Here’s an update on my wife Marina’s cancer treatment which we shared with our church family today. We’d also like to share this with you, friends and family in other places, with thanks for your caring inquiries and especially for your love and prayers. Through all these, God has cheered and encouraged us immensely.
Dear Friends and Family in Christ,
I’ve been asked to provide an update about my treatment and condition. While I can’t maintain a blog at this point, we’d like to share with you some of what’s been happening via this letter, if you are interested. This kind of thing is a little out of my comfort zone since it is very personal, and especially since there are so many other people who also have significant health issues to deal with, but we’ve been urged to write something for a while so here we go. Even though we are writing it to you, our immediate church family, you may also share this with anyone else who would like to know and who we may have missed. We will surely benefit from this sitting down and taking stock as well, since we’ve been in somewhat of a whirlwind over the past months. It is much like being dropped into a different world when you enter cancer treatment. I miss all of you—cancer treatment is (by necessity) isolating.
First of all, we want to thank you all for the overwhelming outpouring of prayers and cards and support that you have showered on us. From the very smallest of you on up, you’ve generously kept us in your prayers and thoughts and that has had a profound effect on our lives with the reality of a serious cancer diagnosis. In answer, God has given us more than we have asked or expected of Him through the heart-wrenching task of explaining our current reality especially to our own young family, our extended family and so many of you who have asked. Through all the upheaval of the emergency surgery on December 20, the sudden return to hospital on January 1 to deal with a serious infection, and the equally sudden start of chemotherapy on February 7, God has ministered to us in so many ways through many of you. We have also been so grateful for the generous way in which Cloverdale’s Council has made it clear to Theo that he could focus his attention on myself and our children during this time, and also to Langley’s Council, Pastor Ryan, Pastor Doug and Pastor Visscher for the very generous way in which they have given of themselves to fill in for Theo so that our elders would not have to read. We are so thankful for all these things. We are finding His Peace is immeasurable.
Most of you likely know by now that I’ve been receiving chemotherapy treatments for some time. Back in February, after several weeks of seeing my various doctors and coming to grips with my cancer staging and spread, we began the necessary chemotherapy which it is hoped will eradicate any remaining cancer. Because I was sick with cancer for a long time before it was diagnosed, and due to the spread of the cancer cells to the surrounding connective tissue, the doctors recommended this as the best course of action. Receiving this advice was difficult, but we were also very thankful that God made the course of action clear to us and that this treatment is available to us in this province and country.
The chemotherapy itself is administered at The BC Cancer Agency, Surrey Memorial Hospital, in three week “rounds”. Chemo protocols are set in categories which are tailored to a person’s tumour/cancer type (ie. carcinoma, lymphoma and so on), staging and spread, and eventually to their response to the chemo and tolerance of it’s effects. Therefore, my chemo protocol may be quite different from that of others with different cancer types, and even from someone else who has colon cancer. Side effects are also very different from person to person.
Nowadays, at our house, we talk a lot about being “on a week 1” or “on a week 2”. I receive two separate chemo drugs in my protocol. The first day of each round starts with an IV chemo infusion that lasts about 3 1/2 hours. The effects are immediate and can be quite drastic. Day 1 is a difficult day—the chemo burns my vein going in and proceeds to wreak havoc as it spreads, particularly to my feet and legs, hands and arms and breathing and swallowing. Both chemo drugs cause neural damage that just happens to be quite severe in my case. In addition to numbness and muscle spasms in my feet and hands, I also am extremely sensitive to temperature. I need to be warm above room temperature, and all my food and drink also needs to be above room temperature or hot. The consequences for getting “too cold” begin with the feeling of an obstruction in my throat/airway (like little wiry hairballs), and prickling in my hands/arms and feet/legs, quickly progressing to throat spasm and the feeling of electrical shocks in my extremities, mouth and face. I have been assured that my airway will not close completely. Facial and eye muscles also cramp and spasm—painful and somewhat strange at the same time. These reactions trigger more persistent nausea which does not respond to medication. So… I keep warm :). Just before the IV is administered I begin taking medication to help with nausea as well as a drug meant to augment the chemo’s effectiveness. This drug causes insomnia (and hyper activity in some people but gladly I don’t suffer from that 🙂 ). So, for 2 nights I don’t sleep much. On day 3 the effects wear off and I begin to become exhausted. I also begin with pills on day 1 which constitute the other chemo drug that I need. These pills continue on a schedule morning and night for the next two weeks.
Additional medication is needed for nausea, other digestive upsets (sadly, standard fare for almost all chemo patients), heartburn, bleeds, sore mouth, skin problems, infections etc. There is no medication for the exhaustion, muscle spasms, weakness, loss of balance, lightheadedness, hyper-pigmentation (changing my skin colour) and neuropathy. Rest is good, but exercise is necessary to keep heart/lungs functioning well while on this chemo. It can damage them both. One of Theo’s tasks then is to take me out walking, even when I feel too tired to go, poor man. Both drugs are neurotoxins among other things. Theo has to wear gloves if he handles my pills. It is also a constant battle to keep hydrated and maintain weight. Even though my hair is falling out, I will not lose all of my hair. My (younger) kids thought maybe I could lose just my grey hairs :).
My immune system starts to drop in function on day 1 and hits bottom at the end of week 1. Week 2 and the first part of week 3 require a lot of vigilance to ward off illness, infections and bleeds (platelets drop as well). I keep an eye on my skin, mouth and temperature, Theo continues to handle household cleanliness, hygiene and hand-washing. Several times one of our children has been put on antibiotics “just in case”, which means extra visits to the doctor, lab and pharmacy. By the end of week 3, the hope is that my counts are high enough to start the whole process again. Usually the last day of week 3 I feel well enough to go to church once and even go outside if it is warm enough out and there is no breeze. At the end of every week 3 I also have an oncologist appointment and lab work before the OK for the next round.
As a family, I think we are finally settling into this routine. My sister-in-law has arranged that she or one of her girls come once per week to bring a meal and help with a housework and laundry blitz now that my mom is not here. Some of you have called/emailed about bringing meals and others have been bringing baking regularly and this has been a huge help for relieving Theo of the planning and preparing so he can get everything else done. I also appreciate it immensely since I can’t provide the family I love so much with the care I’m used to giving. I usually cannot prepare any food due to the neuropathy/neuralgia associated with the chemo. Theo is running around a lot to keep up with the rest of the housework and the needs of the children and myself-both physical and otherwise :). While we haven’t had any serious illnesses in the family by God’s gracious care (I know there were some pretty nasty flus this year), the ongoing appointments for other issues, this and that and shopping and caring is very busy for him, on top of my care and his other responsibilities. We covet your prayers for finding the right balance in all these activities along with continuing to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances of my side-effects.
We are also incredibly thankful for the spiritual support and counsel we have received from our parents, our elder and several others as well as all your prayers and the ongoing support of the Langley pastors—you have demonstrated the love of God to us more than we could have expected or would have asked for. We are acutely aware of the fact that we are by no means the only family who has had to face something like this, and that the suffering in our congregation as well as others, and of so many people in this world is continual. So while I am unable to “do” much, please know that I and we as a family are also continually bringing you and many others before God in prayer. We do not want to become completely absorbed in our own story when God’s story is so much bigger.
In the last week of April, I had to undergo a CT colonography in order to determine whether there are any additional tumours in the rest of my digestive tract. This test was necessary because the colonoscopy in December could not be completed, colonoscopies are too risky to perform right now during chemo and CT scans are limited in what they can show in this situation. The test took place in a week 3 for me—normally my “rest” week. While this was a difficult test to prepare for with my chemo side-effects, and the test itself turned out to be very painful resulting in a longer recovery time for the rest of that week, we are very thankful that it was completed and the doctors can now determine more accurately what they are dealing with. About 2 weeks after the test, we were able to hear results. We would like to share this good news with you which we just received from my surgeon. Despite the fact that my cancer had spread in the area around the tumour, based on the colonography no additional tumours have been found inside the colon. We are very thankful for this news. God has answered our prayers for calm and peace about the outcome of the test, and He answered those prayers manyfold. We are now also extremely thankful for His grace with respect to the test results.
Perhaps a good summary of my condition might be to say that I am right now not suffering from my cancer as much as from the side effects of my cancer treatment. I am in round 5 and have to complete 8 rounds (end of July if all stays on plan) before being reassessed. Therefore, I am more than half-way now :). It is difficult, but we are well. We don’t know what is in the future for our family. Our eyes are fixed on Christ and He is here with us and God is very, very good to us!
With love for all of you,
Marina, Theo and family