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.

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.

unconditional love

A lot of things change in life. In the past year, a lot of things have changed in mine. The natural rhythm of life carries us through tides of highs and tides of lows, but through it all one thing always remains. One thing, the one thing that I could reach out for when my heart felt broken and my actions disappointing, will always remain. The steadfast love, peace, and grace of Jesus Christ will always be there, freely available to us. God doesn’t move away from us but is always near, waiting patiently to welcome us back into His embrace of mercy, peace, comfort, and belonging. When I’m far from God, when my heart is troubled and my mind conflicted, it is never because God has forgotten about me or drifted away from me; the truth is quite the opposite. As a human, I am inherently chained by the tendencies of temptation, disappointment, and worldly comfort. As a child of God, I am freed by the abundant love and forgiveness, truth and goodness that showers me in the presence of my savior. When I am far, I am ashamed and discouraged, but God doesn’t say to shame or self-criticize ourselves whenever we are falling away, back into old, undesirable rhythms of life. He says,

12 Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive.” – Jeremiah 29:12-14

There is no holding line, wait-list, consideration period, or redemption process that God requires us to go through before we are welcomed back into His loving, accepting arms.  The tone is this message is immediate, urgent, imminent. Call on me, and I will listen. Seek Me, and find Me. He knows the posture of our hearts before we even “let him in” on it, and He knows our desires and heartaches. Like anything, returning to God requires work on our part as any relationship does. It requires sacrifice and dedication, communication and honesty. What it doesn’t demand or even allow is trying to earn God’s love. We can’t earn it; we don’t deserve it and nothing we do can make us more deserving of His infinite grace and acceptance. It was given to us, the greatest gift of all time. God doesn’t want our empty actions or articulated words, He wants our hearts. Our purified, humbled, earnest and bold hearts. We are more than the lows we experience or the highs we admire; through all of those moments, God welcomes us unconditionally and immediately. That is love.

“Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,
    for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go,
    for to you I entrust my life.”

— Psalm 143:8

welcoming 2018

“For what it’s worth… it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start over again.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I thought about dwelling on 2017, on the hardships I experienced, the heartache and desolation that was felt sometimes, the brokenness that occurred early in the year. There was more than that though. I thought about writing about my successes in research, getting published, changing my major, finding my purpose (or trying to). I thought to write about the relationships I formed, the ones that came with me from 2016 and blossomed even more, the new ones that helped me love myself and others more, and the romantic one that I could have never predicted but am so thankful for. I thought about writing of my personal journey, the one where I felt empowered, then small, loved, then lonely, invincible, then broken, and the roller coaster that it was. I thought about writing about how I’ve changed (a lot) in good and bad ways, because it is arrogant and mistaken to say that we always only change in good ways (though I hope the good greatly outweighs the bad). I thought about the memories, the rich and vibrant memories of places I went (England! Ireland! Boston! Atlanta! The Gulf Coast! How blessed I am to see the world). My eyes took in some impeccable places with some amazing people.

I thought about it all, about 2017. It was painful. It was momentous. It was beautiful. Every day something happened, sometimes I wrote it down, but I mostly tried to store it away up top with failure more than I wished (we always overestimate the ability of our memory). I did write some though, mostly prayers in pen tucked away in a book filled with empty pages and my deepest hopes and dreams and concerns and questions. I thought a lot, about what love actually is, and whether it can actually last, and what I believe and who I am and where I belong and what I will do for the rest of my life. I worried a bit too, about the latter questions and if I will find happiness in what I am pursuing and the life I am building. I thought about my future. I thought about the present, whether I was making the right decisions. I thought about my friends, how truly blessed and favored I am, how God always takes care of me. I thought about faith, my journey, my flaws, my strengths. I thought about my blessings. I tried to think of them more than my problems, insecurities, and heartaches. They were abundantly more in the past year than those anyways. There were nights I cried, full of questioning, and nights where my heart wanted to leap out of my chest for happiness and overwhelming peace. I can’t explain 2017, but it was a mysterious thing with some of the hardest and best times of my life. A year of true lows and glorious highs. To write of it would take a novel, to think of it would take a journey, but to appreciate it takes very little. I appreciate who I was this time last year and who my experiences over the last year have made me. I am indebted to those who have prayed for me, offered me their love, and walked with me through the past year. I am incredibly thankful to those who I’ve met who have accepted me and cherished me. Finally, I look to God for all He has done for me. I’ve experienced lovely, magnificent things because of Him, and my perspective on a difficult life change was crafted in His hands. What a year it has been. Here is to 2018 – another year of magical, unpredictable, eventful, and beautiful memories with those I love.

 

fresh breath

God always knows what you need.

This semester was expected to be the worst, the hardest, the most demanding and grueling semester I would have in college – I was so nervous. Since my freshman year I have been dreading the fall semester of my junior year. It was set up to be the semester where I would take the most upper level science classes at once and still try to maintain my sanity and all the other crazy things that college students do. Maybe I went into this semester with a bad attitude, or at least a pessimistic attitude – one that expected the worst. I am so delighted, blessed, and truly thankful to say that this was indeed not the worst semester of my life; in fact, it may have been one of the best but for many different reasons. Academically, I studied smarter (AKA less, shorter, more focused) and enjoyed my classes more because everything I loved about biology and chemistry came together finally! I also spent more time doing things that made me a happier person (yoga, hanging out with my friends, taking time off, going to the lab). I think God strategically placed people and events in my life to buffer the ride that was expected to be pretty uncomfortable for a while. I think God knew I needed a support system, people to lift me up and cheer me on and remind me why this is worth it, and He gave me that. He gave me that in my roommates who have often seen me studying with frustration and then later baking dozens of cookies to decompress; He gave me that in my cherished best friends who remind me to stop, go out for dinner, enjoy a glass of wine, and do something fun and relaxing; He gave me that in my mentor/boss and coworkers at Vanderbilt who showed so much grace and support by allowing me time to study, focus, and take off when I needed it; He gave me that in my (now) boyfriend who endlessly encouraged me through countless physics problems, biochem exams, late nights and early mornings, and who never forgot to make me laugh in the middle of the chaos; and He gave it to me in my family who never failed to call, check in, and send me prayers when I needed them most. So, yeah, God knows what you need. I say that not because I saw what was happening while it was going on in my life – no, there were definitely times when I wanted to give up and felt completely unmotivated – instead because He was always there, working in me and around me and through me and through others to me. Sometimes what you expect to be a big, bad terrible storm turns into a beautiful, refreshing spring shower – it brings you flowers, sunshine, and a breath of new life. I sit and reflect on a semester that was a whirlwind, a serendipitous whirlwind of unexpected friendships and newly minted forever memories. I blinked, and it was suddenly over, my expectations were wrong and this time I was happy about it! But my, how I have been shown that the God I love, cherish, and serve, will always know what you need. Not only that, but He will abundantly bless you with what – or who – you need.

resilience

Humans are incredibly resilient. Probably more so than we recognize and acknowledge. We are resilient on both a personal and macroscopic level. We fight back, bounce back, and spring forward into life with a renewed strength. After everything has been drained from us and we are emotionally empty, somehow, we progress forward into a new wave of perseverance. The past year of my life has undoubtedly been the most difficult of the 21 years I’ve been living on this beautiful planet. I experienced moments of true darkness. In those moments, I felt internally shattered as I tried to piece together my external façade so others wouldn’t see my hurt. Strangely, the past year was also filled with remarkable moments of happiness and joy, strength and compassion, and unrequited love and friendship. This is what brought me through the valley and into the light. Macroscopically, I see Texans pushing forward as they reenter their homes and towns to find devastation and obliteration after a natural catastrophe stole their peace. They are not stunned into sadness but have the strength to carry on and rebuild. There are innumerable circumstances in the past – the World Wars, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, so many more – where people, who are inevitably limited and fragile, overcame grim and unsettling circumstances. They faced their darkness and broke through barriers of paralyzing fear. They depended on each other for comfort and strength – for friendship. Humans are amazing. I don’t think this resilience is a numbness of life that looks like an escalator we jump on to move forward, without any input from ourselves. I think this resilience is filled with a small glimmer of light – called hope – for a better future, for brighter days ahead. It looks more like an infinite number of stairs where we’re not afraid to take the first step on. We’re not afraid because we look back and look around us and see similar expressions of the same thing. We see brokenness and desolation, but hope. We’re not alone, and we never have been. You are never alone. You are resilient.

It may feel like the situation is inescapable and draining the strength from you like a vacuum; I promise it is temporary and controllable. Look up toward the stairwell and see others around you who have pushed through brokenness to find the strength. I personally believe hurt is relative and not absolute. Your hurt is as justified as any others. Likewise, your strength, maybe buried deep within, is just as available as any others. Trust in God who brought me out of my darkness, trust in friendship and love, and remember that we’re an inherently resilient people. We withstand the afflictions of disease and heartache, of destruction and despair, of loss and broken dreams. Yet we still find the strength to laugh with our friends, find purpose in our lives, and begin the journey out of defeat. We are incredibly resilient, and that is worth celebrating.