Scars in the Sunlight

With Shelly Vaughn

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17 out of 33 radiation treatments done. I’m over halfway and that’s encouraging. So far, no external skin changes are noticeable. I can feel changes deep inside and my arm (especially under my armpit) is feeling sore. I’ve been stretching it a lot and still go to physical therapy to prevent too much tightening. I’m feeling the fatigue also, which is expected. It almost feels like I took a Benadryl shortly after treatment. After about 2 hours the fog lifts and I can finish my evenings. But the overall fatigue is cumulative over time and is definitely noticeable now. It’s getting so old to have to work and go to radiation every day. Plus I have a ton of additional appointments still. My thyroid is enlarged so I need to follow up with that through endocrinology. (I’m guessing my body is just still so “out of whack” since chemo.) And they keep monitoring a reactive lymph node that has been swollen since the trauma of surgery (but is not cancerous). These are all nothing compared to chemo. And will be done in a few more weeks (though the fatigue will last 6-12 months after radiation). Estimated time frame is to have my last radiation on November 20th- as long as I don’t have any skin changes severe enough to need a break. I’m gonna plan on the 20th, because I love the idea of being done by Thanksgiving!  I have a ton to be thankful for this year!!

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This picture means so much to me. Last night I was invited to participate in a fashion show in my hometown of Greensburg. It was fun and different and a really great experience. This picture represents the part of the evening that meant the most to me. The girl on the left is Kelli Brisbane, who organized the show! She has such a sweet soul and she knew my cousin, Amy. My mom is next in the picture- one of the strongest survivors I know. Next is Wendy Bell. She used to work for the local news station in Pittsburgh… with Amy. Prior to the show backstage, I saw Wendy sitting in her dressing room and timidly introduced myself. I wanted to remind her that I had met her a few times back when Amy was sick and last saw her at Amy’s funeral. I said “I’m not sure if you remember my cousin, Amy.” She paused for not even a second, put her hand up to her heart, and said, “I will never forget that girl. How is her son, Michael?” She told a few stories about Amy and the impact she had on her life. She genuinely cared to know how everyone in the family was doing, especially Michael who she remembered holding as a baby when he started crying during the funeral. It felt so nice to talk about Amy again and hear others talk about her. It reminded me that my own struggles are just that- my own. And each person has their own. They may not seem comparable to each other, but the effect they have on our lives can be comparable. Wendy has gone through some very public struggles recently, leading her to reflect differently on life and family. Kelli has been through her own as well. Their struggles aren’t cancer, but they’re just as powerful in their lives. And they can be used just as strongly to shape these women into role models for others. The way we respond to the challenges we face can be such an opportunity to teach grace and love to others… and be a testimony of our faith in Christ. I pray that I can use my experience to show others how God has carried me through the fog… especially as I feel closer and closer to coming to the end of these treatments. And I feel so lucky to have had Amy as such a strong role model to me- in her life and especially as she faced her passing. Missing her dearly today.


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Not What I Expected

I was not expecting yesterday to go the way that it did. It was my first radiation treatment and I knew it would take longer than every subsequent one. I had no idea how long it would actually take and I was not prepared for how I would feel during it.

They were running behind schedule so I waited for quite a while before it even started. While waiting, I got a lovely video from our friend to make me laugh, so I’m very thankful for that. When they were finally ready, they took me back to the table and got ready to start. It was freezing in there so they gave me warm blankets to drape over as much as they could. But my chest was exposed (obviously) for a very. long. time. I laid with my arms above my head while 2 technicians and a doctor lined me up just right with lasers and machines. They marked my body up in several spots- making adjustments with a ruler down to the millimeter. Measuring, marking, taking a film, marking again, trying to decide if I should have a custom bolus (a plastic thing they lay on top of my chest that acts as an extra layer of skin). The women were as kind as could be. But the environment was cold and sterile with fluorescent lights that make any place less comfortable. My head had to be turned at a slight angle so I couldn’t move to make eye contact when they talked to me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like such a science project. Three women talking about my body, measurements, angles, lasers… while I laid there unable to move out of that position for an hour. I tried so hard to think of positive things- listening to the barely audible music, praying, meditating, praying more. The hardest part of it was that the machine had a reflective glass that was above my head. Without being able to turn my head from its position I couldn’t do anything but stare at the reflection… the still unfamiliar reflection of 12 inches of scars across my chest. Perfect 6 inch lines on each side. I couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t pretend they were normal. I was literally faced with my new body, with background noise of clinical jargon that didn’t make sense to me. I know I’ve said that chemo and hair loss made me feel like an alien. This was different. This made me feel inhuman. I hated it. I tried to keep a good attitude about it afterward, but it was still bothering me. Until, of course, I could have time to process it and talk about it with Rob. He made me feel better… as he always does.

I had a decent night’s sleep and felt much better today. And today’s appointment was totally fine. In and out within a half hour. Time on the table was just about 10 minutes. Short enough to keep my mind on other things and not stare at the reflection. I’m sure there’s a lesson in all of this. Maybe we all need to spend more time faced with the reflections of our least favorite part of ourselves (inside or out). Maybe it’s a reminder that this is my broken earthly body… not meant to be perfect. Or maybe it was just a really crappy evening that I should stop analyzing.  I wasn’t ready for how emotional that experience ended up being. But I’m sure ready to get these next six weeks over with.

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I wonder if they’ll know…

I wonder if they’ll know…

That they are the reason people call me brave. Without them, I would not have gotten out of bed sometimes. Getting them ready for school meant getting up and moving when I’d rather stay in bed. Taking care of them while at my lowest, meant living.

That finding people to help with them has brought me closer to certain friends and has given me the gift of watching others love on my kids. Hearing people offer to help take them places has meant seeing light shine brightly from others.

That everytime someone has sent them a gift or a card it has made my heart fuller than gifts for myself. The first cards that came in the mail for them, from other siblings whose mom had been through cancer, remain two of the most cherished pieces of paper in our home.

That watching them sleep brings a sense of peace that is indescribable- it has been that way since they were babies.

How their giggles strike a chord deep inside of me- more beautiful than all the music I could ever listen to. Hearing them laugh with each other brings its own special peace in my soul- as I know they’re growing a special bond as sisters that no one else in the world will be able to relate to. And they’ll have each other long after Rob and I aren’t here.

That my biggest fear has not been for me leaving them. It’s that they would have to go through the grief of losing their mom.

That I worry more about how they are getting through this than how I am.

That I’m beyond proud of their resilience and sweet souls as we navigate these waters without guidance. What to say? How much to share? How to calm their worries. What is normal now? Should I tell them I’m scared? Should I let them see my scars? What does this mean for their futures? What if? What if not? My worries for them go far beyond anything for myself.

That caring for them, raising them, has been such a beautiful gift- given to us and wholly appreciated- now more than ever. We’ve been graciously given the task of raising these two beautiful, sweet, hilarious, emotional, loving souls. But they are not ours… they are His. Our Creator who made us, who knows them, who holds them through me. I am so thankful that they were created in my womb. The most miraculous feelings this body has ever known was growing those two inside of it. Though my body feels like it’s failing me now, it certainly didn’t then. The breasts that have recently caused such sorrow did their job to feed those two. These hormones that “fed” cancer also did their part to create life a decade ago. And I can be nothing but grateful for that.  

You know, chemo didn’t just make me feel bad- it made me feel like a different person. My best identity change was when I became a mother to my girls. It was planned, welcomed, expected. This year my identity changed- unplanned, unwelcomed, unexpected- so much that I couldn’t recognize myself. I was no longer strong, healthy, happy, easy going. Physical changes forced me to be ok with a body I couldn’t control. Emotional changes forced me to feel differently than ever before. That was an intentional “ly”. My emotional responses and interactions with others were so unlike anything I was used to. And one of the most noticeable struggles was how hard it was to laugh. It’s just so hard to do when your body is not well. But you know the two people who could make me laugh no matter what- those two beauties I have the privilege of calling my daughters. They are precious souls who show love just as often as they fight with each other. Thank you to everyone holding space with me who have loved on them. And to those of you who haven’t met them yet- you’re missing out. I think they’re a couple of the best humans I know. Watch for them to change your world…. just like they’ve changed mine.