We Offenburgers have written many stories about our own cancer journeys. We’ve read and heard the stories of many others in the “Cancer Club,” as we sometimes call it. On Saturday, April 21, 2018, during the Greene County Relay for Life, we heard this tremendous cancer story, told by Lou Blanchfield, of rural Churdan, Iowa.
By LOU BLANCHFIELD
JEFFERSON, Iowa, April 22, 2018 — I am really happy to be here today and I am really happy you are here as well!
Seven years ago I was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer, “stage IIIB inflammatory breast cancer (IBC)” and “ductal infiltrating breast cancer.”
So I want to say that it is a real joy to celebrate another year with the American Cancer Society and the Relay for Life of Greene County.
Lou Blanchfield, in the recent photo at right, told her cancer story during the Greene County Relay for Life’s reception for cancer survivors and caregivers. That reception was sponsored by Greene County Medical Center.
Each of us who are survivors and our support people, thank the medical center for this lovely reception and for the gracious attention you provide. Thank you.
There is a common bond among people who have experienced cancer:
–We have each received a dreaded diagnosis of cancer,
–We have each received some form of treatment,
–And today we are each at some stage past our initial diagnosis.
Still, in many ways we are unique:
–We are unique in specific cancer diagnoses,
–and our sources of comfort and strength are unique.
Yet I believe we have learned there is comfort and encouragement in sharing our stories and in lifting each other up with hope and friendship. Some of us have learned that lesson well from Sharon Stalder in her hope-filled cancer support program here in Greene County. So I will share a bit of my story with you.
As an 18-year-old nursing student in the late 1960s, I learned that cancer was a terminal diagnosis. During those years, the disease scared me.
Thank God medical research has made tremendous progress in cancer diagnosis and treatment since then.
During Lou Blanchfield’s cancer struggle, she and her husband Roger Blanchfield found that favorite books gave them inspiration — and also re-booted their “merry hearts.”
Seven years ago, I noted changes in my breasts and got a mammogram. Unfortunately, IBC does not show in a mammogram so I was treated in-hospital with IV antibiotics for a long time.
Over the next two months my condition deteriorated, and I finally had enough courage to look at the American Cancer Society’s website where they suggested the first question to ask your doctor if you think you might have breast cancer is this: “WHEN DO I SEE A BREAST SPECIALIST?”
That afternoon I met Dr. Susan Beck at Katzman Breast Center, at Mercy Medical Center in West Des Moines. Dr. Beck gave me courage as she attended to every detail and took immediate action.
Yet, when the diagnosis of cancer was official, I was terrified.
–My brain and my ears could not understand the words they spoke to me.
–Neither could I read any of the words in the stacks of literature they handed me.
–What I could finally deduce was that the cancerous mass was too big to remove surgically, that they would begin high-dose, rapid-infusion chemo, and that three weeks after treatment began, my hair would be gone.
One day my husband, Roger, and I were invited to dinner with extended family. During dinner, different family members asked me the gentlest possible questions about my cancer and treatment.
I could not answer even one of their questions.
After dinner when we got in our car I said to Roger, “This cancer business is not just about me, is it? It involves our whole family, doesn’t it?”
Roger said, “Yes.”
Grandsons checking out Grandma Lou’s bald head during a campout.
I realized I needed to make significant changes in my thinking.
One of the first thoughts that came to mind was this, from Proverbs 17:22:
“A merry heart does good, like medicine.”
My heart had not been “merry” for a long time.
Immediately, I told Roger about a book I remembered by Dr. Bernie Siegel, who conducted research on the effect of laughter for terminally-ill cancer patients.
We made a decision right then to devote time every evening to laughter, and we knew just where to turn. One of our favorite authors when our kids were little had been Patrick McManus, a humor writer for Outdoor Life, Field & Stream and other magazines, whose books were collections of his stories. His best stories were memories of his antics with his childhood friend “Crazy Eddie Muldoon” and an old woodsman named “Rancid Crabtree.” When we read his stories we used to laugh until we cried!
Then when our kids grew up and moved away, they emptied our library of the McManus collection. So that evening, Rog drove to Barnes & Noble and bought 10 new McManus books for our library.
That night at home, we read one of our favorite stories, “The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw.” We laughed again, and joy began to replace fear in our house!
Lou Blanchfield tells other Greene County cancer survivors and caregivers how important it was for her to find humor again — and to laugh out loud.
The next day, in response to five requests from friends, we opened a CaringBridge account, which is a free non-profit website that helps connect patients with family and friends.
In CaringBridge, we wrote our story. Our family & friends responded.
As the first words of encouragement, prayers, and Bible promises arrived in my computer, I found my mind lifted above my fear, and for the first time after diagnosis, I felt peace.
The light and joy from good books had started us on this journey toward peace, and I found that the words of friends and family gave me a confidence that I was not alone, and that God was with me.
For the next 12 months of treatment, I felt like the boy in the bible whose friends lifted him onto a stretcher and carried him to a place where Jesus was. During those months when treatment was hard, or my body was struggling, Roger would write a note in CaringBridge and my friends prayed harder. Those prayers had the effect of carrying me up the steps to the roof of that house where Jesus was, and then when things looked bad they tore up the tiles on the roof and lowered me down in front of the Great Physician. Never again through that hard time of treatment did I sense fear – I read their words and I read the bible and lived in an atmosphere of peace.
Bible verses became real to me, and I visualized Psalm 116:2 (TEV): “Because He always bends down and listens, I will pray as long as I breathe.” I visualized Him leaning over me when I was weak and could not get up – so I prayed with every breath in and every breath out.
From Psalm 23, I sensed the Good Shepherd walking beside me through my dark valley, and as I rested, I sensed Him gathering my thoughts like sheep so I could sleep.
I learned that trust and gratitude open the heart to the healing power of God.
During treatment I had a specific focus and I had specific work to do. I had physicians, family and friends to support me, and a growing confidence that God listened as I prayed.
When the day came and my doctor told me she thought the cancer was gone, I said, “Oh, I am so lucky!” She said, “No Lou, you are blessed.” I was thankful.
But over time I found that as a survivor, my emotions were not always buoyant. Sadness seemed to come over me like waves of the sea. It was hard to think about being blessed because so many died, and I was alive. And I struggled with the terrible words: “remission” and “metastasis.”
When I told Dr. Beck about my fears, she first told me specific signs of remission and metastasis to watch for and to report. Then she offered me a website address for an on-line daily devotional for women, Girlfriends in God.com, saying, “This might help you, too.” Sometimes I found their stories uplifting and encouraging. They offered me another hand of hope and strength to build confidence in God’s love.
I began to realize that my life as a survivor was as dependent on God as it had been during treatment.
But how could I live purposefully now as a cancer survivor?
Before cancer my focus had been on my career. Now in retirement, and after cancer, I had more choices and I wanted to live a focused life in order to make a contribution with this gift of life I had been given. So, I chose family.
It was an easy choice because we were new grandparents. The grandbabies had a way of taking my mind to all things joyful, growing and hopeful. My growing babies needed just exactly the amount of energy I had available, and unknown to them, they helped me gain strength!
The truth is, they helped me gain more than physical strength. I don’t think the babies could tell I was struggling with the “chemo brain” that sometimes comes with chemo. But Chris Lohr, my artist friend, told me of the positive effects of being creative. She said that if I engaged my right brain, then my left brain would fall in line! So, during days away from the babies, I began painting again.
My first project was two large floor cloths for the boys. From the art department at the Iowa State University Bookstore in the Memorial Union, I purchased two 5-by-7-foot canvasses, and on those canvasses I created floor-cloths by painting a map of our farms, the farm houses and yards, roads, barns, grain bins, and the old railroad track that used to run through our little town of Adaza – all to the 1/32 scale for little toy farm equipment and wooden trains. Our son Brett helped me at key points in the design and the finished products were marvelous.
Grandma Lou on one of the two large floor cloths on which she painted farm scenes for her grandsons.
Then opportunities arose for me to widen my focus – to make contributions to our larger community, and to help in women’s ministries. Gently I regained my strength.
I learned that survivorship is living. Throughout life we never know what will happen next, what we will see, or what important person will come into our lives, or what important person we will lose. Life is constant change, and unless we find joy in the change there is nearly always drama and we need resources to guide us. But I do believe, as author Mark Sullivan wrote in “Beneath a Scarlet Sky,” that if we are blessed to be alive, we live better when we give thanks for the miracle of every moment of every day, no matter how flawed our bodies or our lives.
Now what I am currently discovering is the challenge of being a SUPPORT PERSON.
Two months ago a treasured friend from college days called to tell me he had been diagnosed with advanced melanoma. The shock of his words dropped my heart back to the exact place I had been when I was frightened out of my wits at my own diagnosis.
–And so I pray.
–Because he called me often when I had my cancer, I call him, just to keep him company for a few minutes of time.
–And Rog and I have plans to visit him and his family in Idaho this summer.
Anne Lamott wrote in “Traveling Mercies” that “the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward, and that we, who are more or less O.K. for now, need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room, until the healer comes.”
You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice and graham crackers.
I’ve also learned this, as Lamott described it, “that when all is said and done, all you can do is to show up for someone in crisis, which seems so inadequate. But then when you do, it can radically change everything. Your there-ness, your stepping into a scared person’s line of vision, can be life-giving, because often everyone else is in hiding–especially, in the beginning. So you come to keep them company when it feels like the whole world is falling apart, and your being there says that just for this moment, this one tiny piece of the world is O.K., or is at least better.”
So, as imperfect as we are. we all, both survivors and support people, we need each other. Even when we are most sure that love can’t conquer all, it seems to do just that. Love goes right down into our deepest valley in the disguise of friends, and there it swells up and it does bring comfort.
I would like to close with the prayer Roger and I said from Isaiah 33:2 and Isaiah 42:16.
Our prayer: O Lord, be gracious to us; we wait for Thee. Be our arm every morning, our salvation in the time of trouble.
We heard God’s response in these words: I will lead you in a way you do not know, in paths you have not known I will guide you. I will turn the darkness before you into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake you.
Grandson plays on one of the floor cloths with a farm scene painted by Grandma Lou.
Dr. Lou Blanchfield, who holds three degrees in human development, family studies and nursing, is also an artist, writer and poet who lives on a farm near Churdan, Iowa. You can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.