When Cancer Hit Home
December 12, 2011
On Sunday my ten-year old son began chemotherapy. I never thought I'd say that.
Friday, December 9, 2011, is a date that will live in infamy for the McKinions. Our youngest child, Harrison, was diagnosed with Leukemia. It was devastating news.
For those interested in following his treatment and cure, we'll soon be setting up a mechanism for communicating with you. Until then, I thought I would pass along some of the specifics so you can pray in an informed way.
Harrison has been lethargic and anemic for some time. He has also had night sweats and a loss of appetite. All of those are symptoms of Leukemia. But never in a million years would we have considered that possibility.
However, his anemia was causing him to get increasingly pale. We noticed it, but never put together that his lethargy (going all the way back before his final baseball tournament in November) and anemia were related. We NEVER considered cancer.
But one of his teachers, Mrs. Walker, proved to be (literally) a life-saver. She made a point to pass along her concern about his looking pale, so Ginger and I decided to take him to the doctor. Surely we would hear that he had a virus that just "needed to run its course." We've heard that plenty of times.
Ginger called me while still at the pediatricians to get to the ER at WakeMed hospital. She told me his hemoglobin was low. I looked up the symptoms online and, of course, the first hit was leukemia. My heart sank. I wept.
When we got to the hospital the drew blood and ran tests. After a couple-hour wait the doctor told us there were two possibilities from what they saw: cancer or a virus. They had sent to results to UNC pediatric oncologist and would transport us to the UNC Children's Hospital for further tests. We prayed it was a virus.
I ran home to get some things to stay the night. Ginger would ride behind Harrison's ambulance with my wonderful sister-in-law, April. She and my brother had been with us from nearly the moment we arrived at WakeMed. They are wonderful.
Just as Ginger was leaving, the doctor stopped her to tell her that the oncologist was pretty convinced with was leukemia. Why he would tell her that just as she was headed this way, and in the hallway all alone is beyond me. I have wanted to punch him in the face for not waiting until I was there or until we got here.
At any rate, Ginger called to tell me. I lost it.
Friday night around 7:30, we got the official diagnosis: B cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. A terrible cancer. Harrison's life was changed forever. He did just what I would have done in his place: he cried. He said over and over, "I don't want to have cancer, I don't want to have cancer." He doesn't want cancer. He's scared. Scared of the treatments, of the pain, of dying.
Ginger and I cried. All night. We don't want him to have cancer either. We don't want him to be scared. We don't want him to suffer. We don't want him to die.
Saturday was a whirlwind. First thing they did a bone marrow biopsy, a spinal tap to test for cancer in the spinal fluid and push chemo into his spine and brain, and install a port to give him chemo and take blood for the next three years. We were overwhelmed.
The first news we needed to hear was that his spinal fluid was clear of leukemia cells. Indeed, the test was negative!
The rest of the day was slow, with Harrison hurting from the surgery. He's has two blood transfusions. His blood numbers are finally up, so he's feeling better, but he's still sort at the port and where they did the spinal tap.
Chemo started Sunday night.
He is in phase one of the three-year protocol. This phase is called "induction," as the oncologist (Dr. Westin) and his team hope to induce remission (no observable leukemia in the blood or bone marrow). This is a 28-day process.
Induction includes a regimen of chemo and steroids. Part one is this week, and began Sunday night with steroids and two infusions of chemo. Today and Tuesday are just steroids. Wednesday is a four-hour long infusion of a VERY serious drug. There will be a crash cart in the room because of the possibility of an allergic reaction. This is a real fear, but a necessary risk to attack the leukemia.
If (when) all goes well on Wednesday, Harrison will be able to leave the hospital. That night or Thursday he should go home. All of us can't wait for that day.
Step two in the 28-day process is to continue steroids twice per day and come to the hospital for chemo at least once per week (every Tuesday). This is the most intense time of treatment as we try to kill the existing leukemia cells and kick start the production of red blood cells (in particular).
If (when) all of that goes well, on day 29 the doctor will take more bone marrow that we pray will show the cancer in remission. This is the first BIG test of the treatment's success. Dr. Westin said the new would be "anti-climactic, because he WILL be in remission."
The next six months will be at least weekly trips to UNC cancer clinic. If (when) those six months [a part of the protocol called consolidation] are completed successfully, Harrison's treatments will be something like once per month for another two and a half years [this is called maintenance]. There are numerous possible setbacks that can happen all along, but now is not the time to address them. Step one is getting through this week and getting him.
So, how can you pray for him and us?
First, pray he can learn to take the pills that he'll have to take at home (10 pills per day). He HATES medicine, and has already gagged and thrown up trying to take them. It's a mind-over-matter thing, and we need the mind to get this right.
Second, pray for safety during Wednesday's dangerous, but necessary, procedure.
Third, pray that this first week will accomplish what is intended so he can go home Thursday.
Fourth, pray that the side-effects would be limited during this first phase.
That's a lot, I know. In coming days we'll have a better venue to communicate, if you want to follow his path from diagnosis to cure.
While Ginger, Lachlan, Blakely, and I are completely devastated by what our "little man" is going through, we are confident in the goodness of our Triune God, who has come to bring to us healing, spiritual and physical, in Jesus Christ. While God may not heal in an instantaneous manner, we know that he is healing our son through the therapy our doctor prescribes and administers.
There have been a number of Scriptures that have brought us comfort in the few days, and on which we will lean in the coming months and years. One in particular, that we read to Harrison as he went is for surgery is Psalm 126:
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
(Psalm 126 ESV)
So many people have stepped in to be instruments of God's kindness to us. More than we could name.
Thank you for praying for our dear son, Harrison.