Not What I Expected

Four years ago, I was considering retiring from school nursing and looking at my options. I wanted to work part-time and do something different. After Googling jobs for nurses, number ten on one list was Life Coach. I’d considered going into that area years before but the timing didn’t feel right. I had fifteen years of experience as a mental health nurse, so while Coaching would be different, it would still use some of my long-developed skills.

I took the Wisdom of the Whole (formerly Linda Bark Coaching Academy) course that following year in 2015, worked through the sixty supervision hours and passed the certification exam by April of 2016. I even completed an extra course that focused on Coaching People Affected by Cancer.

What I thought was going to happen, was that I would eventually develop a part-time role as a Coach in the oncology practice where I’d received treatment for triple-negative breast cancer. I’d served on the committee to develop the Waverly Survivors’ Community and hoped to contribute in a more direct way.

On November 7th of this year, I saw a previous entry in my journal that was written Nov. 7, 2016. I was giving my first Nurse Coach presentation to Waverly Survivors’ Community on using Positive Self-Talk when encountering medical procedures. I spent a lot of time developing my content, preparing a resource list, and working with the staff to coordinate our session. I made a comment in my journal that I was trusting God with my plans for retirement, with my desire to work part-time as a Coach with that oncology practice.

That night, three women came to our session. We were a very informal, conversational group. I presented some of my information, but what the women were more interested in was sharing their stories. They were so ready to connect with others going through breast cancer treatment. At the end of the hour, I posed the same question that I would with a coaching client, “So what is your takeaway from our session?”

They were quiet for a while, then one woman said, “You’ve been a survivor for 16 years.”

It wasn’t the information that I presented, it was me being an example that you could live for many years beyond treatment.

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Family picture May ’01 three mths after I finished treatment. Left to Right, younger son, Ross, husband, David, and older son, Brooks

Ultimately, I didn’t develop a role for myself in that practice. Instead, I was hired for a part-time research nurse position through UNC Outpatient Psychiatry that used skills from working in mental health, school nursing, and clinical trials research.

Now I realize that instead of working in person with cancer survivors, I’ve been using my own cancer experience and coaching skills in my writing. What I didn’t foresee, is that my energy for supporting survivors will be used with my own family. After fourteen years of having an empty nest, both my sons living in other states, now they’ve returned to our area.

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Family picture Oct. 2017–Daughter-in-Law, Emily pregnant with our grandson

And the biggest surprise, is that I’m taking care of my precious 6-month-old grandson two days a week. If I were coaching people going through the intensity of cancer treatment and learning to put their lives together afterwards, I don’t think I’d have the emotional reserves to give my best to my grandson. Now, instead of driving to that oncology practice I’m driving the ten miles to their home to take care of him. It’s a gift I didn’t foresee.

My heart wants to keep reaching out to fellow cancer survivors, to encourage them so they can say, “You’ve been a Survivor . . .” now for 18 years. I’ll keep pursuing Reflective Questions that help my readers, and me, to get at what’s inside waiting to be expressed.

And in the meantime, I’ll love each moment watching my grandson develop, grateful that I have this unexpected blessing.

 

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Loving my little North Carolina Tar Heel

How About You?

What plans have you made that didn’t work out in the way you’d hoped?

How did things unfold for you?   In what ways were you surprised?  Were there unexpected blessings?

 

 

 

 

 

I Choose Joy!

That day, my nursing supervisor called me to intervene with an employee situation. Since I’d worked in mental health for fifteen years before becoming a school nurse, she depended on me to help settle down a staff member who was upset, out of control about a student situation she felt had been mishandled. By the time I arrived at the school, the employee appeared to be manic and was distrustful. I spoke with the guidance counselor who had knowledge of the incident. Before I left her office, I noticed a banner above her desk that said, I Choose Joy!

I met with the troubled employee and eventually she calmed down and left for the day. Later she got the help she needed. Over time, that incident faded from my memory, but the banner never did.

I Choose Joy!

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What a simple, declarative statement. Years later, I remembered that banner.  Three days after I received my breast cancer diagnosis, I was lying across my bed on a Friday after work, feeling totally downcast, overwhelmed with the long road of treatment ahead of me. My sadness was interrupted by a phone call from my cousin, Ron. He told me he’d just found out about my cancer.

“Connie, you’re not going to believe this, but God is going to bring you such joy,” he said, my cousin who knew about hard times. He’d had many health problems, including cancers and a liver transplant. His life appeared to be one challenge after the other, and we often thought he had ‘9 Lives.’

He went on to explain.

“You’re going to be aware of God and all the ways he works during this time,’ he said. “I know, because that’s what has happened for me.”

How can that be? I thought. With the chemo that I faced, inevitable losing of my hair, thirty-plus rounds of radiation, events that I’d miss when I had to avoid exposure to crowds, how could I experience Joy in those circumstances?

Weeks after our phone call, I was reading in the Psalms, my go-to book of the Bible when I went through cancer treatment. I identified with the Psalmist crying out to God in despair. My poor concentration could handle a pithy psalm, like the one in  the first portion of Psalm 86:17 (NIV):

” Give me a sign of your goodness”

 On mornings when I started the day feeling I just couldn’t make it through all the challenges, I prayed that Psalm. Then I’d watch to see how God answered my plea.

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Morning at Iona

I don’t know how much of seeing God’s answer was because my eyes were focused on the goodness in my path, and how much God placed things there after that prayer. Maybe some of both.

Over the past few years, my morning devotional before my walk, comes from Sarah Young’s book, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence. I am grateful to Sarah for how she writes in a way to help the reader see things from God’s POV. Her words have been used in my life to help me become more present to God in each moment. In the October 5threading in Sarah’s book, she writes:

“Remember that Joy is not dependent on your circumstances.” And further down the page, “True Joy is a by-product of living in My Presence.”

Now her words help me to put these pieces about Joy into a more fully-formed understanding.

Ron experienced that Joy going through his crises because he lived in God’s presence. No matter how much the impact of the anti-rejection drugs wore down his body, he chose to be present with God, and that’s how he experienced joy.

Thinking of the banner, I Choose Joy, that action of choosing is key. Choosing to be present with God, is choosing Joy.

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God’s presence in Notre-Dame Cathedral

That verse from Psalm 86 asking God to “Give me a sign of your goodness” works when we are present to God in each moment, able to see the blessings in our path, no matter our circumstances.

I’m grateful for that banner in the guidance counselor’s office all those years ago. Now, at those times when I feel downcast, I remember that Joy is a choice. I have the power to choose no matter what challenges I face. May we all be able to say

I CHOOSE JOY!

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How About You?

Is there a situation in your life where you need to choose Joy?

How would taking that action step change that experience?

 

 

 

 

3 Things I Learned from Cancer

Now that I’ve been a breast cancer survivor for almost eighteen years, I think back on the three things I learned from going through treatment.  It occurs to me that what I learned from cancer can be applied to other areas of life—even to becoming a parent, like my son and daughter-in-law did just one week ago.  While these are very different in some ways, the things I learned from cancer can be generalized.  I’m not an expert, I’m just sharing my perspective from my personal experience.

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Walking with my friend and fellow survivor, Mary

When you hear the oncologist say, “You have cancer,” it’s shocking and you’re paralyzed with fear. The immediate question is, “Am I going to live?”  After you hear about the type of cancer you have (mine was triple negative) the team maps out your options.  For me, it was eight months of treatment including surgery, chemo, and radiation.  While it’s helpful to get the big picture when you’re starting out, I found it overwhelming to look too far ahead.  So the first thing cancer taught me was

#1– DON’T LOOK TOO FAR AHEAD

 Just focus on the next few steps along the path.  For me, I relied on prayer, asking God to help me with the present moment, giving me the courage for whatever I was going through in that phase of treatment.  When you’re a new parent, it helps to do the same thing.  Sometimes you need strength to get through another night of broken sleep, another fussy evening with colic.  You’d be overwhelmed if you looked ahead and thought about how many nights or evenings you could have like that.

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My son, Brooks– a new father.

When I heard I had cancer, my immediate response was to assume the outcome for me would be like one of my high school classmates who’d been diagnosed a few years before.  Even though I’m a nurse, I didn’t work in oncology and I had very little knowledge of breast cancer, so I latched on to the most recent example I had from another woman.  But I didn’t know anything about her subtype of breast cancer, her specific biochemistry, family history, her body’s unique response to treatment.  My outcome was very different from hers.  So, the second thing cancer taught me was

#2 DON’T ASSUME YOUR EXPERIENCE WILL BE THE SAME AS ANOTHER PERSON’S

That’s also true for parenting.  Just because your friends had a difficult time during a phase of raising their child, doesn’t mean it’ll be the same for you.  Another phase will challenge you more because of your child’s unique personality, your perspective as a parent, other things going on in your family life at the time.  When we focus on the moment and don’t compare our experience, whether it’s with an illness or the challenges of parenting, we have what we need to make it through.

Sometimes it’s tempting for me to make broad assumptions, probably to make things seem more simple than they are in life.  With cancer treatment, I knew I had six rounds of chemo and to make that process seem more familiar, I assumed each treatment would affect me the same: the level of nausea, discomfort with the transfusion, feeling foggy afterward.  But the days were varied and sometimes there were unexpected blessings dropped into my life that distracted me from whatever I was experiencing and provided beauty and relief.  So the third thing cancer taught me was

#3 DON’T ASSUME EVERY DAY WILL BE THE SAME

As a parent, the same kinds of mercies show up: extra help when you don’t think you have the energy you need, your child moving forward to that next developmental step when you thought you were stuck, that first intentional smile when you’re at a point of exhaustion.  The days change, each with its own up and down pattern that forms a beautiful whole.

Whatever your challenge, I hope you’ll find some encouragement in these words and you’ll discover what your current phase of life has to teach you.

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How about You?

What are the lessons you learned going through a big change in your life?

How can you share your experience with others?

 

 

 

 

Moving Question

I followed the blue heron along the shoreline of Coquina Beach, amazed that the large bird would allow me to trail so close behind.  I’d seen many of them flying over Jordan Lake in central North Carolina during my years of living in that area, but never had I walked within feet of one.  He or she, I didn’t know which, appeared to be searching for something, probably scanning the shallow water for food.  It occurred to me when the bird stopped from his roving and turned his head to the left, he appeared like a question mark.

It reminded me of how I approach my pilgrimages as if they’re a moving question mark, taking off on my journey and asking God, “What is it you’re going to show me this time?”

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There have been times that I’ve been tempted to see the travel to-and-from my destination as not part of the journey.  But this time, given my long drive to my cousin’s on the Gulf Coast of Florida, I rethought that and saw that God can work in my life just as much on the drive as when I’m finally there.  The benefit of a road trip is there’s time for the transition from my everyday life at home to that space I’ll inhabit while I’m on my pilgrimage.

The first miles going south on I-95 were spent letting go of things undone and unresolved at home– like writing projects, my part-time job as a research nurse, and household responsibilities.  Sometimes my anxiety wants me to be sure everything is nicely settled before I leave.  During my previous 14 journeys, I’d found that same tendency which may be due in part to my internal resistance to leaving the safety of home, crossing the threshold to the unknown.  I tried to settle the issue by praying to let go of that latent worry.  I needed to rest in knowing I’m competent to handle whatever awaits me when I return.

After a couple of hours of driving, I started my radio-station-surfing since I didn’t have pre-programmed music.  I landed on an affiliate for K-Love, a Christian radio network.  The segment was on making a ‘stop-doing’ list as a way to counter our extensive to-do lists and our overly-busy, media-absorbed habits that keep us from being present with people who are important to us.

I threw out the question, “What do I need to stop doing, God?”

I drove on, waiting for something to come to the surface. In my quiet car, traversing the flat farmland of South Carolina, I was reminded that in working as a Life Coach, we often ask people to sit and wait for an answer.  It’s good for my journey to start with a question to go before me during the week.

The first answer I received was, You need time for quiet.

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Specifically, the Podcasts icon came to mind and my emerging habit of binge listening to programs.  While stimulating and educational, they kept my mind buzzing and made it hard to settle down and be still.  Like other things, I needed to be more moderate and put limits on anything that takes up mental space, valuable attention, and ultimately zaps my energy.

The list to stop-doing continued on my drive and throughout the days of my journey.  It grew to include stop worrying, stop hanging on to items that clutter my life as well as my house, and to stop losing things that send me into a panic.

But before my stop-doing lists became too long, and a burden of too many things to remember, I realized that it can be a traveling question that stays with me beyond my Florida pilgrimage.

Like the blue heron along the shore, I can fly away and pick up the search in another place, carefully watching to see what floats up for me.

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How About You?

What is your moving question?

How can you be open to the answers that surface?