It was a Tuesday when my primary care doc called me to tell me the results of my PET scan: “There is a 2” (5cm) tumor in your right lung and a tumor in your left lung. It is cancer, there is no doubt about it. It’s bad, and it’s hyperactive – growing and aggressive. It is other places, too. We need to get you to an oncologist as quickly as we can.”
I appreciated his candor. My primary care doc is a personal friend, Dr. Joey Patrick. His wife, Tia, works with me at CCHF, and my wife works for him, so our lives are intertwined on a daily basis. He is smart – not just well-educated. He is also compassionate. He treats people like people. He loves his patients, knows their stories, and prays for them – all of them all of the time. I know that it was hard for him to share that news with me. “Who’s going to tell Victoria?” Joey had been doing rounds and was on his way back to the office. I told him I would run to the office and tell Vic. He met us at her office 15 minutes later.
That was a hard meeting. Vic and I cried, but we both had a peace about it that was greater than our grief and fear. As we hugged I told her, “We are gonna be ok.”, and she replied, “Yes, I think we are. I really do.”
Believe it or not, we didn’t worry that night or the next. We told my staff and our daughters, and I informed the elders in our church. But we decided to wait until after the oncologist appointment to tell anyone else.
Two days later we saw the oncologist. Our meeting was less than stellar. But eventually he looked at the PET scan film and told us that he had seen this thousands of times. He knew it was non-small-cell lung cancer. (He turned out to be wrong. My biopsy proved the cancer to be metastatic melanoma, not lung cancer.) I would not be a candidate for radiation or surgery since it was in the mediastinum (the area between the lungs and close to the heart). Treatment was palliative at best, not curative. In other words, I would live to be a patient, and they would do what they could to stretch my weeks or months into maybe a year or two, all the while doing whatever medical interventions they could. I would be an interesting science project.
We went back to the office and sat with my staff and shared what the oncologist had told us. We called our daughters. I called my brother and Vic called hers. And I called a few friends who I knew would be hurt to hear about this through the grapevine. I knew they would pray. There were a lot of tears. Those calls were hard. One of the hardest things to do when you have been diagnosed with cancer is to help others who love you process what you are going through. But it is a good thing, and necessary. Just hard.
That night was my worst night. I woke up at midnight and knew I would not be able to get back to sleep. I went into our guest bedroom and closed the door. Our house is small, and I go there to pray sometimes. I had an honest and openly emotional talk with God that night. I felt hurt and angry. But I wasn’t angry at God. I don’t believe God gives people cancer. We live in a broken world. Following Christ doesn’t exempt us from being affected by its brokenness. In fact, we are called to engage it, walk thru it, sometimes to experience it, and always to bring the recognized presence of God into it. The evil in this world - and cancer is evil - is not something that God inflicts on us because He is mad that we don’t obey him. It is the natural consequence of not living in the goodness and love of God. He offers a better way - an alternative system of life called the kingdom of God. I believe God works to restore us, not to punish us. There may be a day for punishment, but in this life, God is constantly calling us, meeting us, drawing us closer to Him. It gives Him no pleasure to see people suffer.
But God could have prevented me from getting cancer, and He didn’t. In fact, this is my 2nd time - different cancers both times. In the early 1990s I had stage 4 Hodgkins lymphoma. That’s pretty easy to cure now, but in the early 90’s they were still working out the kinks. Mine had metastasized into hard tissues. I had 6 bone tumors in my spine and pelvis, as well as tumors in my lungs, liver, spleen and most of my lymph nodes. God saved me then, and He can save me now. I have been cancer-free for 26 years. This cancer is not more difficult for God.
As I verbalized all of the messy emotions that I was feeling, I came to remember how good God has been to me all of the 46 years that I have followed Him. At times he led me through hard places. But He was always with me, and in the midst of those hard times, I remember having joy. He is no different now than He has always been. He is trustworthy, and I can trust him now.
My anger and hurt turned into gratefulness and praise. Not right away…I had a good 4 hours of weeping and grief and hurt that I expressed to Him quite bluntly. But He didn’t turn me away. He wasn’t disappointed in me. And through that difficult night, He helped me come to a place of trust and peace. It was a breakthrough that has carried me so far.
Still, there were things that were sources of anxiety for me. We have a house in Columbus I need to sell. My 87 year old mother’s affairs need to be settled. I need to get our own house in order, and deal with things so Victoria won’t have to. I decided to make out a bucket list. But as I began to write stuff out, I realized what a great life I have lived. Truthfully, there is no place that I care about going where I have not already been. There is nothing I feel that I have left undone. There are no relationships that I feel need mending. My kids have good husbands, and are heading in the right directions. Victoria is doing well. If I die, she will miss me, but she will be fine. CCHF is on a solid foundation has its priorities right, and is poised to be an impactful ministry for the next 15 years. God has blessed me. I am a happy and fulfilled man.
There were only 2 items on my bucket list that were semi “bucket-list-worthy”, and the rest were just little to-do items. The most pressing was that I have 200,000 air miles that I don’t want to give back to Delta airlines. 😊 The second was that I have never been to an opera. I think I would like to see an opera. When those are the only two items on your list, the bar is either really low, or you have lived a rich life. I have lived a rich life. God has been generous to me. He is good. I can trust Him.
I want to live. I am asking God for another 7 years of fruitful ministry. Not 7 more years to be a cancer patient. I want to be cancer-free, and I want fruitful ministry. But I have lived a life worth being grateful for. God has been good to me. He loves me. He is pleased with me. He is leading me through this valley of the shadow of death, and I will come to know Him in richer, deeper ways than I could have known Him otherwise. So bring it on! If that is all that comes out of this, that is more than enough for me.
“I am your shield, Your very great reward.” (Gen 15:1)