UPDATE: Cycle 3 was accomplished on May 12. Cycle 4 is set for June 2. Brenda and I traveled back down to Houston for a mid-term PET scan check-up to see what kind of progress has been made with 3 cycles of chemotherapy. “Mr. Lee,” Dr. Neelapu said, “Congratulations: your scans have revealed no visible lymphoma in your body. You are in-remission.” I thought Timmy wasn’t moving … I didn’t realize he’d all but disappeared. Good.
It was on the 26th day of February that Dr. Reich performed the biopsy down in Carlsbad that started my path. I found it strangely coincidental that it would be the 26th day of May that my PET scan would give me the good news that chemotherapy was doing the job it was designed to do: destroy the lymphoma cancer and deprive it of a medium hospitable to its growth.
Remission literally means the reduction or disappearance of the signs or symptoms of a disease. It has its roots in French and Latin origins: remittere, to send back, restore and remissionem, relaxation, a diminishing, sending back or sending away.
What this doesn’t mean: I am cured. Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma grows quickly, but responds well to my form of chemotherapy. But every patient is different – and there is no guarantee that I won’t relapse during treatment or after. Dr. Neelapu said that my chances are very good – 80%, in fact – that I’m headed towards blue skies.
What this does mean:
The chemotherapy regimen is working. It’s not cheap – total costs are around $130,000 (that’s just the medication!), but it is saving my life. Praise God that Grace has allowed me great insurance! So, Grace Community Church: you have always blessed my life – but providing me and my family with respectable insurance has saved my life. I have heard from others who are underinsured or have no insurance – and it’s pathetic to hear the denials of service and help. Lord, be their shield and great reward!
I’m still on chemotherapy. Just because it’s not detectable doesn’t mean it’s not there. If I don’t want to relapse (and I don’t!), I need to make sure Timmy is really gone and that he’d starve if he tries to return. Chemo’s not fun – but with the strength that God gives, the support of my family and the prayers of the Saints … yeah, I got this!
I’ll have 5 more PET scans. One at the end of 6 cycles (the last one is July 14th!) just to make sure Timmy’s really really not there. And if all’s clear, every 6 months for two years, they’ll peek into my body positronically and confirm I’m clear of lymphoma. At that point, he’ll say: “You’re cured!” Which makes me sound like a ham.
I feel a sense of sense of “survivor guilt.” Doesn’t that sound silly? But it’s true. The moment he told me the good news, I immediately thought of friends still languishing with their foes, dealing with set-backs, watching their strength and resources diminish each day. “Why me, Lord – why do I get it easier?” But a friend once told me “Sean, don’t feel guilty; feel blessed. It may be a mystery why one has life easier and one doesn’t; why one is rich and one is poor; why one is relatively healthy, the other sick. But don’t dishonor God’s wisdom and work in your life or in theirs. Help when you can – but guilt presupposes God is not wise or just. You know that’s not true.” So I’ll keep praying for my friends, help however I can, and when I get to a position of strength or influence, I’ll lean in.
The prayers of righteous people are powerful and effective (James 5:16). I have no doubt in my mind that God the Father made good on his promise that he would listen to people praying for me and making my chemotherapy super-effective (Luke 18:1-7; John 14:12-14; James 5:14-15). But God’s people’s prayers have done other things: brought me comfort when I suffered side effects, gave me courage when I was afraid, bolstered my confidence when I was feeling low, and helped my peer into my heart and see clearly. When people prayed for my family, already feeling insecure and constrained at school by the whole coronavirus pandemic, their fears were assuaged, and attention sharpened. Here’s another benefit: I had clarity and consolation in pain and suffering. The prayers of others were like glasses, helping me to see cancer as a gift. That’s right: a gift. I don’t see it as a random curse or lack of faith – as I wrote earlier, I know Jesus told me he wanted me to have this. If you prayed for me, you were like spiritual mid-wives, helping me to birth faith and hope. Most precious to me are the nights I couldn’t sleep, my brain in a fog, trying not to retch and throw-up. Why? Because Jesus was there! “Come to me,” Jesus invites, “all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” To bear the burden with Jesus is the greatest privilege a person can have in this life. To know he goes with me, shouldering the pain with me. If you prayed for me, you helped me discover that he is gentle and humble in heart; you helped me find that I can find rest for my soul. I am different because of your prayers. I told you: I am weak and cowardly – I would never ask for such a task. I still don’t fee qualified – but you helped me through this test. I am so grateful! And the amazing thing … I’m still learning!
Remission … RE-MISSION. I wonder: have I dodged a bullet? Have I narrowly missed getting run over by a truck with “cancer” on its license plate? I don’t think so. So, how has my life mission changed? Years ago, I crafted a life mission statement: “To leverage my gifts so that the local church is mobilized for optimal discipleship.” So, do I have greater insight, passion or confirmation? Yes … but also more. I believe it’s been purified and sharpened. I believe God is still sharpening it’s focus. There’s more to the lesson, right now.
There’s still much to learn. But I know this: my cancer is not meant to be “one and done” – I’m not meant to walk away from this and pretend it never happened - as if I were ashamed of it. I believe that it’s meant to be a conspicuous provision in my life; to be put on display to demonstrate his grace and mercy in my life.
I thought of Lazarus of Bethany in John 11. Jesus could have easily healed him, but he didn’t. He allowed Lazarus to suffer and he died. Lazarus’ death, in a way, went “in-remission” – but the fact of the matter was that he would end up dying again. This whole episode was meant to be a sign, and Jesus needed a willing servant. His sickness and death was a gift. So was his revival.
That’s how I see my cancer and remission: they are both gifts that I would be foolish not to personally grow through and not let God use. There shall be no diminishment.
And I will be so bold as to say this: Don’t waste your pains and hardships – give them back to God and let him use your life as a trophy of grace. You’ve worked too hard to earn them. How, you may (and should!) ask? James wrote long ago: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” I believe He’s far more interested in your story than you are, so don’t worry.
I may have 5 years. I may have 20 years – maybe more. Maybe less. Cancer may not, in the end, kill me. There is nothing we can do to stop the ink of our lives from being scrawled on the page of time until it is used up. But wise is the disciple who lovingly says to their Lord: “You’re much better at writing my story than I am – I will be your willing quill, if you will only hold me tightly.”