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Held Up by Love: What Cancer Has Taught Me (Guest Post)

We are grateful to be able to share a beautiful and thoughtful reflection from Rev. Cindy Gregorson, who serves as director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. In October 2018, she was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma. She underwent surgery the following month to remove a mass on her kidney—and she has now been cancer-free for two years. In this guest blog post, she talks about her cancer journey and how it has taught her to live in the moment and with a deep sense of gratitude.

By Rev. Cindy Gregorson

I could describe my cancer journey in any number of ways; none of them, I suspect, is particularly unique, except for the fact that it is mine.

I could call it the “why me?” story. I lost the weight. I ate mostly healthy. I exercised. I stopped my pre-diabetes in its track. After keeping off the weight and having all my numbers in the healthy zones for five years, my primary care doctor told me I had changed the trajectory of my life. Except…maybe not. I did everything they told me to do, and I still got cancer. Other people eat all the wrong things. Never exercise. And never get cancer. It was just not fair. But then, life is rarely about what is fair. My father died of kidney cancer at age 56. For some reason, I thought I was never going to get it. He smoked, and smoking greatly increases the risk of developing kidney cancer. I don’t smoke. I am healthy. But still I got it, just like my dad: renal cell carcinoma. I was 59.

I could call it my “miracle story.” Whenever I recite my medical history to yet another nurse or doctor, I am always asked how my tumor was discovered, because it is typically a symptom-less cancer until it’s pretty far along, and mine was caught at stage one. It is an odd story. It started when I choked on a piece of steak, causing esophageal spasms, and my thyroid medicine was changed, which led to heart palpitations and anxiety all in the same week. I kept working with my doctor to try to get my thyroid medication back into its optimal zone, but nothing was resolving my issues. Chest pains finally landed me in the ER. My heart was thankfully fine, but I was referred to a GI specialist, who listened exceptionally well to my saga and all my strange symptoms of the past two months. She recommended an endoscopy, and when I asked for an ultrasound of the abdomen as well, to reassure me this was not something more, she agreed. And that’s how they found it: a lesion on my kidney. Nothing we expected or were even looking for. And if I hadn’t choked on that piece of steak, the tumor probably wouldn’t have been found until my cancer was much farther along and my prognosis was much worse. When I finally had the endoscopy after recovering from my kidney surgery, and I told my story once again, the doctor said mine was the best outcome he has ever heard from someone choking on steak. It likely saved my life.

I could call it my “trauma story.” I am now a cancer survivor. Every morning when I look at the five scars on my belly, I am reminded I only have one kidney. I hold my breath every six months when I have that CT scan or chest x-ray to make sure it has not come back. I fixate on my numbers related to kidney function. This one kidney won’t fail me too, will it? I used to think that because I didn’t have to go through months of chemo and lose all my hair, my story wasn’t that traumatic. I had my kidney removed. I took two months off work to recover from the surgery. That was it. I have a 95 percent chance of making it to my five-year mark without a reoccurrence—and I just hit the two-year mark. In terms of cancer journeys, mine is considered a “good one.” Except it still messes with me. It took almost a year for my anxiety to quiet. Every time my body experiences a strange symptom, it shoots into hyper-drive again. Is that cancer? My body let me down once; it could happen again.

But mostly what I call it is my “I am finite and fragile, but I am held up by love” story. I have to give credit for that quote to Kate Bowler, author of “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.” My biggest fear has never been dying. As a single person, it has always been what happens if I get sick and can’t take care of myself. Cancer brought me face-to-face with that fear. And I learned that I am not alone. A whole community of folks showed up. There was a meal train when I got home from the hospital. There were prayer shawls and Facebook comments telling me I was being held up in love. There were the family and friends who stayed with me, listened to me in all my crazy thinking, went with me to my doctor appointments, and helped me find my way back to normalcy.

We all know we are mortal. Someday we will die, but we never think it is going to be today. When you get the call and hear the word “cancer,” you think, “oh crap.” I never get to be naïve about that again. My finitude is now a daily reality. I don’t have a five-year or 10-year plan for my life anymore. Maybe I will get there. Maybe I won’t. What I do have is a deep daily appreciation for the gift of today. I used to be such a restless person, always wondering about what would be next. I often missed what was present in this moment. The TED talk “Nature. Beauty. Gratitude” found its way into my life during my days recovering from surgery. It helped me re-frame my journey from dwelling on what I had lost to realizing that every day I wake up is one more day I might not have had. How can I open my eyes to see the gift and beauty of this day?

Amazingly enough, I would say because of my cancer journey, I am doing well in the midst of our current COVID restrictions. Sure, I want this pandemic to be over as soon as possible. But I am not wishing these days away, waiting for spring when we have a vaccine. I learned some things in the past two years that are serving me well throughout our present challenges—namely, how to live one day at a time. Today, I woke up. And the sun was shining. My broken and beautiful body carried me through a three-mile run. I took in the beauty of the river gently flowing as it has for centuries, the trees standing tall with their gnarled branches surviving wind and winter, and I thought, “I too am alive, and I am here.” Yes, I am finite and I am fragile, but I am also stronger than I know because I am held up by love. If this moment is all there is to this life, it is enough.

And that is my cancer story. It has marked me in so many ways. Do I wish I never got cancer? Of course. But since it came anyway, I am so grateful for what is has taught me.

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