Dealing with a Death Sentence

“Will the accused please rise.” The command fills me with trepidation. “You will now hear the verdict and I order it to be recorded by the clerk. We the jury, being duly impaneled and sworn, do hereby find by proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. We therefore unanimously recommend the sentence of death be imposed upon Nikolas Larum.” I’m in a nightmare. I can’t believe this is happening.

An involuntary scan of my recent life plays before my mind’s eye. How could this be happening to me? I’m not a criminal. I’ve played by the rules. I haven’t taken unnecessary risks. How does this happen on a sane planet? My wife grabs my arm and we both hold the tears back as best we can. The warm sands of Bermuda, remains of which can still be found in our shoes, seem to be from a lifetime ago. Was that only the week before last? But the Judge is still speaking, talking about the possibility of a commuted sentence. I force myself to pay attention, even though at that moment I’m tempted with a violence toward him that could seriously foil this potentiality.

The first paragraph is drama, the second reality. The scene isn’t a courtroom but an examining room. And the Judge wasn’t a judge or even a lawyer. He’s my doctor. My wife and I had recently returned from a (very nice) business trip to Bermuda. We had come to finally hear results of tests they had performed on me and the doctor can’t find them. He has his back to us and we are as close to a polite argument as one can get. “The files aren’t here.” “No, they are here. I asked your staff. They said you had them. It’s the only reason we made the appointment.” He looks at his screen, scanning past multiple file names.

In retrospect, I almost wish the scene had been as dramatic as my first paragraph attempts to be. The reality was actually almost anti-climactic and nearly comical. “Oh, here it is,” he says, his back to us and eyes on the screen. “Lymph fluid contained evidence of squamous cell carcinoma. There is a tumor 2 by 2.5 centimeters at the base of the tongue…” and then he remembered that we were in the room. I wish I had taken a picture of his expression as he turned to look at us over his shoulder. The look said, “Oh, $#@&! I just said that out loud, didn’t I?”

How does it feel to hear you have cancer? Have you ever been kicked real hard in the groin when you didn’t even know you were in fight? It felt something like that. The wind went out of me. There was a palpable physical pain and a numbing mental shock. Where did that come from? Did I hear that right? What are you talking about? A tumor on my tongue? But it’s my lymph node they biopsied! I have a sore throat, that’s all. Squamous cell carcinoma? I’ve never heard of it! Did you just make that up? What do you mean I have cancer? I don’t get cancer, other people do!

I am very thankful that my doctor quickly recovered his usually great bedside manner. He slowed down. He explained the results. He showed compassion. My general practitioner got to work and fast-tracked me with some of the best specialists in town. His actions were instrumental in saving my life. And I wasn’t even fully aware that I was dying.

Over the course of the next few months, I would learn more about squamous cell carcinoma than I ever cared to know. But the day that I learned I had the disease; I did what I have so often done. I didn’t stop to reflect. I didn’t go home with my wife to allow us time to process. I ran to work and busyness, the grindstone my preferred head-burial sand. You would expect the specter of death to bring out a greater sense of altruism in me. Nope. I reacted with a visceral selfishness. Run. Hide. Work. It would not be my last mistake.

The next kick in the teeth I was better prepared for, though it still hurt. We had made our way through the oncologist[1] who referred us to the ENT[2] oncologist. He used his tongue depressor and flash light. He pulled my tongue forward and pressed it down. He stuck a hose up through my nose down to my throat and took a look. “What type of therapy did the oncologist recommend?” he asked. I informed him that he had given us a general idea of the chemotherapy and radiation treatments that were typically applied, but that he was deferring to the ENT and awaiting staging diagnosis, which would come with the CT/PET results. “I’ll tell you right now they are going to stage it as Stage IV. No one wants to say it, but that’s what it is.” His back wasn’t turned. His eyes were on me. No pulled punches. Just the facts, man.

“Stage IV?” OK, I’d had an inflamed lymph node for nearly nine months by then. But in less than a month, I’d gone from a sore throat to a potentially calcified lymph node to squamous cell carcinoma on my tongue and three lymph nodes to Stage IV? It wasn’t exactly a sucker punch, but I was reeling. “Yes, Stage IV, but it’s not as bad as it sounds.” “Not as bad as it sounds? You’ve got worse than Stage IV?” Stage IV was get-your-house-in-order stage, sign-up-for-trial-drug-study stage, we’ve-got-nothing-left-for-you stage. “Yes, at Stage IV we start giving it letters: Stage IVa, Stage IVb, Stage IVc. You’re Stage IVa, very treatable.” I was laughing. This was a sit-com. Where’s the live audience? Someone pay the writers more, they’re brilliant.

For seven weeks I received a weekly infusion of Cisplatin[3] and daily doses of radiation. The treatment was more challenging than the disease. I am still recovering from the effects of the drugs and the high level x-ray exposure. But I am happy to report that I had a dramatic response to therapy and all doctors involved expect a full recovery. The tumor is gone, the lymph nodes have shrunk, and I am healing. But this post isn’t about that part of the story. It’s about dealing with a death sentence.

I am a Christian of the faith healing camp. I believe in miracles. I don’t read the Gospels or the book of Acts as the fanciful inventions of man. I’ve laid hands on the sick and infirm and seen them recover.[4] And I confess that being diagnosed with a terminal illness and holding to a theology of an actively intervening God can have its own particular challenges. Were I one who believed that God only worked through doctors (or, worse yet, that only doctors worked) then I could just lay back and take my medicine quietly. But I happen to be a Charismatic. And we don’t do much of anything quietly.

Why am I sick? Is this a test? Should I submit to treatment or boldly stand for a miracle? How do I process this with my children? My church? Oddly enough, if you believe in miracles, your options for response to bad news are a bit more complex. But upon reflection, the answers weren’t that difficult.

Why am I sick? I had involved myself with risky behavior for years during my youth (tobacco being a prime culprit). I am a broken man living on a broken planet and the activities of my youth did violence to the genetic code in my mouth. God is not mocked. You reap what you sow. The miracle was that I hadn’t gotten sick sooner.

Is this a test? Of course it is. All of life is a test. Our small journey here determines our quality of life for eternity. What is momentary suffering in the face of eternal glory?

Should I submit to treatment or boldly stand for a miracle? I asked the ENT what would happen if I did nothing. “You’ll be dead in a year. And it will be a horrible death.” I considered that I had spoken to the inflammation, commanding it to go away. I had prayed. I was eating right and exercising. I was taking my supplements. It had not gotten better, only worse. Though I know God lacks no power or willingness to heal the sick, I had to confess that at that moment, I lacked the faith to see it happen with this disease at this time. I was not ready to die. I submitted to the needles and the rays. After all, I am a Charismatic Christian, not a Christian Scientist.

How do I process this with my children? Honestly, forthrightly, and one day at a time. I had to balance my optimism that God would see us through and I would be delivered with the real possibility that I might die sooner than any of us were ready for. I’ve raised my family in the faith. We have seen our share of miracles and tragedies. They’ve watched me officiate more funerals than weddings. They deserved to know what we were facing with no sugar coating. Faith isn’t denying your circumstances. It’s moving forward in spite of them.

How do I process this with my church? The facts are the facts, the Truth is the truth. Fact: I had cancer. Truth: YHWH-RAPHA, the LORD who heals me. No condemnation, no suffering in silence. All the cards were on the table. A more compassionate group of people one could not ask for.

I know that there are people of faith whose convictions are challenged in the face of adversity, as if belief in God exonerates them from calamity. When the trials hit, they wonder where God could be and why they are suffering. I also know that there are people without hope beyond what man can offer; folks who live their lives under the sun and expect nothing more than this life. How either of these manage to come through a storm intact, I know not. I personally shudder to think of a single day lived outside of the sure knowledge of the abiding presence and care of Jesus.

A dear friend of mine recently asked me how this experience has changed my perspective and personality. I don’t have that answer yet, at least not completely. I know walking through this has made me very thankful for the simple things in life, like brushing my teeth without throwing up. I know that though workaholism is a real danger that still needs to be guarded against; I’ve become much more intentional about my family. I thought I already knew time was short. I know it better now.

Like anyone who has lived, my time of travel in this world hasn’t been trauma-free. We live in a broken world and its shards cut us all. The wonder isn’t in that we bleed. Everybody does. The wonder is that any of us heal at all. And that wonder belongs to Him.

[1] As so often happens in life, the oncologist wasn’t an unknown entity to me or my wife. We first met him a year before during a family conference in which I was the medical power of attorney for my wife’s best friend who was battling brain cancer. I was there to make sure her wish not to proceed with the next treatment recommendation was honored. It meant that absent a miracle, she would die. She went home to the Lord not long after.

[2] ENT – ear, nose, and throat doctor. An ENT is a specialist. An ENT Oncologist is a specialist’s specialist. Mine is very special. Best doctor I’ve ever met.

[3] Cisplatin is a chemotherapy drug. Its molecular structure is a central platinum atom with two chlorine atoms and two ammonia molecules attached to it. I usually treat my poison ivy by lancing the sores and pouring bleach straight in. Early on in this adventure, my wife facetiously commented that it was too bad that I couldn’t treat the cancer like I did my poison ivy. Lo and behold, that’s essentially what they did!

[4] We’re talking fevers-broken, bones-mended, deaf-hearing, dumb-speaking, paralyzed-moving healings. Not on television, not on stage. With my own two eyes, under my hands, by the power of God, in the name of Jesus Christ. To God be the glory!

5 thoughts on “Dealing with a Death Sentence

  1. I was very upset when I found out you had cancer. It was shortly after Mercy died. Yes, it can be very complex processing through a death sentence when you’re a believer in miracles and healings. I’m no closer to answers, but I am closer to God through it all.

    I am so glad the tumor is gone and that you are still here 🙂 I have always liked you and I’m happy to have found your blog 🙂

    1. Grace, your folks sure named you right! I shudder to imagine the pain you have had to process. But what you say is truth. Like no other times in our lives, tragedy has a way of simplifying our faith down to clinging to Him versus clawing for an answer. So much we won’t know until heaven’s door, but Him we can know now. And now is what matters most. Please keep writing. Not only does it do your soul good, it ministers to ours as well. God bless you!

  2. Pingback: Alive | larumland

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