Sunday, April 6, 2014

Learning to Fly

Last summer I was looking out our kitchen window and had the chance to watch what looked liked a momma bird teaching her baby bird to fly. They were just perched on the fence when Momma bird would take off, fly out and back landing on the fence about five feet from the baby. The baby bird would then just look at the momma bird and hop down the fence line and stop next to Momma. Momma bird would just look at the baby bird and then repeat the process, and the baby bird would just hop down the fence and stop next to Momma. Momma bird must have done this at least three times when she took off and flew to a tree about five feet away. The baby bird just sat on the fence and chirped. I found myself trying to root on the baby bird: "Come on, you can do it--fly." The baby finally stretched his wings and flapped a couple of times and then flew over to the momma. That little five-foot flight had just opened a new world to that baby bird. I'm sure it was not much longer until the baby bird was out of the nest.

As I think about that scene playing out, I realize it is not much different than us as parents. From the time our children are born, we take steps to prepare them to leave our nest and fly out into the world on their own. We often use terms like, "leave the nest" or "they are empty nesters" to describe the process. There are times that we doubt ourselves and wonder if they are ever going to get it. Why are they content to just hop when they have the ability to fly? Then one day, they spread those wings and are gone, and you believe that they are set on a trajectory for their life, when they make a decision that you just did not see coming.

That is what we have experienced with Shane the past few weeks. For several years now, we thought that Shane would follow his brother into the pro bike racing circuit. He had already taken the first step by signing a contract with a pro team. However, after a few months, Shane decided that pro racing was not for him, at this point in his life. I am not going to tell the story here. You can read Shane's very well-written blog on how he arrived at his decision at his blog Shane Meets World.

I will admit being a little surprised at his decision, but since being diagnosed with cancer, I have told the boys to find something they really enjoy doing so that they look forward to going to work. As I read Shane's blog, I was impressed at how he sought wise counsel from his friends and family. He also prayed and asked God for His guidance. He is spreading those wings on his own. As I read through his blog, I realized that DeLayne and I invested 12 years in Shane the baseball player, 5 years in Shane the cyclist, but we have invested 23 years in Shane the man. Shane and I spent a lot of time together during those years, and I was given an opportunity not afforded to many fathers; I was able to watch my son grow from a boy into a young man.

Just after the first of the year, Shane had gone out for a bike ride. When he got home, he talked me into for going out for a short ride with him. As we rode, I noticed that Shane would position himself to block me from the wind, and I began to realize that we had crossed a threshold into a new chapter in life: The protector had become the protected.

We are very proud of Shane and are excited to see where he goes from here.

Shane has always enjoyed working outside and with his hands. He also is very smart and has a Degree from Texas A&M in Turfgrass Management. We were not at all surprised when he called and told us he had been hired by the Garden of the Gods Club as a greenskeeper. That looks like a pretty nice office view and a good place to fly.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Best

Have you ever had a period in you life where it seemed like everything you prayed about seemed to be getting worse? Well, that is where I have been for several weeks. I was physically exhausted and mentally frustrated from trying to keep all the balls in the air. The question formed in my mind of just how long could I keep this all up. I was just praying that somewhere, somehow, God would give me a break from something. Little did I know what I was asking for.

I had just been to Fayetteville on Monday and left thinking that medically everything was going just fine. Then on Thursday afternoon, I received an unexpected call from the clinical trial nurse. They had received the lab results from my blood test, and my creatinine level had reached an unacceptable level; I was to stop taking the medicine immediately and in five days be retested. Based on those results, we will decide how to proceed with treatment. God, this is not the break I was looking for.

A few months ago, I was looking for any new information on LDK378 and came across a blog by a young mother who had just started LDK378. Earlier in the week, I decided that I would check her blog to see how she was doing and found that she was still struggling with the side-effects of the drug. Thinking I would help her out, I sent an e-mail describing the ways I had found most effective in getting through the day. She responded with a thank you e-mail and also mentioned she was having trouble with headaches. I have, as well, and I let her know. Since she is the only other LDK378 patient I have talked to and some of our other side-effects were similar, once I found out about my creatinine level, I thought I would see if she had seen a change in her levels. She responded to my question that, thankfully, she has not, and then gave me some unexpected advice: Enjoy your time off of the medicine and use it as a time to rest and physically recover. She was right.

After reading her advice, I realized that for the first time in four years, I am not taking medicine to fight cancer or the side-effects of those drugs, no pain meds, no antibiotics for pneumonia, no medication to help with nausea or intestinal issues, and no meds for blood clots. I also don't have cancer. I have been able to go through the days not ruled by the medicine and watching the clock to see when I could eat. I have been able to sleep in later this weekend instead of waking up early to keep on my medication schedule. We have been able to go out and enjoy a movie and dinner without me taking pills in my pocket. It is amazing that in just four short years, I have forgotten what life without cancer is like.

While enjoying this break, I have also been reminded that when I began taking this medicine, we knew that it was probably not something I would be able to take long term; that like the Crizotinib, there would come a time that it would begin to fail or cause toxicity problems. I also knew that, just like the Crizotinib, God would not allow it to fail until a better medicine was available. Have we now reached that point, or is this just a little bump in the road? I don't know, but I do know that God wants the best for me. If His best is for me to continue this medicine, even on a reduced dose, then that will happen. If His best is for me not to continue on this medicine, then we will continue on this journey knowing His best lies on whatever path He directs us. I also know that when the time comes that His best is no longer available on this earth that then, and only then, my journey will end, and I will go home to receive His very best.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tough As Leather

When I was in middle school, I was able to take my first shop class. One of the things we were taught was how to tool leather. We learned how to take leather and put designs in it and learned how to stitch them together. I really enjoyed making things and continued to do so through high school and even into college. I made wallets and even some belts for family and friends. I was good enough at it that a local western store offered me an opportunity to sell belts in their store, but I knew how long it took to make a good one and did not see where I could make enough to make any money at it. Besides, when you start selling your hobby, it becomes work.

I put the tools away after college, but they have been stored in a closet in every house we have lived in. When Shane was in middle school, he wanted to know how to tool leather. I had some scrap pieces of leather stored with the tools, and we broke them out. I started teaching him how to cut and stamp the leather. Also stored with the tools was a wallet kit, and I started tooling it but did not finish it up, and we eventually put it all back in the closet.

I decided that I would take all of Thanksgiving week off as vacation this year, and then I saw the weather forecast. We were expecting cold, damp and rainy weather, and I had planned to do things outside. What was I going to do? The unfinished wallet came to mind, and I decided to get it and my tools out once again. When I saw the leather back of the wallet, I could tell that it was dried out. It had been close to 10 years since I started that wallet, and it would need to be prepared properly before I would be able to tool it. In leather work, preparing a piece of leather for working is called casing. The way I learned to do it was by using a sponge to apply water to the leather to get it damp and then sealing in a plastic bag. This lets the pores of the leather open up, and the leather will get soft. Without casing, the tools would not leave their imprints in the leather, and it would be difficult to work with. Once the leather was cased, I was able to finish cutting and stamping the leather. I am not as good at it as I used to be, but the wallet is almost finished and ready for stitching.

As Christians, I think that sometimes we believe we are as tough as that dry piece of leather. God can't work with us like that, and we won't accept his imprint on our lives. We need to be cased before he can really work with us. That's where our trials come in. We tend to think that God has forsaken us, but often times, hard times are not the absence of God but His presence in our life. It is during these times that God is preparing us to leave His imprint on our lives.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Random Thoughts and Camera Shots

As we rolled out of the clinic parking lot after my September scans, I told DeLayne, "I'm just tired of this." For three years now, I have been getting poked, examined, and run through every type of machine they have. The last two years have been pretty much non-stop. We had not taken a vacation in two years. I was in desperate need of a break.

We decided that since my October exam would just be lab and blood work, we would take all of the week off and go do some sightseeing. We hoped that the leaves would be changing, but this year, October was still too early for that. The plan was to not have a plan. We would just go where we wanted, when we wanted, and just try to relax. I took most of my camera gear and hoped that I would have ample time to just play with my camera and bone up on some techniques.

For me, most of the fun in playing with a camera is seeing the results. Digital cameras have made that so much easier and cheaper. In reviewing my photos, I noticed a few things and had some thoughts about what I had photographed. Here are some of my favorites and thoughts to go with them.

To try and get away from cancer-related places, I decided to make hotel reservations at a different hotel than where we usually stay in Fayetteville. The hotel we stayed in is a converted mill. The original mill was built before the Civil War, destroyed during the Civil War, rebuilt after the war, and then destroyed by fire. It was once again rebuilt and then finally restored and transformed into the lobby for the hotel. Here is a picture of it at night.

While taking the photo, I failed to notice the reflection of the water wheel in the pond. I only noticed the reflection when I was looking back through my photos. This is a lot like life. While we are going through our trials, we seldom notice all of the details. We only notice them once we take the time to review our travels.

One place we decided to go is the Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. This is a 10,000 acre privately-owned park. They have a paved trail that can be hiked or biked. We decided to walk the path, which is 6.5 miles round trip. This would give us lots of time to take pictures and just enjoy the scenery. I'll admit, there were several times I thought that I had bit off more than I could chew on the hike, but the scenery made it worth it. Here is a photo of the stream by which I took my chemo for the day. Just pretend the leaves are orange, yellow and red.

Now, I'll be honest and say that I had to Photoshop this picture to sharpen it up. The original was a little blurry because I forgot to do something that I know how to do. Back when I used to do a lot of photography, it was all pretty much instinct to set up the camera the way I wanted and pretty much get the results I wanted. Now that it has been awhile, I am out of the habit and did not get the results I wanted. That is like reading the Bible and praying. When you skip a day or two, you get out of the habit, and before long, you aren't getting the results you expected.

Once we got home, I noticed that the flowers around the house were enjoying the fall weather and had started blooming again. I have never done much macro work and decided to go play some more.

See the little honey bee? He is going in head first to perform the purpose he was designed to do--collect pollen. Sometimes to perform the purpose God designed you for, you have to be willing to go all in, head first.

This picture is for free. I don't know why, but I like it.

Finally, these little blue flowers are in our front flower bed.

All but the center of the flower is out of focus. This is like life to me. I have to remember Who is at the center of my life and keep Him there. When I do not keep Him in the center, everything else goes out of focus.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

No Evidence of Disease

I started taking LDK378 in mid-January and now, eight months later, my scans, again, show no evidence of disease. With the help of the doctors, the nurses, the radiologists, the medicine, and the grace of God for the second time in three years, we have been able to defeat the beast in my chest. The thing is that no man can anymore explain why I have had such a good response to the medicines as they can explain why I have lung cancer. I am just one of those people; I am not typical. It has given me much to think about.

For the past three years I have, on average, seen a doctor every three to four weeks. I have had scans or some other test every six to eight weeks. One thing I have noticed about fighting cancer: There is a lot of idle time. I tend to spend my idle time in the waiting rooms and during tests thinking. I want so desperately to find the answers and to understand the reasons we are traveling the road we are on. But I don't have any more of the answers than I did three years ago. I think about people we have met on this road and how many of them needed to be encouraged. Had it not been for my journey, I would not have been able to encourage them. Often times, the people who need some encouragement are the people who have come to treat me. The thought came to me that these people deal with and see so much death, that they need to see life sometimes.

There are times that I believe God is trying to teach me something through this experience. As I sit and think about these past three years, I am beginning to wonder, "Did God allow cancer to enter my body so that He could more fully teach me the depths of His love for me?" That's a real mind bender. Does God allow trials to enter our lives in order to bless us and others through those trials? All I know is that if I not had cancer, I would have missed so many blessings. Without cancer, I would not see God the way I see Him today.

Long before I had cancer, I had another deadly disease--sin. As I have contemplated beating cancer a second time, I am struck by the parallel between my physical battle and my spiritual condition. In much the same way that, thanks to the medicine, when the doctors look at me, they see no evidence of disease. Spiritually, because of the saving grace provided me by Jesus' death on the cross, when God looks at me, He sees no evidence of the disease of sin.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

God and Pickup Trucks

It has now been three years ago that my journey to beat lung cancer began. On July 5, 2010 is when my family doctor looked at my chest x-rays and observed that I still had pneumonia and referred me to the pulmonologist. Just twenty-five days later came the official diagnosis of lung cancer. In these last three years, I have learned a lot about God, Jesus, and myself. When I look back, I can clearly see where God has opened and closed doors as necessary and carried me when I needed it most. He has truly been involved in the biggest moments of my battle. But what about the small and not so large areas of my life? Does God really care about what I drive to work each day?

My Avalanche was getting a little long in the tooth, as they say. I had had it for ten years, and it had been a good truck. However, I was beginning to have the feeling that I was rolling on borrowed time. The Blue Book value had dropped low enough that, if I had to have it repaired, the cost could easily be twenty-five percent of the value of the truck, and I would never get that money back. I also thought that it would be good to have another vehicle to drive to Fayetteville and stop racking up the miles on DeLayne's car. Since I was not in a rush to buy anything, I felt like now would be a good time to start looking. I started doing my research and looking at used trucks on the dealer web pages to see what was available and for how much.

I found a 2012 truck on a dealer lot in Frisco and decided to stop after church on Sunday to check it out. When we stopped there after church, I found two trucks that would fit my needs. I knew it would be mid-week before I would be able to go test drive them, so on Tuesday I sent an e-mail to their internet manager and arranged test drives for Wednesday evening. On Wednesday evening, we drove over to the dealership for our scheduled test drives--only to find out, once we arrived, that the guy we were to see was on vacation and one of the trucks had been sent for recall repair work. I will just say that things went down hill from there. This dealership did nothing to improve the image of the stereotypical used-car salesman. After we left that dealership, we dropped by another dealership just to see what they had. They had one truck like I wanted and we drove it, but as I told them, I just wasn't ready to buy that night and had other trucks I wanted to look at. After we got home Wednesday evening, I was feeling like I should just stick with my old truck, but as I lay in bed, I just asked God that if it was time to buy a new truck that he would direct us to the one for us.

Thursday, July fourth, I looked at more web pages of dealers down in Richardson and along I-75 in Dallas. I found one truck worth looking at and we drove down. Once we got to the dealership, DeLayne noticed some damage on the truck bed, and we found where the back of the truck was also damaged. I lost interest really quick and told the salesman that I was not going to pay that much for a damaged truck. We got back in the Avalanche and just started heading down 75 toward Dallas to look in other car lots. When we got to one dealership, I said to DeLayne, "I forgot about these guys," and out of the corner of my eye, I saw two Chevy trucks on the lot. We pulled in and were met by a salesman as we got out. I told him that I wanted to look at the used trucks, and we started walking toward them. When we reached the Chevys, he said, "Here is a 2013 with just 5500 miles on it." We looked it over and liked what we saw, and I asked if we could take it for a drive. He said he would go get the keys. While he went to get the keys, DeLayne and I discussed the deal that we would try and get and what we wanted the bottom-line number to be. After the test drive, I asked the salesman to work up a deal for us to look at and still saying that I was not sure I was ready to buy. He took the keys to my truck for them to do an appraisal, and I thought, "Oh boy, now the fun begins." After about fifteen minutes, he returned with a completed deal sheet and went through it. When he told us the bottom line number, I about fell out of the chair. Their initial offer was within $57 of where we wanted to be. He asked, "What do you think about that?" I wanted to say, "Sold!" but responded with, "You are really close to where I want to be." I quickly decided to see what would happen if I were to use one of the old car sales tactics on them, shaved $557 off of their number, and told him I would buy the truck that day, if they hit that number, including tax/title/license. He walked away and came back in five minutes and said, "Chris, you just bought a truck."

As it turns out, the truck I bought was only two months old. The original owner had bit off more than he could chew on the payments and traded it for a less expensive car. The truck is much nicer than the first truck we had looked at, and the final deal was much better than we expected--it was less than the quote we had been given for two 2011 trucks with almost 26,000 miles on them! I have stopped believing in coincidence a long time ago and believe that God was just as involved in this as He is in my fight against cancer. I believe it so much that I have nicknamed my new truck The Miracle Truck. God cares about every detail of our lives and wants better for us than we can imagine; even when it comes to what we drive to work.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

When Dreams Intersect

May of 2011 seems so far away right now, but that is when I first told you about Chad's dreams of racing bicycles professionally. If you have not read it or need a refresher, you can find it here: Chasing Dreams.

Chad raced much of 2011 on an Elite Amateur team out of Ft. Collins, Colorado, and had considerable success. The Kelley Benefits team liked what they were seeing and signed Chad for the remainder of the 2011 season. He rewarded them by finishing third overall in his first stage race with them. The team later re-branded to Optum Pro Cycling, and Chad signed with them for the 2012 season. His dream of being a professional cyclist was coming true.

Chad started 2012 with high expectations of himself. However, he returned from races in Uruguay and Guatemala sick and having to fight off illnesses that prevented him from racing. He also was involved in multiple crashes and injured his knee in a race in Canada that needed time to heal. He finally recovered from his illnesses and injuries and was getting into late-season form. Then in July, he was entered in a stage race in Bend, Oregon. We received his call on Tuesday evening just after completing the prologue, a short time trial. He had won and would start the next day in the leader's yellow jersey--his first while on a pro team. Wednesday evening he called to tell us that he had been involved in another crash and had injured both his wrists. They thought that they were just sprained but were on the way to the hospital for x-rays. Just a couple of hours later we got the follow-up call: his right thumb and left wrist were broken, and both would require surgery. He was deflated and heart broken. His season was over.

The team made arrangements to have him flown back to Dallas on Thursday. His mother was able to make an appointment with a hand specialist for early Friday morning. We picked Chad up at DFW around midnight. After a few hours' sleep, we were on the way to the doctor's office. The doctor confirmed that surgery would be required to repair the injuries. By noon Friday, Chad was in surgery. They placed a screw in his left wrist and several pins in his right thumb. I was leaning on the bed rail when he started to wake up after surgery. He looked at me and said, "I was going to win that race." The only words of wisdom I could offer were, "Sometimes, life just sucks."

It would be at least six weeks before Chad would be cleared to ride on the road again, and he decided to stay at home to recuperate. Although he could not ride on the road, he could still ride on a trainer, and that's what he did. With his TT bike secured to a trainer, he rode with his elbows resting on the handle bars. I could tell he was working out his frustrations upstairs because the house would shake with the vibrations from the trainer. Having had to go through struggles myself was hard, but watching Chad have to go through his struggle was harder. I began to wonder if I had offered him good advice to pursue his dream and wondering if his dream was coming to an end. Optum reassured Chad that they wanted him back for 2013, and just a few weeks later, Chad was fitted with braces that would allow him to begin riding on the road again, but he would do no more road races in 2012. He returned to Colorado to resume his training and to start preparing for 2013.

While all of this was going on with Chad, I was still in the clinical trial for Crizotinib. The drug had been highly effective at stopping my lung cancer, and I had been on the drug for twenty-two months. I was beginning to dream of the day that God would completely remove this disease from my life. But just before Christmas, my CT scan showed signs that the cancer was returning, but they were inconclusive. A PET scan and biopsy would be scheduled for my next appointment in January.

Both boys were home for Christmas, and we did our best to ignore the latest report. But in January, there I was, going through those blasted tests again. The PET scan confirmed increased cancer activity, but we would wait on on the biopsy pathology report to confirm cancer had returned. We discussed with the doctor other treatment options. DeLayne and I had prayed that God would direct the path that we should take by closing the door to options that were not the right choice at this time and open the door to the trial He wanted me in. The most promising drug was LDK378, but it had just completed the Phase I trials, and no one had the Phase II trial open yet. There was another drug, HSP90, that was showing some promise. The closest place we were able to find it available was in a clinic in Fayetteville, Arkansas. My doctor made the call to refer me to the Highlands Oncology Group in Fayetteville. That evening after the biopsy, I was, once again, sick and in the ER. I was admitted to the hospital for several days. I was finally dismissed from the hospital on Sunday afternoon, and we started for home Monday morning. I received a call from the clinic in Fayetteville, while we were stopped for lunch. The clinical trial nurse was just wanting to touch base and give us her contact information in case the pathology report came back positive for cancer. I asked to confirm that this was for the HSP90 trial, and the nurse responded, "No, that trial just closed, and this is for the LDK378 trial we just opened."

We got the news that the pathology report came back positive on Tuesday morning. Chad had just left for Colorado to try and beat the nasty winter storm about to hit Dallas. I found myself having to fight back tears as I made the calls to the boys to tell them the fight was on again. The next call I made was to the nurse in Fayetteville. Two hours later, the clinic called back, and my first appointments were scheduled for the following week. God was clearly opening the door to Fayetteville, but why, of all the clinics in the U.S. that were trying to open the trial, was this little clinic first?

I was accepted in the trial, and just two weeks later became the first patient in the United States to begin taking LDK378 as part of the Phase II trial. The scans completed at my eight week follow-up showed that the drug was working, and the cancer activity was significantly reduced. My dream of beating cancer was on again. We called the boys to tell them the good news. While talking to Chad, we told him my next appointment would be the week of April 22nd. He said that if we could hang around a couple of days after the appointment that he would be in Fayetteville for the Joe Martin Stage Race. Since we had not seen him since January, and we had never seen him race in person with a pro team, we decided to stay.

2013 started with a bang for Chad, seeing success in early races and finishing second overall in a stage race in Portugal--his first European race. He returned from Portugal and then won the yellow leader's jersey in the individual time trial in the Redland's Classic in California. He held on to the yellow jersey until the final stage. He then had a couple of weeks to recover before heading for Arkansas.

There we were in Devil's Den State Park the day after my doctor's appointment. We were there to see Stage 1. A short 2.8-mile uphill time trial that would take the pros just barely over 8 minutes to finish. After all was said and done, Chad found himself in second place--behind by just two seconds and ahead of third place by five seconds.

While Stage 1 had been completed in almost perfect weather, Stage 2 would be an incredible 110 miles in nasty, cold, drizzly, damp, and windy conditions. The group mainly stayed together, but once they hit downtown Fayetteville, Chad's team put in an amazing pull at the front to deliver their sprinter to the finish. Their acceleration was so sudden, it created a split in the field. Their effort fell just short with their sprinter finishing second, but unbeknownst to them was that the yellow jersey race leader did not make the split. The team decided to ride back to the hotel, and we caught a ride back in the team van. On the way back to the hotel, phones started to ring. The team director was looking for Chad; he was now the race leader, and they needed him back downtown for the yellow jersey presentation.

Chad would start Stage 3, a 114-mile circuit race, in the yellow jersey. His second of the season. It was once again going to be horrible, cold, damp, and very foggy weather to race in. Since it was a circuit race, the team director worked out a plan for DeLayne and me to get a lap each in the team car. For me, it was a blast. For DeLayne, it was exciting, yet terrifying. It really was one of the most fun things I have done in awhile. To see what these athletes put themselves through and see the team working together was just amazing. Chad's team did their job protecting him, and he played it cool waiting for the rider in second place to make his move. When he made his move, Chad was still strong enough to go with him, and they would finish the day with the same time. The team had successfully defended the yellow jersey, and Chad would start the final stage in yellow.

Stage 4 would be an 85-minute crit in downtown Fayetteville. Sunday was a bright, sunny day. The weather was the complete opposite from the last two days. Chad would start the day in yellow, just five seconds ahead of Francisco Mancebo who was still in second place overall--the rider who had beaten him out of the yellow jersey on the final day just a couple of weeks earlier. The Optum guys started the stage out strong, controlling the front of the main group and keeping Chad out of trouble. A small group of riders was allowed to get a break that went out to 45 seconds at one point, but Chad's teammates kept them in sight and slowly began to bring them back. With just two laps to go, the break was down to 15 seconds, and Chad was still close to the front. On the final lap, the group was all together with Mancebo ahead of him, and it was up to Chad to not let a gap form between him and Mancebo. Chad and his team did their jobs and successfully defended the yellow jersey. Chad had just won the Joe Martin Stage race, his first National Racing Calender win.

After seeing Chad cross the finish line, I let out a big yell, saw his team director, and gave him a hug. I then started toward the team van where I knew Chad would be. Chad caught up to me about half-way there. He gave me a big hug and said, "That was for you. I love you and am so glad you are here to see it." Then I knew that there, in downtown Fayetteville, God had allowed our dreams to intersect. He is a pro cyclist and, if even for just that moment, I was healed of cancer.