Good To Be Alive…

I clearly remember a day a few years ago when I was still recovering from a stroke, I was in my bedroom really upset, crying, and praying. No one was home, but me. The more I cried the louder the volume of my “prayer” grew (it was really me having a temper tantrum, letting God know how totally displeased I was with how He was handling my life). That day I was so angry with God. I just did not understand what He was doing or why He had permitted so much pain and suffering in my life. Admittedly, some of the heartbreak and heartache I had suffered to that point was the byproduct of my own poor choices. But, the things that hurt the most that turned my life upside down I didn’t choose. I didn’t choose childhood molestation for myself, I didn’t choose to witness the things I saw in my parents’ dysfunctional marriage and ultimate divorce, I didn’t choose abuse and abandonment, I didn’t choose divorce in my 15-year marriage, and I certainly didn’t choose to have a stroke at age 40. At one point in my prayer/tantrum I remember screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘Why didn’t You just let me die!’ Of course there was no response from heaven at that moment, which exasperated me even more. So, I REALLY started crying then. I mean the uncontrollable, inconsolable kind of crying where snot is all over your face, your shirt is soaked in the front, and when you are finished you have a headache and are so tired all you can do is go to sleep.

When I woke up the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, with no response, I finally accepted God was not the least bit moved by my temper tantrum and to drive the point home He kept waking me up day after day with no response to my inquiry about my sufferings. At least not in a way that I recognized back then. So, I did what I have always done when any kind of pain or adversity came my way, I just kept going.

My dad gave me a wonderful gift in that I can smile, laugh, and joke my way through just about anything no matter what I feel like on the inside. But, as it is with most gifts, used improperly it can be just as much a curse as it is a gift. For me, to keep going meant continuing on with my life as if whatever traumatic event or heartbreak that occurred never happened. I was going, but I wasn’t moving forward or backward for that matter. I was just aimlessly going, hurting, grumbling, and complaining on the inside, much like the children of Israel did on their 40-year journey toward the Promised Land. At some point I think I just decided, it is what it is. I truly loved Jesus with my whole heart and if this was a part of carrying my cross to follow Him (Matt. 16:24-25), so be it.

Another gift I seem to have is the gift of silence. My sisters call me a “vault,” meaning if you tell me something in private you can trust that it will not be repeated. I introduced you to my family in yesterday’s post. NOTHING in my family remains private for longer than a day or two, before whatever has been said or occurred, good or bad, makes its way through the appropriate channels to ensure the whole family is aware. So, to have gained the level of trust among my sisters to be called a vault is a true honor. To my knowledge, there is only one other family vault (Yes, I am talking about you CB).

For most of my adult life my vault-likeness worked both ways. Not only did I guard and not repeat what was told to me, I also very successfully never told anyone anything about me or my life, beyond the regular surface level things. I was considered to be a “private” person. Even so, people (not just my family members) have always seemed to be very comfortable talking to me about the most intimate details of their lives, even when I didn’t reciprocate and share anything about mine.

On January 14th I woke up feeling like I had been running a very long race. I felt tired and winded like I was trying to catch my breath so I could keep going. As I got up to try to push myself to keep going Jesus said to me, “But, can’t you see, Lisa? I took your breath away so you can stop and BREATHE!” That morning, I thanked God that He permitted cancer to trespass in my left breast for a time. It meant I could finally stop for awhile and just breathe; taking one breath, one step, one moment, one day, at a time like He told me after the stroke six years ago.

My granddaughter, Chloe and I have a very special relationship. She was born about a year and a half after the stroke. I was still struggling quite a bit with the aphasia and comprehension. At that time I had to talk myself through the most common tasks like brushing my teeth. I would stand at the sink and say out loud, ‘Ok, I take that thing (my toothbrush), put some of that stuff (toothpaste) on it, turn the knob that has the ‘c’ on it….’ When Chloe was a baby, she and her mom (my oldest daughter Ashley) lived with me for awhile. Where I lived at the time had a huge walk-in closet in my bedroom that became my secret place for just Jesus and me. I went in that closet for hours at a time just talking to Jesus. In there, I read Psalm 27 everyday. It was the only thing I could read that I understood. Once Chloe was born, the Lord told me to have her be my prayer partner in the mornings. So, every morning, Chloe and I either went into our secret place or sat on my bed and prayed.

Chloe is four now and loves to pray, sing worship songs, hear Bible stories over and over again and then retell them to you. She also has this ability to watch the same movie or show umpteen times and enjoy it each time like she is seeing it for the first time. One of those movies is, “The Peanuts Movie.” I have had the privilege of watching that movie with her at least ten times (and I am not exaggerating). After about the third time we watched it together, I let it continue to play through the credits rolling. As the credits rolled a song called, “Good To Be Alive,” by Meghan Trainor began to play. As it played, Chloe and I danced around the living room singing the chorus that says “oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh, oh it feels so good to be alive.” I downloaded the song from Apple Music so it could always be a part of the rotation of songs for the Chloe and Nana dance parties that often take place.

I woke up this morning singing the Meghan Trainor song from “The Peanuts Movie Soundtrack”, until I finally had to put my headphones on and play it. As Meghan and I were singing, I thought about Chloe and could see us dancing and singing around the living room the day we first heard the song. As I was thinking and Meghan was now singing without me, Jesus whispered so softly in my ear, “SHE, among many other reasons, is why I did not let you die.”

As I sit here with tears streaming down my face, for today, all I can say is, ‘It feels so good to be alive!’ If you’ve never heard the song it’s definitely worth hearing. I think you will like it.

Journeying to the Other Side of Breast Cancer: Introducing…My Team

Yesterday was a long and tiring day. I had back to back appointments with the breast surgeon and oncologist. Way too much information to process in one day. I need a day or two before I can talk about those appointments. I have another doctor appointment today with my primary care physician. So, I thought today would be a good day to introduce you to my “Team.” My medical team pictured above are: on the left is Dr. Jose Mendoza, Oncologist/Hematologist, the beautiful woman standing next to me in the top picture on the right is Dr. Regina Hampton, my breast surgeon, and last, but surely not least, on the bottom right is Dr. Waseem Hussain, my Primary Care Physician. I cannot say enough about this team of medical professionals God hand-picked to care for me during this journey. I cannot say enough about their superior bed-side manner, knowledge, and ability to explain things in “plain” language that I can understand.

My visits with Dr. Hampton are more like sit-down conversations with one of your best girlfriends and the subject of the day just happens to be breast cancer and the surgical options available. She is compassionate, encouraging, supportive, and has a laugh that makes you laugh with her.

Dr. Mendoza and I are old friends so to speak. Since he specializes in both oncology and hematology I saw him several times six years ago when I had the stroke. At that time his job was to try to figure out if I had a blood disorder that may have caused or contributed to the stroke. I remember how thorough he was, because he refused to believe that at age 40 the stroke I had was just some strange anomaly that occurred for no reason. So, I was already very familiar with his determination to leave no stone unturned until he is satisfied with what he discovers. He shows genuine concern and kindness, talks to me not at me and just overall has a very comforting spirit. When I saw him yesterday for the first time since the stroke he said, “It is so nice to see you again, but I was really hoping I would never see you again. And especially not for this.”

I don’t think I have the words to adequately describe Dr. Hussain. He has been my primary care physician for almost ten years. He is by far the BEST doctor I have ever seen. He is knowledgeable about everything imaginable, he is personable, thorough and when you are in his office he spends as much time as you need with him. He is soft spoken and his voice alone is comforting. He has been my primary caregiver through sicknesses, surgeries, the stroke, and I am so thankful he is still on my team during this breast cancer journey. When I saw him in his office the day he got the biopsy results he came in the room, sat down, and said, “Well, we received the results we didn’t want to get.” He thoroughly explained what the next steps would be, held my hand, gave me a tissue, and said, “Everything is going to be ok, Lisa. You can and will beat this. The road may be pretty rough, but you will recover, live a long life, and be here to see even more grandchildren born.” THAT’s the kind of doctor he is! I absolutely love him!

I am blessed to be a part of a BIG, loud, loving, supportive family. My family loves HARD and STRONG. If I had to try to describe the kind of family we are all I could come up with is a black (or African American if that is the better way to say black) version of the family depicted in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” We are them to the tenth power! My family is a family full of what I call “people collectors”. Meaning, once you have come to a family function, have dated, been married to or divorced from anyone in my family you are a lifetime family member and can expect to still be invited to family functions and remain informed of all the news that travels through the family grapevine. Technology being what it is, my wonderful nephew/son started a family group chat on Group Me that many of us are a part of. There are days that if I do not look at the family group chat for just an hour I return to see 50 messages to be read. I think the all time high I missed in one day was 72. That is who we are. I said all of that to say, in my family if I have breast cancer then EVERYBODY has breast cancer! So, collectively they make up the largest part of my team.

There are a few family members I want to mention by name and face: Pictured below from top to bottom on the left: My mom, Rev. Susie Taylor (holding my grandson, Logan), my older sister, Leslie, my younger sister, LaShawn (also holding Logan – he’s 13 months now). From top to bottom on the right my gorgeous daughters: my oldest, Ashley, in the middle (like me, and she looks the most like me) LiAnne, and my “baby,” Jasmine. This core group of ladies, along with four prayer warrior friends God has blessed me with, are the ones who see or hear from me on my good days, not so good days, and all the days in between. They pray for and with me, they listen to me vent, they comfort and encourage me. But, I must say more than anyone else I can’t say enough about my beautiful daughters. They journeyed with me day in and day out during the stroke recovery years and they have jumped on the breast cancer train with me with such grace, love, and compassionate care. They are exceptional young women. My Ashley has decided she is going to ask to be put under general anesthesia with me on surgery day so she can be wheeled in with me and hold my hand during the procedure (that is just how she is). LiAnne is in the fitness and wellness field. She is in excellent shape and very disciplined. She will be the one to help me stay on track with my physical fitness. Jasmine is in the science field and has an extraordinary ability to explain the most complex scientific information or math in a way anyone could understand. She is definitely my ace in the hole with all of the medical stuff. And if you are reading and intend to follow this blog then you are a part of my team too. You are family. I have already been so blessed by the many words of encouragement and prayers. I do not take prayer lightly and am truly grateful for each person that remembers me when they call out to God in prayer. So, for today I’m just thankful for my team, and that Jesus is the Captain! Because of Him, I know as a team we have already won, because our opponent was defeated over 2,000 years ago. My body just has to catch up to what I already know to be truth!

Journeying to the Other Side of Breast Cancer: My Date With Bruno Mars

February 2nd will be the 6th anniversary of the stroke I had in 2011, two months after my 40th birthday. Many of you are aware of my stroke story, but for the benefit of those who may be reading this that do not know me personally I figured I would bring you up to speed. The stroke occurred on the left side of my brain, which effected the right side of my body. For a time the weakness on my right side was so prominent I was unable to walk without a cane and could not write or do very much with my right hand. I had very little feeling on the right side of my face and a lopsided smile. I did physical, occupational, and speech and language therapy for almost a year. I still have weakness and less feeling on my right side than my left. I still can’t write very long with my right hand, but I no longer need a cane to walk. I still see a crooked smile when I look in the mirror, but I have more feeling on the right side of my face than I did initially. In fact, most people tell me to look at me they would never know I had a stroke. But, because a stroke is a brain injury, an area people can’t see, they don’t know the lasting affects that still remain.

I was left with something called aphasia, which makes it challenging for me at times to process what people are saying to me and to find the words I want to say to respond. Often times when people are talking to me it sounds like the teacher’s voice in the Charlie Brown cartoons. It’s just a bunch of noise. Sometime later I am often able to really process what was said. The words just pop up in my brain. It actually comes in handy when someone is talking to me and I really don’t want to hear what they are saying anyway. I am able to just smile and nod my head and catch up later. Before the stroke I was more of a left-brain person. They told me the left brain is responsible for things like: logic, sequencing, math, language, facts, and thinking in words. Since the injury was in the left brain, the right brain did exactly what it was supposed to do and kicked into high gear. The right brain is responsible for things like: creativity, imagination, visualization, feelings, and intuition. Math and numbers make my head hurt now. I am a visual learner now. I think in pictures or images. I cannot multi-task. I have true tunnel vision and can only see and do what needs to be done one piece at a time. And I absolutely love bright colors and all things creative.

I gave all of that background because when my daughters and I were in a pretty bad car accident on December 4, 2016 I suffered a concussion that made me feel like I felt right after the stroke. I couldn’t think clearly, didn’t understand words, was very irritable and emotional. The doctor later told me that was all completely normal for a concussion and I would have to have some time of brain rest: no TV, no computer, no reading, nothing that would require too much thinking. He also told me it may take me a little longer than normal to completely recover from the concussion, because I had a former brain injury. But, he did say I could listen to music, which I still do quite a bit, with my headphones on, lights off, in my bed.

One day my youngest daughter, who also suffered a concussion in the accident, and I were talking and she mentioned she really liked the new Bruno Mars CD. At the time I didn’t even know he had a new CD out. I asked her to play it for me. After hearing the first few lines of the first song, “24K Magic” I immediately said, ‘Nope, don’t like it. You can turn it off.’ Later that week as I was having a few moments of illegal iPad time I stumbled across a clip from Bruno Mars’ interview on 60 Minutes. As I watched and listened I saw a young man with kind eyes, a pleasant smile, and a seemingly humble heart. So, I decided I would give his new CD a fair try. I downloaded it from Apple Music that night and listened with an open mind. I listened to “24K Magic” thinking, ‘Come on Bruno you told us ladies in “Just the Way You Are” if perfect was what we were looking for just stay the same. You called us a “Treasure.” You made our hearts break with your lyrics on “When I Was Your Man”…now, we are pretty girls that are waking up the rocket and bad b*#@hes with ugly a$$ friends. What is THAT about?’ Still, I listened. That was night one.

I didn’t know it had been four years since he put out a CD. So, I figured now, at age 31, this is “grown man” Bruno I was hearing. Night two I listened again and was suddenly hooked on the old school feel of the CD. Despite some of the words that I still can’t get with on “24K Magic”, it is one of my favorite songs on the CD, along with “Versace on the Floor.” In the right setting, (with a husband since I don’t believe in premarital sex or “casual” sex, whatever that means), “Versace on the Floor” is the kind of song I want to hear playing in the background. I’m not married so I listen to it sparingly. But, I have promised my adult daughters that if I ever do remarry they will most definitely come to our home one day or night and hear that song playing behind a closed bedroom door. My middle daughter said knowing this, if I ever remarry she will never again come to my home. I will have to go to her house to see her. LOL! I guess that’s a moot point, though, because right now after being divorced five years, the idea of having to share my space with a man that I would have to see everyday, compromise with and all the other responsibilities that come with being a wife, really creeps me out!

Anyway, my concussed brain has now decided the Bruno Mars “24K Magic” CD is the best! Very often I put on my headphones and escape to the dance floor of my bedroom listening to it. With the aphasia I hear more of the music than I do the words, but I do know every word of “Versace on the Floor” LOL. I was told he performed at the new MGM at National Harbor last month, which made me check his touring schedule to see if he was coming here again. And wouldn’t you know it, he will be here at the Verizon Center on September 29th & 30th. I convinced my older sister to get a ticket to go with me.

Since the breast cancer diagnosis I have been forcing myself to make plans to do all kinds of things. As I keep my eyes on Jesus, I keep seeing beyond the cancer journey and all that it entails. I still remember six years ago lying in a bed in the Stroke Unit of University of Maryland Hospital crying and praying softly, ‘Jesus, what am I supposed to do now?’ He responded just as softly, “You are going to take one breath, one step, one moment, one day at a time, holding on tightly to My hand, with you on My right and Me on your left.”

For today, I have reminded cancer that it is just a name. The name above all names, Jesus (Philippians 2:9-11), already conquered it on my behalf when He was crucified, died, and raised to life from a borrowed tomb three days later (Matt. 27, Matt. 28:1-7). It is by His stripes I am completely healed of ALL manner of sickness and disease (Isaiah 53:5). So, despite what the cancer that is currently trespassing in my body tries to imply, I say in JESUS NAME, I will be well, strong, and cancer-free by September 30th (and yes, I did say it out loud directly to my left breast), because I have a date with Bruno Mars at 8PM at the Verizon Center that I WILL NOT miss. And I intend to dance a hole in the floor! I already feel sorry for the poor people who will have the misfortune of being seated near me! LOL!

Journeying to the Other Side of Breast Cancer: The Beginning…

On November 15, 2016 I had my normal annual mammogram that I have had every year since I turned 40. After my mammogram in 2013 I remember how my heart dropped when I got a call saying I needed to come back for an ultrasound of my right breast, because they thought they saw something. The “something” they saw turned out to be a small cyst, absolutely nothing to worry about. So, when I received a similar phone call after my mammogram in November about something they needed to look at further in my left breast I was so unconcerned that it was almost two weeks before I called to schedule the appointment for the ultrasound and mammogram compression views of the area of concern.

On December 22, 2016 I returned for the additional testing. They first did the mammogram compression views of my left breast, which by the way is much more uncomfortable than the regular one they do. Then off to the familiar ultrasound room. I assumed the position with my left breast exposed and my left arm above my head as the technician did her thing. I watched as she measured something she saw on the screen. When she finished she said, “Stay in the same position. I’ll be right back.” She returned with a male doctor who told me I have a mass in my left breast that would require a biopsy. Baffled, I asked, ‘So, this is something different than the cyst that was seen in my right breast 3 years ago?’ He quickly responded, “This is something completely different.” Then proceeded to explain what the needle biopsy would be like. I told him I had a needle biopsy done on my thyroid before and knew the process. He said that the one they would perform on my breast would be much less painful than the one I had on my thyroid. He said other than a needle stick to numb the area I shouldn’t feel anything. Next, they allowed me to get dressed and took me to the “quiet room” so a very nice woman named Vanessa could softly tell me not to worry and that 90% of the time it turns out to be nothing. I’m thinking, ‘Well Vanessa, it may not be cancer, but it is obviously SOMETHING or I wouldn’t be sitting here in the quiet room with you making sure I understand what the doctor told me.” The biopsy was then scheduled for January 9, 2017.

In the midst of all of this I was recovering from a concussion I sustained in a car accident on December 4, 2016, the day after my 46th birthday. So, to say I was less than pleasant would be a tremendous understatement. Still, I had a wonderful Christmas with my beautiful family and began preparing for the New Year with great expectation! On December 29, 2016 I had a dream/vision of a doctor in a hospital talking to some people. I didn’t see myself or my family in the dream. He said, “Everything went well. She is doing just fine. We found the cancer on the left. It is always on the left.” The dream or whatever it was didn’t scare me as much as it made me curious. I wondered if God was preparing me for the results after the biopsy. The only thought that kept cycling through my mind was “This affliction is not unto death…(John 11:4)” and “You shall live and not die and declare the works of the Lord (Psalm 118:17).” The next day, December 30, 2016, I woke up on “auto pilot” singing praise songs, dancing around my room mindlessly, yet meticulously, gathering all of my personal, banking, and insurance information. I put everything in order in a way that would make all of my information easily accessible to my daughters. I didn’t give any thought to what I was doing or why. I just did it.

Monday, January 9, 2017, biopsy day, finally arrived and I was not nervous or anxious at all. I was at peace. I got dressed, put on make-up, took a selfie and sent it to my family. I even joked that I had to make sure I looked my best just in case the doctor or someone involved with the procedure was a hot, single, Christian man. I told them he would’ve already seen my boobs, which may qualify as a first date. No such luck. Ladies, never let a man tell you what will or won’t hurt your lady parts. The assault on my left breast that they called a needle biopsy was much more painful than the one I had on my thyroid. When it was over they said my doctor should have the results within 72 hours.

On Tuesday, January 10th, the very next day, I get a call from my doctor’s nurse who told me my doctor would like me to come into the office so he could talk to me that day. She asked if I could be there by 11:30. I said I could and would make sure I cried before I got there, since the result of the biopsy was obviously cancer. My doctor explained that I have invasive ductal carcinoma, which is the most common type of breast cancer women get. He told me who my new “team members” would be; a breast surgeon and an oncologist. He told me the next step would be “staging,” which would require more diagnostic testing and ultimately surgery to remove the tumor.

On January 12th I had my first appointment with the breast surgeon who basically reiterated what my doctor told me. She ordered an MRI of both breasts and a PET Scan of my whole body to rule out any other areas of concern. I had both of those tests done yesterday, January 17th. I woke up yesterday morning in tears and unnerved by the whole process. The day before and on that morning I kept hearing in my spirit, “There is more to be seen.” For the first time I felt as if I was afraid. I am so thankful that God has given me women of God that I can text, email, or call with my emotional meltdowns. I sent out the distress signal and they responded. As I was crying my eyes out, Jesus whispered in my ear, “You are NOT afraid. You are nervous, which is a normal human response when you experience something new and uncomfortable. Fear is a SPIRIT, which I have not given you (see 2 Timothy 1:7 NKJV) and therefore has no place in you. When you finish crying, get dressed so we won’t be late for our appointment.” Him saying “our” appointment gave me great peace, because I knew He was with me. So I pulled myself together and got dressed.

The PET Scan technician, Hassan, explained he would be injecting some kind of radioactive stuff into my veins, then I would sit in another room for an hour while it worked its way through my body, I guess. I joked with Hassan while he was doing the injection that I was going to light up like a Christmas Tree when I left. He laughed. People have always said I have a beautiful, bright smile. I told him I expected my smile to really light up the room today! He smiled and escorted me to a room that had a nice recliner in it, dimmed the lights and said he would be back in an hour. I reclined, put my headphones on, and listened to my worship playlist. I got to spend a whole hour of just Jesus and me before the next set of unnerving handling of my body. How awesome is that!

After the PET Scan was finished I was seated in a hall waiting area until they were ready for the MRI. There I was joined by Kevin, who was also dressed in one of the highly fashionable blue gowns I was wearing. We chatted a bit as we both tried our best to keep our lady and male parts adequately covered so nothing came popping out that would’ve made us both very uncomfortable. During our conversation he said/asked, “You are a Christian?” I said, ‘Yes’, but didn’t get a chance to ask him what gave it away, because they called me in for the MRI.

The MRI wasn’t too bad, but was uncomfortable because my left breast is still sore from the assault it endured during the biopsy. The MRI assistant, Rosa, was an absolute sweetheart and the technician, Connie, was very pleasant. I got to listen to music in headphones throughout the process. I chose jazz. Connie selected Kenny G’s “I’m in the Mood for Love” CD, which she assured me was among his best. I enjoyed it so much that I downloaded it from Apple Music as soon as I got home.

The whole process for both tests took about 2 1/2 hours. My mom, the awesome Missionary & Reverend to whom no one is a stranger, took me to the appointment. So, I was not surprised at all when I entered the waiting room and she introduced me to an older gentleman named, Mr. Renee, who promptly gave me a hug, told me to give it all to God, and I have a wonderful mother, which I already knew. But, I was glad Mr. Renee was able to experience her special brand of sunshine that I am able to enjoy on the regular. As we were leaving I again saw Kevin, now fully clothed, and we all walked together to the parking lot. He also got to experience my mom’s special kind of joy. With a big bright smile  (not as bright as my now radioactive one – LOL) he gave me a hug as we headed in opposite directions to our cars.

I would love to say I am blogging my cancer journey for some noble reason, but the truth is I am doing it, because on January 13th Jesus asked me to. I have written about some very personal, traumatic things that have happened in my life, but I always did so looking back at it, not while going through it. I said, ‘Lord, this is so personal and raw for me right now. Do I really have to share it in such a public way?’ He responded: “What you deem personal is the very thing I will use to bring healing, comfort, and My very Presence to those who read what you share. Not everyone is sick with disease. Many are sick in heart, sick in spirit, or among the walking dead who do not know Me. You are honest, real, and transparent. You do not hide behind Christian platitudes or memorized scriptures. You SHOW who I Am just by being who you are and allowing Me to be Myself through you.” So here I sit blogging my journey…

For today…somehow making Hassan smile and laugh on a day I was super nervous and giving Kevin a hug he seemed to need made me feel like in some small way they got to see Jesus through me. Because it was definitely His smile, His jokes, and His arms yesterday!