After feeling better than I have in months, I hit a snag.
My parents rented a house in Clearwater Beach, Florida, and we joined them there in early January. We were eager for the sun and warm temps, especially because the average low in Sioux Falls this time of year is less than 7 degrees Fahrenheit! It would also be the first time Pippa had ever seen the ocean.
Shortly after arriving, I began to feel sick—quite sick. Soon my fever spiked to 103 degrees and my family took me to the hospital. I was reluctant to go, but it is standard for someone in cancer treatment to be admitted with such a high fever.
Meanwhile, right outside Clearwater, in Tampa, the national college football championship was taking place—which meant there was not only an influx of people wearing orange and crimson, but a spike in the number of people in the emergency room. When I showed up, there was an average wait time of more than five hours!
Apparently, a cancer patient is a high priority, so within 20 minutes they had me in temporary room. I didn’t know whether to be happy about the short wait or concerned. A few IVs and anti-nausea pills later, I began to recover from dehydration, which can be an intense cycle if not taken care of quickly. The nurses kept disappearing for long gaps of time, probably to treat the next victim of a tailgate brawl. The place must have been hopping, because there were no overnight rooms available. So, I tried to settle in for the night in my temporary room. There was so much hustle and bustle in the ER that I felt like I was trying to sleep during a frat party, right in the thick of the all-night beer pong.
After running some tests, the doctors told me I had most likely picked up some type of 48-hour virus. Or maybe I had reacted to my medication? Whatever happened, it was not fun. Fortunately, I was released from the hospital within 24 hours, even though I was still feeling weak and groggy.
So much for the start of my beach vacation.
This seemed a far departure from how well I had been feeling in Colorado over Christmas, like I had taken two steps back. It was the first time I had been sick since the summer, which is amazing considering my compromised immune system.
Still, being hospitalized was a new low.
As you may recall, this was not the first time I have been hospitalized during my cancer journey. Now some of those feelings of fragility were fresh on my mind again—the whirlwind of nurse visits, pain mitigation plans and constantly beeping machines. Admitting myself felt like waving the flag of surrender—that my life would not be my own until I was released.
When I was allowed leave the Tampa hospital, I began having trouble sleeping, especially because our bed at the rental was like a slab of concrete. Before cancer, a hard bed would be annoying, but now it was a significant obstacle. My inability to sleep at night grew increasingly frustrating and discouraging.
“Part of me feels like the adventurous and outdoorsy and young side of me keeps slipping farther and farther away—so far, I fear, that I won’t ever be able to recover it,” I wrote in my journal.
This vacation was not going like I had hoped at all. It was becoming a vacation from my expectations. When I planned this trip, I had expected that I would continue feeling better. I envisioned lots of time on the beach, maybe seeing some friends in Orlando, and maybe even some surfing, if I felt good enough (I don’t like being near the ocean without surfing). But initially I spent a fair amount of time indoors, peppered with a few lazy walks.
On one of the mornings, I was walking on the beach and praying. In frustration, I asked God about it, though I didn’t seem to get a direct answer. So, I answered my own question: “You’ve been in treatment for months, including 25 rounds of chemo. What did you expect?”
True, getting sick should not be surprising given my road. Before we left for Florida, I had pushed myself with all the packing and to-do lists, and I was fresh off another treatment. Most significantly, in the big picture, my body has been through a lot. I used to win my age group in triathlons, but now that seems like a long time ago.
There was an evening when Elizabeth and I were in Colorado in December when we were tucked into the bed of our Longmont house with our old quilt bedspread and our wedding pictures on the walls. It felt so familiar and good, almost like the cancer thing never happened—that we didn’t moved back to South Dakota, didn’t uproot from our job and life. “Doesn’t it feel like this has all just been a bad dream, and that now we can just resume our life?” I said to Elizabeth.
Of course, the Florida incident jolted me back to reality like a strong cup of bitter coffee.
Yet, somehow being willing to admit to myself (again), that I am still in the humble state of cancer, felt initially difficult, but eventually freeing—like letting the pressure out of an overinflated tire. I was free to stop acting like I didn’t have cancer.
I also felt comforted that somehow in all of this I am understood. I was reminded of this as I read a devotional on Hebrews 4:13, “Nothing in creation is hidden from God’s sight.” Beyond the medical facts, I was reminded that God knew exactly what I was thinking and feeling.
As I kept reading in Hebrews, I was also reminded of how God provided a Great High Priest, as one we can approach for help and counsel. “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:12).”
Indeed, I did need grace, and over the next few days, I think I did receive it. Maybe not in an immediately-solve-all-my-problems-and-feel-completely-better kind of way, but over the next few days the trip did get better. For starters, I purchased some memory foam and slept better. I also realized that being hospitalized probably sped up my recovery, as an IV can hydrate you much faster than just drinking liquids. Also, hitting a low point mentally helped me again see the reality of my plight. As the old saying goes, “reality is your friend.” More than that, I think God meets us in our reality, especially when we can be honest with ourselves.
Soon I was starting to settle into the vacation. And what did I do with the time? First off, Elizabeth and I spent a lot of time on and near the beach—taking Pippa swimming, watching sunsets and walking. It was not my normal outdoor experience, as I’m used to a faster pace, but just sitting and being in Creation is healing in its own way. Did I mention that each day the average high was a delightful 78?
The next few days blended together pleasantly.
Pippa sees the ocean
Introducing Pippa to the ocean was especially fun. She often says the phrase, “oh wow,” in her over-annunciated way. And once we were sitting in the white sand and sun, we heard a lot of “oh wow’s.” However, I’m afraid she is a lot like her dad in that she has a hard time sitting still. On the beach, she spent a lot time running and Elizabeth and I spent a lot of time chasing. Early on, she ran fearlessly into the sea on her own. But after an unexpected face plant from small waves, she became a lot more tentative. We tried coaxing her back in the water, but she soon preferred swimming in the pool. All in all, I’m sure she had a great time. Even now that we are back in South Dakota she continues to say to us, “beach?” and “swim?”
If only the beach were still so close.
Sailing and Island Hopping.
The last few days of our trip, Elizabeth and I did get a chance to do some adventures that were much more our speed—including visiting a secluded island preserve and sailing on a catamaran.
The Caledesi Island State Park is a natural white-sand island, about four miles in circumference with turquoise green waters. We hiked on the beach and along a three-mile loop through the island’s interior, seeing the original 1880s settlement markers along with age-old pine trees. There wasn’t a lot of wildlife to see, but we did run into an eastern diamondback rattlesnake. No kidding.
We were warned that they inhabited the island but that it was unlikely we’d see one. But seriously, this always happens to me. Ask Elizabeth—I have nearly been bitten several times trail running in Colorado. And no matter what state I visit, it seems I have a built-in snake-dar
for any snakes lurking around in the area. It’s probably because I hate them so much.
I spotted this bespeckled devil a mere foot from the trail, camouflaged in the brush and ready to strike. Once he noticed us, he grew quickly agitated and would not let us pass. After a good five-minute delay, we were finally able to squeeze by while one of us distracted him with a stick.
Minus this slithering foe, our favorite parts of Caladesi were the uncrowded beaches, which reminded us of Costa Rica, and also the shell collecting—we found several small ones with little holes in them to make a keepsake necklace for Pippa to remind her of her first trip to the ocean.
On our last full day, Elizabeth and I took a two-hour sailing lesson on a Hobbie Cat. She has always wanted to learn to sail, so the lesson was a definite highlight of the trip for her. If we ever do live near the water, Elizabeth and I would love to buy a Hobbie and go sailing much more often!
Astoria—and My Health Update
Another enjoyable part of the trip was getting to read a few books. My favorite was Astoria, a survival story about the 1810 expedition, which sought to establish the first American settlement in the Pacific Northwest, just a few years after Lewis and Clark. Facing shipwrecks, Indian attacks and starvation, nearly half the people perished. I’m always a sucker for American Frontier stories, especially where they faced the wilderness of the new world.
Speaking of facing the wilderness, I am overdue to give an update on my health. Right now, I am in a strange, but good, place. My treatment has been very effective—much more so than the doctors expected—and thus they are unsure of what to do next. I have been cutting back on treatment (which has been fine with me) and right now we are talking through the next options. My next scan is in early February, and if things continue to look good, they will most likely pursue some further type of outside-the-box measures. I’ve heard they are leaning toward an outpatient procedure where I will receive injectable radiation into my liver, called Y90. Apparently, this has been very effective in eradicating cancer, though it is not traditionally used in cases like mine.
We received more good news lately too. I recently had another genomic blood test, and it was again 100% clear, indicating that I still have no cancer cell mutations in my bloodstream. This means the cancer is still contained (or dead) and not advancing. The scan will tell more of the story.
I am still not out of the woods yet, but good things are happening. We are endeavoring to keep waiting on the Lord with hope and patience.