Back in September 2015 they found melanoma in a mole on my forehead. In November Dr. Wilson and team removed a big patch of forehead skin and the downstream lymph node in which they found a “micropresence” of melanoma. In January they removed the rest of the downstream lymph nodes, finding no cancer there.
Last week I met with Dr. Wilson to review my recent CT scan. I now have medical confirmation of the widely held belief that there is nothing interesting in or on my head. That news gave me freedom to return to the Red Cross and donate blood, literally the gift of life, something I have been doing since 1972. Giving double reds means I only have to go through the hassles of screening and getting attached half as often. And I get to lay in a much more comfortable couch to boot! I am somewhere over 100 units donated. Want to come join me?
We discovered that hackers or spammers or someone had been using my website to do their stuff, so Ed Aw, an alum and friend from whom I buy web hosting, redid the whole site to kick them out and put up a lot of extra security. Now I get a weekly report saying that people from China, Russia, and all sorts of places try to access the site, all unsuccessfully I hope. The spammers and some challenges in getting everything reset did freak me out more than a bit which is a big reason for no posts for quite a while.
Travel is a bigger part of my life now. I was in Mexico for a weekend to help out with some controversy about Hebrew Roots and theonomy that threatened to divide their community. A couple of weeks ago I went to Fort Worth to teach church planters associated with Soma Sending. I taught until 10 pm on Thursday and departed at 5 am Friday to teach there all afternoon and hang out in the evening and then flew back after spending the morning with the folk. Quick trips are the order of the day with all I am doing here.
Evangelical Theological Society is next week so I leave Sunday morning for meetings on Monday and the conference Tuesday through Thursday and then fly back Thursday night.
There is some relaxing too: Sherry and I had lupper at Olive Garden this afternoon, just hanging out and enjoying being married.
Nicole’s 16th birthday included a shopping trip to Portland with Hannah and Emily, her two best friends, accompanied by David, Samantha and Joy. Cyndee was also here for the weekend so it was a full house and full of fun. They had to record the beginning of the adventure for posterity. I wonder what will happen if/when Nicole or Joy leaves home for college. It is a big change but with today’s technology one can connect regularly which is very good.
It was just a month ago that I was headed into surgery to remove the rest of the lymph nodes in my neck in order to contain the melanoma that made its micro-presence in the sentinel lymph node under my jaw described in the previous posts. The hematoma under the incision disappeared in just hours leaving me wonder where the blood went. The swelling is mostly gone. I am now able to raise my arm out horizontally and bounce it to full extension. No more narcotics, I am glad to say. I still do a combination of acetaminophen and ibuprofen a couple of times a day to control pain as I go to sleep and in the early morning. I still try to force myself to sleep longer. But I still find sleep pretty boring. Sherry did laugh at me last night when I fell asleep on the couch just after 7:00.
I met Rob Karch at last year’s World Venture Renewal Conference and we quickly established a theological and missional friendship which went into a different dimension when he discovered enlarged lymph nodes in his neck just as I was having my first surgery. He had surgery to remove lymph nodes in his neck the day before my second surgery to do the same thing. We met face to face at this year’s Renewal Conference to connect and pray. His biopsies lead to a diagnosis of “T-Cell/Histiocyte-Rich B-Cell Lymphoma” with a nasty regimen of chemo that will keep him from extending his mission work from Quebec to France. His story is here.
I spoke at Corban University’s chapel, reflecting on Jesus’ command, “do not worry.” I exposited my thesis that He wants us to worry like a bird – don’t worry about if God will make seeds or what climate change means all the trees die, but do seek after (a nice worry word) seeds so you don’t starve and about cats! I ended with a reflection on my melanoma journey, concluding with four points:
- Go to the past looking for lessons, not regrets.
- Go toward the future with a plan built from what you know.
- Satan lives in the “what if’s”. Reject his temptation to live there with him.
- Jesus lives in the present. Look for the glimmers of His grace in dark places.
Sherry Atkins, the other half of the Sherry twins, had hip replacement surgery yesterday. Since she was betrayed by her husband and her children do not live near, she is alone in a very difficult time. My Sherry took her to the hospital, met with the doctor for the post-surgery consultation. She will live with us for the six weeks or so while she can’t drive. What does “do not worry” look like for her?
Â If you look closely at this picture you will see the little mole on the left side of my forehead that had the melanoma in it. Of course it’s gone now as well as all the lymph nodes downstream from it. In Friday’s follow up visit with Dr. Wilson, I reported the pain in my collar bone area and inability to raise my arm straight out from my body, all of which was something he had warned me might happen. I’ll be doing some physical therapy to help with this and be sure the shoulder does not freeze. The new thing is the hematoma alongside the incision. It’s quite a lump. Hopefully it will be absorbed. If not he’ll do some procedure to drain it. There will likely be a follow up with Dr. Da Graca but there’s no indicated actions other than watch for moles or lumps.
I have been doing a lot of extra sleeping and resting to invest in healing. Other things like classes at Western, two workshops at Missions Connexion and two Perspectives classes in Spokane Monday and Tuesday nights continue to make life fun.
Sherry’s healing continues alongside mine. Today is her first day for her sprained ankle delayed cardiac rehab. She reports that they are very nice people and aren’t pushing her . . . yet!
This Sunday I will preach at Grace on Generous with our Time from Psalm 90. Lots to ponder since melanoma gave new reality to “ponder your mortality.” In doing research, I found Joey and Rory, first rank country singers. She is dying of cervical cancer, which Rory blogs about in his January 15 entry at “This Life I Live.” They did their song “When I Am Gone” back in 2012 before any illness. Click on the link. Read the blog post. It is super powerful.
I started my Monday with a two hour class (so fun!) and then went home to take a two hour nap. Fair play wins. Then I went to see Dr. El Rassi to the dratted drain out. I asked him if his name was Lebanese. It was and he was amazed that I knew. We had good talk about Lebanon memories while he was checking me out. The biggest concern is that I can hardlyÂ lift my left armÂ at all. It is super painful. Dr. Wilson had told me the nerve might get tweaked but there was no post-surgical sign of that on Thursday or Friday. It started Friday evening and has stabilized. He agreed that it might be a combination of surgery and the anatomical change from my badly broken collar bone way back in 1987 which they did surgery on to see if fusion might help my moving clavicle in 1988. He thinks it will go away in a couple of months.
As we did all that, he took out the drain — it feels weird and painful when he pulled that long tube out of my neck, but absolutely wonderful to have it gone! After some follow up conversation on a physical therapy consult, he sent me on my way.
As I was pulling onto I-205, my phone rang. There is no caller id when it comes through the system in my van so I answered wondering who might be might be calling. Â “This is Dr. El Rassi.Â I want to tell you that your pathology report arrived and it’s all clear.”
Needless to say, it made my day!Â Now I can say what I expected to say, “There is no known cancer in my body.”
I celebrated by going home and taking a nap and then teaching my evening class to a great group of students. So fun!
I will see Dr. Wilson, the surgeon, on Friday and ask specifically what to watch for. Dr. Martin, the dermatologist, will get to be intimately acquainted every square millimeter of my skin!
Yesterday’s surgery to remove the other lymph nodes in the left side of my neck went very well. Dr. Wilson told Sherry that they all looked fine. That means there’s probably no active cancer but does not rule out the presence of some cells as there was on the sentinel node which was removed back in November. He kept me overnight as a precaution (I like cautious doctors!). Surprisingly I slept well in the hospital. They only woke me once to do vitals and it was time for a potty trip anyway. After a very good breakfast, I was discharged at 9:00 this morning. Home is a good place to be! I’ve been laying low today with a long afternoon nap as the biggest event of the day. Pain is minimal but I have major meds if it kicks up. No hero spirit in me. No responsibilities for the weekend by design. Then classes start Monday with getting the drain out of my neck as the most anticipated event of that day!
I am praying for a clean pathology report in my Friday post-op with Dr. Wilson. Then I will be able to say, “there is no know cancer in my body.” Regular observation will follow of course.
Sherry and I deeply appreciate the huge number of people who are praying and supporting in many ways/.
The mole on the side of my forehead had been there a long time. Back in August, I had Dr. Ben take a look. He sent me to Dr. Martin who removed it in a quick office visit at the end of September, just before Sherry’s aortic valve replacement surgery on October 9. Of course she sent it to pathology and they found melanoma. It was just a hair thicker than they liked so she sent me to Dr. Wilson, an ENT physician for surgery to remove more tissue around the spot where the mole was and to take out a lymph node and the parotid gland (no, I don’t know what that’s good for) on November 11. I went back to see him after 10 days and the preliminary pathology report was clear. Though he was a bit frustrated that the final was not in yet, he was not concerned. “I’ll give you a call if anything shows up.” The call came about 10 days later: there is a “micro-presence” which is to say they found a microscopic focus of tumor on the capsule of the node. But with melanoma, zero is the only right answer. So I will have another surgery on January 7 to remove the other lymph nodes in my neck. This is preventive, for local control of the cancer.
Dr. Da Graca, my oncologist comes highly recommended from friends who are oncology nurses, so I have a lot of confidence in him. Because it moved from the original location, I have stage 3 melanoma. But it is low risk since there was no enlargement of the lymph node and only a focused cluster of cells.
For researchers who want to help out: The possibilities are participation in a clinical trial, observation or interferon. Ipilimumab was recently approved clinical trial for high risk stage 3 melanoma. He notes that both interferon and ipilimumab are relatively difficult to tolerate and don’t help with survivability. He did recommend checking on pembrolizumab, the “Jimmy Carter” drug. It is a very new medication which is a good option. The “problem” is mine is not “high risk” so I wouldn’t qualify for a clinical trial. There will be another assessment after the January 7 surgery.
Last week I had five classes. In all of them there was focused prayer for healing which I deeply appreciate. In one, Evan Wickham had a prophetic picture of one of the lymph nodes sucking up all the cancer cells just before the January 7 removal. I found myself speaking strong rejection of cancer in the name of Jesus.
At this point I am completely symptom free so life goes on pretty normally.
The hard part has been telling people who love me and seeing the shock. All my responsibility and helper stuff kicks in, of course. The hardest is Sherry who is recovering from her heart surgery nicely. She’s a trooper and super supportive as we journey through this place with the prayers of friends all over the world.