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    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.
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    We Don't Want Your Cancer Beads
    December 14, 2011
    Monday was a terrible day for Harrison, meaning a terrible day for his parents. We discovered that he was entirely unwilling/unable to take oral medications. We tried swallowing pills. Gag. We tried hiding the pills in ice cream. He chews his ice cream (and every other soft food like pudding and applesauce), so he just crunch down on them and threw up because of the terrible taste. We crushed them into a powder and mixed them with every conceivable food he would eat. Same outcome. He threw up 5 or 6 times just trying to take medicine. Of course, that medicine is THE MOST IMPORTANT HE'LL TAKE to get into remission. Figures. Then they needed to change the dressing on his port. The port is a device installed just underneath his skin with a line into a major vein and directly into his heart. This will be the place where they will draw blood, deliver chemo, and pass him other medicines for the next three years. There is currently a needle protruding from it covered in gauze and help in place by water- and air-proof tape. If it gets infected, he dies. Changing the dressing meant removing the tape, sterilizing the area, and reapplying. If you've ever had a serious injury you can image how tender and sensitive that area would be. Ripping the tape off, pushing and prodding around, and cleaning the area was excruciatingly painful. Ginger and I just wept as our son begged them to stop while still fighting to remain strong. Harrison was miserable, and his parents were beside themselves over his misery. In the middle of it all, a sweet lady came in to walk through with Harrison his "Beads of Courage." He got a long string and began to collect beads celebrating his successes. One color for getting the port, another each time he took medicine, another for every "poke" with a needle, etc. In the end he'll have a huge string with his name and his beads, a reminder of the courage he showed kicking cancer in the teeth. As I listened to this lady, and watched Harrison's eyes light up, it struck me, "I don't want your beads." We are discovering that the community around leukemia patients and families is unbelievable. We've gotten emails from people we've never met in Kentucky, Virginia, and Georgia who have been or are going through what we're enduring (and have to endure for the next several years). Out of no where they have rallied around us. It's been incredible. I didn't know this community existed. The beads now identify us with that world, the world of leukemia. I wanted to ask the lady to leave and not come back. I want to tell the people who have written that we don't need their emails. The thousands of text messages, voicemails, emails, facebook posts, and tweets of love and support? No thanks. You see, those things, like the beads and the community they identify, are for kids with cancer...not my son. But we are a part of that community. My son is now that leukemia patient who'll lose his hair, grow big checks, and look a little funny. Ginger and I are the parents who'll fear every night that our son may contracted an infection and die by morning. We'll have a bag packed to rush to the hospital every time he has a fever. We'll cancel trips, drain our savings, and watch our son suffer. So, he needs the beads. We need the beads. Not because they are magic, but because they identify us with a community of fellow-travellers. Without them, we'll not be able to endure. We need the calls, texts, emails, visits, facebook messages, tweets and retweets. Why? Because in every one of them we find a reminder that our Heavenly Father cares for his children. While they all remind us of the hell we are in, they also prove the heaven that life in the Kingdom of God is. Scripture tells us that the wilderness is a place of disease, destruction, and death, but that the Kingdom of God is a place of life and peace, a place where there is no more crying or dying. And while we pray, "Thy Kingdom Come," we enjoy the benefits of that Kingdom now in community with his people. Yes, we'll take your beads. And thank you very much for them. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25-26 ESV)
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    What a Rebound
    December 14, 2011
    A terrible Monday was followed by a terrific Tuesday. We figured out the best way to get the medicine (Thanks Dr. Johann Hsu - not sure how those names fit together). We went to the playroom TWICE to place Wii, air hockey and some pool (thanks go to my PhD student John Lewis for going with us). He laughed. He walked the halls. His brother and sister drove him around in the hospital, including down to the cafe. He told jokes to the doctors and had them in stitches. He visited with his grandparents, telling them everything that had gone on during the day. He was a new kid. We know that will be his, and our, life for some time. One terrible day followed by a good one followed by a miserable one. But this trek is a marathon. There will times when we burn with pain mixed in with times of elation and joy. What we've always had in life -- both good times and bad -- will now happen in the extreme. So after such a good day, we face a potentially difficult one today. At 10:00 AM EST, Harrison will have his next chemo treatment. The medicine today is the strongest he'll have, and this is the only time he'll have it. They will slowly push it over a FOUR HOUR period, otherwise they would burn his vein and heart. He will be monitored continuously for fear of a deadly allergic reaction. They told us not to worry when they put the crash cart beside his bed before they start. Don't worry? Oh, no problem, we'll just turn that part of us off for a few hours. After the chemo they'll monitor him for another 2 or 3 hours. This. is. scary. We believe God accomplishes his will through the prayers of his people. There are currently people in every time zone around the world who are praying at 1:00 every day (their local time) for Harrison. Meaning, of course, that every hour on the hour someone is interceding for my little man. God hears our prayers and answers. And he is kind, good, and merciful. Thank you for seeking his face on behalf of my son. "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified." (Romans 8:18-30 ESV)