BY: Teresa Sones
The room was cold. I shivered, remained standing, and hoped the wait would not be long.
Empty chairs lined the walls, but beyond the frosted sliding glass window, liquid shadows and muffled voices confirmed business as usual.
I found myself wondering—if I were the doctor instead of the patient—how I would phrase the news I expected to hear from the physician that day. I mean, what besides an undesirable test report would require a conference rather than a phone conversation to communicate results?
It’s been said that one phone call can usher in an irrevocable life change. It’s true.
“The oncologist can see me tomorrow.” My feeble attempt to balance the “I have cancer” news with something positive did little to dispel the fear cloud that accompanied the diagnosis my husband of forty years and I were only beginning to process. And on the phone moments later, my heart broke as our precious daughter fought bravely to summon encouraging words of faith. In the background, I could hear her four little angels pulling her in as many directions on what had begun as just another sunny day in the life of my favorite “party of six.”
Life certainly did change that day. I’m thankful, however, that even though I may not welcome a change of such magnitude, and while I cannot say—as of this writing, at least—that this recent journey has made the list of my favorite things, it IS clear that the changes are not all negative. After all, when God is in control, how could even an unexpected twist in life NOT bring growth or renewal or restoration or gratitude or appreciation—or any number of the most precious, most coveted gifts of love and relationship that decorate the human experience?
(I detour here for a brief moment to affirm my conviction that God did not “give” me cancer to accomplish something important. I believe instead, that because I have a natural body, it was subject to the myriad perils we all hope—and yes, pray—to escape. As it happened, however, I was the “one in eight” (consistent with current statistical probabilities) whose humanity succumbed to breast cancer. Since I could not think of a single soul, in any given group of eight women, upon whom I would wish the disease instead, it made no sense to spend valuable time wondering, “why me?” or to be angry because it WAS me.
Had my predictive superpowers been functioning in the decades before, I might have prayed harder to have been protected from cancer. I surely would have consumed more green, leafy veggies, refused all diet sodas, and eaten fewer desserts. I would have attended a few more yoga and aerobics classes—ummm, perhaps. In any case, I certainly would have done more to try to reduce my chances of being “the one.”
But as I sat on the crackly paper covering the table in an exam room, trying desperately to absorb the diagnosis and possible treatment protocols my doctor was relaying as gently as possible, I instantly—almost instinctively—shut out the energy draining, “why me?” thought path. My mother’s wisdom echoed in my head, directing me to “think about the positive things you WANT to happen and not what you fear MIGHT happen.” From that moment, I tried to focus on what I knew by faith to be true: that the journey just beginning—its outcome unknown and its implications fearful—was already on my Heavenly Father’s radar, that I would not walk it alone, and that His plan includes working ALL things for my good, even when one of those things destabilizes the present and dims the lights on the future.)
During those first few post-diagnosis days, each hug, promise of prayer, and affirmation of love from family and friends redirected my thoughts from a heaving gulf of uncertainty to my faith, which has been the bedrock of my existence for over fifty years. Thinking back, I’m confident that I never lost hope—even in the still, dark nights when the screaming in my head kept me awake—but I’m sure I sometimes failed to focus on the ability of God to do what His Word says He can do. Amazingly, EVERY time I felt alone in the warzone or fearful about the outcome, the support from family and friends bolstered my will to believe. Small miracles, the kind you might miss if you’re not desperately keeping a lookout, occurred with a frequency that was no less than astounding, and many who love me—and some who didn’t even know me—were instrumental in those “God moments.”
In the first email I received, a friend expressed that the moment he spoke my name in prayer, he felt he had God’s focused attention and felt a prevailing sense of peace. A few days later, in a service where no one but my daughter, her husband, and the pastor there knew about my situation, a member of the worship team walked off of the platform to express, “Terri, I’m not sure what’s going on in your life right now, but when I saw you walk into the church this morning, God impressed me to let you know that His attention is focused on you.”
Was it coincidental that two people, unknown to each other and separated by 5000 miles, would use the same imagery to communicate God’s awareness that one of the seven billion living souls He loves needed help? It certainly seemed improbable…but I saved Rick’s email and made a note of Maurisha’s timely greeting, diagnosing the concurrence of their message as a “God moment,” even before the flood of coincidence-bashing evidence started pouring in.
“I’ll check in while you park the car,” I suggested. A week after diagnosis and running late (why can’t we learn to double the time the Nav suggests, especially during Houston’s infamous morning rush hour?), I shut the car door, gave Michael a thumbs up, and reminded him—trying to sound like it was going to be an adventure—“Floor twenty-one.” Mostly, I didn’t know what else to say that wouldn’t make me (or him) start crying.
My dance with the automatic door that guards the entrance to the Outpatient Center of the Houston Methodist Hospital was not impressive. Mercifully, my post-ejection landing was feet-down and head-up, and the valet receptionist was able to contain her amusement, silently pointing me toward the next element in the facility’s access corridor—a somewhat daunting two-story escalator.
Moments later, I stepped off of that escalator into a world that teemed with brainwaves, passionate energy, and an almost palpable sense of purpose. The atmosphere vibrated with the vast collective body of knowledge, expertise, and passion for discovery that resides in the professional and intellectual community of a world-class hospital. “Lots of smart people here,” was my mental assessment. At least I had intended it to be mental. Before I could keep myself from drawing a few more sideways glances, I replied to myself—again out loud, “Well, that’s a plus.” The woman in maroon scrubs with still-wet hair, who had boarded the escalator just behind me, eyed me warily as she eased past…and started typing furiously into her iPhone. Apparently I was social media fodder—and it wasn’t even seven-thirty yet. Sigh.
The door started to close on the second empty elevator I would fail to catch because I couldn’t make my feet move. I was alone in the elevator pod—oddly, since it was the beginning of the day for so many medical professionals—when a man rushed to catch the door just in time to board. He stared at me for a heartbeat, but not unkindly, his face silently inquiring, “Are you getting on? Do you need help? Are you OK?” And then out loud, “I’ll hold the door. What floor?”
“Twenty-one,” I whispered, dread punctuating the syllables. An unwanted tear escaped, and I felt angry at myself for the emotional breach.
“I’m headed there myself,” he replied casually, but with a quiet compassion only someone who knew what went down on floor twenty-one would possess. “Let’s go together.”
The paralysis that had gripped me loosened its hold, and I stepped in—but just barely, the door almost skimming my nose when it shut. Willing myself to stop shaking, I felt the stranger unobtrusively step forward so that his nose almost touched the door, too. He took my hand, and shoulder to shoulder we rode upward in silence, like two soldiers with backs stiffened for the battle to come.
The door opened, and after directing me toward check-in, my compatriot dematerialized. Once again, I struggled to get my bearings and told myself (silently this time) that Mike would be up soon. At the registration desk, Ms. Ola’s cheer and courtesy seemed oddly other-worldly, but was at the same time pleasant and reassuring. She was as efficient as she was kind, and by the time Mike appeared, I had mastered the digital check-in tablet and had wrestled a cup of coffee from the slightly less user-friendly single-serving dispenser.
We settled into a private infusion room, complete with a wall of windows offering a fascinating view of the world’s largest medical complex. I wondered how many lives were represented by the landscape of buildings we could see–individuals like me, hoping for an eventual pronouncement of health. Mike was staring out the window, and I sat in the recliner staring at my hands, wishing I could be holding my feisty little Paris and twirling her curls around my finger or playing Tickle Monster with my darling Reagan and Riley and my precious Izzi.
The heart questions for which I had no voice echoed on repeat: “Will I be around when a new favorite game develops? Would it be too much to ask God to send me another little “message” to quell the fear that shadows every thought about the future?”
And then a familiar face appeared in the doorway.
The elevator soldier. His dog tags identified him as an RN, and the scrubs I had not noticed on the ride up supported the creds. Embarrassed because he had witnessed a near meltdown earlier, I managed a faint “hello,” but he held my gaze with eyes that were at once piercing and reassuring.
“Funny how God works that way, isn’t it?” he said with a quiet smile.
Apparently, God imposes His plan on patient care scheduling.
As my former comrade-in-arms introduced the treatment team and assessed my understanding of the infusion process, my eyes kept shifting from his face to his badge. Gabriel. No, honestly. His name was GABRIEL. Like the angel in the Bible whose messages from God always started something like, “FEAR NOT!”
One more “coincidence”?
I answered my own question, “That’s a negative, Ghost Rider.”
I see it this way: I am God’s child. Fear was stalking me. So my Father orchestrated—quite artfully, I might add—a reminder that fear has no place in the lives of those who trust Him. Another message gratefully received.
In the weeks that followed, did the fear return? Of course. But it didn’t linger. Prayers from as far away as Bulgaria (thank you, dear Marty and your congregation of faith)…and as close as my husband’s touch as he prayed from my head to my toes every morning before he left for work…chased it away every time.
“Your doctor will likely be pleased.” The radiologist reading the post-chemo MRI was optimistic about the oncologist’s response to the evidence indicating the tumor had shrunk. Truthfully, I had expected it to be completely undetectable, so I was disappointed. To family and friends, I reported the news enthusiastically, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the spot apparent on the MRI should have already disappeared. So ten days later, when I awoke from surgery, the first thing I checked was whether or not the port positioned just under my collar bone had been removed. Thinking its absence would signal a cancer-free status, with no further need for chemotherapy, my hand moved as soon as my eyes opened.
The port was still there. Big sigh.
Thankfully, I couldn’t stay awake long during that first flirtation with consciousness, so there was little time to dwell on my disturbing discovery. I’m happy—and forever grateful, however—that when the surgeon’s face came into focus later that day, I heard him saying that during the operation, he could only see where the tumor HAD been (because of the marker inserted during the diagnostic phase), and that the tumor itself had indeed disappeared. Further, every tissue sample examined at the time of surgery had been found to be free of cancer cells. At that point, I forgot to ask about the port still hanging around like the Lone Ranger. I wrapped the good news around my heart like a favorite blanket and (should I confess it?) enjoyed a long, drug-induced sleep.
A week later, the post-surgery pathology report supported the findings during surgery, and again, I was overwhelmed with gratefulness for answered prayers. And several weeks after that, I returned to the Outpatient Center and “danced with the stars” (well, almost) through the revolving door, on my way to a post-surgery follow-up with the oncologist. I navigated the escalator and corridors like a pro and entered the now-familiar elevator pod, where a couple perhaps ten years my senior caught my eye.
She was looking up at the numbers, trying to decide if the elevators served her intended floor. The man I supposed to be her husband gazed skyward as well, shoulders sagging a little and juggling a purse, a small cooler, and a colorful quilted tote full of yarn and some wicked-looking knitting needles. He tried to keep one wrinkled hand protectively on his companion’s arm but failed because he just wasn’t that adept at managing the purse. Her hands were empty, but it was apparent he didn’t want her to exert any more energy than absolutely necessary as they prepared to ascend to…
“What floor?” I asked, struggling against the inexplicable lump in my throat and fighting tears I couldn’t blame on an errant contact lens. Clearly, I was sharing a ride with people who had a long day ahead of them on…
“Twenty-one,” she whispered, and when our eyes met, I recognized it. The uncertainty. The fear. The concern for the worry her loved one felt. The herculean attempt to summon hope.
I don’t have an angel’s name—or nature. I’m not particularly courageous—or bold. But it was my turn to be an elevator soldier, so I stood a little straighter and offered a bit of courage…and as much compassion as time would allow as the floors ticked off…
Ms. Ola greeted the couple, and I knew they were in good hands, so I made my way to the other side of the waiting room, thinking about how often the opportunity to be an “elevator soldier” might arise, if only I were looking more intently for the chance to encourage those around me.
It wasn’t long until my name was called, and I was ushered into the room where I had initially met my oncologist. Waiting for him to arrive, I studied the white board on the wall. Neatly printed (apparently some physicians DO write legibly) were indications of levels of tumor aggression, the presence of specific receptors, and a drug protocol, among other details, with some verbiage underlined for emphasis. It crossed my mind that the use of a red marker and the underlining was appropriate, given the gravity of the subject matter. I remembered the notes the doctor had used to illustrate the information I received during my first visit, and I couldn’t help myself. I said a silent prayer for the unknown person belonging to today’s board—and for the physician who would execute the treatment plan.
My follow-up conference went as expected. No surprises. And the port? Not to worry, just a misunderstanding on my part about the administration of the post-surgical medicine that is a part of the standard of care for this type of cancer. A few tears of relief. Lots of smiles.
“The prognosis is good. You have less than a five percent chance of recurrence,” said Dr. Rodrigues. His voice was, as always, quiet and professional, but that day, it resonated with a celebratory undertone. I sensed that this doctor with the kind, intelligent eyes, impeccable manners, and what seemed to be a million-volume library residing in his brain was genuinely happy—not just that the treatment plan he had prescribed had proven effective, but also because the hope I had nurtured had blossomed into reality. This doctor was happy FOR me, and as a final blow to residual worries, he concluded our meeting with the words, “It’s time now…to be thankful.”
And so I am. Abundantly thankful…
- For a God who always hears our prayers…a God who is trustworthy, no matter whether He answers like I want him to or not.
- For medical professionals everywhere who have dedicated their intellect, their energy, and their time to unraveling the mysteries of the human body and of the diseases with which it is often plagued.
- For four physicians in particular:
- Dixie Melillo, whose diagnostic genius uncovered a dangerous anomaly before it could be detected on film. Dr. Melillo, more than one medical professional has told me I was “lucky” to have had an experienced diagnostician/clinician/surgeon like you, but I feel more thankful than lucky.
- Angel Rodrigues, referred by Dr. Melillo as the physician she would select if faced with the diagnosis I had received. As it turned out, she was spot on in her description—a bright, innovative, patient-focused, soft-spoken, well-respected oncologist. Yes, Dr. Rodrigues, it’s time to be thankful…and I’m thankful for your scientific, yet profoundly caring approach to treatment.
- & 4. Drs. Michael Coselli and Edward Berzin, whose surgical competence is well known and whose professional integrity and expertise—and willingness to take the time to discuss available options and the implications of each procedure with clarity and respect—are, in my experience, incomparable. Distinctly but interestingly different in personality, yet clearly sharing a commitment to excellence in patient care, you two are on my list of superheroes. (That difference in personality thing…yeah, well, between the two, my guess is that Dr. Berzin would be the one wearing the eye mask and the red cape over his scrubs.)
- For my number one superhero. She balanced empathy and TLC with a list of suggested self-talk topics to keep anxiety at bay and “infusions” of enough carrot juice to float a battleship. Thanks, Mom! The battleship is navigating calming waters, and its tactical efforts have proven effective—temporarily orange eyes and a weird-looking “tan” notwithstanding.
- For my sister Shannah; my selfless friends, Jan, Dee, Jean and Lisa; my joy and bestie—my daughter Amber; and my faithful Mike. Words cannot convey how strengthening it was to ride the elevator shoulder to shoulder with you, to and from the twenty-first floor of the OPC, week after week, fighting the mental and emotional battles together, while my amazing team of medical professionals waged the clinical war. Your presence and support anchored me.
- For the daily encouragement, for the post-operative care at the hospital and at home, and for loving me at my absolute worst, what gift would be fine enough or words descriptive enough to express the gratitude that is my constant companion when I think of my sisters Leslie, Shan and Kelly, whose very presence radiated hope and made me smile during those times it felt like I might not win the day’s battle? May I simply say that the tallies under the “W” far exceeded those beneath the “L” because of you?
- For the Mother’s Day card I received from my son-in-love shortly after the cancer diagnosis was confirmed. Ryan, your thoughtfully written expressions branded this MIL’s heart with hope and continue to challenge me to be courageous. Thanks also for sharing so much of your time with your four “littles” with me, especially during these past few months. Their voices and kisses are the best medicine ever!
- For my six brothers (by marriage, but no less dear for that detail) and my sisters-in-love (and partners in crimes known only to us). I often re-read your texts and relive our shared times—and our prayer time—in Colorado, just days after the last round of chemo ended. With each remembrance, your words and my mental videos of those special moments make me happy. Four decades of memories provided ample entertainment during the weeks I didn’t venture too far from the house. From California to Colorado and Texas, you all are the best!
- For my LCA, Sugar Land, Dallas and Austin “sisters” whose love spans time and distance. Your notes, texts, and calls not only seemed to arrive at just the right moment, but also triggered memories of adventure and laughter shared, strengthening my resolve to get well in time to share a thousand more!
- For my family of believers—how do people cope with life’s curve balls without an extended family of believers? My friend Peggy often quotes, “It takes a village,” and not just when we’re talking about raising kids. She’s right. The good times are sweeter and the tough times more bearable with the support of a church family. Thank you, Pastor Jim and Nancy—and Life Church—for standing with me in prayer and faith. And for keeping me on your prayer list, I invite you now to be thankful with me, my sweet friends in the extended family of Christ—especially those churches led by pastors Mark and Cecilia Hughes, Ken and Tessie Gurley, Paul and Malinda Trentacoste and Martin Sutton. Hugs, love and grateful appreciation to you all!
- For a blanket adorned with scriptures that comforted both soul and body. Bless you, Carol!
- For lending your professional, scientifically-trained ears and your friends’ hearts to listen while I struggled with some of the most basic decisions related to this diagnosis, thanks, LaRon and Sue.
- For my dear neighbors who cooked food and sent notes of encouragement.
- For friends who helped me deal with thinning hair, no hair, and someone else’s hair on my head! Diana, I’ll never forget the Saturday you came to the house to help me say goodbye to the last few strands. What a dear you are and have always been! And Toni, thanks for your continued concern and prayers. I look forward to seeing you and Taylor at T’NT soon! Until then, please continue cutting Mike’s hair short. I’m looking forward to marking the milestone when mine is longer than his!
- For my little grands—Izzi, Reagan, Riley and Paris—for loving and hugging Happy no matter what her hair (or head) looked like! (The “no hair” phase has been the most visible change for my four angels. Once, while staring at my new sprigs in amazement, Riley asked with a little frown, “Happy, is that Pop’s hair?” And Izzi, looking from my head to a wig on the table, “So, Hap, that’s your REAL hair (pointing to my head) and that’s (pointing to the wig) your FAVORITE hair?”)
- For the excellence in medical service I received and continue to receive from every department at Houston Methodist Hospital and the affiliated physician’s offices to which I linked my dream of life after cancer. Floor twenty-one of the Houston Methodist Outpatient Center, still on the front lines on my behalf, I will continue to pray that your efforts toward all those you serve are not only efficacious, but also blessed. Christin, who took the reins after Gabriel’s “assignment” was complete, only eternity will reveal the impact your personalized care had on my recovery. Thank you for being so attentive to every clinical detail as well as taking time to ensure my personal and emotional comfort week in and week out. Dipti and Mercy from infusion, and of course, Ms. Ola, who assisted me on floor twenty-one as well and Zena from Dr. Rodriques’ office, Lisa in Dr. Coselli’s office, and Dr. Berzin’s RN Lisa…it still amazes me how each of you serve so many each day yet never seemed rushed to hand me off to the next caregiver. You always made certain the flow of information was two-way and that the treatment components for which you were responsible included words of encouragement, appropriate and much-appreciated humor, and a healthy dose of compassion.
In light of the excellence in care from these and so many others, how…no really…HOW can a truly proper thanks be possible?
- And finally, for all those who believed with me that God sometimes weaves amazing scientific and technological advancement with the many threads of our personal experiences—and with spiritual conviction that God answers prayers—in order to illuminate truth, to define purpose, and to deliver miracles of all shapes and sizes. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your prayers. Thank you for your confessions of faith—often in writing—putting your intellectual and spiritual credibility on the line to share your confidence that miracles DO really happen—not caring that it might not turn out like you were encouraging me to believe it would. That’s true faith in action. You exercised infectious faith. I caught it, and…