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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Playing the Numbers Game

I wrote this about a year ago. It is about going through the treatment decisions of Andrea's cancer and what I learned.

Cancer will drive you to face your life with an eternal view. I don’t just mean about life and death, although that of course happens. With cancer you are faced something that is so far beyond your own ability, and when it progresses to later stages even beyond the ability of your doctor. It brings a completely new reality to the journey when you are told there is no cure. Early stages of cancer are intimidating not because you have cancer, but because you fear the progression of the disease. No one dies of stage I cancer. You fear stage II, then stage III because they are one step closer to stage IV. When we were told Andrea had cancer in Sept 03, there was a growth in our faith and we relinquished some control in our lives to God as we asked Him to help us. But we still had areas of our life were we kept control. The medicine and science still offered us hope and thus we afforded it some of our faith. As we have progressed down this journey we have been force to move more and more of our faith and hope from ourselves, from modern medicine, to our creator, until now we see our only hope is God. When I look back I wonder why did I wait until all my human options failed until I trusted God? Why had I released portions of my faith to God only when I realised through failures that my faith was misplaced. You see as medicine failed us, as the trial vaccine proved inadequate, as everything proved inadequate for Andrea’s cancer we ended up in that small percentage of patients with stage IV breast cancer.

Really what are the odds we would end up here? When I remember the day Andrea drove to my office in Alaska and told me she found a lump but not to worry these almost always turn out to be nothing and the doctor said “you have a 90% chance this is not cancer.”

But it was cancer.

Luckily we found it early and we had “a 90% survival rate, unless it spread to her nodes. And the doctor said “don’t worry the tumor was so small the odds it spread to her nodes are very low.”

But it was in her nodes.

Then we found out the type of cancer, and the doctor said, “don’t worry only 30% of cancers are really aggressive.”

But Andrea’s was.

Then we finished treatment and the doctor said, “If it comes back, we will just try to make sure what time you have left has a good quality of life.” I won’t forget that day, and the feeling we had, like we had both been punched in the stomach. All of a sudden I was being told medicine and doctors had a limit, there could come a time when cancer exceeded our doctors abilities. It was not just that I was being told about facing death, but that I was being told what I had placed a part of my faith in was fallible. I found out I put some of my faith into something that could only provide us with the “best chance.” I felt let down. I felt abandoned. I felt tricked in a way.

Medicine could only tell us that the “odds were…” it could not tell us anything for certain. There was no guarantee. Sorry but we were part of the 10% group that turned out had cancer, and the 30% of those 10% who had the aggressive cancer, and the 30% of those 10% whose cancer spread to the nodes, and the small percentage of those whose cancer reaches stage IV. The question is, are we one of the ___ % live from stage IV breast cancer. I don’t know the percentage here because doctors stop telling you percentages when the percentages get this low.

All along the path to stage IV I know there are people who “made it.” Those who were told you are one of the “lucky ones.” Who sit across from a doctor and are told, “There is no sign of disease.” Do I envy them? Yes in a way. Here is an unfiltered statement, every time I hear someone made it I think there goes one more percentage against us. It is has if there are only so many tickets for this ride of life and for every survivor I think that is one less seat available for us. What feeds such a thought? I think in part it was my own mind. When I placed my faith in medicine I was placing my hopes on the odds, because that is what the doctors tell you…the odds. Cancer takes you into the world of percentages and odds so fast, before you know it feels like a gambling addiction. You just want to hear you have good odds; you want to believe you are one of the winners. I was pulling for Andrea to be a winner as if I was pulling for my favorite team in the playoffs. But what goes along with that mindset is the feeling of defeat and inadequacy when you lose. It is a form of embarrassment really when you find out you are on the losing side of the odds. When Andrea has to start a new chemo after a regression, there is a part of me that is embarrassed. Are people looking at us as failures? I think someone is looking at us with some pity but also with some relief it’s us and not them. Are the nurses looking at us and thinking Andrea and I lost another round in the “chemo tournament.” It’s hard when you see pity, sadness, or fear in someone’s eyes when they look at you. But you just move on to the looser bracket and you size up the competition and look at you odds in this new group and starts all over again. Until you either win, and are told you are cured, or end up in the final loser bracket, death. Like losing in sports you then begin to doubt your plan, your training, and your coach. What went wrong? Did we not do something the winners did? Was there a drug mixture they had that we did not know about? Are we even using the right chemo? Is our doctor smart enough? What is his winning record?

I remember when we found out Andrea had cancer we went to the bookstore that night and I sat on the floor and poured over cancer books. They were filled with percentages, charts and graphs. Oh it was impressive; I was finding security in the numbers. Things were looking better, the charts clearly showed this. But one day I was on the bed talking to Andrea and I was going over her options for treatment, lumpectomy, with radiation, remove one breast or both breasts to be safe, do we have implants or not. Every option had a percentage of success and you start feeling like you are picking your survival chances. Make a mistake here and it could cost you your life. Well, as I went around and around with the numbers I was starting to panic with the reality of what we were doing and that on the other side of every good percentage was a chance of failure. None of the odds were 100%, and all the options involved some percentage of failure. It is not that you are picking your best odds, although that is the way we try to spin it, what you are really doing is picking the side with the lowest poor odds. Because no matter how you say it or spin it you are trying to beat death. Well, Andrea being such a tower of strength and faith grabbed me and said, “You have to stop looking at statistics and numbers. Whether I live or die is not based on percentages or what option we choose, God is in control and He has my life in His hands. There is no treatment decision we will make that will tie God's hands.” I felt like a screaming woman in a movie that was slapped in the face. She was right; I was trying desperately to find hope in the percentages. I wanted to know it was going to be okay, I wanted factual data to tell me Andrea was not going to die. I instinctively reached out to the physical world around me for hope. But it would not be until June 2005 that I would truly learn what Andrea was trying to tell me that night. It would not be until we faced stage IV metastatic breast cancer in her bones, liver and lungs that I would really understand this is beyond us, beyond medicine and truly in God’s hands. It was not until then I would learn a deeper meaning of surrender.

You see in 2003 I did learn to surrender, but only to a point, only as far as I needed. I, like everyone, likes to hold onto some part of our life to control. We like to be in charge, to have an area of our life that we lock God out of, where we make the decisions. But be sure we are always ready to surrender that area when things go bad, then we cry out “God where are you?” As challenges in our life reach a point where they exceed our abilities or the abilities of the doctors that have our faith, we learn to let go and surrender to God, to His authority and trust Him. But that can be hard to do at times. To trust when your nature is to control, especially when the stakes become high, high in the sense that it is something that you really want. It may be a job, or a house, or life itself, but when you really want something you really want to control the situation. Human nature is to surrender only to the point that we feel necessary. We tend to abandon ourselves relative to our needs in our life. Forced by the situation I have learned some lessons I hope I won't forget.

I learned that man, medicine and even myself will eventually lead to disappointment but God is faithful and will never fail us.

I learned that God’s power and majesty are best displayed when we give Him control. (2 Corinthians 12:9 "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.")

I learned that I should not wait until I face a crisis to give my life totally to Christ.

I learned that I need to seek His will daily.

I learned that God is faithful and His words are true.

I learned that God cares about every part of my life and not just life and death.

I learned that God wanted me to trust him more, to let go and fall back into His arms. To experience the joy of being caught in the loving arms of my creator.
I learned that God is best at being God.

I learned and experienced the truth of Philippians 4: 6-7

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

I found myself in the most exciting, stressful, difficult, dark, and fearful time of my life and I would not trade a single day away.

1 comment:

  1. Isiaha 40
    31 but those who hope in the LORD
    will renew their strength.
    They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

    Everytime I come across this passage I think of you two. I thought I would share it with you. I love you both and am always happy to hear good new! you'll be in my prayers