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Apr8MonA survivor chronicles the hurdles and emotions of an unexpected battle. April 8, 2013 by Lt-Colonel Sandra Rice
It was an ordinary day; a good day. I had just arrived home in Toronto after spending a day with cadets and staff at the College for Officer Training in Winnipeg when the phone rang. I heard my doctor's voice on the line. I had recently undergone a battery of tests, but expected nothing but a positive report. “Sandra, we have the results of your tests. Are you sitting down?”
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Thus began my unexpected journey with breast cancer.
Preparing for the Road Ahead
I had walked alongside others with serious health concerns many times over the years. That's what we do as officers. It was a comfortable role for me after 30 years of service; in fact, I counted it a privilege. I had, however, never been the patient. For the first time in my life, I felt vulnerable and uncertain of what the future held. Never before had I felt my own mortality so forcefully. Life had changed and would never be the same again.
Immediately after my diagnosis, my sister encouraged me to read Psalm 62. Yes, I truly believed with the psalmist that God was my rock and salvation, but would I prove the promise that “I would not be shaken”?
I was also directed to A Place of Healing, a book by Joni Eareckson Tada. As one who had journeyed through “deep waters” herself, Eareckson Tada wrote candidly about her experience of pain, confusion, vulnerability, fear, loneliness and isolation in a manner that resonated with me. She also bore witness to Christ's faithfulness in the midst of her suffering and I found myself praying that God would enable me to walk this path in a way that honoured him.
A New Reality
I received my diagnosis in the final days of my brother Wayne's life. He was losing his battle with cancer and I anticipated a call to return to Newfoundland at any moment. As my cancer was quite invasive, my medical team recommended an aggressive treatment regimen that was to commence with surgery in early December 2011. I was grateful that I had just recently visited Wayne and we were able to spend meaningful moments together. While my heart's desire was to be with my family for the final goodbye, the coming days were no longer mine to control. I was compelled to trust God for what lay ahead—and his timing was perfect. Wayne passed away on November 25 and I was able to join the family for his funeral. I returned home before the scheduled date of my surgery with the added blessing of the company of my sister, Lt-Colonel Myra Pritchett. Her time and care over the next several weeks were a special gift that will ever be appreciated.
This was an especially difficult time for my parents. My heart ached for them, knowing they remained in Newfoundland to grieve the passing of their only son with the added concern of my well-being. I will never know the full extent of their suffering as they showered me with love and attention from afar and silently carried their sorrow in order to encourage and bolster my spirit for the days ahead. Reciprocally, I mustered my strength and courage when speaking with them in order to protect them from the reality and uncertainty of what was to come.
The first surgery was unsuccessful and within two weeks I was readmitted to the hospital for further surgery and spent Christmas quietly recovering. In the new year, I received an encouraging word that the second surgery was more successful.
In February, I began chemotherapy treatments and soon learned that each day would bring the “unexpected” and “unpredictable.” Unfortunately, I had an adverse reaction to the first treatment and found myself in the emergency room. Truthfully, the reaction was so severe that I don't remember much of this part of the journey except that it was shared by my friend who accompanied me. I am grateful that the medical team was able to adjust my dosage so that the remaining rounds were “tolerable,” albeit unpleasant.
By the second week, I lost my hair. I suspected it would come, but it happened one morning with little warning. By noon, I had lost it all. I confess this was one of the more shocking moments for me—thus deserving of at least one afternoon at home (smile)! For me this became an ever-present reminder that I had cancer. I had purchased a wig in preparation, but found myself very self-conscious and uncomfortable so my mother lovingly knitted me several “chemo caps.” There were a variety of colours—some even co-ordinated with my uniform! It took several weeks to find the courage to be seen without the wig or cap, but “comfort” eventually overtook “pride” and I spent the early summer without any covering.
Sixteen treatments of radiation would follow chemotherapy, which would then be followed by a five-year regimen of oral medication.
I am now 18 months beyond that original diagnosis. My hair has grown back—and, surprisingly, I bemoan the fact that it now takes longer to get ready for work and I'm spending money on haircuts again. My body has been permanently changed. My energy level is still adjusting. I have aches in joints that I never experienced before. I have known sickness to such a degree that I questioned whether I had the strength to persevere with treatment. I have wondered what impact my health may have on my officership. I have worried about the impact of my sickness on those I love.
This, however, is only part of my journey.
Faith and Friendship
In the midst of the suffering, I have been showered with blessings.
I drew strength from the courage of my fellow sojourners. I had the privilege of passing many hours in the company of women walking a similar path to mine as we sat together for treatments. My ordeal pales in the face of others, but I found in these women a courage and zest for life that was inspiring.
I received exceptional support from my health-care team which continues to this day. It is humbling for one as independent as me to release control to others, yet the team has not only been professional, but also personal, assuring that I am always treated with dignity.
I have been overwhelmed by the encouragement and care from the community of believers. Love took on many forms. My colleagues stepped into the gap at the office, taking on additional work without hesitation, always quick to offer assistance in any way needed. There were surprise arrivals of a beautiful quilt and prayer shawl to keep me warm during treatment. Meals were delivered to my door. Flowers and fruit baskets arrived to cheer me as I recuperated at home. Notes, e-mails, phone calls and cards arrived at just the right moment when encouragement was needed. Regardless of the circumstances of the day, I was continuously reminded that I was blanketed in prayer. Family and friends made themselves available to walk the journey with me. These gifts were not “coincidental.”
I have a deeper appreciation for the value of each moment of my life. I understand more personally that “though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). I am so grateful for the reminder that, “Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken” (Psalm 62:2).
While cancer has been unexpected and I acknowledge that each person's story is unique, God is using my own journey to broaden my perspective on life, deepen my sensitivity to the journey of others and strengthen my trust in him. With the songwriter, my heart sings:
Find rest my soul, in Christ alone.
Know his power, in quietness and trust.
When the oceans rise and thunders roar
I will soar with you, above the storm.
Father, you are king over the flood.
I will be still, and know you are God.
(Still, written by Reuben Morgan from Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia)
Lt-Colonel Sandra Rice is the secretary for personnel of the Canada and Bermuda Territory.