Denise Day Spencer

March 22, 2006

Like the night my house was burning (part one)

Filed under: Personal reflections — denisedayspencer @ 4:06 am

Perhaps I should blame the whole thing on Ash Wednesday. For the past several years, I've gone the traditional route and have given up something for Lent. First, food items (but nothing I was truly addicted to.) Then, jewelry (but I still wore my wedding band, and tiny post earrings so my piercings wouldn't close up.) You can readily see how dedicated I am to this proposition.

This year, I found myself in our church on Ash Wednesday and suddenly realized I'd not given any thought at all to what to give up. I sort of offered up a half-question, half-prayer. And then I remembered the phone call.

Two days before, I'd received a phone call from my doctor's office. An abnormal mammogram had been followed with an even more abnormal ultrasound. Now they were wanting to refer me to the University of Kentucky Comprehensive Breast Care Center for an evaluation. Somehow that sounded serious. Very serious.

"Control." That's the word that popped into my head. I should give up control for Lent. I've always been way too controlling, particularly in my marriage, and lately in my relationship with God. I'm basically a quiet person. Most people who know me would never peg me as someone with control issues. But I want things to be my way, because I'm convinced that my way is the best way. "I may be facing cancer," I thought. "What better time to give up control?"

And so began one of the strangest spiritual and emotional journeys of my life so far.

I had a week and a half between the phone call and my appointment at U.K. At first, that in itself was maddening. It's the uncertainty, the not knowing that will drive you insane. But I came to treasure those days. They were a gift of sorts. They gave me time to think, to mentally process what was going on, to imagine the worst. And imagine the worst I did.

For some reason, my brain worked backward. I began by thinking, "What if I'm dying?" My son is graduating from high school in May. My daughter is getting married in June. Would I be around to see my son finish college? Would I live to hold my daughter's first child? What would it be like to know I was dying at age 49?

Then I focused on the cancer. It's an ugly business, cancer. Cells that nobody invited to the party clumping together into tumors and taking over healthy muscle, tissue and nerves. Surgery that maims the person for life, followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation that leave her bald, weak, and sicker than she ever felt before. A friend recently told me about his wife's radiation therapy. He summed it up simply: "Radiation was hell." I can barely tolerate a sinus headache. How would I deal with that level of suffering?

Lastly–or so I thought–I realized that if I did have breast cancer, I would likely lose some or all of a breast. I have a couple of friends who have had mastectomies. I've thought for a fleeting moment or two–because no one wants to think about cancer for more than a fleeting moment or two–"What if it were me?" I had somehow thought that this would be the least of my worries, that it really wouldn't matter that much as long as the surgeon saved my life. But suddenly it mattered. A lot.

Twice I had nightmares, dreaming that I was lying in a hospital bed the night before my mastectomy and I couldn't stop crying. During waking hours the feelings from the dreams would return, and I would close myself up in the bathroom, alone and sobbing. I've never been well-endowed. But they're mine, damn it. I like them. I don't want to lose even part of one. It seemed somehow barbaric to think of a surgeon hacking one off. A male surgeon, no doubt, who had never nursed a newborn baby at his breast.

Early on, Michael, out of the blue, told me that he never wanted me to worry about what he would think of me or feel toward me if I had a mastectomy. "I mean," he said, "that wouldn't even be an issue." Bless him. I know he meant it. But would he still feel that way if it actually happened? How could he really not care? "How could any man really not care?" I wondered.

In every phase of fear, I realized that I had absolutely no control. Over whether I lived or died. Over whether or not I had cancer. Over whether or not I would lose a breast. So far, this Lent thing was working out really well.

And through it all, I had one solace: the sovereignty of God. I knew that if I did have cancer, it would be because He had allowed it. And I knew that if He allowed it, He would see me through. Not necessarily heal me. Not necessarily give me an easy time of it. But He would see me through to the end, whenever and whatever the end might be.

It was like the night my house was burning. I sat outside in a friend's truck with our two children and our Scottie dog. Black smoke billowed out of the windows and the back door. Because the fire had started from a gas leak and we feared an explosion, we simply fled, taking nothing but our lives. In that moment I knew that everything we owned was likely to be lost. And in that same moment I knew that as long as I had Christ, He would be enough.

Yes, those days of waiting were a gift. They gave me time to ponder. To grieve. And to trust my God. (to be continued)

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3 Comments »

  1. […] My House Was Burning Part 1 Like My House Was Burning Part 2 Link to this entry| […]

    Pingback by internetmonk.com » Blog Archive » Like My House Was Burning by Denise Day Spencer — March 25, 2006 @ 6:00 pm | Reply

  2. Denise, I didn’t know you had a blog! I’ve enjoyed reading your husbands for about a year now, and I’m delighted that I can read yours now too.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story in such a personal and honest way. I haven’t faced anything like that yet–I’m 25 and healthy so far as I know–but I did experience losing my mother to an mysterious disease when I was 18. I wish I knew more about what she felt at that time, but I’ll have to wait until heaven to know.

    God bless you. You are a wonderful writer!

    Comment by Hannah Im — March 25, 2006 @ 10:23 pm | Reply

  3. “It’s an ugly business, cancer. Cells that nobody invited to the party clumping together into tumors and taking over healthy muscle, tissue and nerves. Surgery that maims the person for life, followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation that leave her bald, weak, and sicker than she ever felt before. A friend recently told me about his wife’s radiation therapy. He summed it up simply: “Radiation was hell.” I can barely tolerate a sinus headache. How would I deal with that level of suffering?”

    Wow. I am 5 years out from my fight with cancer… I’m literelly speechless at this… Radiation WAS hell. I’ve never felt so… much. I don’t know how to even explain it… God has spared me so much, so much I don’t remember…

    …and I think… how much more he suffered. When I thought I was barely hanging on… and wanted to just give up and die… he suffered so much more….

    Comment by Ronni — March 29, 2006 @ 8:17 pm | Reply


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