With the fourth anniversary of his cancer diagnosis just passed, Frank and I were talking about the chronology of things that happened. I found myself wanting to write about how we felt along the way. We decided now might be a good time to share about the experience. Our working title for the tale is “There’s no “I” in Cancer.”
On June 15 2012, four days before his birthday, Frank had a fainting spell. I was in New Jersey for work. Our son Andrew urged him to go to the hospital. Frank called me to say he was going to the ER, but not to worry. I jumped in the car and raced home. The initial finding was loss of blood. In fact Frank had lost almost half of his blood. (Tip: Dark stools mean upper gastrointestinal bleeding. When your spouse asks you to look at a dark BM, do it).
Tests, specialists. I arrived. We thought he was leaking somewhere, he’d get it stitched up and that would be it. Instead, the final diagnosis: a gastrointestinal tumor (GIST) which had metastasized to his liver. The doctor expressed Frank’s life expectancy as a range. I heard “three years” and my heart stopped. Later Frank told me the range was three to nine years, but when, you’re thinking in terms of a weekend of inconvenience and then someone delivers a death sentence, it’s way beyond a punch in the gut. For Frank it was different. You see, our story has two threads.
The doctor seemed surprised by our shock. “But that’s a good prognosis for this type of cancer!” We were not reassured. The doctor hurried out. I started crying. “I don’t want to lose you.” I’d only seen Frank cry twice before in our 35 years of marriage. He shed tears because I was crying. “I don’t like to think of you being alone” he said.
Frank recalls his first reaction as, “I guess I better get things in order.” He adds, “My constitution is, when somebody tells me something is final, I don’t believe them. I see it as a challenge. I trust God with the number of my days, and so I’m not afraid of dying.”
God sends a black angel
A male nurse who had been with the doctor when we got the prognosis, came back into the room to say Frank needed to go for another test, and that an orderly would take him in a wheelchair. I mention he’s male because you need to visualize Madu: dark, intense, tall (well, everyone looks tall to me). He just stood there looking at me. I asked him if he was a believer. “Yes” he said “and I will pray for you right now if you wish.” I don’t remember a word of that prayer but I’ll never forget the way it made me feel. Jesus wrapped God-arms around me with those words. My fear subsided. Comfort filled every nook of my being. After he finished praying, Madu told me that he had been pastor of a mega church in Nigeria. He brought his family to the U.S. so that he could complete training as a physical therapist. Madu checked in on Frank the next day, even though he had been assigned to another part of the hospital. “My wife and I stayed up all night praying for you” he told us, adding, “The one definite word from the LORD I heard was this: ‘Remain faithful.’”
All the physicians we consulted said Frank would be on a daily medication for the rest of his life and that the drug of choice was Gleevec, which Frank started immediately.
GIST tumors are actually a connective tissue cancer and relatively rare, so we kept asking who are the experts in treating this type of cancer. Eventually we were led to an oncological surgeon on staff at Johns Hopkins, just one hour south of us, in Baltimore. Charm City. Dr. Hirose told us he would remove the tumor attached to the lining of Frank’s stomach and carve out each individual tumor he could locate on Frank’s liver. Surgery was scheduled on an early morning in late November 2013, right before Thanksgiving.
Our sons Andrew and Dan came to the hospital to wait with me, along with friends and colleagues from The Salvation Army, York. Our daughter-in-law Annie and our five month old grandbaby Olivia Michele also came to lend support but the baby was too young to be in the hospital so they visited friends. Dan, Andrew and I prayed for the surgical team. Then they prayed for us.
Surgery lasted for hours. We played games, talked. Finally we went to lunch nearby. On the walk back my cell phone rang. I sprinted up to meet Dr. Hirose. He looked exhausted and happy. “We got it all” he said. He let me share the great news with Frank, who was just coming out of the anesthesia. “Cancer free” he kept mumbling. “Cancer free…”.
Our associations with Charm City had been Orioles ball games and visits to Little Italy or the harbor. We now have affection for Johns Hopkins and the weary East Baltimore neighborhood the hospital occupies. Many times we’ve traversed Hopkins’ glass-enclosed bridge above Orleans Street, cheery even on dreary days, patterned with pastel blue swooshes, as if it was raining or snowing in Wonderland. The hospital had just undergone a $1 billion makeover. Water gardens, original art, rooms that hinted at hotel concierge hospitality.
Frank and I walked the halls night and day, a rigorous therapy he imposed on himself. Even in his pain-meds. fog, he was unfailingly appreciative and encouraging to every staff member he met, whether they were grouchy or sweet, it didn’t matter. Everyone has burdens, right? They were drawn to him, they loved him. Often it seemed that he was the healer, and they were the patients. They were amused when I would sing to him as we walked. Usually something sappy, a Carpenters tune, say. One evening I asked what song he’d like to sing. After a pause, he launched into, “Hello mudduh, hello fodduh….” .
God sends more angels (some Gentilish, some Jewish)
For the surgery, a dear encourager of a friend, Nancy, treated our whole family to a stay at her waterfront condo. For subsequent overnight treatments, one thing I dreaded was driving the two-hour commutes solo. I never had to, though, because I’ve stayed with our longtime friends Melissa and Roger. She’s a dentist, he’s a surgeon. She’s an ace cook and he never lets me treat when we dine out. I’ve gotten chubbier in their care.
Another good friend, Eddie, made frequent visits as his work schedule allowed. He had a pastoral background and was a good listener. Eddie took Frank to check ups when I had to work, which eased my mind. He played Fall baseball with Frank in an “over 38” league. Amazingly, Frank continued to play during the Falls of 2013 and 2014.
They’re all praying friends, just a few among the host of praying friends. Maybe you, reading this, have been one of our praying friends. You’re an angel, too.
Life took on a different rhythm. More deliberate. We appreciate each day, each moment.
It likes to come back
Our honeymoon from cancer ended in October 2014. At some point the Gleevec had stopped working. Cancer returned to Frank’s liver with a vengeance. Dr. Hirose looked as heart-broken as we felt. “It likes to come back” he said of GIST, and was clearly surprised the Gleevec had not worked longer. His specialty, surgery, was no longer a viable option. Frank began taking a medicine called Sutent and we conferred with Dr. Tamrazi, an expert in treating GIST with chemotherapy or radiation. Apparently the Sutent wasn’t working either. The liver lesions were multiplying and growing large. Dr. Tamrazi took an aggressive approach. Between January and April 2015 Frank was hospitalized three times for chemoembolization, a procedure (under general anesthesia) in which chemo was delivered to each liver lesion.
Ordinarily, Frank’s a tree trunk-strong guy. I’ve never seen him so sick, or so weakened. He was losing weight, couldn’t taste food. My “fatten up Frank” strategy-fresh included fruit smoothies, homemade trail mix, fresh seafood, more fresh vegetables and fruit, and generally a less acidic, more alkaline diet.
Big Frank, little Michele. Frank is 6 foot four, I’m five foot-one. Frank has always been a rock, and he said the same of me. Inwardly, I was on an emotional roller coaster, a ride that never stops. Frank’s faith remained strong even during his weakened state. But he started talking about the need to discuss Things. Things I didn’t want to talk about. Life after Frank? That’s something I could not imagine. There would be a Frank-sized hole in my heart. How could that possibly work?*
In April we took a land/sea tour of Greece. Frank toured like an iron man! He got sick and missed one tour day. The ship doctor—his name is Igor, I kid you not—insisted that oral antibiotics were too slow. He lived up to his moniker by injecting meds straight into Frank’s butt.
After our trip, Dr. Tamrazi bragged to the rest of the treatment team, “This guy just toured Greece!”
The chemoembolization had killed some of the cancerous lesions, but others were growing. Frank had lost over 40 pounds. In July of 2015, half of Frank’s liver underwent radioembolization, which is essentially radiation delivered to each visible lesion. It’s considered a more aggressive treatment, but Frank found it easier on his body than chemo. Sutent was replaced by Stivarga, a third-string drug of last resort.
Frank prayed, point-blank: “What are you going to do now, God?” He got an immediate reply: “Enjoy the ride.” Neither of us understood what that meant at the time, but we found it strangely comforting.
In October of 2015 we finally got some good news. The cancerous lesions were shrinking and dying, and there were no new lesions.
Laughter, a saving grace
Meanwhile, Dr. Tamrazi had become a friend and we were saddened when he left, taking a position on the west coast. He gave us his phone number and we promised to keep in touch. Frank was feeling good for the first time in a long time. So we were both surprised in December, 2015 when the new doctor said that he needed another chemoembolization. That night I dictated a hasty email to Dr. Tamrazi for clarification and cc:ed Frank. Frank looked puzzled as he read the email and asked, “Did you mean to call Dr. Tamrazi, Doctor Tantalizing?”
Fortunately Dr. Tamrazi responded promptly and graciously made no mention of his accidental rename. He agreed the report was a good one, yet recommended that Frank get the treatment anyway, “it couldn’t hurt.”
Eddie continued to visit. In fact he spent much of his free time volunteering with me at work and at The Salvation Army congregation where we all worshipped. Eddie loved to sing. On Sunday mornings, his smooth, strong tenor led the charge. Such a cheerful guy. His enthusiasm for the LORD was contagious. So we were surprised when, one wintry January day, he didn’t show up for church. Nor did he show up for his granddaughter’s birthday party.
Later that evening, a mutual friend went to his home. He couldn’t get into the house so he called the police. They found Eddie’s body inside.
Though Eddie died of natural causes, losing a friend, especially one who is younger and seemingly healthier than you, is a shock. For me, Eddie’s death felt like grand theft of the spirit. Hard, joy-suffocating grief. For Frank, the shock passed more quickly, especially as he thought about his good friend’s joy in being with Jesus. “Eddie beat me to heaven” Frank said.
In early 2016, Frank’s liver was treated with another round of chemoembolization. In April, we toured Italy. Mama Mia, neither of us is losing weight now!
These days, Frank has some annoying medicine side effects: aches, dry skin. Many days, he feels 100%. At his most recent check-up (May 2016), Frank’s doctor told him: “There is no new cancer, and the treated cancer is all either dead or dying.” He goes back in August—this month– and if all is still well, he can wait six months between checkups.
We just had a fun family visit, including our two granddaughters, Olivia now 3, and Mary, who soon turns one. Mary’s a big gal: 21 pounds, size 5 diaper. We witnessed Mary learn how to crawl. We got to see Olivia successfully use the potty and wear her “big girls” the entire visit. When we babysat, we experienced Mary sleeping through the night for the first time. (There’s something to be said for exhaustion.) The girls loved swimming, playing t-ball, reading books, careening through the playground at the Revolution Baseball stadium, running (crawling) everywhere. Heck, we even visited the milking cows at Perrydell. “Look! That cow poopied right on the floor! That man’s hosing it off!” We miss them now that they’ve gone. We were tired, and I did wind up wearing a wrist brace from bench pressing Mary, but Frank and I look at each other knowingly and I must say: We still got it.
As Frank observes, everyone’s experience is different. If you’re concerned about someone with cancer, feel free to show your concern to the person. Offer to pray if you like, and educate yourself by asking questions about the type of cancer. Support feels good. Gossip, not so good. What to say? Try, “I care about you.” Or, “If you feel like talking, I’ll listen.” Rather than, “I hear….” Or, “you look bad.” The one thing Frank doesn’t dwell on, is the outcome. “Cancer’s certainly nothing to be afraid of” he says. “Whether a person has a headache, or cancer, it doesn’t help to dwell on it. I just live my life.”
It’s been quite a journey. We’re so grateful for Frank’s good health. Thank you for reading along. And if you are on a similar journey, remember two things:
- Until it’s time to take you, God will keep you, because God is faithful!* (Psalm 103:11,17)
- Never dictate an email without proofing, it’s bound to be embarrassing.