How to Keep Smiling

I like people. I smile. I laugh at corny jokes. I watch too much ESPN. I enjoy my job. I’m hopeful and optimistic. I appreciate the present. If becoming a psychologist has taught me anything, it’s the importance of knowing one’s self. And I know myself pretty well. This is me.

Well, this was me before cancer entered our lives. And to be honest, this is still me despite the past three months. Even after being told that my wife of four years wasn’t going to see our son go to Kindergarten, that we would never celebrate our 10th anniversary, and that I would ultimately be a widower, not much had changed in who I am as a person. I still like people. I still smile. I still laugh at corny jokes. I still watch too much ESPN, am committed to my job, am hopeful for the future, and appreciate the present. I’ve kept on moving, not missing a beat.

It wasn’t until recently that I figured out how I have been managing to keep on smiling.

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you about peace, acceptance, or some other self-actualized characteristic. I’m supposed to tell you about how I’ve found peace in having the next five years with my wife and have decided to cherish those moments. Or how I believe God will heal her eventually, either on earth or through death. But, those would be lies. Had you asked me though I probably would have given you one of those answers. The truth is simple though.

I gave up on my wife.

I began imagining her funeral, readying myself to become a single parent, and envisioning a future alone. I found my peace in surrendering to cancer and I had begun the grieving process. I was confusing acceptance with resignation.

We had conversation after conversation that all ended the same way, with Sarah dejectedly saying, “You just don’t get it, Jordan.” She was right. I didn’t understand it and the only thing I was getting, was angry! I was doing everything right! I was being a supportive partner– I told her that I would fully support whatever treatment she selected. I never pressured her. I was comforting and sympathetic. I was fully prepared to accompany her through the final five years of her life as a committed and loving husband. I even started a blog!

But, I wasn’t getting it.

You see, from the beginning of our journey God has been intimate with Sarah, telling her that He’s “got it,” and the Holy Spirit has given her a supernatural peace. Sarah was trying to help me see God’s power, hear His promises, and accept His healing. But I was too busy waving the white flag of surrender to realize it.

Luckily for me, I am married to a woman with a warrior’s spirit and serve a God that has never broken a promise.

When I last wrote, back on January 29th, Sarah was beginning radiation treatments. After receiving three of the 30 prescribed radiation treatments, she discontinued all medical treatment on February 3rd, 2015.

Sarah and I recorded a little video where we discuss the decision to end treatment and are excited to share it with you all soon!

Also, Sarah has been recording her insights and revelations over the course of this journey and uploading them to Youtube. You can check them out here:

The Decision

Life is full of prescribed responses.

You bump into someone- “Excuse me.”

Someone gives you a gift- “I love it.”

You see a newborn baby- “How adorable!”

But there are no prescribed responses for the moment an oncologist looks at you and your wife and says, “My goal for you is five year survivorship.” At this point, I should’ve known better and worn a chest protector to this appointment. Maybe then, his words wouldn’t have been able to hit me with enough power to force the air out of my lungs.

I told my body to breathe, but nothing happened. His words slowly dripped into my ears again and again. Soon they weren’t words, merely letters. Letters that became only sounds as I frantically tried to strip them of their meaning.

Survivorship? What does that even mean? Maybe it doesn’t mean what it sounds like. I asked him to clarify. It means just what it sounded like. He’s giving her five more years of life. He’s giving me five more years of a wife. He’s giving our son five more years of a mother. He’s giving her family five more years of a daughter and a sister.

He must not know we’re good people!  He must not know we have a one year old son! He must not know we’re Christians and how many times I’ve prayed! He must not know that THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN TO PEOPLE LIKE US!

…he knew. Cancer just didn’t care.

He gave the treatment recommendations as outlined by current research and best practice guidelines, “Radiation and chemotherapy. We treat this as aggressively as possible, if not you’ve got two, maybe three years.”

Sarah sat silently as I asked question after question. Within every question was a silent plea that he would end this miserable game and give me the answer I wanted, the answer I prayed for, the answer I deserved. He never did. T

he moment he walked out of the exam room and the door closed behind him, Sarah calmly stood, slowly slid her arms into her coat, and said, “This isn’t it.” For weeks Sarah had been researching alternative cancer treatments, from naturopathic medicine and antineoplaston therapy, to dietary treatments like the Budwig protocol and Gerson therapy. Alternatively I had been fully committed to chemotherapy and radiation. These are the standard, evidence-based, treatments for cancer. Why wouldn’t we follow them?

Sarah had her reasons, and the reasons made sense. She couldn’t wrap her mind around the thought of having chemotherapy and radiation treatments at such a young age, especially with the potential of long-term side effects including infertility, memory deficits, and secondary cancer.  Unfortunately, meeting with the oncologist only reinforced those worries and doubts. He didn’t believe conventional treatments could cure her, only delay the inevitable.

The night following this appointment was one of the hardest for me, but one that had to happen nonetheless. For the past two months my hope was in the doctors, medical treatments, and science. I didn’t need faith.  I didn’t need God. He had done His part. But I couldn’t stand on medicine any longer.

That night, as we sat in our big comfy chair and cried, I found the place Sarah had been all along, in God’s arms. She jumped in on day one, with no hesitation. Me? I fell in. Broken, angry, lost, and scared. But I found my way there. Medicine wasn’t going to heal Sarah, God was. God created her and He wants her well! He has given her body what it needs to beat cancer and with the help of the Earth he created, He’s going to heal her! I was finally all-in!  Give me that juicer, we’re going Gerson!

The timing of this all was crucial, because two days later things had changed. Sarah sought a second-opinion from a holistic cancer treatment center to consult with their naturopathic doctor and dietitian regarding the Gerson treatment.  She also met with another oncologist while there, and he threw a wrench into our plans. He was hopeful! He acknowledged the typical prognosis for this type of cancer and agreed with the diagnosis, but he also informed us that Sarah is the type of person who beats the facts. And, he is the type of doctor who believes his patients will win! He didn’t use fear to pressure us. Instead, he used hope to inspire us. Rather than believing that radiation and chemo could buy us five years before saying goodbye, he believed these treatments could be part of her long-term survival. Now we were stuck. Less than 48 hours after Sarah’s resistance to chemo and radiation were confirmed and my faith in them destroyed, we had a reason to begin questioning all over again. But this time, we stood on the rock of God’s promises as we considered our options. One morning, after we said a quick prayer asking for wisdom, Sarah said,

“This decision isn’t about what will heal me, God has already promised me healing. This decision is about what will let the most people see God through me.”

Seriously, how did I find this woman?

Over the past few weeks, Sarah’s treatment plan has developed like this:

Radiation and chemo

Radiation, no chemo

Radiation and chemo, followed by an alternative treatment TBD

No radiation or chemo, just an alternative treatment which had finally been determined: Gerson therapy 

Maybe radiation, then Gerson

Radiation AND Gerson, NO chemotherapy. Beginning today: January 29, 2015. 

Please say a prayer for Sarah as she begins radiation. Pray that she would feel God’s presence, know His love, and rest in His peace. Thank you!

The Surgery

“After consulting the people, the king appointed singers to walk ahead of the army, singing to the Lord and praising him for his holy splendor. This is what they sang:

‘Give thanks to the Lord;
his faithful love endures forever!’ ”

-II Chronicles 20:21

We spent the night before the surgery with Sarah’s family praying for peace and praising God for the victory that was yet to come. My mother-in-law managed to record a few minutes of it all. Don’t mind the colorful mats, slide, and toys all over. We’re in our son’s playroom.

I remember that night well. I remember how badly I wanted there to be something I could “do.” Someway to be helpful. Someway to fix this. There wasn’t. I sat in a room full of people who appeared to have so much more faith than I did. And, if they didn’t they were certainly better at faking it. I sang the songs and prayed the prayers, but I questioned all of it. When did faith become believing for a successful brain surgery? When did faith become believing that my wife would still be able to speak? When did faith become believing that the tumor wasn’t cancerous?

Sarah preop

The next morning as Sarah was being prepped for surgery she couldn’t stop smiling.As a nurse cut her hair, she smiled. As a nurse inserted an IV, she smiled. As her family gathered around her hospital bed to pray, she smiled. As I fought back tears and kissed her goodbye, she smiled. If you know Sarah you know her smile. But, this smile wasn’t just hers. No, this smile was somehow different than normal. This was the kind of smile only God can give. This was a smile full of peace, hope, and faith. This was the smile of a woman who knew God was holding her just as tightly as she was holding on to Him.

Family postopOn November 19, 2014, one day before our son’s first birthday, he received the best birthday gift he might ever receive, a tumor-less Mommy. Sarah’s neurosurgeon achieved the best possible outcome for a brain tumor removal, a total gross resection (medical term for: removed everything visible to the human eye).

Sarah was awake the next morning, talking, eating a hospital breakfast, and telling me what to do. All this in less than 12 hours after having her skull opened. God is good! She and God didn’t stop amazing people there though. Forty-eight hours after having surgery she was discharged! No brain swelling, no brain bleeding, no speech or memory impairments, and no complications!

Prior to surgery her neurosurgeon informed us that the imaging results indicated her tumor was likely a high stage I or low stage II brain tumor. Such a tumor would be considered largely benign and non-aggressive. Following the resection, he continued to believe that it was a low stage tumor and that further treatment would be unnecessary given the total resection, Sarah’s recovery, and her age. To confirm the surgeon’s visual assessment a sample was sent to Johns Hopkins to be reviewed by a neuropathologist. The results were delayed due to the Thanksgiving holiday, so three weeks later we found ourselves back in her neurosurgeon’s office excited to hear the news that this was over!

Unfortunately, we didn’t get the news we expected. While the tumor appeared to be low-grade upon resection, the pathology report identified it as a stage III or anaplastic astrocytoma. Brain cancer.

I remember sitting in the neurosurgeon’s office as he began giving us numbers and likely scenarios. I was too scared to 1127141130_20141127114900115look at Sarah because I knew I wouldn’t be able to control my tears. This was supposed to be the “thanks for saving my wife’s life” appointment, the “let’s put this behind us” appointment, the “let’s get back to our boring lives” appointment, but it wasn’t.  Somehow this became the “my wife has brain cancer” appointment.  We walked out of the neurosurgeon’s office in silence. The moment we entered the car I felt her tears coming. As Sarah began crying, I readied myself to be the “strong one” but as soon as she began speaking I knew who the strong one was. Sarah wasn’t crying for herself. She was crying for me, for our son, and for her family. With tears streaming down her face she began saying, “Jordan, I don’t want this for you…for our son… how will I tell my family…they can’t handle this, not at Christmas.”  In that moment I heard her selfless words full of love, saw her delicate tears full of courage, and held her gentle hands full of strength. Cancer picked a fight with the wrong woman.

The Seizure

Rainy City Road Bokeh Lights Desktop Wallpaper

This is where it all began. November 14, 2014. Sarah had a cold and had slowly been building a mountain of tissues next to the bed all night. I decided I would be better off sleeping downstairs, which is a common place to find me when she’s sick. I’m a bit crazy about germs, I know. But this night, when I told her I was headed downstairs to sleep, she asked me to stay. I grumpily agreed, fully planning to blame any runny nose or sore throat on her the next morning. Little did we know God was already preparing to take care of her.

A few hours later, after we had both fallen asleep Sarah rolled into me, hard enough to wake me up. We’re cuddlers, so I instinctively wrapped my arm around her. Seconds later she rolled away from me, but this wasn’t a normal roll. With my arm still around her she began slipping off of our bed. Somehow we both ended up on the floor in a heap of pillows, blankets, and tissues. I began saying her name, but she wasn’t waking. So I began to gently rub her shoulders. As soon as I touched her I knew something was wrong. She was rigid, her eyes closed, muscles clenched, and her breathing was labored. My gentle rubbing quickly became anxious shaking. She was entirely unresponsive.

When the 911 operator asked me what my emergency was, I wasn’t certain. “I think my wife is having a seizure”, I said. The ambulance couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes to arrive, but it felt like ten hours. Do I try to wake her up? Is she still breathing? Should I roll her on her side? She can’t be having a seizure. Am I doing enough? Did the fall wake Gideon? When will help be here? Eventually five paramedics made their way up our stairs and into our bedroom, somehow managing to not wake our one-year old son in the process. As they began entering our room and asking questions, Sarah was regaining consciousness. She was disoriented though, knowing only that she was in her bedroom and that I was her husband. She didn’t know the year, the state we lived in, or why the medics were in our bedroom. She simply wanted to go back to sleep and she tried to do so, each time uncertain as to why we wouldn’t let her. The medics recommended that she be transported to a local ER for an evaluation and moments later she was on a gurney frightened and confused. As she was being rolled out of the front door she frantically looked for me amidst what must have felt like a sea of unfamiliar faces. Once she found my eyes she said, “don’t leave me, please don’t leave me.” But, I had to let her leave. Our son was still sleeping, and she needed to go the hospital. In that moment, I had to somehow quiet my overwhelming need to act as her husband, so that I could also be a father. As a father, my next step was to find someone to stay with our son so that I could go to the hospital and be a husband. This posed a problem. Having only lived in South Bend for four months the list of people we knew was slim, the list of people I could call at 3:00 am even slimmer, and the list of people we knew, could call at 3:00am, and trusted to watch Gideon was nearly nonexistent. I called the one person who met those criteria; thankfully she answered.

When I arrived at the emergency room, Sarah was awake, alert, and oriented. She shared with me that her first memories were of being in the ambulance. She was unsure why she was in the hospital, but a nurse told her she had a seizure. At this point a CT scan had already been completed. We waited for the results, nervously joking about her fall from bed and her clumsiness while assuring ourselves that she was fine. The ER doctor returned, and the worst case scenario became a reality. He said “Nine out of ten times we order a CT scan following a seizure and we don’t find anything. This time we found something: a brain tumor about the size of a golf ball.” I’m sure at this point he continued speaking and may have even said something worthwhile, but I can’t remember. His mouth was moving, my eyes were locked on his, but nothing was registering. He walked out. We sat. We stared. We held each other. We cried. This was only the beginning.