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Serious Illness Brings Greater Appreciation of Life's Preciousness

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Serious Illness Brings Greater Appreciation of Life's Preciousness

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Two years ago the MRI showed a nickel-sized benign tumor in my right ear that had grown around the sheath that covers three nerves that transmit hearing, balance and facial control data to the brain. It had grown out of the bony canal of the ear and up against the brain at the top of the spinal column.

That would explain the loss of hearing and the frequent dizziness, the ear, nose and throat doctor said. He referred me to a surgeon who specializes in removing this type of tumor.

Only one in 100,000 people get such a tumor. It usually grows at an annual rate of 10 percent, and the cause is unknown. During this experience I have heard of others in the Church community who have an acoustic neuroma, but even larger than mine, so they have had more serious health problems and occupational complications.

Treatment Options

The surgeon explained that I had three options. I could choose observation by way of an MRI every six months, since it is a slow growing mass. However, if left untreated, in time the tumor could be fatal as it increased in size and pressed against the brain.

I could elect to have surgery, but there was no guarantee that the tumor would not grow back. I could expect total hearing loss in that ear, a droopy face, a dry eye and an eyelid that would not close properly and possibly permanent headaches because of the proximity of the tumor to the top of the spinal column.

What else have you got, Doc?

A third option was radiation treatments to kill the tumor. It took an oncologist to explain what to expect from radiation. The side effects, if any, were not as obvious and might be delayed for years. Any residual hearing could be saved. I would be spared the droopy face and would still be able to "pucker." My wife and I liked that.

However, with radiation there is the possibility of creating new malignant tumors adjacent to the benign tumor you are trying to kill if the beam is not perfectly focused.

Each of these treatments was available just 10 minutes from our home.

What to Do?

I was anointed, we prayed and we waited for over a year from the first diagnosis. Another MRI at that time showed the predicted slow growth rate. Having to wait meant putting many things on hold. We couldn't just do what we wanted when we wanted. To quote a well-know person, "No problem for us patient guys!" Right?

We read all the literature from the surgeon and radiation oncologist. We searched on the Internet about acoustic neuroma, and found volumes of information on AN.

Our children were wonderful about finding Web sites and articles.

Local Support Group

We joined the local support group of the ANA, Acoustic Neuroma Association. It was a wonderfully helpful group, which met only semiannually, at best, but when I needed information, they just happened to have meetings.

There were members at the meetings who had had each of the types of treatments available. They were willing to share their experiences and I could see the outward results from those treatments. We did not like what we saw.

We asked the brethren in our local congregation for their prayers for my healing and for wisdom and guidance to make the best choice. This was another "support group" for us.

While investigating all the details we could find about radiation, we learned that a newer type of more focused radiation was available three hours from our home.

It would mean living there for two months during the series of fractionated radiation doses given daily five days a week for about seven weeks, instead of in one big dose. I had seen the negative results of that one dose method at an ANA meeting.

Then in the next follow-up MRI the tumor showed a growth spurt, just like two other support group members had experienced, but this sudden growth rate was seven times the normal annual rate. The ENT doctor told me that I needed immediate treatment and he would not let me leave his office until I promised to schedule it; no more discussion about options and no more waiting with observation. He was refreshingly frank and firm.

I wanted to continue to wait because my first choice of the more focused radiation was not yet on-line at the new facility, and wouldn't be for another year. That was too long.

So we had a second consultation with the local oncologist and scheduled a starting date for radiation treatments. I felt peaceful and thought that we were getting the guidance and direction for which we had prayed.

The treatments were painless, although it took some time to get used to the restraining helmet needed to hold my head immobile while I was being zapped. I was very thankful for the skills the medical staff had learned on patients who had gone before me.

Just as they predicted, I was so very tired for weeks after the 28th and final treatment, but I remembered God's strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

I kept thinking, "When you're down to nothing, God is up to something."

Recovery Statistics

Six months after the final treatment and just three days before Thanksgiving Day, the follow-up MRI showed that the tumor was... DEAD!! It will remain as scar tissue indefinitely.

We had many reasons to rejoice and give thanks. One in 10 acoustic neuromas are not killed. Only one in four patients get better. My balance had started to show big improvement at the Feast of Tabernacles. Even though the hearing was still poor, the loud noise before and after church services no longer made me nauseous. And my strength began to return.

Thirty-five years ago the treatment methods were very primitive by today's standards and the survival rate for AN patients was poor. I am thankful that these more advanced medical techniques are now available.

Any Lessons From This Experience?

What am I supposed to learn from this? Besides wearing earplugs when doing noisy work to protect what hearing I have left, a few lessons come to mind.

In Job 36:22 Job's friend, Elihu, asks, "Who teaches like Him?" It has been most humbling to thank dozens of brethren for their prayers and to thank God for answering those prayers in such a positive way. If God had not been involved and had not healed, I would not have the quality of life I enjoy now.

So although I had treatments, I feel that God was involved and did heal. The results from these treatments didn't have to turn out so positively.

We thank God for each new day and the strength and health to enjoy it.

Serious illness does more than interrupt our routine. It can alter our view of life and help us to focus on what's really important and to appreciate life's preciousness even more. We are thankful that God is the great Sustainer.

Sharing with other patients in the oncology waiting room was an eye-opener. This was not your typical doctor's office waiting room! Everyone there faced something that was life threatening, and many of them talked about it. Like those in the waiting room, all Church members know that our past behavior was spiritually life threatening.

Although the ANA was, and still is, helpful, the Church is our best support group. It meets weekly, not semiannually, and we discuss much more than serious illnesses. The Church always points us toward the Kingdom of God; nothing can be more supportive than that.

We certainly have more empathy for the person behind each prayer request.

We didn't know how good we had it for many years; we now appreciate good health much more than before. We experienced just a tiny little bit of what many brethren have gone through and are going through in health trials. May God heal each one as He sees fit to do.

The intricate medical details we learned through this trial served to reinforce Psalm 139:14: We are "fearfully and wonderfully made." These three nerves, which were impacted by the tumor, are each smaller than a human hair, yet they carry invaluable data for the brain to process about hearing, balance and facial control.

Patient endurance has been one big lesson. When exhaustion sets in, it is best to remember that this is all I can do today. When there is no strength, it is harder to have enthusiasm. Not being able to serve as I used to was a whole new experience in itself. I hope to return to more active service in the Church soon since God has been so gracious.

Don't rush to judgment. That dizzy old man you see stumbling along may not have a drinking problem. He may have an acoustic neuroma. UN