Thursday, June 30, 2011

June 24, 2011 (Part II): Dealing with Leukemia

I'm pretty sure I let my wife know that I probably had leukemia with a text.

Thinking about it now, that was probably pretty stupid.

It worked out okay, though, because all she was worried about was how I was handling it. All I was worried about was how she was handling it.

She didn't even cancel her shopping trip, though Janelle, my 15-year-old daughter, ran into the bathroom at the gas station to sob.

Ouch.

God began to speak immediately. I became absolutely confident that I wasn't supposed to die and that I was supposed to have leukemia.

Suddenly, what should have been very horrible became very exciting.

What was I going to do? Who was I going to get to talk to?

Our church has recently experienced a bit of a cleansing. We're excited, we're focused, and we're looking for ways to preach the Gospel.

I love kids, especially teenagers. I hang out with them at night, watch movies, talk about God, and listen to their stories. I play soccer with them (thus helping them to feel fast, agile, and strong as they run around me with abandon), bowl with them (now there I usually win), and take them on trips.

So I've been thinking about ways to help them reach out to the community.

When I was a young Christian, an evangelist took me out street witnessing, and I kept up the habit for several years (with very limited success). So I thought about taking the kids out to witness on the streets, but that didn't seem very appropriate for a small town like Selmer.

I thought about getting a table at the local flea market and putting out tracts and some of our village's music CD's. That seemed like something I could take kids along for.

But now, what a great opportunity. I have leukemia! I'm going to visit hospitals, talk to patients in waiting rooms, and display the faith and joy of Christ to doctors and nurses.

I don't know how to bring the kids into that, though I'm going to give it a whirl, but what a wonderful opportunity for the Gospel!

Even more, I'm a writer. I wrote In the Beginning Was the Logos recently. It's a 400-page book on the Council of Nicea.

I wrote In the Beginning Was the Logos to create an audience for the things I really want to write about: the Gospel as the apostles preached it and the church as the apostles raised it up.

I hoped that In the Beginning would effectively create an audience because making history understandable and exciting is a skill of mine. Further, the Council of Nicea, the subject of my book, is a controversial subject, thoroughly misrepresented (slandered?) in The Da Vinci Code and mentioned in blogs, Yahoo! Answers, and internet forums repeatedly every day.

I know the history of the Council of Nicea, I know its sources, and I know how to tell the history believably and to make the sources understandable and interesting to the average person.

With an audience won over by In the Beginning, I hoped to have an audience for the much more controversial things I have to say about the church as the apostles started it. (If you're all fired up for Jesus and for the Gospel, then you won't find it very controversial. If you're a fake, which is not the same as a weak person, then you'll find it both controversial and offensive. Good, quit pretending.)

That was my best shot at creating an audience. Prove I'm a skilled historian and interesting storyteller, then with some trust built, go further.

Not a bad plan, but now God's got a better one!

I don't know if you've had some dread disease, but dropping the name of a disease like leukemia is a real conversation stopper. Say you've been diagnosed with leukemia, and everyone is silent, completely ready to give you the next word.

And if your next word is that you're thrilled to death about it, can't you imagine that most people are going to wonder and even ask why?

Caveat: I don't think Americans need Jesus shoved down their throats. For the most part, American Christians are Christians in name only. They are powerless, and they aren't any different from the world. Too many of the ones who are not nominal are rude, uncaring, big mouths who push Jesus like they're used car salesmen and he's a 10-year old Cadillac.

I'm not talking about snapping up the opportunity to give one more useless, pushy sales pitch to ask Jesus into their hearts.

I'm talking about the opportunity to testify of the wonderful grace of God that has caused both me and my family to be filled with joy and excitement at the new adventure we're on. I'm talking about being an example of really trusting God and letting God prove that he's trustworthy.

The kingdom of God is about power, not words (1 Cor. 4:20). When we start demonstrating the power and Spirit of God, then the Gospel will really be turned loose, and people will be begging us, "How can I, too, be saved?"

One final statement. There's a lot of other people who have been a lot more faithful, a lot kinder, less short-tempered, and a better example of the wonderful grace of God than I have been. There's a lot, and I work hard to follow in their footsteps and learn from them.

I'm not talking about those people when I complain about the judgmental, rude ones.

Nor am I condemning the nominal. They're abundant because we have a really crummy understanding of what the church is. The devil's been using Christian clubs to keep Christians apart for centuries, and we're doing nothing about it because we think they're churches.

We can do better than that, and Christians who abandon or ignore those clubs can enter into a fellowship, power, and grace beyond what most of them have imagined.

The early Christians used to talk about it because they had it.

Tragedies do not cause problems in our brotherhood, and the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you, create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives. (Tertullian. Apology. Chapter 39. c. A.D. 210.)

These older posts are catching up. It's June 30, as I write this. I actually wrote a post on June 25 for my Rest of the Old, Old Story blog. It's one of the pages on this site, along with the "About Me" page. As of today, you can access it with a tab at the top of the screen. I'm hoping my daughter will redecorate this site at some point, but we will make sure there is always access to the pages as well as that original leukemia post.

It's one of the best things I've ever written, I think.

June 24, 2011: Oh, Yeah. It's Bad.

I was anxious for the stress test at the doctor's office. I really wanted to know what was wrong, so I was looking forward to the office visit.

They brought me in, checked my blood pressure, temperature, and weight, then sat me down in a room. The doc came in, sat down, and told me, "I canceled your stress test."

I have to admit, that was irritating. Why was he wasting my time? I really wanted to find out what was wrong with me so I could get on with getting in shape.

Then he said, "I don't need a stress test. I looked at your blood. I'm pretty sure you have leukemia."

Wow. I wasn't even sure what that meant except that I'd had some interaction with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society because of running. Lots of marathoners raise money for them when they run.

I did remember that survival rates were improving rapidly, but that they were still pretty terrible.

I don't know what's supposed to run through your mind at such a time, but I guess 29 years of trying to keep my internal ears focused on God's voice produced some results. There was nothing but peace inside, so I didn't bother with anything but peace outside, either.

The doctor was apologizing. He couldn't be certain because he's not a pathologist, but the diagnosis was probable enough that he felt he had to be straightforward with me.

He explained that my red blood cell count was low, as were my platelets. My white blood cell count was high. But more importantly, he looked at a blood smear in a microscope, and he could see that all my lymphocytes were enlarged and abnormal. Further, he couldn't see any neutrophils, which he could normally see between the blood cells.

On June 25, I didn't know what lymphocytes or neutrophils were. It was easy to figure out that "enlarged" and "abnormal" were not good. It also seemed obvious enough that "no neutrophils" wasn't good, either.

He told me he'd get me to a cancer center nearby that he trusted.

He also told me that it would be expensive. I had no health insurance.

I tried to be comforting to him and to explain that I believe God is in control of my life, so the news wasn't really shocking or even frightening.

Later, though, I realized that I'm not really that faithful of a Christian. I've diligently pursued following Christ for almost three decades, but the fact is that I'm prone to worrying. Having strong faith is not my forte. I'm a lousy charismatic, though I'd love to be good at believing God. It was Jesus, not a charismatic preacher, who said, "Whatever you make a request for in prayer, have faith that it has been given to you, and you will have it" (Mark 11:24, Bible in Basic English).

But I'm not good at that.

Not normally.

On June 24, 2011, though, believing was no problem.

This is the grace of God.

June 21, 2011: Maybe It's Not So Bad

My doctor had never seen bumps like the ones on my back. They seemed like cysts to him, and he was guessing that the blue/purple color was due to the growth and stretching of the skin.

He said he'd arrange for a local surgeon to remove them on an outpatient basis.

Then he went to work on the fatigue problem. He assured me that what I was describing was really a problem, and that it was not just age slowing me down. As I suggested possible reasons, he reminded me that it was his job to find the problem, not mine, and he assured me he would.

He scheduled a stress test for Friday, took some blood, and sent me home.

June 20, 2011: There's Really a Problem

I couldn't do it anymore.

I grabbed the rails, lifted my feet off the treadmill and set them down on its sides. I turned the treadmill off, stepped down, and immediately took my pulse.

120 beats per minute.

That's not high. I wasn't sure why I couldn't keep going. I'd run less than half a mile. Five minutes with the treadmill set at 4.3 MPH, barely above walking speed, and one minute at 4.8 MPH.

I was breathing somewhat hard, but not hard enough to account for the burning in my lungs, the tingling in my forearms and hands, and the aching in my lower legs.

I had an appointment with the doctor the following day. My wife had been begging me to get the two purple bumps on my back checked out, and I'd been writing them off as a self-diagnosed lichen planus, an auto-immune problem that usually clears itself up in a year.

For a month or more, however, I'd been wondering if there was a problem. I love to exercise, and I was trying to get back into decent jogging shape. I'd even made a commitment to run a 10K (6.2 miles) by July with my secretary. But not only was I progressing; I was slowing down in both speed and endurance.

In 2006 I'd gotten in good enough shape to run a 24:45 5K (just under 8 minutes per mile for 3 miles), and I'd run and walked a 50K (31 miles) in 7 1/2 hours with a couple younger friends (who were so healthy and strong that they didn't train for the race). But then I'd let myself go, and it was getting to where a 9-minute mile, just one, was an all out race.

In 2010 I began repairing the problem. I lost ten pounds, and I began running again. We made a trip to California, and while I was there I ran a mile and a half uphill, some of it steeply uphill, with my small laptop backpack on my shoulders. It made my thighs burn at the end, but it was fun.

Early this year sometime, I'd gone on a 2-mile run with my secretary, which wasn't too difficult, but progress seemed slow. I ran almost 2 1/2 miles a month or so later, but it was a feat I couldn't repeat afterwards.

The problem didn't get real bad until this month. On June 11, I attended a Christian writers meeting, and afterwards I walked three miles to meet my wife at a Starbucks. I had my laptop backpack, with several books in it, and it was 90 degrees outside.

The walk was no problem, but I couldn't jog more than a hundred yards, and even then it was very slow.

That day, I became convinced something was wrong.

The following week, when a friend saw the bumps on my back, one of them now an inch and a half long and an inch wide, he ordered me to see a doctor. Worried now that I had something more than a couple ugly bumps on my skin, I made an appointment with my family doctor for Tuesday, June 22.

On June 21, I decided to verify there was really a problem and see how far I could run on the treadmill. As noted above, I didn't quite make it a half mile. Something was definitely wrong.

My wife and I took turns guessing, and we even looked up "purple bumps on the skin" on the internet, but nothing looked like what I had except a case of an Indian man who had "cutaneous b-cell lymphoma." Doctors cured his bumps with radiation, but he died suddenly in his sleep three weeks later. No explanation was given on the web page.

We quit researching, and we decided to wait and see what the doctor said.