August 7, 2017

The Peace that Surpasses All Understanding

How do you stay calm in the midst of trials? Today’s devotional and my corresponding readings touched on that, and I thought it was especially timely with so many of my friends and family going through such difficult situations. My heart has been heavy for them. It’s one thing to have your own stuff. It’s quite another when you see it in the lives of others.

“Understanding will never bring you peace. That’s why I have instructed you to trust in Me, not in your own understanding. Human beings have a voracious appetite for trying to figure things out, in order to gain a sense of mastery over their lives. But the world presents you with an endless series of problems. As soon as you master one set, another pops up to challenge you. The relief you had anticipated is short-lived. Soon your mind is gearing up again; searching for understanding (mastery), instead of seeking Me (your Master).” (from Jesus Calling)

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Proverbs 3:5-6

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
Romans 5:1-5

“You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you,
all whose thoughts are fixed on you!”
Isaiah 26:3

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think on these things.”
Philippians 4:6-8

So whether it’s my own cancer, or my friend’s nephew’s brain cancer, or another friend’s sister’s newly found stage IV brain cancer, or my daughter’s school friend’s cancer, or another friend’s husband who is nearing the end, or others who haven’t even told anyone yet, or friends who have recently lost loved ones, or folks who are dealing with broken relationships, or difficult pasts, or aging parents…. The question “why” is naturally ever in our thoughts. But let us look to His Word and gaze on His Face. “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in Me.” John 14:1

Growing up in church has given me many precious gifts…the knowledge of God’s Word and a heart and mind full of music and lyrics. Chemo brain has taken a great deal of my memory, but these songs are a part of the DNA that stuck with me! And for that I will be forever thankful.

“I don't know about tomorrow,
I just live from day to day.
And I don't borrow from the sunshine
'Cause the skies might turn to gray.
And I don't worry about the future,
'Cause I know what Jesus said,
And today I'm gonna walk right beside him
'Cause he's the one who knows what is ahead.

There are things about tomorrow
That I don't seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand.

And each step is getting brighter
As the golden stairs I climb.
And every burden is getting lighter
And all the clouds, they're silver lined.
And, I'll bet the sun it's always shining
There no tears will ever dim the eye
And the ending of the rainbow
Where the mountains, they touch the sky.

There are many things about tomorrow
I don't seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand.”

July 26, 2017

Third Time’s a Charm!

I don’t know why I still get nervous about these treatments. It’s my third go ‘round. I know pretty much what to expect. Of course, every one is a bit different with varying possible outcomes. My tummy gets queasy and uneasy and I get a bit of a headache…probably because of my mind racing for the past several hours!

I lay there in bed last night reminding myself that everything was going to be fine. No matter what. I thought off all sorts of funny things that I was going to write this morning, but I can’t remember now what they were! ☺ All I can think about is what is about to happen to my body, scripture, and my family.

Is it going to work this time? How severe will the GvHD be? Will this be the one to get me back into remission for an extended period of time? Will I get to spend time with my sweetheart much longer? My grandbabies? Kids, family, friends….

I trust that the answer will be YES. But we aren’t guaranteed the answers that we pray for. I am thankful that I have SO many faithful prayer warriors lifting me up before our Father. I am confident that the main reason I am still here after almost six years is because of your steadfast prayers.

So, while “Good Things Come in Three’s” and “Third Time’s a Charm,” there’s also “Three Strikes and You’re Out!” :/ So I guess we won’t base my life on sayings!!

Instead, I will look to our Heavenly Father for His comfort and peace and walk into that familiar building yet another time trusting them and their expertise while trusting my Lord and His mercy and goodness.

Psalm 34
“I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. My soul will boast in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry; the face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth. The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all; he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken. Evil will slay the wicked; the foes of the righteous will be condemned. The Lord redeems his servants; no one will be condemned who takes refuge in him.”

July 22, 2017

Not Always As It Appears

“You look so good!” I’ve heard that a lot these last months…and I appreciate it! I am thankful for the fact that I don’t “look” like I have cancer this time. It’s a little less depressing. But now that I am almost at my six-year mark, I’m way past being depressed. Been there, done that, have the t-shirt. I have learned how to walk this walk, live this life, endure this journey. I am just thankful to still be here!

Yesterday, they (MDA) did my labs before starting my chemo so we could 1) see how the first week of chemo affected my body and 2) have a baseline for comparison purposes for going into the donor lymphocyte infusion (DLI) this coming Wednesday. I was surprised to see how much my white blood count (WBC) had dropped in just one week…4 points! If my counts continue to drop at this rate, by the time I complete all four rounds, I will be severely immunocompromised. Not that this is a surprise by any means, just a confirmation. That is why my beloved caregivers are being extremely conservative with my exposure. They, and the Good Lord, have kept me alive this long. We would like to continue that course!

The other results that came back was my Engraftment (or Chimerism) report. This is the one that talks about the percentage of donor cells to my old cells. This one hit me right up side the head. If there were any doubts or questions left in my mind as to whether or not we were making the right move with this treatment, this report cleared that up. Dr. H. printed out two reports, one from February 2017 and the one from July. The main type of cell that they track regarding my donor count is my T-Cells, which have dropped from 100% (when I was in remission) to the 90-95% range (when I had MRD…minimal residual disease), to 82% in February and 81% in July. The initial drop to 82% was what got our attention. But there was another number that startled me…the mixed chimera in the Total DNA. That number fell from 46% in February (which already sounded pretty low) to 29% in July! Dr. H. said that indicates the growth of the CLL. It is definitely time to get some more donor cells in there and kick some CLL butt!!

The reason I felt so compelled to write about this, other than many of you are very caring and ask detailed questions, is that if I hadn’t already had cancer and a stem cell transplant and was being monitored on a very regular basis, no one would have caught this!! I look fine. And for the most part, I feel fine…comparatively. For a stem cell patient, I feel fine. That’s another story. I am very attuned to my body and the slight variations and differences that occur. I have to be. But for the average person, there would have been no reason to go to the doctor yet. That is why so many people end up with Stage IV cancer before they ever find it! ☹

So what do you do? Know your body. Get your check ups. Eat right. Exercise. Get rid of all the ick in your diet and lifestyle. I know, eat right and die anyway. Well, maybe you won’t die as soon. I am not afraid to die at all. I know where I’m going and with Whom I will be with. But I have a lot more living to do. I come from tough stock! You should have met my grandmother. My Mamie was an amazing woman who taught all of us by example how to love God and family, how to work, how to serve, how to be joyful, and how to never give up. I’d like to make her proud.

“Not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer;
distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.”
Romans 12:11-13

“The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.”
Numbers 6:24-26

June 15, 2017

Pride Goes Before the Fall…Proverbs 16:18

Let me start by saying that this is not a fun post. It’s heavy. This topic has been heavy on my heart for quite some time. Yesterday, the thoughts could not be stopped and I made a few notes between appointments with my mom.

The consequences of pride and selfishness are some of the most harmful I’ve ever seen. Yet we as Christians seem to glaze over them and not consider those sins as “sinful” as others might be. But the decay of relationship over years of rotten, unchecked habits is destroying the root of our society…our families.

There can be both positive and negative connotations of pride. It is good to take pride in your work, children, family, hobbies, etc. (ie. pleasure, joy, delight, gratification, fulfillment…). But pride out of control is defined as having an excessively high opinion of oneself, of one’s importance: “the sin of pride” (ie. arrogance, vanity, self-importance, hubris, conceit…).

The Bible has much to say about pride. This is just a bit.

“But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
“God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
James 4:6

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
James 4:10

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches.”
Jeremiah 9:23

“To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior
and perverse speech.”
Proverbs 8:13

“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.”
Proverbs 11:2

“Where there is strife, there is pride,
but wisdom is found in those who take advice.”
Proverbs 13:10

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment,
in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”
Romans 12:3

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”
1 Corinthians 13:4

The definition of selfishness is one who is devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc, regardless of others…characterizied by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself (ie. self-interested, self-seeking, egotistical, self-centered, self-indulgent, mean, narcissistic).

God’s Word also has a great deal to say on this subject.

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
Philippians 2:3-4

“For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,
there is disorder and every evil thing.”
James 3:15

“and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves,
but for him who died and rose again on their behalf.”
2 Corinthians 5:15

“Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Philippians 2:4-8

“(Love) does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs.”
1 Corinthians 13:5

It would seem that with so much being written and taught about these two topics that they would not be as dismissed as they seem to be. People don’t seem to consider these issues to be as serious as other more flagrant sins. But what do these two do within a relationship or within a family? What happens when a person consistently focuses on him or herself rather than their spouse and/or children? How many weddings have you attended where the preacher has recited the words of 1 Corinthians 13? “…Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails….” Such a beautiful day. So many hopes and promises. Then you go home and discover that just maybe one of you didn’t get the memo! But love suffers long, so you wait and pray and hope and keep no record of wrongs. You protect and trust and hope, but it doesn’t change. And little by little, you lose the person you once were. Becoming…self-protective, artificial, empty, busy. Until, no more. But the cycle continues because sin gives birth and is reborn.

Who will break the cycle? Who will speak up? Who will mentor? Who will guide?

“Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger…. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity….”
Titus 2:2-7

I am very thankful for my sweetheart and for his patient kindness and servant heart. He is one of the most thoughtful and giving men I’ve ever known. I have a couple of cousins who are blessed to be married to men such as him. It does not make life perfect. Waves still crash upon our shore. But when a couple has a mutual giving, selfless, serving relationship, beautiful things happen to your heart.

“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
Luke 6:38

If they only understood.

May 17, 2017

Just When You Think You Have Things Figured Out…

Today was my appointment to meet with Dr. H and the MUD (transplant) Coordinator and go over the details of my upcoming DLI (Donor Lymphocyte Infusion). For those of you keeping up with all the abbreviations connected with my disease and treatment plans, you get a cookie! Call Bethany! ☺

As of right now, the DLI is scheduled for July 26 with Rituxan infusions scheduled the two Fridays before and after. I’ll be getting a PICC line (Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter) since my veins are 1) so small, 2) so wiggly 3) so tired and 4) I will be receiving so much stuff in such a short period of time. This will definitely be so much easier on me.

However, and here’s the main reason for me still being awake and writing this post tonight, none of this will even happen if this RASH turns out to be what my doctor and I both think it might be. GvHD...Graft versus Host Disease. Yep. Well, how on earth could I possibly have GvHD before I even have anything done, you ask?! Good question! I did have something done…five years ago! And I’ve already had mild GvHD. I asked my doctor today if she thought my mixed up chimerism and increasing lymphocytes might have gotten together and decided to revolt? While a long shot, she said it was definitely possible. Normally, if a transplant patient were going to have ongoing chronic GvHD, they would have continuing visible symptoms. I haven’t. I have had rashes a few times, but not continually. I have also had some minor stomach issues (gut GvHD), but again nothing ongoing.

So what does this mean and how does it affect the DLI. Two fold. First of all, if it is indeed GvHD, the DLI has to be cancelled because I have to be GvHD free for at least six months before treatment. Second, the DLI might not end up being necessary (at this time) IF the rash is GvHD and IF the GvHD prompts the GvT(L) effect. WHAT? You’re killing me, Tamara! There is a negative and a positive side to GvHD. We want a little of it so we know that the donor cells are doing their job. We just don’t want so much where they try and kill me! GvT(L) stands for Graft verses Tumor (or in my case Leukemia) effect where the donor cells seek and destroy the remaining bad guys. So the balance is for the donor cells to kill the bad guys without killing me (the host) in the crossfire.

The possible crazy, miraculous positive that we should be finding out with Friday’s biopsy is whether or not this rash is GvHD. Then we can pray for the GvL effect to take off and perhaps God will choose to miraculously (I can’t think of another word) get my numbers back on track without going through treatment! If it is just a rash, please pray that they can get it under control quickly and we can move on with the plan as it stands now. I’m good either way. God already knows the outcome. I’m just here for the ride. And it always seems a bit crazy from this side!

Stay tuned.

April 29, 2017

Redeeming the Time

A lot of folks have “bucket lists” of things they would like to do, places they would like to go, before it’s too late. But there’s a difference between a list of things you’d like to do and a list of things you’d like to be.

This week, the church family I grew up with gathered to remember the life of a man taken much too soon, much too suddenly. He was only 49. Our lifelong friend, Donny McGinty, brought the Word at the service and I knew it was cultivating something in my heart that I would need to share.

He talked about “redeeming the time.” In Ephesians 5:15-16 we read,

“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

If you read the verses just before these, you’ll see in verses 8-10,

“For you were once in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.”

Paul, the apostle, goes on in Colossians to write in chapter 4, verse 5,

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Make the most of every opportunity.

In the sudden loss of our friend last week, we were all reminded that only God knows the day and hour that our lives will end. Being one who has faced and considered death on perhaps a bit tighter timeline than many others gives me a little different perspective. For the past five and a half years, my outlook on life and on its day to day challenges has continued to change, deepen, and grow as I have learned to look for the better things and to “make the most of every opportunity.”

As Donny spoke about redeeming the time, he referred to it in several aspects. First was in respect to forgiveness. In Psalm 103:12, we read God’s example of forgiveness…

“As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our
transgressions from us.”

In Ephesians 4:31-32, He commands us,

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

To redeem the time in our lives, we need to make peace and settle issues within ourselves. Forgiveness starts in our own hearts…not with the other person.

Redeeming the time also involves a heart of service. The Bible has a great deal to say about service.

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”
Galatians 5:13

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others,
as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
1 Peter 4:10

“…and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Matthew 20:27-28

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”
Romans 12:1

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord.”
Colossians 3:23

Redeem the time in relationships and love.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Romans 12:9-13

“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”
Luke 6:31

“The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
There is no commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12:31

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a

Redeeming the time includes encouraging others.

"Therefore encourage one another and build each other up….”
1 Thessalonians 5:11

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles,
so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we
ourselves receive from God.”
2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Redeeming the time is realizing and appreciating God’s good gifts.

“How abundant are the good things that you have stored up for those who fear you, that you bestow in the sight of all, on those who take refuge in you.”
Psalm 31:19

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
James 1:17

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16

“The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come, and let the one who wishes
take the free gift of the water of life.”
Revelation 22:17

So as we consider our own lives and the unknown days God grants us, may we redeem the time by living a life full of forgiveness, full of service, full of love, full of encouragement, and full of the understanding of God’s good gifts.

“Let your speech be always full of grace, seasoned with salt,
so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Colossians 4:6

How? Well, that’s for another day.

April 19, 2017

If Your First Name is “United”…

With all the negative press of late surrounding United Airlines, I thought I’d share a little of my own drama about another “United”…United Health Care. Today, my daughter, Bethany, drove down from Dallas to Houston to attend the funeral of the mom of one of her high school youth group friends. As I was waiting for her to swing by afterwards and have lunch with my mom and me before heading home, I was sorting through the mail. I opened a letter from United Health Care, one of many that we get on a regular basis…usually noting all my individual tests, labs, etc.

This one caught my attention because right in the middle of the page it read,
“Type of Treatment…Hematopoietic progenitor cell (HPC); allogeneic transplantation per donor.” Oh, wow! This is the approval letter for my DLI, donor lymphocyte infusion. It’s not worded quite the same, but that’s what this is!! Then I looked at the previous section noting the details and one line stood out.

What?!?! What do you mean $0.00???!!!! I read the letter front and back, over and over, and it continued to say $0.00! Needless to say, I was in shock, overwhelmed, mad, upset, worried, totally in control, and losing my mind. I called my handy customer service number and spoke to Kristen (who I am going to officially adopt!). I explained the letter I had just received and read. I told her about my leukemia, my 2012 stem cell transplant (which Blue Cross Blue Shield paid for), my 2015 CAR T-Cell trial (which UHC paid for), and how the ENTIRE STEM CELL TEAM AT MD Anderson had agreed that this procedure was what I needed so that I could hopefully live more than two years or so. I said that there is a small window in which to do this procedure because I still need to HAVE donor cells left to boost! If they choose to deny this request for coverage, they are basically signing my death sentence.

She asked if I minded holding for 3-5 minutes? “No. I’d be happy to.” During this time, Bethany got home, made our sandwiches, and the three of us were sitting at the table. At that point, I asked her to pray. She and mom started praying, not just for lunch but for this situation, for these people making a life or death decision. My life! Before Bethany even finished praying, Kristen came back on the phone and thanked me for holding. She said that there had been a horrible mistake and offered her most heartfelt apology. My procedure WAS, indeed, deemed medically necessary and the acceptance letter had already been mailed to MD Anderson. The letter I had received in error was for an incorrect procedure code or something. I asked if she could please send me a copy of the acceptance letter for my files. ☺

I had maintained my composure this entire time. Once the call (and the survey) were complete, I totally lost it. Tears of relief and “what if’s” flowed. Even though this procedure was not what we had originally planned for, we are convinced that it is what God has for me, and I was devastated to think that the financial hand of man could thwart the plan of God. How silly of me! Nothing can hinder the hand of God.

So it is with a deep breath and sigh of relief that we forge ahead. Insurance…check. Donor…check, check. Our God, Savior, Redeemer, One Who Walks with us every step of the way…check, check, check!