Monday, September 23, 2013

Congratulations, You're Cancer-Free! Go Enjoy the Rest of Your Life.
(Uh, Wait...Not So Fast.)

A familiar piece of furniture I
call Chemo Deco

It’s been a while since my last post in the Elim series. Many things have happened since my diagnosis and surgery for cancer colon almost a year ago, and I’m eager to get you caught up on all the details.

At first, I thought I would post each week during my rounds of chemotherapy; but after two treatments, I realized waiting might be best.  Each infusion and its ensuing days were challenging, full of complex emotions, and major adjustments for my husband and caregivers. Only later did full insight come from looking back. It’s the interesting turns around the bend, along with the wisdom gained, that I want to share with you now.

My last post in the Elim Series, Of Heaven and Earth, Life and Death, Sickness and Wellness in the Kingdom of God, left off after the first few rounds of chemo.

Many Job’s comforters surrounded me in the beginning, assuring me what to expect from chemotherapy. Although I was thankful for their concerns, I told them I had researched the side effects of each of my drugs and discussed the possibilities with my oncologist. “I refuse to accept a package that has yet to knock on my door,” I asserted. “If it does, I will be prepared with prayer and medicine.”

Although loaded with stats and facts, my primary focus was on Scriptures and declarations that would fortify me for what was ahead. Proverbs 3: 5-8 became my cornerstone:

“Trust in the
Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil.
It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones.”

Here’s the Goin commentary: My whole heart has to be committed to trusting God—even along paths I do not want to go. I’m not going to understand God’s overall purpose, so it is a waste of time trying to figure it out. All I know is that His ways for me are always redemptive, not destructive; and always turn for my good.

I must acknowledge He is Lord over these chemotherapy infusions and He governs all they entail. If I do, I have the confidence that every step I take along the journey is directed (leveled, made straight) by God.

I refuse to let my mind or five senses determine truth for me. My intellect can certainly receive and  process facts, but if I fear (respect and honor) what God says over the opinions and prognoses of well-intentioned, but imperfect doctors, it shall be:

Health to my navel (the very core of my being) and marrow to my bones. It is in the marrow where red and white blood cells are manufactured, along with platelets.

Blood production is critical to a chemotherapy patient! Chemo drugs destroy fast-producing cancer cells, but they cannot distinguish bad cells from other fast-producing cells in the body-- notably blood, hair, and the lining of the intestinal tract. That’s why cancer patients often lose their hair, have constant bouts with diarrhea, and become prone to low blood counts, which can lead to infections and anemia that may delay chemotherapy until these conditions are addressed.

Before taking my first round of chemotherapy, I also had what is known as a power port installed under the skin above my left breast. It has an entry port attached to a catheter that runs into a large vein known as the vena cava. Before then, both arms looked like pincushions! My veins are difficult to find. When one is felt, it tends to run and hide by the time the needle arrives. Now, the needle going into the port is virtually painless, and technicians can easily draw blood and give infusions through it.

Early on, I used the Scriptures in Hebrews 1:3 and Colossians 1:17 for my port, as well as for the production of the blood cells:

He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word."
“And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”

I thanked God for upholding the production of my red and white blood cells and platelets, as well as maintaining the position and integrity of my port—for it to stay clean, clear, and functioning.

Our Creator’s handiwork is flawlessly exact. He sets the ebb and flow of the seas of the earth in concert with the vast Cosmos. Our earth turns on its axis upon precise coordinates, as it joins other planets in our solar system to rotate with equal precision around the Sun. Isaiah 41:4 says that God has called forth the generations on earth from the beginning. He is a God of details and boundaries.

Having meditated upon these truths, I asked God to set the boundaries of the drugs before the first bag of chemicals entered my body. I prayed that they would not go beyond what He decreed, and that each drug (there were five compounds) would do only what He allowed—serve, not harm; help, not hurt.  With each new bag added to the IV pole, I spoke those words.

Glory to God, my blood work remained normal through all twelve treatments, much to the amazement of the oncology staff. In fact, I breezed through the treatments for six months with NO nausea and subsequent vomiting, no mouth sores, and no loss of appetite. My hair thinned, but did not drop out. The staff called me a remarkable patient.

Oh, I experienced fatigue, the most common side effect; but whenever I prayed for the grace to do only what I needed to do for that day, the Holy Spirit came through. By the way, chemo fatigue cannot be relieved by taking a nap or resting. You just have to press through it as best you can and learn to let many things…yes, many things go during this time of your life.

Before my cancer diagnosis and resulting treatments, I was a list maker and took great pride in coming to the end of the day with most (if not all) things struck from my list. It gave me a sense of accomplishment.

During my chemotherapy regimen, my husband held down a demanding job. He would come home after fourteen hours in heavy construction and face the chores I could not complete. He had to cook supper and clean house. He had to help me bathe. He cleaned up the mess from my often-unsuccessful runs to the potty. Every two weeks, he would leave work Friday evenings and drive two hours to Abilene—all to spend the next two nights on a roll-out bed in my hospital room before driving me home on Sundays.

George’s way of cleaning the house is different from mine—the way he loads the dishwasher, the thoroughness of his sweeping, but I have to extend grace—great grace-- to someone who overnight became a juggler with on-the-job training. He suddenly was responsible for things too important to drop. I made room for his vents, and never took them personally. As time went on, we learned each other’s “Rapture” points. We call them “Rapture” points because it translates into “I’ve had enough. I’m outta here!”

Thank God, we have a great support team of in-laws that take up the slack during these moments. My sister-in-law is a tremendous blessing. In addition to driving me to Abilene twice a month for treatments, Shana would often prepare lunch and tidy up around the apartment. A Le Cordon Bleu graduate, she researched immune-boosting menus and prepared them for me.

Although I never lost my appetite, it became extremely finicky during my sessions. It was similar to being pregnant! George was frustrated because I’d send him to the store to get a certain item, only to not want it once he returned. He would cook something that we agreed sounded delicious and doable, then watch me scoot out of the room minutes later once I smelled it on the stove. It was important for me to maintain my nutrition, so George tried to be patient, yet insistent while I vacillated from meal to meal, sometimes bite to bite.

Our only glitch came during the seventh treatment. My chemo was given at the hospital, where I stayed for three days for each infusion, twice a month. I awoke one night to urinate. On my way back to bed, I felt a slight chill. Getting under the covers didn’t stop it. Within seconds, my entire body was trembling. I hit the call button and three nurses rushed in and immediately identified the condition as rigors, caused by one of my drugs—Oxaliplatin. I was given high doses of Benadryl, Demerol, and the steroid Dacadron until the trembling, which by then had nearly advanced into convulsions, subsided. Everyone was relieved, and the oncologist thought it best to remove Oxaliplatin from my regimen, even though I still had four more treatments to go.

The next day, drowsy and dazed, I thought about what had happened.

Okay, Didn’t I pray over the IV before it went into my body? Yes. Did I trust God to set its boundary and not let it harm me?

Oxaliplatin is the “gold standard” when treating colon cancer, but it is also a double-edged sword. Its side effects during chemo are daunting. Some last months, years, or permanently after treatment. The primary side effect is peripheral neuropathy--a tingling, prickly, burning sensation in the extremities.

When my oncologist visited me that afternoon, he told me that just a few weeks earlier, one of his in-clinic patients went into rigors and then cardiac arrest. A portable defibrillator brought her back to life, where they were able to stabilize her for hospital transport.

Some patients with mild reactions to the Ox, as it’s called, can slow down their drips and add Benedryl and other drugs along with it to ward off reactions. But since my reaction was severe, my oncologist was convinced that to continue it would be far more harmful than beneficial.

After he left the room, I began to think about what I pray over every bag that goes into my system, and how I was trusting God to decree its boundaries in order to bless, not harm.

“Holy Spirit, please explain,” I asked. “I believe you enlightened these specific Scriptures just for me—my personal Sword of the Spirit—to war successfully for my life and health.”

I started to worship. Soon, in the quiet places of my heart, the understanding came: God DID set the boundaries. That was all of the Oxaliplatin He was going to allow into my body. In order for it to be removed from my list, a reaction had to manifest; but even then, God was in charge. He was making sure the reaction only went so far and no more. There were no lasting effects.

George and I agree that continuing the Ox would have led to neuropathy down the road, and pose a threat to my ability to walk and stand on my feet for long periods. (I asked God to return me to an active speaking schedule in churches, schools, book signings, etc.) Neuropathy can also affect the hands and fingers, and cause great pain when someone needs nimbleness, such as for daily typing.

Just months later, I experienced a mild form of this tingling in my feet and hands for two weeks-- and they weren’t pleasant. No doubt, God was showing me what I was delivered from. What a good and merciful Father!

By my eleventh treatment in April, the fatigue had subsided enough for me to enjoy a few days out of the house in Dallas with my son, his wife, and my adorable grandchildren—ages 14, 10, and 8. Jeremy, an Army Staff Sergeant, was leaving his post at Ft. Bliss in Texas to transfer to Hawaii. While I was happy for them, I was sad to soon be so far away from my family. I reasoned, however, that I had only one more treatment to go. Then, I could put the horrible cancer scare behind me and start a new chapter of my life that definitely included a trip across the Pacific.

You see, when we first met with our oncologist, I was told that the surgeon had removed the entire tumor and affected lymph nodes from my colon. No radiation was necessary, and a full round of chemo was ordered as a precautionary measure to clear my system of anything that may not have been seen by the surgeon or scans. “You have a ninety percent chance of a full recovery,” he said. Even without prayer, those were very good odds.

I said good-bye to the family at the airport as they embarked for Hawaii. The night before, we had joyfully made plans to get together for Christmas in the Aloha State. I was close to the end of an arduous ordeal (or so I thought).

A month later, I finished my last infusion and on the same day, had a full-body CT Scan. When the report came back normal—no signs of cancer anywhere in my body—the nursing staff gave me a surprise “graduation” party as I was packing to leave the hospital. The oncologist told me to “go and get on with my life.”

The great staff on Parker 7 at Hendrick Hospital, Abilene

I cannot tell you how George and I felt! We laughed, cried, and celebrated at a very fancy steakhouse on our way out of Abilene. When we told the wait staff our story, they didn’t charge us for the meal. The colonoscopy a month later revealed NO signs of cancer—no polyps, and the surgical site looked great. We planned a delayed anniversary trip in June to beautiful New Braunfels near Austin. There, we toured the sites like newlyweds, stopping to savor the beauty and attractions around the renovated old river town.

After returning from our trip, I started to notice little twinges of pain here or there. On the computer, I found many sites where post-chemo patients were plagued with all sorts of aches and pains. After all, I had been systematically poisoned from head to toe for six months. And since the drugs settle deep in your tissues, it takes a while for the crud to work itself out of your system. I was convinced there was nothing to worry about.

Then, I began to notice my stomach swelling. Within a few weeks, I was having trouble breathing and eating with all the pressure. I couldn’t even get up from a sitting position without help. It felt—and looked-- like I was pregnant!

W hen the oncologist saw me, he immediately arranged for the fluid to be withdrawn and tested. To the technician’s amazement, eight liters of fluid (approx. 2.3 gallons) were removed from my abdominal cavity. I went home feeling much better without all the pressure against my diaphragm, yet I was troubled.

I entreated the Lord to be delivered FROM whatever was ahead, rather than having to go THROUGH it. George’s construction project had ended a few days before the test and the company let him go because no new projects were on the table. Moreover, my husband was still weary from almost a year of caregiving. Now Jeremy and the kids were half way around the world.

Lord, not again! Whatever is in that fluid, whatever is in my body, remove it in Jesus’ name and spare my family this sorrow!

George and I followed up by taking authority over whatever was attacking my body. We examined our lives, laid prostrate before God, and committed once again to trusting God’s ways—regardless of what the report revealed.

I was reminded of the three Hebrews in Babylonian captivity (Chapter 3 of Daniel). They found themselves before a fiery furnace they had not imagined or planned for that day. Cruel King Nebuchadnezzar threw them into a furnace heated seven times hotter than usual. Amazingly, they were not consumed. Instead, they were moving freely about, loosed from their bonds and praising God in the fire! How was this possible? The Hebrews discovered a Greater One had arrived ahead of them…One the Bible calls the “Fourth Man in the Fire”.

I knew that whatever George and I were to face, Jesus had gone ahead and was waiting in the fire for me. I would be able to stand, loosed IN it before I would emerge FROM it. Our hearts were settled in Christ that whatever the tests showed, our confession would not change from what we declared the first time—ten months earlier: God is good, full of grace and mercy. He is our life; He is our willing Healer, our Future and our Hope.

Next post:  "From Cancer-Free to Casket Shopping in Less than Sixty Days"