ANDREA’S STORY – ONE SMOOTH STONE

Deep in my heart I sensed that 2001 would be a difficult year for me.  My teaching contract in Hong Kong was coming to an end and I was not looking forward to saying farewell to all of the precious friends that I had made over the last two years.

     
   
     


What I did not anticipate is that my time in Hong Kong would end so suddenly and traumatically.

It all began with what I thought were typical flu symptoms. I was overcome with tiredness and aches and pains throughout my whole body. After visiting my doctor, I was prescribed Echinacea and vitamin C tablets and she also advised me to take a few days off school to rest and recover. It was then that I noticed some bruises starting to appear on my body. I even had a bruise where my watchband sat on my wrist. However, the most alarming bruise was on my back. I was getting changed and I just happened to glance back at the full-length mirror in my room and staring back at me was a ruby red bruise that was about eight centimetres in diameter.

I decided to ring my brother who was working in Rockhampton Hospital as a doctor. He told me to go back to my GP and ask for some more blood tests. I followed his advice and was able to book an appointment just before the weekend. My brother rang my mum and told her that he was concerned about my symptoms and that he was worried about me being on my own in my unit. He suspected that I had more than just the flu and was worried that I could slip into a coma.

I still had no idea how sick I was and even thought I was feeling better. In fact, I felt so good that I decided to continue with my plans to go out to the opera with some dear friends. I returned to school on Monday morning. However, the day was cut short when I realized that I was too sick to be able to teach my class for the whole day. I returned to my unit and spent the rest of the day in bed.

On the 27th March my doctor called with tests results that would change my life forever.

‘Andrea, you have leukaemia. You need to seek urgent medical attention!’ In shock I politely thanked her and we ended the phone call. It was so much to process yet I had no time for that. Within minutes the phone rang again, it was my doctor. ‘Andrea I want you to know that if you present to a Hong Kong hospital thy will admit you immediately and you will have no choice but to stay.’

I immediately rang my brother and told him about my diagnosis. He calmly asked me to ring my doctor back to give him permission to access my blood test results. It just so happened that a visiting haematologist was at the Rockhampton hospital and my brother was able to share my blood results results with him. After analysing the results, they both agreed that I needed to return to Brisbane immediately.  My eldest sister booked a flight for me that left Hong Kong that very afternoon.

I left my little flat in Wanchai, as if I were going out for coffee or to pick up groceries. There would be no farewell party, no chance to say goodbye to my beloved students or many of my dear friends. With just a suitcase and a very heavy heart I made my way to the airport.

I was going home but this was not the return trip that I had imagined it would be.

The urgency of my condition and need for treatment meant that I did not have time arrange for anyone to accompany me. The doctor had advised me to not disclose my medical condition to the airline in case they objected to me travelling without medical support. I was totally alone. I remember sitting in my seat as the aircraft departed Hong Kong keenly aware of the uncertainty and challenge that was ahead of me; yet at the same time I was so aware of the presence of God. Even as I processed the devastating diagnosis that had been spoken over me, and the knowledge that the flight itself could make my condition worse, I did not shed a single tear! In fact I was in a state of total peace. I knew that my heavenly father was with me and I had complete faith and hope in Him!

These words from Psalm 18 were a great comfort to me.

"He reached down from on high and took hold of me; He drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They comforted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”
Psalm 18


After a short stopover in Sydney, I finally arrived at the Brisbane airport and was immediately embraced by my loving family. They were clearly relieved to see me looking so well. It is amazing to think that a body can be so riddled with cancer and yet it is still not detectable on the surface. I don’t think I will ever be able to fully understand the pain and anguish my family went through in those first twenty-four hours!  I later found out that they while I had been flying home they had been up all night in a prayer meeting, crying out to God for my protection. I have an incredible loving family!

From the airport I was taken straight to the Royal Brisbane Hospital to receive further testing and assessment. Even though the initial blood test revealed that I had Leukaemia, tests were required to determine the particular type and stage of the cancer that I had.

After a bone marrow biopsy I was diagnosed with ‘Acute Promyelocytic Leukaemia’ (APML). The doctors informed me that I would require immediate and aggressive chemotherapy to fight this disease. To aid in the delivery of the potent treatment a Hickman’s catheter was surgically inserted into my chest. The catheter is a white silicone tube, which allows easy access to your veins. It is placed under the skin of your chest, into a large vein that leads to your heart. At first it sounded awful but it is really an amazing device that saves the patient pain and discomfort and is one of the best ways to receive the treatment.

     
   
     


With my Hickman’s in place I immediately began treatment. The process of receiving chemotherapy is actually a painless procedure where, as the patient, you can actually watch the potent ‘cancer killing’ chemicals drip slowly into your body. It is quite a surreal experience and for many it can also be a very anxious time. However for me it proved to be a very precious opportunity to spend time with God in which God prepared me both mentally and spiritually for the battle that was about to commence.

I was well enough to read my Bible, listen to God’s voice and find scriptures that would become weapons for me to use in the war. The very first weapon God gave me was from Isaiah.

“Even youths grow tired and weary and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
Isaiah 40:28-31


It was also during this time that God spoke to me very powerfully through the story of David and Goliath. He reminded me, that He helped the little boy David; kill the giant named Goliath, with only one stone. He reassured me through scripture, that He could do the same for me! I embraced this vision that God gave me and from that moment on I believed that my first chemotherapy treatment would kill the cancer.

Chemotherapy drugs are designed to destroy all the fast growing cancer cells in your body. However, as well as killing the cancer cells it also kills perfectly healthy cells, including your hair and the linings of your throat and intestines. Consequently, the following month was to be a very difficult time for me. The treatment made me very sick and I was in constant pain from throat and mouth ulcers. The pain was so intense that I could not eat or swallow and morphine did not even begin to ease the pain. Each time I had to wait until new cells grew back to feel pain free again.

Whilst dealing with the physical discomfort I also had to get used to my hair falling out! I must admit this was very difficult for me to accept at first. Eventually, I looked so bad that shaving it all off was the best option. As my body began to replace the dead cells I began to praise God for the strength that He had given me to overcome both pain and fear. I was always full of hope that God would fulfil His promise to me. It was only a month after I had been diagnosed with Leukaemia that I had my second bone marrow test. The results revealed that the cancer had completely gone! God had fulfilled his promise to me!  However, the battle was not over just yet.

I fondly remember the times my father would read to us the, “David and Goliath” story as children. He would always take great delight in reading the end of the story when David used the king’s sword to chop off Goliath’s head! He would say, ‘He chopped of his head to make sure the giant was dead!’ So too my Oncologist (the amazing Dr James Morton) informed me that although the cancer was gone I also needed to have consolidation treatment. Just to make sure this giant was dead. This meant that I spent the rest of the year receiving consolidation treatment and was in and out of hospital in both 2001 and 2002. I had my last hospital treatment in November 2001 and I was only just able go home from hospital on Christmas Eve. My wonderful father took me back and forwards to the Royal Brisbane Hospital during our summer holiday at Caloundra.

     
   
     


So, it has been quite a battle and I am still alive to tell the tale. I know that God has been so very faithful and has given me the strength to overcome this terrible giant. Sometimes it is hard to believe that it happened to me and that I have survived the ‘Big C’ as we call Leukaemia!  After the treatment was over my energy was fully restored and in 2002 I was able to return to full time work and continue serving at my church.

From an early age my greatest dream was to marry and have children (I am from a family of ten children!). When I received my cancer diagnosis as a single 32-year-old woman I felt sure that those dreams would never be realised.  I couldn’t imagine any man would want to marry someone who had survived cancer and now had a high probability of never conceiving a child.

I was wrong.

In October 2004 I met the man of my dreams. On our ‘first real date’ I told him about my cancer survival story. His response was ‘I wish I had been there to hold your hand!’ Eight weeks later we were married on 8 January 2005 in my father’s parish at Saint Faith’s Anglican Church.  In September 2006 our first little miracle, Annabelle May arrived. Exactly one year later our second little miracle, Charlotte Maree was born.

I will always be very thankful for all the prayers that have been prayed on my behalf, by Christians all over the world.  God continually spoke to me using many of His faithful people.  I remember the words of one special visitor ‘Be Bold’.  I found amazing strength in these two simple words because they gave me the courage to be full of hope, no matter what!

I continue to look forward to the great things God has planned for me. I don’t know what tomorrow may bring, but for today I will put my trust and hope in the Lord!