One year, one week, and one day ago we celebrated my son’s last dose of chemo. On this week’s podcast I share the essay I wrote for that occasion, as well as thoughts from a dad with one full year of no treatment and no relapse under our belt.
Here’s my original essay:
We are done with chemo, and I’m a little bit afraid.
As of today, we are done with all chemo treatment. I can’t believe I’m actually writing this.
On April 14, 2014, our family’s world was turned upside down when we were told our little 5 year old boy had Leukemia. I remember the first night in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, watching the nurse come into our room over and over again, switching out bags of blood and other medicines.
I didn’t know much about leukemia at the time, I’m not even sure I was positive it was cancer before Elijah got it. I knew enough that first night to stay off the internet. There are lots of leukemias, and our boy only had one of them. Until they gave it a specific name, I didn’t want to walk in the horror of all of them.
The next day, as our doctor and a team of staff from St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital filed into our room, I’ll never forget Dr. Saxena’s opening words. “OK, your son has Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, and this is an excellent cancer to have…” Say what?
It turns out that ALL is both an awful and awesome cancer to have. To my knowledge, it’s the fastest killer of any cancer left unchecked. But it’s also the most common childhood cancer. Therefore, it’s the most researched, the most measurable, and has among the highest cure rates. So I guess it is an excellent cancer to have.
But the treatment is brutal.
Three and a half years of chemo. The first ten months, there were so many injections, so many hospital stays, I just can’t count them any more. There was the time when Elijah started going into respiratory distress at the second dose of a chemo called Pegaspargase. There was the time where they did an echocardiogram of his heart before giving him some other kind of chemo, because the it’s known to cause damage to the heart. There was that period where he would get high doses of methotrexate, and then stay in the hospital to get a rescue drug, because, you know, methotrexate can kill you. There have been so many days in the outpatient center with three sweet nurses who had to check on him every fifteen minutes because the potentially catastrophic side effects of whatever they were injecting him with. There was the trip to the podiatrist and the Xray of his heel, which showed this little sliver of cartilage that looked like granola instead of a solid object. Was this caused by chemo? Who knows. There have been fevers of unknown origin, causing us to to stop whatever we are doing and head to the hospital for the next several days. Just last month there was that inexplicable, debilitating headache that lasted for a week and ended up putting us back in the hospital.
There have been at least 2-3 chemo pills (and up to 15) every single day since April 16, 2014. That’s 1,208 days of chemo. I take that back, he did get a 2 week break after Delayed Intensification. And maybe 12 other days where he was so sick they withheld treatment.
I have no idea how many injections of chemo he’s had on top of the pills. 100-200?
Oh yeah, and somewhere over 1,000 prednisone pills.
So it’s not been easy. But honestly, MOST days have been good. And we’ve cherished every one. We’ve learned to cherish the most normal, boring days with all of our kids. Those are actually our favorites.
I want to take this time to leave a couple of thoughts as a follower of Jesus and a parent of someone who’s finishing 3+ years of chemo:
- It sounds worse than it is. All of those stories, all of those numbers, they didn’t happen at once. And we didn’t know the next one was coming. So as long as we lived in the grace of that day, we made it through.
- The presence of Jesus is very real, the grace of God is very real, the comfort of the Holy Spirit is very real. I could give you story after story…
- There’s a lot of joy to be had in pain and sorrow. Really sweet joy. At the same time, the root of bitterness will defile even the good things going on in your life.
- One of the most important lessons of grace I’ve learned is to just give everyone the benefit of the doubt. People aren’t trying to be insensitive. The nurse didn’t wake up this morning planning to mess us up. Most people who say “let me know if I can do anything” really would do something if they could just figure out how. And I am under a tremendous load and am going to fail at a lot of things. Just give people the benefit of the doubt, including myself.
- I ask God to build all of these amazing things into me, my wife, my family, and my church. I don’t get to dictate how He does it. My son got leukemia, AND my Father loves us more than I can fathom.
- Families walking through emotional and psychological illness (especially in a child) don’t get the sympathy and understanding of cancer families. But in many ways, the journey is more exhausting and terrifying. We’ve been in both worlds these last few years. In our case, cancer is a much easier battle. That’s a story for another day though.
- And so now we are done with chemo, and I have to admit, I’m scared. I feel like we know every single child in South Florida who has relapsed. And we’ve grieved with plenty of parents who have buried their children. I’m supposed to be overjoyed that we are done with chemo. But it’s become a bit of a crutch. And now I don’t know what to think. So I suppose I’ll just have to trust God.
- But I know that trusting God doesn’t mean my son won’t relapse. It means that He will never leave us nor forsake us, and His grace will be there.
- So I will pray that day never comes, celebrate today, live in gratitude, and marvel at the little man and family God has forged through this fire.
Thank you Jesus.