The Sixth Blessing of Cancer: Greater Strength Through Suffering

After 6 months of treatment, I have finished two stem cell transplants. I am giving myself a sticker that says, “I can do Hard Things.”

Suffering is not a fun word. No one really looks forward to it. Most of us go out of our way trying to avoid it, but suffering is part of the human experience.

I ask myself why suffering is completely necessary. Why does personal growth have to come with such a high price tag? Why can’t my test of character come on a Mexican beach with ceviche, chips and an umbrella smoothie? I’ve been there before, and I LIKED it.

But all of the truly great people who have experienced suffering say the same thing about adversity:

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Helen Keller

In the middle of the suffering, I did not want to hear this. It seems a bit too rah-rah for such a hard moment when I was simply thinking about survival. During the low times, I just want to get through the suffering and be reassured that people love me. Although I know it is true, I don’t want to be told that opposition means growth or that adversity is for your own good. But after some suffering has subsided, I can face the truth. Lying motionless in an infusion room has taught me more than the lying on the beach.

A church leader once said that there are four types of adversity: 1) Adversity created by our poor choices 2) Adversity created by the poor choices of others 3) Adversity that is the “common lot of man” like death and disease, and 4) Adversity that is a personal tutorial for each of us individually.

The last six months started as the “common lot of man” adversity, but has truly become a very personalized set of challenges, growth and instruction. The result has been the receiving of hidden gifts. Suffering for me has produced four outcomes:

First, true suffering broke me down to my foundation. What would I rely on during the hard times? My level of mental, physical, moral and spiritual strength was tested and measured. My beliefs were tested and tried. My foundation was revealed and I clung to it with all my might. My foundation was first my faith. It was steady and sure, even when I wasn’t. My foundation was also a heavy reliance on my family and friends, who gave me great service, support and encouragement.

Second, after the initial shock wore off, suffering required that Paul and I act. Sitting on the beach, it is easy to hypothesize about how I would react to a cancer diagnosis, how I would treat my doctors and nurses, or how much I would really complain, but the infusion room is the Real Deal. There is no more “maybe I would…”, there is only action and choice. “Enduring well” without self-pity was the goal. We chose a treatment plan out of several options: herbal medicine, moderate long-term chemo, or two back-to-back bone marrow transplants. We made decisions to have Paul and the kids go back to Mexico. I agreed to show up every day for treatment. I agreed to more pulls during a bone marrow biopsy in the name of genetic research. Paul moved his office into the house. There were other actions we could take – We could complain about our circumstance, or not, and we could reach a breaking point and break, or not. Suffering required action on our part.

“Action is character,” says F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fortunately or unfortunately, the third outcome was a display of character. Our actions showed what we were made of. While we have tried our best, times of trial always reveal areas where we are already strong, and areas where more work is needed. Strengths and weaknesses are both exposed. I could feel about 5 weaknesses being addressed all at the same time through the same trial –  a crash course of growth. Exposing the Real Me was a barometer of character and the exposure revealed our core thinking about how to live life, but my display of character mattered only if I remembered the fourth outcome: learning.

“The reward of suffering is experience,” says Harry S. Truman. The last and ultimate outcome of suffering for us was to become smarter and wiser, but only if we chose to see it. Anne Morrow Lindbergh wisely said: “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable” (“Lindbergh Nightmare,” Time, 5 February 1973, 35). Perhaps it is not the process of simply enduring the trial, but in the process of overcoming the trial that we gain the experience. 

I see the value of our suffering. We gained confidence and experience in our decision-making and in our trials. The move of Paul and the kids to Mexico was the right choice. The treatment at Huntsman was the right choice. Moving forward with faith was the right choice. Worry, which was natural, seemed to always be the wrong choice. The simultaneous demands of my health and work pushed us to a level of concern we had never seen before and it forced us to expand our capacity.

My brother-in-law’s severe leukemia and death almost six years ago prepared both Paul and me for what is required today. The highs were high, the lows were low, and the stress was unimaginable. The deep effects linger for his wife and six children, whom we love dearly. The learning for all of us was permanent. The trial prepared us for my cancer. We are calmer, smarter, stronger and more discerning. There are actions we would repeat. There are actions we would avoid. We were forced to mature and so we did, because we had to.

Call me slow, but I can’t learn every lesson the first time around. Supporting David and Tonya through his cancer helped to prepare us. The two back-to-back stem cell transplants were the same, but I learned radically different and important lessons during each transplant.

I don’t like pain and suffering, but I have seen it’s purpose and I am forever changed by it. I hope I am becoming good timber as described in this poem:

Good Timber

The tree that never had to fight

For sun and sky and air and light

But stood out in the open plain

And always got its share of rain,

Never became a forest king

But lived and died a scrubby thing.

The man who never had to toil

To gain and farm his patch of soil,

Who never had to win his share

Of sun and sky and light and air,

Never became a manly man

But lived and died as he began.

Good timber does not grow with ease,

The stronger the wind, the stronger the trees.

Douglas Malloch (or unknown)

The last six months have been painful but productive. Anything I have given up has been generously recompensed to me in greater compassion for the suffering of others, greater gratitude for simple things given to me everyday, greater patience to endure just a little longer, greater appreciation for the love shown, and greater confidence in my ability to do hard things.  I have tested out my foundation and have found it to be secure and dependable. Knowing that the Savior descended below all things gave me an immense sense of comfort and awe for the Atonement.

In hitting severe lows, I have also given myself mental permission to have greater joy in the highs. I want to smile more, sing at the top of my lungs, learn to dance the salsa, eat flourless chocolate cake and empanadas without guilt, meet fascinating people, visit a Mexican beach with ceviche and a smoothie, and embrace every high with greater enthusiasm. Beyond the experiences of self, I have learned how true joy comes – tending to the needs of others.

Our trial has been preparation for the future, personal instruction, and productive growth. There will always be more suffering, but it will make us become better. I have gained strength and will be ready for what is to come.

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The Fifth Blessing of Cancer: More Powerful Prayer

The kindest words anyone can say to me are: “We are praying for you.”

Family and friends are praying for me. My name is on temple prayer rolls. A Pentacostal group in Greenville, South Carolina is praying for me. A Presbyterian group in Salt Lake is praying for me. Sharon’s mom’s prayer group in Wisconsin is praying for me. Many Catholic friends in Mexico are praying for me. People I hardly know tell me that they are praying for me.

Being on the receiving end of this many prayers is new for me and it has completely changed the way I view prayer. I am changed mostly by the way I feel physically. When people say, “I am praying for you,” I respond, “I can feel it.” Their prayers are giving me joy, a physical sense of peace, and a comfort I can only describe as a substance. It is not just a feeling, but a physical presence that feels like tangible matter surrounding me. It is a physical display of a spiritual idea. Your prayers support and uplift. They cheer me and comfort me. Prayer works.

I will never pray for other people in the same way again. I now have greater confidence in the tangible reality of the support that is provided through prayer. My increased faith in prayer makes my prayers more fervent when I ask for blessings for others.

Actually, the entire nature of my prayers have changed during these two transplants. Before cancer, it was easy for me to fall into patterns when it comes to prayer – repetition, distraction, or presenting my “wish list.” But building a relationship with my Creator takes serious effort, “Prayer is a form of work,” (Prayer, BD) I am told. Cancer’s blessing is more powerful prayer.

I have two assumptions when I pray. The first is that God loves me and wants me to be happy. The second is that He wants me to grow as much on my own as possible and wants me to use my free will to do the growing. He offers a condition with a promise: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). The responsibility lies with me to do the asking, seeking and knocking.

With these two assumptions in place, my prayers have changed in three major ways. First, my prayers have changed in intensity. An intense cry for help was my first prayer. Cancer had my attention.We had much to gain or lose by the decisions we were making about my treatment and the kids. The decisions were literally life-changing for every family member. We were at a new level of complexity that warranted a new level of intensity.

The nature of my prayers also changed. Now, they are more conversational. I still use terms of respect like Thee and Thou, but I open my heart and  share everything as I would to a close friend. I describe the situation as a whole; the factors that exist, the possible options, and the decisions we’ve already made. When I am at a loss, I have become very good at saying, “I don’t understand with my limited perspective. Please teach me.”   I am counseling with my Counselor.

Lastly, I have more gratitude in my prayers now than ever before. You would think that I would have more requests than gratitude during a health crisis, but the opposite has been true. I have noticed more about what could have gone wrong but hasn’t. I went through three rounds of chemo during an entire fall season and into the winter without a cold, flu, or sore throat. I have not contracted pnemonia, something that I caught 3 times in the last winter I was in Utah. Our children have thrived, even during a time of great stress. They are doing well and have been safe. Work has progressed steadily and stressfully, but well. I have been very aware and grateful for all of the support and love from family and friends that has made this whole thing possible.

How have my prayers worked so far? Like I said before, I can feel the support from prayer. My prayers have in many ways been answered by the angels around me – the family and friends who have tended to our many needs. When it comes to receiving answers, I have learned much over the last few months. I rarely get answers to prayers in the moment of prayer. It is when I get off my knees and start the seeking process that I will run across a great talk, a song with words that inspire, advice from a friend, or a scripture that gives me my answer. I have learned the most in the last few months by the answers not immediately received. Sometimes I felt like I was praying but not being heard. In some cases, I already had received an answer and I was praying for constant reassurances when in fact I needed to trust in the answer I had already received. “Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:23)

For answers still not yet received, I realized that it was a timing issue when I wanted the answer now. I am working on patience and I am slowly getting better at it. He has a plan that involves more people than just me and I can see His hand in the work happening around me.

While I wait, I will continue to pray.

Thank you to all who have been praying for me. I am eternally grateful for your faith and your love.

I will forever pray for you during your times of struggle and challenge and I know my prayer will be heard and answered .

Sisters

If you have not yet seen my favorite Christmas movie this season, it’s high time break out the classic, White Christmas. My kids tell me that people don’t burst into song in real life, but maybe life should be more like a musical. Music has a way of healing souls.

“Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters…” My sisters fit this description perfectly.  My older sister just came into town to help me for 5 days and it was so nice to have her here. This illness is giving me more time to spend with my sisters, which is time I am treasuring. We all have busy families and getting together is hard, especially with a sister living in California and our family in Mexico. Cancer is giving us reasons to get together, serve one another and enjoy each other’s company.

These are my sisters – the girls who have helped shape my life.

I looked up to my older sister and wanted to learn how to become a beautiful girl by watching her. I noticed how she did her makeup, how hot rollers worked, and how she dressed. She has a great sense of style and could easily design and sew her own couture prom dress. Her sewing inspired me to learn how to sew as well. She taught me by example how to make beautiful things. She still brings me beautiful things and after this trip, I am the owner of a fabulous pair of red Christmas flannel pajamas. Thank you, Karen!

She also led the way in cooking exploration. She built on Mom’s basics and tried new things. It is because of her that I ventured into trying new dishes every Sunday until I learned how to be a better cook. Her cooking abilities have served me greatly. During all of her visits, she has made me delicious and healthy food and has stocked the freezer with perfect soups and meals just for cancer patients.

My younger sister was my pal at home. When we were younger, the only thing she ever wanted was my attention. When I practiced the piano, she would jump around the corner and push the lowest key and then jump back behind the wall. She would repeat this exercise until I jumped off the piano to chase her down and give her the attention she wanted.

We would spend hours in the backyard just hanging out and talking, eating half gallons of ice cream with spoons out of the carton and making fun of high school social scenes. While our metabolisms have slowed down, our friendship hasn’t. She is now the one giving me a great deal of attention, even though she has a family with 5 of her own children to attend to.  She has been a great source of comfort and cheer during this treatment. Seeing her often has been so much fun, even if it is in the infusion room or during a stem cell transplant. She is my pal and has brought me everything from food to blankets and has even taken over my knitting fiasco project. Most of all, she is a listening ear and great company. Thank you, Sondra!

How grateful I am for sisters!

My Sister’s Hands
My sister’s hands are fair and white; my sister’s hands are dark
My sister’s hands are touched with age, or by the years unmarked
And often when I pray for strength to live as He commands
The Father sends me sustenance in my sisters hands.
And yet I know that should I mourn, I need not weep alone
For often as I seek His grace to lighten life’s demands
The Father sends me solace borne in my sister’s hands.
My sister’s hands: compassion’s tools that teach my own their art
Witnesses of charity within the human heart
Bearers of the Savior’s love and mercy unto man
I have felt the Master’s touch in my sister’s hands.
Sally DeFord

Nurturing the Nurturer

I started my chemo on Friday. I have to say that last week was really tough. Coming back to Utah for a second transplant is a bigger emotional transition than I expected and every stress in our life, from work to health, is peaking in the month of December. Why does everything come all at once? This is a subject for another blog, but I keep wondering why I can’t just have cancer for 6 months and have nothing else going on, for crying out loud.

I took a few days to go through a disgusted and irritated stage, then an angry stage, then a feel-sorry-for-myself stage. I don’t think spending extended time in these stages are very healthy, so it pushed me to either wallow or search for answers. My forced, but active search is paying off slowly. I am finding the answers one piece at a time. If the stress and strain is good for anything, this week it made me consider this:

If women are the great nurturers of the world, who nurtures the women? Men can be nurturing in their own way, but women have an innate talent for noticing the emotional and physical needs of others around them and tending to those needs. When Mom is the one needing attention, what’s a girl to do?

As I asked the smart women around me how they deal with this question, they helped me find three answers I was looking for – nurture your marriage, nurture your friendships and nurture yourself.

Nurture your marriage. Paul is my best friend and is the one I turn to for support. This week I learned that getting the support I needed from my him would depend on me pinpointing what I was feeling and being very detailed in describing what I needed. Paul and I think differently and he is not a mind-reader. I was struggling with the many issues of cancer, but I was having a hard time describing what was making me upset. His first instinct was to fix the problem. I had to talk it through. Once I was able to isolate what was bothering me, I was able to describe what he could do for me that would be the most meaningful to me. Then we were able to work through it together.

As I talked with my friend Georgia about nurturing one another in marriage, she told me about a marriage researcher named John Gottman who’s work was featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, blink. She says she is in love with this insightful Jewish man. For any marriage, his work is fascinating. I collect good material on families like some people collect stamps, so I share this because it is great information.

Dr. Gottman says he can determine with 90% accuracy whether a marriage will last longer than 5 years. His research has lasted over 35 years and involved over 3000 couples. They have couples from all walks of life come into a room and discuss happenings of the day and then issues of conflict. If the heart rate of the individuals stay at a raised rate during the discussion, they have a 90% chance of divorcing within 5 years. If their heart rate is normal or drops, they have a 90% chance of staying married. How calm or gentle they were as they were conversing was the leading indicator.

All of the couples had issues to deal with, but how they dealt with them determined their success or failure. The masters of relationships were gentle in bringing up issues and took responsibility for being potentially part of the problem. The disasters wanted to “fix” the other person and wanted to be thanked for their efforts in correcting the defects. Good relationships assumed friendship and respect. They asked open ended questions, like “What do you think about…?” or “How should we handle….?” They assumed that the other person is fundamentally good, not flawed and in need of criticism or fixing. The masters used affection, humor, and positive emotions. The disasters used criticism, defensiveness, contempt (superiority) and stonewalling (listener withdrawal).  The masters could go through conflict, but could repair it.

He told a story of pitching his book to Random House in a group meeting. He wanted the attention of the marketing director in particular, but this director appeared to be the least interested. In a bored tone, the director asked, “In one sentence, how does your book help people?” Dr. Gottoman said, “Well, the book contains a lot of helpful information, but if I had to say it in one sentence, it would be ‘Do you know your spouse’s hopes and dreams?'” Immediately, the director got up and left the room. Dr. Gottman thought, “Well, that didn’t go so well.” He learned later is that the director left his Manhattan office, drove home to Brooklyn and walked in the door of his home. His wife asked, “Why are you home, did you get fired?” He told her no, looked her in the eye and said, “I really want to know. What are your hopes and dreams?”

Nurturing my marriage means that I know his dreams and he knows mine.

Nurturing your friendships. The gifts of women shine like diamonds to me after this experience. I find great support in calling my smart women friends, talking through ideas and listening to their counsel. They offer comfort in different ways than men.

I am grateful for my membership in the world’s largest women’s organization, the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This society’s mission is to provide relief to one another, and also to provide relief to those around the world. How I have needed this relief. The women I know and have served with in this church group have provided unbelievable support. They have brought me dinner, taken me to lunch, sent me notes, visited me and sent inspiring material my way. They lift me and relieve suffering. What a great society.

Women are naturals at nurturing and nourishing. They give attention, offer food, listen, show love, pay attention to details, set their own needs aside for a time, and offer help and support. They are perceptive to what is going on around them. I have relied heavily on such remarkable women, especially being away from my family. They are sources of wisdom and comfort and I hope I can return the love. It is time well spent nourishing friendships with women.

Nurturing yourself. My friend Pamela in Mexico City called me and said, “God is telling you to rest.” I awkwardly mumbled something about how 6 kids don’t let you rest, but she is right. In a normal time, I need to spend time and attention nurturing myself, and now even more so.

To me this means spiritual nurturing – taking the time to read scriptures and spiritual talks, listen to uplifting music, and pray. This is how I center myself and gain mental strength. These things give me the right perspective and a sense of purpose.

To me this also means recognizing my own hopes and dreams and spending time achieving them. This is very hard to do while tending to a family, especially with young children. But if I set my dreams aside or ignore them, it is easy to become a victim or martyr. If they are not important to me, who will they be important to? I realized that no one was going to do this for me. If I was waiting for permission or validation, I was waiting in vain. Now I am revisiting my list for my life’s purpose and mission. Being a wife and mother was on that list. My sister said that in elementary school I drew a picture of me, my spouse and our six children all turned and facing the sun. In my journal as a 15-year-old I wrote about wanting a family with 6 children. One of my life’s dreams has come true. The others will come, but only if I define them and go after them. I have a responsibility to nourish myself.

These three answers; nourishing my marriage, my friendships and myself brought me great joy this week. We will get through the rest as it comes, one day at a time.

(For more on Dr. Gottman, you can watch clips of his videos on You Tube like this one. It comes in 4 parts. His material is terrific.)