by Andrea Popkes
Note from Allie:
Today we are featuring Part 2 of Andrea's battle with and recovery from breast cancer. To read Part 1, click here. Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought it would be a great opportunity to invite my friend Andrea Popkes to share about her battle with breast cancer. She was diagnosed at just 31. Andrea and I met back in 2007 through work and we had the chance to explore the North Island of New Zealand together when our travel plans crossed in 2009. She is a brave, beautiful soul and I think we can be encouraged and inspired by her story.
How did you experience God through your battle with breast cancer?
How I experienced God through breast cancer actually started before I was diagnosed. As I look back, I see how God was preparing me for what I was about to go through. While living in Australia, I experienced some wonderful highs and devastating lows during that year. One of the biggest things I dealt with was feeling quite lonely a lot of the time. I quickly discovered that God was wanting for me to fully rest in Him. It didn't take long for God to make it clear to me what he wanted during that time...
“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10
When I pursued silence and solitude with God during those lonely moments I experienced an overwhelming peace in my soul and began to give thanks to Him for this season of loneliness. Never before had I experienced such an intensely real and personal relationship with God. How I experienced God during my time in Australia carried over into how I experienced Him during my battle with breast cancer. My whole perspective changed and shifted to a different focus. I wasn't necessarily focused on myself and why this was happening to ME. I began to look at my diagnosis as a blessing. I began to see hope and look forward to how God might use my experience to encourage and support other women going through breast cancer at a young age. My life was quickly given a new purpose and direction.
How has life changed since you've finished all your treatments and surgeries?
Once everything was completed, I thought I could just jump back into life as I remembered it. So much of me wanted to pick up where I left off and just move forward. Unfortunately, it hasn't been that simple. I've had difficulty functioning, mentally, physically, and emotionally at the same level as before.
One of those struggles has been mental cloudiness or “chemo brain”. There are times when I have difficulty concentrating and suffer from slower thinking and processing. Other times I have trouble remembering common words to finish a sentence or just finding the right words to express myself. This can be quite frustrating to say the least.
On the physical side, I've struggled losing the extra 20 pounds I put on from some of the drugs they had me on and the lack of physical activity. My endurance and energy levels are so low that it's difficult to maintain a consistent and steady exercise regime. Sometimes I feel like I'm dealing with constant fatigue.
Emotionally, much of what I went through in the last two and a half years really took it's toll on me, more so than I actually realized. I think while going through all my treatments and surgeries I was in “take care of business” mode. I didn't have much time to actually process what was happening. When the doctor's appointments and check-ups started to become more infrequent, I was left feeling lost. I thought to myself, “Wait, I had cancer! How do I get over this? What do I do with my life now?” Nothing was what it used to be... everything was different, and so was I. I was left to find my new normal. And in many ways, I'm still trying to figure out what that might be.
Many people aren't prepared for the after effects of cancer treatments and what to expect when everything is finished. You are sort of left up to your own devices to really sort it out and get your life back together. Dealing with these things can sometimes be more challenging than going through treatment itself.
As young women, we so easily take our personal health for granted. What would you like to share with those of us who've never experienced a personal health crisis?
Even if you've never experienced a personal health crisis, you may know someone close to you who has or someday will. In many cases, you will feel helpless and not sure what you can do to offer help and support. Being on the other end of needing help, I learned a little something... how hard it is to ask for help sometimes. Even if someone has already offered to extend a helping hand, it's difficult to go back to them when you're needing help. So my advice is this... when you offer your help or support to someone in the midst of a personal health crisis, be specific in how you want to help. For example, instead of saying something like, “Let me know if you need anything” try to be more specific by saying, “I'd really like to bring you dinner this week. What night would work best for you?”
Another thing I know many of us struggle with when a friend or family member is going through something tough is finding the right words to say. Sometimes we end up saying such cliché phrases they almost don't seem sincere even if they're coming from a good place. What I've realized after my experience is that we're not expecting our friends and family to say the right thing to make us feel better. Sometimes we just want our feelings to be validated and acknowledged. Many times it's not what you say, it's what you don't say. Remember that your presence may be all the support they need at a particular time. Physically being there, whether you're talking or not, is sometimes all it takes.
For those who are currently battling cancer or a serious health problem, what encouragement do you want to share?
You're not alone. You're not the first person to go through what you're experiencing and you're definitely not the only person who has ever felt what you're feeling. We all will encounter hardship at some point in our lives and we need to understand what we're feeling is okay. Whether it be anger, frustration, fear... bring those feelings to God. He already knows how you're feeling and won't be surprised. The safest place for those feelings is in God's hands. Rejoice in the beauty and goodness of our God, who knows what you're going through and just how you feel. I remember so many times crying out to God the words of Brooke Fraser's “Desert Song”...
All of my life, in every season
You are still God
I have a reason to worship
I have a reason to sing
We can always find something to be thankful for no matter how chaotic our life might become. Your perspective is everything. Even in those moments when life seems hard, how you react and the attitude you have may not determine the outcome of your prognosis, but it will surely keep things in perspective.
God is working a story in all of us. And each one of our stories are different because we're all so uniquely different. The key is to be open to God's voice and be obedient as you seek relationship with Him. In the midst of your uncertainty or when it seems God is far away, he is present. He is with you. Just hold on to that truth.
Andrea Popkes is 34, lives in Capistrano Beach, and is a two-year breast cancer survivor. She desires to connect and inspire other young women battling breast cancer. Sydney, Australia is her favorite place in the world and she fulfilled her childhood dream of holding a Koala while she lived there in 2009. Her two-year-old niece, Adelyn, has captivated her heart and she feels honored and privileged to be her Auntie. She's addicted to chocolate, loves photography, and is fond of coffee shops... but not coffee.
(Professional photos courtesy of Karey Michelle Photography, all other photos courtesy of Andrea Popkes)