When Chemotherapy became Grace Therapy
Last week, a close friend of mine called me up and I sensed almost immediately that he was very upset. In fact, he sounded completely devastated. He was trying hard to control his emotions and yet I heard his voice breaking as he informed me that his father had just been diagnosed with cancer (lymphoma).
Now I could appreciate what he was going through, and that's probably one of the main reasons that he called me; because it was not long ago that I was in the exact same situation - with a PET scan report in front of me confirming that my father had Stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma with an international prognostic score of 4. The stage and the score meant that the cancer was quite advanced and the fact that my father was over seventy, added significantly to the risk factors. This was August of 2011, but it still seems like yesterday! Now, three and a half years have passed by; Appan is back to his normal old self - the periodic checkups with the oncologist being the only real reminders of what he had gone through.
More than anything, my friend on the phone was looking for some words of encouragement. Just knowing that someone he knew well had been through the same situation and was now completely recovered, seemed to provide him with a lot of hope. He had been well aware of the details of Appan's chemotherapy sessions because I used to send him (as I did to many of our friends and relatives) frequent and timely email updates as to how Appan was taking the sessions and how his treatment was progressing. He mentioned that he was now going through all those emails again, one by one, since it seemed so much more closer to his heart all of a sudden. He said that reading through the email updates, in his mind he already had a good idea of what he could expect over the next six to nine months. And he also mentioned that it would be wonderful if those notes could be made available to more people, who were probably in a similar situation and who might find it just as encouraging as he had. I promised him I would do that and over the last couple of days, I have gone through my emails and have managed to put together all those update notes once again.
Arranged in order, those notes now read like a diary and the theme emerging from them is the pervading sense of calmness in our lives, as a family, all through those six months. Peace and calmness - not something that you would normally associate with such a turbulent period, but that is exactly what it was. As mentioned in one of the closing notes, I do not think that as a family we had felt as close and bonded to each other as we did during those days. We had not experienced the presence of God or felt the power of prayer as strongly as we did then. We had not been strengthened and comforted by the words of our friends and relatives as we had been during those days. Those were days when we felt the amazing grace of God, each moment and each day of our lives.
And so even though it was Appan with the cancer, we all went through those sessions of chemotherapy together as a family. They were sessions of chemotherapy no doubt, but they were for us equally, if not more, sessions where we learnt to appreciate our lives, our relationships and the blessings that we all have but so often take for granted. They were sessions where we learnt to walk and to rest, with grateful hearts, in the shadow of His grace - they were well and truly, sessions of "Grace Therapy".
As mentioned earlier, I have included below all the notes that describe those six months in our lives. Starting with the first chemotherapy session and moving onward till the last session and also an update one year on, I must warn you that this is a very long post. Or rather it may seem very long to a casual reader; but to someone groping for encouragement in darkness, I sincerely hope that these notes will provide a small light of hope, that however dark and bleak the situation may seem to be, our God is beside us. Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will not fear, for the good shepherd is with us; His rod and His staff, they will comfort us.
12 Sep 2011 (Cycle 1A)
By God's grace, the first chemotherapy session went very smoothly. Appan was very comfortable during the session. And he's not feeling the effects of the drugs yet. Maybe it will take a couple of days and maybe the next sessions will not be as smooth. But he is in very good spirits as are all of us. Thanks for all your prayers - and do continue to pray for Appan. The next session will be on the 28th, if all goes well.
16 Sep 2011 (Cycle 1A)
Today is the 4th day after the first chemotherapy session and by God's grace, Appan is not showing any adverse symptoms at all. In fact he is joking that he feels much better than two weeks back! His overall energy level is also appreciably higher. So is his body weight - he's added three kilos in the last two weeks - again he jokes that it is because of the "gusthikkaaran" (wrestler) diet that we are putting him through. But all in all, by God's amazing grace, the first few days have been as smooth as we could have wished for.
Appan is in very good spirits also - he now wants to sing and record his favourite songs on video (he's completed three now). It is something which he says he would never have thought about otherwise. Amma and all of us are doing fine, relying solely on God's wonderful care and protection and the strength of all your prayers.
If his blood counts remain fine, the next chemotherapy session is being planned for the 28th. Do continue to keep us in your prayers.
28 Sep 2011 (Cycle 1B)
Appan had the second session of chemotherapy today - Cycle 1B.
The results of his blood tests done yesterday were very good. "Excellent" - according to the doctor. And the doctor said that from what he can see externally, Appan is responding very well. He also mentioned that he is not able to feel the lymph nodes anymore, which also is a good sign. After cycle 2B, they will normally redo a PET scan which will give us formal evidence of the way his body is responding.
Appan's next session (Cycle 2A) has been tentatively planned for Oct 11 (provided everything else is normal and there are no hiccups along the way).
He continues to be in excellent spirits. As for us, we have only this to say "His grace is sufficient for us". Praise God.
Thank you for your continued prayers and support. It means a lot to us.
11 Oct 2011 (Appan Hospitalised)
Appan's chemotherapy session did not happen today.
During the pre-chemo checkup, they spotted some fibrosis ("scarring") on the lung. This is a known side-effect of one of the drugs being administered to Appan. So they have admitted him today and will be treating this first before proceeding with the chemo sessions.
It is good that this allergic reaction was identified at this initial stage; else it could potentially have led to some complications later on. An even better news is that his blood counts are all still very good - in fact the doctor was about to start today's session; when a still small voice prompted him to order the chest x-ray, which indicated the fibrosis.
We do not know how long Appan will need to be admitted. His chemo can be resumed only after this treatment. They will also have to modify his treatment regimen taking into consideration this reaction.
Appan is a little upset that the momentum of the treatment has been affected - but it is just the first small bump on a road that, we all knew, was never going to be smooth.
Thank you for all your prayers and support - please do continue to keep Appan and all of us in your prayers.
PS : Appan is at SGH - the doctors have informed us that having visitors is generally not encouraged. Thank you once again for your prayers.
14 Oct 2011 (Discharged from Hospital)
Appan has been discharged today. A quick update on the happenings of the last couple of days in the hospital:
After a few more detailed scans and tests by the respiratory consultant, they were not able to conclude conclusively whether the "scarring" on the lung was actually a reaction of one of the drugs as initially feared or whether it was just an atypical infection. Even though they now think that it was more likely an infection, to be on the safe side, they have altered the chemotherapy regimen to exclude the "suspected" drug. And in fact, Appan actually underwent the 3rd session today before being discharged. He is relieved not least because the treatment is back on track (at least for now). Amma is also very relieved at the way the situation sort of diffused itself.
So what looked like a long uncertain stay at the hospital actually ended up in only a delay of a couple days for the 3rd chemo session! Looking back, we couldn't have asked for anything more.
Appan mentioned something that happened at the hospital which I feel like sharing. He was humming a favorite devotional song when the nurse came in to attend to him. She listened intently and asked him if he could sing louder. Appan sang the whole song and the nurse sat there with tears in her eyes. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Before she went out, she asked if she could pray. And the three of them sat there, praying and praising our wonderful God, whose ways we sometimes tend not to understand - but if we trust and believe, we can rest assured that He will lead us to the still waters and make us to lie down in green pastures....for His name's sake.
And some more good news to round off this mail - the chest CT scan that they took to investigate the "scarring" actually showed that the enlarged lymph nodes in that region have all shrunk significantly - formally underlining what the doctor remarked during the last visit that Appan seems to be responding very well to the treatment.
Once again we thank God for all your prayers, concern and support. Do continue to remember Appan in your prayers.
28 Oct 2011 (Cycle 2B)
Appan had the 4th session of chemotherapy today - Cycle 2B.
He is not feeling any adverse symptoms from the sessions till now - in fact he continues to be in very good spirits. His blood counts remain very good and the doctor is also quite pleased with Appan's general progress thus far.
The next session, God willing has been tentatively scheduled for the 11th of November.
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
We continue to thank God for all your prayers and support.
11 Nov 2011 (Cycle 3A)
By God's grace, Appan's 5th session of chemotherapy (Cycle 3A) went through smoothly today. No negative symptoms and all his blood counts are still very good.
The doctor has ordered a PET scan before the next cycle which will give him a full picture of the how Appan is responding to the drugs.
The next session has been tentatively scheduled for the 25th of November.
Please continue to remember us in your prayers.
25 Nov 2011 (Cycle 3B)
The PET Scan results came out today - No lymph nodes seen anywhere.
I am sending this mail from the hospital, and as we sit here thanking God, I thought of sending this mail out at the earliest to all of you who have been praying for Appan.
The doctor was very happy with the scan results; as things stand, he wants to continue on and complete the original six cycles planned. I did ask him about Appan having some visitors and he said it would be best to keep things going as is now - with regard to diet, daily activities & habits, exercise etc. because obviously things were working and unless absolutely unavoidable, he asked us to try not to change too many things at this stage - the risk of infection is still his main concern right now.
Appan is currently undergoing Cycle 3B (should finish in around four hours time) and the next session (Cycle 4A) has been tentatively planned for the 9th of Dec.
Thanking you for all your prayers once again - do continue to uphold Appan in your prayers.
9 Dec 2011 (Cycle 4A)
By God's amazing grace, Appan's 7th session of chemotherapy (Cycle 4A) completed yesterday without any incidents. The blood counts are all still very good and no adverse indications so far.
The next session has been tentatively scheduled for the 23rd of December.
Please continue to remember us in your prayers.
23 Dec 2011 (Cycle 4B)
Appan's 8th session of chemotherapy completed yesterday. By God's wonderful grace, He has thus brought us to the end of Cycle 4. There are two more cycles (four sessions) to go. God willing, the final session should be in the last week of February 2012.
Another piece of good news - the doctor confirmed yesterday that after the last session in February, Appan will not be required to continue with further maintenance sessions. We had in fact been preparing ourselves for at least a year of ongoing maintenance therapy!
The next session (Cycle 5A) has been tentatively scheduled for the 6th of January. The doctor also wants to have another CT scan on Jan 13th.
Here's wishing you a very Blessed Christmas. The past few months has indeed been a very blessed time for us as a family.
Thank you for all your prayers and support - please do continue to keep us in your prayers.
06 Jan 2012 (Cycle 5A)
Just back home after Appan's 9th session of chemotherapy (Cycle 5A) - everything went off smoothly today also by God's grace. God willing, if things go as planned, there are three more sessions to go with the final session in the last week of February.
The next session has been tentatively scheduled for the 20th of January; a final CT scan has also been planned for the 13th (next Friday)
Thank you for all the calls and all the prayers - we really appreciate all your support. Ironic as it may sound, it has been a truly blessed 4-5 months for us as a family. Wonderful are God's ways and even more wonderful is His providence. Do continue to keep us in your prayers.
20 Jan 2012 (Cycle 5B)
Appan had his 10th session (Cycle 5B) of chemotherapy yesterday. He is fine after the session. The CT scan which was done last week (on Jan 13th) shows no active nodes; and all the blood results are also very good.
God willing, if things go as planned, this leaves him with two more sessions - on Feb 3rd and Feb 17th.
Once again we thank God for all your prayers and support. Do continue to remember Appan in your prayers.
03 Feb 2012 (Cycle 6A)
Appan had his 11th chemo session (Cycle 6A) yesterday. God willing, this leaves only one more session to go; the last session has been planned for Feb 17th. One more CT scan has been planned after the last session; we do not know the exact date of the scan.
Appan, though slightly tired, is keeping fine and in very good spirits.
We thank God for all your prayers and support thus far - please do continue to remember Appan in your prayers.
17 Feb 2012 (Cycle 6B - FINAL CHEMO SESSION)
Appan had his final chemo session earlier today. Once again, the session itself went very smoothly and he is back home and in extremely good spirits. All his blood counts are also normal.
Appan and Amma have the relief written large on their faces that the ordeal is almost over - it is quite like that time of the night when you wake up from a nightmare and realize that it was all just a bad dream. But on the other hand, as I wrote earlier, there is definitely a pervading sense of the past six months being a time of incredible blessings on us as a family. When you think about it, it is all a matter of perspective, right? And true to our basic human natures, it is also very much dependent on how everything ends. Is it because things are looking perfectly fine now that the past six months seem to have been a blessing? I don't know - I hope to think not. What colour would our thoughts be if things hadn't turned out so well? Would they still be brightly and happily coloured as it is now? Or would there be a tinge and maybe shades of black to them? Again I don't know.
All we know is that it has been exactly six months since the start of the chemotherapy - and apart from a delay of two days on just one session, everything went like clockwork, carefully planned and orchestrated by divine hands - hands that comforted us, hands that healed, and hands that continue to touch us and fill us with so much hope. And souls that were moved by God to call us, offer words of hope and encouragement; raise up prayers to God in countless numbers. As a family, we thank God once again for all your concern & especially your prayers - that is what made the journey feel so short and smooth! So many things could have gone wrong, so many complications could have come about, especially considering that Appan is not as young as he used to be. But even when the tempest was raging and the billows were tossing high, we could hear the gentle voice "peace, peace be still". And it is in absolute gratitude to God and to all of you that we write this note today.
How fast time went by - it seems like yesterday when we were discussing whether to have the treatment in India or Singapore. Looking back, to treat Appan here for the last six months was probably one of the best decisions that we could have taken. It could have all turned horribly wrong with just a couple of complications and a few hospital stays. We firmly believe that it was not our decision, but a decision that God took for us. And usually many things don't go wrong when He decides, right?
And before I close off, here's a quick overview of what is being planned for the coming days. The oral medicines will be tapered off in the next two weeks. The doctor has ordered a final post-treatment evaluation PET scan on 9th March and a subsequent consultation with him on 13th March. Appan & Amma's tickets to return to Kerala remain booked for March 17th. Given the fact that the PET scan may have to be postponed in case of an infection, we asked the doctor about visitors and he suggested that we keep things the way they are now till March 9th. I know quite a few of you have been asking when you can come to visit him - once again I thank you for your concern, but can I ask that we wait till the 9th? Appan would want to come to church on the 11th and that would be the first real outing for him in the past six months.
What else to say? I know it has been a long note - apologies. But anyway since it has been so long, please bear with me just a bit more. As they say in Malayalam, we've got wet, let's have the bath anyway!
Did anybody notice how long my first few mails were and how after 3-4 sessions, they came to be just a two-line update? Well, it struck me and the realization of why that happened was an eye-opener for me, personally. You see, when we started with the chemotherapy sessions, there were so many uncertainties, so many things could go wrong, questions about how Appan's body would respond and react? Very real concerns; and the joy and relief of those adverse reactions not being shown on Appan were reflected in the length and content of my emails. But then things almost got into a routine; we (at least I confess that I did!) almost came to take for granted that things would be OK. It is just a day's trip to the cancer centre, spend four hours there, come back and wait for the next session in two weeks - just hope and pray that Appan doesn't catch an infection; that was almost our only worry after the smooth experience of the first few sessions. To be frank, things became almost so straight-forward that I would just drop Appan & Amma at the centre and go to work and come and pick them up in the evening. It even stretched to the extent that a couple of times they even took the taxi home - it was that simple!
I realized how our minds "get used" to circumstances and then slowly tend to forget, and the intensity slowly tapers off - and isn't that really what we should always be on the guard against? What if for instance, something did not go well on one of the sessions? Then it would have been a wake-up call (once again) and it would not have been a "typical chemo" day anymore. And slowly, very slowly I could begin to see why and how sometimes a bad situation or circumstance can actually have some good consequence - the trouble is more often than not, we cannot calm our minds enough during a strife to be able to see and realize that "good". And I could now see how a young friend of mine, who was undergoing a painful experience in her own life, was able to "thank God" for that very same experience - something I struggled to understand earlier.
That is all the "wisdom" that I wanted to share. We sign-off this note praising God for His faithfulness and His kindness on us as a family and on Appan individually these past six months, once again thanking you for all your prayers.
Do continue to keep Appan in your prayers.
17 Feb 2013 (ONE YEAR ON..)
It is exactly one year today since Appan's chemotherapy session completed. It still seems like yesterday - but that is only because time has flown!
Since Feb 17th 2012, when he had his last chemotherapy session, Appan has not been under any form of medication. He has had regular check-ups back in Kerala including CT scans, blood tests etc.. Last month, he also had a PET scan done. And by God's grace, all the results have come out clean.
Appan has now lost all of the excess weight that he had gained because of the steroids and is almost completely back to his old trim self. He has got back his hair; and as an added bonus, lots more black hair now! He is slowly getting back to his exercise routine; he manages to walk around 3-4 kms - inside the house compound though, for now. The only problem he seems to have now is a slight tingling in the sole of his feet - but he will gladly take that small tingling any day! I can't help be reminded of Paul's thorn and following that thought, all we can assert from the bottom of our hearts is that His Grace has been sufficient for Appan and for us, this past year.
Amma is also back to her old self - the passing of these twelve months without incident and the latest PET scan results have, in no small way, really helped to lift her spirits.
We had been to Kerala for Christmas and were so glad to see the Appan & Amma of old - almost nothing on their faces now betray what they went through just a few months back. And we came back with a feeling of overwhelming gratitude in our hearts. For everything.
Once again we thank you all for your prayers, then and now. We cannot even begin to mention how much it meant to us - the strength, the hope, the comfort and the courage that you passed on to us through your prayers and words of encouragement.
Thanks be to God & God Bless.
Dinu & Preethi