Thursday, August 30, 2007

I AM -- Just In Time

I was reading the I AM study about how God intentionally places us where He wants us to be, and that we need to be responsive to the Holy Spirit so that we can be used. All I kept thinking about was a life-changing experience that I had as a young adult. This event was pre-children and pre-marriage. In a way, I gauge milestones (at least in my mind) by their relationship in time to this experience. Was it before or after?

I have forgotten so much since then, although I think some of that is a defense mechanism. But the most important thing about my story is how God worked out His plan in me, so here it goes...

When I was 19, I was diagnosed with cancer. More specifically, Nodular Sclerosing Hodgkin's Lymphoma, stage IIA.

I was attending Texas A&M University (whoop!), and it was the fall of my sophomore year. I was a microbiology major, so as you can imagine, I had a backpack crammed full of ridiculously over sized textbooks that I had to haul across campus from class to class. One evening as I was studying in my dorm room, I was rubbing my neck in an attempt to relieve some of the tension caused by all that weight and I stopped mid-rub. There was a mass of lymph nodes in my left neck. I can still remember the sensation under my fingertips as I tried to make sense of what I was feeling.

Looking back, I was abnormally sick that semester. I had never had the flu until that fall, and I was just not myself but I chalked it up to stress and college. I went to the campus quack shack where I was diagnosed with mono and sent back to my dorm with antibiotics.

I don't remember calling Mama and Daddy about the lumps in my neck, or the original appointment with my PCP, but I do remember the trip home for Christmas break knowing that my doctor had recommended a biopsy. It all seemed very surreal until I stepped inside my parent's house, decorated floor to ceiling with all of the familiar Christmas decorations and saw Mama. For the first (and next to last) time, I completely lost it. I sobbed on Mama's shoulder out of fear and the prospect of a completely unknown future.

I spent the days before the biopsy researching what might be causing my illness. Back in 1991, the internet was not at my fingertips, so I scoured our encyclopedias and health books. I had more or less self diagnosed myself with Hodgkin's, and remember reading that surgeons could often tell if it was Hodgkin's by the way the biopsied lymph node looked.

I went in for the biopsy on December 23rd, and remember waking up while being moved from the surgery table to the stretcher and asking the doctor if it was Hodgkin's, and then promptly falling back asleep. We spent our Christmas in Louisiana with family, and I vacillated between enjoying the extra attention, and being annoyed that there was a reason I was being coddled.

On New Year's Eve we received the call from the surgeon: the node was positive for lymphoma and I needed to make an appointment with an oncologist for treatment options. Actually, my mom received the call, and she drove over to Uncle Tellius' house to tell me. I am ashamed to admit that I was so determined to act as though it was no big deal that I was quite brusque with Mama and wouldn't allow myself to be hugged or comforted. Now that I am a mother, I can see that she needed to hold me and feel that I was still there. She needed comfort too.

So, it was decided that I would not return to A&M in the spring. Instead, I would have a staging laparotomy and splenectomy and spend my time receiving radiation treatment. So, a month to the day after my biopsy, I found myself on the oncology ward of the hospital recovering from surgery. I had an incision from mid-sternum to about 3 inches below my naval, and it was a horrific recovery. Remember I mentioned earlier that when I broke down in Mama's arms it was the next to last time I lost it? This was the last time.

I had been extubated, and had been receiving excruciating breathing treatments so prevent me from getting pneumonia (a possible death sentence to the spleenless) but I still wasn't being allowed anything to drink. I had reached my breaking point and I found myself in Mama's arms again, repeating over and over again that I was doing everything they asked and not complaining so why couldn't I have some water?

But, time passed and I slowly healed. I had 55 staples holding me together and when I was strong enough, I was taken down to the Radiation Oncology department to start the planning for my treatment. I had to lay on my recently opened stomach for about 45 minutes (and hold still) as they took films and drew on my skin. I can't even begin to describe the pain, although I am grateful for it now because it gives me a true sense of empathy for my own patients.

Anyway, after a series of admissions to the hospital for post-op infections and complications, I finally started my radiation to the neck, chest and abdomen. I had lost over 20 lbs in a matter of 2 weeks and I was skin and bones, but secretly excited that I was thin. (Forgive me, I was in college!) The radiation was a breeze compared to the surgery and I actually enjoyed the drive to Houston every day. For the first time ever, I had nothing to do. No school, no job; just getting better. Driving to my treatments got me out of the house for a few hours.

As my treatment came to a close, I begin to look to the future. Hodgkin's is very curable in it's early stages, and I needed to start thinking about going back to school and getting on with my life. As the realization that I was really going to get through this sank in I started feeling that I needed to somehow repay all of the kindness that had been shown to me. Not just a thank you card and a cake, but something life changing.

I realized that God puts us in the middle of difficult circumstances in order to prune us and to point us in the right direction. I wasn't meant to be a microbiologist....I was meant to serve God by healing other cancer patients. I asked my therapists for information about school and they procured a package of information from MD Anderson about their radiation therapy program. I applied and was accepted for the fall.

I was so excited about therapy school and couldn't wait for the summer to be over so I could begin the training that would allow me to do what I knew God had planned for me. I begin my classwork and clinical rotations and was more sure than ever that this was the right thing for me to be doing. I loved working with cancer patients and I loved the technical aspect of my job. At the risk of sounding conceited, I was good at it too. Everything came naturally to me and I excelled in my coursework.

Then around October, I began having night sweats. Soaking, drenching, (scary) have to get up and change my clothes night sweats. I was horrified, because this was one of the symptoms of Hodgkin's. With my original diagnosis, I had no classic symptoms of the disease (night sweats, unexplained weight loss, itching). I didn't tell anyone for a good while, because I was hoping that it would just go away. I soon realized that ignoring it wasn't going to work and I finally went to my oncologist for more bone marrow aspirations, CAT scans, bone scans and blood work.

She could not find any obvious disease that would be causing my symptoms, so she referred me to MD Anderson for additional testing. They immediately found a positive lymph node in my pelvis, and recommended chemotherapy for the recurrence. I was devastated. I went to the director of the therapy program with every intention of resigning from the program until my treatment was complete, but he encouraged me to stay in school so I did.

In January of 1993, the week after my 21st birthday I started chemo. By February I had lost all of my hair and decided that I just didn't care and walked around bald. Oh, the impetuousness of youth! I would never in a million years do that now, but I was working in an environment that catered to bald women carrying chemo bags, so I fit right in! I took chemo for 7 months and it was hard.

Hard to get up in the morning and go to class and clinic. Hard to force myself to take the horrid little pills at home, and to drink all of the water I was supposed to. (I couldn't drink bottled water for years after) Hard to watch the chemicals slowly dripping out of the bag into my veins, knowing that I would be throwing up soon, and then unable to eat for days because of the sores in my mouth and throat. Hard to watch all of my friends live normal lives while I was labeled "sick" and "weak". There were so many things that were hard about that time in my life, but the one thing that never changed was my conviction that God had a purpose for me.

Because of that knowledge and conviction, I made it through school, graduated in 1994 and was hired on at Anderson as a therapist. I have spent the years since ministering to my patients through kindness, empathy, and prayer. I love my job. I love it more knowing that God intended it for me. I love it that God has specifically put so many people in my path because He knew that I would be able to comfort them in a way that no one except a cancer survivor can.

So, there is my story. It's not would take too long to record all of the stories and memories associated with those 2 years, but this will suffice. When I let myself get discouraged, I just remind myself that God is in control and that He knows what He is doing. Even when it hurts. Even when we are being pruned for better fruit. Even when it feels as though we've been abandoned, He is achieving His purpose through us. We are always where God intends us to be, we just have to listen to what He is saying and then say, "Yes, Lord. Use me!"


The Preacher's Wife said...

Oh. My. Goodness.

Anyone who knows me will understand I am not trying to compare answers or your faith walks as one more inspiring than the other, but Xandra, this just floored me.

What an astounding story of God's faithfulness and your taking all your pain and trading it for His Glory! I have chill bumps!!

This was just wonderful..Thank you for taking the time to type it out for us...

I am SO glad you have joined this study!

much love,


Amanda said...

Your story has come at a good time. I have a friend that has been diagnosed with cancer. I know God is using this for his glory. Thank you for sharing.

Boy & Girl said...

Wow thank you for sharing that journey with us. Such an inspiration.

Annabelle said...

What a story! Thanks for sharing, your story shows your courage and faith!

~Jennifer said...

I loved reading your story, thank you for sharing it. It's a good reminder for me that even difficult or devastating circumstances are used by God for good if we trust him.

The Small Scribbler said...

To be sick. For me that is the hardest, to keep my perspective, to live the obedient life when I am sick for more than a few days. And the only time that has happened is with morning sickness which does not compare.

How awesome that you did not crumble under the difficulty of your circumstances but continue to reach out to others who are walking the same path that you once were on. Your willingness to be a servant for the Lord is inspiring.


Anonymous said...

WOW! Xandra I don't know what to say, but this story is amazing - God is truly faithful. Thankyou for sharing :)

Alana said...

I'm speechless. That is an unbelievable story and testimony. Thank you so much for sharing wish. I am amazed by your strength and resolve. God must do some great work through you.

Thanks also for visiting my blog and for your sweet comments. So nice to meet you!

Alana said...

with us...not wish...sorry!

Heather C said...


Thank you for taking the time to put all of this into words for us. I was saddened by the things you've endured, but found myself cheering as I read about how you have been able to give such a positive perspective to it all... and the way it drove you to the assurance that God has such a specific purpose for your life. So many of us wander through life wondering what our purpose is, but you have clearly discerned His will for you, and that's such an awesome thing to behold! Thank you for giving Him the glory... even in the midst of the pain. Jesus in You is a beautiful thing!

I just jumped in on the I AM study. Better late than never. :) Thank you for sharing your heart. I am so blessed.

Mocha with Linda said...

Wow. I've seen mention here and there on your blog of your cancer and have been curious about your experience but wasn't sure if it was on the blog anywhere or where it was. As both a sister in Christ and an RN, this completely touched my heart. (And my being born and raised in Houston gave it a personal twist as well! :-) What a wonderful testimony to God's grace.

Thank you for letting Him use you to reach out to others. It would be so easy to cocoon and coil away in fear.

You have blessed me tonight.

luvmy4sons said...

Wow. That is quite a story. I can only imagine the suffering you went through. Your faith shines through it all! As an ex-nurse I have some understanding and having had my son be one biospy away from a diagnosis of osteosarcoma I think I understand your mom's heart as well. I am glad I read this story. It is obviously a key part of who you are. God is amazing how He gives us beauty for ashes, isn't He.

freetofly said...

Awesome testimony! How much suffering you went through, but to live to testify, and to encourage others! What a victory!

God bless you with many, many healthy & powerful years I pray!

Andrea said...

What a story.
You gave me chills, Xandra!