I have great hope for you

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Francis Holland
  • 509th Medical Operations Squadron
It was Dec. 7, 2001, when I first heard the news. I left the Bolling Air Force Base, D.C., clinic that afternoon to attend commander's call at the officers club. When we were released, I headed back to complete my charting. There were multiple messages marked "important" on my desk informing me to return a call from a doctor at Malcolm Grow Medical Center, Md. I made a few attempts as I finished my work but there was no answer. It was 6 p.m. Friday; the clinics would be deserted until Monday morning.

For over a year, I had been bothered by a variety of symptoms that I knew from my training were not routine. The most recent had been a large firm lymph node at the base of my neck. The node had been surgically removed five weeks earlier. I knew the messages meant my results were finally back. Unable to reach anyone at Andrews, I headed home. I had considered waiting until Monday to find out, but when I arrived home my wife was worried. She had received a call from a doctor who had revealed just enough to let her know that this was not a normal-results notification. She had tried to contact me numerous times but I had turned off my phone for commander's call. Monday seemed a long way off, so I decided to call Jack.

Jack and I were friends. Years earlier we withstood internship together. Now, nearly 10 years later we were both practicing in the D.C. area and we occasionally went out to eat and catch up on things. Jack was now the chief pathologist at Malcolm Grow, he would know my results. I called him on his cell. He answered right away and after a few jokes I explained that I had been unavailable when they tried to notify me. He hesitated only briefly then did a fine job of explaining the findings. Before we hung up, he apologized and said he hadn't wanted to be the one to tell me I had cancer. I told him it was much better coming from a friend.

In the weeks that followed, I had every test imaginable and then some. The results showed that I had an "incurable" form of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and it was stage IV. There is no stage V. I was told that treating it immediately would not provide a survival benefit. The recommendation was to "watch and wait" until symptoms were severe enough to warrant the months of chemotherapy that would potentially put me into remission. There would be plenty of options, each with various complication, response, survival and death rates. I grew tired of the grim facts being presented to me and opted for a second opinion.

The oncologist I consulted was thorough. Every blood test, scan and path report was reviewed. A few more tests were run for confirmation. Her conclusion was that I did in fact have stage IV Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, that I would in the near future require treatment and that the various options had risks, benefits and no guarantees. She then looked me in the eye and said "I have great hope for you." Sometimes we need a kind gesture or a few words to help us re-establish our balance. To me those simple words were a beacon of light in a sea of darkness. They dared me to hope and reminded me that this race was only just starting.

As expected the cancer progressed. In 2003, I had radiation treatments to my spine where the cancer had eaten away at one of my vertebrae. This was later followed by surgery to replace the missing bone with cement. In 2004, when it was definitely time to treat I chose a clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health. The treatment included nine months of a four-drug regimen of high-dose chemotherapy. It was grueling. It relieved me of all my wanted and unwanted hair and often of my stomach contents. But one of the other side effects of chemotherapy is life. The treatments forced the cancer into remission. After a year in remission, I also received monthly injections of an experimental vaccine developed from cancer cells removed from me prior to the chemo.

It has been 9 years since Jack told me I have cancer. For the last 6 of those years I've been in remission. The doctors told me I'd get my hair back, but it was likely I'd start losing it faster and they were right. They also told me I would have little chance of fathering more children and they were wrong. In April of 2009, my wife gave birth to beautiful identical-twin girls who are now 20 months old and are truly miracles. Those two blessings have teenage brothers who were 6 and 7 years old when I was first diagnosed. They are now in high school, taller than me and becoming more like men every day.

Without a doubt, I have an incredible number of things to be thankful for! From things most people fail to notice-- like simply being alive, to the truly special--like having a loving and supportive wife and family. In this joyous holiday season, overlook the glitzy gifts and latest electronics, omit last-minute shopping sprees, but do not forget to give thanks for your many true blessings. We are each given a tremendous gift and opportunity simply by being present on this beautiful planet. Cherish your gift, be thankful for it and make it count. I have great hope for you.