Living Elevated: A Return to a More Normal Summer

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This is already shaping up to be a very different summer.

For the past few weeks, my family and I, have been living and working in Crested Butte, Colorado, a small mountain town about four hours southwest of Denver. We are here for approximately a month and a half, though the weeks keep flying by.

Working with familiar Lifelines friends and new college student friends from around the country, our days and hours have been filled with community building, service opportunities and various outdoor adventures (some indoor ones, too).

This is my fifth summer of this kind, and I have always enjoyed the location—the quintessential mountain town is surrounded by Switzerland-style peaks, and is carpeted with wildflowers in the prime of summer. I have a lot of history with this place, from ski vacations with my family, to attending college here for a year—even a skimo race a few years ago.

In many ways, my life feels much more normal this summer, especially compared to 2016. As I gaze out my condo balcony at Redstone Peak, standing stately and silent with its jagged flanks and a snow-filled bowl, it’s hard to believe that any of the past year actually happened.

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A view from our condo for the summer.

I feel happy just being here again, but little things like adjusting to the altitude is always a rude awakening. I’ve often come into these summers in peak condition, but this year probably the opposite. The trails right outside our door come with the stiff penalty of lung and sweat equity, but I still can’t help playing in them. It doesn’t help that the preventive drugs I’m on restrict my aerobic capacity.

I was reading an article lately about just how long altitude acclimitization takes, and something stood out: for competitive athletes in places this high, it can take up to a full year of acclimatization to perform at peak level.  I get that it takes time to adjust to altitude, but a full year? That was surprising. I know from experience you can trick your body temporarily with hiking peaks but eventually the altitude wears you down.

The same article mentioned how cross country runners from Western State College in Gunnison (just 28 miles south of here), mandatorily redshirt first year runners to allow  time for this adjustment. And wisely so. My sister-in-law, who ran for WSC, can attest to just how hard it is to compete at this altitude.

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Which gets me thinking, after the hell of my last year, I can trick myself into coming here and acting “normal,” but as I enter back into life, it is going to take a lot more than one good summer—or even 5 weeks for that matter—for me to feel good again. And even if I do find that normal again, it will most likely be a new normal. There’s a bit of reality for me to swallow.

Yet this dose of truth doesn’t take away from the fact that I am loving being here. The sunshine, the mountains, familiar friends and work in a familiar place, and especially an ever-present God who is with me. The following Scripture has been especially meaningful: “Return to rest, oh my soul, for the Lord has been good to you (Psalm 116:7 NIV).”

Indeed, this has been true for me. I am looking forward to the next several weeks in Crested Butte with my family as we enjoy this beautifully elevated place.

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Summer is a great time for exploration. Case in point: our daughter’s first snow cone.

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Part two of our daughter’s trying new things.

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I’ve enjoyed several mountain bike outings, including this old CB classic, Snodgrass.

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Riding the Road of Survivorship

pexels-photo-30127Potential killers lurked everywhere as I cycled along the sidewalk—not the road this time. I grew increasingly leery of the cars zooming along the street, fearing they may veer right for me, especially when crossing streets. It seems that lately at least one SUV driver wants to kill me!

The past few weeks I have been doing a fair amount of road biking again, though short and slow and more so on the Sioux Falls bike trails than the actual road. My rib pain has eased considerably, but then it seems my mind is not quite right.

Before the incident—now three weeks ago—I considered every driver innocent until proven guilty. Now it’s reversed: they are guilty until proven innocent, a whole city full of careless lane hogs who text and drive, drink and drive, and who knows what else!

Maybe I’m dealing with some residual hit-and-run PTSD? Perhaps. I’ll admit, a few times I have driven through neighborhoods around the crash site looking for the runaway vehicle. I’ve also pursued at least one SUV that looked like the assailant. I flipped a U-turn and chased them for a few miles, only to discover it wasn’t even the right type of vehicle. I was kind of like a bull seeing red—the color instantly enflamed my anger as I charged with horns ready!

I haven’t been enjoying biking much until I get on the trails. Which is so not road biking—it’s just part of the sport that you grow comfortable being a few inches from traffic, riding in the actual road. Not for me right now, thanks. I like mountain biking better anyway.

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Fear has a way of changing you…I’ve had it with previous misadventures: a bad fall while rock climbing or swimming out of my kayak in rapids have left me anxious about getting back in the harness or boat. There’s more lasting scars then just bumps and bruises. These situations alter my confidence, and that can be difficult to shake off. Yes, a lot of it is in my head, but the mind is a powerful force.

I’ve met my residual PTSD from the bike incident head on lately, but beneath that layer is something much more deeply felt—dealing with survivorship. And by that, I mean I am wrestling with the challenges and blessings of being a cancer survivor. And it is much more significant than a close call on a bike.

They say that “death is the smelling salts of life.” I think that is true for anyone who has gone through a near-death experience. And with cancer, especially an “incurable” type, it wasn’t just one scary afternoon where I feared death because of unexpected circumstances. I’ve now lived for over a year, in fact, with that shadow hanging over me. And in some ways, the fear still lingers.

Of course, the fear of the return of cancer is something survivors often deal with—and this a very real and pervasive fear for me too. Lately, that fear hasn’t been as overwhelming, especially because a few realities have helped yank me back to the land of the living: God’s miraculous provision of our house, skiing four days this winter and of course, continued clear scans and good reports. Returning to full time work has also helped—we will soon be working with Lifelines in Colorado for several weeks this summer.

Then again, as I have entered this new era, the era of my survivorship, there are more challenges that come with it. First, though a big part of my treatment is over, I still have some ongoing treatment (Immunotherapy and a daily pill). And even more than that, I have begun to feel some side effects that I did not previously experience. I started having foot pain and numbness late fall 2016, but it has grown much worse, especially in the past month or so.

That has been rather unexpected, as it seemed most of the side effects had come or gone by now. This numbness and pain is the result of neuropathy, or damaged nerves from chemo. This is apparently common and can affect people on varying levels. The silver lining is that nerves are apparently resilient, but it will take time to heal—not just weeks, but months. And possibly not even just months, but years. Yikes.

This is a profound bummer as I was looking forward to a swift return to a lot of activities. I can still do some of them, like skiing, short hikes, easy climbs and biking, but it looks like running, high level climbing and probably backcountry skiing must wait.

The Lord has reassured me to be patient, something I will have no choice but to keep growing in.

But honestly, beyond foot problems there is much more. I’m still processing it, but life feels somehow different, never to return quite the same. It feels my relationships have changed, my work has changed. My outlook has changed. I am still figuring out where to go from here, and there is a lot more under the surface that I just don’t understand yet. And maybe that is a lot of survivorship for me—feeling lost.

Sometimes I have tried to rehit the accelerator of my life—trying to return to a normal pace and get things done—but I find that even accomplishments or regaining moments of “normal” cannot erase the lostness I feel. That’s about the best way I can describe it.

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And so, yes, I am facing challenges from survivorship. But for me, the thing that has encouraged me is seeing the big picture. God has rescued me from stage IV incurable cancer—and there is not a day that goes by when I am not profoundly grateful to him for this. Somehow, in the craziness of those first few disorienting and fearful weeks, he led Elizabeth and I to Sioux Falls and to the treatment that proved so amazingly effective. Unofficially, I am cancer free. But then again, because of complexity and politics of medicine, most doctors would probably never say that “officially.” Blah blah blah. But that is essentially the story I am living.

And with that in mind, the problems of foot pain and numbness (God willing, temporary) are not that big of a deal when I consider the alternative story line—my life extinguishes quickly, Elizabeth loses her husband, Pippa loses her daddy.

But that is not what happened. I am so profoundly grateful. I cannot help but think of one of my favorite passages, from Psalm 103:

Praise the Lord, my soul;
    all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
    and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
    and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Surely God has done this for me. And so, I will continue to be grateful.

In fact, tomorrow Sunday, June 4, is National Cancer Survivors Day—a day that now has a lot of meaning for me. Honestly, I didn’t even know such a day existed, until I got a little card in the mail from my treatment center inviting me to a BBQ with fellow survivors. Apparently, the day is kind of a big deal, considering how far reaching the numbers are: currently there are more than 15 million cancer survivors living in the United States alone. And that number will rise exponentially in the next 10 years.

So, for those of you who have been affected by cancer, first hand or through a friend or family member, or even those who have lost loved ones from this terrible disease, I wish you well on this day of great significance. No doubt it has been a long road. I know a little  about this road, too.

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SUV Assassins and the Scan Collision

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Getting a cancer scan can be like an unexpected collision, two moving objects smashing together violently and suddenly. You settle back into life but the digital images and doctor’s prognosis quickly jolt you back to reality like a triple strength energy drink.

Which is why when I approached scan number six or seven recently (I’ve lost count), I didn’t need to experience a literal collision, too, in the same week. That just seemed redundant.

So, here’s the story.

I decided to go on an evening bike ride, a few days prior, to enjoy the cooler temps and work on my conditioning. I remarked over the weekend how great I had been feeling—other than some lingering foot pain and fatigue, my body felt as good as it has in more than a year.

So, I reached for my roadbike, and started riding. As I peddled on 26th Street in Sioux Falls near McKennan Park, a vehicle turned abruptly into the lane behind me, lurking like a great white shark in the wave of my periphery. Following road biking protocol, I stayed to right of the lane, nearing the curb. I waited for them to pass, but instead they veered right—right for me! The vehicle’s fender tagged my bike’s handlebar, sending me summersaulting , somehow not under the vehicle’s axle. A split second before hitting concrete I thought, “Wow, this is going to be bad.”

As I sat there in a heap, dazed and disoriented, the vehicle kept speeding away. Another car pulled over, and asked if I was ok. I said, “I think so,” but urged them to call the police.

A cop, firetruck and even an ambulance came within minutes—quite an impressive showing from our friendly Sioux Falls first responders! I was pretty scraped up, growing more sore by the minute but unsure if I broke anything. I declined a ride in the ambulance. Honestly, I was worried that the words “cancer patient” would keep me overnight at the hospital, and I’ve had my fill of that.

Witnesses described the vehicle as a late model Chevy Traverse, or maybe a Dodge Durango, maroon in color. Yet this SUV Assassin escaped, and the police said with so little to go on, they would probably never catch them.

As this reality sunk in, I reassessed the damage: an abrasion on my shoulder, scraped wrist and elbow, and a heck-of-a-lot-of rib pain. Fortunately, I barely hit my head, though my dented helmet was now destined for replacement. My bike was no longer rideable, which was a bummer.

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Old Red lives to fight another day.

The next morning, I was so sore I could hardly move. The silver lining was I am well stocked with prescription painkillers, so sleep wasn’t too much of a problem.

Besides lingering physical effects, there were also psychological. Having someone hit and run me was unsettling, unthinkable even. Who runs away after they have clearly hit someone? Especially a cancer patient? I’m guessing they had something to hide—texting and driving, drinking or maybe the police were already looking for them. Maybe all three.

I like to think it was a scared teenager, or maybe even a sweet old lady, blissfully unaware. But I wanted to tell them: “Ah, that bump you just heard and felt, that was no raccoon. That was person!”

This is how my already-crappy scan week started. I still had the actual scan a few days later. As you may guess, if I wrote this much about the bike hit and run, clearly the report was good? Indeed.

As the doctor surveyed the images, he said everything continues to look “stable.” While they can’t say this because I don’t fit the textbook, I believe God has me in remission, and has for several months now.

Honestly, I expected this news, as it seemed consistent with where the Lord seemed to be taking things. But one never quite fully knows until you get the official word, right?

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Elizabeth, Pippa and I wasted no time celebrating the good report, dining at our favorite local spot with my parents.

I will say this, getting the scan results quickly put my bike accident into perspective. It was more like a 3/10 on the scale of life trauma, compared to an “8” or “9” for stage IV cancer. It’s not that a hit and run isn’t traumatic, it all just depends on your scale.

So, what the heck was the bike collision all about? Honestly I have no idea. It was super random. I’m an experienced road biker, and have ridden a lot in urban settings, in places far more dangerous than Sioux Falls. In fact, I got into the sport when I lived in Florida, which is the most dangerous place to ride a bike in the U.S per governing.com. One of my buddies was hit and run twice there. South Dakota innocuously sits at number 38, with about 1/5 the accidents per capita compared to the Sunshine State.

However, my time in Florida was before the smartphone era. Today’s driver seems more distracted then ever. In my shock and anger, I wanted to generalize that people in South Dakota don’t watch for bicycles because it not as fitness minded as some states, but that was probably just residual PTSD talking.

One thing is for sure: coming back from cancer, only to be hit and killed on a bike seems like a lame ending to my story. So, I’m thankful that didn’t happen.

I’m also glad a quick doctor visit revealed that I did not break any bones. Shows me how far I’ve come, that my body is durable again after all the chemo. This pain is temporary, and will heal in a few more weeks. Hopefully even sooner.

All in all, I find the experience rather humbling and gratefulness-inducing. God has been so good to me and my family: the treatment he provided, our new house, not to mention my eternal redemption bought through Christ’s sacrifice. As Bill Murray said in the movie Caddyshack. “So, I got that going for me…which is nice.” As a believer, as one loved by God, I certainly have a lot going for me!

But maybe I was due for something unexplainable?I’m not sure. I don’t understand many of God’s ways, or why he allowed this crash, but I resolve to be content not knowing. I’ve reckoned much worse. The following verse seems appropriate: “God is in heavens and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:3b).

I don’t have to know or understand—just trust. So, on that note, I’ll take the good scan report and mostly-minor bike accident. These, too, were graces for me. Not to mention that the damage on my bike turned out to be minor—some scrapes and scratches, but a new tube and tires were all it took to make it usable again.

I think I’ll be even more thankful when my ribs stop aching.

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Some residual bruising on my left arm…

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South Dakota Locals, Colorado Commuters

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While the pumpkin pushers pounded the hardwood of the NCAA tourney, Elizabeth and I endured our own kind of March Madness, followed by an Angry April: packing, moving, packing and moving some more.

That’s right, we recently made the decision to move from Colorado to South Dakota. It proved a simultaneously difficult and easy decision. Difficult, because we love Colorado and had no intention of moving. Easy, because medically it makes sense that we live in Sioux Falls for the forseeable future. I’ll explain more later, but when we visited Colorado in March, we actually started the packing the process and then returned in early April to finish the deed.

Here’s the crazy part: we ended up buying a house in Sioux Falls from a distance while we were packing up our belongings in Longmont. No kidding. We consider this house a miraculous provision from God, and the timing of the purchase helped take the sting out of the move. Check out Elizabeth’s blog for the full story.

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So why did we move? As you may recall, I have been receiving experimental treatment that has given me amazing results in my cancer journey. Here is the crux (to borrow a climbing term): I cannot get the same treatment outside of Sioux Falls—maybe not even the rest of the United States, or the world for that matter.

Cancer treatment approval can be an extremely slow-moving and political machine—it takes an average of 17 years for a tested treatment to be approved by the FDA—and people like me simply cannot wait that long. Fortunately, there are people fighting for urgency within the machine, like my genomic oncologist, Dr. Leyland-Jones. If you have a second, you should watch this video about him. His research is changing the way people fight cancer, and God has used him immensely in my life.

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Pippa surveys our Crabapple Tree in front of our new house.

And so we are now officially Sioux Falls residents. I actually haven’t been one since shortly after college. We have plenty of reasons to be happy about being here—family, friends, a ski area 10 minutes from our house, to name a few. I would not say we love the long winters, but then as my dad would say, “the rocks come with the farm.”

Lest you think we won’t be seeing the mountains of Colorado anytime soon, in June we head there for six weeks to work on a Lifelines Summer Mission and attend part of the Cru conference in Fort Collins, along with a quick return trip in between for treatment. And even after that, we will have plenty of reasons to go there both personally and professionally.

And so we are embracing our status as South Dakota locals, and Colorado commuters.

Back to our moving madness, it was utterly brutal—brutal because I relearned just how difficult it is to try and get work done with a near-two-year-old and also because my energy has not returned to full capacity—and probably won’t for a long time. Most days I’m at 65-70 percent of my normal energy. With bad sleep, it can be even less.

I hit a breaking point at several different points on our moving day. One was when the transport truck company called me at 4:55 p.m. on a Friday afternoon (they were scheduled to ship it Monday morning) and said they couldn’t ship my Tacoma to South Dakota unless I paid double, even though we had a contract! The other happened because we underestimated the job—we thought we would finish by 2 p.m. but as the clock neared 7 p.m. we weren’t even close! Soon Pippa started wailing from being hangry—hungry and angry—meanwhile twirling a wet toilet bowl brush in her hands that we had failed to put out of reach. Yikes!

We somehow survived the chaos of that day, and those weeks. Seeing a lot of our friends helped buoy our spirits. In fact, one of those days I skied at Loveland Pass with a good buddy, and that was definitely a highlight. Yet, saying goodbye to our friends and Colorado was as mixed and bittersweet as you can imagine.

Logistically, the silver lining was we were able to schlep our stuff directly into our new house—it was already vacated and the sellers were willing to negotiate the closing date. This proved a huge blessing.

And so now we now live in our new home—new to us that is (actually built in 1940). Pippa loves to say the term, “new house.” And so do we.

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I’ve already been researching some local adventures in South Dakota. Palisades offers climbing a mere 25 minutes away, and the Needles is world class climbing in the Black Hills.

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Elizabeth and I spent a weekend climbing the Needles a few years ago including Tent Peg, but felt like we barely scratched the surface. We look forward to exploring there again soon!

Climbing the Spire: One Year Later

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Photos by Cynthia Hutchinson, 5HPhotography.

A few weeks ago, Elizabeth and I climbed a 150-foot spire in Garden of the Gods State Park—one that bears a lot of significance to us.

On top of Montezuma’s Tower is where I asked Elizabeth to marry me in the summer of 2012. We’ve climbed it several times together (this was probably my tenth), but this time had a twist: the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis.

March 21 proved a landmark moment for many reasons, but especially as a tangible expression of how significantly God has improved my health, bringing me to much better place than most doctors would have said is possible.

Unbeknownst to us, a professional photographer documented our climb and left a business card on our backpacks. We contacted 5Hphotography and they sent us these photos, which include some excellent shots of Montezuma’s and Garden of the Gods. You can see the full gallery here. 

“Hollywood couldn’t write a better script of your story and what God has done,” my dad said, after I told him about our climb and the photos. He (Craig Lawrence) wrote the following stanza which I think perfectly captures the moment:

“Together we climb the lofty spire of hope,

to rediscover life itself, wrought by God through

the steely determination of the people of Avera.”

Avera is the name of the medical center where I have received treatment. We are so grateful to how God has used their excellent medical care in my life. We continue to praise God for all he has done and has yet to do for me. He has been our reason for hope.

“LORD my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me.” Psalm 30:2.

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Elizabeth makes her way up the first pitch, while I belay from the start of Pitch 2.

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Elizabeth works her way through the crux, or the most difficult part of pitch 1.

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Profile shot: Much skinnier looking straight on, Montezuma’s narrows to just a few feet in width.

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Look closely and you can see me, a little blue speck, while Elizabeth belays out of sight.

Recalled to Life

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The phrase “recalled to life” rang true over the past two weeks, as I returned to some of my favorite activities. Save for the past year, climbing steep rock spires and schussing down 45 degree slopes has been my normal.

“Recalled to life” comes from the novel A Tale of Two Cities; the suggestion of a new chance at life is an apt description of not just my experience lately, but the bigger picture of my life as well. This resurrection started when Elizabeth and Pippa and I headed out to Colorado for spring break.

While in Longmont, my friend, Jon, asked me if I wanted to go rock climbing. A little hesitant at first, I agreed. I had thought about perhaps climbing this spring or summer, but sometimes it takes a mental push to tie yourself back into a thin rope, force your feet into tight shoes and defy gravity by hanging on a cliff once again. I think going with a “safe” friend was a must—not just one with good climbing skills, but a proven friend I don’t need to impress, especially after what I’ve been through.

We headed to a familiar crag in Boulder Canyon. Starting slow on a beginner route, I kept readjusting my fingers on the thin rock holds, straining to stand on my toes on the small features. My feet and hands are numb in spots, the result of grueling treatment, so in a way I felt like I was relearning to trust them. Fortunately, this route included a lot of big holds, so precision wasn’t quite so critical.

After that shaky start, I surprised myself by ascending a 5-9, as well as another 5-8 (intermediate routes) somewhat comfortably. I began to relax, enjoying the familiar sights and sounds of the canyon, the sun rays reflecting off the polished granite, the roar of the rushing creek below.

All in all, the day proved to be a huge boost. Pushing my body and muscles again felt good—as did discovering that they didn’t break when tested. I believe outdoor adventure helps restore the confidence and dignity of cancer survivors (as I mentioned in a previous post), and this certainly proved true this day, as well as the rest of spring break.

The day went so well that Elizabeth and I brought our climbing gear to Colorado Springs a few days later. The first day we top-roped, but then the next day I was ready to hop on the sharp end (lead climbing). We chose Montezuma’s, a 150-foot sandstone tower in the middle of Garden of the Gods State Park, where I proposed to Elizabeth nearly five years ago. By happenstance, a professional sports photographer captured the climb (see slideshow in my next post).

A few days later, we headed to Vail Resort to do some skiing. Unlike rock climbing, this part of our spring break was planned. A few friends invited us to stay at a house, a mere 100 yards from the lift, complete with an outdoor hot tub and five fireplaces—one can never have too many fireplaces 🙂 It was an incredibly generous and timely invitation.

I have been literally dreaming of skiing all winter. Some of my dreams have included skiing couloirs with backcountry skiing friends in Utah. I always wake up feeling bittersweet, happy to hang out with these friends and experience the Wasatch again, if only in my dreams, but sad when I remember it wasn’t real. I’ve had similar surfing dreams, too.

Months ago, Elizabeth mentioned in her blog that she’d been praying God would give me an opportunity to ski this winter. At the time it seemed like an impossible dream, but I know many of you prayed. Thank you! Elizabeth and I skied a half day at small SD ski hill in January, but now we had the opportunity to ski the largest resort in Colorado—Vail—which boasts 31 chair lifts, 5,289 skiable acres and a 3,450-foot vertical. This was my first time at Vail, and some buddy pass discounts helped alleviate the sticker shock (see photo).

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The ski area experienced a dry March, but the night before it snowed two inches—better than nothing. Yet some of the ungroomed steeps softened up from the sun, and the new snow made it seem like more like 4 or 5 inches of fresh snow.

We were happy to be there with friends—especially ones with whom I have backcountry skied. And it was handy to have a Vail local, Patrick, guide us through the maze of quad and sextuplet chairs, as well as show us which lift rides would get us from one side of the area to the other.

For me, the day wasn’t just an “Oh-isn’t-it-nice-the-little-cancer-patient-is-getting-out” type of skiing, it felt legit, like a typical day on the mountain, hitting areas like blues, steep blacks and double black diamonds. My energy and ability felt at about 75 percent of normal, which was encouraging. Even my previously crippled back now felt little to no pain as I skied moguls and carved fast giant slalom turns down endless blues.

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As a bonus, Elizabeth and I also skied Loveland Pass the second day. One of the best things about Loveland, and maybe the worst when windy, is that this resort resides almost entirely above treeline, giving excellent views of the continental divide mountains, looking like rows of sweeping white tents. I spent the first few hours giving Elizabeth a skiing lesson, which I still remember how to do from my Crested Butte instructor days. This was only her third day on skis in over 10 years, and, ever the athlete, she began quickly learning parallel turns.

All in all, it was a great ski getaway—we must give credit to Pippa’s grandparent babysitters and friends Yuki and Patrick who gave us a place to stay that helped make it possible.

When I think about our spring break, I feel grateful—grateful that Elizabeth and I could do so many active things together. And not just do them halfway, but return to some normalcy, and even try new things, like skiing Vail or Elizabeth ditching her snowboard to re-learn skiing. The activities were cool, but even beyond that, they evidence how well I’m doing physically, and this fuels our hope.

Reflecting on this makes me think again of A Tale of Two Cities. I had trouble sleeping for a few nights (insomnia is a side effect of treatment), and so sometimes Elizabeth reads novels to me. The words, ever poignant, struck a little deeper this time, almost capturing some of our years’ experience.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”

This year has been one of contrasts. Upon initial diagnosis, along with months of treatment, we were living in the “worst of times,” just barely holding on to life. But then strangely, there were “best of times” mingled in as well—experiencing a closeness with God I didn’t know was possible, seeing him provide a way, somehow, through the grueling mess, and being closer with Elizabeth, Pippa and my family. Learning how to have a strong, forward-leaning trust in God’s goodness and provision for us, one that keeps standing, despite discouragements and seemingly impossible circumstances. This has been our hope.

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Dark days have consumed us, but then light has eventually shone through and overcome the darkness—many times in fact. The winter has felt infinitely long. Even then, the blistering cold and persistent gray days can’t destroy our hope.

That’s the thing about hope—it has no limits. It is not restrained by textbooks, past cases or predictions. Even beyond medicine, my hope is in the Lord. And with God, there is always hope and there is always a way. Like it says in Psalm 71:14 (NIV) “As for me, I’ll always have hope.”

This spring break was a great reminder of how God has recalled me to life. Not just through outdoor adventure, but in my overall outlook on life. And I look forward to continuing to follow him and seeing what he has for me.

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Longing for a Spring Break

 

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Throwback pic from one of many Red Rocks climbing trips in Nevada.

I grew apoplectic as I checked the weather app on my phone in mid-March. “Negative five degrees windchill?” I said. “Are you kidding me? It’s not supposed to be below zero in March.” This seemed cold even for Sioux Falls—ridiculously and unnecessarily cold. I felt like punching walls, shaking babies or even running ten miles (not that I feel up to that currently). Some serious cabin fever was setting in.

Elizabeth and Pippa were getting stir crazy, too. And then it dawned on me suddenly and swiftly—the Lawrences need a spring break. It has been a grueling year, and the persistent cold, gray days of late haven’t helped our mental state. The solution was so simple: cram our stuff in our car and head west. Of course, when you travel with a toddler, this is easier said than done—packing the endless piles of toys and gear, enduring tantrums due to missing a nap and the more-frequent-and-lengthy stops.

But we were on our way, and that was all that mattered.

This year, we set our sights on Colorado for spring break, for many reasons— family, some work needs and we still have a rented house in Longmont (Unfortunately the shortness of this trip won’t allow much time for CO friends). By contrast, my weather app now promised temps in the 60s, 70s and even 80s. Wow, usually one must go much farther south for that type of weather!

I have always loved spring break. It’s an opportunity to shake up the routine and venture somewhere different and warm. No matter what age or stage of life, anyone can benefit from a change of scenery in March.

The concept started in the 1930s and eventually earned a place on our American academic calendar. The hype grew furiously during the 1980s MTV era at Daytona Beach, unleashing a ballyhoo of beaches and beer.

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Of course, I prefer spring breaks that include outdoor adventure.

I took my first collegiate spring break in Red Rocks, Nevada—a rock climbing destination near Las Vegas. I soon discovered that sleeping without a tent in the desert is a terrible idea—especially when tumbleweeds attack during a nighttime windstorm. Hello sleep deprivation.

Even after college, I have endeavored to enjoy more spring breaks, which usually include a desert destination within a day’s drive. However, sometimes I’ve broken the norm with something wintery, like a few years ago when my buddy and I skied the Grand Teton.

So, which one of my spring breaks has been my favorite?

Going to the Grand Canyon with Elizabeth when we were first married is high on the list. But another one that stands out includes a return to Red Rocks, about six years ago with my buddy Mike. This was nearly my tenth trip there—I’ve lost count. We completely geeked out on climbing for a full week, with no social obligations or distractions. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with such singular focus. We ascended multipitch after multipitch, including Prince of Darkness, Frigid Aire Buttress and many others. At night, over a dinner of Trader Joe’s or Baja Fresh, we’d peruse climbing guidebooks in our tent, discussing the minutia of our next project. It was like binging on your favorite street taco stand—all week. Finally, you felt like you had your fill of carne asada and cilantro. At least for now.

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Here’s another throwback pic from Red Rocks 2009. There’s always some great sport-climbing classics in the Black Canyon. 

During the trip, one moment on the sharp end (lead climbing) typified Type 2 Fun—an experience that is harrowing in the moment and only fun to tell about later. Halfway up the 1,000-foot route, we miscalculated divvying the pitches. Mike, who relishes weird and challenging climbing (which makes him the perfect partner), insisted on the section of offwidth, where the crack is too big for hand jams, and is usually awkward and scary. I ended up leading this pitch. Since there is no easy way to stop climbing once you’ve started, the task fell to me.

Jamming my right thigh in the crack felt very insecure, but it was all I could figure. We only had one big cam, so I had to keep sliding it up every few moves, meaning I risked a massive fall for a few seconds each time—maybe even 80 or 100 feet at the worst points. Fortunately, I somehow groveled and panted my way to the top. I arrived sweaty, haggard and not happy. Meanwhile, Mike sailed past the awkward sections but once at the anchor, looked disappointed. He’d been denied his precious offwidth. Go figure.

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There are some pretty entertaining routes in Red Rocks, including Tunnel Vision, where you literally climb through a cave for one of the pitches. 

In the end, this trip proved very memorable. As I have pondered spring break, in some ways there will never be enough of those carefree days for me to enjoy. As time continues to pass quickly—and life seems to go swifter the older I get—life’s difficulties and obligations seem to only increase, making such trips challenging to pull off. Ah, such is life. But as much as we can, my family and I will endeavor to spring break it up, each year.

Back to our present break, Elizabeth and Pippa and I arrived in Colorado a few days ago. The trip was rather last minute as we have already spread ourselves thin moving between Longmont and Colorado Springs in a short time. Maybe we will get to do some skiing and rock climbing?

We hope you get to celebrate spring break, too, whether far away, or even with a warm day in your present locale. Cheers to Spring Break 2017.

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The three of us relished the 80 degree weather, including taking Pippa to the playground. 

The Next Frontier

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“Going where no man has gone before.”

This may be a Star Trek cliché tagline, but it rings true in my case.

People often ask me, when will you be done with treatment? The answer is that I honestly don’t know, and at this point, neither do my doctors. The reason is that I am the only one getting this treatment; it is not standard practice. It’s like I’m literally exploring a new planet with Captain Kirk and crew. I vote we set our phasors to “eradicate cancer” mode.

In the world of oncology, it typically takes 17 years for a treatment to go from discovery to approval. 17 years! Politics and red tape generally delay approval, and in fairness there are some good reasons, too. But with cancer like mine, 17 years is time I would not have—not even close.

img_6138Fortunately, my treatment has been very effective. In fact, you can read about me in Avera’s cancer magazine. The same story is also on the website and in the magazine Human Touch.

There is a lot to celebrate, but getting to this point has been one long, hard climb.

The next step is also outside the box. Tomorrow, I will be getting Y90, an outpatient procedure where they inject radiation into one side of the liver, the site of the original tumor. It already looks “black and dead,” per my doctor, but this will be an insurance policy to eradicate anything that is left. This procedure has been around for decades, but it is new for my type of cancer—because they don’t usually get to the point where it would be helpful. Praise Jesus.

So, let’s hit warp drive and move things ahead.

How am I feeling going into this? Honestly a bit numb. It’s a pretty chill outpatient procedure, somewhat painful, though I will probably feel lousy this week (schedule has been cleared). However, I’m growing weary of always being on the edge of the next medical treatment. The day before is always a frantic chase to get a bazillion things done before I go back underground. The stress and anticipation of what’s coming gets really old.

Today is Sunday, so my to-do list didn’t include any work, just personal stuff. And, since it was sunny and in the low 60s, it was the perfect day for Elizabeth and Pippa and I to get outside. We went for a long walk along the Sioux River, and then I also rode my Diamondback Cruiser in the afternoon. Just being in the fresh air and actually getting my heart rate up felt so great. The day did not disappoint.

Speaking of disappointment, maybe you were secretly hoping I would nerd out a bit more about Star Trek. The truth is, I confess to be somewhat of a Trekkie. I don’t attend conventions or anything, but I love the Hollywood movies from the late 70s and 80s with William Shatner and Leonard Nemoy. The best one? Easy…Wrath of Khan, when Captain Kirk faces one of the most fearsome military enemies in existence. “And for that…I will blow you out of the stars,” says Khan.

On an adventure note, Captain Kirk fancies himself somewhat of a rock climber. In Star Trek V, the movie opens as he is free soloing a big route on El Capitan—like Alex Honnold does today for real.

Of course, Shatner didn’t actually climb the route. I’m not sure if he ever has even tried the sport. But he did give an interview around that time (posing as an expert) that is rather ridiculous and humorous all at the same time about rock climbing. The best part is that someone later made his comments into a song (see below). Oh, and he is referring to free soloing, not free climbing, which actually uses ropes.

 

On a more serious note, if you think of me tomorrow or this week, pray that this procedure would be effective. I am very thankful to be at this step and the hope of a better season is very much alive.

May you live long and prosper.

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Living Scan to Scan

 

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One of the worst aspects of dealing with cancer is the scans. Are things stable, in remission or is the cancer advancing?

Approaching a scan is like preparing to leap off a very large cliff—kind of like the 80-foot cliff in Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado that I once hucked off. I was much younger and dumber then, but I still remember the nerves and adrenalin.

But honestly comparing scans to any outdoor adventure fails to fully capture the experience. There is no “fun” thrill in scans or cancer.

Like many patients, I get scans every three months. Last week, I underwent another one, and the news was quite good. I will explain more in a bit, but let me first elaborate on more of the scan-to-scan experience.

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A familiar view of Pike’s Peak through Siamese Twins in Garden of the Gods State Park.

So far, I have had four scans, and the days leading up to them have all been nerve wracking to varying degrees. We literally hang on the words of what the doctor says—and the delivery matters. Waiting for the news is like being on trial—sitting in the courtroom, while the judge and jury dispassionately share the verdict on your life. You know the following words will have massive implications—whether for good or bad.

Scans take their toll.

The days and weeks leading up to them, Elizabeth and I wear the stress like an overinflated air mattress—tight, pressured and pumped full of air. As we get closer to the day, we vacillate between extreme fear and hope, and often land in an odd mix of the two. Once we finally get the news, we decompress for several days, maybe even weeks, and try to return to some normalcy. Over time, I feel like that faded mattress in the corner by the pool: no longer able to hold the air it once did.

Friends of mine who have been through similar journeys have confirmed this same experience.

I haven’t always been the best about reporting my scan news on this blog—probably in large part because of the emotional toll it exacts. I tell the people around me afterward, but I often don’t have to the energy to report it to a wider audience for awhile.

Somehow the Lord is with us in this process. Elizabeth and I often get frustrated by our overwhelming fear and lack of faith—with every scan—but I tell her it is just part of being human.

And what is it that I fear? It seems like an obvious question yielding an obvious answer. But in short, I fear death—not being here. I know my hope of life with Jesus is secure, but still I fear news that will rip me away from my loving wife and precious daughter, who I could never imagine living without. I fear that my hope of recovery will be irrevocably stamped out, that even my faith and belief in God’s goodness—sometimes strong, often weak—will take a hit I can’t recover from. And in that way, I lose what means the most.

Even when I feel fairly confident going into a scan, there is always that gnawing feeling in the back of my mind—what if? The unexpected. This thing could go completely south—the cancer returns with a fury.

Thus far, that has not happened. My situation has  improved with each scan. But the fear of the unknown continues to haunt me.

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We hiked with one of our favorite Colorado Springs couples and kids on Saturday. It was an epic day.

Oddly enough, when we approached the scan last week, it was the easiest by far. In fact, the day before we kept forgetting the scan was the next day. Part of it was that we had gotten the genomic blood test ahead of time, which again was 100% clear, indicating that I still have no cancer in my bloodstream. But we had gotten similar news ahead of other scans, too.

There was more to it.Elizabeth felt like God told her that the several months would be about “rest”—and somehow we felt much more at peace. Another reason was that during my unexpected hospitalization in Florida, they did a partial scan and my liver looked the same. We still could have worried about potential bad news, but we didn’t. God just helped us, and that is best way I can explain it.

I even scheduled a flight the afternoon of the scan, so I could attend a work conference in Colorado. In some ways, buying a ticket seemed stupid because if I had gotten bad news, there would have been no way I could have functioned well professionally. We may have had to cancel the trip and eat the cost. But by God’s grace, the news was good.

When we met with our doctor, he said that everything is still “stable,” meaning the cancer has not advanced, nor has anything changed since November. It still appears “dead.” This is the best-case scenario. However, it is difficult to fully know what’s going on inside the tumors, which is why my doctors will be taking the next step of treatment, which is Y90, an outpatient procedure of injectable radiation. It’s a little involved to explain it, so I’ll save that for another time. This is all good news, and hope of cancer eradication is very much alive, though I am realizing the journey is long—much longer than I ever thought it would be.

Meanwhile, I have been feeling great. The two-day work conference in Breckenridge was a huge boost both professionally and relationally. This was the first Lifelines activity we had attended in nearly 10 months, and there was much business to cover.  Relationally the time was rewarding. One of the evenings, we sat around the huge stone fireplace, and our team asked Elizabeth and I to share what the past several months have been like—the highs, the lows, the fear, the uncertainty, and especially the rediscovery of hope. We have a lot to be thankful for, and we are quick to share it. Our friends asked us questions and then prayed for us.

It all sounds simple, but the meaning for us was profound. There is something about a crazy journey that isolates you from people. When friends take the time to listen, to seek to understand—it is so powerful. We know that it is impossible to actually walk in another person’s moccasins—or with cancer, to know what it’s like to get an infusion, or radiation, or continue to take drugs with side effects, to endure sleepless nights. It would be impossible to understand that without experiencing it.

But seeking to understand is powerful, and it is enough. It is the effort of just being with someone—letting them know that they are not alone, despite the darkest valley they walk through. That’s what our Lifelines friends did for us. And besides all of the work stuff we accomplished, this was their gift to us. Not to mention that all of the interactions felt so “normal,” like we just picked up where we left off, which was also encouraging.

I realize that most everyone reading this doesn’t live scan-to-scan. But most likely you know someone who does. I hope this post sheds more light on what that experience is like, so you can pray for them. And besides praying, don’t forget just how powerful it can be just to seek to understand their journey. You probably won’t grasp it fully, but you don’t need to. Just the effort of trying will be a balm for their weary souls.

On a lighter note, after the conference, Elizabeth and I also spent a weekend in Colorado Springs with family and friends. We soaked up the warm sun like geckos—Friday was 77 degrees!

On Saturday, we went on two hikes, in the morning at Palmer Park and in the afternoon at Garden of the Gods. It felt gluttonous—like eating that second sprinkled donut you couldn’t take your eyes off. Of course, for me outdoor indulgences usually involve lots of ski turns, but all in due time.

In due time.

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Hiking in a less familiar part of Garden of the Gods. The slightly overhanging wall on the back right is, to my knowledge, unclimbed and unexplored. It should be.

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I braved some light bouldering at one of my favorite I’m-short-on-time-but-still-want-to-climb spots. My snake-dar was running on full alert—in light of the name—but to this day, I have never seen any bogeys at the Snake Pits.

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On top of The Main Snake Pits Boulder

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Another look at the Siamese Twins.

Ski-Day Boost

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The day was long overdue.

I’ve wanted to ski this winter but I wasn’t sure it was possible—health wise or logistically. Yet this past Saturday, Elizabeth and I headed to Great Bear, my hometown hill, for some fun on the slopes. Ironically, where we live in Sioux Falls is the closest I’ve ever lived to a ski area—under 10 minutes away.

The day’s forecast was for high winds—like the typical Eldora ski day near Boulder—but when we arrived at Great Bear, the large oaks swayed only slightly, the gentle winds blowing a mere 5-7 mph. The sun winter shone brightly and the temperatures hovered around 30 degrees—a perfect February day in South Dakota.

Over all, the day proved a huge boost for me—both physically and mentally.

When I broached the topic of skiing with my doctor a few weeks ago, he gave me a green light, though cautioning me to not fall at high speeds—because chemo does make bones weaker. He seemed a bit less concerned when he learned I am experienced. But really, should anyone fall at breakneck speeds, especially with sharp metal edges underfoot?

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Look closely at the trail sign, named after the marketing company my dad founded in Sioux Falls.

For most of my life skiing has felt as natural as walking. Maybe it’s my Norwegian roots—thanks Grandpa Mostrom. Yet, stepping into my brother’s skis (our gear is back in Colorado) I felt a little tentative—my body has been through a lot this past year. Would I feel the aches and pains of the last year?

Fortunately, within a few runs, I felt back to form, making arcing slalom turns and carving some longer turns too. It felt good to go fast—to feel free like I have so many times before. The freedom was short lived, though, considering “Great Bump” only boasts about 178 vertical feet. Not exactly Whistler Blackcomb, but I’ll take what I can get! I’m just glad Sioux Falls has a ski area.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about First Descents, a non-profit organization which provides “life changing outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer.” At first, outdoor adventure didn’t seem like a good fit for cancer patients, considering all the health risks, but a primary goal of First Descents is to use outdoor adventure to help restore dignity and confidence—to help make people feel normal again.

Saturday proved as much to me as well. Cancer strips away so much—health, energy, and even my confidence to engage in sports I excelled in before. That’s why I think the day of skiing meant so much to me.

The day was also a boost for Elizabeth. Skiing for the first time in 16 years, she seemed to re-learn parallel turns rather easily—which reminded me just how adventurous and athletic my wife is, though she would not present herself as that :).  She switched to snowboarding after injuring her knee in 2001 but has always wanted to try skiing again. Saturday was the day.

It was a great day together, one the Lord blessed us with. I thought of Psalm 103—one of my favorites. “Who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things (verse 4-5a NIV).” I’m glad I serve a God who is a Redeemer and Satisfier.

With this day on the books, I’m now hoping to ski again sometime soon, in Colorado and maybe even a day in the backcountry? Anything seems possible at this point.

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Thanks to my brother and his family for loaning so much gear/clothing…Elizabeth loved skiing and I never had a hard time finding her in the crowd :).

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Letting Go…In December, I sold my skimo race skis. It was definitely mixed, as I knew I won’t be racing this year. But what is the point of letting them collect dust? When the day for racing comes again, God willing, I’ll just buy more (easier said then done). It was a little sad when someone agreed to purchase them only a few hours after posting. They still will compete in the Grand Traverse this year, just not on my feet 🙂 #circleoflife #grandtraverse