Early one morning last week, Chris and I braved a chilly breeze and overcast skies and took the Sea Ray down to the far end of Elbow Lake in hopes of spotting and photographing a bald eagle in his nest. We were not disappointed. The engineering required to build such a massive eyrie is awe-inspiring, and the eagle himself looked as if he were posing for a patriotic post card.
Over a long weekend, Chris and I, his parents and our 12-year-old nephew Isaac had been soaking in slow hours of lake-life in northern Minnesota where Chris’s family has had a cabin for the past 25 years. Elbow Lake is remote, the nearest town of 3,000 people is 45 minutes away. Dense, hilly forests of birch and various kinds of pine grow right up to the water’s edge, making us feel tucked in and pleasantly secluded. We spent hours reading, bushwhacking through overgrown trails on a four-wheeler, and listening to the loons as we drifted on the water in the boat.
One afternoon I asked Isaac to show me how to drive the little “tin can,” an aluminum boat the size of a row boat with a small motor on it. Despite his truly admirable efforts as my teacher, I nearly flung him out of the boat when, trying to avoid an oncoming pontoon, I inadvertently accelerated and spun the boat out of control. He was gracious to ask me on our way back to the house, “Soooo, do you want this to go down in history….or for it to go away?” I told him he could tell the story. Which he has. As often as possible. Haha!
Times of prayer and reflecting on Scripture also encouraged our hearts as we intentionally “put our troubles on the shelf” for a few days, as Chris described it. It’s the first real time of rest and rejuvenation we’ve had since we began this journey in March, and we are thankful.
Following Chris’s discharge from the hospital on Thursday, June 3rd, we skipped a week of chemotherapy to focus instead on a round (five days) of radiation to treat the spot in his hip that caused the painful muscle spasms that sent him to the hospital. However, while chemo and radiation don’t mix well, after several phone calls I discovered that Chris could still get the first round of immunotherapy (Keytruda) done on Friday, June 4th after his radiation appointment. We’ve been so eager to get this part of the treatment trifecta started because it’s the one we’ve heard the most promising news about. I’ve had a lot of people ask about the treatment he’s receiving, so here’s my layman’s explanation of the three-pronged approach our oncologists have prescribed for Christopher:
- Traditional chemotherapy for bile duct cancer (Cisplatin): Given in three-hour infusions once a week for nine weeks. This is a general blast that wipes out both good and bad fast-growing cells, kind of a one-size-fits-all approach. Side effects for Chris have been manageable. Anti-nausea meds have enabled him to eat well, and naps on days three and four have mitigated the fatigue.
- Immunotherapy (Keytruda): Given once every three weeks in an infusion alongside the Cisplatin chemotherapy. One doctor explained that this drug “takes the gloves off the immune system and super-charges it” so that the body is able to attack the cancer itself more effectively. It works best against genetically hyper-mutated tumors, which is true of Chris’s. It really doesn’t have any side effects.
- Insert long medical name I don’t understand 🙂 (Cabozantinib): Neither chemo nor immunotherapy, this drug is taken daily in pill form and is designed to attack the specific genetic mutation the doctor believes is driving Chris’s tumor. Chris began taking this drug this week, and side effects could become rough by days 10-14. With chemo, after a few days the side effects diminish before the next round starts, but since this is taken daily, Chris may not get much of a reprieve.
Chris had his third round of chemo on Thursday last week, and his fourth this past Thursday (June 16th). He’ll have his second dose of immunotherapy with chemo next week. He’s gotten into a good rhythm with this part of the treatment, and now we’re praying for strength, courage and wisdom as he continues this last, but key, part of the treatment. If the side effects become more than he can manage (i.e. he begins to lose weight, the nausea is too overwhelming, etc.) then the doctor will reduce the size or frequency of the dosage. While this might be okay, we’d really love for him to be able to take as much as possible for as long as possible to attack this cancer full force.
As we face frightening medical uncertainty, we’ve spent a lot of time considering what it means to have faith–to be people of faith–in these circumstances.
Early on, I felt completely disoriented spiritually and emotionally. Each day brought new assaults on our hearts–calling our parents with the news, the first time we walked through doors marked Oncology, scan results, a diagnosis, uprooting from our home literally overnight and saying goodbye in a moment to our summer plans. While the initial shock has been replaced by the regularity of our new normal life of treatment and daily life in Sioux Falls, I still find myself sometimes asking the same questions.
What do I even pray for? How do I relate to God when what I’m feeling and experiencing is all so new and overwhelming? What do I do with this tangled mess of emotion that’s clogging my mind and sitting like a rock in my heart? Do I have to accept “worst case scenario” in order to have any sort of peace? Or should I try to muster up every shred of faith I have and believe God will heal Chris no matter what?
“Elizabeth, you have one job right now,” my mom stated calmly during a phone conversation where I unloaded the aforementioned pile of questions. “And that is to fix your eyes on Jesus, like Peter did when he stepped out of the boat.”
The story my mom referenced [Matthew 14: 22-33] was one where Jesus’ disciples got caught in a dangerous storm while sailing across a lake. Jesus walked towards them on the water, and Peter, a typically impulsive man of action, says, “If it’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus simply replies, “Come.” So Peter steps out of the boat–a seemingly safer place to be in a storm than out in the water–and onto the thrashing waves. He “walked on water and came to Jesus.” He got all the way to Jesus…but then he shifts his eyes to the wind and panics. He starts to sink and Jesus rescues him.
Like Peter, we’ve felt like Jesus is beckoning us to step out of a life that felt safe and secure and walk in a place as uncertain as a stormy sea. We believe he’s called us to cling to an optimistic faith, fixing our eyes on him (beyond even what we hope he will do)–because he’s a healer; he’s the Resurrection and the Life; he’s our Good Shepherd. Sometimes the eyes of my heart are drawn instead to the grim waves of fear. Chris is in pain and I have to dial 9-1-1. Our doctor reads a list of possible (likely?) side effects of the new treatment. We walk through the doors of the Avera Cancer Institute yet one more time. The sound of the wind and waves grows deafening and anxiety clenches my heart in its white-knuckled fist. I wish I had a boat I could climb into and control.
But then I remember that sometimes the boat is not safest place to be. Sometimes storms destroy boats. Sometimes the boat driver spins out of control and nearly capsizes the boat (just ask Isaac!). Sometimes medical science isn’t enough. Sometimes doctors just aren’t sure and can’t make promises. When my heart begins to drown, I have no choice but to cling to the One who has the power to silence and still it–to let him reach out and take hold of me like he did Peter. And if he is standing in the middle of the maelstrom, the safest place to stand really is on the impossible waves.
Sometimes I wonder, how long will we/can we remain here in this storm? Another day of uncertainty, loss, or physical suffering for Chris–another wave that comes and sends cold, drenching water down our backs. I shiver; I hate being cold. I hate–we hate–cancer. This time I picture Jesus suffering on the cross, obedient to his Father. He never promised we wouldn’t suffer too, he just promised that he’d be with us in it. So we surrender to (or try to, pray God gives us grace to) the strong hand of Jesus holding our heads above water and we’re okay. Still, I feel my toes wiggle into the void beneath us, searching for something on which to stand. When we first came to Sioux Falls, two people texted me the same verse in one day:
“…that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19)
Like granite rising up in the water beneath our feet, Christ’s love sustains us, infuses strength back up into our feeble bones and even takes the edge off the cold waves we find ourselves withstanding yet another day. I would like one of my next posts to tell you about all the tangible–even miraculous–ways we’ve experienced his love so personally and generously.
We’re still hopeful that God will work through the immunotherapy and genomic drugs he’s provided to heal Chris’s body. Our anchor, though, is in the love he’s already proven on the cross. And I’ll be honest, our faith is weak and fragile. We’re human and have tender hearts. But ultimately, the strength of our faith doesn’t really matter–it’s the strength and goodness and power of the one in whom we place our faith that makes it a great faith. Our faith in the storm is great because he is great.