Radiation and Other Stuff

Tomorrow we’ll be starting radiation treatments to hopefully alleviate the pain that has become a recent problem.  Today, we got the first good close-up picture of the cause of that pain in her neck at the radiation clinic.  Despite what some of you think, it was not a picture of me.

Please note that this post will be, for most, disturbing to read.  Choose to read it at the right time for you.  Also know that Maggie and I are optimistic about the outcome of the upcoming treatments, as is the doctor.  In fact, I’m serene as I type this.

In order to best assess our treatment options, the clinic did yet another CT scan.  Oddly enough, the girl in the clinic asked “Is this your first CT?”  Maggie and I both laughed.  Maybe she was being polite but it was still funny.  After it was complete, the doctor sat us down in front of the computer and walked us through what he saw, pointing them out as we went.  Notice the use of the word “them” and not the use of the word “it.”  Them were many, and them were not placed in a particularly wonderful location.

We had thought that the visible swelling in her neck was evidence of one errant lymph node.  We were wrong.  Apparently, the tumors have grouped themselves into bunches, all squished up against the right side of Maggie’s trachea and jugular vein.  So many, in fact, that the CT scan clearly showed her trachea noticeably displaced off to the side.  And <gulp> her jugular vein has built up an obvious bulge just above the group of tumors.  How poetic that my lovely wife’s pain in her neck is caused by a glob of tumors in the shape of a bunch of grapes.

Maggie has also experienced various other pains lately – in her back, in her bicep, and in her chest.  Despite my continued suspicion that she’s just a complainer, we went a’ tumor huntin’.  We found the tumor in her chest beside her breast bone.  But the dog that wasn’t barking is significant.  We didn’t find any oddness in her arm or back or in her bones.  That’s good news and we’ll take it.

Additionally, the doctor believes that because the tumors have been so quick to form, they’ll be just as quick to melt when we apply some radiation.

How Radiation Therapy Works
Radiation therapy works by causing damage to tissue on the DNA level, affecting the cells’ ability to reproduce.  If you take a minute and ask a ninth-grader to refresh your memory about cell division, you’ll re-learn that cells reproduce by splitting their DNA into duplicate copies, called mitosis (I can smell the dust blowing off your ol’ school memories now… or is that from my memories?  I digress…)

Applying radiation causes damage to the cell DNA.  Normal, healthy cells have mechanisms built in that can repair or at least detect the damage to prevent further problems.  These error-checking mechanisms either correct the errors or simply self-destruct the cell.  Normal cells stick with the overall cell-level mission: the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few*.  Any cells that get too needy obviously impact the body’s ability to act as a unit to complete the other genetic mission: Re-pro-duction!**

*  Quoting Spock from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, of course.  By the way, in that scene, Spock dies of an overdose of radiation.   Apropos, me thinks.

**  Quoting from the movie Greece.  Or was it Greece 2?

Cancer cells, however, with their myopic bent on voracious reproductive, aren’t quite as Utilitarianistic.  Despite the overall costs to the many, the bad cancer cells go on dividing, duplicating and passing on the damage caused by the radiation.  They pass the bad DNA on to their cellular prodigy, duplicating again, and multiplying the problems along the way.  Eventually, they end up dividing themselves into a no-workie state.  Thus, the radiation has done its job.

It’s kind of like that secret-telling game you played back in junior high where everyone gets into a circle and then one person starts by telling a secret to the person on their left.  Then they tell the secret to the next person and on and on around the circle.  By the time the secret gets back around through the circle it’s just some ridiculous version of a modified mess of what it started as.  It’s a pretty rough analogy but it’s what I’ve got right now.

The faster the cells divide the faster the damage will be apparent because there’s no way for the cells to fix the damage.  Thus, since these damned tumors have been so aggressive and fast growing, we have very high hopes that their biggest strength will be their ultimate downfall, at least in this particular battle.  But the war, yes, that will carry on.

Latest on the Clinical Trials
We have appointments with CTRC and START (South Texas Accelerated Research Therapeutics) in San Antonio this coming week.  They are both consults and don’t mean diddly but they are a start.

We also have started the process of contacting MD Anderson about one particular clinical trial that I’m interested in.  We don’t have any specific trial picked out at CTRC.

In case you are interested, here are the two main trials I’ve got my eye on:
START:  http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00689065?term=NCT00689065&rank=1
MD Anderson:  http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00554268

In no way are we tied to either of these two trials.  Heck, I’m not even sure I understand what they are beyond a cursory level.  But I know that they are good places to begin this process.  And, most importantly, I don’t think either is a mistake.  Right now we are choosing between a “might” and a “maybe” and there’s not much in between.  Either way, because we’ve got a plan, I can sleep a little better tonight.

On Why We’ve Chosen Only Clinical Trials in Texas
This is the one and only time I’ll speak to this point.  The question itself pulls us toward an abyss of future regret and I chose to not embrace any thoughts that lean that way.  As a general strategy, I ask myself “Five years from now, will I still believe that I made the best decision I could under the circumstance?*”  Tactically, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, I ask myself, “Five years from now, will what I’m doing right now be more important than spending time with Maggie right now?”  Those two questions provide a great deal of clarity in making decision, like where we should look for clinical trials.

*  I learned this brilliant piece of insight from my mom.  Thanks, Mom. (She keeps getting smarter as I get older.)

Clinical trials are just that, trials. There’s no official evidence of whether they will work or not.  And that stands true no matter where the trial may be.  I’m not arguing potential.  I’m arguing reality.  If we can agree that there’s no difference in proven viability for each trial, then the variables of the equation that decides where we go next reduce quickly to what’s palatable to us with regard to our expectation of quality of life and support during this difficult time.

Texas is where our friends and family are.  And in Austin, our support network is the strongest.  In Austin, I can call Denise and she’ll be here in 5 minutes.  We can call Mom Mary and she’ll walk on water to get her.  Mom Nickie, she’s less than three hours away and would head this way with one phone call.  Florencia, Martha, Lori, Nurse Jolie, Leslee, Kyle, Alan, Earl, Brooke … good grief, the list is endless.  And my friend Jeff is right down the street.  That’s a support system.

If we are rolling the dice with clinical trials, which we are and which we would be anywhere else we’d go, then we’d rather roll the dice close to where our friends and family are so they can help catch us if we fall.  And, probably more importantly, help us celebrate each day.

Is there a 2% chance of improvement in the 5% chance of a great outcome of a clinical trial if we move to Duluth?  Who know?  Maybe.  I’m not qualified to say one way or another.  I doubt anyone really knows.  But I can tell you that a 0.1% chance of improved outcome isn’t worth it to us if we don’t have our friend and family there to back us up during the 99.9% chance of difficult times.  And I’d bet my life that there’s at LEAST a 2% overall chance of improvement just being able to sleep next Kali and Niko every night, wake up, shower in our own shower, and hang out in our own house vs. spend time in some sterile hotel or hospital room.

That it why just Texas.

The Plan

Tomorrow, we start the radiation treatments.  Maggie also is trying acupuncture at 10:30.  We’ll be shaving her head in the shower, our shower, together.  And we’ll be taking Niko to the vet down the street bright and early.  We have both happy hour plans and supper plans.  It’s a wonderful life.  It’s our life.  Together.  For as long as it lasts.

17 thoughts on “Radiation and Other Stuff

  1. Fingers crossed and hugs being sent. My mother has shared Maggie’s story with her ladies bible study group at her church. They’ve all been so moved that they have gotten a card and all signed it to mail it to me to give to Maggie. When my mother met you Maggie, at Christine’s 888 party – she later descibed you with “She just sparkled”. I think that pretty freakin’ accurate! It’s there’s a kinetic energy fueling that sparkle, it’s name is Chris. Love you both!

  2. I think it was GrEAse 2. =o)

    Radiation treatment(s) sound very promising for those nasty “grapes”. Woo hoo!

    Chris, I’m in a room with your sister 5 times/week while she goes on and on (just kidding, Carrie) about bacteria and viruses. You may already be aware of this but it’s really amazing how much alike the two of you are. (yes, despite me knowing you personally.) You both have the same kind of humor…kinda dry and a tish sarcastic (my favorite kind)…very witty and intelligent (even better)…and the amazing ability to go off on tangents (maybe that’s just Carrie =o)) that make the listeners love you even more. (I swear, I’m already an “A” student and not trying to earn bonus points.)

    Thank you again for allowing us into your lives. It takes great strength and a multitude of disciplines that originate in sources TNTC (ask Carrie)to do what you both do just to be able to sleep at night or to get out of bed each day. The way you spoke to “why just TX” took an amazing amount of character, thought processes, analysis and just some darn good writing. Hang in there, Buddy.

    Maggie, girlfriend…huge hugs to you before, during (maybe not during) and after your head-shaving “party.” You’re gorgeous through and through and you already know it doesn’t matter. You rock!

    Love, prayers, and HOPE!

  3. Don’t forget that your sister is also just 3 hours away and would do anything to get to you too! Chris, I think you’ve made the best decision (under the circumstances…yeah I learned it too). I’m so proud of you and Maggie. My heart goes out to both of you. I know that my students read this blog and they also pray for you guys, so you also have a support system beyond your known support system. You can never have too many. With love and prayers…

  4. Maggie, My mom reminded me that we had to shave her head with shaving cream and a razor after we had to buzz her hair. I thought I was going to have to get new clippers!! Good thing you did it in the shower though, it might have been messy on our deck 😉

    Good luck with the consults!! I am crossing my fingers for y’all!


  5. I’m pointing all of my luck giving ability in your direction. Power to the radiation. Death to the evil grapes.

    I’m praying for an effective drug trial.

    Thank you Chris for your incredible ability to explain things so that I can understand and laugh.

  6. Chris and Maggie –
    I am so proud of both of you. You are handling this whole situation is such an amazing, admirable way. Your love for each other inspires me everyday!!

    I am sending every ounce of positive energy I can muster in your general direction.

  7. Many of my dear friends here at the Administration Building read this blog frequently. They and many more have notified their own networks of friends, relatives, and acquaintances of the need for re-doubling of prayers. Your Cunningham family alone amounts to almost 100 people who keep you both in daily thoughts and prayers. You have a worldwide circle of prayers being offered just for you and Maggie every day!

    I absolutely support you in your decision to stay close to home for the clinical trials. And … it has now become crystal clear why it was so important to me to teach you and Carrie that “your best” is always dependent upon the circumstances in which you find yourself. I’m very proud of your logic under this pressurized circumstance!

    I love you both, and if you call, I’ll bet I can get there in a lot less than 3 hours!

  8. Chris and Maggie, thank you so much for enriching all of our lives. It makes me so happy that you both know and feel all the love and support from us Yee-Haw’s in Texas. I can’t be there in 5 minutes, but I can in 20 if it’s not rush hour, who am I kidding? It’s almost always rush hour in Austin, but I’ll sprain my middle finger to get to ya’ll as fast as I can.

  9. Good luck and all of God’s blessings to both of you! You guys have gone through a lot and are an inspiration to more people than you know. Maggie’s story has given me strength and courage as I made my own trek through Baylor Law, and I am only one. I have only met Maggie a few time around school, but I pray for you guys all the time. If there is anything that Phi Alpha Delta (Maggie’s law fraternity) can do to help, we are here!

  10. Hi Maggie-

    Just want you to know that we here at the PC office are following the blog, and thinking of you and your family often.

  11. Thanks, Chris, for keeping your sense of humor through this painful journey. My heart is with both of you… somewhere. If you see it, please put it in a bag and send it my way. And Maggie I miss you! Thank YOU for teaching me that people (YOU) I would have in the past labeled “extremely logical and left brained” can also be powerfully creative! You humbled me and taught me a lesson. Hug you!

  12. I work in the cubicle next to Mary, Maggie’s mother. Please know that Maggie and those who love her are in my prayers and those of my church as a whole, the chancel choir in which I sing, and my Psalms study group.

  13. Hi Maggie and Chris:

    Both of you are truly an inspiration. Good luck with radiation tomorrow. Hope the acupunture was wonderful.

    You both are in my thoughts and prayers.


  14. Hi there,
    I went to the dentist today as I wasn’t able to go for a year; you know the drill, no chemo and tooth maintenance at the same time.
    After some discussion with Dr. Samuelson and staff; I spoke about you both and gave them this blog site address. You both are in my heart and prayers. Thank you for your inspiration to live.
    Love and Happiness,

  15. This note comes from a complete stranger. I found your blog while on someone else’s and ever since I became acquainted with your story, I have followed your blog daily. I feel like I know you both even though you don’t know me.

    I feel like I’m reading about a love story! You can absolutely feel the love that you both share in every entry that you write! Love is stronger than anything! Keep fighting and I will most certainly keep praying!

    Warm regards,

  16. I was a student of Carrie’s last year. Your story moved me so greatly, I have been reading it ever since and follow it religiously. Much of what Carrie described as your early symptoms, I too was experiencing at the time. It lead me to get some tests of my own run and my doctor found a very early stage mass in my colon. Your story saved my life, I have no doubt of that. I pray for a miracle in your life, beyond the wonderful love you share with your husband. Thank you for sharing your story. It has touched so many of us and I have so much admiration for your strength and perserverance through this battle.

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