a pastor’s wife writes about breasts and dangerous women… fair warning

 we women have a complicated relationship with our breasts, as my sister so aptly (and hilariously) described to me in a text early last week.  she’s right- i’ve had a tangled and confusing 36 years in this body.

in my LATE blooming teen years, i longed to have a body worth noticing (or at least one that appeared different from that of an adolescent boy).

in my ‘good little Christian girl’ years, i rode the line between modesty, impropriety, and frumpiness- misunderstanding the beauty of how God created women, our bodies, and the sacredness of sexuality.

in my childbearing and breastfeeding years, i cared for and tried to cover the swollen, leaking monstrosities, despite the fact that my daughters adamantly refused to have a cover over their heads while they nursed.

in these most recent days, when my breasts turned on me and tried to multiply harmful cells much too rapidly… i didn’t know exactly how to relate to my body.  in cancer treatment, you lose your hair, your skin may rebel (blisters, sores, dry patches), your nails may discolor and fall off.  you may have a part or all of your breasts removed.  you may have your ovaries and uterus removed.  all of these parts of me- the parts i had hoped for and cared for, the parts God carefully formed before i took my first breath- all of these were suddenly at risk.  these parts that make me woman. beautiful. a life-creator and sustainer. cancer made them vulnerable and fragile, where before they were strong and resilient.

we learn a different appreciation of our bodies as we age… and yes, i know my years aren’t so many yet.  but i have lived a great amount of life in these 36 years. you’ve let me into your days- you’ve let me live them with you and add your years to mine.  those hours and days and years of your life- your joy and suffering- i’ve absorbed these into my memory, into my soul. they are a part of me now, and i will never again be as young as i appear.  so these physical losses?  the aged skin, the enormous scars, the flesh lost forever- cut away in life-saving effort?  those are not so devastating as i imagined. they are parts- they are not me.  i look at you and i remember:  i have more than my share, more than my 36 years-worth of life already within me.

 today i am stripped free.  no ‘pretty’ parts of me to draw away from who i am made to be: woman. bald, scarred, and breast removed… i’m a woman still with purpose and promise.

i don’t feel like my womanhood has been taken from me.  my hair will return, my fingernails will regenerate, and i will have a reconstructed breast- even returned to it’s original location, several inches above where pregnancy and nursing pulled low and sagged down.  i will appear feminine again in time, but i won’t be the same.

i will not shrink back and apologize and squeak ashamedly that i am too much to bear.

i will see my place in His story- know that i am enough- qualified and anointed to step forward and speak up.

i will be terrified and uncomfortable and feel unworthy, and i will do it- speak it- write it- anyway.

i will step onto the path in the darkness- i know the most breathtaking sunrise can only be seen if you take to the trail at midnight.

i will make room for you, sisters- welcome your years into my own- invite you to add your strength to mine.  we are so much more when we are one.

i will be the word i am both longing to and afraid to claim: DANGEROUS.  i will battle by filling cups, unburdening hearts, shining Light, breathing Freedom.

in all that has been stripped away from me, i see the power that God gives to us, to His women:  we are made to cultivate life and nurture and sustain each other.  we are strong, and we can hold each other up to the Light.  with or without breasts, we are Life givers. whether our bodies are now or ever have been child-bearing, we are fertile- able to join our lives to each other, add our years together, multiply Love by decades and generations.

i can think of nothing more beautiful and dangerous than that, sisters.

IF Local and The Barn 02-06-15

IF Local and The Barn 02-06-15

IF Local and The Barn 02-06-15pictures by Bailey Mohr of Beautiful Mess Photography, LLC!

happy, practical, and somewhat informative things written while high on pain meds…

i got her call in the afternoon- friday the 13th (!!!) of March.  “rachel, you’ve had a complete pathological response to chemotherapy.  we didn’t find any cancer in your lymph nodes or in the breast tissue we removed.  your cancer is gone- the chemo worked.”  that was my surgical oncologist- she has been the bearer of so much bad news in the last 6 months, so i’m thankful she got to share some happy news this time, both for her sake and ours.  she has also been the best listener, the most patient with us, and the only physician i’ve cried in front of through this process.

truthfully, i haven’t cried very much.  a little bit the day of my diagnosis (september 11, 2014)- alone in my adirondack chair in the sunshine, i cried out of fear and dread of what was to come.  a moment of tears while discussing my treatment outlook in this same surgeon’s office- overwhelmed with the heaviness of it all.  a few instances of crying among friends when i described my terror at the prospect of having to go through more chemo after surgery. but no tears through all the months of scans and tests and chemo and sickness… i know that seems strange, but i can put on my practical face when i need to, and tears are just not practical when you already feel like garbage.  tears make you feel worse- headache, runny nose, ruined make up.  and falling apart doesn’t accomplish anything, so why bother?  (i know- i sound like i’m made of stone.  i do feel things, but i’m pretty good at stuffing them down where no one can ever ever ever find them.  Unikitty, anyone?)

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but yesterday?  after shakily walking to the kitchen to tell my mom what the doctor had said, i called matt to give him the good news:  it worked. i don’t need more chemo.  (he was returning bottles at the store, so he hugged Dave, the shop owner.  i’m sure Dave was thrilled.)  and then i cried. and cried and cried and cried.  i’m crying now, because there is just no end to my relief.  y’all- chemo is survivable. i will walk with you through your chemo, should you ever need it, and i will swear to you up and down that you can do it.  because you can.  but it is insanely awful- beyond my ability and desire to describe to you.  and though i could have made it through more (i know i could have), the mental and emotional strength to face it again would take a miracle.

i have friends facing it again.  for themselves, for their spouse, for their child.  you will be given that miraculous strength.  i know.  and i will sit with you as you receive His strength.

i prayed in extremes, beginning with trust in His power to heal and belief that He would heal me.  then i flew to the opposite extreme- trust that He would carry me through the news of more cancer, more treatment, more months of feeling worse than awful.  mostly i sat in silence with Him:  “i don’t know what You’re going to do, and i’m afraid to hope that You will heal me. i believe You can, but i’m so scared You won’t.”  it’s okay to say these things to God. it’s okay to not know, to not feel confident.  He wants our hearts just as they are, not all shiny and perfect and saintly.  He just wants us… every part of us.  Pour out your hearts before the Lord?  He is  refuge for us?  okay.  yes.

and today?  tons of relief that i’m not facing more chemotherapy, friends… i can’t tell you how good it is to know that those months of sickness actually did their job!  but i’m not done with all this yet.  i’ve just had my mastectomy (OUCH), and the subsequent surgeries to reconstruct my breast and maintain the health of the newly stretched skin  (GROSS) will take place over many months.  i will also have radiation (25-30 short sessions) to further reduce the chance of recurrence.  i will have ongoing treatment with Herceptin for the rest of this year, and then ongoing hormone suppression and treatment (Lupron and Tamoxifen) for the next 10 years. i am discussing the possibility of hysterectomy, since i’m already in early menopause- the verdict is out on the potential advantages. and  without going into all the medical specifics, my cancers have the unpleasant habit of coming back, especially since i’m relatively young and have many more years for it to potentially return.

cue the debbie-downer music… the practical side of me rears it’s annoyingly reasonable head.  the long road of treatment is not completely over, and i’m not assured a life free of cancer.

but i don’t have cancer right now, and the light seems brighter today.  all the plans put on hold last Fall seem like new possibilities again.  all the energy and passion i longed to pour into you-my baby friendships here in our “new” home-  are floating up to the surface (we are now over a year here, but i spent half of that time in my home, hiding from germs). i can dream again- 1 year, 5 year, 10-20 year hopes for anything and everything.  and despite the fuzzy, disconnected feeling of the painkillers (so necessary, but so annoying!), i’m dreaming big and wild and intense and so so so thankfully.  so ready to be present with you in LIFE, friends.

and now i’m pretty sure the hydrocodone is taking over… so i’ll stop trying to make sense.  thanks for loving us, everyone.  

tea and champagne

i have always loved the end of the year… truth be told, i’m a closet contemplative.  generally a task-oriented, list-making organizer, i set aside that part of me and gather up all my dreamy, ‘what could be-ness’ and let it flow.  remembering, reviewing, re-grieving, re-celebrating… the regrets and ‘should haves’ pile up, but there is great satisfaction in the ‘we did it!’  the ‘look how far we’ve come’ is powerful in my heart, in my prayers.  naming my disappointments and successes gives voice to my thankfulness. i take time to know:  this year was a gift, in both the most painful and most radiant days.
i usually enjoy the anticipation of a new year, too:  admiring the fullness of the bottle we’re about to crack open and taste for the first time, wondering what will come bubbling out when the cork is popped.  like great champagne- crisp and sparkling over lips and tongue- the year before us is magically fresh and tastes like opportunity.  not resolutions, not calendar planning, not the to-do list.  those are a separate matter, and the organized ‘listy mclisterson’ in me can’t wait to put pen to paper and color-coordinate all the specifics.  i love details, but those aren’t the magic.  it’s the life that’s going to happen in the new days- there is so much possibility to be uncorked!  something about the turning over of the calendar makes all this so much more compelling, and i love being swept up in the grand, hopeful celebration of it all.
this year is different, of course.  finishing the year with breast cancer wasn’t exactly what i was planning when i turned the calendar from ’13 to ’14.  i would  desperately love to say 2015 will be chemo-free, but it will not be. i’m beginning the year with 2 more rounds in the hope of eliminating the cancer completely before surgery.  i want that- i want to give my body the best chance of getting past this disease. somehow spending the close of the year looking ahead to more poison just doesn’t lend itself to expansive dreaming and expectant preparations for the year to come.
it doesn’t feel like magic this year.  i don’t have the champagne tingle of anticipation as i see 2015 around the corner.  for the first time that i can remember, i would like to fast forward to next winter.  i want to be on the other side, where i can (hopefully) look back on cancer and chemotherapy and surgery and radiation and reconstruction with tired, thankful memories. i want it behind me. onward, upward to the purposes i’m meant to live out- the life that will happen after cancer. 
and there’s the lie, did you catch it?  in my ‘all or nothing’ mentality, i crossed my God-given purposes off the list for the next year and replaced them with cancer. i convinced myself that i was out of commission for gathering, equipping and unleashing myself and others– that God wasn’t going to use me this year.  as if i’ve fallen into a void of uselessness because what i thought i was doing has been derailed.  as if God didn’t know this was part of my life story- ‘oh, that’s too bad… i had such hopes for rachel’s life.’  that’s not His voice, not His way.
i wanted to be closer to the end of breast cancer so i could keep on with the plans already in progress.  and they were His plans- i still believe that.  there is nothing wrong with where i was heading or the dreams i was pursuing… but now it’s on to something different. as Jennie Allen said as she accepted His purpose for If:Gathering, “it’s going to be different… it won’t be a tweaked version of old dreams. these are new and scary and uncomfortable dreams, but they are from God. He builds things like this… people don’t.”  
I have a lot of cancer days ahead.  more treatment days. sick days. many surgery days.  healing days.  that’s a lot of todays that i could assume i have no purpose- no part in the largeness of God’s great story of drawing people to Him.  a lot of todays that i could take for granted as meaningless- ‘today i don’t matter because i’m sick’- looking forward to someday, when my life matters again.  
but God whispers:
 {today matters as much as someday}

so that’s where i begin 2015.  it doesn’t feel like the champagne-sparkling hope of years past.  not the same sweet, nose-tickling, ‘raise your glass’ anticipation. from here, 2015 appears to be a season of watchfulness. listening. quiet,  abiding, ‘warm tea by the fireplace’ comfort in knowing He hasn’t counted me out of His story.  my todays still have meaning. so i will turn the calendar and simply be awake and present for an as yet unrevealed purpose. 
may this calendar-turn bring you both 
hope and comfort… 
sparkling champagne wishes and warm tea dreams
to all of you, my friends!