Editor’s Note: In honor of Blood Cancer Awareness Month and Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, OTW is featuring articles from those who have personal experience with these cancers. We encourage you to give these articles a good read, and consider how you can get involved.
I don’t remember when I began to breathe again.
Perhaps with the scent of my daughter’s freshly washed hair.
Or when the bluebird babies were born.
Maybe it was the night I celebrated my fortieth birthday …
I can’t remember the exact moment.
But I do remember when I stopped.
It was when a five-inch needle,
Cork-screwed into the small of my back,
got stuck there…
After that memorable first bone marrow biopsy, I was diagnosed with leukemia, a word that strikes fear into the hearts of even the very brave. A word admittedly hard to get my thoughts around because all my previous knowledge of leukemia came from made-for-TV movies. Filled with high drama, family tension and sad endings, conveniently packaged into two-hour SobFests.
On the day of my diagnosis, my daughters were eight and ten years old, my husband and I still sweetly in love, our days a blur of school and work activities, with lots of fun sprinkled on top. I was very healthy, or so I had thought.
Cancer in the bloodstream is hard to fathom. How does blood get cancer? No one really knows although theories float around, applicable perhaps to some cases, but certainly not all. With leukemia, there’s nothing to knead, no solid mass or tumor to be felt. It’s both surreal and deadly.
After six weeks in the hospital with that first bout of leukemia, I recovered and left it behind as a cosmic mistake. I lived in the country of Gratitude for two years before relapse, more chemo, a clinical trial with arsenic, then total body radiation (my personal nightmare), and a bone marrow transplant. Over 37 gallons of blood from generous people I would never meet flowed through my veins, giving me strength to face another day. The odds were grim – only a 10% chance of survival.
Yet thirteen years later, I am still here. Grateful for each sunrise, good health, a run at Folsom Lake, dinners in San Francisco with my daughters, bike rides with my husband, meaningful work and the opportunity to share hope and encouragement with those dealing with cancer.
Because I survived such bad odds, people think perhaps I have a secret “Ways to Ensure Survival” toolkit, which of course, I don’t. People love prescriptions but I don’t have one for them. The thought that most resonates in my spirit – a birdsong in my soul – is that I am here today because of grace. Pure and simple. Grace.
People don’t like to think that one survives a serious disease because of something as nebulous as grace. Yet, I have no other explanation if the other pieces are in place: health insurance, good medical care, a loving support system of friends and families, positive attitudes, fighting spirits, available and safe blood.
Others – younger and stronger than me — did not survive their resistant diseases and grim prognoses. My heart breaks for families who have lost loved ones who fought so hard to live; who did everything “right” – who did everything they were asked to do. I can’t pretend to know why I survived and they didn’t. To believe I did something that gave me the survival edge strikes me as pure arrogance.
I love the story in John 5 of the lame man at the Pool of Bethesda. Crippled for 38 years, he spends his days being delivered to the Pool of Hope for A Cure and never gets tossed in first, the requirement for being healed. Jesus chooses him, among the multitude of sick, and asks if he wants to be made well. Why him? The guy has no clue who Jesus is and doesn’t even answer the question! He whines about his life. And what does Jesus do? He heals him anyway.
In a realistic world, he would still be crippled. But in Jesus’ world, he is cured. Grace. But it is not enough. Later in the day, the cured man runs into Jesus again, who then says, “Sin no more.” Such an intriguing comment! “Why?” I wonder, before realization hits.
My physical healing from a devastating disease is not what God is ultimately after. A greater spiritual healing needs to take place, letting go of whatever it is that separates me from God. This has been the aftermath of surviving leukemia; the tsunami following the earthquake. There is a long list of what separates me from God, mostly things involving surrender, which I do not do easily or gracefully. Pride, independence, control, my self-focused nature; whatever it is I feel I have earned or deserve.
In truth, I deserve nothing. Yet I was given the very thing I begged for while sitting in a dingy hospital room having just been diagnosed with leukemia and unable to breathe. Please, God, please. Let me see my little girls grow up.
I believe the journey for spiritual healing and connection with God is the journey of a lifetime. As long as I breathe, I will give thanks for abundant grace and pray for the wisdom to recognize it, absorb it, breathe it. Grace.
Photos are property of Vicki Wolfe