Today marks the three-year anniversary my wife, Sherri, was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Like the proverbial ton of bricks, those words fell on us that afternoon with stunning force. Life changed.
“You will need to begin chemotherapy treatment immediately,” the doctor said. “The cancer has spread to your liver.” That was 43 treatments ago.
Systemic treatment for cancer by chemotherapy involves many things.
First, you have a medical port (medi-port) installed in your upper chest to receive the chemicals during every treatment. Even when the port is unused, it must be flushed about every three weeks, requiring a trip to the doctor.
Then there are the treatments themselves. Treatment rooms vary by hospital. Some are larger rooms with many “chairs” that recline, with people of various kinds and levels of cancer flanking you in your chair. Others provide a bevy of small, private rooms, a dozen or so, in the “treatment area.” Either way, walking into one of those rooms the first time is a frightening experience. “This can’t be happening to me” plays through your mind like a broken record.
Before each treatment, you always have blood work. These past three years Sherri has had enough blood drawn to satisfy a vampire family of four for months on end.
Depending on the chemical mixture, called a “cocktail,” prescribed for your brand of cancer, your time in a treatment room usually ranges from one to as much as 7 or 8 hours. In Sherri’s case, in the first two years, we could always count on about 5 hours. In more recent months, 2 to 3 hours just about covers it.
Sometimes you can have various reactions to chemo while receiving it, ranging from mild to serious. An itching, burning sensation . . . pain in your lower back or spine area . . . headaches . . . nausea . . . . After all, a chemo treatment is essentially putting poison in your body to attack the cancer cells . . . but it’s not a walk in the park for your good cells either.
Following treatment, you get to wear a portable chemo “pump” home with you (remember “fanny packs”?). This pump dispenses controlled chemo into your system for 48 hours, through a tube attached to your medi-port, completing your treatment for that round. Once the pump is empty, you get to make another trip to the doctor’s office to have the needle in your port and the pump removed.
Twelve days later you get to repeat the process . . . again . . . and again . . . and again.
Then there are the surgeries. Sherri had four; three in the first year of treatment. There was colon surgery to remove the parent tumor, followed by liver surgery to resect tumors in the liver. Then there was surgery to insert a hepatic pump beneath the skin on top of the liver to inject chemo directly into the organ as a precautionary measure to attempt to stop the return of cancer. This pump had to be loaded with chemo every two weeks . . . more trips to the doctor’s office. (It was removed the following year when the cancer spread from her liver to her lungs.)
Oh yes, don’t forget the scans: CT scans . . . PET scans . . . MRI scans (claustrophobics beware!) . . . initial scans . . . subsequent scans . . . routine scans to monitor the progress of the disease . . . each one requiring trips to the hospital, waiting rooms, waiting and more waiting, . . . encounters with lots of people wearing white lab coats.
Yet all this is just the beginning of sorrows. Fatigue. You can’t imagine how this stuff saps your energy. You learn how to live with almost chronic fatigue.
Little by little after three or four treatments during her second cycle of chemo, Sherri endured the indignity of watching her hair (a woman’s glory) fall out, first in strands, then in clumps. She added two wigs and a number of head scarfs to her wardrobe to cover her cue ball head.
I could go on, but you get the picture.
One night we were cuddled on the couch watching TV, when Sherri suddenly looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said: “I don’t know who I am anymore. Look at me. I have cancer. My body has been scarred with surgeries. I’ve got a port in my chest and a pump on my liver. My hair is gone. I’m tired all the time. I don’t even feel like a person anymore. I feel like I’ve lost my identity.”
I don’t know why, but in that moment my mind raced to a line from a movie. (Throughout the 36 years of our marriage, Sherri and I will sometimes respond in conversation with a line from a movie. It’s just a fun thing we do).
“You still Lieutenant Dan!” I said.
Of course that is one of the famous lines from the movie Forrest Gump. Lieutenant Dan Taylor was badly wounded in Vietnam. Tom Hanks’ character, Forrest Gump, carried him out of the jungle safely to the extraction point. But Lieutenant Dan lost both of his legs. Lying in the hospital in a bed beside Forrest, who also had been wounded, Lieutenant Dan jerked Forrest from his bed to the floor and castigated him for saving his life.
“Look at me. I’m a cripple. I was supposed to die on the battlefield with honor. That was my destiny. I was Lieutenant Dan Taylor.” After a pause, Forrest says: “. . . You still Lieutenant Dan.”
For a moment I just looked at Sherri. Then she smiled and said: “That’s right! I am! I’m still Lieutenant Dan!”
We talked about who we are in Christ, and how no matter what comes our way, our identity is in Him. “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outward self is wasting away, the inner self is being renewed day by day,” Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:16. “This present suffering is not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
So, for all of you who are suffering, whether its cancer or something else that ravages your body, remember . . . “You still Lieutenant Dan!”