Friday, September 22, 2017

September 2017 Update

My health has been quite a journey over the past four years or so! For a year and a half now, I've been pretty silent on this blog, mainly because I've been enjoying life with my family and ministry with my church. But, new challenges are fast approaching on the horizon, and I'd like to update anyone who is interested so you can join us in prayer.

(I've written numerous posts before now telling the story of my diagnosis and treatment of Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Feel free to skim those if none of this is making sense! Those posts start here.)

After September 2015, I had no detectable leukemia activity in my body. I was going to MD Anderson in Houston every 3 months for checkups and all tests continued to be negative. There was that one blip on the radar where I got testicular cancer that turned out to be unrelated to the leukemia.

Well, last November the most sensitive of all my tests revealed that an important measurement (known as PCR) had resurfaced in my tests. At that point, it was at 0.01%. My doctor thought there was a good chance it was a false positive. After all, we are talking one abnormal cell out of 100,000. How could they find that?!

In February 2017, that number climbed to 0.03%. "Nothing to worry about, Chris," said my doctor. "We'll continue to monitor this trend. If it continues to grow, I would like to recommend that you enter a clinical trial. There's lots of great research going on in immunotherapy. As opposed to chemotherapy, which just poisons your body, immunotherapy can actually help your body's immune system fight the cancer cells as they form." That sounded cool to me! He went on, "If your PCR rises to something like 0.1% we will begin to explore those options."

Then May happened.

In a very poetic twist, a group of friends had scheduled a guys weekend at Lake Claiborne State Park, about 30 minutes away. This was the same guys and the same state park where I realized I was seriously ill in October of 2013. I wrote about that weekend here. As we drove through the gates on that beautiful Friday afternoon, I commented that it was a bit eerie revisiting this place that carried so much emotion for me 3 1/2 years earlier.

After dinner, we gathered around a card table and I wondered how long it would take me to lose my $10 so I could go to bed. But my phone buzzed in my pocket. "New test result from MD Anderson." Yay! (I was very accustomed to these emails). I quickly logged in to clear the bold letters of the unread test result, because who could live any other way?!

But something caught my eye. This wasn't the PCR test. It was some other chromosomal-analysis something or other that I had never even looked at before, because as long as I'd been checking these results, it had always been normal. But these results weren't normal. Something called aberrant myeloblasts had been detected. I had no idea what those were, but I didn't like the sound of them. I tried to muscle through the rest of that weekend without bringing my black cloud on the rest of the guys.

A couple days later, the PCR results would come in: 5.7%. Remember, my doc had said if I reach 0.1% I'd be a decent candidate for the clinical trial. But I was at 5.7%. I figured I was knocking on death's door, began putting my affairs in order, etc.

(That's a joke, kinda. But processing news like that never gets easy. For a few nights, I couldn't sleep well. I'd toss and turn, and wake up in a sweat, hoping that it wasn't real. But it was. I'd lay there next to Karen, who probably wasn't sleeping great either. And my mind would fill with Bible verses. But not verses about hope and joy and peace. Honestly, the one that replayed in my head most was Jonah 2:5-6 - I sank beneath the waves, and waters closed over me. Seaweed wrapped itself around my head. I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut forever.

Not very encouraging, I know. But it's what I felt at the time. I was re-entering the nightmare, and there was nothing I could do to stop it or even slow it down. I had no control. Life as I hoped it would be was slipping from my grasp, and I was being pulled down into a hopeless darkness.

My doctor decided that he'd still like to try the immunotherapy clinical trial, and he was optimistic about its results in other patients. So for June and July, that's what I did. In August, my PCR was 47%. I was numb to the numbers at this point. It seemed crazy that a few short months ago I had been alarmed that this number was at 0.03%. Man, perspective is everything.

It had become clear that a stem cell transplant was my best option at this point. This treatment has been something I've dreaded since my diagnosis, even though it's the most effective treatment of AML. It's hard.

Here's the gist: they blast me with really strong chemotherapy that wipes out my body's ability to create new blood cells (because my body keeps creating unhealthy blood cells that give me leukemia.) Then, when all my stem cells are dead, they give me the stem cells of a matching donor. My body will then literally begin producing that person's blood in my bone marrow. It's crazy. And amazing.

My team in Houston has been working hard to coordinate all the details of the transplant. After learning that none of my siblings were matches, they went to their database and found two 10/10 DNA matches for me. Lots of patients tragically never find a match. It's amazing to know that I've got two, even though they'll only actually use the stem cells from one. I have no idea who these folks are, or where they live in the world. But it's an amazing thing that two complete strangers have agreed to step forward, endure some inconvenience, and save my life.

In preparation, I've undergone two round of chemo now that have killed almost all the abnormal cell growth in my body. My PCR is back at 0.01%. (Entering chemo with no active disease is a really positive thing).

Yesterday, we finally got some solid dates and have begun making plans for this treatment. Here's what we know: I'll head to Houston on October 4 for some pretests. My actual transplant date (birthday?) is set at October 31, which I'll happily share with my new baby niece, Leddy, who is planning to enter the world on that day.

Lots of things will happen between now and then. It's like a countdown to a rocket launch. Pretests, pre-treatments, admittance to the hospital on October 24, and then the heavy chemo leading to transplant.

This will be a challenging season for our family, to say the least. Starting October 24, I'll be in the hospital for a month. Physically, this will be a very demanding time. Upon release from the hospital, I'll need to stay in Houston for approximate two more months as my body recovers and I go in for countless tests and transfusions. If all goes well, I should be able to return home in mid- to late-January. The Hancheys will enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas together in Houston!

Please pray for us. Pray for my strength and healing obviously. But also pray for Karen. She'll be sprinting back and forth between Ruston and Houston often. Pray for Marilyn, our sweet precious friend who has graciously accepted our invitation to be a fill-in mom for our three kids who will stay in Ruston for most of this time. And pray for our kids - Jude (8) , Owen (6), and Charlotte (4). We trust God's wisdom in all this, but often question His timing. These are such formative years for them, and our hearts ache that part of that formation includes having a mom and dad who can't be with them for long stretches of time.

But God made mountains and valleys for a reason. A flat world sure would be boring.

Here are two lessons I'm learning:

1. Dreading it is harder than living it. Thinking about walking through the valley of the shadow of death is way worse than actually walking through it. So that's what we're doing. We're putting one foot in front of the other, hanging on the promise: "for You are with me." (Psalm 23)

2. Hope that terminates on this life is no hope. I believe God will heal me through this. I really do. But if He doesn't, the content or object of my hope will not have changed. My health, one day, will ultimately fail. Jesus entered the tomb, so I know that I'm not alone even there if I die from acute myeloid leukemia. But Jesus also walked out of the tomb. And when He did, He revealed that one day I'll rise from whatever grave I'm in and enter a renewed, restored, redeemed creation forever. And everything that has been ruined by sin will be undone and made right. That's my defining reality. Sometimes it just takes the valley of the shadow of death to remind me of it.

Thanks everybody for reading. I'll try and do a better job keeping you up to date.