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Living With Hope

by Kelly Strahm

Hope is not the first word that comes to mind when you hear those three dreaded words "You have cancer". It was April 2006, when I first heard those words. They were spoken, matter of factly, over the telephone, the results of a biopsy taken several days before. I was 30 years old, less than two years into a new marriage with the man of my dreams. I had a good job, many friends, and a whole life in front of me just waiting to be lived. When the telephone rang, I dared not answer it. As long as I didn't pick up the receiver, I wouldn't have to accept this unsolicited and wholly unacceptable intrusion into my life. But like the proverbial salesman who simply refuses to leave, the phone kept ringing; and when I finally did answer it, and the message was delivered, it certainly was not hope that I was feeling. Instead I felt fear of a disease I knew little about, other than it was spoken of with hushed voices and shaking heads.

I felt anger about why this should happen to me and asked myself, "What could I have possibly done to deserve this?" I also had a sense of wonder as to how this could've happened at all; there is no family history and I've never smoked in my life. Besides, I'm too young -- every show I ever watched or article I ever read said so.

After a few days I decided that a little hope was in order. After all, you find the tumor, test the tumor, remove the tumor and go on with your life, just like the celebrities profiled on those Hollywood gossip shows. But days later, hope took another blow. I had a CT scan taken of the entire body which revealed suspicious looking spots on my liver. This was followed by a liver biopsy. The doctor performing my procedure assured me that there was nothing to fear, and insisted that I would feel nothing more than steady, firm pressure, followed by a short period of moderate pain, something akin to a punch to my side. The thought of being punched was not pleasant, but it was tolerable. What was not tolerable was the actual sensation of being skewered like some unlucky cube of sirloin, followed by days of feeling like I had been assaulted with a jackhammer. Lying nearly immobile on my bed, I wondered what this new test might reveal. It all seemed too much to deal with at one time. I was paddling my raft across a stormy sea, in danger of foundering. I was surrounded by surging swells and swirling spray, and I never saw the approaching tidal wave.

That wave broke several days later. The biopsy proved that my liver was covered with cancerous lesions. The cancer had spread from the tumor in my breast and was coursing, unabated, through my body. My disease was now classified as Stage IV Breast Cancer, incurable, terminal. It was the end of the line. Next, I learned that my mastectomy would be delayed indefinitely, so I wouldn't need to undergo the pain of surgery after all, a small consolation. Of course it's delayed, why perform surgery on someone who is going to die soon anyway, at least that's what I was thinking. But I wasn't giving up yet.

With my oncologist's blessing, my husband and I traveled to Rochester, Minnesota to seek a second opinion from the renowned Mayo Clinic. The trip north combined the reverence of a religious pilgrimage with the hopeful anxiety of a trip to OZ, in search of the "wizard" who might cure me. We loved Rochester with its tree-lined streets, small-town feel and that Minnesota accent that held an appealing musical quality to our Kansas ears. Even in those dark days, there were bright spots of love and kindness. Like the "Hospitality House" run by a local Baptist church, where Mayo patients could stay during their treatments. Donations were invited, but not required. I chose the room named "Faith" without knowing that the word faith would become very important to me the next day.

The next day we experienced what I call the "Mayo Marathon". To me it was like being repeatedly subjected to an airport style check-in. My husband was flashing back to his induction into the military. Long lines, hundreds of forms, the same questions in triplicate and plenty of lab work; all while carrying my baggage of medical files. Finally, I was sent to the Oncology floor of the main building. My finish line was a patient consultation scheduled for late that afternoon. I arrived at the waiting area, and fear was there, waiting for me. He'd been with me the whole trip, but up to then had been screened by the frantic activity of the previous few days. My husband and I were called back. Wearing a white lab coat and a blank expression, a pleasant looking woman began explaining that she and other specialists had reviewed all my records and the results of my tests. They concurred with the diagnosis, bad news. They also agreed with the planned course of treatment, good news. I wanted to leave it at that. Hey, we had come out with a 50-50 split, a tie game, and that was good enough for me.

But I had to know, so I asked the question no one ever wants to ask a doctor, "So how long do I have left?" The response was without emotion and almost seemed rehearsed,

"One year, most likely; maybe two, five years, if you are extremely lucky. Either way, short of a car crash, your cause of death will be Breast Cancer".

There it was, recited back to me like the terms of a bank loan. We left the Mayo Clinic and returned to the hospitality house where I remember looking at the room named faith and thinking if ever there was a time to have faith it was now. For me this meant that I would need to rely on God and trust him like I never had before. As we left Rochester, I desperately clung to my faith and a verse God gave me "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." It was a sad and miserable trek back to Kansas. It was filled with headaches and upset stomachs, punctuated with bursts of bitter tears. Tears for the years not spent with my new husband and stepchildren. Tears for the trips to the beach that wouldn't be taken, the house I would never own, the holiday parties never hosted, the life that would go unlived. For some people, this is where the story ends. Hope dies and is buried under a mound of anger and self-pity. For me, this is where the story really begins. I chose not to bury hope, but to nurture it and let it inspire me. I have had a lot of help along the way.

My oncologist, one of the most amazing doctor's I have ever known, thoroughly explained his strategy to me. Due to my age the cancer would be aggressive and unrelenting, so we had to respond in kind. He would take the fight to my cancer and give it no quarter. He detailed the health risks and the high level of discomfort that would likely result. That is not to say he was not concerned about quality of life, in fact, it has always been his primary concern for me. We would sacrifice some comfort in the short term to provide for significantly enhanced comfort, not to mention longer life, for the long term. So for the next six months I took my chemotherapy treatments intravenously. Every Monday morning I would show up to sit in the chemo chair for up to 8 hours and a couple of hours the next day. My whole life was now scheduled around my "chemo". Not that there was that much to schedule. I was constantly fatigued and in varying amounts of pain. I lost my hair and my appetite. I was thankfully spared the perpetual nausea that I had heard was a staple of most chemotherapy.

But I had chosen hope, and hope inspired me to learn and adjust. I shopped for a wig like most women shop for party dresses. I learned to plan and perform everything from excursions for groceries to house cleaning in short bursts. I read a lot of books that I always wanted to read. I was no longer working, so now, instead of swapping kisses as we passed each other through the front door, my husband and I spent hours of quality time together. We talked about our dreams, shared jokes and discussed the evening news and yes I even learned to like politics.

I was encouraged to join a support group, but I feared going to this unknown group with unknown people. Yet, something was pushing me to try it out, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I found a place where people really understand what it is like to have cancer. Where people feel free to share their joys, fears, anger and regrets. It is also a terrific clearinghouse for information regarding new drugs and treatments, and for tips on negotiating today's health insurance landscape. Best of all, my group promotes hope. Here we learn to concentrate not on how to die gracefully from cancer, but to live gracefully with it! I believe so strongly in the benefit of support groups, that I have started one of my own, targeted to survivors who are in Stage IV. There are certain things only those of us with "the worst case" can really relate to. The name of my group is Living With Hope.

So, what has my hope gotten me? Well, I'm still here 2 years later. After completing my heavy-duty chemo, I was able to go ahead with my mastectomy. My treatments have been so successful that my oncologist says my progress borders on the miraculous. I have returned to the beach and celebrated several more anniversaries. Distant family relationships have been restored and I have made many new friends.

It is not all roses and rainbows. One drug I take causes agonizing pain in my bones. I am a 32 year old woman living in the body of a 90 year old. My chemotherapy drug has knocked down my cancer, but has also damaged my heart, which is now showing signs of abuse after nearly two years of treatment. There are the friends I have lost, leaving me to wonder about the strange life or death lottery that is cancer.

And there is the dark shadow that sometimes encroaches upon the many bright days I enjoy and cherish. The cancer is still there, and I know one day my doctor will tell me what I don't want to hear, that it is growing again. But that's okay, it really is. I have my hope back and it is growing stronger every day. I will live with cancer for the rest of my life, and I will choose hope every day of my life. I live for today and hope for the future. As a breast cancer survivor, I choose to live with hope.

Kelly Strahm is a happily married 32 year old who was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer at the age of 30. She resides in Kansas with husband Ken, and due to cancer has taken an "early retirement" from her career in special education. She enjoys the outdoors, dogs, reading, spending time with family, church, and anything as long as her husband is near. Cancer has certainly changed her life, and she now values every day as a gift and finds joy in the small things all while hoping for a cure.