THE PATHWAY FORWARD
The Death Zone (in mountain-speak) is when you reach altitudes in excess of 26,000 feet. At this height many things can happen, including severe temperature drops, high winds, low oxygen levels, and frozen terrain that can cause slips and falls. In the wise words of Wikipedia, when you’re in the Death Zone you “face significant challenges to survival”. Many people don’t make it down alive, and with good reason. I knew I needed to make that journey through the death zone – it was simply unavoidable. But I didn’t know just how deadly the experience would be.
In the very same breath that I was told my results from the lymph node surgery, I was also told by my team of specialists that I still needed to undergo aggressive treatment in the form of chemotherapy, radiation and hormone blockers for 5-10 years. Their reasons were simple enough to understand from a medical perspective: Because I was so young, and had so much more life to live, they wanted to make sure I had the best chance to put this cancer to bed once and for all. Because the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, there was a chance that the cancer cells had traveled through those nodes around my lymphatic system, and were just hiding out waiting to impose themselves on other organs (metastatic cancer).
We all know cancer is a nasty little bugger and it takes just one little rogue cell to stage a comeback and start a war. This treatment package was supposed to help mop up any rogue cells, and reduce the chance of local recurrence. It wasn’t guaranteed, but if the cancer came back at least I could say I did everything possible and in my power to prevent that from happening. The alternative was not a nice thought.
DESIGNED TO KILL
Chemotherapy is a very scary prospect for many reasons. There are many raging arguments for and against Chemo, but I’m not even going to attempt to open that particular can of worms. That would take an entire chapter!! Basically, chemo is the standard treatment our mainstream medical profession uses to fight cancer. In their eyes there is no alternative, you either do it – or sign your own death certificate. Of course I still had the choice, but I only had to take one look at my kids to know that I would do anything and everything to fight this disease, even if it ended up killing me. Because the truth is, chemo can kill you. This cocktail of drugs is literally designed to KILL, and it has no personal preference. The job description for chemo is to kill cells – good cells and bad cells – it doesn’t distinguish. Obviously the experts are relying on good healthy cells to grow back by themselves, and the cancer cells to stay dead. That’s the theory anyway, and they would argue that most of the time it works according to ‘said theory’.
But there are other dangers with chemo, including heart problems, allergic reactions, and of course the thing that can really get you – your non-existent immune system. When your immune system is that low, or doesn’t exist at all, anything can be the death of you. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
THE ART OF WAR
I have to say for the most part I remained fierce in my approach as I scaled that ugly mongrel of a mountain and pressed on in my quest to reach the top. I was a soldier in a war that was much greater than breast cancer and I knew it. It was my duty, not just to my family and friends, but to myself and most importantly to my God, to fight with everything that was placed within me. I had to advance at all costs and claim each patch of grass or rock like it was gold. One of my most favourite blogs entitled “The Art of War by Rebecca Tereu” talks about how by its very definition, 'WAR' does not consist of one big battle and then BAM it’s all over. If that were the case it would just be called a fight. No….. WAR involves the big picture, countless scenarios, and many battlefields. And while there may be a feature fight where most of the damage is done and victory or defeat is declared, it never ends on that one battlefield. Even after the main event there are still skirmishes as the victors work to claim or reclaim their territory.
This is the way I saw cancer, in fact this is the way I saw life in general. As hard as all this sounds, and as dire as it may look, I saw it like this through the lens of hope. I was able to shape this hope-infused perspective through my belief and faith. It really is the only thing you can do! Sun Tzu summed it up nicely in his legendary version of The Art of War;
“The great warriors of old not only won victories, but won them with ease. Because their victories were achieved without apparent difficulty, they did not bring them great fame for their wisdom, or respect for their courage. Being prepared for all circumstances is what ensures certain victory, for it means you are fighting an enemy that is already beaten”.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not for one second trying to convince you my battle was “easy”, but there was a special kind of ease involved in just knowing that the enemy had already been beaten and all I had to do was be a good soldier.
You see, I’ve come to learn that if you give your life to Christ then you can be assured the War is over – because your life has already been won. It doesn’t mean you won’t fight other battles while you’re living, but you can rest easy knowing the General has already declared victory and now we just have to deal with the skirmishes. As soldiers on the battlefield, we already know the skirmishes aren’t easy…but at least we are assured of ultimate victory.
I was on the high paths now, and looming right up ahead was the death zone and I have to admit - I was freaking out more than a little! In fact I spent an awful amount of time trying to fight off and deflect the poisonous arrows of fear that were coming at me hard and fast. The battlefield was getting bloody, and the worst of it hadn’t even begun. Chemotherapy would ensure many of the soldiers in this war would be severely injured, if not killed. This particular skirmish wouldn’t go away for some time, and would likely drag on until exhaustion became the deciding factor. Six months of pure grind loomed ahead and I was not looking forward to it one little bit.
Because of my dodgy heart, I was given the option of choosing between two drug cocktails. The first would take 6 months of my life and there was evidence that this chemo may adversely affect the heart. The second option would only take 3 months, and was said not to affect the heart. However this chemo was also the harder drug and it was, in essence, the equivalent of taking a double dose of chemo (half the time, double the dose). The choice was clear for me – do it hard for three months and hope it didn’t kill me in the process. I liked the idea of being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel sooner. It gave me something to focus on and hope for. I didn’t like the list of symptoms given to me to study up on, in fact most of what I read was pretty unbelievable. But there was no going back now. I had committed my army to this location and we couldn’t, or should I say wouldn’t tuck tail and run!
THE ANTIDOTE OF LAUGHTER
One way our family likes to deal with life is to laugh at every opportunity. Suffice to say there are lots of jokes and mocking in our household! Admittedly we can be quite inappropriate with our humour but it never hurts anyone, so no harm done. The night before my first chemo we all sat on my bed as I endeavoured to prepare my family for what I was about to go through. I didn’t want this part of the journey to side swipe and shock them, especially my daughter, so I decided full transparency was the best strategy. I began by reading out the symptoms and side effects which were horrendous really, until we came to the part that talked about “bed linen that is soiled with bowel motions should be handled with disposable gloves”. My husband looked at me in horror and said “so what they’re saying is that you could crap yourself in bed - while I’m sleeping next to you? You realise I could roll into that aye? My hand could literally touch it” at which point we all cracked up laughing and started crying hysterically as we attempted to role play the scenario. Honestly we must have rolled around on that bed in tears for a good half an hour. It was hilarious! Yes, laughter - even in the face of terrifying revelation - is sometimes the best antidote. Ahhh but back to the serious stuff….
The hard truth is, those three months were literally hell on earth. Actually it was more like 4 months as it took several weeks of recovering from my last dose. Bit like pregnancy when they say it's 9 months and by the time you’re ready to pull that baby out yourself, you realise it’s actually 10 months and the system set you up big time. Part of me wants to bust out the positivity right now and assure you that it wasn’t all bad – that there were many lessons, blessings, and miracles bestowed upon me and my army during these hard times, and while this may be true – I respectfully refuse to dismiss the other side of this picture so easily. To do so would be dishonouring and insensitive to the brave women who have gone before me and suffered beyond words. The truth is it felt like I was going to die. And the fear!!….creeping at first, then roaring in my ear drums until I couldn’t make out anything else. This was something I wrote in my blog which attempts to explain the feeling;
“It begins by pinching your emotions, like those nasty little fish with the sharp teeth that dart in and come and take a nibble out of your flesh, before swarming in on you once they get a taste. You're stripped to the bone, and nerve screeching raw before you even know what the hell hit you. The stark realisation that you are at the mercy of a deadly poison quickly becomes all consuming. By the time you finish the chemo session it's literally flowing through every single one of your veins and invading every single one of your cells for the foreseeable future. It’s in there now, and it’s unstoppable, and even though you bought the fare and climbed aboard - you can't stop the train and ask to be let off. It's a one way ticket so you have only one choice. Hang on for dear life and cling to every ounce of hope and faith you possess. This is real. This is as real as it gets. It's a hard...nail destroying, finger-tip bruising, knuckle aching grip. You spend most of the time desperately clinging to faith when your body is screaming questions at you”.
Yes, the battlefield was truly traumatising with more than a little blood spilled. I lost myself many times over whilst in those trenches. I became nothing, reduced to begging for my life on a daily basis. Not even the life I had, just the right to live without pain and death banging on my door! My desire was simple enough, but mostly unavailable to me as I travelled through the death zone. Such truth brought a level of perspective that I suppose would never have been bestowed if I didn’t have to climb this part of the mountain. This is going to sound crazy to some of you, but I can’t even bring myself to regret this entire journey for that reason alone.
There’s something about pain and suffering that opens your eyes a little bit wider and forces the doors of your heart to open uncomfortably. You don’t think too much about it at the time because you're so desperate, and desperation trumps comfort. It’s in this place of vulnerability that many people find God; at rock bottom, with no place else to go and nowhere else to turn. It’s a sad reality, but at least we have this opportunity. When we feel that level of pain something a little bit special happens. Our eyes open and we are able to connect with something that eludes us when our lives are on cruise control. What that something is - is unique to you and your journey, however, one thing I can tell you that happens to many people walking through their respective valley’s and up their mountains is they become desperate for help. We are more likely to reach out and ask for help when we are struggling and in pain, than we are when we are sitting on top of the world (or mountain) feeling all independent and self-sufficient. God meets us faithfully in those dark locations and often this discovery alone is worth the pain. A hard truth to admit, but easy when you experience it for yourself. It’s in that place that intimacy and authentic relationship is formed with your Daddy God. A priceless result that eclipses all other results, and ultimately worth every step.
For this I am truly thankful. Thankful that there is a way for human pride, hurt, stubbornness, bitterness, resentment, hate, unforgiveness and so on to be conquered outside of our own strength and will. Thankful that there is a way for all these things that separate us from hope, to lose their flavour and grip once we hit rock bottom. They lose their power over you because in that moment you realise none of it matters. All that matters is there is someone to save you. That someone could actually save you is a miracle and worth reaching out to as you thrash around and drown in misery. That this someone is the only one that can save you, and whatsmore, restore and reform you. No, I don’t regret this process and this opportunity. It gave me access to a whole new level of life - a miracle worth talking about and sharing with you to be sure!
There was one particular campsite that I came across which was difficult to see and even more difficult to comprehend. While the most difficulty lay in the incomprehension factor, the biggest issue became the unspeakable factor. Even now it’s difficult to speak about. While removing part of your womanhood is an obvious consequence to breast cancer, and by my own definition - does not define you and is not the end of the world - it's the dangerous unseen effect on our souls that drills deep over time and has the ability to perpetuate until the issue of depression or PTSD raises its ugly head. Removing that part of your womanhood is one thing, but being left with an ugly reminder, or replacing it with something that hardly resembles your original self (an implant) are two difficult pills to swallow in one go. And if that wasn’t bad enough, losing your dignity in the process is like someone twisting the knife in for good measure.
When I look back upon this journey of shame, I can honestly say I’ve lost count of how many people have seen me exposed and vulnerable. Dozens of Doctors and their eager beaver trainees, Nurses, CT scanners, MRI scanners, Oncologists, Surgeons, District nurses, Radiologists and everyone in between. So many people have seen me laid bare and vulnerable – it's almost inconceivable. To be continuously vulnerable is a dangerous thing, and so many women, including myself, find it much easier to disconnect or disassociate themselves from that part of their body. Especially when that part is no longer completely you. Disassociation is the mind's way of coping with something it's not ready to deal with. Although you may be mentally and emotionally disconnected from the actual situation, the symptoms can be self-disgust, resentment, self-hate, and low self-esteem. Not loving or even caring about yourself is a common aftereffect which can lead to depression. All these things happen in the dark corners of your own mind and therefore may be hidden from anyone who even cares enough to look twice. It’s a sneaky insidious companion that leads a blindfolded you to an obscure campsite. This campsite, or at least the stench of this campsite, can follow you like a bad smell that sticks to your clothing as you continue on your journey.
WORDS AND WATER
One thing I’ve learnt in the process of dealing with that campsite is this; while our thoughts may constantly be under attack, our words don’t have to submit to those fiery darts. Words are powerful and hold a key to either life or death. Just because a horrible thought enters your mind doesn’t mean you have to speak that horrible thought over your life (or others). So for example, just because I may think I look disgusting, doesn’t automatically mean I should say so. You can try to change your thoughts, and I would encourage you to do so, but the opposite can also be true and just as effective. If you speak words of life over yourself, your thoughts will eventually catch up. Those words will replace the ugly thoughts eventually, until your thoughts learn this new habit and a beautiful life giving cycle begins. This is not an airy fairy new age thing. You can find its roots in the bible; Proverbs 18:21 “Words kill, Words give life. They are either poison or fruit – you choose”.
It’s not easy to break the cycle of thinking negatively about yourself, let alone speaking negatively - but it is possible and completely vital to freeing your body from the toxic flow and influence in your life. There is scientific evidence proving that words can have an effect on you at a cellular level. Remember what I said about epigenetics and how cells have memory? Well that’s just one consideration. Then there’s the fact that our bodies are made up of 70% water, and if you head over to YouTube and search up: Dr. Masaru Emoto, and you will have your mind blown regarding the effect spoken words and music has on water molecules. Emoto believed that emotional "energies" and "vibrations" could change the physical structure of water. He provides evidence of this in his New York Times bestseller book “The hidden messages in water”.
What I’ve been thinking about (without reading this book but just watching his findings on YouTube, reading the reviews and using common sense) is that if our bodies are made up of 70% water, then imagine the good or bad we are doing to it just by speaking negativity over our lives! Once again it’s not some airy fairy freaky deaky conspiracy theory, it's scientifically proven. Consider these things next time you decide to listen to death metal or speak words of suffering over yourself. Even submitting to the thought(s) that your body is going to fail you is detrimental to the healing process. Something I’ve had to really challenge myself with!
When people talk about chemotherapy, the first thing that comes to mind is hair loss. This subject seems to be the one most talked about and feared. But I can tell you right now, losing your hair – no matter how beautifully long and lush it may be – is NOTHING in the grand painful scheme of things. I know us ladies think our hair along with our breasts and ovaries are the epicentre of womanhood, and it’s no wonder we think this way considering the world we live in and all its expectations and judgements, but the big bottom line question will always remain; are you still YOU without your hair? Or does your hairstyle define who you are in this world? Same with your breasts and anything else you think represents your womanhood. The obvious answer is of course not. Not by all means an easy answer, just the obvious one. Nevertheless, the issue of hair loss is a sensitive one for us women, and most women are genuinely affected and scarred by the process. It’s really not nice and that’s putting it mildly.
Personally, I had two issues with losing my hair. Firstly, I promised my mother that I would never cut my hair. Not because I am a hair person and can’t stand to lose it, but because that was one of the last promises I made to her and I have honoured that my whole adult life. I took that promise seriously, especially in the wake of her death because I knew that it meant something to her. Subsequently I have had super long hair my whole life and I couldn’t even imagine what I would look like without it. Many women who face hair loss by way of chemo decide to take matters into their own hands and chop it off themselves. This is one way of feeling like you have control of the situation. I decided to take that control myself and with the help of my hubby, platted up my tresses and took to them with a pair of kitchen scissors. It was one of those bittersweet cry-laugh moments that we won’t likely forget ever.
Secondly, it was just a daily reminder that I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death – AND climbing a ginormous mountain at the same time. It was a daily reminder that I had cancer and cancer was trying to claim my life. That’s all. And it was ugly…let's not forget that. But that was the least of my problems! Just getting through each day, especially the chemo days was all I could really focus on.
Want to read more? There are 11 more chapters in this book!! Go and get them right now!
Rebecca Tereu, otherwise known as 'Bex', has been passionate about writing and reading for as long as she can remember. Married to husband NIkolai, and mother to sixteen year old Faith and six year old Kohen, Rebecca also runs a business consulting firm as well as writes every chance she can get.
Purpose Driven is a deeply personal account of my journey facing cancer and the multitude of challenges that accompanied it.
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Favorite Blog Titles
The Art of War
Atreyu, Angels & Pills
Rest in heaven Joey
Chunking the elephant
How thankfulness can save your life
From the bottom to the top
The case against 2017