From ‘threshold of death’ to sharing Christmas joys
‘Lord, I ain’t through yet’
Archive video: ‘I want people to be encouraged’
View a 2007 video interview
When the Rev. Carlin Dempsey preached his Christmas sermon Sunday, he mentioned two miracles: one that happened in the manger and the other that took place in his own life.
“When I think how wonderful every birthday and holiday event is now, I am truly thankful,” Dempsey said. “One of my best Christmas gifts is I am here to celebrate Christmas.”
The 64-year-old was on “the threshold of death” after being diagnosed with cancer in January 2005.
He went through surgery and chemotherapy, only to have the processes repeated each time the cancer returned. It came back three different times: in his side, abdominal wall and again in his colon.
Intervals between each recurrence got “shorter and shorter, which is never a good sign,” said his doctor, Charles Maurer.
Once, chemotherapy was stopped because the cancer flared up in the middle of the treatment.
Another time, the Stafford County pastor and his wife, Linda, were told that the best thing they could do was go home and prepare for the inevitable.
Dempsey wasn’t ready to lie down and die. As certain as he was that he would go to heaven, he wanted to stay on Earth a little longer.
“Lord, I ain’t through yet,” he prayed in 2007, when The Free Lance–Star published a story about him. “I need a little more time.”
He got what he asked for—after 13 rounds of experimental vaccines and a grueling operation that’s so hard on the heart, patients have a 50–50 chance of survival.
Both unusual treatments probably were factors in keeping him cancer-free for the past six years, but Dempsey also credits a higher power.
“Being a pastor, it’s very simple,” he said. “It’s all a miracle of God.”
FAITH ‘PLAYED A PART’
Maurer, who’s the medical oncology and cancer committee chairman at Mary Washington Hospital, used the same word to describe Dempsey’s turnabout.
“It’s really miraculous,” he said. “I truly can’t explain what it was that achieved the goal.”
He said “the doctor part” of him would attribute Dempsey’s improvement to the various therapies.
But Maurer also tells patients that, even with best medicine, they also need motivation and emotional support, nutrition and plenty of rest.
“Many patients will use their faiths to get them through,” Maurer said. “Pastor Carlin had his faith, and I think it played a part.”
So did his network of family, friends and the congregation at Kings Highway Baptist Church in Stafford, Dempsey said.
The church held a 24-hour prayer vigil in September 2007, when Dempsey faced the most grueling procedure of the four surgeries and dozens of rounds of chemotherapy and radiation he endured in four years of treatments.
“That was a real kicker,” the pastor said about the operation. “I can’t begin to describe it to you.”
‘MANY DARK DAYS’
The operation was called hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy, or HIPEC.
During the 11-hour procedure, Dempsey’s organs were removed from the lining of his abdominal cavity, bathed in heated chemicals for 90 minutes, and put back. Five surgeons were in the room with him.
“We were upfront with him, that this is not surgery for the lighthearted,” said Maurer, who gave Dempsey the option after he had tried conventional treatments. “It was intensive. There were many dark days.”
Matt Wagner, a Sunday school teacher, said church doors were open during the procedure so members could come in and pray for their pastor.
He was surprised that the busiest time was between 3 and 6 a.m.
When Dempsey made it through the surgery, church members went out to breakfast to celebrate.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Wagner said. “I’ve never been a part of anything that close. Overall good came out of it, not only from a personal perspective for Carlin, but for the whole church.”
13 DOSES OF VACCINE
After the intensive surgery, Maurer said there was one more treatment that Dempsey could try to keep the cancer from returning: experimental vaccines.
The Dempseys saw a doctor in spring 2008 who looked at the pastor’s medical records—and said his case was too risky. He said there was no way it wouldn’t come back.
The doctor told the couple to go home and prepare for the inevitable.
The doctor had a change of heart the next day and suggested that Dempsey apply for a clinical trial at Duke University Medical Center.
That’s where Dr. Michael Morse has worked for more than a decade to develop a vaccine trained to harness a person’s own immune system to fight cancer cells.
The vaccines have been used to treat all kinds of cancers, according to Duke University’s website.
When Dempsey joined the trial, he was told his was the worst case of the eight patients. He was given 41 pages of regulations applying to the vaccines, including three pages on possible side effects from headaches to blackouts.
The vaccine itself was a small stick in the arm and required less than five minutes in the examining room. Dempsey also had a body scan and gave 19 vials of blood for testing before each shot in the arm.
He went to the facility in Durham, N.C., every three months and continued with the vaccines until they were no longer offered. He got 13 doses.
“It bothered me it was 13,” he said, smiling, but maybe the unlucky number was good for him.
‘REALLY FEEL BLESSED’
Dempsey never experienced a single side effect, and the vaccines marked the end of his intensive treatment against the disease.
He continues to get scans every six months, and he’s been cancer-free since September 2007.
Except for a nasty bout of flu in February 2012, he’s been the picture of health.
His weight is stable, and he’s happy with his energy and stamina levels.
The only time he’s sore is if he overdoes it on the golf course. He plays once a week, enjoys time with his sons and takes his granddaughters and the rest of the family to Disney World every year.
He also walks, cheerfully, up several flights of steps to reach his office in the church tower.
“I will tell you upfront, I really feel blessed,” the pastor said. “There’s not a morning that I don’t come into this office and get down on my knees and thank God.”
A SENSE OF HOPE
Dempsey regularly speaks about his experience from the pulpit, as he did on Sunday. His story gives hope to others going through their own problems, Wagner said.
People have faith they can get through a crisis because they saw Dempsey do it.
“You know how that goes,” Wagner said. “He can, he did, we can, we will.”
It’s also taught members to share their burdens. Wagner remembers one instance, when Dempsey got back in his car after a chemotherapy treatment and wasn’t sure he had the energy to drive himself home.
Dempsey called Wagner, and the pastor and Sunday school teacher talked until Dempsey felt better.
Fellow church members have learned to lean on each other the same way.
“There’s a great sense of community in our church,” Wagner said. “No one goes through any of these things alone.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425
‘SOMETIMES WE GET A HOME RUN’
Had the Rev. Carlin Dempsey not had a pain in his chest, he believes doctors might not have discovered the tumor in his colon until it became more advanced.
It was January 2005, and Dempsey’s wife, Linda, insisted he see a doctor. A stress test showed a blockage, and Dempsey had a procedure to open the artery.
When he bled profusely after the procedure, doctors ordered a colonoscopy and found a tennis-ball sized tumor on his colon. The tumor was removed the next day, and cancer was found in three lymph nodes.
Dempsey underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy and was told in August the cancer was gone.
It came back in January 2006, this time in his side. Another surgery and more chemotherapy ensued.
By December, it looked like he was cancer-free again. Then in March 2007, the disease showed up again in his abdominal wall and colon.
He was in the midst of chemotherapy treatments that July, when another spot showed up on his abdominal wall.
Chemotherapy was stopped because it didn’t seem to be doing any good.
Dr. Charles Maurer then suggested the aggressive HIPEC procedure, or hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy. His organs were removed from his body and bathed in chemicals in an attempt to keep them cancer-free.
After that, the only option Dempsey hadn’t explored was cancer vaccines, and he started those in spring 2008.
Maurer said doctors often suggest other options when conventional cancer treatments don’t work.
“Sometimes we get a home run,” the doctor said. “Many times we don’t, but we still keep trying.”
THEN & NOW is an occasional update on stories previously featured in The Free Lance–Star.