Accept the Unexpected, Part 2
In the first part of this article, I shared how stage 1 breast cancer had invaded my life at 23 (2011). After doing a double mastectomy, reconstruction surgery, chemo, and an unexpected heart surgery, I decided to start a new chapter in my life story, and I moved from my hometown of Southern Oregon down to Southern California. While it’s one of the best things I ever did, I admit it was also quite a quick and rash decision.
Moving to Orange County on a whim, I quickly felt very alone. Desperate to make friends, I found a Meetup website for young Christians who got together for hiking trips, beach outings, and bible studies. It sounded perfect, so I joined and, through their online portal, I met a local guy named Joel. We married about a year and a half later.
We moved into a little apartment in Santa Ana. During that first year, I got a job working as a full-time barista in a cafe. I began noticing pain in my lower back but quickly swept it away, figuring it was a long-term side effect of all my previous health problems.
Around the same time, I also started getting indescribably painful headaches.
For a split second, I let my mind wander to 'What if?' But I knew it wasn’t cancer because I had done everything to make sure that it would never come back.
I pushed through those pains until Memorial Day weekend, 2015. That Sunday, I was in such excruciating pain in my lower back I could barely get out of bed. I rested that day, expecting to feel better the next morning. Monday came, and it was worse. Joel had to practically carry me down the stairs and into our car.
We went to a local ER, and they immediately gave me pain medication. Joel requested that I have a CT scan, something my oncologist in Oregon had wanted me to do for months. Waiting in the exam room, Joel and I were just joking around when the doctor poked her head in the door.
We could see it on her face. She told us the scan showed multiple masses throughout my body, and she highly suggested that I visit my oncologist ASAP. Our hearts sank, and tears formed. I knew.
The next day, I got the discs of my scan, and the following day, Joel and I drove to Oregon. I figured we would just tell my family we had made a surprise visit, not wanting anyone to know the true intention of our trip.
Holding on to hope
My oncologist had me do more tests and added a brain MRI, "just to be sure," he said. Over the following next days, we hung out with my family, trying to enjoy time with them but keeping our terrifying secret to ourselves (except for my younger sister).
I got a call to come in earlier than my scheduled appointment, and I knew. I had known the moment the ER doctor told me about the masses, but I held out hope. My doctor, who I’d known for four years, came into the room and said, "Miss Ruby, I’m sorry, you have metastatic breast cancer. We have found tumors in your liver, your lungs, your bones, your kidneys, and at least nine lesions in your brain, but there are probably more that we can’t see. I am sorry."
After he left the room, Joel and I just broke down and cried. Between the tears, all I could say was, "I’m sorry." Of course, I knew it wasn’t my fault, but at the same time, Joel’s dad had been diagnosed with metastatic stomach cancer just two months earlier, and now I, his wife of less than a year, was also being diagnosed with metastatic cancer.
Pretty much all I knew about metastatic breast cancer was that it was incurable. That was the day that I started my unexpected journey with metastatic breast cancer. Geez, it’s all been so dang unexpected.
Sometimes unexpected seasons are associated with happy, exciting, joyful times. The kind you never want to end. I’ve been blessed with those experiences many times.
And sometimes, unexpected seasons are associated with heartache, struggle, and pain that seem unbearable. They’re filled with loss, anger, pain, and fear. I’ve gone through those times, too, including right now. Actually, it’s been seven years now.
There’s a quote by C.S. Lewis that I love. He said, "We must stop regarding unpleasant or unexpected things as interruptions of real life. The truth is that interruptions are real life."
What I’ve realized throughout my life is that life is unexpected. That's just the way life goes. Sure, we can get pissed off and try to control our lives, but ultimately, what is going to happen will happen.
It’s how we decide to live throughout those exhilarating highs and excruciating lows that can make us grow like we never thought possible or turn us into the worst person we could have ever imagined. And I’ve seen both sides in my cancer experience.
Something else Joel and I have learned is what we call "the hidden blessings" of cancer (or tragedy). Usually, we can’t help when tragedies like cancer befall us, but we can help by how we respond to them. Sure, there’s a lot of falling apart, tears, and despair in the beginning, but after some time, after the dust settles, we can choose how we want to deal with it.
I’ve met many cancer patients who allow the tragedy to consume them, and they passively follow their feelings into dark places of anger, bitterness, and despair. I’m not faulting them because I completely understand that temptation.
But remember, it is what it is. It’s where you (or I) are at right now. What are we going to do with it? As a Christian, I’m naturally drawn to the idea of redemption. So, are there ways we can redeem this pain? Are there "hidden blessings" we can discover to bring good out of the bad?
We’ve learned there are many of these hidden blessings we would never have discovered had the tragedy not befallen us, such as reevaluating life priorities. Cancer has helped us learn what matters most in life, which is people and our relationships. Basically, love.
We have changed our hearts
We also found ways to redeem the pain by starting our little company, Rebekah’s Hope. Joel has written several books helping people on the cancer journey. We filmed our documentary, A Brave Hope, which won many awards from film festivals around the country.
We also created an entire series of cancer care packages, and we recently started doing cancer counseling for patients and their families.
None of these things would exist had cancer not re-invaded my life. We’ve chosen to take the high road, and it’s changed our hearts. We now live with a new passion to help other people, a passion that likely would not exist apart from our own pain. Is it easy? Heck no. Worth it? Heck, ya.
Starting with gratitude
My advice if you’re struggling is to start small. Just take one baby step forward in a positive direction. Start with gratitude.
We know what cancer takes away from us, but what do you still have now? It helps if you say it out loud. Get somewhere by yourself and write 10 things you are thankful for. That’s pretty simple, right? Then read those things off out loud. And really think about each item. Feel them. Let that gratefulness bubble up. It may seem silly or small, but friend, it’s a huge step forward.
Then keep moving forward positively each day in baby steps. Oh, and keep your eyes (and heart) open for those hidden blessings and seek ways to redeem them, to transform the ashes into beauty.
Do you have a safe space where others understand what you are going through?