(This post is Part Two of The Cancer Journal. You can view Part One here.)
Did I mention that Sarah broke her toe?
It was late Christmas night. I was lying on the couch fighting a fever, and had finally convinced Sarah to go to bed. She assured me that she would get back up if she heard me coughing, and I told her that I would be just fine. Finally she begrudgingly headed off to bed, and I fell asleep. An hour or two later, though, I started coughing.
“I’m coming, Byron!” Sarah cried. Lunging out of bed, she raced through our bedroom, skidded around the corner, and —
Thud. Her eyes grew wide. And then she screamed.
Whether she had run into the door jamb or the refrigerator is irrelevant. In either case she had felt bones move that weren’t supposed to.
“I’m okay! I’m okay!” she said as I hobbled over to help her. “No I’m not! No I’m not!” she then replied to herself as we moved her to a chair.
Several weeks (yes, that’s right: weeks) later she finally went in for x-rays at her chiropractor’s. He looked at the images and chuckled in that way people do when they just saw something really funny but that probably hurt the person they were watching a lot. “This is awesome!” he proclaimed. “I mean, I am so sorry. But this is awesome!”
And so we entered January.
We got insurance as soon as it was available for ludicrously cheap and allowed pre-existing conditions (thanks, Obamacare!) then met with Dr. Jorges Chaves, the cancer doctor, and his nurse practitioner, Amy Lynes. Dr. Chaves was very quiet, sweet, and restrained. Amy was just the opposite: a wise-cracking bundle of energy. We liked them both. Dr. Chaves ordered a bevy of tests, and we set out to try to accomplish them all. The most memorable one was definitely the bone marrow biopsy. If you have never had the pleasure of having one, let me assure you it is the most unique pain you will ever (hopefully not) feel. You actually feel the vial of bone stuff leaving your body, and it does not want to go.
When all was said and done we met up with Dr. Chaves again. The skin and bone biopsies had come back blessedly negative. However, the PET scan was a very different matter. We were told it would have looked like a Christmas tree with white lights on it, but there was too much white for that to be accurate. Basically my whole lymphatic system was blazing white from the top of my chest down into my abdominal cavity. There was also a node growing on one of my lungs, and there were a lot of warning signs coming from my spleen. Basically my torso had become cancer party zone, and all their friends were invited. Dr. Chaves then said the words that are as close to a punch in the gut as words can get: I had stage four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. There were positives and negatives to this: first of all, it was about as common as cancers get. It was also aggressive, which was ironically a good thing. My youth was another positive. On the other hand, for a variety of reasons I was classified as high risk. The cancer was very advanced. It was aggressive, which was also a bad thing. And my youth was furthermore a negative. Dr. Chaves, in his most gentle and optimistic way, said that statistically we had about a 50% chance of beating the cancer into remission.
That drive back from the doctor was one of the darkest moments (if not the very darkest) of Sarah’s and my lives. We had known it was bad, but now the weight of the words “stage four” pressed down on us like anvils. Pastor Joel accompanied us to that appointment, and on the drive back she asked us what we were thinking, and what we were most afraid of. For the first time it hit me that I might not get to see my daughters grow up. That it was possible I wouldn’t be there for my wife and girls. I’m normally good about fighting off thoughts like that, but on this trip I couldn’t escape this particularly monstrous “What if?”
Sarah wanted us to get a second opinion, so we slogged through the traffic up to Seattle. The doctor was very nice, but we realized just how positive a person Dr. Chaves was. The Seattle doc, Doctor Smith, thought the chances of us killing the cancer were extremely slim, and lobbied that we take an extremely dangerous, highly damaging treatment called Baycop. It was all the rage in Germany, but in the US it was seen as so vicious that its use was practically unheard of. I was one of three people that he had recommended take the treatment in seven years. It would hospitalize me, decimate my bone marrow, make me sterile, destroy my immune system, and do potentially permanent damage to my heart and lungs, but it would definitely wipe out the cancer. We decided to take the treatment that only might do all these things, rather than the one that certainly would.
As we moved out of January and started treatment, I came to a number of conclusions. First of all, most people have no idea how to talk to individuals with diseases or health problems. We don’t know how to handle sickness and infirmity. I can’t count how many people would come up to Invalid Byron, brace themselves in some way, and, in hushed tones, whisper, “How are you doing?” Second, I realized that, no matter how difficult it is for you to accept it, sometimes you won’t survive without the help of others. We probably wouldn’t have, especially without some who went above and beyond like Sarah’s mom, Pam, and my aunt, Julie. Third, I learned that sometimes our plans unfold in funny ways. I had felt for years like big things were going to happen when I hit thirty, and that it would really be the year that launched me into writing and doing what God had purposed for me to do. But instead I was going into the year flat on my back with stage four cancer.
But most of all, I came to the conclusion that I was going to come through this, and I was going to bring other people with me. I was not going to just get through by the skin of my teeth: I was going to use this for God and His Kingdom. And if, in the end, I was able to touch just one life, then by God, it was all going to be worth it.
I truly believe that it was this last conclusion that opened the door for all of the miracles that followed. And follow they did.
(I didn’t mean for this to be two parts, so I definitely didn’t mean for it to be three. However, in the interest of not making you read forever, that is exactly what it has become. Stay tuned for the third and final part!)