Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The retreat that began October 16, 2015, can end now

In January 2016, my Blog entry was about that retreat. The retreat had started as usual, but after a few days, I began to experience abdominal pain. I ended up driving home early from Guelph to check it out in Kingston. I thought it was appendicitis. But after 8 hours in Emergency at KGH, the doctors had done a CT and found a mass. I was quickly referred to hematology oncology, and started treatment after the diagnosis of lymphoma was confirmed.

There began the most incredible spiritual journey. The amazing thing was that the beginning of the retreat, prior to the pain or the trip home, etc, turns out to have been the beginning of my spiritual journey with cancer, and the opening of a retreat that did not end with my leaving the property. Here is a paragraph from the January Blog that describes what took place when Fr. Govan gave me a book to read by Clarence Enzler, titled “Let Us Be What We Are.”

Enzler had a devotion to St. Therese, and also faced cancer surgery. Following the spirit of abandonment that St. Therese wrote about so eloquently, Enzler decided to approach the surgery by uniting himself to the Passion of Jesus. Like St. Therese he let himself experience his “smallness” so as to be completely filled by God’s will for him.

Now why would I write that? Well, I was going to be having minor surgery for a basal cell skin cancer, and I had been talking about my devotion to St. Therese, in particular about her ‘Little Way’ and her uniting herself to God’s will.

The book set the tone for my treatment experience, and I do not mean basal cell treatment. From the beginning, after absorbing the news that I had lymphoma, I was given the grace, as was Peggy, to treat this as our reality. I learned to stay in the present with God’s graces, and to trust that nothing happens outside his Will (which is not the same as saying that He causes bad things like this to happen. Only that it would not be permitted to happen if He willed otherwise). The gift of peace came with that, along with the realization that slipping out of the present into the future (the land of what-if, and of terrible possibilities) brought terror with it.

Through the six rounds of Epoch and the subsequent three rounds of high-dose methotrexate, the physical toll got bigger as the doses increased and the effects accumulated. Worries about the chemo pump alarming over air in the line or ‘occlusion’ in the line became the attention-getters. Two trips back to hospital with fever spikes provided additional drama, especially when of those trips led to a two day admission. But I was spared the terrible experience of getting sick, as sometimes happens, and mostly had to deal with losing my hair, with fatigue, and with vigilance about catching infections. I was very graced in that regard. I understand it can be really awful. I am so grateful for the development of the science in the chemo itself and in the supplementary meds that counteract side effects. I am so grateful for the skilled hands of doctors and nurses in our Regional Cancer Centre.

And I never once Googled anything about my condition. I left that to others, because I know from experience that the results you get are varied, and you could develop panic attacks thinking about the worst case scenarios, even if they have low probabilities attached to them. That’s just me.

Anyway, throughout the seven months, I also made the decision to keep the parish informed. My motivation was to prevent rumors, and to dispel the ‘elephant-in-the-room’ phenomenon in which no-one talks about the thing that is on everybody’s mind! Well, the dividends from this decision were unexpected and wonderful! People talked about their own journeys with cancer. I heard some incredible survival stories that buoyed my own ability to remain hopeful. Most of all, though, were the prayers and the promises of ongoing prayers. We talk about being a community of love in a parish like this. No experience has ever driven this home or made it more real than have these interactions.

And all the while, my role, I came to realize was to witness to the goodness of God, and to show people what it looks like when someone trusts the will of God for them, and is at peace. I heard over and over that this was being noticed. People would comment that such an attitude would bode well for my own healing process. But I think an even more important outcome was that people were shown, perhaps, how to do it, and to be encouraged to trust in the same way - for cancer or any other body blows that life might deliver. I am grateful for the grace that was given to me to do this right from the beginning.

And so it all came down to the ending of the nine rounds of big treatment. Two CT scans had shown shrinking of the mass, and no involvement of other organs (we won’t mention the compression fracture in my back! Hopefully on the mend). The second of those scans showed an ambiguous bit of tissue that might be scar tissue or cancer still present.

My wonderful doctor had warned me that this might very well happen. And so, as we had discussed, she sent me to Ottawa for a PET scan - kind of like a CT but able to confirm cancer sites. If it was cancer, we would be in for a course of radiation. If not, we go straight to maintenance chemo (2 hours every three months, for two years).

On July 22, 2016, we went for the results appointment. Fully prepared to receive a date with radiation. Our doctor walked in and said: “All good. You are in total remission. Perfect health, my friend.”

What? The world stood still for a moment. What? Peggy jumped up and hugged her. Me, I’m crying. Well, sobbing if you must know. Lol. Then I hugged the doctor. Plans were made for the first round of maintenance which I have now had.

I was preaching on the weekend that immediately followed. Scripture on prayer. Homily on prayer. And mercy. And trust. I saved the big announcement for the end of Mass, though. Cheering and sustained applause.

I told the parish that this was the result of the power of prayer, I have no doubt about that. And since their prayers have been steadfast for the past now 8 months, I offer this outcome to them as a gift from God. Let it be said that our God is awesome. Let it be said that God mostly wants us to trust him, and to let him show his miracles in whatever way he chooses. For me, the first miracle was the peace I received right after the diagnosis. And then the deepening trust in his Will for me. I would have still been there if the PET scan had said cancer.

And so the retreat that began October 16, 2015 can now end. July 22, 2016. It has changed me. Praise God. God is awesome. God loves us. God loves you. Never ever give up on that thought.

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