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  • Writer's pictureLisa McIntire

This cake doesn’t look like much. In fact, it isn’t much. It’s a simple flourless torte from one of my dog-eared cookbooks. Before cancer, I might have baked this little gem on any given Sunday afternoon.

When I was healthy and living my full, active, happy life, doing things I loved – like baking, walking, and reading—was just a natural part of my routine.

I took these pleasant pastimes for granted, and it didn’t occur to me they could be stripped out of my life all at once.

But waves of nausea, debilitating fatigue, dizziness, blurred vision, and numbness in my hands and feet made the simplest of daily tasks, like eating and showering, feel like monumental feats. Anything beyond basic personal care seemed like a long-lost luxury.

Add to that the loss of daily rhythms and social connections, and life suddenly seems small and senseless. You wake up one day and you’ve morphed into Cancer Girl. Cancer Girl spends most of her time and energy going to doctors' appointments, managing side effects, recovering from the latest treatment or procedure, and preparing for the next.

Her dreams and goals seem a million miles away.

Cancer Girl doesn’t surrender on purpose. But the losses—her hair, her strength, her resolve—come at her fast and furious, twisting her perspective and squeezing the lovely parts of her life into the recesses of her mind.

Sometimes taking our lives back – from sickness or sadness or stress – looks like slowly but surely reconnecting with the simplest parts of ourselves, the parts we used to retreat to instinctively when we were young.

It means trusting that the girl I, or you, used to be – the one who loves to bake and laugh and nurture – is still in there. She just needs to be rescued.

And this rescue mission starts with one simple step:

In a small saucepan, combine the butter and chocolate chips and melt over low heat.

  • Writer's pictureLisa McIntire

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to being bald.

I knew it was coming, and I even had a few weeks to mentally prepare. But I’m still having a hard time accepting it.

I have a wig that my friends swear looks just like my natural hair. I’m sure that’s true for them, and I’m thankful for options that give women with cancer dignity and some semblance of normalcy. But no matter how natural it looks, it feels tight, hot, itchy, and well, fake.

My mom was in town, and we needed to run a couple of quick errands. So, I decided to suck it up and take my head covering for a test drive. It was the middle of the day in the middle of the week. This would allow me to ease in. Besides, this cancer journey is going to be a long process, so I might as well embrace my new reality.

And it didn’t take long for that reality to come crashing in on me. As fate would have it, I saw someone I knew as soon as we stepped inside the store. I instinctively waved to her because I forgot for one second that I was bald. Her facial expression said it all – part shock, part sympathy – before she darted her eyes away. A wave of hot shame washed over me.

The truth is, I’m ashamed of being bald. I’m ashamed of being sick.

For now, this is the cup from which I’ve been asked to drink. The best part of me wants to drink it down smooth, trusting there will be sweet at the bottom of this bitter. But I’m just not there yet.

I hid at home the rest of the day, licking my wounds, feeling sorry for myself. Poor Cancer Girl.

Mercifully, my pity party was cut short by my two-year-old grandson bounding through the front door. I wear my wig whenever I’m with him, so my baldness doesn’t scare him. But I didn’t have warning this time, so I just froze in my cap, took a deep breath, and pasted on a fake smile.

Beckham’s blue eyes shined against his sun-kissed face as he jumped into my arms. “Hi, Mimi! I missed you today.” I hugged him hard, waiting for the inevitable quizzical looks and rapid-fire questions that never came.

He didn’t even notice my hair, or lack thereof. He just saw me.

His daddy died tragically just a few weeks before my cancer diagnosis, so we’ve all experienced our share of shock and sadness lately. Sometimes even one day at a time seems like too much to bear.

But Beckham hasn’t stopped living, and he’s teaching all of us important life lessons in the midst of adversity and grief.

He hopped down, grabbed his favorite Mickey Mouse toy, and squeezed it tight, which makes it play “the hot dog" song. His face lit up when he heard the music, and he wiggled and writhed to the rhythm of his favorite tune. “Come on, guys. Let’s dance!” he squealed.

The last thing any of us wanted to do was dance—my 70-year-old mom with a polio leg that makes even walking painful; my daughter, exhausted from working and caring for a toddler; me taking chemotherapy.

But Beckham wasn’t having any of our excuses. As far as he was concerned, we were going to dance! And so, we did.

Four generations grabbed hands, gathered in a circle in the kitchen, and danced our hearts out.

He cheered for us and gave us all high fives each time the song ended as we did our best to emulate his energy and enthusiasm.

Thirty minutes later, we were all happy and worn out. But we were also changed. If Beckham can dance in the wake of his daddy’s death, I can dance with cancer in my body and no hair on my head.

Because the truth is that this moment on this day of this life – for however long it lasts and however twisted the path becomes—is the gift we get. And laughter and love are still ours for the taking even in the midst of anguish and uncertainty.

I still don’t think I’ll ever adapt to being bald, but I sure can get used to dancing in the kitchen.

  • Writer's pictureLisa McIntire

Because I’m working with two healthcare providers, insurance took even longer than usual to approve my chemo treatments, which means my start date was in limbo too.

But finally, after delaying the start date twice and a flurry of phone calls since early morning, insurance gives me the go-ahead 15 minutes before my appointment time. The moment has finally arrived.

I'm a nervous wreck, darting around the house frantically gathering my chemo supplies: the Lidocaine prescription my friend said to apply to the port site before they poke me, wireless earbuds to help me pass the time, a cardigan for the cold chemo room, and all the courage I could muster.

I’ve never been so eager to do something so scary.

I’m shaky but determined. The nurse outlines the process. Since I’m a newbie, I will occupy the seat of honor directly in front of the nurse’s station. They will administer the drugs more slowly so they can watch me closely for reactions, she explains. I nod, - numb.

She assures me that Steve can come back for my first treatment. But after that, due to COVID restrictions, no visitors are allowed except for quick lunch deliveries.

Knowing Steve will be by my side, like he has been for the past three decades, calms and comforts me. We’ve already been through so much. Surely, we can get through this together too.

I check in at the front desk and ask again – just to be sure – that he can come back with me. Yes, the receptionist assures me. He can sit with me the first time. After that, I’m on my own.

Twenty minutes later, the door swings open, and my name is called. We stand – together – and walk toward the door. But this nurse stops us and explains kindly but matter-of-factly that Steve can't come back since they can't accommodate physical distancing in today's packed chemo room.

Her words land with a thud in my aching heart. WHAT?! But he’s my support person. He’s my PERSON person. He’s my safe, my steady. I don’t want to walk through that door without his hand in mine.

Everything in me wants to stop cold in my tracks, cry, scream, argue, and remind them that they PROMISED he could come with me the first time.

Instead, I just lower my head and let his hand slip slowly out of mine, like a child leaving her mom on the first day of kindergarten, as hot, salty tears roll down my cheeks.

I feel like an alien visiting a different planet as I shuffle past the rows of sick, sleepy cancer patients. My heart aches with empathy for each of them while my brain reels in disbelief that this is now my reality.

It is a strange dichotomy unlike anything I have experienced before: I want to be there for them, but I don't want to be there for me.

Carrie, my nurse, guides me to my plastic recliner and drapes warm blankets around my shaking shoulders and legs. Then she starts the process of hanging bags of drugs that drip slowly into my IV. This is the moment of truth – awful and anticlimactic all at once.

Cancer can't be denied. My life has taken a cruel twist, and I have to make the same choice that every person whose life takes a cruel twist must make. I can resist and dissolve into self-pity and bitterness or I can accept this is what God and life are asking of me during this season. It’s that simple and that difficult.

The tears drip down my face as rhythmically as the toxic drugs drip into my veins. I feel so violated, like I've been kidnapped from my full, active, happy life and taken against my will to this strange and scary Cancer Land.

I feel so alone.

But the reality is I'm not alone. Steve wasn’t there, true. But Jesus was. He promises to always be there—not just present but close and compassionate, even—maybe especially—when we can’t feel Him.

And as difficult as it is to accept, I wasn’t kidnapped and taken to Cancer Land. I was led there – for reasons I don’t understand now and maybe never will.

But God promises that ALL things (even stints in Cancer Land) work together for good for those who love Him. Anyone can bring good from good. Only God can extract good from bad. I’ve watched Him do it many times.

That truth doesn’t negate these seasons of suffering that all humans experience. It just makes them full of possibility and purpose.

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