to receive everything. (And if you know me, you know that was painful in the best of ways—and necessary.) It was a year of sitting on my butt in a recliner for hours at a time. So I wrote a book. A work of fiction, of all things. Here’s the description I wrote for the back cover: Pax Griffin, a nine-year-old boy with cancer, and his best friend Jayni, venture into a magical realm where Pax seeks healing. Befriended by three beautiful nymphs, a wooden-legged Hobblechaun, and a bumbling bellbird, Pax and Jayni face down evil forces and discover that healing may not come as they’d expected—but a far better treasure awaits them. Writing this story was the sweetest gift. It helped me to process this complex journey creatively and to speak about suffering in a way that a child might understand. (I’m praying that it will deeply care for some families who find themselves on this same journey.) Finally, 2018 was the year that our hearts overflowed because you, dear friends, walked with us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. You poured out your very selves, your time, your food, your money, your compassion, your resources, your prayers (I’m starting to cry writing this)—and showed me what Jesus looks like in the flesh. I love him more than ever because you loved us so well. I wish everyone could be so lucky, to experience what I did through you all. (On a side note, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never ever catch up on writing thank-you’s for the thousands of ways we’ve been blessed in the past 17 months. It would take a decade and a small fortune in postage stamps. Ha! But I think often of the myriad ways you have held my hands—and Eddie’s and Jeremy’s—and strengthened us to walk through the unthinkable.) And now 2019 is suddenly upon us, and while I’m still in the thick of recovery, still fighting off infections and exhaustion that are part of the long healing process—still sorting through a lot of emotions, along with the keen awareness that this may not be the end of my cancer story (recurrence is all too common)—I feel more than ever before that I’m living out of the heart Jesus gave me, and that is a beautiful thing. I still marvel at the strong and tender word the Spirit gave me in the summer of 2017, when I first discovered a lump in my right breast: “This is a gift,” he said. And oh has it ever been. A gift so good it makes my head spin. God is never a debtor, is he? He always out-gives us. Isn’t it crazy how suffering (not just cancer! …a broken marriage, a special-needs child, long singleness, financial angst, death of a loved one, etc.) can become the conduit to our greatest blessings and joys?! Only God is smart enough and strong enough to do that. Man, I love him so much. I’ve lived just long enough now to know that 2019 won’t be Easy Street. Jesus loves us too much to let us coast or get comfy here. We’re made for Another World, and until we cross over to it, this one will be hard. But… “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) Friends, I love you all so crazy much—and I’m entering this new year thanking my God for you! Colleen

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Category: Cancer