Category Archives: Health Updates

Room With a View

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In about five minutes, Mr. Hospital Scrubs is going to pump something that looks like blue Kool-Aid into my veins and slowly push me into a whirling, deafening CT machine. I’ll hold my breath on and off so they can get a better picture.

“This is your scan day?” asks a kindly nurse. She is buzzing around the room, handing me a mask, setting up for the blood draw. I nod.

“Ah, family portraits,” she says with a sorry smile.

Yes, I am not alone in this body. I’ve got company. The machines will have a better look at the two plump tumors in my liver, the smaller, almost invisible other two, baby tumors nearby, and the microscopic cancer cells swimming around in my abdomen.

But everyone is trying their best. The reception volunteers their best port nurse to help me today for my big day. The technician jokes with me about Canada’s predictably paltry performance in the Olympics. Summer sports just aren’t really our thing. The nurse gives me a hug and asks if I want to pray over the vial of blood that will tell the oncologists whether I am deteriorating. I do.

Dear God, save me. save me. save me. save me. Again.

It’s been 11 months since my diagnosis, and it sounds weird to say that I am grateful. But I am grateful. I have lived one month past the regular appointment time that someone like me with an unexpected Stage IV cancer diagnosis should live.

I am doing things I never thought I would do again. Like hike a mountain.

Yesterday I was in the mountains of North Carolina with Katherine, one of Great Besties of all Time, and we were just stupid enough and just enthusiastic enough to sign up for a hike up the Blue Mountain trail. It promised to be short and hard with a spectacular view. It was hard, so I guess one of three ain’t bad.

We laced up our shoes and headed up the trail, only to realize that I had forgotten my water and sunglasses in the car. This was a great disappointment to Katherine, whose two great loves are hydration and retinal safety. But on we went until the trail got steep and narrow, little switchbacks that went back and forth, back and forth, and up, up, up.

We maintained the panting, cheery banter of two girls trying to pretend that we were almost there. We weren’t. What seemed, on the map, to be a mile-long hike to the summit was more like a slog through the jungle, hacking away tree limbs as we went.

Katherine noticed it first. The sun breaking through the trees above us. The shining promise of a panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains and our great reward: moral superiority over the millions of people who we imagined were sleeping or eating stacks of pancakes at that very moment. Those sitting in pews that Sunday morning never crossed our minds.

When we hit the clearing and felt the first heat of direct sun, we looked around. A lot. Mostly we were looking at the ground and its big pile of rocks which suggested that it was a campfire site. But no view. There were only trees and trees and more trees and a tiny sign that read: Blue Mountain Summit. I guess if there’s a sign, it counts more?

So, of course, we took a lot of pictures of our sweaty faces with the trees to prove to our dubious spouses that yes, sometimes we do things on our girls weekends, thankyouverymuch.
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But sometimes there isn’t a view. Sometimes we climb the mountain expecting God to give us a sense of perspective. Sometimes we expect to feel the grandeur of God’s love. Or maybe the distance we have come. And when we get there, there is only a pile of rocks and a sign pointing the way back down. It leaves us wondering if the exhaustion of the climb was actually worth it.

I am sitting beside the CT machine when I notice it. It’s a glass panel set into the ceiling with a large picture that glows. It depicts a mountain view, the tops of trees and the sky like an endless sea. The sun is breaking through.

I climb into the whirling machine, lie back, and stare at the top of the world. Sometimes in life I get the view, and sometimes I don’t. Even when I climb the mountain. And sometimes I am way, way down through a maze of white hallways littered with wheelchairs and the hum of televisions in a sterile room in a hospital gown as blue as the sky.

Goodbye Emory, Hello Duke

Late last year a miracle occurred when Kate was admitted to an experimental trial of an immunotherapy drug at Emory University in Atlanta. Further miracles provided for some out-of-state insurance coverage and air fare for her flights from Durham. There is no doubt that without that treatment Kate’s cancer would have worsened and her fate would have been pretty grim. Her medical team at Emory like Dr. El-Rayes, Melissa, and Meredith, nurses like Meg and volunteers like Cindy, Jane, Floyd, and the Mighty Bereans who offered rides from the airport and home stays were literal life-savers. We will never forget them and their kindness.

The regular travel to Atlanta, however, did take its own toll on Kate’s health. Up at 4:00 a.m., she would not usually return until midnight. And with a compromised immune system there are healthier places than a sealed metal tube with 100 other travellers coughing and dropping metal crutches on Kate’s head. If only, we thought, she could get this enormously expensive experimental drug administered to her in Durham. Well, as we have observed, miracles do happen and Kate has just started being treated a short walk from her office at the Duke Cancer Centre. What once took a whole day of travel and stress now takes 2 hours; Kate’s daily life and her health have both been augmented by this delightful change.

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Progress

As every schoolchild knows, the verb “shrink” comes from the Old English scrincan, which in turn is derived  from an older Scandinavian word: skrynka, meaning “to wrinkle”. Shrink is an important word to people with nasty tumours on their liver; shrinkage is what we want to happen and it is want we want to see revealed in the scans that patients periodically undergo. Great is the tension before the images are revealed and discussed with the doctor.

I am happy that today’s report in Atlanta shows continued shrinkage of the most worrisome lesion and the stabalization of the other ones. An anxiety-producing spot on the lung which was noted in the last scan is now gone (if it was ever really there). The doctor is happy and that means that the rest of us can be happy too, at least for the next couple of months until the next scan.

Thank you all so much for your support, kind thoughts and prayers. Fighting cancer is a team effort and Kate is deeply moved and grateful to have you all on her side.

In which Tevye is deemed to be incorrect

“Sunrise, sunset. Swiftly fly the years.” So says the song from Fiddler on the Roof, but it is not necessarily the case when you have cancer and are waiting from one bimonthly scan to the next to see if you will be allowed to continue in the experimental drug trial. It is impossible to switch off the lingering anxiety even if all previous scans have been encouraging.

Last week saw another one of these encounters as Kate was accompanied to the Winship Cancer Center in Atlanta by her parents. At first, the news from the doctor who had reviewed the images seemed rather disheartening: one tumour had grown and the other worrisome one had shrunken only minutely. There was also a spot on the lung which, we were told, might be nothing; they would check in another few months. Tears were shed; reassurances were made by the doctor. This was viewed medically as stability and stability was good. Nonetheless, as Kate trooped off to spend hours getting her chemo infused, no one was smiling.

Flash forward a bit. Kate has sent the results home to husband Toban who has got out his figures and charts from previous scans and discovered that someone had miscalculated and the shrinkage we thought was tiny was, in fact, pretty impressive. Now everyone, including the splendid nurses, were smiling.

So for the next two months Kate will continue working up a storm, conducting interviews, going to women’s conferences, and consorting with her Young Scholar colleagues. Helpful parents will take turns being on hand to assist Toban and tractor-obsessed Zachary. And then there will be another scan.

Chasm, meet Bridge

Some of you may have seen a recent interview with Kate in Christianity Today [http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/february-web-only/kate-bowler-on-dying-and-sure-hope.html] or read her piece in the New York Times. [http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=1] Many comments on these articles have described her as “dying from cancer” but Kate thinks that a better description would be “critically ill with cancer”. This change does not reflect some sort of unreasonable optimism or assumption that she is being cured by her treatment; it is rather a more accurate description of a state that she will be in for the foreseeable future. This was made clear in a talk Kate had this week with her oncologist at Duke Medical Center: doctors do not foresee a cure. The hope that the immunotherapy and chemotherapy she is receiving offers is that she will not die from her cancer but that that her disease eventually will be manageable. The analogy is one with HIV or diabetes – a condition that will not go away but which will be contained with medication and allow something approaching a normal lifestyle. At this moment Kate is walking toward a chasm, over which a bridge has not yet been built. We live in hope that this life-saving construction will appear and, as always, covet your prayers for Kate and her family.

A sigh of relief

That sound you just heard was the collective exhalation of breath by Kate and her ground crew. The analysis of the scan on her tumours has come in and it is good news: shrinkage of the nasty things all around. The doctor is pleased with the progress; everything is trending in the right direction.

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your prayers. They make a tangible difference in our lives.

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Once more into the breach

On Tuesday Kate will fly into Atlanta for her bimonthly CT scan which checks on the progress of the therapy that she has received. Two months ago, the results were encouraging with marked shrinkage of one of the tumors on her liver. Naturally, everyone would like to see continued progress that would justify Kate’s ongoing participation in the experimental immunotherapy and, equally naturally, tension mounts among her ground crew as we await the news which will come on Wednesday morning when Kate will be undergoing her regular dose of chemo.

Faithful friend Katherine will be driving in all the way from Nashville to be at Kate’s side and keep spirits high. Pray, if you’ve a mind, for her safe travel and happy revelations from the scan.

Advent

I have had two untouchably perfect moments in my life. One was running down the aisle with my new husband on our wedding day. And the other was when they put baby Zach in my arms, and our eyes met, and it was like a conspiracy of perfect adoration.

Two months ago, out of the blue, I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, and so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what perfect moments God brings through suffering. And the story is Advent, and its promise of Peace. Hope. Love. This is my season. This is our season.

Hail,_Mary_by_Luc-Olivier_Merson,_ca._1885,_High_Museum_of_ArtThere’s a gorgeous painting in the High Museum in Atlanta of Mary, the mother of God, standing with what appears to be exactly the same outfit I dressed Zach in for his two-year old Tractorpalooza party recently. Travellers stumble across something surprising on a lonely road. Instead of seeing a statue or a painting or some other shine of the Virgin, as was the custom, they encounter the living, breathing Mary and Jesus. There is a reason why over Christian history that those who are lonely, afraid, lost, or sick turn to an image of Mary the Mother with her boy at her side. When we stumble down a road filled with suffering, we want to encounter a God who understands just how we feel. I am walking a road in which the unthinkable thought is that I would have to be one day separated from my two perfect moments, my husband and my son. So I turn to the Advent story as my story and the story of the church. It is our introduction to a weary traveling family, a pregnant teenager who gives birth in a world of great danger—danger that will be confirmed when King Herod begins a campaign to murder infants in an attempt to root him out.

This is our initiation into one of the perfect moments of the faith, when peace, hope, and love radiate out of a world that otherwise causes us to be afraid. This is the great secret of the Christian faith, that in the grand inversion of God becoming a baby, we see that our vulnerability is our doorway into knowing the love and great mercy of God. That we will find ourselves walking down a lonely road, turn a corner, and there He is. He is Emmanuel. God with us.

Written for Duke Memorial Church, the first Sunday of Advent.