Sunday, July 20, 2014

The First Couple Days

This is the 9th of a series of posts chronicling Chris' battle with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

The first night of sleep after finding out you have cancer is not a good one. Counting sheep apparently works better than counting scenarios. Friday morning arrived slowly, as I tried to digest the new reality of my world. I have cancer

Life-shattering news aside, I really didn't sleep well. My back was aching, and I didn't know why. I walked into the kitchen and asked Karen to massage a knot. She started to, but then stopped abruptly. She didn't say anything at first, and lifted up my shirt to inspect more carefully. "This isn't knot," she said. "It's a lump." 

I ran to a mirror, and there it was. On the right side of my back, just below my rib cage, it looked as though someone had surgically implanted a racquetball under my skin. My heart sank. Karen and I told each other that it could be anything, but I knew what it was. I had no idea what was happening inside my body, and I had no control over it. Looking back, it's still amazing to me that I never noticed the lump before I found out I had cancer. 

On the bright side, I already had an appointment scheduled Friday morning with an oncologist. What are the odds?! Karen and I made the same drive to the clinic that we had made one week earlier, this time under very different circumstances. We checked in at Dr. Byrnes' office, and he walked us down the hall to meet the oncologist, Dr. Osafo. Originally from Ghana, Dr. Osafo has become somewhat of a fixture in Ruston, cycling and saving lives. He is a man with no enemies. 

I love Dr. Osafo. There haven't been many times in my adult life when I was truly terrified; this was one of them. But he gave me and Karen a sense of confidence and calm, to know that there are actually people in the world who could help me. I had been living in a cloud of worry and sadness for the past 18 hours, but Dr. Osafo was upbeat and happy. It's amazing what simple kindness can do for someone in need. 

Dr. Osafo told us we needed to do a bone marrow biopsy. This guy had my trust, so it didn't seem like a huge deal when he turned me up on my side and shoved a huge needle to the center of my hip bone. He said he extracted some marrow from my hip, but it felt like it came from my toes. That marrow would help us nail down a diagnosis. 

The bone marrow results would come in on Monday, and Dr. Osafo asked us to come back then to move toward a treatment plan. Before we left, I asked, "Dr. Osafo, I don't know anything about cancer. How serious is this?" He answered, "We have to assume it's very serious." 

That weekend happened to be Louisiana Tech Homecoming. My brother Patrick's family were coming in town for the festivities, which turned out to be a huge blessing. Rather than sit around and worry all weekend, I would be watching my kids play with their cousins, attending a football game, laughing, and being with family. 

The football game was cloudy and cool. I sat in the cold metal stands, feeling detached from the noise and activity around me. I thought about how much time I had spent at that stadium. Sitting in section DD, Row 35 with my mom as a little boy. (Dad was always working at football games.) Through those awkward adolescent years, I'd run to the far corners of the bleachers and sit with friends, far away from the shackles of authority and oversight. In college I switched to the East Side, where we'd stand through the whole game and scream our heads off. Now we had progressed back to the Old People Side, as Karen and I tried to wrangle kids of our own. I wondered if this would be the last season of Tech football I'd see. (If you watched last season, you know how great a tragedy that would be.) The thoughts, and the breeze, brought a chill to my core. The shivering accentuated the sharp pain in my back, which was never far from my mind. 

After the game, we took Jude and Owen down to the field - a treat they only get at these rare daytime games. They love seeing the turf up close, standing on the logo, looking back up into the seats, dreaming. I had sat for three hours looking at the life through my eyes. It was good for me to see it through theirs. We threw the ball, chased each other, fell down...

What's life for if not for living?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Finding Out

This is the 8th of a series of posts chronicling Chris' battle with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

Thursday, October 10


"Chris, it's Dr. Byrnes."

"Hi, Dr. Byrnes. Thanks for calling."

"We finally got your biopsy results in from the reference lab. Again, I'm sorry it took so long. I don't have very good news. Basically what we know is that it's some form of cancer. The lab identified your tissue as either a lymphoma or a myeloid sarcoma, but we'll need to run some tests to know exactly what type of cancer we're dealing with. I need you to come to my office tomorrow morning at 8am, and I'll walk you down to meet the oncologist, Dr. Osafo. We'll start answering questions tomorrow."

"Ok, thanks for your help, Dr. Byrnes."


I hung up the phone, and just sat there. It's funny the things you remember in those moments. I was on the white recliner in my living room. It was a bright afternoon, and the sunlight flooded in through the blinds and bathed the room in light. I remember the peaceful whirring of the ceiling fan over my head. I have cancer. For the next few days, that was the thought that I simply couldn't shake from my mind. Is this real life? I had a thousand questions, but honestly, I didn't really feel like doing much research on the subject. I have cancer.

I should tell somebody. News this big isn't something you should keep to yourself. Karen was gone picking the boys up from preschool; besides, I wanted to tell her face to face. So I called my brother and told him. Then I called my dad. I told them what I knew, which wasn't much. I don't remember many specifics of those conversations. I was in shock.

A few minutes later, I heard the garage door opening. How do you tell this kind of thing to your wife?  This new reality was going to impact her life more than it would my own. I met her in the garage as she pulled the car in. She stepped out, and knew in an instant that something had happened. The kids were still strapped into their seats.

"The doctor called."


"It's cancer."

I think we hugged for a minute. It's a really significant thing, but one that is easy to overlook: whatever we were walking into, we would walk into together. That changes everything. We pulled the three kids out of the car, unpacking them into this new reality of our lives. Karen tried to tell the kids that we just found out that Daddy is really sick, and the next phase of our lives would be different and challenging. They wanted a snack.

I wanted to tell the guys at church. So I drove to the office and asked all the staff guys who were there if I could talk to them for a minute. I can't remember who all was there. I think Skin, Len, Jeremy, Jason, and Sutton were there. Maybe Slate.

"Well, it's cancer."

I watched as the news sunk in. Me having cancer would impact these guys nearly as much as it would my own family. I was transitioning into an expanded leadership role at church. Sunday morning was my primary area of leadership. I was going to preach half the time, and lead worship half the time. I would mentor Sutton as he discerned the next steps for his life. These guys weren't thinking about how my absence would impact their plans, but I was. I thought about how thankful I was to have a group around me as strong as this one.

Skin was the first guy to say something. He's the best pastor I've ever known, in the sense that when you're walking through something, you really feel that he's with you. All he said was, "We're all terminal." Three words. I'm not even sure why those words comforted me. Looking back, they don't seem all that profound, or all that comforting. But in that moment, he took the fear I was dealing with and reminded me that we'd all face it at some point. I wasn't isolated. I wasn't alone. I was just like everyone else. It was a powerful thing for me. We prayed together and then I went home.

That night I had a phone conversation with my primary care doctor. Jake is a friend as well as a physician. So when he heard the news, he gave me a call. He knew I was scared, and he knew that there weren't many questions that had answers. He gave me some clarity about lymphomas vs. sarcomas. I asked him which one I'd rather have, and he said, "I think you'd prefer a lymphoma." Uh oh.

"Am I looking at chemotherapy?" I asked.

"Probably, but your oncologist can tell you for sure."

"The next phase of my life is going to be pretty difficult, isn't it?"

"I would think so. I'm here if you need anything."

"Thanks Jake."

I went to bed, full head and heavy heart. I stirred most of the night. Each time I woke up, there was an optimism, a sense of relief that maybe this nightmare had ended. Then the fog would clear and I'd realize this is my life. I have cancer.

About halfway through the night, I began to be bothered by an aching in the right side of my back. Great. I have cancer, and I slept funny and have a sore back. Insult to injury.