Saturday, May 28, 2011

paying it forward.

This photo of the young Vespa family was taken on May 26, 1986 on the occasion of Mona's 5th birthday. Now back up 3 more years for this story...

When we arrived in St. Louis on April 4, 2011 for Mike's cancer surgery, we sat down with the Vespas in our "home away from home" with a glass of wine in hand. Janice shared that she just remembered this story: Back in 1982 we lived in the same apartment in Clayton with the Vespas. When Mona was just a baby, Tom had some surgery that required him to be hospitalized for 18 days. Janice was working 12 hours shifts as a nurse at another hospital, and would come home and put baby Mona to bed. She asked me to come down to stay with Mona so she could spend some time with Tom at the hospital.

We were new friends who had met just 6 months earlier but I was glad to do it (and Janice remembers that I brought my needlepoint & spent the time stitching.) Janice wanted to pay me or do something special for me in return for the favor. I told her that it was not necessary at all but "maybe someday you'll be able to return the favor".

What a great memory to surface right before the favor was returned 100 fold.

And Happy 30th Birthday, Mona!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

then and now. 2007 and 2011.

On our recent post-surgery check-up trip to St. Louis, we borrowed the Vespas' bikes and rode all around beautiful Forest Park. It brought back many memories because in October of 2007 we went to St. Louis for Mona Vespa's wedding and on that trip we rented bikes and toured around Forest Park as well. (The top two photos are from October 2007. The bottom photos are from May 2011.)

This earlier trip to St. Louis is noteworthy because Mike actually met Dr. Haughey, four years before he would meet him in his doctor's office. The Vespa Wedding was on Saturday, October 6, 2007 - and the next day we went to church at Central Presbyterian, my old congregation. After the service I saw Helen & Bruce Haughey and introduced them to Mike. Mike and Bruce probably hardly remember the casual meeting, but the memory swirled back into my mind when all the cancer puzzle pieces were coming together. How amazing it still is to me that Randy Mayfield reminded me that Dr. Haughey was the chief surgeon of Otolaryngology at Washington University... and that his research & skills were our answer to avoiding radiation & chemotherapy treatments... and that Mike had actually met him at church on October 7, 2007...


Thursday, May 19, 2011

the bet.

Both Mike and I wondered how much weight Mike had gained back since he left the hospital. We knew that the first thing that a nurse does when we arrive at Dr. Haughey's office is weigh him. So we made a bet. Whichever one of us could guess closest to his current weight would get to pick our next movie - with no complaints whatsoever by the other party.

Starting weight: 186 pounds

Post-Surgery weight: 167 pounds

Current weight: 178.2 pounds

Mike's Guess: 182 Karen's Guess: 178

(I hope Jane Eyre is still in the theaters.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

great check-up.

Yesterday Mike had his six-week post-surgery check-up in St. Louis with Dr. Bruce Haughey. It was great to hear the positive things our wonderful doctor said. "...Healings look excellent. I am very happy with what I see. You are a good healer." Later on in the conversation Dr. Haughey added "I am very impressed by quickly you are healing" and added that he thought that Mike was in the 90% of healing this well and rapidly. I told Mike 10x on the walk and Metro ride back to the Vespas how proud I was of him for how hard he had worked to eat well and take care of himself.
Mike told Dr. Haughey tongue-in-cheek that he was disappointed with the scar to which Bruce said "because you're not getting any sympathy?" Dr. Haughey skillfully and amazingly places the neck scar in the natural creases of the neck and if you have seen Mike you know you have to strain to see the scar even 2 weeks out of surgery. Dr. Haughey said that he tries to teach his interns the same, but I am sure it takes a while to reach that level of skill. (Wouldn't it be fun if we could see his amazing surgical skills on the inside of Mike's body?)

We learned that it will be six months to one year for all the feeling to return to the left side of his neck (ear to clavicle) but that some areas would remain numb. We were also told that his shoulder strength would return within a year. Mike will start physical therapy in earnest to improve his shoulder & arm mobility and strength. After talking with the doctor we understand the importance of PT for Mike. Mike talked about the "shooting pains" he gets in the vicinity of the neck wound and Dr. Haughey explained that deep muscles contract when they heal and he is in that stage of the healing process, and will be for several months. It was really helpful to understand some of these things.

Mike also asked the doctor if there was a chance that I had contracted brain cancer from him. A reference to the fact that we actually missed our flight and had to take a later one into St. Louis because Karen did the simple math wrong for what time we had to leave for the airport. (Note: A sure sign of how tired I am after the cancer journey + graduation party run.) We were half-way to Blair before we realized the error of my ways. I stared at the clock in the car which read 9:15am and thought "wow... our plane leaves at 9:55am. This doesn't seem right." I left out the "arrive at the airport an hour before your flight" part. Hopefully it is just post-graduation-party-fatigue and not brain cancer. Mike wasn't mad at all and the doctor's office seemed glad we arrived later. Thankfully it all worked out. I still feel dumb, for real.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

the power of epsom salts.

For those of you who do not know the age-old remedy, here is a commercial for Epsom Salts. My daddy, Jerry Wallerstedt modeled their medicinal powers by soaking wounds, stiff muscles or irritated skin in an epsom salt bath. I am not sure exactly how it works, but I am here to say that IT DOES WORK. I have used it for years. (My dad used to say that it draws out the impurities.) It is similar to expensive bath salts, without the added scent or bubble action. The healing properties would be similar to a natural mineral spring, but more convenient.

Mother Rabbit has posted about the power of epsom salt before (see post 7/16/2010) but we are talking about it here because hot epsom salt baths have been instrumental in Mike's recovery. Mike has had an ache in his thigh muscle that has kept him awake many a night. We think it might be from the way he favored his leg because of the large bed sore on his heel from surgery. Anyway, we found that if he soaked in epsom salts before bed, he could sleep! One night last week, he actually got out of bed at midnight to go take a bath for the relief he needed.

It is amazing stuff. We are all about finding remedies that involve things found in nature, instead of drugs. It is cheap. It works. Try it the next time you have a wound or sore muscle. Sore muscles are a part of most "long rides".

the importance of an excellent dentist.

Yesterday I had my teeth cleaning appointment at Fremont Dental Group in Fremont, Nebraska. These are the very people we have to thank for finding Mike's cancer at a very early stage. It was Shelly, the dental hygienist and Dr. Emily McCarthy who said to Mike "You need to get this swollen lymph node checked out." (And when he had not done anything by the next visit, they made the referral to the ENT across the street for him.) Not only have they always made going to the dentist an amazingly pleasant experience, but now I well up with emotion when I see them for the extensive dental care they have provided.

One big thing we have learned on MikesLongRide is the importance of having an excellent and thorough dentist. When we have met people on the head & neck cancer ward of Barnes Jewish Hospital and at the Nebraska Medical Center, a common question is "How did you find out about your cancer?" and "What kind of symptoms did you have?" Every story seemed to come back to something a dentist found, or something the dentist missed years before.

If you don't think you are receiving the best dental care available, it might be time to make a change... for your good health.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Look who went on his first bike ride of the season this weekend? It seemed like a real mile-marker to have Mike want to take a spin on his bike, and I thought it was wonderful to see a ride that wasn't part of the "cancer journey."

Mike is back at work full- time starting last week, where he is trying not to lift and move heavy things, but staying plenty busy with facilities management duties. With graduation preparations all around us I am sure he is doing more than he should around the Casa, but he feels ready and there is lots to do. We are looking forward to our doctor's appointment in St. Louis on May 17th not only to hear what Dr. Haughey thinks about Mike's healing and progress, but also because it will mean that all the graduation celebration is behind us. We are confident that we would not be managing as well as we are without your prayer support. We are feeding on your comments, emails, cards and encouragement. Thank you...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

hot flashes and sympathy symptoms.

When Mike was diagnosed with cancer in early February, my hot flashes ceased. This was a big deal - and very noticeable - since they have been living with me for about three years now. I would not say we are friends, but I have definitely gotten used to the dance we do. (The installation of the Casa Blanca Panama ceiling fan in our bedroom was a lifesaver.)

Anyway, almost immediately after we discovered Mike's cancer, the hot flashes left town. When I told my wise massage therapist about it she replied "Your energies are concentrated elsewhere." I am here to say that Mike must be better because my hot flashes are back. When I told Mike that he must not need me as much since the hot flashes returned, he said that maybe I just wasn't noticing him as much. His sense of humor has never left.

I also noticed that from day one I naturally said things like "our cancer" and "our treatment plan". I guess that is a natural thing when you are married to your soul mate. But I honestly did not expect to have so many sympathy symptoms. Honestly, I have had a mild version of many of Mike's symptoms to the point that it is almost creepy: My saliva flow increased when Mike couldn't swallow in the hospital and had to use the suction wand. I got weak and starving when he was on the soft food diet. I have had basic cancer fatigue. When Mike stood up for the first time next to his hospital bed after the surgery, I was light-headed and almost passed out. I have had mucous get stuck in the back of my throat. You laugh. I could go on and on. Maybe the power of suggestion is that strong... or maybe that is just part of what Oneness is about.

Anyway, Mike is lucky I have survived all of his symptoms. Ha.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

marathon runners "run for mike".

Four of our daughters ran the Lincoln Half-Marathon today and we couldn't be more proud of them! Abby designed t-shirts with the MikesLongRide logo and they ran to show their love & support for Mike. Kiley sweetly said after the race "when it got hard, I just thought of my dad and pushed through."

Top Photo left to right: Mallory, Abby, Mike, Hannah, Kiley

meet a cancer warrior.

A longtime friend is battling his 7th cancer diagnosis and treatment of mouth cancer. He is a pastor, author, marriage counselor, nationally-renowned speaker, and head of the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University. I first met Dr. Gary J. Oliver when he taught a Bible Study on campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and our friendship has stuck over these 30+ years. It didn't hurt that he married my college roommate, Carrie Webster, who died from Pancreatic cancer in 2007. Gary lost both of his parents, his only sister, one of their sons and his wife in the span of about two years. One of my questions for God is "Why was it that Gary had to endure so much hardship & heartache on his earthly journey?" Let's just say that Gary will be heavily adorned with jewels in the Eternal for the way he has managed his journey with grace. When you catch yourself saying "Who's the guy with all the BLING over there with the place at the Lord's feet?"... you can remind yourself that it might be Gary Oliver.

We just received Gary's April 28th email update letter and as usual, were moved by his faith through adversity. Gary's journey is such a perspective giver for both Mike and me, and makes our journey seem like a walk in the park (though a crummy & bumpy walk at that.) We asked Gary if I could share his words on our blog and he said: "Yes, I'd be glad to have my story shared. The pain and losses I've experienced become a bit easier for me to deal with when I know that the purposes of the evil one to discourage and defeat are being hindered by my (and others) testimony in the midst of very real storms to the faithfulness, goodness, grace and mercy of our Lord. Our circumstances don't have to determine our reality."

April 28, 2011 Letter from Gary J. Oliver Bottom Line: Praise the Lord for significantly answered prayer. Last week Linda and I went down to M.D. Anderson for a CT scan and check-up and I was told that there is absolutely NO evidence of those two rapidly-growing tumors—both of them have gone. One of the doctors said “That’s amazing!” Even with this great report I’ve been told I’m not out of the woods quite yet but I have a lot to be thankful for and good reason to celebrate. I don’t know how I would have made it without my dear Linda (who has been amazing and never once made me feel like I was an inconvenience), my team at CRE and faithful friends who sometimes said “I don’t know what to say except I’m so sorry” but went on to let me know they were praying for me. I’ve re-learned that when I don’t know what to say to someone . . . to just say that and let them know I’m praying for them. It’s more impactful than I ever imagined. A number of friends have asked what some of the side-effects of my chemo were. Major fatigue (just walking up a set of stairs can exhaust me), nausea, loss of fingernails and toenails, sores and rashes on my skin, inflammation around my eyes that secreted a substance that made me have to actually pull my eyes open some mornings as I couldn’t just open them on my own, swollen tongue, a cognitive “fog” that impacted my ability to focus, decreased creativity, neuropathy which is a numbness in the tips of my fingers and toes, difficulty concentrating, decreased appetite . . . but one good thing is that I was still able to laugh at myself and laugh at my own jokes even if no one else was laughing. THANK YOU for your prayers and your encouragement (texts, emails, cards, letters, voicemail messages, food, smiles, hugs, bad jokes) that have helped us navigate the discouragement and darkness of an uncertain, challenging but effective chemo regimen. Sometimes when it’s dark it’s easy to feel alone even when you know you aren’t. Thank you for reminding me that I wasn’t alone but that there were dear friends who were joined in their hands and hearts in this adventure. Color Commentary: Christ didn’t die and rise again for us to just survive by treading water. He says something about being “more than conquerors.” Regardless of our circumstances His heart for us is, according to Ephesians 3: 20-21, to do “exceedingly abundantly beyond all we ask or think.” My seventh bout with cancer hasn’t just been about me. So what are a few life lessons I’m in the process of learning that might be worth sharing? In The Problem of Pain C.S. Lewis wrote that “Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil.” So true. A bit further on in the same book he wrote that, “God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world . . . “ That is also true. I don’t thank God for the pain but I do thank Him that He is very present in the midst of the pain and that He can use the pain to teach us some wonderful lessons and continue the process of sanctification. Oh, that’s another thing. I thank God for a vibrant theology of sanctification and passages like Isaiah 48:10, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.” None of us wants to be spiritual “fool's gold” but becoming pure gold (I Peter 1:6-7) involves refining and at times the process can be painful. God has continued to teach me how to be thankful for things I’ve never thought to give thanks for. Case in point are fingernails and toenails. Yeah, you read it right. Due to my chemo I’ve had to have 9 fingernails and 8 toenails removed. Not a fun process. Plus, I never realized how important they are. When I lost my thumbnails then my index-finger nails I discovered how simple things like reaching in a drawer to get something, buttoning a shirt, putting my pants on etc. can become almost impossible. The slightest bump to the exposed nail beds causes a remarkable and immediate pain. There have been days I’ve had to have Linda or Andrew button my shirts because I absolutely couldn’t button them. That is humbling! There have been days I could barely walk because I’d had a few toenails removed and it was just too painful. They are starting to grow back and I find myself giving thanks for them. I don’t quote Nietzsche a lot but I think he’s the one who said that “When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago” and that can be so true. It’s interesting. In my journal I wrote, “I fight an almost constant battle with weariness and discouragement but I’m not depressed or overwhelmed by it . . . but I’m still adjusting to this reality of my “handicap” and discovering what it will mean in my life and how it will redefine the rest of my life and having to plan my days in terms of how I will get the amount of nourishment I’ll need to make it through the day. It’s a whole new way to have to look at life.” When my chemo symptoms were at their worst and I was at my weakest I wrote this: “If I can beat this cancer it will be a great victory for the kingdom. If not, then how I go down will be a great victory for the kingdom. Either way my Lord will be the victor.” That may sound a bit cliché but I really meant it. I’ve learned what it is to pray for daily survival, the grace to be thankful when I didn’t feel thankful, the ability to choose hope and joy when there was little of either and to be still and know that He is God, not in spite of but in the midst of the stuff. One day I wrote in my journal, “Every morning I wake up ready to do battle.” That was so true. When you can’t do much of what you’ve always done and love to do it’s easy to feel so useless and when that happens, a full-blown pity-party can be right around the corner. Satan loves that. By God’s grace and lessons learned from previous adventures with physical and emotional pain I knew enough to acknowledge the painful reality of my situation and then praise God for whatever I could and by doing that I was able to avoid much of that dangerous self-pity stuff. I’m blessed that I don’t dread each day and I’m very aware of how well I’m doing especially given the nature of the chemo I was on (coming the tail of a major surgery with major recovery needed), but while counting my blessings is a very effective and legitimate way to maintain perspective and fight the assaults of the evil one and ward off the almost constant emotional, psychological and spiritual warfare, I also know that it doesn’t change for one second the fact of the new realities I have to learn how to live with throughout each and every day. This is hard stuff. Glad I’m not alone, glad that I have a wonderful wife, family and friends . . . and I’m glad that all that I’ve been through hasn’t lessened one iota what I believe . . . that my faith is as strong if not stronger than it ever has been. God continues to prove Himself faithful regardless of circumstances and throughout every situation and circumstances we can experience sovereign joy. Over the months I’ve thought about things that cancer can and can’t do. Here is my list so far . . . Cancer can: Be very painful Lead to very painful emotions End my life earlier than I’d anticipated Add new limitations to what I can do Get me to focus on what I’ve lost and what I can’t do Distort my perspective . . . if I let it Make me aware of my “inattentional blindness” Help me place a new value on relationships Force me to focus Make me slow down and be still (which energizer bunnies find difficult) Make me realize the “end” may be closer than I thought Allow me to prepare accordingly Remind me to do things I haven’t done Help me notice things I haven’t noticed before Give friends a unique opportunity to be “real” friends Help me see some new blessings I wasn’t aware of Teach me new things to be thankful for Introduce me to new friends Give me new eyes to see the hurts and needs of others Increase my appreciation for things I’ve taken for granted Help me become a better listener to God and others Cancer can’t: Rob me of my joy Keep me from learning Keep me from loving Keep me from growing Keep me from encouraging others Keep me from being loved Keep me from laughing Keep me from claiming God’s promises Keep me from praising God for what I still can do Rob me of my friends Shatter my hope Destroy my faith Suppress the many precious memories I have Defeat the power of God’s spirit that lives within me Cannot take away my eternal life THANKS AGAIN for your love, prayers and encouragement. Here is some final food for thought: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. "But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. "For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope." (2 Corinthians 1:3-10 NASB)

It is on my Bucket List to meet Gary's new wife Linda, and thank her for loving Gary through his most recent trials - and to have Gary meet Mike. We will find food that is easy for both of them to swallow.