#MillennialMonday – Athlete, Advocate & Cancer Survivor

#MillennialMonday

What was going through your mind when you first heard the words, “You have cancer”?

My mind went in a millions places at once, not knowing what to think or even what questions to ask. I had very little knowledge of what happens when one gets a cancer diagnosis. I knew that my cancer was in my skin, but I didn’t know if it would need to be treated the same way as other types and stages of cancers, like when there is a solid tumor(s).

I wondered, “Will I need chemotherapy?” “What does this mean?” and “Will I die?” I started to cry and wondered if maybe I didn’t really need to be that scared, if it were something that was easily treatable. I was just really confused.

What was your emotional response? Were you angry at God? How did your diagnoses affect your relationship with Christ and your perspective on Christianity? Was it difficult to be honest with what was going through your head at church? Did you feel like you had to put up a façade and “count it as all joy”?

When I heard my diagnoses I didn’t get mad at God, I figured “Well, a lot of people got cancer, and I just happen to be one of them.” I also was not sure if I believed in God at that time and didn’t think much about spiritual things. However, I believed that if God were real, I had more time before things got worse and I had to get right with Him (or I might end up in a place forever where I didn’t want to be).

What was it like finding out that the melanoma had spread to various parts of your body? Did you feel like you were losing control? Did you ever feel like God had abandoned you?

When I found out that I had 7 tumors in my neck, lung and spine, I felt so discouraged that my cancer had returned so quickly. I had just finished radiation treatments two weeks earlier, and it just felt like everything I had been through in the last 4 months had been for nothing – 2 surgeries, losing half my ear, a month of radiation – and I was back where I started.

My mom and sister drove up from NY to give me the news, and as they stood with me in my dorm room, I leaned over my bed and looked out the window onto the Boston skyline. I tried to imagine ways I might be able to heal, but every option I knew about ended in my untimely death. I felt helpless. My mom reassured me that there were natural options we hadn’t looked into, those that my doctors didn’t believe in, but had been used by others to heal themselves. Since conventional treatments hadn’t worked for me, my mind was open and I believed that maybe I had a shot to heal using alternative treatments.

As an athlete, did you feel like much of your identity was in your ability? Was it difficult to lose control over your body – especially since you purposefully tried to keep yourself healthy?

Much of my identity at that time was tied to my being an athlete, and I wished that I could’ve been hanging around with my team, doing what everyone else was doing and enjoying their company. But in facing this life or death situation I didn’t feel very bad that I was no longer able to perform my usual “duties” as an athlete, because it was really out of my control.

The worst part about it was I had to make a heartbreaking decision to go to Mexico right before my team’s championship meet. I wanted desperately to travel with them and cheer them on as they competed against our rivals, but I didn’t think it would’ve been wise to wait another week before going to Mexico to start my treatments.

Where did you find your support? What helped you keep your faith during that time?

It was having people who believed in me, who believed I would get well that helped me keep going. I had tons of people rooting for me, encouraging me and praying for me and that made a huge difference. Family, friends, people in my community at home, at BU, the America East Swimming and Diving Championships, and even total strangers rallied behind me. It was amazing.

At championships, a member of our rival team led the whole conference in supporting me, collecting money and cards of encouragement in a decorated shoe box with my picture on it, which I still have today. One evening at the onset of finals everyone held hands and raised them up over their heads in a moment of silence for me, to show their solidarity. I witnessed it via Skype as my dive coach held her computer on her shoulder to give me a view of the entire aquatic center. The support was overwhelming.

There was also a motivational speaker, Jon Gordon, who came to my school to speak to the athletes just as I was beginning my search for a cure, who called and encouraged me when I was at the Cancer Treatment Center of America in Tulsa getting a third opinion.

At the time I was surrounded by believers (I was in the Bible Belt) and I told him, “I don’t know what I believe about God, but I went to chapel and everyone was saying, ‘Praise Jesus, praise Jesus!’ I just don’t get it, why would they do that if we’re all going to die anyway?” He admitted it was a hard question, but told me he believed in me and that I would get well, and he urged me to trust God and keep praying for a miracle. Hearing him say he believed in me was so refreshing compared to what the doctors and statistics were saying, and I thanked him for that. He was one of a few who I felt really believed that I would be ok and he gave me a boost of energy to keep pressing forward.

When you traveled to Mexico to receive treatment, what was going through your mind? Was it difficult to battle cancer in a different country? Was it frustrating to find that your own country wasn’t able to treat you fully?

I was very frustrated with how I had been treated by my doctors, who were antagonistic of my desire to forego traditional treatments, and the fact that I had to go to Mexico for treatments that were once allowed, even mainstream, in the U.S. Everyone seemed to dismiss the fact that therapies such as the Gerson Therapy and Coley Fluid had healed many people.

It was terrifying going to Mexico for treatment. Every step, from the airport in NY to my room in the hospital in Tijuana, was uncharted territory and I had no idea what to expect. It didn’t help that both my mom and I didn’t speak Spanish (though thankfully my mom was able to come with me).

Getting dropped off at a small airport in upstate NY by my dad and grandma; getting picked up at our hotel in San Diego in an old black Chevy Suburban with maroon interior, by a young man who didn’t speak English; going into an office at the U.S./Mexico border and getting bossed around by scary men who tried to help me fill out the proper papers so I could be allowed in the country; and arriving at an old, dirty looking building that had no resemblance of a hospital nearly took my breath away. But turning back was not an option, I had no other choice. By God’s grace everything worked out as I hoped it would and I was healed without a glitch.

We talk so much about healing in the church. Did you find that others wanted to walk with you through the journey, or just celebrate your victory? Did you find that Christians supported you through the process?

I often felt lonely during the healing process. There were people in my life who didn’t know what to say and/or felt it was too hard or time consuming to endure the hardship with me, which is only human. I think it’s pretty common that when we don’t know what to say to someone who is suffering we withdraw and observe from afar, even as if we didn’t know what was happening.

Coming from the sufferer’s standpoint, it feels OK if a friend or loved one doesn’t know what to say, as long as I know that my friend cares and is there to listen. If a person who is suffering doesn’t have that kind of support, then maybe she would do well to reach out when she feels isolated and open up about how she feels. That could help alleviate some awkwardness and tension.

What would you say to a millennial who’s been diagnosed with cancer?

You don’t have to be afraid. God can heal anybody at any time in any situation, and He’s given us many tools to help our bodies heal themselves. Whether you want to pursue conventional, alternative or a combination of the two kinds of treatments, there are so many stories of people who have been healed from all different kinds of cancer, even terminal or “hopeless” cases where doctors told a person there was nothing that they could do. However, you probably haven’t read about these radical remission cases that are not widely reported or investigated due to skepticism and unbelief that this kind of healing could be repeated.

The first thing you should do is pray and ask God to guide you to the healing modalities that are right for you. After that I would suggest searching for stories that are similar to yours. Do as much research as you can about what treatments will best improve your chance of survival with the least amount of harmful and long-term side effects. Please, really do your research here with an investigator’s mindset, as sometimes cancer treatments may actually cause secondary cancers, infertility and other negative side effects, and they may not actually prevent your cancer from coming back. Also, beware that big names of doctors, hospitals and organizations may call effective kinds of treatment “quackery”, as my treatments (the Gerson Therapy and Coley Fluid) were wrongly accused. Chris Wark, of www.ChrisBeatCancer.com has a really great list of 20 questions to ask your doctor when discussing treatment options.

A great place to start your search is www.RadicalRemission.com, a database by Dr. Kelly Turner, author of Radical Remission: The 9 Key Factors That Can Really Make a Difference, where you can find stories according to type and/or stage of cancer. You can also search www.ChrisBeatCancer.com, www.TheTruthAboutCancer.com, and even just plain ‘ol Google! Believe Big (www.BelieveBig.com) is another wonderful organization started by a friend who is a Christian and overcame stage 4 colon cancer using Mistletoe Therapy. Her organization helps guide cancer patients through the cancer journey with emotional, spiritual and nutritional support. She and her volunteers pretty much do what I want to do, and she’s located in Baltimore, MD. 🙂 If a person is interested in going to Mexico for the treatments that I used I would recommend speaking with Gar Hildenbrand, an American epidemiologist who was the brains behind my treatment plan! His website is www.GarHildenbrand.com, check it out!

When did you come to realize that your struggle was becoming your story? When did you realize that you wanted to use your journey to inspire others?

That happened after I was healed. Shamefully, one of my first thoughts when I went into remission was, “Oh great, now people are going to want to talk to me to ask what I did to get better, and I’ll be obligated to talk to them.” I was not a lover of people. But God really changed my heart and though the calling feels overwhelming at times, my desire is to share the good news with as many as I can that there is ALWAYS hope for healing; and that there are legitimate natural cancer treatment options that worked for me and many others in the past, even terminal cases.

What ways were you challenged? Did you change at all as a person? How did cancer affect your calling? Do you believe that you would be where you are today without cancer?

Everything about my life changed because of my cancer, and I am so grateful for that. The healing I received was undeserved, and I knew it. I was selfish, self-centered, negative, ungrateful, unforgiving with my words and had very little ambition. I’m still working on these things, but God’s grace began shifting my perspective and character and as cliché as it sounds I’ve learned what it means to actually live instead of going through the motions. It’s made me realize that there is more to life than school, sports, work, family and a bit of community service.

When newly healed, I believed that I needed to value my relationships more, to be more positive and grateful for things in general, overcome fear, try new things and “live life to the fullest.” However, when that didn’t work and I was just as miserable and hopeless as I was before my healing, I began seeking God. A few months later, I put my trust in Jesus, and since growing in my faith I’ve realized that ultimately the point of life is to have a relationship with Jesus, and that’s given me the fulfillment and wholeness I never had before.

Because of my relationship with Jesus and the second chance He’s given me, I now have hope, direction, passion, love and empathy. I want to make the best use of my time to have an eternal impact, and I love seeing God accomplish His supernatural work, it’s so exciting! I am humbled and amazed at the fact that the almighty Creator of the universe wants to use me to be His hands and feet to do His work – to bring hope, light, love and healing to the world. His love and blessings are beyond my comprehension, and sometimes it brings me to tears, I’m so thankful. He can and will love and bless any and all who come to Him.

Who are some people in your life who inspired you through the journey?

Along my cancer journey I came across people who were positive, loving, caring and selfless, despite intense adversity. They were the kind of people I was not, yet wanted to be. One young woman was named Clare Boggan, a fellow patient in Mexico, who had an extremely rare type of cancer called myxofibrosarcoma. She started juicing and eating super healthy before going to Mexico and was doing much better than her doctors had anticipated, but she still suffered constant pain from many surgeries and slow-growing tumors that prevented her from standing, walking, sitting, lying down (doing anything) comfortably. Every time I saw her she wore a big smile, even as she shivered and shook with a fever from the treatments. I so admired her resilience and her heart. She showed wonderful openness and compassion for those who were not so lovable (e.g., me) and was always very encouraging. She never complained despite her situation and fought like a warrior until her very last day.

Another person who inspired me was a young man named Nate Shatsoff, whom I heard about in an American Cancer Society email that my aunt forwarded to me. Nate had stage 4 colon cancer and was just like Clare, from what I could tell (I followed his blog and stalked his Facebook). He was positive, encouraging, determined and relentless against cancer. He continued going to college as long as he could and even started a nonprofit organization to raise money for cancer research, appropriately namedRelentless Against Cancer.” I followed him as my own cancer journey continued to unfold, and after my trip to Mexico I tried reaching out to him suggesting maybe he could try something unconventional like I did. He never responded, though I understood there might’ve been many reasons why. Sadly, after years of painful experimental treatments, his body gave out at age 24.

If you could talk to millennials who are facing cancer or a different tragedy, what would you tell them? How would you renew their hope? What are some ways that others can support friends who are diagnosed? How can they show their love and encouragement?

It’s OK to feel depressed sometimes. We are human, even great people in the Bible expressed depression and despair, like in the Psalms. Just don’t make it the theme of your life. Ecclesiastes 3 says, “There is an appointed time for everything… A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance.” Don’t give up the laughing and dancing. God is still good and life is still good, even if it’s hard! Click To Tweet Laughing at myself helped a lot as I went through difficult times. I’m laughing just thinking about the times my crooked smile and half-ear – painful things to deal with along the way – actually became the butt of jokes. Having people to laugh with me was even better.

If you have a loved one who is facing a scary diagnosis, just be there for them; listen and let them get their feelings off their chest. There were people in my life who loved me dearly and wanted to help, who gave me that “let’s think about something else” kind of tough love, which I appreciated, yet slightly resented at the same time. They were right to not let me dwell in despair, but could’ve done a little more listening and empathizing first. In the hard (and the good) times, the only place to run to that will give us unchanging, lasting hope and comfort is God.

I know, because I’ve tried finding it in other places and never found it. I’ve had a couple health scares since my healing and during the first one I panicked and was miserable for the 7 weeks between my scans, because I did not trust God. The second time I basically said, “I ain’t going through that again.” I wanted more peace and decided to use the situation for God’s glory, pointing other people to Him. The suspicious mass in my chest that had grown, miraculously shrunk, and I was amazed. It was like God just wanted to show me that I could trust Him.
The way the Lord works is often a mystery and sometimes challenging to accept, but in the end nothing will change His faithfulness, His love and His mercy. His Word says this is true, and I am living proof. In the end, no matter what happens or when we die, we get to meet Jesus and nothing could be better than that.

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