cancer

Today at work I got emotional.

I work in a cardio-oncology lab, and I spend most of my days writing and reading about cancer therapies, cancers, and heart disease. Sometimes, I write and read so much that I dream I actually have breast cancer, and I wake up gripping for reality and feel overwhelmingly thankful that I do not. I read about it so much that sometimes I forget that actual people get cancer, not just numbers and statistics published in journals, and I’m humbly reminded of this when I see patients in the clinic who cling to an unwavering hope. I don’t typically get emotional at work, because when I’m not sitting at my computer planning things or shadowing in the clinic, I’m working with mice that I’m treating with immunotherapy. While I do get attached to my mice and I’m thankful for the role they play in scientific discovery, they don’t typically make me emotional. Sometimes, they even bite me and claw at me and elicit a response very opposite of thankful. Today, though, I had a conference call with the physician I work with and a group of our collaborators from MD Anderson Cancer Center. We all got together to talk because we are interested in understanding why and how the immune system can fight off cancer. We as a cardio-oncology group are interested in the heart, and why some patients develop fatal heart disease when they receive immune-checkpoint inhibitors (a cancer treatment). This is what all of my research projects are focused on, and I’m very passionate about this topic. I think one day I may become a cancer doctor, or a cardio-oncologist, or continue asking questions like these, but that’s too far away for me to speculate. The other group, hailing from one of the most prominent cancer centers in the world, discovered immunotherapy and specifically how the immune system can attack cancer cells in the body. While I was a bit star-struck to be talking to people who have literally saved hundreds of thousands of lives, something every doctor or scientist dreams of doing, I was even more touched by their sincerity and care for patients. I think a lot of times people think humanity is heading in the wrong direction, but moments like these tell me differently. I’m reminded that biomedical research is truly a selfless act of love for humanity. If you have cancer, or if anyone you love has cancer, please know that there are scientists, physicians, pharmacists, students, and every part of the biomedical research industry who are out there working for you. Day and night, there are people thinking of how to combat the disease that maliciously steals our children, parents, friends, and neighbors. I’ve heard people jadedly and suspiciously tell me they believe that there is a cure for cancer that the government is holding it from us. This is incredibly discouraging to me, because I see the hearts of scientists and doctors who are diligently searching for cures and treatments. I see them behind masculine, poised faces, behind white coats and dress pants, behind strong words and distant demeanors; I see people who care for humanity and spend their lives working to cure someone they will never even meet. While most days I just let these encounters go unnoticed, today I appreciated that there is something incredibly powerful and moving in that reality.

faith

Following Jesus can be hard. Temptations abound in a world that glorifies temporary pleasure over long-term happiness and quick intimacy over intentional relationships. It’s easy to fall prey to superficial, surface-level friendship on social media and to the black hole of beauty, trendy fads, and “aesthetic” that permeates our Instagram pages. It’s hard to remember to love your neighbor when your neighbor is someone who you feel alienated, victimized, or persecuted by and it’s especially hard to imagine loving our worldwide neighbors when we shut them out and make them feel neglected and orphaned. Remembering to focus on your inner adornments is forgotten when we aspire to look like Kylie Jenner and celebrities who battle the same insecurities that we do. Being a follower of Jesus Christ in a society of trendy, oftentimes hypocritical Christianity is especially challenging. People mistrust Christians because they’ve been hurt by us, whether because of some outspoken, radically conservative voices or because they see an absence of love and acceptance like they thought Jesus gave. Overcoming the mistrust that pollutes our society is our responsibility as Christians, to be vessels of Truth, acceptance, and compassion. But following Jesus can be hard, and the difficulty starts within ourselves.

I read in Colossians 2:12 this morning: “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” The words that caught my attention were “buried” and “faith”. Our societal burdens and insecurities can be easily buried with Christ through baptism, a literal washing away of all those things that bring us down. I imagine going under water in an act of commitment and proclamation to God and leaving behind my desire to be perceived a certain way online, by the ones I love, and to total strangers. Leaving behind any addictions or weakness. Burying the things that stretch and test you — in the worst of ways. That is what baptism in Jesus Christ offers. There is a second aspect to this relationship with Christ that is the hard part, the daily struggle that we face that I described above.

And that is faith. When we come up out of those waters of forgiveness, a lifelong journey of faith ensues. And no, it isn’t easy. It requires waking up daily to thank God for whatever will happen that day — when you are peeved at work, stressed by finances, neglected by friends, hurt by significant others — God wants thanksgiving for even those moments. It can be easy to think, why didn’t the God of the universe make it easy to be a follower of Christ? Why am I constantly being inflicted with temptations and tragedy that feel far from God? Is it even possible to be close to my savior in a society that separated from Him? Why is this so hard? I ask these questions like any Christian does, and the only comforting conclusion I can come to is one of love.

It’s simple: no one wants to be in love with someone who didn’t have to choose to love them back. Love requires sacrifice and compromise, commitment and compassion. Christ showed us the most radical act of love possible and simply asks for a fraction of that given back to Him. It may be hard, but it is worth it.

out of the forest

People talk about meditation as a new healing remedy, equivalent to the stardom of aspirin for heart attacks. Apps like “Headspace” and “Calm” lead users through a meditative practice, using words like “clear your mind, engage your senses, breatheeeee.” Sometimes this language feels foreign to those with busy minds and lives. It’s hard to see and understand the benefits of meditation unless you yourself experience it. I’m all for empirical evidence (and there is growing research on the benefits of yoga and meditation in cancer, post traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse disorder patients) so I understand the skepticism that often greets what some consider “out of this world” experiences. Meditation is much simpler than that though. It is simply making space to think, pray, dwell, or stop. It is a way to create opportunity for the thoughts you need to have about life, not the ones life is forcing you to have.

Last week during yoga, the end of my practice neared as we nestled into the comfortable and long-awaited pose of savasana or more clearly put: dead man’s pose. This pose is the final resting pose after many rounds of rigorous and challenging poses, a place to rest your mind and body and collect yourself before jetting off to the next appointed place. Savasana is a place where I’ve had some of my best thoughts, prayers, and ideas. Like meditation, this pose creates space.

I believe that God can give us visions, thoughts, words, people, dreams, signs — anything — to send us a message. The world is His creation and His spirit lives within us, so it is natural that when I have an image or word come in my head that I didn’t conceive, and it is good, then it is from God. I’ll try to describe my meditative vision I had last week during yoga as clearly as possible, leaving out personal details. I think anyone can imagine themselves as the narrator of this story, so I pray God uses my vision to speak to you as well.

I was standing outside of a very dense forest, with my nose almost touching the wintery, woodsy pines. I breathed in the crisp air around me and immediately felt filled with life and renewal. Curious, I took my hands and pulled apart the lush, thick greenery to peer inside the forest. My eyes wandered around as I drifted through the greenery and I saw old versions of myself deep within the woods, to the right and to the left. These versions of me were of my past, and I saw myself grappling with the old demons that caused me heartache, pain, and questioning. There were 3 distinct versions of me that I saw, each heartbroken over something in life that I’m now distinct from — redeemed from. As I observed the brokenness and pain that those girls felt — in middle school, high school, and college, I looked back at my path through the trees. The roots on the ground were knobby and distracting, the trees obstructed my vision to where the light came from, yet the path I had taken to this point was clear. As I left the forest and the past with it in those densely shaded trees and darkened canopy, I entered the light. I entered the present. I looked at myself differently now, with gratitude and love. I felt the warm sun shine down on my face. Instead of seeing my current flaws and shortcomings, anxiety and fears, I saw the triumphant moments I had overcome. I saw freedom, beauty, and healing.

I believe God gave me that vision to remind me to be thankful and to never forget how far He has brought me in this life. It was a simple, beautiful, and clear picture of God’s grace towards us in our brokenness, His love for wanting us even in those dark times, and the gratitude we owe to Him for pulling us out of the forest and into the light.

do not fear

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” — Isaiah 41:10

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” — Matthew 11:28

Just in case you need a reminder of the promises we have as believers and followers of Jesus Christ. The God of the world cares about you individually and will cling to your hand if you reach out to him.

More writing to come soon, when I’m finished studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) that I take this Saturday. Prayers and thought very much appreciated.

-mb

rebirth

 “Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’” — Matthew 26:36-39

When I was little, Easter was when we made “Easter trees” by clamping string into plastic eggs and hanging them outside. I remember picking out the perfect Easter dress for church and waking to a basket full of chocolate goodies and a new springtime piece of clothing. I remember – with a little competitive love – the exciting egg hunts and relaxing Sunday afternoon meal at my grandparents’ house. Easter has always had a bright, enlivening aura around it – the promise of a fresh breath of air, a happy season as the dawn of spring is carried in on Easter’s arrival. Easter brings new life. As a child I never understood why, but as I get older I understand more.

The image of Jesus in Matthew 26:36-39 is not filled with sunshine, flowers, and pastel colored eggs. He isn’t rejoicing at the promise of new life for us; Jesus mourns his own death. This is one of my favorite images of Jesus, not because he is filled with sorrow and grief, but because it shows him experiencing feelings that are innately human and worldly. How many times have we, collectively as humans, felt “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”? At some point in our lives, we will feel the overwhelming, crippling grief that Jesus felt in the garden of Gethsemane. Maybe it will be the day our parents pass away, or when one of our friends gets a bad diagnosis, or when we feel immensely desolate. I’m not being cynical, but I am being realistic. We will likely experience these feelings in our lives.

This is the very reason why I love this image of Jesus. He was vulnerable, pained with the situation he was facing. How hopeless I would feel if I thought I had to go my whole life trying to live up to a Christlike figure that never felt the pain and sorrow of loss. Instead of viewing our own tragedies in conflict with the existence of a powerful, loving God, we should view them like Jesus did: painful, harrowing, but never the end of the story.

Jesus cried out to his Father to take the cup, to remove the tragic death he was about to encounter. I think we can learn so much from Jesus in this moment. First, it is okay to feel the heartbreaking reality of life’s circumstances. Jesus didn’t fake a bold, invincibility toward God. He accepted with humility his desperation and faced God with vulnerability and truth. Secondly, Jesus didn’t run from the Father. He didn’t try to evade God by turning to worldly promises. He turned toward God and prayed to Him. The realness of Jesus in this moment gives me hope that when I face hurt, tribulations, and defeat in this life, my response does not have to be trivialized; I don’t have to display false courage. While He is offering a behavioral response to difficult situations (if you can even call what Jesus was about to encounter difficult), He includes a didactic moment, too. That is, when times get tough (which they invariably will), the first place to go is to God. God will always meet us in prayer, even when we’re angry, unfaithful, and devastated.

While all of this seems sad and dark, there is indeed light that returns the vitality, beauty, and promise of new beginnings that Easter is known for. Jesus didn’t stop in this moment to lament indefinitely. He gets up and recognizes His fate – to save a world of sinners. He confidently says to his capturers in a scripture I love:

“Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” – Matthew 26:53-54

Jesus knew the implications of His crucifixion. He could have called on the Heavens and saved Himself from the pain He would encounter. But He didn’t. He embraced God’s will for His life and died to save the very man who hung him on the cross. It is a beautiful, overwhelming, incomprehensible love that he displayed for us.

Easter still has to me the excitement and fun that I remember as a child. I still love a good egg hunt and an elegant dress for church. I cherish getting together with my family and taking special time to remember why we celebrate this season of pastel-colored eggs and whimsical decorations. Now though, Easter is so much more than this. Yes, while the springtime flowers and sunny days are revitalizing, the promises that Jesus fulfilled on the cross will always be the most life-giving, hope-renewing, and beautiful treasures that I, and we, will ever receive.

the tiny little birds

Saturday, March 10th, 2018. 6:55am – Watching the waves come in and the sun rise into the sky. Perfectly content.


It’s always at the beach where I remember it’s okay to write happy poems.

Writers cling to the melancholy, the alternative, the deeply emotional. Our most treasured writers were inspired by war, famine, slavery, and captivity. I appreciate these writers and their motivations. But it’s okay to write happy poems, to embrace the beautiful things in life. Though I have written my fair share of melodramatic poems and posts, I’m inspired even more by the simple beauty of life than the tragedy of it.

If you’ve ever been to the beach, you’ve probably seen those little tiny birds that roam along the shore. Not pelicans or seagulls (maybe these are the same birds) but the tiny little birds that could fit inside your hand. Those little tiny birds inspire me. As I’ve been sitting along the peaceful coast the past few days, I’ve been mesmerized by those little birds. All they do is run along the beach, chasing the waves, looking for pieces of food. They are so in sync, though. The tide comes up, they run up, the tide goes out, they run out. It’s a pattern of nature that is so simple yet captivating.

What I love most about those little tiny birds is that they are content with their purpose in life. All they do, all day long, is roam the beach to find food and to satisfy their needs. It’s incredibly simple – to me, it teaches me something. Life can become so confusing, tiring, and wearing on our hearts and minds. As a college student, I’m constantly around people who are trying to discern their life, figure out their purpose, fulfill a sometimes convoluted role they feel called to step into. I’m a part of this madness of uncertainty sometimes, questioning myself and my plans. I’ve never questioned by abilities, or what I love to do, but I certainly appropriately question the things I’m going to do. To me, questioning is a natural and important part of growing up and finding a career that you’re happy with for the long term.

But, these birds don’t care about careers or growing up. I’m not saying we are birds – but I am saying we could be more like them. This isn’t the first time that God used birds to teach a lesson. I’ve always felt like birds are strong messengers of Christ and have stories of where birds taught me something about myself.

Our purpose in life is not a lucrative, successful career, though I’m not saying that’s a bad or wrong ambition. I think we do find purpose in our work and in a meaningful vocation. The little tiny birds though, they seem to be perfectly content filling their simple, mundane role in the world. And God cares for them. He cares for them as he will care for us.

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” – Matthew 6:26-27

The little tiny birds aren’t saving the world, and they can’t showcase their trophy collection. They roam the skies – or the beaches – and the Father feeds them. I think God recognizes our need for meaningful vocation and for a purposeful life, whatever that may be to each individual person. I believe some people are called into certain areas of life more so than others and that each person is given a beautiful gift from God to use in this world. Whether or not we fulfill those requests of God – to reap and sow what we have been given – is up to us. But constant worry about those things, the type of endless, incessant worrying that I’ve experienced and observed, is not proclaimed by God. He wants us to achieve heavenly treasures, crowns of gold with the Almighty King. That should be our aim. It might be a lot simpler than we ever imagined, like being more like the little tiny birds who run along the beach and who are protected and valued by the Father. We are treasured, valued, loved. It’s as simple as that.

sunny rays

“Let the illuminating rays of the morning sun revive my spirit, renew my soul, and fill my heart with the hope of the descending dawn.” – mb

This morning I rolled over in my two-foot-wide bed and was greeted with the sunny and peaceful dawn of the morning. It has been rainy the past few days (or weeks, it feels like) and my spirits have felt the same dreary, sobering mood that the overcast, grey skies bring. But today, I rolled over and I saw sunshine and felt a joy and hope spring up inside me. I consider myself a somewhat-paradoxically optimistic yet skeptical person about things. I was raised on seeing the best in others, being the bigger person, and always finding forgiveness because life is too short to hold grudges against others. Skepticism, though, has woven its way into my life though and not in a necessarily bad way. Healthy skepticism can prevent pride, overconfidence, and faulty judgement. I’m at a place in my life, though, where I want to reevaluate what I’m making priority and what tendencies recur in my life. Periods of fasting and prayer have urged something deep within me to reconsider what I’m considering important in this life; what idols have I unintentionally set up? How do we as a society and especially as believers deconstruct those things that have begun to take root in our hearts and outcompete our love for others, doing good, and living Christ-like? What does it mean to live authentically as a Christian and a doctor, scientist, writer, teacher, lawyer, musician, etc.? How can I change my life in such a way that it is refocused, centered, and set on sights of above?

In my shallow attempt to answer some of these questions, I’ve quickly learned it is both complex and uncomfortable to address your life in such a way, as an observer or outsider. Life itself can be hard, and it’s my superstition that too many people are afraid of hiding their fears and insecurities, their big challenging questions. How are we supposed to parse through what is important in life if we can’t even discuss it with the people who are present in our lives every day? I am just as guilty about this as the next person, but for some reason I’ve felt the need to change that and to eliminate this hindrance in my relationship with others and with God. When I started this blog, one of my intentions was sincerity about the hard things in life, like body insecurity, loneliness, divorce, failure. This was my platform of exposing the vulnerabilities and being real with others. Now, my attempts to write are often displaced by obligations to study or work. So instead my goal has been to create real, vulnerable and truthful relationships with others. When I “feel the need” to start doing something different in my life, even if it so minute and seemingly insignificant, it is usually inspired by the heavenly Creator. I don’t want to wear these masks every day in front of others, always answering with the “right” question when someone asks something meaningful about your life. One time in church, I was so caught off guard because my pastor once asked me how I was doing. Of course, as we all do, I answered, “Oh I’m doing fine, how are you?” and his response was, “No, how are you really doing, what’s going on in your life?”. He caught me at a time where I was really struggling with some things behind the scenes, and this intentional, thoughtful question provoked something in me that is usually deeply buried in daily conversations. He didn’t just care about filling the space between us with empty words and conversation, but he wanted to dig deep into what was going on in my life. This type of real, intentional conversation and community with others is something that I long for these days. I’m tired of artificial conversation, wearing masks that make our lives look flawless and unrealistically strong. This is not what I want.

Jesus never said to avoid letting others into your mind where there may be insecurities, doubts, questions. In community, we have the opportunity to break down walls. My walls are pretty rigidly constructed after years of maintenance and reinforcement. I’m the first to admit to being the type that always appears put-together with “everything figured out” but let me first handedly say that this is not the case. My doubts and fears are cumbersome and admittedly scary and unwanted. I question things. I feel out of place, uncertain, and confused sometimes. Instead of bottling these feelings up, I’ve began to embrace them and talk through them with others. I’ve began, most importantly, to talk through them with God. As I would my best friend, I welcome God’s input on my situation and seek for His answers instead of my own. I really think our best bet at answering some of the hard, anxiety-inducing, and uncomfortable questions I mentioned above is partnering with God in prayer and in life. It requires a community of believers and friends that can help you navigate through life’s toughest issues.

I think something transformational is happening in my life right now, something that is helping me to reevaluate and rethink my old tendencies and desires. It feels small and subtle but present. For some reason I felt the need to write it down, talk it out, put it out there for the world. Maybe God is calling you into something more than artificial relationships and surface-level Christianity. My hopeful, optimistic heart is overpowering the skeptical, doubtful nature of the human being. I think there is more for us than achievement, recognition, reward, promotion, and perfection. Something urges me to articulate that when we partner with God, truly anything can happen. Let the renewing rays of the sunshine remind us that there is hope on the dawn.

“This is my command — be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9

“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:14