A Shoulder to Lean On
About the Guest
Cancer doesn't just affect cancer patients, but also those who love them. Wife and mother of three Vivian Mabuni takes us through her breast cancer journey from beginning to end: from mastectomy, to chemo, and finally, radiation. Mabuni tells how her family, friends, and especially her husband, encouraged, cared and prayed her through her cancer treatment.
Cancer doesn’t just affect cancer patients, but also those who love them. Wife and mother of three Vivian Mabuni takes us through her breast cancer journey from beginning to end.
A Shoulder to Lean On
Bob: Vivian Mabuni is a wife, she’s a mom, she’s a full-time missionary with Cru®, and she is a follower of Christ. There’s one other thing that defines her—she is a breast cancer survivor.
Vivian: What’s so interesting about breast cancer in itself—I think there is only one other cancer, maybe colon cancer, that I would probably be uncomfortable talking about—but any other type or form feels easier to talk about—but because breasts are very private. Yet it’s everywhere. Honestly, I think 240,000 women were diagnosed, last year, with breast cancer—so it is not an insignificant number.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, October 6th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’re going to talk today about the challenges that come with a diagnosis like breast cancer—how you find strength for the journey. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You have, in the years that you and Barbara have been married, had the challenges of health issues in your marriage that have a way of exposing the core pretty quickly. Your marriage and what it’s made of gets exposed in the middle of health challenges in a way that it doesn’t get exposed in other settings; don’t you think?
Dennis: It really does. I think there’s a reason why Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount with the illustration of the wise man being the one who built his house on the rock. So when the floods came and the winds blew and beat against that house, it didn’t fall because it had been founded upon Jesus Christ.
I think that’s what a couple has to realize, as they start a marriage—they have to build their marriage to withstand the storms.
It’s nota matter of “if”; it’s a matter of “when”; and it’s a matter of “how many.” I would say, on no less than a half dozen occasions, Bob, sometimes, I look at Barbara and I go, “You’re really kind of wearing me out on these health issues that you’ve gone through.”
Our guest on the program today, Vivian Mabuni, joins us again today, telling and sharing about her story of breast cancer. Vivian—welcome back to the broadcast.
Vivian: Thank you so much for having me.
Dennis: She and her husband Darrin have three children / live in Southern California. They serve in the Epic Movement of Cru, formerly Campus Crusade for Christ®—it’s the Asian-American ministry of Cru. She has written a book called Warrior in Pink.
Bob: You’ve already shared with us this week about the journey that God took you on—where you had a lump in your breast / you went to your doctor. She didn’t seem concerned; but she said, “We ought to do a mammogram.”
You had the mammogram. That led to an ultrasound that led to a core biopsy—all in the same afternoon. Three days later, you got the diagnosis that, indeed, you had—and tell me what it was again?
Vivian: Invasive lobular carcinoma.
Bob: On the scale of cancers, is that a bad one?
Vivian: It is just one of the forms of breast cancer. Some are found within the duct, and lobular was outside of the duct.
Vivian: Mine was a moderately slower growing one; but it ended up being either stage 3 or 2B, depending on how the doctor diagnoses it after the surgery.
Dennis: So that means it was invasive.
Dennis: It was an aggressive form of cancer.
Bob: You got this diagnosis on a Monday morning in the middle of the Christmas season. Everything kind of comes to a halt in those moments; doesn’t it? All of the rest of life gets set aside because, now, we’ve got something urgent we have to deal with.
Vivian: That’s right.
I remember—somehow, I made my way back to the car, after I called my husband in tears, just saying, “Can you please come and meet me back at home?” I remember sitting there, just tears streaming down my face, because I was in shock, all the way up until that moment. Then, when I talked to Darrin on the phone, the words started to tumble out with what was going on. I remember looking out the window, and all the cars were driving by, and just thought, “Everyone is going somewhere, but my life has just been derailed.” That was even before the official diagnosis, but I knew that things had radically changed.
Dennis: You shared earlier that you invited three friends, who became the “A 3”—
Vivian: Yes—the Awesome Threesome.
Dennis: —the three closest friends that you had—to be burden-bearers in the midst of this. You also had three children.
Dennis: What were their ages, and how did you end up sharing this with them?
Vivian: Yes. Jonathan is our oldest. At the time, he was 14—had just started high school.
Michael was 11. He was a sixth grader in elementary school. Julia was in first grade—so she was the tender age of six.
Vivian: It was three days before Christmas.
Bob: To have that different age range, with this kind of news: “What are you going to tell them? How are you going to tell them?” And you’re going to tell one child something different than you’re going to tell the other because of what they understand. How did you decide to tackle this?
Vivian: Yes. We decided to wait until after Christmas to tell our family and to tell them the news so that they could enjoy Christmas. I remember that particular Christmas—I felt like I watched it from the outside, wondering how they were going to respond to the news.
We told our boys together, while Julia was lost in her new pile of toys. We pulled them over to the dining room table and sat down with them. We decided that we were going to honest with them—we would be straightforward / we would use the right terms—
—it is kind of like sex education. If you can just be honest, and straightforward, and tell them the facts, kids are actually pretty resilient if they know what you are dealing with. We gave them as much information as we knew at that time. I think they were in shock, just like we were.
Dennis: They had three different responses though; didn’t they?
Vivian: They did. My oldest was very quiet. Then my middle son looked up at me and he said, “Mom, did God give you cancer?” That question just pierced me. I kind of had to pull it together to not just burst out into tears at that moment. It was a window of opportunity to explore with them God’s character and His sovereignty—
Vivian: —in the midst of allowing something like this to happen. We explained: “God does not give us cancer, but we live in a fallen world. God has allowed this to happen. We don’t know why, but we are going to choose to trust Him with each step of the way.
“We are going to choose to give you whatever information we know so that you know what is going on.”
Later, we talked with just Julia; and she was six. As soon as we told her, she just burst out into tears. She had, at that point, had heard the word before and only had associated it with, “Mommy’s going to die.” Trying to comfort her and be with her in that was excruciating because, as a mom, I don’t want my kids to hurt in any way. If I could take away the pain, I would; but I knew that they were going to have to grow up in some ways because of this new chapter that we were going to be going on.
Bob: At this point, did you know what the treatment protocol was going to be?—what the doctors were recommending?
Vivian: Yes. At that point, we had met with a number of doctors—enough to know that I would probably go through chemotherapy and then radiation.
At the time, I was young—younger than I am now—so they wanted to treat it very aggressively. They took three very strong chemotherapy medicines and combined them. They said, if my body could handle it, that would be the best way to attack the cells—is to use all these different ways.
Dennis: Talk about your surgery options because that is a—such a tough thing for a woman and husband to face.
Vivian: Yes; yes—it really was. I think, for me, I was bombarded by so many new terms and new ways of dealing with health. I hadn’t even been to a doctor that much up until that point. Honestly, I took Advil® maybe twice a year. It wasn’t like I had been sick before and now it was very aggressively being treated. The treatment actually made me feel worse than having the tumor growing in me at that time.
Bob: What did the doctors tell you the surgery was going to involve?
Vivian: The lobular carcinoma had a greater chance of developing in the other breast. I had decided, “I want just to try to get rid of this as best I can, here and now,”—so decided to do the double mastectomy at the time.
If I look back on it now, I wish I would have done a better job of bringing my husband in on the decision because I was just in this slew of: “We have to decide. We have to figure things out.” I was reading everything I could. People were sending me links, and blog posts, and all of that. I regret not sitting down with Darrin and really having a heart-to-heart, more in that moment.
Dennis: Was that because he wasn’t necessarily there with you and the doctor at the time?
Vivian: No. He was absolutely there with me every step of the way. It was interesting—he is such an attentive and involved husband and dad.
He was with me just about every chemotherapy—he went to all of the appointments. It was really me—I think I was starting to turn inside. It wasn’t even so much that he wasn’t available, it was my trying to, I think, gain control somehow and make these decisions.
Dennis: I think that’s an interesting point to just make here—is that when we go through something like this, the tendency is to withdraw—
Dennis: —it’s not to reach out. You already used, in an earlier broadcast, the illustration of a woman who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, who didn’t allow anybody into her life, and ultimately committed suicide. Even though you had heard that, it’s interesting that a form of depression that comes with news like this can really cause us to retreat.
As husbands—it may be incumbent upon us to pursue, and reach out, and find ways to connect, and make sure we’re totally sharing one another’s burdens at that point.
Vivian: Yes. I think what was helpful—with it not being just Darrin / but also having the Awesome Threesome—is that it kind of helped to balance out the help so it didn’t all rest on Darrin’s shoulders or my friends’ shoulders.
I picture Jesus and the paralytic—and the four friends lowering the paralytic to the ground, to Jesus. That’s kind of how I pictured the Awesome Threesome and Darrin—actually, carrying me on a mat / bringing me to Jesus because there were times when I didn’t even have the faith to pray or trust God. God used my friends and my husband to be His hands and feet.
Bob: The decision that you faced—to cut away as much of the cancer as possible and deal with this in an aggressive way—is a decision to permanently disfigure—
Bob: —yourself. That’s not an insignificant decision—
—maybe not even one that you recognized, at the time, there’d be ongoing impact of that choice that you’d wrestle with for years.
Vivian: Yes. I think what’s so interesting about breast cancer in itself—I think there is only one other cancer, maybe colon cancer, that I would probably be uncomfortable talking about—but any other type or form feels easier to talk about—but because breasts are private / you know, these kinds of decisions are very private—and yet it’s everywhere. Honestly, I think 240,000 women were diagnosed, last year, with breast cancer—so it is not an insignificant number.
It really is a decision about, as a woman, things that define me, as a woman. Losing my hair was so difficult—I think that was honestly harder than losing my breasts. There are several parts of the journey that made it excruciating.
Bob: How long did you go through chemo and radiation? You went through several rounds. What was the total duration of all of that?
Vivian: Chemo was six rounds every three weeks—so that was about four months. Radiation was daily—Monday through Friday for 33 treatments—which was another six weeks. I think the total active treatment would be about nine months.
Bob: That’s a long year.
Vivian: It was a very long year.
Bob: And a year when you kind of have to put everything else in life on hold in order to walk that journey. At the end of that journey, the Threesome threw a party for you; didn’t they?
Vivian: [Laughing] Yes, they did. We call it “The Great Celebration.” [Laughter]
Vivian: We just invited everyone. Our church is within walking distance from our house. I think that our entire church had our garage code memorized [Laughter] because we had a little refrigerator out there, and people would bring groceries and meals.
If you ever wonder what it takes to be a mom—I just have to—a shout-out to all those moms out there—it took an army—between the figuring out / we tried to keep our kids’ lives as normal as possible—
—so we had football practice, and marching band practice, and soccer games, and all that. It required an army to come alongside to do the drop-offs, and the pick-ups, and everything to keep our family going.
So we invited everyone. Darrin had an incredible men’s Bible study that met on Tuesdays, and I believe their prayers carried us through as well.
Bob: What, today, is your prognosis?
Vivian: I am in remission. My oncologist told me:”You can’t really call yourself cancer-free. The term we use is ‘remission’.” I’ve been in remission since 2009.
Bob: Has there been anything else pop up?
Vivian: The only on-going thing is I have what’s called lymphedema because the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes—so they removed all the lymph nodes. Now, I have to wear a compression sleeve when I travel or if I get a mosquito bite or something. It’s more uncomfortable / it’s not life-threatening.
Bob: Do you have screenings on a regular basis?
Vivian: I go in to see my oncologist every six months. It used to be every three to four months. Now, it’s been moved to every six months. I’ll continue to see her.
Dennis: Back to the image you gave of “It takes an army to replace a mom,”—that’s an understatement. I couldn’t help but think, as you were sharing that story, of what happened, here at FamilyLife, a little over a year ago, when a tornado took the life of one of our staff members, here, and two of his daughters. They had nine children. It destroyed their home and rolled the other seven kids out into what was really a mess—a bunch of uprooted trees. The mom survived / the baby survived; but nonetheless, at the end, all that was left of their home was a slab.
It’s interesting—I went by—and I’ve been to the spot where the tornado hit on a number of occasions.
Just down the street is another house that got hit. I don’t know those people, I don’t know the story, I don’t know what took place; but that house is now abandoned. It’s not been cleaned up / the uprooted trees and the debris are still there. I couldn’t help but think, “I wonder if, perhaps, they aren’t people of faith / that they aren’t followers of Christ and don’t have an army around them,” because that’s what cleaned up and stood with the Tittle family—that is their name—of the family who was left after their dad was taken / husband. You just see when the body of Christ responds.
You were a blessed woman—not only to have a husband and children that stood with you—but also a church—
Dennis: —that stood by you in that. There is an important message that every person really ought to heed.
I’ve got one last question for you before we finish here. I’m really curious to see how you would answer this. If I was to ask you, “What’s the most courageous thing you’ve ever done in your life?” how would you answer?
Vivian: I think the most courageous thing was being able to show up to every treatment and go through all of the medical appointments / the doctor appointments. To learn to be a gracious receiver—that actually required a tremendous amount of courage because I wanted to be the strong one. My pride wants to be the strong one. Actually, courage—as funny as it is—it wasn’t so much like jumping out of an airplane as much as it was allowing community to come and love our family—to receive that love—and to understand that I’m blessed to be a blessing but, in that moment, I was in need.
God provided, but I still needed to receive it.
Bob: You’re saying receiving from others may be the most courageous thing.
Vivian: Maybe; maybe—or being on a radio program? [Laughter]
Bob: It’s interesting because the title of your book, Warrior in Pink—the subtitle: A story of Cancer, Community, and the God Who Comforts—community is a big part of this story and a big part of the reason why you wrote this book because we do need one another. There are times when it’s hard, but we just have to be on the receiving end and be recipients of the grace of our friends in our lives.
Vivian: That’s right.
Dennis: It’s sometimes difficult for people, who are really talented and really good at helping others, to choke down not being able to help themselves—
Dennis: —and just saying a very simple word, “Help.”
Dennis: This is where the Christian community—I know we have our flaws—but we do show up, and we do show up in strength.
Dennis: Vivian, I so appreciate you and Darrin, and your ministry in California to Asian-American college students, and all that you’re doing. I hope that a lot of listeners will pick this book up and maybe give it to a friend.
Vivian: I wrote it hoping to be able to share some of the things that we have learned. Also, in the back—have a little appendix for the caregiver—because I think Darrin was such an incredible blessing—but I think sometimes the caregiver isn’t acknowledged. I use in the book the illustration of—
Bob: —the Sherpa.
Vivian: —the Sherpa because he talked about how—
—I would refer to this cancer journey as a marathon race. We ended up going to marriage counseling afterwards because it just surfaced—just amplified and surfaced our existing patterns. In that counseling office, I was finally able to hear him share. He said: “You know, Vivian, you talk about cancer being a marathon race. I ran that entire race in step with you, with a huge back pack on; but I was on the outside of the race tape. I ran it with you, but no one was holding up signs and cheering me on. When I got to the end of the race, I was exhausted.”
I think that the caregiver often—when I have opportunities to share with groups of people about my cancer story, one of the most important points is: “…to not forget the caregiver,” because they really do shoulder so much and don’t receive, in the same way, the encouragement, and the direct prayers, or the notes of encouragement.
Bob: You’ve got an appendix, “Thoughts for the Caretakers,” you’ve got a note to parents who still have kids at home as you’re going through this battle, and then a letter to a newly-diagnosed cancer patient.
Again, I hope our listeners will get a copy of the book, Warrior in Pink. We have got it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the screen that says, “GO DEEPER,” and you’ll find Vivian’s book there. You can order it from us, online—again, our website: FamilyLifeToday.com. Or, if you’d prefer to call to order the book, our toll-free number is 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
When you face the kind of diagnosis that Vivian faced, that’s when you need friends / that’s when you need your family. That’s when you need people to come around and say: “We’re here for you. We will hold you up. We want to provide encouragement, support, help, and hope.”
Here, at FamilyLife, we want to be one of those allies / one of those resources available to you when you are facing challenges in your marriage and in your family and you’re looking for help, and hope, and advice, and support. We want you to be able to turn to FamilyLife Today. Our mission is to provide help and hope so that we can effectively develop godly families because we believe godly marriages and families will change the world, one home at a time.
We’re grateful for those of you who are allies in this mission with us—those of you who provide the financial support for this ministry. We could not do what we do without folks, like you, pitching in to be a part of this work.
If you’re able to help with a donation today, we would like to send you a resource that we hope will get some lively conversation started around your dinner table. It’s a new resource from Barbara Rainey. It’s called “Untie Your Story”—it’s a spool of napkin ribbons. Each one has a provocative question on it designed to get you and your guests talking, at the dinner table, about more than just surface-level conversation.
Again, the “Untie Your Story” resource is our thank-you gift when you support the ministry, this month, with a donation. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com to make your donation online. Click the link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen that says, “I Care,” to make an online donation. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY—you can make your donation over the phone. Or if you’d prefer, mail your donation to us at FamilyLife Today, PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; and our zip code is 72223.
Now, tomorrow, we have a couple of pediatricians who are going to be joining us. We’re going to talk about the health issues that parents face as they raise children—everything from colic and croup, all the way up to immunizations during the school years, and some of the teenage health challenges. I hope you can join us tomorrow as we have that conversation.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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