Tuesday, October 29, 2013

From Cakes to Caskets and Back Again

Round Seven at Chemo Depot
It happened so fast. In less than sixty days, after being declared cancer-free by the medical profession, I was staring at test results that found “rare and suspicious cells” in eight liters of fluid that had been withdrawn from my abdominal cavity. 

My first round of chemotherapy, deemed successful, finished in May of this year. However, I began to feel a few spasms and twitches in my abdominal area about a month later. A quick look on the internet revealed these discomforts were likely the chemo drugs working their way out of my system.

But as the minor aches turned into pain and my stomach began to swell, I returned to my oncologist. He immediately ordered a CT scan. Everyone, including my doctor, was shocked at the results. He said that in his years of practicing medicine, he had never seen colon cancer behave in such a manner. The only thing he could surmise is that tiny, undetectable seeds of the cancer hid in my peritoneum (the fat layer that surrounds the internal organs). The drugs did not eradicate, but only kept them in check during my treatments. The cells multiplied quickly once the chemo stopped.

Within days, the surgeon who removed my tumor was consulted. She thought it best to send us to a doctor who specialized in peritoneal cancer research.  While I’m thankful for those who invest their lives in research, George and I quickly found out that this one, in particular, was not patient-oriented. His world revolved around scans and blood reports in a lab setting—not people at the most vulnerable and emotional times of their lives.

After reviewing the scan from Abilene, he matter-of-factually announced I had six months to live--more or less--and the best they could do was provide palliative care to make me comfortable. After an awkward silence, he tried to offer a comforting word.

He pointed to the Bible I brought along to read and asked, “Judging by that, are you a Christian?”

“Yes,” I answered. “Why?”

“Well, then you have nothing to worry about,” he replied. We Christians have Heaven to look forward to…and that’s a much better place, isn’t it?” By then he was patting my hand.

I looked at George’s flushed, red face.  He was clinching the armrests on his chair. In other words, my Texan was about to explode.

 “Look,” I explained, “I was saved back in the 70’s. Since then, Heaven has been a done deal for me and honestly, I haven’t thought much about going. I’d rather stay here and get something done for God where it counts. Right here on earth. You know--like the focus in the Lord’s Prayer.”

The look on his face was odd: somewhat of a cross between a quirky frown and a quizzed look that didn’t get what I just said.

“Okay, “he said in a long drawl, “but you must know what to expect. You eventually will get a blockage in your colon and have to have a food tube installed. More fluid will gather in your abdominal cavity, but we can draw that off to help your breathing. And we will manage your pain with morphine…until, well, until it’s time.”

Again, nobody said anything. Then George rose and stomped out of the room. The researcher lowered his eyes and shifted around in his seat. It was obvious that he wanted to end the appointment as much as we did.

“I’m going to fight this thing, “I told him. My reason for being here is not finished.”

“All right, “he said. “I understand your need to do all you can. Let’s arrange an MRI around September and take another look at your peritoneum.”

“Fine, “I said. “We’ll make the appointment.”

Thank God, I got George out of the building before he assaulted anyone on staff, but the two- hour drive home seemed dreadfully long.

We finally agreed to calm down and regain our spiritual balance, which had sent us reeling from the “expert’s” blows. I knew I had to immediately cancel the words that specialist spoke over me as an earthly authority and put God’s word back in ascendancy. So often, people, even Christians, take the words of physicians as the final say regarding their health; but at best, they can only provide a diagnosis. If you’re a believer, God alone determines the number of your days—not a doctor, not a medical report.

After arriving home, I collapsed into my chair and wept under the strain of the past few days. You see, we were making plans to visit the grandchildren in Hawaii. I was starting to revise the third edition of my book, Cotton Butterflies. Cooped up in a studio apartment for seven months while taking chemotherapy, I only got out for medical appointments and light errands (when I felt strong enough). I was looking forward to traveling and feeling the embrace of life again.

Later in bed, I sense God cautioning me not to change my confession based on this new development. He warned that satan was trying to convince me to own this latest report by focusing on the so-called, new “evidence” that appeared to run contrary to the promises the Lord had given us nine months earlier.

We returned to our oncologist in Abilene the following week, still upset over our visit to Dallas. George broke down in the office-- something I’d never seen him do in public.

“How in the world,” he cried, “did we go in less than two months from ‘You’re cancer-free'  to ‘You’d better buy a casket'? Even Evil Knievel couldn’t make that kind of jump.” (His sarcasm (and pain) was at full tilt!)

We told Dr. Kalla everything the specialist had said, and his colleague’s demeanor angered him.  My doctor assured me that personally, he had not stamped an expiration date on me and stated there were still viable treatment options on the table.

He preferred putting me on another six-month, twice monthly round of chemotherapy containing three new drugs that proved successful against rapidly advancing colon cancer. George and I prayed, and felt it was wise to pursue another round treatment to clear my body of the remaining cells. I’ll admit: I dreaded walking through that long valley again. Most cancer recurrences show up many months--even years after a first round of treatment. A patient’s body has had time to recover from the stress of systematic, systemic “poisoning”.

I had less than two months before subjecting myself to the drugs again. Chemotherapy is good at locating rapidly dividing cancer cells, but it cannot distinguish between fast-growing, good cells in a person’s body, either--such as skin, hair, nails, the lining of the intestinal tract, and the bone marrow, where red and white blood cells and platelets are made. Red blood cells carry oxygen, white blood cells fight infection, and platelets help to control bleeding and bruising. Thus, the risks for anemia, fatigue, infection, bleeding, and bruising increase with bone marrow suppression.

I entered the hospital for my first treatment in order to be monitored more closely for side effects and any dangerous reactions. In a previous post, I related how the nurses on Parker 7, the oncology wing, had celebrated my clean report in May. They gave me a “graduation” send-off, complete with diploma, mortarboard, and cake.

As I was wheeled onto the floor past the nurses’ station, their jaws dropped. I explained my situation to them as they visited my room, tears in their eyes, one by one. I told them not to worry…that I was just back for my master’s degree!

The first treatment went well with only minor side effects. I could tell it was more powerful that the first set of drugs, and I knew a new set of challenges lay ahead for the next six months. Still, I was in God’s will; therefore, I could acknowledge that even along this familiar but more difficult way, I could trust Father God to direct my path:

"Lean on, trust in, and be confident in the Lord with all your heart and mind and do not rely on your own insight or understanding.
In all your ways know, recognize, and acknowledge Him, and He will direct and make straight and plain your paths ( Proverbs 3:5, 6).

We are communicants within the Charismatic Episcopal Church. Currently, there are no CEC missions in Texas. When we first moved out this way, we attended a small Charismatic Anglican Church in Muleshoe near the New Mexico border. We loved (and still do) Pastor Sergio Leal and his family. When I was first diagnosed with colon cancer last October, we followed the command in James to call for the elders to anoint with oil and pray the prayer of faith:

“Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up” ( James 5:14, 15)

Father Sergio’s s visit comforted us greatly, and we had peace after my anointing and prayer. The surgery was successful, and I followed through with my first round of chemotherapy.

Within days of the second diagnosis, we heard that our former CEC Bishop, Chuck Jones of Christ the King in Selma, Alabama, was appointed over Texas to minister to communicants living in the state and start new ministries. Chuck was our bishop in our home state of South Carolina. We grew to love this gentle giant of a man who was also one of the strongest, most accurate prophets we had ever met. (You will enjoy reading his regular prophetic insights at Aslan Roars.)

We explained everything to him over the phone, and he assured us of his love and prayers. A prayer service was scheduled at his church that night. He informed the congregation of my condition and by 9 PM, I turned over and slept on my right side without any pain…something I had not been able to do for weeks. In fact, from that night on, I have remained pain-free from cancer symptoms.

A few days later, Bishop Chuck called and said that Father Dan and Debra Whitt from the Church of the Messiah in Charlotte had already planned a trip to Texas to visit family in nearby San Angelo. In fact, they were en route and wanted to stop by and pray for us. We were elated! Dan and Debra have the gift of healings, and many people have become well through their ministry.

Once they arrived, we all knew we were standing in a divine appointment. Before even hearing our story, Debra said she had sensed that just as an uprooted tree does not show its death immediately--but continues for a season to give the appearance of life--my situation was similar. As the Lord had done previously, she cautioned me not to accept the enemy’s new, intimidating symptoms and lies.

We witnessed that her prophetic word was truly from the heart of God. The couple also encouraged George and me about future ministry opportunities, and assured us that God had plenty for us to do in the days ahead. Before leaving, they consecrated a bulk host of bread and wine for us to take Communion as often as possible.

Of all things we have been instructed to follow, nothing has touched me more than the joy of taking the Body and Blood of Jesus daily. Whether you believe the elements change literally into the Body and Blood of our Savior, or like Martin Luther,  you believe Jesus is “in, around, and through” the elements, we all agree that the Lord is present in a special way to bless those who come to His table by faith. There we receive sustaining, overcoming, sufficient grace for every need.  It is a Table spread in the presence of our enemies...a banquet of all things that pertain to life and godliness for his waiting children. (2 Peter 1: 2, 3)

A little table in our apartment is now our altar. George is an ordained deacon within the CEC; therefore, he is permitted to serve me bread and wine previously consecrated by a priest or bishop.

I encourage anyone who is sick to consider daily or weekly Communion in your worship and healing confessions. Ask a pastor or priest to stop by regularly and serve it to you. I know you will experience the Lord in a powerful way. I can literally feel a wellness in my body every time I take the Eucharist. I consider it the strongest medicine I take!

Well, September rolled around and we made another trip to Dallas for the MRI. I had to drink two large cups of a white, chalky, apple flavored concoction. It made me sick three times and I told George to forget it—I wanted to go home; but anti-emetics finally got my stomach under control. George got me under control, as well. I told the nurses that they were just plain wrong in trying to make that stuff taste like apples. “I may never eat another one after this,” I quipped. And I meant it.

A week later, we were sitting in my oncologist’s office in Abilene. Dr, Kalla came in with a smile on his face. “Your scan has improved since July,” he said. “Cancer cells can still be seen on the peritoneum, but they are not as pronounced. It has not spread to any other organs, nor do we see any blockages.”

George and I let out a sigh of relief at the same time. Next, George leaned forward and asked, “Tell me doc. Does that scan look like it belongs to someone who has just six months to live?”

Dr. Kalla chuckled. “No…not in my estimation. No, not at all!”

We went into the infusion room, praising God and sharing the encouraging news with everyone. (We patients talk to each other as if we’re family…and in a way, we do have a unique bond that can be stronger than one’s natural family. You won’t find shy introductions or standoffish behavior in a cancer clinic. Talking to fellow travelers is part of our therapy—and the conversations are as frank as they are humorous.)

I’m scheduled for two more treatments, and then we’ll have a local Ct scan. I made it clear that I never want to set foot in that Dallas clinic again. My doctor is confident that his team can clearly detect what’s going on locally just as well as the specialist can. (I’ll provide another update when the results are in.)

I can tell my body is straining now under the load of so many infusions; yet thanks be to God, my red and white blood cell counts have remained normal. My hair thinned quite a lot, but did not fall out completely. I have yet to “lose my lunch”, so to speak—one of the major problems with chemo-- although I’ve had many queasy moments. Compared to the experiences of some of my companions, I am blessed to have endured so well.

We are still planning to go to Hawaii, either at Christmas or right the holidays, depending on what Dr. Kalla suggests. (My last treatment in this series in January 2.) I’ve started the revision on my book Cotton Butterflies, and launched a podcast called “Healing for Everyday” that includes teachings insights on healing Scriptures for every day of the month. So far, I’ve completed the introduction and Episode 1. They’re available on Podomatic.

My plate is full of future books, articles, and business products that the Lord commissioned long before my diagnosis; and the last time I checked, He hasn’t erased anything from the pages of my planner.

On my list is a trip to Norway to see the Northern Lights, although George insists we can see them just as well from Alaska. (Don’t tell him, but I’m warming up to the idea of an Alaskan cruise.)  Of course, if you’re in Norway, then you have to trek on over to Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, then back to London for a tour of the Tower and fish n’ chips. Oh, and stopovers in Ireland and Scotland are a must for castle ambling!

Closer to home, I want to visit Niagara Falls, and mosey through New England in the autumn. I’ll refuse to leave until I have tapped a maple tree for its syrup. I want to stay in a beach cottage in the Maritimes during a wintry bluster, and watch a magnificent thunder snow roll in over the Great Lakes.

Nevertheless, I’d forgo the wanderlust to spend more time with my grandchildren. There’d be fanciful tales, tap shoes, and imagined adventures under the sea…talk of things that go bump in the night and shouts of “I love you” at sunrise. I’d study their faces, and teach them more about God and his ways. We’d pray, laugh, and consume lots of S’mores around a fire. Lots. We’d dress up in goofy clothes and go to parades

Will I get to do both? I hope so. I pray hard. My vision is large, my desires numerous. I want you to know I’m not waiting to feel well enough to embrace life. I’m reaching out now as best as I can with the goal of no regrets.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Healing For Everyday/Episode One: Trusting God--
Even in the Face of Contrary Evidence

Before we can ever receive anything from God, we must develop a level of trust that runs deeper that what we perceive with our five senses or hear from those in some position of earthly authority, such as the medical profession.

So often, we take their words as the final say regarding our health; but at best, they can only provide a diagnosis. If you’re a Christian, God alone determines the number of your days—not a doctor, not a medical report. He also intervenes when entreated by His children to improve and increase the quality and quantity of our days.

Monday, October 07, 2013

I have begun a new audio series, "Healing for Everyday". The introduction is complete, and thirty one podcasts will follow--usually once a week.

After using these Scriptures daily since my diagnosis with colon cancer a year ago, I felt led to share them with you. If you're sick, or know someone who is, this series is a good faith builder that will take you deeper into the trusted character and ways of a healing God, as well as how to respond to Him when in need.