WELCOME to Growing in Grace…at any age! If this is your first visit, I suggest reading through my first four posts, archived here. In them, I share about current life challenges, most especially my cancer diagnosis and ongoing treatment.
Besides the cancer details, these posts introduce you to me, Elizabeth – a writer with a quirky way of seeing life through the light-catching kaleidoscope of my Faith. The posts will also introduce you to Growing in Grace! What’s it all about? In a nutshell, it’s a website focusing on the challenges – and the blessings – of growing older.
So, pour yourself a cup of coffee, grab a cookie, and read through the following posts. I hope you enjoy them and continue to come back again and again!
Walking in the Dark with the Prince of Peace
Welcome to Growing in Grace….at any age! Just as every plant has a timetable for its growth — from seed, to blossom, to fruit — Growing in Grace has been slowly maturing in the quirky recesses of my mind. Fertile ground, I think — but that might be questioned by those who know me best, and those who also know the chaotic twists and turns my life has taken since I first envisioned a blog site for Catholic girls.
But wait. Is this a blog site for Catholic girls? No, definitely not. That’s just what I thought it was going to be, three years ago, when the Growing in Graceseed was first planted in my heart.
Maybe in some future post I will share with you what that original site would have been like, but this is not the time for reminiscing. It is time to introduce myself and to share a little about the new vision for Growing in Grace… at any age!
My name is Elizabeth. Family and friends know me as Betty, but here, atGrowing in Grace, I am Elizabeth. There is a reason for the name, and not just a fancy nom de plume to add an uppity elegance to my writing. In a future blog, I will share with you why the name Elizabeth is so important to me. (I will also share sometime how much I HATE that word blog! I am and always will be a writer, not a blogger. Hmm. Does that give you a hint to my age?
If not, here is another one: I have been happily married for 49 years and ten months. Tom and I will be celebrating our 50th Anniversary in June. We have three grown daughters, Lisa, Rebecca, and Christina, two wonderful sons-in-law, John and Monty, and one amazing (yes, that’s a Grandma talking!) grand-daughter, Lydia. You will soon get to know Tom better because he will be writing posts for Growing in Grace when I have cataract surgery at the end of May.
Throughout my life, I have worn many hats. In the 60’s, I graduated with a BA in English and Drama. I had heady dreams of moving to New York and becoming the next Dame Judith Anderson. But then (thank God!) I married Tom and nine months later, Lisa, our first-born, surprised us by arriving six weeks early. She gave my dreams a decidedly different twist. I became (as was the norm in that day) a stay-at-home mom.
Eventually, I added stay-at-home writer to my resume. I had a new dream: to write a historical novel set in WWII France. (Why WWII? Why France? I have no idea.) But then someone (very smart) suggested that I start with smaller writing projects. I took that advice, and began writing for magazines: all sorts, including bridal, religious, and eventually, children’s magazines, such as Highlights and Guidepost for Children. I also wrote Sunday School curriculum, which leads to the next rung of my resume ladder: teaching.
I became a Sunday school teacher, then youth group leader, then a home-school creative writing teacher. That twist in the road came about after a disastrous stint at home-schooling on my own. Just ask my daughter, Christina, what a mistake that was. Hmm. Maybe this story will be another candidate for a future post. Hey, it was good enough to be published in Today’s Christian Woman!
Teaching groups of home-school students whetted my appetite to become a “real” teacher. After acquiring a Masters in Teaching when our youngest went off to college, I became a 6th and 8th grade religion and language arts teacher at a parochial school in Portland, Oregon.
When I retired from “real” teaching in 2003, I continued to work with younger children in our parish’s RE program. It was there that the Growing in Grace seedling began to push through my imagination and into the serious planning stage.
I had already entered the “blogging world,” writing weekly Scripture meditations and a personal blog (that awful word, again, shudder!) forCatholic Finish Strong, a great website that you can find in the blogroll. So, I was ready to launch deeper into the blog (shudder) world with my own site. Then, “life” happened and the little green shoot that was Growing in Gracedied – or at least I thought it did.
Health-wise, I hit a debilitating patch of troubles — first a knee replacement, then hand surgery, then a serious bout of pneumonia — that left me completely wiped out, with barely enough energy to get up in the morning.
With wrenching regrets, I retired a second time from teaching. I no longer had the stamina needed (!) to work with young people. Eventually I also had to stop writing for Catholic Finish Strong – another heartbreaking decision! Since both teaching and writing were such an integral, life-affirming part of my life, I felt completely lost – who was I? I felt empty, but too tired to think much about it.
A diagnosis of clinical depression seemed to throw a little light on my situation; but antidepressants and visits with the psychiatrist didn’t do much to lift the murky haze that had settled over my life. I was SO exhausted, SO achy, SO, as they say in social media, bleh. The only good thing going for me (at least I thought it was good) was that, finally, I was losing weight!! Of course, I didn’t feel like eating much, so that helped.
That was how things stood just one year ago. today. May 4, 2015. The day I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In the next post (hopefully on May 7) I will share “the rest of the story.” Why, for instance, I consider this last year to be the most blessed year of my life. And, why Growing in Grace, an idea of a website for Catholic girls, has morphed into a blog about aging! Oh, yes, and cancer.
Mostly though, Growing in Grace will be about the adventure of walking this scary path of growing older, with its inevitable pitfalls of pain (both physical and emotional), not just with my supportive and loving family, but most important of all, with the Prince of Peace. Walking with the Lord is not a new thing for me – I have no memory of being without God’s presence in my life. But walking with the Prince of Peace most definitely is a new experience.
Please “stay tuned” to find out how the three words, Peace, Cancer andBlessing, could ever coexist in the same sentence. And please feel free to leave me a comment or prayer request. I will get back to you! As were my readers at Catholic Finish Strong, you will always be in my prayers.
P.S. I promise that all future posts will be shorter than this introduction!
“Grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
Walking in the Dark with the Prince of Peace – part 2
Anxiety issues run (deep!) in my family. Sometimes so terribly deep that they led dear, good people to suicide, as was the case with both my mother and my father. I always prided myself, though, that my “pessimism” was in fact realism. I had good reason to WORRY, to “over-think” every issue, and not be a “Pollyanna” about life.
Just to help you get the picture, here are two examples from my past:
The days just before Tom and I were married were extremely stressful for me. Not because of the typical pre-wedding jitters (oh I had them too!), but because I was “sure” there would never BE a wedding. Tom was driving up from Los Angeles a day before the Big Day, and I was in full panic-mode. Every time the phone rang, I “knew” it would be about a fatal crash along I-5! I was actually surprised when he (finally) walked through the door! (I’m sure Tom thought my wildly ardent embrace was brought on by how much I missed and loved him; but the reality was that I was just reacting to the pile of STRESS that had just fallen off my back!)
During the weeks before the birth of our third daughter, I was again in “panic-mode.” Christina was our “late-in-life” miracle baby, (really, I was only 35!) I had been reading all the dire warnings about pregnancies in older women. “For every year over thirty statistics rise for still births, infants with special needs, etc.” To find a little peace, I picked up my Bible and flipped it open at random. These words stood out like a neon STOP sign: The blessing of the Lord maketh rich and He addeth no sorrow with it. (Proverbs 10:22) Truly, Christina has enriched our life and she has never “addeth sorrow…” (Well, maybe her teen years… but that’s a story for another day.)
Now that I have (I am sure) convinced you that I am not, nor have I ever been a “peaceful,” positive thinking person, let’s re-visit May 4, 2015. The day I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Actually the more critical day came eleven days later. On May 4, we had received first test results: The Easter egg size lump I had found recently wascancerous. This initial diagnosis led to further tests (I had already had a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy). The added CAT-scan, and bone scan made things excruciatingly clearer.
On May 15, we heard the ultimate news: I had “stage-4, metastatic, lobular carcinoma which had spread to my bones, one lung, and the liver.” But wait there’s more! My tumors were “ER+/PR+, HER 2 NEU negative.” This was all VERY important info; but I am sure your eyes are now glazing over, as were mine, listening to the oncologist trying to explain all those (very important!) plusses, minuses, and the rest of that “alphabet soup.”
Now let’s step back a minute. Imagine, readers, the person I described at the beginning of this post – a young woman unable to rejoice at the most joy-filled times of her life because of a life-long pre-disposition to anxiety and negative thinking.
I will be honest, those endless minutes listening to the oncologist were both shocking and mind-chilling. Though she never used the word “terminal,” that is what I heard, loud and clear. She did address “life expectancy” of course; but it’s funny, I can’t remember what the oncologist said! Was it “median life expectancy of two years” or “median life expectancy of thethree years.” “Median” being the important word: I suspect she actually said “three years” but my habit of “seeing the glass half empty” automatically translated that to two years!
Yes, the news was a shock. To both Tom and me! When we left the office that day, we didn’t talk much. It was only later, as we did talk, that I noticed something odd. I wasn’t afraid. I was concerned about how to break the news to our daughters; but even that was not a fear, only a deep concern that they understand that I am all right.
As those first days went by, filled with further doctor’s appointments, blood tests, “infusions” and pill-taking, I kept waiting for the “other shoe to drop.” I would go to bed at night and this thought would slip into my mind: you won’t be able to sleep, you know. You never can sleep when you’re worried.
For a minute or two I “entertained” that thought, then I found myself talking back to it. But I am not worried. I don’t know why I am not worried. I shouldbe worried, right? But I am not. Then I’d pray, “Thank you, Lord” and fall asleep! Each time this happened, I would wake up in the morning, amazed. Who was this person who could sluff off worries and sleep through the night?
I wish I could go on and on, describing moments like this, when the “peace that passes understanding” began to dawn on my mind. (It had already captured my emotions.) Yes, Amazed is a good word to use; but it doesn’t begin to cover it (that must be why it is called “a peace that passesunderstanding….)
Can I still worry? Can I “overthink” things, as my daughter, Lisa, often says? Can I begin to fret, to play the “but what if” mind game? Oh YES. But what is different now, is that I can stop it, as I do at bedtime when I “talk back.” Trust me. I could never do that before!
The first cogent thought I had at the oncologist’s office that fateful day was clear, certain, and is still deeply imprinted on my mind and heart. It had nothing to do with death. Or even cancer. It was this: I want to live the rest of my life, however short or long that is, focused on two things. 1) getting to know God better, and 2) spending time with my husband, children and grandchild!
These are the two things I should have been doing every day of my life! But I have always been a dyed-in-the-wool Scarlet O’Hara. I always thought there would be a “tomorrow.” Now I know that “tomorrow” is probably the worst lie the devil whispers into our souls: you can do that tomorrow. It is a great coping mechanism, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” But, in reality, we ONLY have today!
Let me end this post with words from a song that has had new meaning for me since the cancer diagnosis. It’s from Sandi Patti’s CD, Artist of My Soul,and comes close to describing what it’s been like the last year “walking in the dark with the Prince of Peace.” By the way, here’s a little secret I have discovered: He’s been walking with me all my life! Remember those Bible pages that “just happened” to open to Proverbs 10:22? (When you read the following words, just ignore the word “speechless.” That is never going to happen.)
Overcome by JOY
Into my heart so deeply.
It’s almost too good to be true.
[hmm. A little anxiety peeking through]
In this quiet
I’m in wonder of Your kindness
By how GOOD You are to me!
In the next post (or two or three) I’ll be sharing a little more about this last year – about some “miracle drugs,” the disappearance of an egg size tumor, along with the even more welcome disappearance of my misdiagnosed depression. And, more pertinent to you, maybe, why this all led to a resurrected blogsite! Till then,
“Grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
Of Easter Eggs and Rollercoasters
It was Wednesday of Holy Week (2015) that I found the Easter egg size lump in my breast. Ironically it was April Fool’s Day! I had been having swollen glands for several weeks, a common malady for me; and, though the lump was pretty large, I wasn’t too worried.
I shared with you in the last post what a worry-wart I was; so you might be wondering why I wasn’t in panic-mode again. Here’s why. Numerous times in the past, chronic swollen glands, follow-ups to almost every cold or flu, had developed into suspicious lumps. This usually sent me off to the doctor — in panic-mode. I was like the poor sleep-deprived girl in The Princess and the Pea. Just as she couldn’t help being troubled by even the slightest lump or bump in her mattress, I’d gotten to the place where I became anxious with the tiniest pea-sized lump. But mammograms and ultrasounds always showed the lumps to be what they were: harmless swollen lymph nodes. Eventually, I became less anxious when the yearly cold bug brought on the swollen glands.
But this wasn’t a pea-sized lump. I thought about calling the doctor, but my yearly check-up was coming up in just a month. So I put off the twinge of worry for another day (Scarlet O’Hara would have been proud of me) and I turned my thoughts to Easter. As I filled plastic eggs with goodies for our annual Easter egg hunt, I remember thinking, “This lump really is the size of an Easter egg.”
In the last post, I shared with you details of the cancer diagnosis. My treatment options were limited. Surgery was out since the cancer had spread, and so was standard chemotherapy since lobular cancer doesn’t respond well to chemo. Oral medications were the only treatment options. This was NOT bad news. It turns out there really are “miracle drugs.”
One of them is Letrozole (generic for Femara), a drug that’s been successfully used for about nine years, to slow down the progression of “estrogen receptive” breast cancer. Remember the “alpha-numeric soup” I mentioned in the last post? “ER” = estrogen receptive.
Another is Ibrance, which had been released from clinical trials just two months before my diagnosis. (God’s timing is delightfully impeccable!) In these tests, Ibrance and Letrozole were combined. The results of this one-two punch amazed the scientists. It essentially doubled the life expectancy of patients on Letrozole alone!
There was just one problem, the oncologist explained to us. Ibrance was EXTREMELY expensive! (My daughter tells me that using caps on social media sites is like shouting. Well, learning that the out-of-pocket cost ofIbrance — the medicine that might double my life expectancy! — could cost as much as $10,000 a month, is SHOUT-WORTHY!
Seeing our eyes bulge, and the hope in our facial expressions melt away, the oncologist told us that, perhaps, with some fancy number-crunching, the clinic’s financial office might be able to get the out-of-pocket cost down to, maybe, $1000 a month.
Tom and I have been financially blessed all our lives. We aren’t rich, but we are comfortable. But $1000 a month? After this discussion with the oncologist, Tom spent quite a while talking with the financial gurus at the cancer clinic. I sat in the waiting room trying to digest all we had heard – and wondering at my lack of fear. I decided I must be in shock!
A week later, we got the news. Between our insurance company (God blessBlue Cross!) and the pharmaceutical company (God bless Pfizer!), our out-of-pocket cost would be $10 a month!
With hope borne from this first miracle, I began to take Letrozole every day and Ibrance twenty-one days of the month. (There’s a reason for that week off Ibrance every month.) This last year of treatment has been a rollercoaster adventure!
First the good news. About a month into the treatment, I noticed that the Easter egg was missing. No amount of pressing or prodding could detect even one of those pea-sized lumps. I figured it had “sunk in” deeper somewhere, and waited until my regular appointment to mention it to the oncologist.
Telling this story in person is so much more fun — I get to act it out, and that’s always fun! But capturing it in words on a computer screen is difficult. Not fun at all. (A little bit of writer whining?)
First, let me say that my oncologist is not an overly expressive person – probably because every day of her life she has to tell people life-shattering news. When I mentioned that the tumor seemed to be missing, she dead-panned, “Let’s have a look/feel” and proceeded to examine my left breast. Then she said, “Well. (pause) All I can say is… (pause) –WOW!” (I’m shouting again – and so did she!) Then she returned to normal and noted the “changes” on her computer.
Six months into treatment, it was time for a follow-up CT scan and blood draw testing for “tumor markers” (bi-products of the tumors which help detect whether the cancer is growing or shrinking). The tumors on the liver had shrunk, but those on the lung had remained exactly the same. The oncologist explained that this actually was good news: it meant they were probably not cancer tumors after all, but lesions caused by a prior bout of pneumonia.
The tumor markers had decreased from a count of 164 (six months earlier) to just 40! They have since decreased to 37. (A count of 32 is “high-normal” for testing of a non-cancer patient.)
A few paragraphs above, I mentioned that this year has been a “rollercoaster adventure.” That implies some downs along with the ups – and there have been a few downs. Letrozole and Ibrance really do deserve the name “miracle drugs,” as my test results reflect; but they both have side effects which can sometimes be life-threatening.
This is true of Ibrance, especially, which is why there is always the one week off every month – to try to recover from the side-effects! For almost all patients on Ibrance, the immune system is negatively affected. Some patients can tolerate the lowered white blood cells, diminishing red cells, the anemia, etc.; but many have to be taken off the drug, sometimes within a month. Fortunately, (Thank you Lord!) I have been able to tolerate it, but my numbers ride the edge with every bi-weekly blood test.
I‘ve weathered other common side-effects, including: too much potassium (I felt fine but had to spend an evening in the emergency room); too littlepotassium, which led to I-V hydration, and to potassium supplements, which led to high potassium and I-V hydration. (Sounds more like a merry-go-round than a rollercoaster….) In addition, kidney issues have popped up which require a 2 liter minimum of daily liquids, not counting coffee, tea, or Coke! I’ve also developed peripheral neuropathy, another very common side-effect, and I have chronic stomach troubles which have made it necessary to know the location of the nearest bathroom at all times (as if those daily 2 liters hadn’t already done that!)
These side-effects are a bother, but they are like pesky flies that irritate but are not that big a deal. Honestly, I’ve felt better this last year than I have for the last three years! Thanks be to God! And Pfizer. And Blue Cross and doctors and…well, I could go on and on!
And that’s the amazing thing. I do! Peace has been the primary emotion I’ve experienced through all this, but gratitude comes a very close second. Maybe they always come together…. That is something to think about.
All I know is that I find myself, every day, saying THANK YOU! (Yes, I am shouting. Joyfully shouting!) Every night these words bubble forth from my heart as I climb into bed: Thank you for today, Lord. Thank you for life! Another day to draw closer to You and another day to spend with those I love.
Just as peace was not natural to me, gratitude wasn’t either. How a cancer diagnosis made such a change in my outlook and demeanor, I simply can’t explain. Except – Grace?
In the next post, I hope to conclude all this talk about cancer; but before I go on to other subjects, I want to ponder a bit why I’ve had such a positive cancer experience (thus far) and so many of my friends and relatives have not. After that, Growing in Grace will focus on the typical challenges (and blessings!) of growing older….in grace. First on this list will be cataracts – one of those inevitable side-effects of living past the “expiration date” of the lenses in our eyes. Till then,
“Grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
Down by the Station (Terminal) Early in the Morning
My stepfather had a nickname for me: Madam District Attorney. I like to think this was a compliment to my interest in justice. Growing up with two younger half-sisters, one of my favorite complaints was “THAT’S NOT FAIR!!!”
Or maybe he was referring to my insatiable moral curiosity. Why is it right?Why is it wrong? Why can’t I… (fill in the blank)? Why did God let thathappen?
That last question was birthed in my heart at the age of five, when my three year-old sister, Patty Ann, died of water hemlock poisoning. I can still remember, sitting cross-legged on my bed, late at night, across from Patty Ann’s empty bed. It was dark, but I wasn’t afraid. I was full of questions no one allowed me to ask. All my tearful mother would tell me is that Patty Ann was in heaven. “She is an angel now.”
That was NOT enough for me. I sat on that bed, in the dark, but not alone. I knew “He” was there in the room with me, listening. So the questions poured out. Why did You need another angel — couldn’t you have just created another one? (Don’t feed kids bad theology! It takes years to get it out of their systems!) Where was her guardian angel – why didn’t she stop Patty from eating the poison? Why did You make poison hemlock? Why did you take Patty Ann and not me? Is it because I would make an awful angel?
I don’t remember getting any answers that night, but I do remember being able to go to sleep. (See, the Prince of Peace has always been with me.)
So, you can see, it’s only natural for me to think about all that I’ve shared with you in the last three posts – and ask why. Why did I receive the precious gift of Peace when so many others must walk in blind faith and struggle with dark emotions when a cancer diagnosis becomes part of their lives?
And Why have I experienced such an amazingly positive response to the cancer drugs? My daughter recently read about a 29 year old woman who died within a month of taking Ibrance. Why aren’t the “miracle drugs”miracles for everyone?
I can imagine you saying, “Don’t ask why, it might jinx it!” Or, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!” Or, “Why ask why? Just enjoy your good fortune.”
But I don’t believe in good fortune. I believe in the God of miracles, the God of Love, the God of Peace, and the God who is my Friend. My very Best Friend.
I know He doesn’t have a problem with my questions – He made me a curious, questioning person. As I’ve prayerfully pondered my experience with cancer, I have brought Him all my whys. Here’s a sample of our Q & Asessions.
(By the way, just in case you get the wrong idea, I do NOT hear God speaking, at least not with my physical ears. I hear Him when I read His Word. I hearHim in the recesses of my soul, in the way thoughts come to me, thoughts that make sense. I hear Him when I read books and articles that just happento touch on what I’ve been pondering. I hear Him in the comments and kindness of others (as I have heard from some of you, in your emails and comments). Here is what I have been hearing.
Q: Why did the 29 year old woman die while taking Ibrance and I am feeling better than I have in years?
A: There is a time to be born and a time to die. (Ecclesiastes 3:2)
And another Scripture verse: ….my days You listed and determined (before I was born) even before the first of them occurred. (Psalm 139:16)
Oh. I get it. God already knows the date that will be chiseled on my grave-stone, just as He knew from all eternity, the date that is now carved on that young woman’s stone. Her “time to die” happened to come to pass a month after she started taking Ibrance. Mine hasn’t come to pass yet.
Years ago I began a needlepoint project and then set it aside unfinished. (You know from past blogs the way I think: I’ll get back to it tomorrow.) I haven’t the slightest idea where it is, but I remember it with fondness. The uneven embroidery stitches spell out, “God isn’t finished with me yet.”
What I am beginning to understand is just that: God isn’t finished with me yet. He still has things for me to learn, to do, and to become. There was a time (for me) to be born and there is a time (for me) to die, as there is for every living person.
That time came for my sister Patty Ann when she was three years old. She has been in perpetual JOY for the last 68 years.
Q: Is that fair? (That she didn’t get to live a full life? Or that I had to?)
A: No comment. (I get that a lot; but it’s always a kind, gracious silence.)
The question — Why does anyone have to die, anyway? — is one that also receives a no comment; but that doesn’t stop me from pondering it. This is what I have come up with so far.
I think it’s wrapped up in a word they once used for stage-4 cancer, but now avoid if at all possible. That word is “terminal.” Think about the word “terminal.” How is it used in normal everyday life? There are train terminals, bus terminals, airport terminals. Doesn’t this make you wonder….
Q: Why do we say a person is “terminal” when they have a fatal disease?
It is time to reach for one of my favorite books: the Webster’s Dictionary. The word “terminal” means: related to, situated at, or forming an end; a limit; a destination — like a terminal in a railway station — it’s the train’s destination. It’s where the passengers are going!
We all have a destination. We walk separate paths on this journey of life; there are twists and turns and mountains and valleys; but none of those mountains or valleys is our final destination. As long as we are alive, we are still on our way to that destination – a place He has prepared for us from the foundation of the world. In other words, folks: we are all “terminal.” Death is nothing more than the gateway to our final destination. That is something to think about.
Q: If this is all true, then why take the Ibrance? Isn’t that just trying to delay the inevitable?
A: This time the answer came quickly to my mind: God uses the things of this world to “work all things together for our good.” (Romans 8:28) It’s notfate. It is like a universe-size moving puzzle. We move pieces – quite often stupid moves. God moves pieces. But the “end game” will always be a glorious masterpiece of God’s handiwork in our lives. (At least that’s God’s plan. Sadly, we can reject His plan. That’s something to think about, too.)
So I will gratefully take the “miracle drug” Ibrance. Until it doesn’t work anymore. And that day will come, since cancer is “smart” – it adapts, mutates, and eventually makes the “miracle drug” ineffective. Fortunately there are other drugs on the list. I will trust my oncologist to guide my treatment. But I know, I KNOW, it is all in God’s hands – there will come a time when there are no more drugs to try. There is a time to be born and there is a time to die.
All this pondering is helping me with my never-ending questions. I hope it helps with some of yours. One suggestion I would give to help the pondering process: always begin with Catherine of Siena’s common sense point-of-view, one she repeated each time she took her questions to God. “You are God, Lord, and I am not.”
Last Q: Why did I get cancer?
A: No comment. (I knew that was coming.)
Until next time,
“Grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”