Updated: Mar 7
Denise Stevenson is a 50 year old mum-of-three, who's just had a nine month re-birth. She lives in the South of France with her husband and three daughters.
The author of two previous books; 40 Days (written in 'real time' following her mother's sudden death) and Emmanuel (following her calling to build a new church with no experience, no funding and no qualifications), both of which are available on Amazon.
Denise is the president of an International Church in Toulouse (church31.fr), who has a message to share...
Beauty for Ashes
It was a wonderful 50th birthday; short notice for a party at home to mark this pivotal moment in a woman's life. Time to mark the halfway point, exciting plans ahead.
What I didn't know at the time was that God had other plans for me this year and by the end of it my favourite Bible verse 'For I know the plans I have for you' had taken on an entirely different significance. 'He' may well have known the plans for my 50th year, I was blissfully ignorant of them.
I had a nagging doubt: Two dear friends that I'd worked alongside 25 years before were both at my party. Between them another more recent bond had formed, one that I was about to join them in: Breast cancer.
My doubt was fully realised after the celebrations when I began chasing the results of a biopsy I'd had taken of a cyst that had been slowly growing in my breast for the past 18 months.
'It's nothing I'm sure' said my doctor, 'It's just that it's sitting on your bra-line, must be uncomfortable.' 'It's got an even form, not like anything suspect, but I'd like to do a biopsy, just to be sure' followed the doctor after the scheduled mammogram and ultrasound. All comforting, but that niggle wouldn't go away. I'd been told I'd hear if there was a problem. It was now a month after the biopsy, I'd called a few days after it, again a week later, then I'd begun celebrating and a month had elapsed. Now I just wanted closure. What I received was far from that.
You know you're in trouble when your doctor asks how soon can you come in, yet still I serenely drove down the hill for my appointment. I'm a 'glass half-full' kinda girl, others would call it in denial.
My results had been filed in a drawer. For the past month. My doctor was 'spitting blood' metaphorically speaking, of course. She sent me to the leading cancer hospital, no messing with local ones. We have a research centre an hour away and she wanted me there. Surgeon's name given, urgent appointment made with him.
Two week's later we're face to face. Mastectomy he says, drawing a well practiced breast doodle. Do you want chemotherapy, then surgery, then radiotherapy, or, surgery, chemotherapy, then radiotherapy? If we do chemotherapy first it could shrink the 5cm tumour enough to conserve the breast, if there are no other cancerous cells elsewhere in it. Well?
And so it begins. I have become an unwilling participant in the conveyor-belt world of modern cancer treatments. And yet... Two days before the appointment a lady at church gives me a book; Do you want to know what we did to beat cancer? By Robert Olifent. I came home and after lunch read the entire book the same afternoon, stunned. Until that point I'd felt completely helpless – it gave me hope. Then I began researching in earnest.
At my next hospital appointment (bone scan) I begin to ask questions. Can they advise me about a change in diet? Can I delay the chemotherapy to see if what this little book says works? Nothing.
I refuse an under-arm biopsy, convinced the first one punctured the tumour and allowed the cancer to spread to the lymph-node there. I may not be a doctor, but if you puncture a balloon, well...
'We need to do this' the doctor says. 'I'm not ready'. She accepts that. 'Are cancer cells spread by biopsies?' I ask. 'We see it all the time' she responds. 2% is the official statistic. I'm one of those.
No more biopsies.
My faith sees me through the battery of tests. Each one ticked off; bone scan – clear, thank you God. CT scan showing one tumour in breast only, thank you God. MRI shows one tumour, something in the lymph-node under my arm and traces of what could be cancerous cells in breast. Mmmm. A multi-discpline meeting is called. I ask to attend. No. Then my 'angel' doctor intervenes. I'm in.
It seems that if those traces are cancerous I'm looking at part of my anatomy being removed and they think they are indeed cancerous, they want to do one more test to check.
A mammogram and mammotome are scheduled. I'm reluctantly in the mammogram-ery when I clearly sense that I'm to get out. So I do. Why would you squeeze a 5cm tumour between metal plates? Beats me. So mine won't be. The doctor pleads with me to have the scan, she's on her knees in front of me explaining that this is the last chance to possibly save my breast. No, my healer is telling me otherwise. I flee.
Uncertain of the full extend of the cancerous cells in my body, they begin chemotherapy. 'Reconsider the mammotome, it's your only chance to save your breast' the oncologist calls me at home. I call a trusted friend, who's a medical secretary. 'They've started the chemotherapy now, if the mammotome spreads the cancer, it'll kill it anyway.' I reschedule.
A gentle lady doctor gets me in position, she knows I'm scared. She takes one x-ray and re-enters the room. 'There's no point in proceeding. There are no other cells in your breast. They've disappeared'. She's mystified. I'm not. I'm on my knees in the changing room, thank you God.
Three months in and it's half-way time. I know the tumour's gone, I can no longer feel it and ask for the MRI that's part of the protocol. 'It's too soon' the oncologist says and refuses to schedule. I ask the surgeon, he schedules it. It's cancelled the day before. Strikes. Got to love France. It's re-scheduled for two week's later and shows the tumour has completely disappeared. My breast shows as completely normal.
I meet with the surgeon as I refuse the second half of the chemotherapy, leaving the oncologist having a hissy-fit. The surgeon assumes I've finished the treatment and is happy to schedule breast-conserving surgery. He's amazed it's gone only half-way through. 'Do you want to know what I've been doing?'. He listens as I share details of the vitamins and supplements I've been taking, how I've held a 3 day fast around each of the chemotherapy infusions, how I've completely cut dairy, meat, sugar and gluten from my diet, eating mostly raw, plant foods and taking apricot kernels every day. 'Just carry on with it' he says.
Surgery shows 7mm of cancer in my breast, clear lymph nodes. He thinks the previous MRI missed that final bit of tumour, doesn't matter, it's gone now. Radiotherapy next. Hard. Not the treatment (which takes 10 minutes), but the daily process. After 21 of 29 sessions I hear the quiet voice once more – quit. So I do. I experience complete peace as I have the final session before the storm of doctors insisting I finish the treatment. The radiotherapist doesn't fight me. On hearing I've decided to stop she accepts it. We both know I've had enough ionizing radiation pumped into my tired body.
One final hurdle to jump; Herceptin. I'm supposed to be on it for a year (HER2+, triple negative). Told by my oncologist that it wasn't a chemotherapy drug and there were no side effects, I had the injection. My heart reacted within hours. I have since learned that 25% of patients' hearts have an adverse reaction to this 'wonder drug'. Since stopping my heart's returned to it's 'normal' level, not looking forward to my appointment for supposedly the next injection in a few day's time. As I said.
So where does the Beauty come from in the Ashen experience of Cancer? In the form of the 200 people who comment on a closed Facebook group in the name of that favourite Bible verse.
The fact that I feel fantastic; I've a new, short haircut that I would never have thought of going for! My eyelashes/brows are thicker than before I lost them... I've met some inspirational people. I've had my house cleaned top to toe courtesy of our health insurance. My previously high cholesterol levels (hereditary) have bombed. No age spots (they've disappeared), no knee pain (turmeric). I'm a very cheap date (only water/green tea). I can justify shopping for a new wardrobe (as I've lost 7kg). My faith has increased 100 fold and I know, with a sure and certain conviction that I am loved.
I'm doing everything in my power not to have a return visit to 'Cancerland'. Cancer changes everything. Stay healthy people. Get informed. There's so much we can do to not have it knocking on our door. My new book will be published later this year and will be made available on Amazon Kindle free of charge.
My mother's sudden death took me back to places long forgotten and to others which I had never known.
Written in 'real-time', 40 Days is a testimony to the strength of faith, the power of love, the pain of loss and the comfort of peace that is found in acceptance.
This is the story of a woman following her calling. God gave her a vision to build a church in South-West France. She had no experience, no funding, no qualifications. Yet, she had everything she needed...
'You are anointed and appointed. Now go and build God's church'