Faith over fear: The road to healing (Part one of a two-part series)

Before being diagnosed with cancer, the Terry’s were happy and celebrating  their 50th wedding anniversary with Bro. Randy Copeland renewing their vows.

It was a beautiful day for a homecoming. Overhead, the Alabama sky was a lovely shade of cerulean blue with just enough puffy cumulus clouds to make it picturesque. That was until the entourage escorting George and Linda Terry home from the Huntsville International Airport hit one of those summertime pop-up thunderstorms that Alabama is famous for. The Freedom Riders were drenched, but on the bright side, it didn’t last long and the sun popped up as if to say, “Sorry about that folks, just a little glitch, but you can carry on now!” 

The Terrys returned Saturday from Houston, Texas where George has been undergoing experimental treatments for cancer. It has been a long, exhausting six months for them, their sons, Shawn and Brandon, daughter-in-law, Amy, and grandchildren, Bryson Terry and Destinee Jones and her husband, Hunter, and for their friends and family. 

The couple was shocked and surprised by the escort awaiting them when they deplaned in Huntsville around 11:00 a.m. Saturday morning. “There must be something going on here,” Linda thought curiously, not dreaming that it was for them.  The plans for the surprise had been in the works for over a month.

But let’s start at the beginning…

Undiagnosed for eight months 

George and Linda Terry were just about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Although George hadn’t felt up to par for at least eight months. Visits to eight different doctors had provided no reason other than that he might be in pain from a past broken rib. George had some chest pains but a heart attack was ruled out early on. Each doctor referred him to another specialist. “Every one of them would tell us that there was something going on but it wasn’t cancer,” said Linda.

As plans for their anniversary celebration took shape, their granddaughter, Destinee Jones, who had just gotten married a few months before, encouraged them to renew their vows as a part of the festivities. Linda was a little reluctant, knowing George hadn’t been feeling well, but Destinee won the argument by persuading Linda that she might regret it if she didn’t do it now. That was almost a prophecy.

The anniversary dinner took place in a room filled with friends and family to wish them well at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church where the couple has attended for years. 

Not long afterward they were referred to an internist, Dr. Nicole Shaw, in Cullman by one of the other doctors they’d been seeing. “The doctor told us that he knew there was something going on with George but that they didn’t know what it was, “One thing it’s not is cancer,” he told us,” Linda recalled. “If there is something there, Dr. Shaw will find it.” 

Linda lost a sister, Donna Montgomery, a few years ago, and a brother, Gary Loyd, five months before, for whom she was still in mourning. George’s mother passed away from lung cancer, so that statement was reassuring to the couple.

But after meeting with Dr. Shaw in January of 2019, and having more testing, including a biopsy they received news that no one wants to hear: “It’s cancer,” Dr. Shaw told them. There it was, finally a diagnosis, but not what they expected at all. Linda felt a burning sensation overtake her whole body. She and George clung to one another and through their tears they listened as Dr. Shaw gave them more information that barely registered at the time. 

She picked up the phone and called MD Anderson and set up an appointment for them right then. 

By noon the following day they received a call from the world famous cancer research hospital in Houston, Texas. 

They were instructed to come to Houston, prepared to spend a week. They packed warm clothes and fighting not to show the fear that crept into their minds, they faced the beginning of what would turn out to be an incredible journey together, as always. 

MD Anderson Cancer Center, a last resort  

Cancer is intimidating enough, much less being thrust into a world of long medical terms that are bewildering and medications that are confusing and that often cause sickness and nausea. Linda and George were fortunate that they have a nephew in Houston who works for Gulf Oil. He sent a car and driver for them and they were delivered to the huge medical complex where they were met by people trained in making them at ease and who showed them exactly where to go and who they were to see. 

By this time George was visibly in pain and was taking strong medications and using pain patches for it, which helped but it made him groggy. 

“The hospital is seven city blocks long and employs over 22,000 people, many of them former patients there who ended up working there,” explained Linda. 

“They have long tunnels and trollies to take you wherever you need to go. For us, it was the main part of the hospital.”

George has always been exceptionally grounded in his faith. It was that faith and his inner strength that sustained him now, and extended to Linda. She claimed Psalm 118:17, “I shall not die; but live and declare the works of the Lord.” 

“This is when I decided that I would choose faith over fear,” she said. It would become her mantra throughout the ordeal that was facing them. 

After further testing, Linda said you can’t imagine how many tests, it was determined that George’s body was riddled with cancer. It was literally everywhere, with the exception of his brain. Later they would explain to the Terrys part of the reason that it was so advanced before it was caught was that it was like a ghost, invading and doing its work then disappearing, only to return again later. That was why it was so hard to diagnose.

 George’s cancer was probably work related, and it was non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. George’s age, 72, would work against him with this type of cancer. It was also advanced, in stage four.  

At one point George turned to his wife and said, “When it gets scary you talk to God.” It was advice that she would turn to again and again. 

Family and faith

Their youngest son, Brandon, put his life on hold and went to Houston to be with them and to help when things got rough. “It knocked the wind out of me when they called us all together to tell us the news about dad’s cancer, but I knew that my mom would need me, and I felt that I had to be with them so I just dropped everything and went.” 

“By this time George was in really bad shape, but we finally got all the testing done,” Linda recalled.  

George and Linda relied heavily on their faith. George told his treatment team that they had turned everything over to the Lord and that it was a win-win situation, either way. He also told them that he had prayed about it and that he was ready for whatever they had in store for him, knowing that God was leading them, as well. 

Our worst nightmare 

Chemotherapy has struck horror into many a heart over the years as stories of its ravaging the human body while attempting to save it has been told. For people over fifty, the word cancer has usually meant a death sentence. Things have changed and in a large part due to MD Anderson (now considered the number one cancer research facility in the world) research and new advances in medicine and the way treatments are administered. It is also a fairly new practice in the field of medicine for doctors and nurses, once taught to be impartial, to pray with their patients. Statistics show that people of faith have a better chance of recovering from the disease. “The proof of the power of prayer is overwhelming,” says researcher and writer Tom Knox, a one-time atheist who became a regular worshipper after doing in-depth study of the medical benefits of faith.

“What I discovered astonished me,” admits Knox. “Over the past 30 years a growing and largely unnoticed body of scientific work shows religious belief is medically, socially, and psychologically beneficial.”

Study after study backs up the benefits of having faith, especially in prolonging life.

In 2006, population researchers at the University of Texas discovered that the more often you go to church, the longer you live. (Source: Newsmax Health)

That being the case, the Terrys were on solid ground. 

For George and Linda’s grandson, Bryson, this experience was a marked feeling of hopelessness in the beginning. What kept him focused and lifted him up was his own faith and his awareness of his grandfather’s strong faith. The thought of his Poppy going to Texas was almost as bad as the cancer itself, the two had never really been separated since Bryson was born, other than an occasional vacation. They had seen each other practically every day. Sometimes they played dominoes, other times they spent long, lazy days at the lake, or gathered around the kitchen table for some of George’s famous pancakes. “He makes the best pancakes in the world, and that’s a fact,” Bryson laughed. They also argued playfully about which of them was the most handsome. Bryson admits that he didn’t handle this news very well at all. “I could talk to my dad, and the two of us helped each other through it,” he said. 

After George’s chemo treatments failed to show any significant signs of improvement, the family hit rock bottom, although they didn’t let each other know it. Linda had her hardest time crying on the bathroom floor of the apartment they had rented. “I couldn’t let my kids see me come unraveled,” she said. “But I have wonderful friends, Roger and Joyce Engle, who came and stayed with us for a while and it helped to have her to talk to, and of course, we received so many cards and emails, letters, packages, it’s just unbelievable how supportive people were for us, and we got such a blessing from them and from churches as far away as Africa. It was just unbelievable.”

“Joyce and Roger went to Hobby Lobby and bought tiny clothes pins and pinned up all of our cards, over 420, all over the apartment so that we were literally covered in prayer,” said Linda. “We went to Houston with only a suitcase so it was a blessing to have our clothing and other necessities from home that they brought with them. Later on our kids brought summer clothes, it was funny having my sons pick out my summer wardrobe,” she laughed. 

Linda read every card, relayed each phone call and made sure George knew how many people were praying for him. For what was to come, they would need each one.

A glimmer of hope 

After the family regrouped from the devastating news they found that there was a glimmer of hope after all. It came in the form of an experimental trial for a treatment called CAR T-Cell Therapy. One of the nurse practitioners on the team, Sherry Adkinson, became a close friend and mentor, who would help to guide Linda through what to expect in the coming weeks.  

According to MD Anderson’s website, CAR T-cell therapy uses a patient’s immune system to fight cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. (To learn more about the therapy, including who is eligible, visit top-ranked MD Anderson Cancer Center’s website). 

They were given pages and pages of literature about the experimental procedure, which they poured over in their apartment, then, as required, signed and were accepted into the trial program. 

In layman’s terms Linda explained what happened. “They drew blood from George three weeks prior to the treatment. Then they ran it through a centrifuge and fortified it. When we went in for the CAR T-Cells to be injected they had 20 minutes to get the small clear packet of cells from the lab to the IV in his arm. The morning we returned for the treatment at 8:45, the whole treatment team gathered around us and we had prayer. Then they went into action, quickly injecting the fortified blood cells back into his body. It took four long hours. It’s sort of like they enriched his good cells and took out everything else, and then they grew more of the good cells, like an army of fighting cells, using his own blood. Using these millions of good cells they flooded them into George’s bloodstream, where they immediately started attacking the bad, cancer-causing cells. This is much more potent than what the body can manufacture on its own to fight the bad cells. These good cells will remain in George’s body for at least six months, maybe much longer, fighting around the clock to destroy any stray cancer cells.”  

But getting to that point was a nightmare for the family. “They warned us of possible side effects, but they also told us that if he experienced any of them it meant that the treatment was working,” said Linda. 

They didn’t have to wait long, by the end of day one George started to run a fever. “The staff was so good to explain to us that this wasn’t unexpected, it was actually the beginning of the side effects which let us know that the treatment was working.” 

The staff also warned of other side effects, and before the long ordeal was over, George would experience the worst of them. “His fever continued to rise, peaking once at 103.1,” said Linda. “They kept ice packs under his arms and started antibiotics, monitoring him around the clock, doing IKGs, MRIs and EEGs for any changes that were not normal,  changing IVs, watching his vital signs, and he would beg us to get him out of there, he was in such pain,” she recalled. “The fever came and went so they kept him in ice and kept him under an ice blanket.”

At one point his heart rate went up way over 200, he was crashing and the team prepared to move him to ICU. About that time his heart team, who were doing routine visits on that floor,  came walking down the hall and noticed the commotion. They stepped into the room and saw what was going on, immediately accessing the situation. They unplugged George and took everything down the hall to the elevators, keeping him alive while en route to the ICU. Linda was put onto another elevator with a nurse and a counselor.

Unbeknown to Linda, George stopped breathing in the elevator and was resuscitated. 

Brandon was on his way to the hospital at the time. Linda called Shawn and told him that he should come to Texas right away. Shawn secured the first flight which wasn’t until that night, then went to his parent’s home and proceeded to mow their lawn. “Why are you mowing right now,” asked a perplexed wife, Amy. “Because,” answered Shawn, “He will expect it to be done when he gets home.” 

Later, after George was stabilized the heart doctor told Linda and George that he hadn’t been coming to see George at that time, although he was last on the list because he wasn’t having any problems. “You are blessed to be alive, and it’s all due to God,” said the physician humbly. 

During this time the hospital provided support counseling for the family to help them cope with what she was seeing her husband endure. She had always leaned on him for everything, now he was helpless and she was beginning to fall apart. “The counselors were wonderful, they helped me to stay calm. My sons were amazing, even though it was terribly hard for them, they took care of their father for the first time in their lives, George had always done the caretaking.” 

At the age of 46, Shawn and Brandon, 41, had already taken over Brandshaw, the family business, headquartered in Courtland, stepping into their father’s shoes when George went into semi-retirement in 2016. They had shouldered the responsibilities but always consulted their father for advice on a daily basis. It was now up to them to carry on without George’s advice. “That was hard,” Shawn admitted. “Everything happened so fast, he seemed fine one day, we had just spent one night working on an old truck I’d bought, and practically the next he was in Houston. I still talked to him every day until the CAR T-Cell treatments began, then he was just too sick to talk and I had to step up and do it without him for the first time.” It was a big responsibility for him but he shouldered it well and did what he knew his father would want him to do. 

Brandon, the Terry’s younger son, took a leave of absence from the company in order to stay with his parents in Houston because there were times when George was too much for Linda to handle alone. “Both of my sons were wonderful,” said Linda. “Our family, including my niece, Amber Cameron, kept the house up, Eric Frost went out and fixed some appliances for us, Joyce Engle had to clean out our refrigerator and cabinets, and so many people helped in our absence. I just can’t thank everyone enough,” she said. “Our minister, Bro. Randy Copland and Bro. Jim Fiscus, along with Bro. Neil Carter were calling to check on us daily. Bro. Fiscus brought George a rock from the Holy Land from a brook in the field where David slew Goliath. “This rock represents the giant of cancer which you are slaying,” he told George, who has never let the rock out of his sight since. 

Through the whole ordeal, one in which George’s heart started to collect fluid,  two trips to the ICU, his changing personality, irritability and frustration, and seeing him in such pain, Linda recalled how he cautioned her that when things got scary she should talk to God. At this point, it was pretty much a running conversation. When his heart stopped this conversation turned into a mantra, “I know he is yours, Lord, but please save him,” she prayed over and over. 

Her prayers, and the prayers of the whole family, friends and neighbors at home, her Sunday school class, and so many churches that Linda is afraid to start naming them for fear that she would leave one out, the American Legion and VFW were so kind during this time. Linda and George were amazed and grateful for each prayer, card and letter. “It really means a lot,” she said over and over. There was also a special prayer service for George at Pleasant Grove with a packed house praying for his healing. 

Meanwhile back at the hospital, George’s temperature continued to spike. He started vomiting and things looked bleak.  

End part one / next week. “They call it a miracle? Is this the cure for cancer?”

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