Cancer Saved Me: How being sick made me well
Last September, I thought a hard season of my life was coming to a close, but I was about to find out that, the toughest season of my life was just beginning. I had already been in quite a whirlwind before I even got the news. I had spent the last few years feeling very lost. It was like I was feeling around in the dark, passing the same trees over and over, in a frustrated circle. The truth is that God had me right on track. He was in the process of answering my most important prayer: to understand and believe in unconditional love.
I’ll start from the beginning.
I grew up second of four kids in a family of overachievers. I did my best at everything I could. I was a starting player on my sports teams, I got straight A’s, sang in church, played multiple instruments, and scored in the 92nd percentile on my college entrance exam. When I did well, I got attention, affirmation, and love. I grew to believe that I was only loved because of my success
When I was about 21, I found myself living in an inner-city castle with breathing golden windows in the blue ridge mountains. What I really mean by that is that I lived in a broken down five-bedroom home on a downtown corner of my college town. But it was magic to me. This was my third year of college and I was enamored by the people around me, inspired by strangers and rain and front doors. I was brought to life by friends with eyes that filled easy with warm tears, who loved fiercely and without fear.
In my heart of hearts, I had always wanted to be a singer. I cannot remember a moment in my life when that is not what I wanted. I had never said it out loud, because I knew it wouldn’t be celebrated in my logic-driven, educated family. But I was romanced by a sneaker-wearing boy with a smile like the sky who really believed that one day I could sing for thousands of people if I would just try. I grew to believe that too.
That year, I sheepishly played my best three songs in a recording studio, and weeks later, uploaded them to the internet. In the next few weeks, thousands of people heard those songs and shared them. The next month, I played my first show in a downtown loft apartment above a coffee shop. After the show, I drove down to the riverbank and watched the moon sway in the water.
Did that really just happen? Did all those people show up to hear me?
That summer, I recorded my first music video in Los Angeles. That autumn, the boy with a smile like the sky let himself out of my story. I comforted myself by succeeding in every way I knew how to.
Looking back, that has been my story since the beginning. Whenever I felt small, unworthy or unlovable, I would find a way to succeed. It was a space-filler for the emptiness.
Fast forward: two years later and I had become a small-town celebrity. I released an EP, played for a few arena crowds at my university, headlined my first sold-out show, was on the cover of a local magazine, played songs on live TV and radio, was asked for selfies with strangers while grocery shopping. I was really chasing my dream. And I was good at it.
Outwardly, my life was flawless. Friends, attention, success, adventure. But inside, I was decaying. I hit a breaking point one Friday at a local street festival where I bumped into every person in that town who I had ever hurt. I saw the friends I betrayed, the boys I had strung along, and all those who had watched it happen.
In the midst of my small-town celebrity, I had burned a lot of bridges. It seemed that every true friend I had, I would push away. I was so well-known by strangers, but unknown to myself. I was in and out of a series of shallow relationships, keeping people at arms length, because I believed they wouldn’t stick around if they really knew me. That night I decided that I would leave town.
I fell asleep that night somehow cold in the middle of summer. I whispered to God that I would buy myself flowers because I felt so shattered. The next day my favorite flowers were delivered to my job, with no name from the sender.
I quickly moved away, in pieces. I came to my parents tall brick home in the yellow woods. I planned to stay there for a month or two, then move to Nashville. I just needed some time to put myself together in secret.
One week after arriving, my life collided with a wild-hearted, warm-eyed adventure. His name was Jeremy. Meeting him was like waking up in the middle of a story where I was already irreversibly in love. I knew he was the one I would marry--it only took hours for me to be sure.
My family was not happy. They would have preferred a man for me with an education and a steady job, not a dream-chaser. It was an explosion that night. Doors slamming, hot tears, hoarse screaming, bullets for words, daggers for eyes. I had feared that I really was worthless and unlovable. I came home to have those fears contradicted, but instead they were confirmed.
I drove to my brother’s house and fell asleep in the corner of the couch. I laid awake until the tears got tired. The next morning, I woke up to a silent house—out the window, the country hills were covered in fresh snow. There was a young fire in the wood burning stove. I won’t ever forget the peace of that moment. This is what God means when he says that he is near.
I spent the rest of the year living out of boxes and rubbermaid containers, staying on couches of friends. That year, I lost my job and my car, but we still paid for our entire wedding ourselves. A whole year came and passed, and I hadn’t sung a word. All of my energy was focused on survival. There was no extra for singing.
About two months after the wedding, we packed up and moved to Nashville. Within weeks, Jeremy had enough friends to make us busy every night, he had gigs, and connections, and career opportunities. I was still reeling from all that had happened. I got an office job that paid well, although being in a beige cubicle numbed me into my worst self. I would often cry in the stairwell on my breaks, and scream at God on the drive home. There was so much rage and confusion. I missed the person I used to be. I didn’t know if I would ever see her again.
Here we were in a new city, the one I had been dreaming about. I had left so much behind, lost so much. I came here for music, but instead I was depressed in an office day after day after day. I was too angry to write anything beautiful, I was too hurt to sing. I would sit at the piano to write something, and after a few wrong notes, give up completely discouraged. There was one time I got so frustrated that I picked up a xylophone, hurled it at the wall, then collapsed on the ground sobbing.
I had an agreement with God that I would wait for three years. I needed those years to rebuild. If my heart could be healthy, then the music would come out of it in time. I was starting to feel whole, to feel like myself again. I had reconciled with my family, I had forgiven God for the way he had disappointed me. I had apologized to those I’d hurt, and forgiven myself for the pain I caused. I had made friends that knew me and loved me--not only the pieces I wanted them to see.
Hope was starting to grow on its own, without as much weed-pulling as it used to need. I felt a tingling readiness, the future felt close enough to touch.
The three year mark came in September 2017. And that was when I got the news: cancer.
A new low.
Jeremy and I drove to the nearest shoreline. I disappeared into the foggy blues and pinks of the morning. Before the chaos of treatment and surgery and the trauma that was to come, I heard God ask me to look him in the face.
Do you know the feeling when you are about to cry, and you stare down, knowing that the moment you make eye contact with someone, the tears will come and not stop? I wanted to put my face down and just power through. I didn’t want to feel any of it. And I especially didn’t want to allow anyone to see me like this. My whole life, I had exhausted myself with success--making myself feel safe by trying to win at everything. I truly believed that if I wanted to be loved, I had to prove that I deserved it.
Winter rushed in. In the snap of a finger, I was frail, bald, and shivering. I was short of breath, menopausal, lethargic, forgetful, skin and bones.
When I got married, I lost my name, my relationship with my family, and my independence. When I moved to Nashville, I lost my identity as a musician. I lost momentum in my career. My google-able name was gone, my connections were gone. My ability to create music had withered away. When I thought I had lost enough, cancer took everything else: my hair, my breasts, 25 pounds of my body. Nine months of my life came and passed while I was asleep.
But in the loss came the answer. The answer to my biggest prayer. It was the thing on top of my list of things I wanted to do before I die:
I want to understand and believe in unconditional love.
I knew that I was loved at least partially. But what if I wasn’t successful, or smart, or what if I wasn’t any fun? Would people still love me? We all stubbornly hope to believe that we are loved for who we are and nothing else. I had the hardest time believing that, although I wanted to so badly.
Cancer took that last of what I could have used to earn love. I had nothing--not even a personality anymore. I was a wasteland.
For the months that I was sick, there was a steady knock on our front door. Every knock, a reminder that I was remembered. Friends came to clean our house, bring us hot meals, money, and groceries. Our dining room was overtaken with flowers, cards, gifts, that kept piling up and up.
There were countless messages online: from friends, and friends of friends, and strangers. People would bring whatever I asked for. When my mouth stopped producing saliva, a friend showed up with a twenty pound bag of Sonic ice (the best crunchy ice in the universe) that kept me happy for weeks. After my surgery, a friend came and spoon-fed me ice cream because I couldn’t use my arms. Another friend woke me up from a nap on Easter Sunday dancing in a bunny costume.
I looked God in the face, like he asked. And I cried a lot, just like I knew would happen if I looked at him. It hurt in a way I can’t explain, but wow, was he ever near.
Cancer has taken so much from me, so it’s strange that I am feeling so whole. Cancer came to steal, and it did. But in doing so, it proved to me what I desperately needed to be proven: that God is kind, and that if I was an empty well, people would still come, not to take, but to give.
Sounds backward, but cancer really patched me up. Everything external was washed down the drain, but wow, there is so much left. I am stronger than before, immovable now. I lost everything, and I was still standing like a pillar. What an honor it is to have suffered this way. What a joy to have crawled through this cavern if it means that I get to carry with me proof of what the tired earth is looking for: God is near. We are loved.