Yesterday I asked the oncologist when they would do the X-ray that he had mentioned a couple weeks ago, before starting this new cycle of chemo. X-rays would give us a glimpse of whether the treatment was effectively shrinking the tumor. When I asked, though, he hedged a little and said it wasn’t that important. “It might be the same size, but that’s not a concern because it can take some time for the tumor to shrink. Or it could even be slightly larger because tumor cells can swell up before they die.” So whatever an X-ray showed it wouldn’t change the course of treatment at all. “I am curious,” he added, “to see if the tumor is getting smaller. That would be nice to see. What do you think Peter? What would you like?” “X-ray,” Peter said.
This morning they took Peter downstairs to radiology. Around noon we were standing in the hall talking to the nurse practitioner who coordinates a lot of Peter’s care when the oncologist appeared around the corner and motioned for us to come to his office. He added a thumbs up and we stepped in to look at his computer screen. On the screen were two images. He directed us first to the one on the right. He pointed out Peter’s ribs and heart. His port, which was surgically implanted in his chest for accessing as needed for chemotherapy, IV fluids, and other medications was the clearest thing visible. “This,” he said pointing, “is the abnormal tissue.” Ghostly white in the X-ray, it was shaped like a thick gourd placed upright in his chest. That X-ray was two weeks old. The new one was on the left. The difference was obvious. He drew a quick line across the tumor in both pictures to get a rough calculation. In the old r-Ray the tumor measured 11.6cm (4.6 in) across. In the new one it was 8.6cm (3.4 inches). A significant change. The top of the gourd shape especially was much more slender.
We all agreed it was encouraging. But how much do we celebrate? My brother said he wasn’t sure whether to celebrate or be cautious. Precisely. We went through shock, fear, and relief so fast during the diagnosis and first days of treatment when the scans showed a 65% reduction in the size of the tumor. Then our hearts were crushed with the results of the scan a couple months later. We are certainly happy that the tumor is shrinking, but there’s still so far to go and so much danger along the way. The phrase “cautiously optimistic” has never meant much to me, but in this case it fits. We are cautiously celebrating. Half a hallelujah. Or maybe a full hallelujah is fine. The Psalms alternate between praise, lament, and thanksgiving quite frequently, sometimes in the same Psalm. It’s fine if our prayers do the same.