Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Big "C" Is Not "Candy"

God did not bless me with a sweet tooth.  No, God blessed me with an entire mouthful of sweet teeth!  So while I am, ordinarily very thankful for candy and sweets in general, I am grateful for the other big "c."  Melanoma to be exact.  And, I'm grateful for Elizabeth Edwards.

Cancer may sound like a strange thing to be grateful for if you've never heard that word applied to you.  But I know others who have become grateful for it being part of their lives because of the fascinating journey it takes you on and the lessons that are to be learned on that journey.  My lessons are still being learned and they will not look precisely like anybody else's lessons.  I'm grateful for that, too.

I was probably born with that mole.  I don't remember.  I do remember from the time I was in my late teens that my Mom was constantly nagging, and often my Dad too would chime in, and later my husband would join their chant, about this mole that was on my upper left arm.  They didn't like how it looked.  My Mom was the voice of doom and gloom telling me I needed to get it removed because I was going to have trouble with it one day.  I remember being 18 years old saying, "It's just a mole for crying out loud!  It's not going to kill me or anything!  Leave it alone!"

God was at work but I wouldn't listen.  Would I be wearing a compression sleeve and glove now if I had listened then?

I grew up, went to college, got married, had two children, went back to college, was active in church all those years, went through the Candidacy process for ministry in the UMC, began going to Duke Divinity School every July for Course of Study.  My mole tagged along, never giving me any trouble...except for remarks people felt duty-bound to make.  Strangers would ask if I knew I had a tick on my arm.  My parents and husband kept pleading with me to get it removed.  I kept reminding them it was only a mole and it wasn't going to kill me.

Then it started happening.  That darned mole started changing.  I'm not stupid; I knew what that meant.  So I prayed that God would work a miracle and let it shrink or better yet just miraculously take that thing away and be done with it.  God answered that prayer, but not in the way I would have preferred.  I guess I forgot to throw in a few details on how I wanted this episode in my life to play out.

It was March 2008.  I started wearing tops that had long enough sleeves to hide that mole.  It started out as a bubble at the tip of the mole.  In two weeks the whole mole was raised.  God must have misunderstood my prayers.  I was asking that he remove it, not enlarge it.  Even with my southern accent I should have been understandable!  What was taking God so long?  Finally, in April I promised my husband I'd have a dermatologist look at it and remove it.  The closest ones are over an hour away.  None could see me till September.

I went to Course of Study at Duke that July with a September 28th appointment to see a dermatologist.  The first Wednesday at Duke that mole started bleeding.  At that point I didn't need a doctor to tell me there was cancer in that mole.  I knew it and got myself to Duke Urgent Care that afternoon after class.  A wonderful PA removed the mole and said the tissue underneath looked good.  I breathed a sigh of relief as it was whisked off to a pathology lab.  The tissue looked good.  She removed .4 millimeters of tissue under it.

Thursday of the next week, I was standing in front of Duke Chapel checking my voicemail.  The doctor from Duke Urgent Care had called and told me that the mole had melanoma in it and he had made me an appointment with an oncologist at Duke Medical to "see what we're dealing with".  I picked up my bookbag and found a pew in the Chapel, crying.  I had an appointment with a Duke oncologistME!  That wasn't in my game plan.  The PA had said the tissue looked good.  I wasn't supposed to have anything "to deal with."

God was faithful, even in my stubbornness and stupidity.  He didn't take the melanoma away but he opened doors that I had no idea I even needed opening.  He was with me through tests and procedures I never heard of.  I take that back, he wasn't just with me...he took those tests and procedures for me.  He allowed me to feel the prayers going up for me.  That's a tremendous gift right there.  Have you ever felt prayers that are for you?  The power of those prayers?  That alone was worth it all!  Feeling those prayers gave me strength and hope because I knew that what I had believed about prayer was true in ways I'll never understand.  Pray, people, pray!

My family, friends, and members of the two churches I was pastor of walked with me through two surgeries to remove all the lymph nodes under my left arm.  Turns out, a full millimeter of tissue needs to be removed with a cancerous mole.  The melanoma had spread to my lymph nodes...just the first sentinel node, but that was enough to make me Stage 3B...I think...anyway, it changed my status and put a statistic over my head that I'm 2 years into.  Eight more to go!  Mitch changed many a drainage tube as that lymph fluid did whatever it had to do to continue circulating under that arm with no nodes there.  By November 2008 I had developed lymphedema in my left arm and hand and looked like a balloon that would pop if someone stuck a pin in it.

God opened the door for me to get physical therapy for all of the post-surgery stuff and lymphedema from a certified lymphedema specialist.  It's under control and my sleeve & glove are my best friends for the rest of my life.  I love it when people ask about them because it gives me a chance to tell them my story and tell them to keep a check on their skin and moles.  A mole can bring you down.  Melanoma is the 4th deadliest cancer.

Elizabeth Edwards has been a companion on this journey though she has no idea.  I was in the waiting room for one of my surgical oncologist appointments and she was on the TV talking with Oprah.  Her cancer had returned and I had begun following her story with renewed interest.  She has shown faith, grace, and courage that I more than admire.  She has modeled how to put a positive face on troubling times and persevere.  Thank you, Elizabeth and God bless you!

I'm grateful that my Mom has a huge "I told you so!" hanging over my head and has not used it!  I'm grateful for my husband who never complained, but patiently did whatever needed doing.  I'm grateful God has used my story to get others more aware of their own skin and moles.  I've had people tell me that they begun seeing a dermatologist and others have had moles removed.  I'm grateful God has shown me that I am, indeed, mortal.  I will die one day.  That is so freeing!  And it is so life-changing!  That has changed my attitude toward so much!  I understand, in a way I never did before, just how precious life is!  Everyone's life!  I do mean everyone!  I look at life through the lens of being a cancer patient.  Make that a child of God who melanoma has touched.  That's the lens that is in my glasses.

And I am grateful.

NOTE: In the hours since I posted this, the news has reported Elizabeth Edward's death earlier today.  Rest in Peace and thank you. (And, I learned much later, after reading my own path report for myself, that I had melanoma in two nodes, not just one like I wrote in this post).