“Don’t Look Around. Look Up.”

19 11 2011

Photo Copyright 2011, Kathy Stadtfeld

Editor’s Note: A two-part article on me, my family and the BRCA genes appeared Sunday, Nov. 20 on the front page of  The Detroit Free Press. Part II appeared Monday, Nov. 21.  Also, the Canton Observer ran a nice piece on the Dec. 3 Sky Lights of Love Benefit. You can go to the Events tab on the blog homepage and click on Upcoming for more info.
When my close friend Kathy Stadtfeld shared this photograph with me, I was astonished.  I hadn’t yet shared the story of that January night with her, but somehow, she had captured on film the very vision of God’s pure white light as I see it in my mind’s eye.  I begged her to let me use it on my blog.  “But of course,” she said.

It was three-thirty in the morning on a cold winter’s night last January. I was sitting alone in my home office, exhausted from the physical and emotional battering I’d taken. In the two weeks leading up to that night, I’d found a lump wedged between my left implant and the thin layer of skin on my chest. I’d been through a biopsy and very quickly learned that yes, breast cancer is possible without breasts. I’d undergone surgery to have a port inserted on the right side of my chest, in anticipation of numerous rounds of chemotherapy. I’d been through a very painful lung biopsy to confirm what we already suspected — the cancer had spread to my lungs. I was a Stage 4.

That’s a heavy dose of hard reality for anyone, but especially for the mother of a five-year-old boy. Hours earlier, he’d  fallen into a deep sleep, not a care in the world, clutching his stuffed bear. I’d just finished reading to him about the antics of a monkey named Curious George.

Beside me in bed, my husband, Don, had finally succumbed after a string of sleepless nights filled with the terror of my diagnosis, his world closing in and crumbling around him. I couldn’t sleep. My tossing and turning disturbed Don, who would change position or roll over. I decided that if I was going to have insomnia, it’d best be someplace else. I crept downstairs.

Nighttime never seems darker than in January. Gusts of wind blew the tree branches to and fro, and they took turns scraping noisily against the windows, then the side of the house.

I was alone and completely exhausted. I had nothing left to give the night. No more tears, no more worries, no more ‘what ifs’. I was done. After what must have been an hour or more, I thought about heading back upstairs to bed, but couldn’t summon the energy. So, I sat there in the dark, at my desk, the mixture of snow and freezing rain pelting the skylights like so many forks striking champagne glasses at a wedding reception.

And that’s when it happened.

One minute, I was sitting there in complete darkness, silent, ridden with fatigue. The next, I was filled with a white light. A powerful, pure, all-encompassing white light.

I never saw the light, yet I knew instinctively that it was white. Then words: Everything’s going to be OK. YOU are going to be OK.

But the words weren’t audible. I can only describe them as a rapid-fire communication that came from someplace outside of me and entered my mind in a nanosecond. It wasn’t a conversation. It was an understanding.

I felt nothing but peace and serenity in those fleeting moments. And they were fleeting. As quickly as the white light filled me, the message was communicated, they were gone.

I was still sitting in my office, but I was different. I knew. I knew that it had been a message of comfort from God.

And though it took me a while to process, to truly absorb, what had happened that night, I’ve never had any doubt as to what it was. Not for a moment. Not even a flicker.

It’s going to be OK. I’m going to be OK. And I have a lot of work left to do here on earth before it’s my time. This I know for sure.

Yet, I’m a mere mortal and inherently flawed. And though I’d like to tell you that since that night, I’ve been able to push all fear, all doubt, all questions aside, and proceed with utter confidence, I haven’t. There are still times — and plenty of them — when I am wracked with sobs, days that are filled with despair, void of hope.

Perhaps my sister Julie said it best when she told me that during the toughest, most grueling of moments, I must not look around, but rather, up.

That’s a tall order when you’ve been hurled into a world of white coats, blood draws, chemotherapy infusions, regularly scheduled scans to see whether you are one of the lucky ones whose cancer is shrinking…or not. When, in the months that followed, you hear over and over again the words from the people here on earth who preside over your course of treatment:

Stage 4 breast cancer is incurable.

The average lifespan for a patient with your diagnosis is three years.

You think you can live 20, or even 10 more years? That’s just not realistic.

You will need to undergo some form of  chemotherapy for the rest of your life.

Each utterance is a blow, some harder than others, but all require psychological recovery time in much the way my body needs time to rebound physically after each chemotherapy infusion. It is hard to remember to look up when the script is playing out all around you.

I have my tough moments, times when I cannot imagine continuing this course of treatment that on numerous occasions has physically ravaged my body to the point that I’ve needed to be hospitalized in isolation, or transfused with platelets and bags of whole blood. Times when the ER doctor has looked at me and said, “You’ve got about a 50/50 chance of making it.”

Yet, I will continue. Because I know I am on the path to healing and that my work here, God’s work, is not done. Not only did He tell me so, but I’m watching it play out. Just this past week, a member of my medical team remarked that my results from nearly a year of treatment — 44 chemotherapy infusions — have been “robust.” I love that word and the context in which it was used. Indeed, my progress has been steady, with each scan revealing a continually shrinking cancer, along with areas that have fully healed.

Still, I know the road ahead will continue to have its twists and turns, its bumps and potholes. It is in those darkest of moments when I need to remember the light and the communication from that dark January night, and my sister Julie’s words. “Don’t look around. Look up.”

Copyright 2011, Amy Rauch Neilson

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