Health & Wellness, Inspiration, Living beyond breast cancer, Survivor & Caregiver

Words are Powerful: survivor insight from Vicky Westra

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By Dr. Shelby Terstriep

December 26, 2013

My last post spoke about the life-changing presentations from amazing women at the recent Edith Sanford Breast Cancer Retreat—Embracing Life. Vicky Westra opened the day. Here is her survivor insight.

Vicky Westra at the 2013 Edith Sanford Breast Cancer Retreat

Hi. My name is Vicky Westra and I am living with stage IV breast cancer.

I am much more of a writer than I am a speaker, so I sat down and wrote all I would want to tell you about living with stage IV breast cancer and this is what poured out of my heart …

Words are powerful. The last five years of my life I have spent writing my blog, The Westra World. Through writing, I’ve always known words can elicit emotion, provide comfort, give encouragement, or cut deeper than a razor-sharp knife. I have also used words to help guide me through living a more intentional life.

Words have additionally, given me a voice. They have refueled my soul, granted me perspective, and even dropped me to my knees in fear.

Words have been a source of guidance. For the past five years, instead of picking a New Year’s resolution, I have done the one word challenge, picking a word to use as a lens to see, a focus in which to view things. It’s a guiding principle in which you can watch for all the ways your word manifests in your life.

Looking back, I find there is much serendipity in the word I chose as my word of the year in 2011. My Dad, Willard, passed away in July of 2010 and I chose the word “alive” just hoping it would propel me into feeling alive again. I had been walking around in such a bubble of grief, the light only halfway on.

In a way, you could say I got what I asked for, just not in the way I anticipated. The lump in my breast appeared in late December of 2010. I knew the jello-like wiggle, encased in what I assumed to be cysts again. So I waited for them to resolve. But instead they grew slowly, and then a hard ridge formed. It was March 16, 2011, when I went to see the doctor. Yet, I felt no sense of panic. I’d been there before. The exam, the ultrasound, the mammogram. I’d been doing them since I was 25 years old.

But this time, urgency rears its ugly head instantly upon finishing the ultrasound. The ultrasound tech leaves to consult with the radiologist and then she returns to the room. She flips on the screen and shows me the blood-red angry looking splashes leaping from the screen. “ We think this has many characteristics of cancer …” She pauses. “No,” she says, “actually, we know. It’s cancer. You have breast cancer.”

And instantly I am crying. “Just like that, you can tell?” I glance back at the screen, thinking “yes, you can tell.”

The tech says, “I felt you needed to know right away. A lot is going to happen very quickly — consults for surgery, chemo, radiation — all starting next week.”

Her voice fades as my mind grows frantic …

How am I going to do this? I am filled with worry, regret, concern. My husband, my kids, my mom. What will this do to them? The world around me starts to feel very, very small. So, I turn to the biggest thing I know… God. “Are you sure God? It seems like it would take a very strong person to be able to shoulder all of this. And I’m not God, that isn’t me. Please show me … please show me how.”

It’s the tech’s voice I hear again. She isn’t normally the one to share this news. How very brave of her, I think. She must be so outside of her comfort zone, trying to provide comfort for me. She gets me kleenex, water, my phone. She offers to carry my things and help me walk. She sees me through the rest of the afternoon.

She was an answered prayer, and it was the very beginning of just how God was going to see that I was not walking this journey alone.

It was a nurse’s parting words that led me to my next moment of pure grace. She told me I needed bed rest after the biopsy. “So go home,” she said. “And grab that book waiting for you on top of your nightstand.”

A light clicked on. I knew just the book, and this is the book I grabbed: One Thousand Gifts, a dare to live more fully right where you are by Ann Voskamp.

I read and read, barely stopping for anything. Ann proposes a dare — to list 1,000 gifts we are thankful for. It’s in the giving thanks for the gifts and blessings we already have that leads to living fully right where we are.

“Take the dare,” I think. “It’s the only way to do this.”

And this is how I begin to do it and still am doing it today. I’ve discovered being thankful in everything has left me wanting for nothing. I absolutely think that book, on that day, was a life preserver and fully propelled me back into feeling alive, just when I felt I was going under.

It all began that day as I started my list:

#1 The sound of thunderstorms in March.
#2 Oncologists with a sense of humor.
#3 The smell of freshly ground morning coffee.
#4 The first spring sunshine warming my skin

and so on …
my list still grows …
and then I discover my second biggest gift:
as my list grows,
my world expands …

Over the next few weeks, my phone rang incessantly with doctor’s appointments, a stage IV diagnosis, big words and way too much for me to take in. When it was confirmed that I have an aggressive cancer, it all caved in on me and I crumpled onto a heap of dirty clothes on my laundry room floor.

As I lay grieving over life as I knew it, slowly, I felt all of the angst and sorrow start to slip away. I was in deep surrender — leaving it all with Him. “Okay,” I thought. “Now, just breathe — and wash the clothes, that’s all you have to do. The rest is with Him.” And so I did. I learned that day that you have to empty the hurt, the hard, and the gritty so that you can fill again, with the joy, with the light, with the life.

I would have to say it was the beginning of many trips to my spot on the floor, surrendering to His will, not mine. His way, not mine. It was going to take facing a life-threatening illness for me to fully understand how to fully be alive.

And as I began to see life with new eyes, my words grew. A community of blog readers showed up — many of whom are still with me today. They celebrate my victories, and lift me in prayers when my burdens grow heavy. My writing voice also grew both more vulnerable and authentic, as well as humble. I am a blessed woman. And while I hesitate to tell you my blog is now a cancer blog, what I truly hope is that my blog is about faith, and life, and love.

People often ask, “What are the lessons you’ve learned through having cancer?”

Well first, I think I’ve learned that instead of worrying about not having enough time, we should just expand our time. I feel more and notice more in the tiny moments of my day. Like how sweet the sweat smells in the hair of my son when he’s been playing outside all day. How golden the sunshine is in October. How water lapping at my feet soothes my aching soul. How joy grows when you delight in the small.

I’ve learned to lean in, and embrace, instead of shying away. So lean in.

I’ve learned that courage resides just on the other side of vulnerability. So be vulnerable.

I’ve learned to live with intention. To live with purpose. And instead of just thinking about leaving a legacy, why not just live your legacy — every day.

I have also found that grace can be found even in the most painful and seemingly hopeless times. All I have to do is see with fresh eyes — and fully live all my moments. Gifts await in the tiniest of moments; if you are open to seeing them, they are all around us.

My wish for you …

May your days be filled with small, sacred moments of awareness.
May you set aside your hurry, your pulling, your wishing for different.
May you linger over meals and take walks with slow steps.
May you hold books with pages, mugs with steam, and hands who know your secrets.
May you settle in, right where you are, refusing to wish for something different.
Enjoy your time, friends. Live your moments — live them full.

It doesn’t get more insightful than that! Getting to meet her in person was an absolute thrill for me. I felt like I knew her from her blog and she was exactly the amazing person that I had envisioned.

Also check out her blog post about the day.

Thank you Vicky … for everything.



Read more about Vicky’s story.

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