It seems that, when doctors have bad news, they usually give you whatever good news they have, first...At least that's what Anthony and I have experienced throughout the course of his illness with pancreatic cancer. So, when the office visit with his oncologist began with good news, I immediately braced myself.
Here’s what happened:
A short time after checking in at the front desk, Anthony was called back and put into a patient room. We waited (and waited and waited) almost an hour before finally seeing the doctor. This was actually the first time, at this office, we’d ever had to wait more than 10 or 15 minutes to see the doctor. Of course, my already primed imagination was running at full speed by the time we entered the building, so after an hour plus of waiting in that tiny exam room, my thoughts were in orbit. I had managed to convince myself that the doctor was saving us for last because the news was bad. I figured she could spit it out right before escaping through her office back door and diving right into her weekend.
When the doctor stepped into the exam room, she promptly sat down with Anthony’s medical chart spread across her lap. She removed a large clip from a stack of test results and began rearranging the order of the pages. Uh-oh...Here we go. I tried to read the expression on her face and all I could think was that she’d make one hell of a poker player. When she finished rearranging and reordering, she looked up and made eye contact. Anthony and I sat there with our hearts in our hands, but she was holding all the cards.
First, the doctor commented upon the unusual fact that Anthony has had a paracenthesis (a procedure to remove excess fluid [ascites] from his abdominal cavity) every week for the last 12+ weeks and that, not once, have any malignant cells been found in the fluid. When pancreatic cancer patients have ascites, it is usually caused by the cancer spreading to the abdominal wall, in which case, malignant cells are present in the fluid. This does not appear to be the case with Anthony because every single time his fluid is sent to the lab, the report comes back negative for cancer cells. We also learned that ascites, if not caused by the cancer, can be a symptom of serious liver disease. Once again, the doctor was a bit perplexed because nothing in Anthony’s blood work or imaging studies suggest liver disease. Those results were normal as well.
I made a conscious effort to breathe deeply as I watched the doctor flip through the next set of pages. My stomach felt like it was doing a few flips of its own.
Next on the agenda was the matter of Anthony’s dizziness and loss of balance that resulted in him falling a couple times. I’ve known several people who have had cancer that eventually spread to the brain. We were about to hear the results of Anthony’s MRI of his brain to rule out this horrifying possibility. I grabbed the seat of my chair and held on as I watched the doctor intently. It seemed like everything was moving in slow motion as her lips formed the crucial word: Nooooooor-------maaaaaaaal. Wait. Did she say normal? She must have said normal because Anthony was smiling and she was smiling and now they were talking really, really fast and I couldn’t understand one word until ribbons of “ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha” filled the room and eventually bumped into the sides of my head and made their way into my ears. Aaah...laughter! Did Anthony just tell Yogi Berra’s story about the doctors x-raying Yogi’s head and finding nothing? That’s Anthony for you...In times of stress, bust out the Yogi-isms.
I took a few more deep breaths. OK, so far, so good. Two more items on the agenda: The tumor marker level and what the tumor looks like on the MRI. These were both biggies and she saved them for last. I didn’t know what to think, so I told myself to empty my brain of all thoughts. Ha! That’s very funny. The day my brain shuts off on command is the day pigs fly. I decided to try focusing, really hard...
She went for the tumor marker first. Just in case some of you have not had experience with this, tumor markers are substances that are found in the body (via blood sample) when cancer is present. There are different tumor markers for different kinds of cancer. So, if the level for a particular marker is high, it can be an indication that a specific cancer is present. When a patient receives treatment, the test is repeated at various intervals, and the results are used to help determine whether or not the treatment is working.
Anthony’s CA19-9 (the tumor marker for pancreatic cancer) was over 250 in early November of 2011. (The normal range for a healthy person is 0-37.) At that time, he was beginning his first round of treatments, consisting of six weeks of concurrent chemo and radiation every day, five days a week. He finished this grueling treatment regimen on December 22, 2011. I had never seen anyone so sick. He said he had no idea a person could feel that sick. I don’t know how many times I wondered if he would even live through it. Too many nights, I laid awake, next to him in bed, just listening to him sleep...going over and over in my mind what to do if he stopped breathing. As we sat across from the doctor, waiting to hear the new number, I didn’t realize I had stopped breathing. I don’t know if the momentary dizziness I experienced was from a lack of oxygen or from the excitement of hearing a few select words...“dropped”...“way”... “down”...then, finally...“120!” Did I hear that correctly? I actually said that out loud...“Did I hear you correctly?” A voice (sounding like it came straight from Heaven, complete with a chorus of angelic “aaaaaahs” in the background) said, “Yes. His level is 120. It dropped way down, by more than half.” I’m surprised the doctor didn’t ask me if I needed my hearing checked....I don’t know how many times I’d asked her to repeat herself during this visit.
Now I was breathing fast. Probably too fast. I couldn’t feel my feet on the floor, and that made me think about my mom and dad. I remembered what great dancers they were...It was like their feet never touched the floor. They were two people, moving as one, gliding across the dance floor with so much grace and beauty that you’d believe anything was possible. That’s when I knew. That’s precisely when I knew that Anthony’s oncologist was saving the best for last.
As the doctor flipped through those pages one last time, to the very end, I turned to face Anthony as she spoke. I wanted to see the look on his face when she told us what the tumor looked like on the MRI. I was waiting for a size comparison, dimensions, changes from the first scan...the one that showed an inoperable tumor in the pancreas and in the blood vessels going up into the liver. I was sure she was going to tell us the tumor was smaller...measurably smaller. I just knew it...But, apparently, I was wrong.
No, the news we received was not what I expected at all. The doctor did not give us any size comparisons or measurable changes in the tumor. She didn’t do that because the tumor could not be measured. Actually, the tumor could not even be seen on the MRI. There was nothing visible to measure.
In answer to your, “WHAT?” .... Yes, you heard (well, read) correctly. The doctors do not see the tumor on the MRI. It shrunk so much that it’s too small to see.
To say this is miraculous is an understatement! Anthony’s response to the treatment was far better than anyone expected. Before he started treatment, the prognosis was “grim, very grim” (the exact words used by his doctors). We’ve been given a gift of time...How much time, no one knows. For us, we are grateful to have this time together, time to pray even harder, time to see and experience this miracle continue to unfold.
So, what’s the plan now? Well, the doctors are still very concerned about the ascites. Each week, Anthony has anywhere from 6 to 8 liters of fluid removed from his abdominal cavity. That’s a lot of fluid all at once. His blood pressure always drops significantly, and it takes a while for it to stabilize, so he gets exhausted and very weak. So, his doctor wants him to have a paracenthesis twice a week, starting this Monday. He’ll go every Monday and Thursday now, and hopefully, it won’t be so taxing on him. Still, the cause of all this fluid remains a mystery, so Anthony is scheduled to see a liver specialist next week to make sure nothing is being overlooked. If the cause of the ascites can be found and treated, there may be a chance Anthony can have surgery to remove the rest of the cancer.
Anthony remains steadfast in his faith and truly believes he will experience a total healing. I have never met anyone like him and his faith inspires me and helps me stay strong. I am so proud to be his wife, to walk beside him in faith, in hope, and in love. We continue to take one step at a time, confident that God will strengthen us for the journey that lies ahead...no matter how arduous or challenging that journey may be.
Please stay with us and continue to pray for a complete and miraculous healing for Anthony. He still has a long way to go before he can be pronounced cancer free; but, he and I believe, with all our hearts, that day is on the horizon. Miracles do happen! In that spirit, we ask that you continue to visualize Anthony healthy and whole as you pray for his miraculous healing.
We thank you...we thank God for you...and we send our love to every single one of you. May God’s peace and blessing be upon you, and may His love fill your hearts with hope every minute of every day.
Praise God for His goodness, His kindness, and His love!