tidings of comfort and joy December 19, 2013

The second clinical trial began on Monday, but I didn’t have an allergic reaction to either the study drug or the chemotherapy drug carboplatin. Since this new trial combines a study drug with an approved chemotherapy drug, my day had a lot of waiting as the medical team checked and rechecked the protocols.

The steriods and anti-nausea pre-med infusions after the study drug and before the carboplatin have residual effects over the first two days. While I first felt that I could move mountains (I didn’t), I was also aware that the potential for a crash of those mountains also loomed (which is why I didn’t move mountains). Today and the next few days I have the classic intestinal issues associated with chemotherapy, but I’m as ready as anyone can be for whatever happens next.

The last two weeks have been difficult ones for me emotionally. I look okay and physically I have pain only from the tumor in my neck; however, knowing that cancer is thriving inside my body is a hard reality, one that does hurt. Staying in the moment for me does not mean looking at the circumstances of the moment because that’s what can send me into panic mode. I continually have to pull myself back from the edge of fear and anxiety and continually have to trust that God is with me no matter what. It’s a constant battle to bring my mind and emotions to a place of submission and to trust that God will let nothing dismay me or unsettle me.

I also realize that what I am facing is not that different from what everyone faces. We all face difficulties with family and friends, with health and relationships, with home and work and life. Some challenges may seem easier than others, but rarely are we faced with only one “problem.” Things always seem to come in bunches, and sort of like that whack-a-mole game, we pound one problem into ground only to have another one or two pop up. No, looking at our circumstances is not comforting.

What perfect timing then that this new challenge for me is happening now. The Christmas season for me has always been a time for reflection on the practice of waiting, waiting with hope that the promise of redemption will come. Generations awaited the coming of the Savior, yet that first coming was in very difficult circumstances. When I think of the unknowns and the real dangers to survival that loomed around the birth and life of Jesus, I am amazed at the constant presence and faithfulness of God to His promise. The story of faith became flesh with the birth of Jesus, but that story is still what the writer of Hebrews states: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). We can’t touch it or see it or experience it in the flesh, but we can know it in our innermost being as a gift from God (see Ephesians 2:1-10).

Walking in faith in trying circumstances is both hard and easy; it’s hard to keep walking, but walking in faith makes handling the circumstances easier. The Christmas season I think of the difficult circumstances of the fulfillment of that promise of the coming of the Savior, and I love the old Christmas hymns that call to mind that dichotomy, such as the opening words of this hymn:

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay;
Remember Christ, our Saviour,
Was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

I like seeing that tidings of comfort come first and that brings joy. Comfort in the midst of difficulties and challenges and anxiety and fear, comfort that soothes, eases, reassures, strengthens in the midst of pain—that comfort is what I seek this Christmas. The tidings of comfort and joy are all around me, in the faces and words and presence of family and friends, in the words of Scripture and the songs of the season and the decorations that are everywhere I am, and even in the places in my physical body where the cancer grows. Tidings is an Old English word for an announcement or a piece of news, and His tidings of comfort are also of joy. I can rest in that promise no matter my circumstances.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39).

The final stanza of the old hymn “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is my prayer this day and this season:

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.


Deep breath . . . December 4, 2013

On Monday, I learned that my scans last week did not have good results. I’ve ended my participation in the first trial and will begin a new clinical trial on Monday, December 16. This one combines another study drug, one targeting the protein that affects the C125 cancer marker, together with the chemotherapy drug carboplatin, which I received in my first chemotherapy round. This trial has 21-day cycles, with only one infusion of the drugs and lab work on one other day, and with scans again after two cycles. Two treatments three-weeks apart over six weeks—that’s definitely doable.

Although I had an inkling that the scans might not be good, I wasn’t expecting how not-good they would be. The scan report indicated minor to significant to excessive progression in the size of the tumors, new spots in the abdomen, growth in density of the tumor in my neck. Ah, not good. My cancer marker has increased steadily since I stopped the last chemotherapy drug in late May, but now it’s up to 581. When I was diagnosed in February 2012, the marker was 585, and during treatment it dropped to the normal below-30 range. Ah, so not good.

The new study has been on the Sarah Cannon oncology team’s radar for awhile because it “looks promising” for my situation. The trial has just opened up, and the purpose is to see if this study drug combined with a traditional chemotherapy drug can treat patients with recurring ovarian cancer. The cycles are shorter (21 days), the scans are earlier (after 2 cycles), and so the assessment of effectiveness comes sooner (6 weeks after beginning the 1st cycle). All good.

I admit that the news Monday was overwhelming for me. After almost two years since diagnosis and regular and aggressive treatments, realizing that I was a little worse that I was when first diagnosed took my breath away. In fact, I needed to sit by myself for a long while downstairs at the SC center before I could leave. My heart was pounding, and my mind was a blank. I couldn’t call anyone because I didn’t know what to say.

Eventually, this question came to mind: Is God with me, or not? If you have a Brentwood Academy connection, you probably have heard our headmaster Curt Masters tell a story about an experience his father and another missionary had serving in Indonesia in the 1960s. Curt is a fabulous storyteller, and I won’t do justice to the story; however, on Monday I replayed this tale in my mind while I was in the lobby after hearing the news about the scans.

The two missionaries and a group of native men were traveling in the jungle between very hostile villages when suddenly an arrow flew right across their path and embedded itself in a tree. As Curt tells the story, the two missionaries were unsure what to do next; then from the back of their group a young warrior who was a new Christian pushed forward, pulled the arrow from the tree, broke it over his knee, asked, “Is God with us, or not?,” and marched ahead through the jungle. The missionaries looked at each other, said, “Yes,” and followed.

Is God with me or not? Is He with me even now when I am faced with not-very-good news? Is God with me or not? When I am faced with that question, my answer is clear: He is and always will be with me. My hope and my faith are not in scan results or in treatment plans or in clinical trials. My hope and faith are in Him, and I trust that He is preparing the way through this experience, as He has prepared the way through all of the experiences of my life. Why would I think that He would leave me alone in this new experience?

So many verses from Isaiah 40 are a comfort to me right now. Here are some:

“Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?

He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name.

Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.

Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel,

‘My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God’?

Do you not know? Have you not heard?

The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth,

He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;

but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:26-31)

My path after diagnosis may take me back to the place where I began physically, but I am not in that place mentally or emotionally or spiritually. I am confident that my oncology doctors and team are pursuing wise courses of treatment, and I continue to be amazed at their professionalism and compassion. I know that God is with me, and the twists and turns of this experience are still in His hands. I will take a deep, deep breath and trust Him; I will not grow weary, and I will not be faint. He is with me.