Jen is not breast cancer.
Cancer does not have Jen.
Jen has cancer.
When the words are strung together in just that order, it reminds me of the truth of Jen's life because cancer is not beating her, no matter what.
I'm not only referring to Jen's vitality, to the fact that she's still here after so much, but I'm also referring to the way she seems to make the choice to laugh in the face of what cancer can do to a person emotionally and spiritually and mentally on top of all of the physical pain.
Of course there are hard days and Jen is honest about those days of depression, days that feel so dismal, days when she asks the question, is this really our life? Those are the days when she says her husband Luke helps her bounce back, the days where she's reminded of the gifts of her life and chooses to carry on wrapped up in grace, hope and perseverance.
When I sat with Jen in a coffee shop months ago not long after we moved here, and we caught up on all of this, all that these last eight years have been for her and her family, I was honestly floored. The words that come out of Jen's mouth as she tells her truths, the traumatic stories that she's lived, they don't match the light around her. They don't match her smile. They don't match her laugh.
I stayed in the hospital for two weeks after Kaiya was born (after more cancer was discovered) because my intestines flipped. I had this distended stomach, it was so bloated...nothing would go through, it was so horribly painful...
and then she stops, to tell me a funny story from her days in the hospital, how she was on so much medication and had no idea what she was doing. How she went to take a shower in her hospital room while her mother-in-law was there to keep her company. How she came out of the shower having forgotten to get dressed. At all. How she stood there completely naked in front of her mother-in-law and ranted, mad at her situation and finally ready to vent. How she sat down on the side of her bed and crossed her legs and arms and just kept talking to her mother-in-law as if she were fully clothed and having coffee with her on a regular day.
We laughed so hard. I know her mother-in-law, Nancy. She is so kind and gentle, the last person on the planet to want to embarrass anyone further...so she just sat there and let Jen talk, agreeing and nodding and validating this "naked crazy person." (Jen's quote, not mine.)
Jen loves to tell that story because even though she didn't remember it happening, she got a huge kick out of the details when, much later, Nancy told her what had happened. It was a horrible day in Jen's life, but she's choosing to see the humor and grace in the space of that one day...
Jen has cancer.
She has it. With strong arms and a fierce heart, she has it and she's gripping it around its sorry neck and strangling it to the floor, each and every day. Sometimes that means she's terribly sick because of a chemo treatment, and then sometimes she thinks the chemo session seems to have gone off without a hitch and then bam, she's got a migraine that steals her days. And then sometimes it means that the physical symptoms are taking a day off, giving her a reprieve which can mean more space in her mind and heart for the thoughts and fears. It is on those days that she turns to her faith and to the love of her life, Luke. They have seen so many miracles along this very bumpy and curvy path, things that have kept their faith strong despite the pain and unknown future, things that are grace gifts, God's way of saying they are loved in the midst...
...the worst part so far has been the radiation. There were so many side effects...couldn't see...couldn't talk...thrush...everything tasted like salt...body sores all over...open wounds...so much pain...my nose bleeding for 8 hours...I felt like I was watching my own life, I couldn't do anything with Kaiya.
more cancer has been found, two spots on my lungs and then there's the brain...may or may not have a spot on the brain, it's inconclusive and you can only have radiation on the brain once...
I'm not as strong as I let other people think I am. It's hard for me to show them that I'm hurting. I look forward to little things that are happening tomorrow instead of the long-term...there's always a void because you can't plan long-term. It's hard to know how you should feel, how you're supposed to feel...how do you plan for things without really planning?
It's hard to adjust to doing things now, but we focus on the now because it's here and we don't know about later. It's confusing and dismal and hard to plan for retirement or a vacation in ten years, but we can plan the now, that's all we can do.
I asked Jen how she responds when people question her obviously strong faith in a God she believes is loving, when they wonder how she can still trust a God that seems to be doing this to her, or allowing it, anyway. She said that she doesn't think God is doing this. She said that it's part of life on earth and that its not for her to decide, for any of us to decide...
This is what faith really is, it's believing even during the hardest things.
What's the hardest part? I asked.
Baldness. Baldness is really hard. She bursts out laughing and then pauses and says it like it is...
No...Really. What does my child's life look like without me? What does that look like for Luke? What will it be like if I'm not there for her first date, for the little conversations? For the things she should always have me there for? The idea of not being there for her is the hardest part.
...but we never dreamed we could even have one child. I hadn't had a cycle in five years because of the treatment and then within two months of going off tomoxifin I was pregnant. It was miraculous. I had a great pregnancy...but we won't have more kids, the hormones make the cancer go crazy (in her case)....and I don't look at that as a bad thing because we never allowed ourselves to believe we could have any kids at all. I don't look at it like I can't believe we can't have more kids...I look at it like, I can't believe we have one.
Jen has cancer and she's living. She's really living. I doubt there's anything this girl wouldn't try as she lives in the now and fights to let go of the questions of the maybe.
Our families share a cabin in Northern Minnesota and my Dad loves to tell the story of the day that the men were shooting a shotgun at a target and Jen insisted on taking a turn. He laughs every time when he says that the blast threw back her shoulder and he expected her to walk away from the shock and pain. But no, she's Jen, so the first thing she said was that she wanted to do it again.
That's Jen. She's fierce, even when she doesn't feel fierce. It's her way. It's her joy. It's why she has cancer and cancer does not have her.
After Kaiya's birth, when the cancer had been found, spreading through Jen with a mind of its own, she was left with spots on her liver, lungs, and a (still) inconclusive spot on her brain. So she strangles it and then it fights back, sometimes fiercely but always threatened with bits of good news here and there, miraculous developments in her condition that blast the fear and tighten Jen's hold. Sometimes the cancer's power is decreased in size by hopeful scan results. Other times the news is not quite as heartening and the questions and fears rear their heads while that surreal feeling sinks in...
These are the times when Jen is reminded of how she wants to live. These are the times that Jen says there is a "best part" about having cancer. It means that there is no moment too ordinary to be taken lightly. She goes on to describe buckling Kaiya in her car seat, the wrangling, the moments that could be mundane or even frustrating, how she savors that time. She says that putting Kaiya in the car seat is one of her favorite things to do, and it made me think about how some days, getting my boys buckled and ready is one of my least favorite things to do. She said, Kaiya wants to bring her babies and buckle them and it takes forever. I love it. It's just a hoot.
Jen has cancer.
No one asks to be this kind of inspiration, but Jen, you are. No one wants to come to be an inspiration on this particular road, but you are. Cancer does not have you and its definitely not all that you are. Thank you for telling me your story so openly and for allowing it to be shared here.
Jen's story has been a part of Write Pink with Bigger Picture Blogs and Army of Women, a place to sign up and stay informed on the latest research and the growing hope, even when it's not October. If you have a survivor story to share, feel free to link up at This Heavenly Life.
Thank you for reading Jen's story. Please take a moment to do that signing up thing, in her honor, or in honor of someone you know and love. And also, a big thank you to the ladies of Bigger Picture Blogs, for all their hard work in this effort, and for their huge hearts.
"Just don't look at me like I'm dying. I might hurt you." (big laugh) - Jen