Daughter of John C. Duncan, III and Sandy L. Duncan, I was raised on the truth and treasures imparted by Little Britain Presbyterian Church (about half a mile from my home as a child). When I was 4 years old I fell on the preschool playground and hit my knee. After two weeks of pain and complaining, bruising and swelling, my Mom took me to the hospital and I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma cancer in my right leg. Just a week before I had been running and jumping, now I was facing cancer treatments and amputation. My parents stood up during a time that so many others would have crumpled, and fought for me to stay alive.
The next year was a whirlwind. My parents insisted that I receive treatment at the renowned Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York City. There my right leg was amputated and I remained there most of the following year undergoing treatment. My father maintained his job to cover expenses at home and my one year old little sister stayed with my grandparents through the crisis. Each weekend my father would take the four and a half hour trek to New York City to relieve my mom and give her a chance to be with my baby sister while he stayed at the hospital with me. They would again change places on Sunday for yet another long and lonely week of sickness and fear to begin.
Even in the white-walled hospital God was with me. Our community poured love upon me and my family. There wasn’t a week that went by that I didn’t have boxes of cards delivered, fundraisers planned to help with the bills, thoughts and prayers. Children donated their toys so that I would have projects to fill the boring days spent contained in a hospital bed.
The amputation surgeon, Dr. Healy, was supposed to remove my leg right above the knee. During the procedure he had what he described as a very strong feeling which guided him to take even more of the leg than he wanted. I believe that it was God’s own healing hand guiding Dr. Healy. I ended up being one of very few children without cancer returning into my remaining stump. If I had those extra six inches of stump, my ability to wear a prosthetic would be much simpler and I would doubtless live a life without crutches. But what is done, is done, and I can only trust the master planner.
People often assume that I do not remember this time of my life, being only four. I’m sure that my memories are distorted, but I most certainly remember the pain after the amputation being so intense! After one week the hospital took me off of morphine. I was itching terribly and causing bleeding and scarring to take place because of it. The standard morphine treatment after amputation at the time was one month before weaning off of it. I didn’t have that advantage.
At one point, as I laid there in extreme pain I closed my eyes and I remember looking up and seeing a door at the top of a flight of stairs. Everything was black except for vibrant light shining out from around this door. At four years old I felt and knew in my heart that I could go through that door and everything would be fine. I knew that I was being given a choice to leave the world (pain, suffering, hardship) behind to enter a place that held none of those things in my future. As I looked at the door and started towards it I thought about my mom and my dad and how they told me to fight. I didn’t want to leave them, I didn’t want to chicken out. I chose to fight. When I opened my eyes again there I was again, in my hospital bed and dealing with the pain.
At four years old, a child is developing many of their perceptions about life and gaining a foundation in family and social networks. Children are sponges during this time of life. Unfortunately for me, the foundation of life that I was soaking up was: Life is a battle. I must always fight.
I had to fight for my life. Many of my friends around me in the hospital died. I had to learn to fight through physical pain. Due to the chemotherapy and medicine of the 80s I had sores in every orifice on my body; from my ears and mouth to my nose and urinary tract. I had to fight to eat and swallow, fight to blow my nose, fight to urinate in pain. I remember the doctor coming into the room one day and explaining that as high up as I was amputated I would never walk. I also remember fighting his words, “Well he doesn’t know me very well,” I thought. This spirit to fight was being ingrained into my being, and it kept me alive.
When our insurance maxed out and the hospital would prepare to throw us out on the street, my mother fought. The added expenses continued to pile up: 2 trips to New York City (4.5 hrs away) each week, medical bills topping one million dollars, and more. Seeing the pain of separation between my mom and one year old sister even further ingrained in my small and developing mind the fact that life was a battle. What else did I know or have to reference to at only four years of age? The problem with my mentality came when the crisis was over. No longer was everything in life a matter of urgent survival, yet I was always fighting.
By the time I turned 21, I was employed full-time and had just received the keys to my first apartment. I was so proud of my accomplishments and so excited to become a woman of God. As time went on though, I realized my battles were following me and were not so easily put off I’d naively thought. I was so lonely and so alone in my new place. In addition, there were two situations that also drove me away from God. Being hurt by the church and seeing others hurt by the church. In my heart I knew a loving God wouldn’t treat others that way and it made me angry and question a lot of what I believed and had been taught. Turning from intimacy with God sent me looking in the wrong places for friends. Before long I was hanging out with people and living a lifestyle that involved a lot of drinking, drugs, and late nights.
One particular night during this time I remember crying out to God as a last resort about my loneliness. As usual, God was right there no matter how far I kept from him. There was a guy I worked with and he wanted to start dating me. I knew in my heart he was not right for me but I was so lonely that I didn’t even care. I cried out to God with all my heart that night and the Lord put in my heart that if I waited, just stayed faithful and held on, I would meet the man I was to marry within a year. If not, it would set me back two years on my journey. I grieved and cried and then made the wrong decision. Later my journals confirmed that the right guy for me, my husband Rick, moved into the same apartment complex almost exactly one year from the day I prayed. I even met him! Yet because I had strayed from my path I didn’t date Rick until two years and twenty days from the day I prayed. God was faithful to his word.
For me, the moment I realized I needed God and could not live without him was alongside of the road. Pulled over by the state police with both alcohol and drugs in my system, I was a mess. Even as I stood there, the obvious bad guy, I blamed the policeman! Then suddenly it dawned on me in the most surreal way that maybe I was the problem. Maybe I needed help. Maybe I had been fooling myself all along. If I really did have things under control would I be in this situation? It hit me that I was still fighting – against myself.
Two months later I went for help. Yes, two whole months. Sometimes it takes time to come to terms with the fact that we have come to the end of ourselves. One of the biggest things that I remember about when I started working with the counseling ministry was that I was told I didn’t have to change. I almost didn’t go back! What kind of quack would tell me I didn’t need to change, when I was there because I needed to change? The counselor said we would work on life skills and she would provide tools to help me regulate and make better choices. She explained that because I was self-medicating and not displaying solely addictive behaviors that I would slowly learn to reach for the new tools instead of the drugs, alcohol, etc.
The process didn’t begin easily and it wasn’t a “cold turkey” recovery. But slowly and surely I realized she was right! I began to look at life not as if it was a battle, but as a journey. In my mind I felt like I had lived my whole life up to that point sitting at a table with a board game of battleship in front of me, Me vs. Everything. One of my favorite lines in my journal from this time says, “lifestyle changes can be conquered in bits”. And if I’m honest, I still get caught up in this Me vs. Everything battle from time to time. This is part of growth and change, I believe. God’s best work in me was not sudden and total healing as it is so often preached, but a mindful awareness of myself, my surroundings, and my choices.
There is a plethora of mercy in my life. Married now for over ten years, I have matured and grown in ways I never thought possible. Relationships have healed and mended since being removed from battlegrounds, and I even embrace my disability and body to pursue wellness. God is a living God and while we are called to look back and rejoice over what he has done, we must choose to live in a present-future relationship with him. As I look forward to the next chapter of life, I think back on that decision I made in the hospital as a little girl, a decision to fight, and am so thankful that I chose to live.