Before March 2006 my life was moving smoothly. I had fulfilled a life long goal of becoming a university professor. I was blessed to have a wonderful husband (Harry) and three loving sons (Phillip, Nicholas & Steven). Life was good and all was well in the world. What more could I ask for? I was 51 years old and believed my husband and I had achieved much in our loving marriage: successful careers, handsome and smart sons, loving family and friends, and a parish in which we were actively engaged as youth advisors.
“The scans reveal Steven has Stage Four Metastatic Osteosarcoma (Bone Cancer). He has a 25% chance of survival. He will need chemotherapy, radiation and two spine surgeries to remove the tumor that is wrapped around his Lumbar 4 Vertebrae and part and repair his spine.”
When my husband Harry and I were informed of our 15-year-old son Steven’s cancer diagnoses our world came to a halt. Steven’s back pain was not sciatica, but a softball size tumor in his lower spine. What was happening to our baby, our youngest child?
“Have Mercy on Me O God According to they Great Mercies…”
It was very difficult for us to emotionally process Steven’s diagnoses. We were in shock and alternating between crying and feeling completely bewildered. Our nurse informed us that our lives would never be the same. We were on a new trajectory: dealing with our son’s cancer diagnoses.
Everyone came to our aid: sons, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, priests, friends and strangers. We were amazed at the outpouring of love for our son. Meals were sent to our home, gifts and encouraging messages for Steven were sent to the hospital.
“Arise, Lord, save me, my God.”
My dear departed mother raised my brother and me to look to our Lord when experiencing life crises. “Pray everyday and ask Him for forgiveness”, she would say. I tried to make sense of Steven’s illness. God doesn’t punish us by giving our children cancer. God did not create cancer. This horrible illness is a human disease caused by genetics and/or the environment. However in the midst of this understanding I still didn’t want to see my son suffer! I needed to find purpose in his illness. When I raised these concerns to my brother he reassured me that God wanted us to pray for strength and health. He encouraged me to talk to my priest and remember what our mother used to say: “Without Faith In God we have nothing!”
How will having Faith help my family? What could I do to help us through this difficult journey?
“We suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with Him”
In my pursuit of an answer to this stressful time, Fr. Paul Patitsis (our parish priest), provided spiritual support and direction. He spoke on the nature of prayer and how important it is to pray unceasingly. He also gave me Holy Oil to anoint Steven on a regular basis. He suggested I anoint him following our evening prayers. In addition, Steven was encouraged to pray. In fact, Fr. Paul suggested that perhaps God wanted Steven to increase his own prayer life. At the time of this conversation with Fr. Paul, Steven was sedated and receiving chemotherapy. Steven groggily responded: “No offence Fr. Paul but couldn’t God have found another way to get me to pray?”
Needless to say, Fr. Paul’s words to Steven on prayer guided us to a regular prayer schedule. Our Orthodox prayer book became a permanent travel companion to and from the hospital. In addition, icons were being sent to Steven from all over the world, therefore he was continually surrounded the images of our Lord and saints. One commonly received icon was of St. Nektarios. Our Orthodox Christian Faith teaches us that St. Nektarios is one of the patron saints of cancer patients.
“Nektarios let us, the faithful, praise as inspired servants of Christ; for he pours out healings of every kind…”< br /> (Apolytikon of St. Nektarios)
We were introduced to the glorious St. Nektarios of Pentapoli. His humble yet miraculous story provided us with comfort and hope. St. Nektarios’ life and miracles helped us engage in spiritual conversations during those stressful times.
“O God, do not be far from me.”
Steven underwent 10 months of treatment to fight his Osteosarcoma. He had grueling chemotherapy treatments, two spine surgeries and radiation. Following those ten months Steven was declared cancer free or NED (no evidence of disease). We exhaled, inhaled and prayed. For one and a half years Steven was cancer free. He began to attend college, but fate had other plans. Following routine blood work, it was discovered that he had Secondary Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (as a result of the treatment for his bone cancer). Our son had cancer for a second time. He needed a life saving bone marrow transplant. Once again we were crushed by the news.
Steven was given a 19% chance of survival. We were beyond hope, however our Faith prevailed! After the initial shock, we looked at each other and said, “Okay, we obviously haven’t been praying enough. God has a plan for us, so we need to pray with fervor!”
For a second time we hosted a Healing Service (Service of the Six Psalms) at our church. Fr. James Doukas resided over the lovely service, which lifted the hearts of everyone present.
With a diagnosis of AML (Acute Myelogenous Leukemia) patients must remain in the hospital during treatment for approximately 3 – 4 weeks. We brought reminders of home to make the experience more relaxing. Some of the items brought included a coffee pot, folding table for family meals, blankets, pillows, plates, cups, silver wear and colorful room decorations. My husband, sons and I alternated evening stays. Our two sons, Phillip and Nick were acutely aware of the stress. Their immense empathy, love and kindness were a testament to the affection they have for their younger brother.
We knew this new experience would either make or break us, and we were determined to be an example of strength and courage for our son. Amazingly, it was Steven who displayed the strength and courage. Whenever he felt well enough he would converse and tease his nurses. These were precious moments for us.
“I cried to the Lord with my voice, and he heard me…”
In preparation for the bone marrow transplant, Steven’s immune system was completed eliminated through chemotherapy. In addition to our family, our parish prayed and supported us in our journey. Bone marrow drives were held. Goyans throughout our Metropolis sent messages of love and hope. Our own Metropolitan Maximos visited Steven in the hospital and offered prayers and love. We were deeply moved by his Eminence’s support.
“In you, O Lord, I put my trust.”
The day of Steven’s bone marrow transplant was peaceful and calm. Our family, priest and presbytera surrounded our sleeping son. Fr. James Doukas anointed him and blessed the bone marrow (donated from a 33 year old man) with the relic of St. Raphael. It was amazing to witness the life saving bone marrow enter our son’s blood stream with the hope of renewal.
The bone marrow transplant was nine years ago. Despite complications of chronic graft vs. host disease, Steven is doing well. We are all truly blessed!
Our family had many experiences during Steven’s treatment and recovery. There were many ups and downs. While in the hospital we established new friendships. But we also mourned the loss of young people, some from our own parish. Words cannot express the grief I feel knowing that 250 children die everyday to this horrible disease.
We have learned a great deal. Our family can survive the worst of times. Our Faith does sustain us! Our Savior’s sacrifice for us is the Hope and we must allow Him to carry us through the storm.
“Glory to Thee O God, Glory to Thee!”
If you or someone you love has cancer, do not be afraid to reach out to a greater support system than your immediate family. Talk to your priest. Do not be embarrassed by the diagnoses of cancer. The more social support you and your loved ones have, the greater opportunities for physical and emotional health. For more information on adolescent and young adult cancer visit: www.fightconquercure.com.
Angelike (Angie) Giallourakis, Ph.D. is a Resource Specialist for the GOA Center for Family Care. She and her family attend St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Rocky River, Ohio. She feels blessed to be part of such a wonderful community and loving Christians.