A gift from a cancer survivor
by Christine Kreitler Mellin
In September of 2002 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I followed doctors’ instructions and received a “clean bill of health,” and yet it has returned two more times. In the past six years I have had nine surgeries, twenty-four chemo treatments, thirty-five radiation treatments, a collapsed lung, and broken ribs. I have lost my hair two different times. My eyebrows and eyelashes have fallen out. I have lost my fingernails and toenails. I have perfected the art of vomiting. I have had mammograms, ultrasounds, MRIs, X-rays, bone scans, echocardiograms, PET scans, and countless blood tests. I have spent weeks in physical therapy and waited hour upon hour to see a doctor.
Does it sound like I’m bragging? Perhaps I am. Surviving cancer has become my badge of honor. And yet I realize that we all have a badge of honor. Everyone has unpleasant or difficult issues in their lives. It might be health, finances, a job, a relationship, children, or parents. We all go from hill to valley to hill again. And in the depth of the valley, I’ve decided that cancer is not all bad.
During my surgeries and treatments, I was blessed to have a wonderful support system. My husband and family were with me every step of the way, doing whatever they could to help pick up the broken pieces of our fragile life. At times the focus was on caring for and distracting our children, ages five and seven at onset, planning fun outings, creating “no-germ” gift baskets, shuttling to soccer practice or trumpet lessons. This was completed with love to protect the innocence of childhood and to keep life feeling normal for the kids.
I had friends rush in before surgeries to clean house, run errands for me, catch up on laundry, and even pay my bills. I had other friends who picked up my carpool shifts. A friend organized a group of husbands to come move furniture the night my new mattress arrived. Another friend picked up my daughter from school each day while I finished radiation. When my hair started to fall out in clumps, my stylist welcomed me into her home on her day off and helped the kids shave my head.
I received gifts of flowers and angels, candles and lotion. My mailbox was jammed with thoughts of love and concern. Someone fasted for me, someone organized a meal-provider list, and others cooked for me. Neighbors and friends called before going to the grocery store so that they could pick up a few things. A designer friend helped orchestrate a bedroom makeover; another friend came to my house and gave me a massage. Books were left on my front porch, and gifts were left in the milk box. Bible verses and words of encouragement were left on my voice mail, soup was left at my door, and hope was left in my heart.
And so many people prayed for me. Letters came from across the country telling of groups praying for me, people I didn’t even know. People prayed over me in bedrooms, living rooms, the grocery store, the doctor’s office, and church. I received the sacrament of healing and the anointing of the sick. A friend organized a rosary so that the Blessed Mother lifted me up in prayer as well. Another dear friend organized an opportunity to join together for the Stations of the Cross, somehow unifying my suffering with Christ’s.
Earthly angels visited me during chemo treatments, bringing delectable treats and hair barrettes for the times ahead. Friends transformed my living room into a garden oasis with hundreds of beautiful flowers. Some listened to me cry, some cried with me, and some cried for me so that I didn’t have to. Some gave me pep talks, others called me their inspiration. Friends looked into my sick, tired eyes and told me I was beautiful, and even though I didn’t feel beautiful, I could see in their eyes that they spoke truthfully.
You’re too tired for a Christmas tree? I’ll bring one over and decorate it. You can’t get the dishes done? No problem. You’re too sick to get out of bed? I’ll come over and start an IV. You want a milk shake? I’ll be right there! Another surgery? How about some new, comfy pj’s?
BEFORE MY ILLNESS I had always judged my day based on how much I’d accomplished from my list of “things to do,” my German work ethic spurring me on to accomplish more each day. The amount of help I received following my diagnosis was often overwhelming because I felt the need to repay the favors. To this day, I don’t like to have a feeling of indebtedness. During that time, however, I found myself too tired to refuse.
I have since gotten better about accepting help. It is humbling to need the help of others. I wanted to do things for myself! I found my days void of the hustle and bustle that once dominated. I had to reconcile my worth to myself. I couldn’t accomplish my unending list of tasks. I had no strength for housecleaning, was too tired to focus on the office work, had no energy to volunteer in the classroom. Even taking a shower left me exhausted.
What could I do? I was angry and felt sorry for myself. My irritation toward caring family members and other individuals surfaced despite the knowledge that they only meant the best. And then I would become upset with myself for feeling anger when I should have been feeling gratitude. I didn’t want help, but I wanted things done. I didn’t want pity, yet I wanted others to acknowledge the daunting position I was in. I felt left out of the party, left out of tennis, left out of the conversation at carpool, left out of a normal life.
As I lay in bed with a terrible headache, unable to read because the smell of the ink nauseated me, I felt utterly useless. It was then, in spite of my ailments, that I started reading a book from a friend. I still haven’t finished it, but it provided a solution: Pray! I found my worth in intercessory prayer. How silly that it took me so long to discover this simple answer. All of a sudden I was once again a productive member of society. I prayed for my husband, for my family, for my friends, for my children, for their teachers, for my priest and our parish, for our political leaders and our country, for the man who had just called the wrong number. And with each gift of prayer, with each gift of service, I saw the face of Jesus in the family and friends who were caring for me, loving me, hurting with me, sharing my burden. And as I allowed Jesus to enter my life through the service of others, my load was lessened, my burden diminished.
SO WHO’S THE LUCKY ONE NOW? I am ready for the hills and valleys of life, still stumbling at every pass. I continue to pray to be cured of this disease so that I can participate in the care and instruction of my children. I’ve let my mind wander down the path of death, and it was real enough to be very scary; it was real enough to make me take a hard look at how I was spending my days. My cancer gave me the insight to discern what is important to me. It provided a conduit for deepening my faith. Friendships take time. I have been blessed with the time to spend with our Lord. The time that would otherwise have been swallowed up in the busyness of life was traded for a bit of suffering and a nice, long coffee break with Jesus. So for me, I see now that cancer has not been all bad.
So what are my goals now? I have a to-do list that includes things like photo albums, Scripture study, family vacations, decorating, hanging out with the kids after school, and family dinnertime. But more than that, I am working on becoming. I want to become the person I was meant to be. I want to try very hard to avoid getting caught up in this life. We all have a limited time here.
~I want to become confident in my ability to know what is important each day.
~I want to become comfortable with my departure.
~I want to become aware of the limited control I have on my children’s future.
~I want to become trustworthy of my Benefactor and his ability to care for the children he has temporarily entrusted to me.
~I want to become a reflection of the suffering servant, Jesus Christ. When someone looks at me, I hope they can see a little bit of Jesus.
When others are faced with daunting difficulties, I hope they are able to see the value in suffering. I want to validate the gifts I have received from family and friends, not by sending out thank-you notes or by repaying the favors, but by being a good mom, a good wife, a good friend, a good sister, a good daughter, a good example. Maybe if I become, someone else will believe and be encouraged to also become what God has intended.
Christine Mellin lives in Greeley, Colo., with her husband and two children. She is now in permanent treatment and says the doctors are quite optimistic.