“Great news! That's the best we can hope for.” So began a recent email from a friend responding to the results of a bone marrow biopsy I had last week. Back on August 25, 2016, I began a clinical trial to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a disease I have been battling for the last four years (see more here). Having been treated once already, I became a relapsed patient last summer. By God’s grace, the treatment options have improved tremendously since I was treated the first time with chemotherapy. The trial protocol called for a bone marrow biopsy last week. This procedure is a more definitive test for the presence of leukemia cells in the place in the body where they begin life. We already knew that the treatment seemed to be working from very sensitive blood tests. The bone marrow biopsy came back negative – no detectable cancer cells in my blood or bone marrow. Thus, my friend’s response.
A few years back, the only way a patient with relapsed CLL would get it reduced to undetectable levels, was by a bone marrow transplant. A transplant requires about a year of the patient’s life and is extremely risky in adults. The premise of a transplant is giving the patient a new immune system that will perpetually fight against the cancer cells and keep them in check. Of course, the new immune system wants to fight your healthy cells and organs too so it can be a difficult balancing act. My doctor is telling me that my new treatment has just achieved in eight months, in which I never missed a day of work, the best outcome currently possible in the treatment of this disease.
At this point the doctors still do not think that the cancer will ever be completely eliminated from my body. The question now is whether the treatment has so decimated the leukemia cells that my own body can keep the disease in check in the future. When I asked about the prospects for this outcome, I was told that the study in which I am currently participating is designed to answer that question. If I stop taking the medication I am currently taking when the trial ends in August, will the cancer come back? If so, how soon? How aggressively? These are questions to which we do not have answers. We’ve learned that it is ok not to have answers. God has faithfully given us exactly what we’ve needed at each point in this process.
When I shared this news with my congregation, I received back over two dozen encouraging notes within the first few hours. What a blessing to be reminded again of the faithful friends we have been given in the Lord. Last week I preached on the last section of Romans 15. In verse 30 Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf” (ESV). I marvel at the way God’s people from literally all over the world have been striving together with my family in prayer. I am quite sure that some of them have been more determined, hopeful, and persistent in their prayers than I have been. The passionate responses of thanksgiving that we’ve received and continue to receive, testify to that fact.
It really is hard to express how grateful my family and I are for God’s grace to us through this process. His grace has come to us through encouraging notes, gift cards, meals, consistent prayers, care for my wife and children, a fellowship of pastors, talented researchers, dedicated doctors, compassionate nurses, a loving congregation, true friends, supportive extended family, accommodating employers, the heavenly Word, and the love of a Savior who came to earth and experienced the wretchedness of the human condition so that no sickness or injury or sorrow or disappointment or death will ever be the final word for those whom He has called to faith and salvation.
It's not often someone says, “That’s the best we can hope for,” and the result really seems next to a miracle. When we realize that it is not even close to being as good as what we hope for in eternity, that’s pretty amazing.