This is the 9th of a series of posts chronicling Chris' battle with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
*It's been quite a while since I posted anything. I'm picking up where I left the story off in the post called "The First Couple Days." Feel free to skim that post if you'd like a refresher. As always, thanks for reading.
That Sunday morning (October 20, 2013) I stood up in front of our church and told them what I knew, which wasn't much. Basically, I had some type of cancer growing in my abdomen and on my back, and that the doctors were waiting for some more information before they could decide what I had. I had been told it's "probably either a lymphoma or sarcoma," and I relayed that news to the congregation. I was honest - I told them I was scared, but that I believed two things beyond any doubt: God is strong, and God is good.
Some people came to me after the service and told me how relieved they were to hear that it was a lymphoma, because those are super-duper treatable. (This was encouraging news at the time, but would haunt me in the coming months once I found out that I did not have a lymphoma - or really a sarcoma for that matter.)
Someone else told me about a website called chrisbeatcancer.com. That afternoon, while the whole family was napping, I watched a video on his homepage. That ten minutes was a very important moment for me in my treatment, and one that I would recommend to anyone facing any type of cancer. God used that guy's testimony to bring comfort to my soul, and to help me breathe a bit deeper about the whole process.
When I met with Dr. Osafo on Tuesday, he updated me on my condition. He said that the biopsy revealed the cancer to be a myeloid sarcoma, which is a tumor that sometimes presents itself alongside acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood. What perplexed him is that my bone marrow was clear, so I wasn't showing other symptoms of leukemia. He suggested that they perform a resection of my terminal ilium (they'd cut out a lot of my small intestine), let the doctors get more information about it, and then we move forward with treatment.
I was speaking regularly to one of my best friends from college named Jason Mizell who also happens to be a surgeon specializing in abdominal cancers. I know, right? Jason actually went through medical school with Dr. Byrnes who was operating on me, so Jason was able to call him and then translate all the doctor speak for me over the phone. Jason told me that leukemia isn't usually treated with surgery, but with chemotherapy, so he was confused as to why I would take that route. But when he heard that my pain was such that I could not eat or function, he understood and agreed. We scheduled my surgery for Thursday, October 24.
Throughout that week, my stomach pain came back in waves. It would spike, I would vomit, and then it would subside again. I called Dr. Byrnes numerous times that week asking if he would go ahead and admit me, as my pain was often unbearable. On Wednesday, he finally did. I would undergo surgery the next morning, but wasn't nervous or even concerned. Because Dilaudid.
On the morning of my surgery, Dr. Byrnes came in and gave me the run down of what they were going to do to me. He reiterated that this surgery would not cure my cancer, but would buy me some time to get to MD Anderson and take next steps. He hoped to perform the procedure with a scope, but that could only happen if the tumor was pretty localized. If the cancer was widespread he would need to "open me up," which meant make an incision that looks like a big question mark around my naval. This option would be much more painful with a much slower recovery.
I woke up a few hours later and was told that I had a huge incision that looks like a question mark around my naval. I was woozy, but remember there being a really somber atmosphere in the room. I have a friend named Debi who is a surgical nurse and was in the room when they opened me up. She has told me that my procedure was her darkest day as a nurse. When they looked inside me, cancer was everywhere. No one expected it to be as widespread and advanced as it was. They were shocked that any food had passed through my intestines at all. Dr. Byrnes removed about two feet of my small intestine, which was the most affected portion. But he said that there was still lots more cancer, and that it would grow quickly. (Debi also told me that the cancer was green, which has been an interesting fact throughout this whole ordeal).
I didn't care about any of this at the time. All I cared about was the large tube running from my stomach out my nose that drained blood for the next two days. Is that the only way to drain a man's stomach these days?!
The night of my surgery, the nursing staff got pretty concerned. I was so doped up on pain meds, my heart rate and breathing were dangerously low. I think I was breathing 6 times per minute. At one point I remember waking up to the nurse standing over me calling my name to make sure I was still breathing at all. They had a little mini-conference in the hall, and they they gave me some pain-med-reversal drug from the pit of hell, and it brought all my pain out into the light. I was miserable. I begged my nurse to give me a pain killer, but she was of the drill-sergeant variety and was waiting for my blood pressure to reach a certain point. Even though clouded from the anesthesia, I remember the pain. I just felt so tired of hurting.
Looking back, I wish I hadn't had the surgery. Sure, the pain from the tumors was ridiculous and in a few days it could've killed me. But I started chemo two weeks later, and the tumors vanished almost instantly. This procedure is a very difficult one to recover from, and I was no different. Had I known then what I know now, I would have rushed into chemo treatment and bypassed the surgery.
But in the midst of suffering, we generally can't see that far ahead. I couldn't know at that time what I know now. So when we're in the valley, hemmed in by mountains on all sides, all we can do is keep walking. Not every step we take will be the best one. But still, we keep walking. By God's grace, He can use even our failures to make something beautiful.