Originally January 25, 2014

I have found great strength, peace and joy through my faith in God. But, I’ve only recently learned that my faith is simply the courage to put aside fear of the unknown. In other words, to stay calm and carry on.

Mine has never been the faith of religious fundamentalists. I’m not criticizing them for their beliefs, but I know mine is different from theirs. Mine is not what I was taught when I was a child; it’s not the faith of epic Biblical leaders, such as Noah, Job, and Esther.

Mustard Seed

I can’t even entertain the idea of me following God’s instructions to build a boat large enough for my family, two of every animal, plus the provisions we would need to survive for a year or more. I have very serious doubts about staying faithful if, like Job, misery after misery rained down on me.

Regarding the heroine, Esther … The only woman of the Bible I remember given the time of day and respect was Mary, mother of Jesus; Esther only recently became a revelation to me. (I’m Catholic; we didn’t study the Bible.) Believing that she was responsible for saving the lives of her Jewish brethren, Esther put her own life on the line.

No. My faith — compared to theirs and others in their league — is literally the size of a mustard seed. Thank God, it’s enough to see me through our daughter’s recent diagnosis of brain cancer.

“It” has all seemed so unreal since her seizure on December 15, 2013. Nearly 30 years old, Katie had not had a seizure since she was an infant — due to a high fever. She called us at 4 a.m., after she had recovered, and my husband, Craig (a neurologist), said that Josh, Katie’s husband, should take her to the emergency room for blood work and a CT scan. Two hours later when she called, she was upset and confused by the doctor’s news: There was a mass in her left frontal hemisphere. Craig’s worst fears came rushing in after he looked at the film, and his face and words said, “This is bad, Nicki.”

Katie was transferred to a “sister” hospital across town for an MRI, which would give a clearer picture of what we were facing. A neurosurgeon that Craig had worked extensively with would not be able to read the report until the following morning. Maybe surgery would be imminent. Instead, the neurosurgeon confidently declared that the tumor was a low-grade oligodendroglioma. There was a lot of calcification surrounding it; this meant it was slow growing. The doctor told Katie that this tumor may have been growing since Katie was a teenager. Surgery could wait until after Christmas. In fact, Katie’s surgery waited until January 9th.

Family and friends wondered how we could enjoy the Christmas season, how we could wait. This was one of the “unreal” pieces … Katie appeared to be the proverbial picture of health. She was now on an anti-seizure medication and could not drive, but she was out of the hospital and back at work. It was easy to place the diagnosis on the back burner. Craig was feeling more hopeful as he read more about the latest studies for Katie’s tumor, which was very receptive to treatment (radiation and chemotherapy).

Additionally, there was the normal holiday buzz everywhere we went and in our own home. Our oldest daughter flew in from Los Angeles almost immediately after Katie’s seizure and stayed until after the surgery, and my mother and her husband were with us for a few days before and after Christmas. As “they” say, life goes on … even if our hearts and minds are full of fear for the unknown.

So, we focused on the known: Katie was alive. Almost immediately after the brain tumor was discovered, I thought, “None of us knows what will happen each day when we walk out the door. We could be gone because of a heart attack or an accident on the road.” Katie was with us, out of the hospital, at work, shopping, enjoying the Christmas traditions. We were hugging and laughing. She was alive. And, we were learning what it meant to truly live in the present.

All of us felt more and more anxious as January 9th loomed nearer. I spent more and more time every day checking in with God to fortify myself. Family and friends “circled around us” from near and far, lifting us up with their prayers and loving thoughts. We reminded ourselves of what the doctor said in a meeting before Christmas: “You’ll (Katie) be out of the hospital within a few days, and you’ll be very independent almost immediately. You may have temporary motor skill deficits. There’s every reason to believe, because of this kind of tumor, that you will live a long, healthy life.” Her words reminded me of what I believe — We live in miraculous times because of the advancements made in medicine.

Still, there’s always the unknown.

A couple of hours after Katie’s surgery began, her doctor came out to the waiting area, and the look on her face was the same as Craig’s after he first saw the CT scan in December. My heart sank. She was disappointed because the tumor appeared to be different than what she expected; it could be much more aggressive, one that was not receptive to treatment. (She didn’t say this, but our daughter could’ve been gone within a few years.) She had stopped trying to extract all of the tumor because she didn’t want to risk damage to the brain. We would have to wait for the pathology report to come back from the Mayo Clinic for a more definitive prognosis. It could take two weeks. I was glad that we couldn’t see Katie for a couple hours after that news; I needed time to recover. I didn’t want her to see on my face what I had seen on her doctor’s face.

When we finally saw her, she was “out of it” because of surgery/anesthesia, but she was answering all of the nurse’s questions, following directions during the neurological exam, moving her arms and legs easily … and texting on her phone! I thanked God right then and frequently after because she was alive and there were NO DEFICITS from the surgery. Again, I was back to living in the present. Over the next two days, she only continued to perk up, and within two days of surgery, she was released.

We didn’t have to wait for the pathology report as long as we expected. Craig, Katie, Josh and I went to the doctor’s office together. There, we continued to wait because the doctor was still at the hospital. Katie and Josh went into the back offices so a nurse could remove her staples. Craig and I waited some more. Then finally, a nurse came to get us. When we entered the doctor’s office, we first saw our beautiful daughter … smiling very, very big. “It’s good news,” she said. And, in my heart and soul, I said, “Thank you, God. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Since then, Katie has seen the neuro-oncologist, who explained — because she has “the best kind of tumor” — she can be part of a clinical trial to begin in March. There are three possible arms of treatment: a new chemo drug; that drug along with radiation; and, the standard chemo with radiation. Patients are assigned their treatment plan randomly. Or, she may choose treatment outside of the study. She’s disappointed about the side effects and putting off starting a family for another year, but she knows that the oncologist’s words are true: “These are temporary inconveniences when you think about the long-term benefits.” We’re proud of her. She has handled all of this with grace and strength.

I often think about the week after surgery, until we received the good news. Every night when I walked our dog before bed, I would stare up into the midnight blue sky, gaze at the stars and moon, breathe in the fresh air, listen to the gentle sounds of our wind chime up the hill, and thank God for all that was right in our lives. It wasn’t easy to begin my prayer with gratitude. But, I was sincere. There was — and, always is — a lot to be grateful for. Somehow, it made the rest of my prayer easier. Then, I “confessed” to being scared … very scared. I was hesitant to admit my fear, because we’ve been taught if we believe in God there’s nothing to fear. Strangely, I felt emboldened, and I told Him what I wanted for our daughter: for Katie to beat the odds and live a long, healthy life — longer than Craig and me — and, to be a mother, something very important to her.

Afterwards, I accepted there are no guarantees. I only knew that I felt more peaceful and strong enough to face the next day. When Katie and I talked about what might happen, that’s all I could say: “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’ll deal with it one day at a time.” My mustard seed sized faith is not enough to move mountains. No human can do that. But, it’s enough to move the fears aside and to — literally — stay calm and carry on. And, for that I’m very grateful.

* Stock photo

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