June 10, 2009

Of Cancer, Chemo, and Credo

2009 1516 page14 capearest Virginia,

I’m writing to you as if we are old and dear friends. Receiving your card the other day meant so much to me.
I know that right now is quite possibly the toughest time you’ve ever experienced in your life. I know it was when it happened to me. So I want to share with you a bit of my journey—the pains but also the joys. Who would have thought there was joy to be found in cancer? Where God is, there is always joy, there is always steadfastness, and peace will always come—even when there are tears, and anger, and turmoil.
Of Cancer
I found the lump in September of last year while I was taking a shower—just a small, hard knot in my right breast. The next day I was at my primary care physician’s office. Later that week I had a mammography and ultrasound, and a biopsy the week following.
The biopsy confirmed that I had the most aggressive of breast cancers, HER2/neu. As I read up on cancer, I learned that in general it takes 100 days for a cancer cell to divide. After five years a tumor contains 1 million cells, is the size of a pencil point, and is not yet detectable by any of our current means of technology. You can’t feel it; and neither can mammography, MRI, or any other kind of scan detect it. After only 10 years (1 billion cells strong) does a tumor reach one centimeter in size (comparable to the eraser head on a pencil) and can be detected either by touch or by imaging. An HER2/neu tumor, on the other hand, takes only five years to reach detectable size. HER2/neu tumors recur at a higher rate, and more people die from HER2/neu than from other breast cancers. Those were my hard, simple facts of life, perhaps of mortality.
2009 1516 page14I was immediately scheduled for a lumpectomy and a sentinel lymph node biopsy. Examination of the lymph node showed that the cancer had already infiltrated it; and as they sliced, diced, and analyzed my tumor they found microparticles of cancerous materials in the blood vessels that my tumor had taken over. That meant microparticles of cancer were already floating throughout my bloodstream—a diagnosis called micrometastasis.
My treatment option was one of two aggressive courses of chemotherapy, followed by 33 consecutive daily radiation treatments and infusions for one year of Herceptin, a monoclonal antibody specifically developed to target HER2/neu cancer. By doing this my chance of not having cancer recur would be 75 percent. What was I to do? I cut off 24 inches of hair, mailed it to Locks of Love, and began my treatment.
Of Chemo
Chemo, as you have no doubt found out through your own experience, has a way of reducing you to fundamentals: fundamentals of bodily function, of thinking, of economy of action. My treatment began with a two-chemo cocktail so hard on one’s system that they had to give me four doses, each spaced two weeks apart. With each infusion I had to drink three to four liters of water the first 24 hours and eliminate every two hours so the treatment drugs wouldn’t cause permanent damage to either my bladder or my kidneys. They then switched me to a third chemo, Taxol, which was infused weekly for 12 weeks. I also began my year-long Herceptin treatments, and have now also completed my 33 “sunburn” treatments.
Of Credo
Four weeks into my Taxol treatments the level of chemo in my body overcame my ability to exercise. As I sat in my recliner—working from home and enduring my treatments—I became aware of some spiritual applications relevant to my illness and yours.
1. Battling cancer is like a microcosm of the controversy between Christ and Satan.
My body has been invaded by something deadly, and I am enduring treatment that is almost equally as insidious and deadly in its side effects. But this will pass; you and I will be healthy again, and by God’s grace we’ll have the rest of our lives—cancer free—to enjoy and live to the fullest. In the same way, we endure life in this sinful world. Sin is deadly to us, and sometimes its collateral damage hurts terribly and lasts long. By God’s grace, however, sin’s pernicious effects are corrected in our lives. The collateral damage will heal, scar over, and perhaps pass. And we have this blessed assurance: Christ will come to take us home to a world where sin will never rear its ugly head a second time (Rev. 21:3, 4).
Just as the tumor stole my blood vessels in order to feed itself and grow, Satan steals the Word of God from us (Matt. 13:19), or otherwise disrupts our time with God. He then infects us with the micrometastasis of our daily cares (Matt. 13:22), and graduates those cares to fears, doubts, conflicts, and chaos. These can be counteracted only by regular doses of God’s radical grace. Unlike chemo, God’s radical treatments are never poisonous.
2. God cleans dirty toilets.
During the first part of my chemo treatments my mother-in-law graciously kept our house clean for us. She then became ill and was unable to help. I was deep into my chemo treatments by that time and incapable of much more than sitting in my recliner. My husband had more than enough to do taking care of me, holding down his job, and keeping the bills paid and the dishes washed. Our bathrooms soon clearly showed neglect. I had never met your mother before. We both attended the same church, but I didn’t know her or what a wonderful person she is. She called me one day and asked how she could help. I was embarrassed to ask about cleaning, but she herself brought it up. She came over several times to clean, as did your sister. The love and joy of God sparkled from both their eyes as they took on the very humble task of cleaning my bathrooms and vacuuming my house. Through their ministry â?¨I came to understand that God will just as joyfully—and thoroughly—clean the messy bathrooms of our lives, because He loves us so much.
2009 1516 page143. Don’t dwell on your symptoms; instead, keep your focus fixed on the Savior.
The only times I got discouraged were when I started focusing on the side effects of my “cure.” I started to worry when seven weeks after my last chemo treatment I felt worse than when I was actively receiving chemo. I didn’t understand the cumulative effect of chemo. It was like a â?¨bad crescendo that never stopped. It took the doctors five months to put the chemo into me, and I learned that it would take five months for the chemo to fully dissipate â?¨out of my system. Most of my side effects (104-plus degree temperatures; rattling bodily chills; total bodily hair loss, including eye lashes; nausea; constipation; mouth sores; hemorrhoids; loss of taste; extreme fatigue; skin cracks and blisters; boils; bloody noses; and headaches) did ease off 45 days after my last chemo treatment.
Congestive heart failure, however—a reaction to both chemo and Herceptin—set in, and my limbs became painfully swollen with fluids that my heart could no longer move through my body. Another chemo side effect that still lingers is damage to my central nervous system. My knees became so weakened that they would buckle right out from under me. I had to walk with a walker. My hands and feet became numb, and my arms, legs, hands, and body shook involuntarily and uncontrollably. My focus was pulled away from the Savior and onto my symptoms. Satan whispered in my ear about the likelihood that these symptoms would be with me for the rest of my life. I wept, and despair tried to move in and make for itself a home. Proverbs 13:12 says that “hope deferred makes the heart sick.” For those of us who have experienced cancer, or a chronic debilitating illness, or the futility of trying to self-correct our sinful nature, it can be easy to lose hope. But God will provide grace for us all; grace to deal with every day of chemotherapy side effects, the distresses of a chronic disease, or the weakness of our natures—the latter that no earthly medicine can cure. But whether we experience these things for a limited period of time or for the rest of our earthly lives, He will give us grace (see Heb. 12:1-3).
In the end I came up with this prayer regarding cancer for our spiritual battle as well: I want only for God to be glorified by my words and actions, every day, for all my days. I want Satan to rue the day he ever afflicted me with cancer, because by God’s grace he’ll not receive a single benefit from so doing. I remember God’s words to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). If I continue to have physical limitations, it only makes God’s triumph that much more outstanding. I know that He ever carries me within His nail-scarred hands, the hands in which He has engraved me (Isa. 49:16). I know there will be days when I will cry. I also know that my God will comfort me and wipe away my tears, and that there will come a time when He will permit no more crying, death, sorrow, or pain. This is His promise to us all (see Rev. 21:4).
So, dearest Virginia, cling to hope and to the promises with which our beloved Lord has gifted us. Whether someone is experiencing the horror of cancer, the dreariness of a chronic illness, or the misery of a sinful nature, God has both a plan and a cure, to “prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11).
You will remain always in my prayers. Your friend in Christ and cancer,
Lynette M. Schenkel’s hair is coming back dark and curly after chemo. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, with her husband, Robert Yelle, and their two cats, AJ and Lulu.