Cancer Survivor 2.0: Transitions

“You were dying.” I seem to get that a lot, and by “a lot” I mean more than once. Once is enough, right? The first time around, it revolved around the cancer itself.[1] This time, it had to do with the aftereffects of the treatment.[2] I was well out of the woods, the base-of-tongue tumor a good five-plus years in my life’s rearview mirror. But I wasn’t well. “Glad to see you made it in,” the doctor said when the test results came in. “Because looking at these numbers, I don’t know how you’re still walking around.”

“He’s been grumpier than usual,” Heidi, my wife, told the receptionist after I dropped the clipboard with the new patient form down on the counter in frustration and told Heidi she could fill it out. It was a rude, inexcusable, over-the-top reaction to her matter-of-fact observation that my handwriting was illegible. It was March 8, 2019. Grumpiness earned me a doctor’s visit. Hopefully, that says something about my regular demeanor.

Without controversy, 2020 has been crazy. But the crazy for me started well before the pandemic and violent protests of this historic year. In retrospect, the cause of my condition should have been obvious. All the symptoms lined up, I just never assembled them for the same crime. If I had, I might have agreed to see the endocrinologist when I could still manage to keep my cool.

Suspect No. 1: High Cholesterol

My previous employer offered yearly wellness checks, part of which was a basic blood test to measure cholesterol levels for heart disease risk. In June 2016, my total cholesterol level (TCL) was 311 mg/dL (less than 200 is the desired range). We made some adjustments to my diet, substantially decreasing the large daily dose of raw eggs that were a major component of my protein shakes. Two years later, my TCL had climbed to 390, nearly double the healthy range.

The result made no sense. From 2016 to 2018, I lost weight—two pounds, to be exact, but decrease is decrease. I carried 171 pounds on my 5’ 11” frame with considerable ease. It wasn’t the food, so I blamed cortisol, the body’s stress-response hormone implicated in high cholesterol levels. Not that I “felt” stressed, mind you. But my body has always been a faithful witness to what my soul ignores.

Suspect No. 2: Peripheral Neuropathy

I wear gloves in summer and make a point to push my legs to their limit because Cisplatin, the chemotherapy drug I was given as part of my cancer treatment, did a number on my nerves. Walking was difficult during the initial recovery phase. Cold hands and numbness in my feet persist. lists peripheral neuropathy as a less common but serious side effect from the drug and notes that “neurologic effects may be irreversible.”[3] Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Suspect No. 3: Depression

Depressed? Who, me? No way.

I was sad. In early 2018, after seven accolade-filled years of managing the hauling operations for my former employer, they gave my post to someone better suited to their executive succession plan.

I was lonely. Work moved me from my central-hub office that I affectionately named The Fish Bowl, to an office in a practically abandoned suite at the back of the maintenance shop I called The Cave, where I toiled away—a manager on hold with only contracts to supervise.

I was grieving. My brother Eric passed away on New Year’s Day, 2019.

Suspect No. 4: Fatigue

As a hauling manager, I regularly worked 10 to 11-hour days, five days a week. When they changed my post and I became effectively a manager without portfolio for close to six months, I still put in over forty-five hours a week on average. In August of 2018, I began managing our main recycling facility. 55-hour work weeks were not uncommon. I walked five miles a day doing the job. Then came the weekend when I studied, preached, and wrote. Yep, I was tired. I had reason to be.

Suspect No. 5: Emotional Lability

I didn’t see this suspect, my family did. Emotional lability is the psychological term for rapid and often exaggerated changes in mood where strong feelings such as uncontrollable crying or heightened irritability—hello, grumpiness—occur. I wasn’t irritable. I was focused. And if I cried at the drop of a hat, it was because it reminded me of my brother. At least, that’s what I told myself. My family told me I was grumpy. It wasn’t until I was getting better that they told me I was dying on them.

It’s late August 2013, before the chemo, before the radiation. The professionals reviewed the treatment protocol with all its promises and potential pitfalls. I listened. Heidi took notes. The chance of the treatment not working was low, the possibility of coming through unscathed nil. We knew at the start that the radiation would bombard my thyroid gland on its mission to destroy the cancer cells on my tongue and in my lymph nodes. Once I could eat again, we folded in a natural thyroid supplement into my protein shakes. As the years ticked by, the level of supplementation increased. If I missed a dose, I had a sense of crashing. I should have stopped. Instead, I fell into my default of pushing through.

I pushed through projects. In March 2018, I published Wind, Water, and Fire, a book about the Holy Spirit. As soon as it launched, I began writing Love Everlasting: A Practical Theology of Time, which I published in March 2020. In the same time frame, I started writing Valley of Wolves, the sequel to Gypsy Spy.

I pushed through work. In August of 2018, I assumed active management of our community’s largest post-consumer recycling facility. I had managed a small materials recovery facility and transfer station in the early years of my waste management career. Taking on this plant was like going from a go-cart to a high-mileage Ferrari. The workers and machinery required direct attention. I jumped into the fray at full-throttle. The post was nominally an office job. I was the general manager of a multimillion-dollar operation. I wasn’t in the office much. Flesh and blood, metal and grease are more my style.

I pushed through play. I went on business trips; nice trips to San Diego and Orlando, company funded and wife accompanied. I attended writing conferences that we turned into family vacations. Slowing down is something I am still learning to do.

While preparing for this post, I came across a line of dialogue I had jotted down in my idea journal. It’s dated May 22, 2018. I didn’t assign a character to it and can’t be certain of its inspiration. Did I overhear someone say it? Did I read it somewhere else? Was it just part of one of those conversations that fictional players have a tendency to whisper in my head? Maybe it was just my Freudian slip showing.

“Too many folks hurry about like they was rushin’ to die.”

You think?

We met with the endocrinologist. He ordered the blood work and told us he would see us a couple of weeks after the results came in. I went in for the blood draw on the last Monday in March 2019. That Thursday, the 28th, held the typical whirlwind of activity during which I either ignored my cell phone or couldn’t hear it ring (recycling plants are noisy). I walked up to the main office and the receptionist told me I needed to call home—now. “The results are in,” Heidi said. “The doctor wants to see you today.” Today? What happened to two weeks?

I like to think of myself as brave, but let’s be honest. Once you’ve been a recipient of a deadly medical diagnosis, a busy doctor saying you need to come in immediately is terrifying. My boss’s face when I told him I had to go didn’t help much. He was still a bit traumatized from watching me go through treatment. “You gave us a pretty good scare there, Nik,” he told me once. For a reserved man, his confession exposed much. He looked at me wide-eyed. “Good luck.”

They led Heidi and me into the exam room. We knew our places. She sat in the chair. I perched on the exam table. We waited. We wondered. We prayed. The doctor came in, report in hand. He looked at it, he looked at me. “Glad to see you made it in. Because looking at these numbers,” he lifted the sheet of paper, “I don’t know how you’re still walking around.”

He had ordered a thyroid panel. They checked my blood for T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine), which are produced by the thyroid and TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) which is released by the pituitary gland when it thinks the thyroid needs some encouragement. My T3 and T4 levels were nowhere near the low end of the reference range. And my TSH?

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m still working over fifty hours a week. I probably walk five miles a day going through the different plants.”

“Well, let me put in perspective for you. Most of my patients, if their TSH level is at 10, are in my office demanding that I do something. At 12, they are barely functioning. Yours is at 72.75.”

Measured in microunits per milliliter, the sweet spot for the TSH level is 1.8. My pituitary gland was on overdrive trying to wake up my radiation exhausted thyroid. I was in full-blown hypothyroidism, symptoms of which include high cholesterol, peripheral neuropathy, depression, fatigue, emotional lability, and weight gain.

What, weight gain? Wait a minute! I was a full-grown male, average weight for my height with a body mass index of 24 which was thankfully inside the normal range. Funny how we can use one fact to deny that a part of us is dying.

“It was like it took everything for you just to hang on,” Heidi told me. “We were watching you. You were gray. You didn’t look well. You snapped at us. You were dying.” She got me to the doc. My mother was a nurse. Dodging medical diagnosis was a habit I learned early in life. Heidi saved mine. Again.

Medicine is a practice. Over the course of the next several months, the doctor increased the daily dosage level of my thyroid medicine. The good news: I was getting better. The bad news: the edge on my emotional lability took a while to dull. Generally diplomatic to a fault, I had become increasingly frank with my boss and with ownership. I jotted a note in my journal after a particularly trying meeting with them in early August 2019.

“The false satisfaction in blame never resolves the problem.”

It all came to head a couple of weeks later during a staff meeting filled with brass in which I made statements and presented information that painted upper management into a corner. Speaking truth to power is never without risk. Doing it on edge can bring sudden life transitions.

After 12 years of a job I often described as “a joy ride,” my employer and I had an amicable parting of ways. I left the world of a thousand spinning plates to return to the trade of an office furniture installer—a hybrid of mix of carpenter, mechanic, assembly line worker, and logistician. It’s difficult to measure the load you are carrying until you put it down on the scale. I never fully appreciated the level of tension I was under until my employer released me. I breathe easier now.

I had blood work done at the end of August 2019. Treatment was working. My total cholesterol was down to 170, a 56% drop from its highwater mark and inside the normal range. My T3 and T4 levels were normal. My TSH was at 1.31, which made the doc happy happy. I was less grumpy. And my weight? Apparently, I was overweight at 171 pounds. When I was 18, fresh out of high school, I might have weighed 152 pounds soaking wet. I am fifty-five. In my current job, I walk about seven miles a day, some of it on my knees and much of it carrying or pushing freight. The hours are reasonable, the stress negligible. If I stick with eating five times a day, I manage to keep 150 pounds on my 5’ 11” frame.

If you had sat down with me seven years ago and on the tail of hearing from the medical professionals all the true horrors of the treatment I had signed on for and said, “After all this is done, you are going to be a better man than you were in your 20s.” I would have laughed. And cried. My thirty-year-old self was in much worse shape than the twenty-year-old version and I had added a lot of mileage since then. But my Father is the Creator of the heavens and the Earth. My God is the Redeemer. In His hands, nothing goes to waste. He makes all things good. He is the master of transition and transformation. Just keep holding His hand. Everything is going to be okay.

[1] In case you missed it, you can read about it in “Dealing with a Death Sentence.”
[2] I shared about my treatment experience in the post “Pizza Night: Milestone on Recovery Road.”
[3] accessed August 29, 2020.

My Top Ten Reads of 2018

Though writing occupied much of my time in 2018 (two book publications, sixty-eight blog posts, and 13,000 words into my next novel) I still managed to read through 37 books with a good mix of fiction and non-fiction covering diverse topics. How did I get through 37 tomes? I supplemented my regular reading with listening to audiobooks on my commute to work.

I would have preferred to provide the list in January instead of March, but this year got off on a difficult foot and I am still struggling to regain my stride. Below are my top ten of the bunch in the order I read or listened to them. Any that spark you interest is well worth your time to read.

Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World by Bob Goff

With story after story filled with Christ’s love and how transforming it is to actually follow Jesus instead of just stalking Him, this book is an inspiration and challenge all wrapped up in one. Its child’s-faith outlook stands on a firm biblical foundation. The author’s audacity to live as a change agent in response to God’s love has led him up an elevator hauling a 4×8-foot Valentine’s Day Card and down to the depths of dungeons to liberate incarcerated and enslaved children.

Profound statements abound throughout the work and Goff’s writing and observations gave my red pen a work out as I found myself underlining section after section. A couple of my favorites: “I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I’m more afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.” (p.25); and, “Love is a do thing. It’s an energy that has to be dissipated.” (p.48). Say yes and read this book!

The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael S. Heiser

Exciting, affirming, and challenging, Heiser’s work is both approachable and technical. An academic work superbly written and assembled for the general public, it offers compelling evidence to continually hold in mind the reality that we live in both a supernatural and material world. The epic tale of the revelation of God’s manifold wisdom through the church to the principalities and powers of the world is fleshed out in ways that are startling. The consistency of Scripture in presenting these ideas inspires awe for the Author of the Bible and appreciation for His human agents. As one who has consistently held to the idea that the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed, it is eye-opening to read a work that follows the precept that the Old Testament is what informs and supplies the New Testament writers with their ideas, theology, and metaphors.

Favorite quotes: “My conscience wouldn’t let me ignore my own Bible in order to retain the theology with which I was comfortable.”

“There’s no need to camouflage what the Hebrew text says. People shouldn’t be protected from the Bible.”

The Black Widow (audiobook) by Daniel Silva

I may need to actually read Daniel Silva! George Guidall’s performance was exquisite. Silva uses repetition to great effect. His description of Gideon standing with his hand to his chin, his head tilted slightly to the side becomes a refrain that makes you familiar with the character and comfortable with the writer. It is nearly poetic in its use.

(Spoiler Alert!)

The bad guy getting away and the entire operation not bringing any of the desired fruit was a letdown. It may be Silva’s attempt at realism. Regardless, the entire tale maintained suspense and the resolutions hinted at provided some satisfaction of closure. It was a great listen.

Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying by James Olson

James Olson spent his entire career in the Directorate of Operations of the Central Intelligence Agency and is a former Chief of CIA Counterintelligence. His book is an excellent resource for those serious about the practical and ethical challenges inherent in espionage. Well written, informative, and full of insights from multiple sectors. The Spying 101 notes alone are worth the purchase price of the book. They contain a treasure trove for espionage writers and enthusiasts.

Shared Sorrows: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust by Toby Sonneman

I expected an informative read when I purchased this book. I received much more than I bargained for. Sonneman’s collaboration with Rosa Mettbach not only highlights the little known Great Devouring of the Gypsies under the Nazis, it also delves deeply into the burdens of bitterness, the betrayal of humanity, and the need for forgiveness. Studded throughout with exemplary scholarship, it retains its personal touch and avoids falling into dry academic “objectivity.”

Beautifully written, deeply personal, comprehensive, and unflinching in its description of the horrors of the Holocaust, it is a must read for those who want to learn about the Gypsy experience under the Nazi’s from the recollections of those who survived it.

Tripping over the Truth: How the Metabolic Theory of Cancer is Overturning one of Medicine’s most Entrenched Paradigms by Travis Christofferson, MS

As a cancer—and a cancer treatment—survivor, this book was a revelation. Had I been told in my original consultations that chemotherapy came from an accidental exposure of sailors to mustard gas and what they wanted to put through my veins was mustard gas’s cousin, I may have investigated alternative therapies more thoroughly. But by then, I was hurting and scared.

Early in the 20th century, Otto Warburg developed a workable metabolic theory of cancer that has recently gained momentum as the chasers of singular, or even manageable, DNA mutation causers have run into dead end after dead end at the death of millions, the misery of millions more, and the cost of billions. Warburg’s succinct thesis is below. This book is the history of that insight and its promise and implications nearly one hundred years later. If you have cancer or have a loved one battling it, read this book before the mustard gas begins dripping into the veins.

“Cancer, above all diseases, has countless secondary causes. But even for cancer, there is only one prime cause. Summarized in a few words, the cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugars.” Otto H. Warburg

Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

Steven James is a national bestselling novelist whose pulse-pounding thrillers continue to gain wide critical acclaim and a growing fan base.[1] I had the pleasure of attending a couple of his workshops at a writers’ conference. I would consider this book to be the text book for his presentations.

Encouraging and challenging, this unique how-to tome had me stretched from, “I can do this” to “why did I ever think I could write?” Enjoyable to read and a valuable reference manual, it will sit on my writer’s reference shelf with my Roy Peter Clark books, dictionaries, and style manuals. Thank you, Steven James, for generously sharing your tools of the trade!

Man Without a Face by Markus Wolf

The victors of war write different histories than the vanquished. Markus Wolf was a Cold Warrior par excellence who perforated the West with strategically placed agents for nearly 30 years. While our side’s modus operandi relied on buying treason, Wolf managed to recruit ideologues who believed in the Communist cause. He enjoyed a prime advantage in his career. He was a German spying on Germans. His biography adds flesh and blood to the dreary concrete of the GDR’s surveillance state. A professional intelligence officer even in revealing his own life, the book is a far cry from a tell-all tome. But what is told is well worth reading.

Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner

Hoover’s FBI was first and foremost an intelligence gathering organization. His agents acquired information in the traditional espionage fashion: break ins, black bag jobs, and wire taps—lots of wire taps. J. Edgar Hoover hated Communists and Communism and considered them both to be the most pressing threats to the American way. He was willing to violate the rule of law to make sure that Moscow couldn’t gain traction in the United States. Enemies carries the reader from those early days to the tragedy of 9/11 and all the successes and failures along the way. Paced like a political thriller, Tim Weiner’s history of the FBI is a highly enjoyable and informative read.

The Midnight Line (audiobook) by Lee Child

Absolute mind candy and pure entertainment, but then …

I thought the writing almost simplistic, until I found out that Lee Child was actually the pen name for James D. Grant, a British novelist with a background in TV production. He nails Americanisms in his novels. What I first considered simplistic is actually minimalist. He allows the reader to fill in blanks. Small towns USA are his canvas. He paints in details at will. He uses repetition in his writing for rhythm to drive the story forward and it works. Want a great escape? Forget Tom Cruise. Read the real Jack Reacher.

[1], accessed March 23, 2019.

Senior Discount

I should be grateful. After all, I’ve spent most of my life leveraging the fact that I’ve generally been thought to be older than I am. My mother used to say that I was born old. In my early teens, this was both and advantage and a danger. Suffice it to say that passing for twenty-one when you are fourteen can tempt a young man into territories that actually require twenty-one years of maturity.

Being thought older wasn’t simply a subjective sense of the world’s reaction to me, though that does play into it a bit. I went through a fairly rough patch when I was sixteen (see reference above about a fourteen year old running in young adult circles). My mother worked as a nurse for nearly forty years. She was highly attentive to our physical ailments (so attentive, in fact, that my siblings and I developed the habit of hiding symptoms to avoid her ready needle and syringe). On this occasion, she decided to take steps regarding my mental health. She sent me to a psychologist. He and I chatted. He gave me a battery of personality tests. We met again. “I graphed the results of your tests,” he said, showing me the graph. “You a perfectly normal for a man in his thirties.” He didn’t even crack a smile when he said it. Just the facts, man.

I was in my mid to late twenties when I took my first serious stab at self-employment. Though mowing lawns as a young boy and cleaning windows as an early teen were important lessons in enterprise for me, the concern I entered in my twenties was an entrée into the real world of business. I was closing major deals on a consistent basis and running large projects all over town. I had a birthday. My top customer asked me how old I was. I confessed to just turning twenty-six. “Twenty-six?” he said, incredulous and a bit shaken. “You mean I’ve been doing business with a kid this whole time?” Yep, kind of the story of my life.

I am the youngest of seven children. For most of my life, I’ve kept company with people who are substantially older than I am. For most of my life, I have been “the kid” in the room. Life has shifted. I am learning to walk in new shoes.

I remember when my wife and I met with my ear, nose, and throat oncologist for the first time. After examining me and letting me know I was at stage IV—no worries, I made it through—he went through the treatment protocol. I let him know I was on board. On the way out of the examining room, he reassured me that I had made the right decision. “If you were my father,” he said, “I would be giving you the same treatment.” Okay, he was a young doctor, but he wasn’t that young! I pegged him to be in his mid to late thirties at least.

“His father?” I remember saying to my wife as we walked to the car. “How old does he think I am?”

I am growing used to not being the kid in the room anymore. My eldest will soon be thirty-one. In and of itself, that doesn’t make me old. I have a dear friend who tells me old is when you take your son to the Social Security office to file for his retirement benefits. I am certainly not there, but I am well on the road.

The other night, I took three of my younger kids out to the movies. Two of them are legal adults. They each bought their tickets in turn. When I got to the counter, I was fully prepared to pay the man the full $8.80 admission fee. Imagine my surprise when I only had to pay five dollars and change. I looked at my receipt. It said “Senior.” He hadn’t even asked for ID.

I should have been grateful. After all, I’ve spent most of my life leveraging the fact that I’ve come across older than I am. But I sat through the previews and stewed a while. I am fifty-three, I reasoned, maybe I qualified on my own merits.

When I got home, curiosity got the best of me. I did a search for the senior discount age for Cinemark theaters. According to their FAQ page, anyone 62 years old or older qualifies. All I can say is that it’s not my age, folks, it’s the mileage.

Cancer Five Years Gone

According to, Victoria is the 26th most popular baby name for girls in 2018 so far (#45 overall) and Victor rings in at 214th place for boys. I did a search for the name “Survivor” and received the following pop-up message:

“Sorry, we didn’t find any names that match your criteria.”

Are you surprised? I didn’t think so. After all, have you ever met someone named Survivor? Me neither. The implication of “survivor” is a death narrowly avoided. Victors win; survivors only manage to make it out alive.

I am a cancer survivor. Admitting it is always sobering. Absent intervention, I would have been a statistic, a digit added to the death toll.

In the early months and years after my treatment was complete, I struggled with the “survivor” handle. I wanted to be a cancer victor, not a cancer victim. I eventually had to admit the validity of confessing that I was indeed a cancer survivor. I had made it through the fight, but at a cost. The admission still humbles me, leaves me feeling vulnerable and weak. But admitting weakness is a component of true humility. And humility is strengthens character.

My character is always in need of strengthening.

October 7, 2013 was the day I received my last dose of radiation for base of tongue cancer that had metastasized to the lymph nodes in my throat. The pain didn’t end on that day nor did the disease—the former was waxing, the latter waning—but I chose it as my touchstone because it is the easiest mile marker to read. After treatment, no one wants to say you’re cured. “In remission” is the preferred term. I like it less than “survivor.”

Five years ago I hung the plastic mask that held me down to the radiation table as a trophy on my office wall. I kept it there as I struggled through the severe pain of internal x-ray burns and the queasiness of radiation poisoning as a reminder that God had brought me through and would yet deliver me.

Today, it all seems like a memory from someone else’s life. As I type this, I am eating my dinner—a tasty combo of beef strips, mashed potatoes, and riced cauliflower—and am compelled to remember that not long ago I despaired of ever eating solid food again or of being able to taste any flavors beyond bland and sparky. Memory of the battle is my antidote for ungratefulness. I fail to dose myself far too frequently.

I am not the same man I was before the disease. In many ways, this is a good thing. Compared to the blessings I’ve received in this extended lease of my earthly life, the losses to the cancer and its treatment are minimal. Surviving has benefits to live for.

If you happen to be a cancer survivor like me, I would like to encourage you with a bit of etymology. The word “survive” comes to us from the Late Latin word supervivere, literally to “over live.” I prefer to cast the term another way. We aren’t just survivors, we are Super Alive—alive to grace, alive to the wonder of each new day, alive to love, and alive to give thanks for all we once took for granted.


Simple things should be celebrated; things like breathing. I am continually disappointed by how quickly I lose gratefulness for the mundane. I wake up. I stretch. I drink water without pain and think only of my thirst. I shuffle to my bathroom and manage to brush my teeth without fouling the sink with last night’s dinner and don’t give it a second thought. I met Jesus at my bathroom sink. He’s still there, I just forget to say hello far too often.

I celebrated my fifty-second birthday not long ago, marking another year in overtime since someone called the last quarter. Forty-seven has been the major mile marker on my road of life since I was thirteen. My father never made it to forty-eight. They carried him out of the house on a sheet twenty days before Christmas in 1978. It wasn’t until I reached 47 that I realized how young my father was when he passed away and began to sense a tinge of living on borrowed time. Then, in my forty-ninth year, I was informed that I had cancer already at Stage IV.

Beating dad’s longevity by two short years seemed a small accomplishment in the face of that diagnosis. My youngest hadn’t yet reached the age I was when I lost my father. I certainly didn’t want him or my other children to go through what I did as a child. I know firsthand what widowhood did to my mother. I couldn’t bear the thought of such a burden on my wife. So I decided to submit to the chemo and walk through the fires of radiation to see my way through. That’s when I met Jesus at my bathroom sink.

I’ve been a dedicate student of the Bible most of my life. In more than three decades of study, I had developed a fairly woven tapestry of theology. All of that went away at teeth brushing time. I would pray to the Lord not to throw up and then when I did, I would thank Him for carrying me through. I was especially thankful for the mornings I didn’t have to brush my teeth twice. When life is under that type of stress, one becomes thankful for the simple things in life. Each day is horrible, but you’re glad for it because it’s a day you’ve overcome. Redemption is another day closer. Sorrow only lasts for the night.

I get stressed out now. I worry. Will we triumph over the termites? Can I get my budget done on time? Will I parent well and help my children be successful? Are my brakes making noise, or is it just my imagination? Will folks at church get offended at me? Will we win that bid? What if I get fired? Silly stuff, really, because I’m alive. Every time I breathe without thankfulness, temporary pressures take on the form of titan troubles. He carried me through the fire, what is that in the face of a business budget or bad brakes? I am cancer free, thank God, but I need to remember the character that chemo taught me.

I do things now I wouldn’t have done three years ago; things like going to a hip-hop concert with my kids on St. Patrick’s Day. “Honey,” my wife asked, “you want to go to a Toby Mac concert with your kids?” Sure, why not? I’m alive, aren’t I? If they’re going to have fun, I’m going to join them in the experience. I hadn’t been to a pop music venue since 1979. Five minutes into the show, I remembered why. Hip hop isn’t really my thing. Through most of the sets, the visuals on the big screens were more a distraction from the music than they were an enhancement to the show. I say “most” because I was grateful for them when Matt Maher performed.

There I was, a recently minted fifty-two year old with his teenage and twenty something kids suffering through songs I didn’t know and words I couldn’t make out but glad my kids were enjoying themselves. Then, in the middle of the bedlam a worship service broke out. Matt Maher had taken the stage. Lyrics were on the screen and the songs had a melody I could follow. I came out to be with my children and have fun. I didn’t expect to wind up in tears.

“Amen, Amen
I’m alive, I’m alive
Because He lives
Amen, Amen
Let my song join the one that never ends

Because He lives
I can face tomorrow
Because He lives
Every fear is gone
I know He holds my life my future in His hands”

(“I’m Alive Because He Lives” by Matt Maher)

As I sang this song, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness. I’m alive. I’ve marked another year. My children are not orphans, my wife not a widow. I am the wealthiest man I know. And I am so because He lives. Simple things should be celebrated; things like breathing, even at a hip hop concert.

Pizza Night: Milestone on Recovery Road

I prefer miracles over medicine, but enjoy being alive most of all. With a diagnosis of cancer comes an assault of life-altering information. You are no longer just feeling sick; you are ill. You aren’t fighting off some foreign invader; you are being attacked by your own flesh. Treatment success rates are given to you in percentiles and the percentiles matter. The devastation of the therapy is contrasted with the known path of the disease and it actually sounds like the better option.

I still chuckle when I see drug commercials on television. You know the ones. People who look somewhat healthy are all shown celebrating the various fun activities of a normal life: family dinners, beach outings, fishing trips, and the like. The cheerful voiceover announcer begins to talk in soothing tones about the new drug you should ask your doctor for to treat your condition. “Do you suffer from an overactive bladder? Are trips to the bathroom keeping you from going to the beach? Nopeasama® could be the drug for you. Patients treated with Nopeasama® have shown marked improvement in bladder control and have been able to reclaim their lives.”

The music is uplifting and the lighting bright. The fancy logo scrolls across the screen as the announcer’s tone drops in volume and elevates in seriousness. “Nopeasama® has been known to cause diarrhea, severe vomiting, and frequent nosebleeds in some patients. Other possible side effects include dizziness, drowsiness, depression, and dehydration. In some instances, Nopeasama® has caused blindness in small hamsters and redheads. If you are a small hamster, do not take this product.” I laugh, but I laugh like a man whistling through a graveyard.

Faced with a choice between a highly probable death and a course of therapy guaranteed to cause permanent damage, I signed up for the treatment. This seems like a no-brainer and it actually is. Had I taken more time to think about it – or if I had known then what I know now – I might have chickened out and ran the other way. After all, dying in and of itself isn’t that scary of a concept to confront. Perhaps a story might help to explain what I mean.

Pretend for a moment that you are the hero in a classic Western movie. You are minding your own business, leaning up against the hitching post while you watch the dusty traffic on Main Street. A man in a black hat rides up to you, leans forward in his saddle and says, “You know, I could kill you, Cal.”[1] You see, that threat only carries a minimal level of menace. We in the audience barely squirm as you calmly stare the villain down with a cocky I’d-like-to-see-you-try smirk on your face. “CUT!” the director cries. “Let’s do that again; only this time, make me feel it.” You knew this was coming, because black hat always blows his line on the first take.

“I’m gonna kill ya, Cal,” black hat says. “But I’m gonna kill ya slow, see; so it hurts. Hurts real bad. And I’m gonna make your woman watch while I do it.” Now the audience is nervous and black hat hasn’t even given the details yet. Then he says, “I’m gonna make your tongue swell up so big that swallowing water will be nothin’ but a distant and painful memory. I’m gonna fill the lymph nodes in your neck with so much fluid, they’re gonna explode clean through your skin. Once I’m nearly done with you, you’ll wish you had taken me up on my offer!” No cocky smirk this time, black hat is serious and you’re in trouble. What’s worse, your woman is looking real nervous and on the verge of tears. “Offer? What offer you talkin’ about, Cancer Bill?” The villain looks pensive. Misery was his game and he was fairly good at causing it by sneaking up on folks. But it was always a gamble when you asked them to volunteer for it.

“Oh, well, we can go through all that I just talked about or you let me bolt you down in the Mask and shoot you with my fancy new ray gun every mornin’ for seven weeks straight. Your neck will burn worse than that time on the cattle drive when you forgot your bandana and lost your hat in the windstorm. But you won’t mind that much because about the middle of the third week, your throat’s gonna feel like I shoved a brandin’ iron down it and let it sit a while as I watched the smoke come out your nose. And in case you get any funny ideas about making things better with some ice cream or mamma’s chicken soup, I’m gonna fill your veins with my special snake venom. It won’t kill ya, maybe, but you’ll wish you’d died. All you gotta do is make it to the end of the seven weeks and I’ll call the feud off.”

“Well, why didn’t you say that in the first place, Cancer Bill. Sign me up for the torture. It sounds like the more sensible deal. Besides, makes me nervous when my woman cries.” Cue the sunset.

Upon reflection, my decision to undergo chemotherapy and radiation for head and neck cancer was perhaps more cavalier than courageous. They warned me it would be painfully difficult and leave me a changed man. But I had no idea how painful and nor did I appreciate the challenges that the differences would make. Which brings me to pizza night, or almost.

Shortly after my second dose of chemo, anything that had even a remote connection to tomatoes came off the menu. I love tomatoes. Fresh tomato slices served with dinner? Sign me up. Tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches? Any time of year. Ketchup? Good on eggs, potatoes, burgers, meatloaf, and any meal that needed help. Stews, spaghetti, eggplant parmesan, lasagna, and pizza. I loved them all. But I especially love a good pizza. All of this and any possibility of it came off the menu. Tomatoes turned into nausea inducing rusty metal with a crust of sugar in my mouth. And they tasted that way long after my throat had healed and the chemo was gone. It hasn’t been until recently, now some nineteen months after my last infusion of the life-saving deadly cocktail, that tomato sauce has been tolerable.

So it was that after an impromptu movie date with my bride, I spied the pizzeria across the courtyard from the theater and said, “Let’s get dinner.” “Are you serious?” she asked. “Yeah, I’m game.” I said. Never mind that taking on crust substantially adds to the challenge of swallowing food without saliva. Never mind that often times I eat by memory as how food now tastes frequently bears little resemblance to how it used to taste. Never mind that it was after eleven o’clock at night. It was pizza and for the first time in a while, I really felt like I got the draw on Cancer Bill.

It didn’t taste like it used to, but it came real close. And it only took me three glasses of water to get two small slices down. But I was thankful. Thankful to have come through. Thankful to be alive. Thankful to eat pizza. And thankful most of all for my bride.

[1] If you’re name isn’t Cal, just go with it. It’s a movie, for goodness sake!

The Right to Die

It was a beautiful butterfly: colorful, mesmerizing, malignant. Try as I may, I couldn’t tear my eyes from the display. “Can we turn that off?” her husband asked the doctor, “I don’t like it.” Who could blame him? What danced on the computer screen was the latest image of the glioblastoma eating her brain. It had already taken her balance, cohesive awareness, spatial acuity, and parts of her memory. Soon, it would claim Johanna’s life.

We listened somberly to the neurologist’s compassionate and frank description of the progress of the disease. She disagreed with the steps the oncologist planned to take next. Whatever quality of life remained would be severely hampered if she signed on for the proposed chemical cocktail. Surgery and chemotherapy had done enough damage. And the butterfly spread her wings across the biological hemispheres that housed the thoughts and memories of our dear friend, defiant to all the drugs thrown at it thus far. In that room we were starkly put on notice that the time was short.

We were near the end of a year-long battle. What had started as bad headaches and an inability to find her way home had degraded to the debility of being wheel chair bound and diapered. Not very dignified. Not pretty. Definitely not romantic. But she was beautiful; wondrously courageous, full of love and grace. And she gave to us all her moments to her last breath. As I stood guard over her body, making sure the morticians handled her with respect and care as she was wheeled from her home, I was certain that I had never seen anyone live so fully or die so well as she.

It is no doubt because of her example of selfless love that I find myself saddened and angry at the celebration and celebrity of a woman who kills herself in the face of this deadly disease. As she had announced she would, Brittany Maynard committed suicide on November 1st with an overdose of barbiturates prescribed by her doctor for that very purpose. In this pro-choice nation of doctor assisted suicide and medical infanticide, the notion of “first, do no harm” is hypocritical not Hippocratic. Death with dignity? I’ve seen death with dignity. I watched it as my father’s life ebbed away. I admired it as my friend loved her family with the last joules of her strength. Suicide with the dew of life still on your cheeks isn’t it.

I have compassion for those in pain from a terminal illness. I understand the need to make people comfortable in the face of their suffering. But I have a problem with the hubris of terminating one’s own life. Our culture is one of convenience. We avoid like the plague the natural struggles of life that add depth to our souls. We borrow for what we can’t afford to keep. We divorce from those we can’t be bothered to love. We hide our disfigured and disabled. We have little regard for the value of struggle, grief or pain. Pop a pill, plunge the syringe. It’s easier that way. No one will have to change my diaper. And I can die dignified. I’m sorry, but to me it smacks of the shallowness of a beauty pageant.

In typical government speak, sanctioned suicide flies under the banner of “The Right to Die”. Newsflash: death isn’t a right, it’s an eventuality. Should the good Lord tarry, we are all going to die. To live, however, is a right; a right and a responsibility. If you are reading this, then I will make the strong assumption that you are alive. And since you are alive, I will make the further assumption that you are loved. And loved ones need to be together in the passing – not an artificially elongated or shortened passing, but the natural passing as the spirit struggles with the body that can no longer contain it. In those months, weeks, days, hours, and moments loved ones can say goodbye, unburden their hearts, forgive old wounds, love generously.

As tragic and traumatic as watching a loved one die of a terminal disease can be, I don’t believe it can compare with the utter shock of a sudden departure. The mother who receives the midnight call about her son’s fatal overdose has little chance to process with him all that is left unsaid. The same woman who nursed her husbands to their dying days took those blows much better. In this sense, a terminal disease is a deadly specter bearing gifts. We are given time to show compassion, engage faith, and learn the real depth of our hopes. It is a pain that bears much fruit. It takes true courage to see it to the end.

Food Fight: Battles in Thankfulness

Traumatic, both physically and psychologically. This is cancer and its “cures”. Pathologically, trauma is a physical wound. Psychologically, it is an emotional shock that creates substantial and lasting damage to the psyche. Battling malignant DNA gone rouge in your own body produces both. The toll of the trauma becomes most telling to me when I must interface with a basic necessity of life: food.

A year ago, I began my treatment for head and neck cancer: a seven-week course of chemotherapy and radiation. [1] The chemo set up a mind-bend on food as it left most smells faithfully resonating with my memory while playing sleight of hand with my taste buds (e.g., looks like potatoes, smells like potatoes, tastes like baking soda). Sights and smells cannot be trusted. No taste is guaranteed. But of the two, radiation has left the most damage in its wake as it wiped out the cancer. My voice is deeper, but my soft pallet is softer; and my throat and tongue are dry enough to strike matches on. The tumor on my tongue made eating difficult. The cure has brought its own host of challenges.

I have grown accustomed to the background tension present at every meal. As I stare at the food and try to determine the appropriate size for my next bite (always smaller than I think, even after I adjust down from memory), I find that my body has folded into a defensive position. My shoulders are hunched over. My brows are knit. My posture is bad. It requires a conscious effort to unwind myself and be open to the experience; to embrace the necessity of the contest. This has become a daily discipline.

Unlike eating, grocery shopping doesn’t happen every day. Furthermore, I am blessed with a wife that manages that function quite well and children who enjoy going along for the ride. I haven’t been bothered with it in a long while. A long while, that is, until a couple of weeks ago when we all headed out together for the grand tour of wholesale clubs, organic food grocers, and traders in tasty treats.

I was honestly looking forward to the outing. Like all growing children, my kids love food and aren’t shy about expressing their discontent when the larders are low.[2] Their excitement was infectious as they discussed what they would sample, buy, and bake. Heedless of eating having been a daily challenge for over a year now, I indulged in a case of temporary amnesia and waltzed into the organic groceries superstore only to be slapped rudely awake by the assault on my psyche in the presence of such beautiful produce and foodstuffs.

“These peaches are huge!” I’m not sure if they will taste like peaches. What if they wind up tasting like prunes instead? “Those spices smell marvelous!” Which of my two tastes will they trigger: salty or sparky? “Look at those baguettes!” Crusty-dusty, death-dealing wads of dough. How much water will I have to down just to swallow one small bite? “Buy this super-blender. You can liquefy your vegetables!” Thanks, pal. Bought one, live on that. Are we having fun yet? And this was only the first stop.

My brain beat on me aisle after aisle, store after store. It wasn’t until the final stop that I started to beat it back. There I stood in the painful recognition that I was not only distressed, but depressed as well. While my family scurried with joy to try treat after treat from the various sample servers in the mega-warehouse store, I barely avoided skinning my knees after tripping over my drooping lip. All I could see were things I used to enjoy that I could no longer eat. That’s when I gave my mind a piece of my spirit.

My counterattack began with a change of perspective. Instead of feeling down because I couldn’t sample the pastrami sandwich, I decided to be thankful that I was even around to look at it. It was a good place to start: I’m alive. Take that, depression! Next, I reviewed several of the items purchased that I consume on a regular basis: all beef hot dogs, coffee, cod, steak. Considering that drinking water was an excruciating experience a mere nine months ago, these were considerable milestones to be grateful for. And then there was the chicken, fresh rotisserie chicken about to come off the spit. No lack of saliva was going to keep me from it.

Like a crack-addict mouse hitting the button for another dose in the lab, I kept going back to the counter to see if they were done. Distress gave way to expectancy, depression to hope. As soon as the cook slid them down the display shelf, I snatched up two of them. I couldn’t get to it quickly enough. We pressed through check out. We pushed out the door. We rolled to the van. I grabbed one of the chickens and jumped into the shotgun seat. While the family loaded the rest of the groceries into the back of the van, I broke open the plastic container and tore a drumstick off the bird. I went after the tasty morsel like the Fantastic Mr. Fox.[3]

As I ate the chicken (chased by copious amounts of water), I reflected on how easy it is to sow the seeds of bitterness and discontent when we decide to only see the ground we’ve lost and none of the ground we’ve retained or regained. Nearly two thousand years ago, Saul of Tarsus wrote to his protégé Timothy that “…we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out…having food and raiment, let us be therewith content.”[4] Simple lesson, tough battle.

Our minds naturally work through a system of references. Intuitively, the measure of our qualitative state is determined through our frame of reference. For instance, is $25 per hour a good wage? It’s fantastic if you currently only make $15 per hour. If you are used to making $24.25 per hour, it only amounts to a cost of living increase. If you are used to making $100,000 per year, it represents a major cut in pay. But suppose you were accustomed to a six-figure salary, but had been unemployed for nearly two years and were facing the very likely prospect of being homeless? How would the $25 per hour job look then?

The answer may seem obvious, but in practice it is not. Taking a pay cut and staying employed presents the options of being thankful or dissatisfied. Resentment is easy in such circumstances. Loss of health exposes one to the same challenge. I’m better, but not as well as I was before cancer. What I decide to focus on determines the state of my soul. I can mourn the loss or count the blessing. Thankfulness is a battle that must be intentionally waged. And battle I shall.

[1] For more background, see “Dealing with a Death Sentence” from my February 2014 posts.

[2] One of their favorite refrains is, “All we have is rotten milk and eggs”; a reference, oddly enough to one of the main staples of my diet: a protein shake made with kefir and raw eggs.

[3] My previous disclaimer stands: no mention of a movie (or movie character) is an endorsement thereof. That being said, The Fantastic Mr. Fox has some very funny moments, this being one of them: Mr. Fox eating.

[4] 1 Timothy 6:7-8 KJV

My Top Ten Reads of 2013

Over the years, I’ve worked at formulating a personal motto that both encapsulates my passion and propels me forward in life. Thus far, I’ve narrowed it down to three: 1. “Your meetings do more harm than good”[1], 2. “All I want to know is everything”, and 3. “So many books, so little time.” In the spirit of the last two, I offer for your review my top ten reads from last year. I’ve listed them in the order that I read them.

  1. La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafron. This novel was the one I broke my fiction fast on. I’ve always been an avid reader. But somewhere around 1997, I stopped reading fiction. My mother was in the habit of sending me book store gift cards for my birthday. But in 2007, she decided to send me a book instead. It was The Shadow of the Wind. She said she knew if she sent the gift card, I would just go out and buy another dry science book and she wanted me to enjoy a good read. And so I did. I liked it so much; I went on line and bought it in the original language. Spanish is the first language I learned to read and write. To this day, my comprehension level reading it still exceeds hearing it. This novel is a Gothic tale set in Barcelona of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It revolves around the mysteries of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I re-read the Spanish version again last year in preparation for a Spanish CLEP[2] test. It was my third time through the story and I still found it engrossing.
  2. What Love Is this? Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God by Dave Hunt. This is a masterful exposition of Scripture regarding the love of God and the ways in which the Calvinist TULIP stands in contradiction to it. With all due respect to my Reformed brethren, this book is worth your honest investigation. You may find it liberating.
  3. Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves by George Church and Ed Regis. Genetic engineering has been an intellectual hobby of mine since 1999 when I began seriously researching the Nephilim of Genesis 6. Many of the articles I read then warned of what was to come in bio-engineering. Much that was theoretical then is old hat now. George Church is very prominent in the GE field. He compares the science used to sequence the human genome to the Stone Age compared to where the science is today. This book reads like science fiction, but it is scientific intent. And it is terrifying. Science may be amoral, but scientists are not. Humans beware!
  4. The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler. The author compiles cutting edge corporate team building techniques and applies them to the family context. He opens with a line from Tolsoy’s Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The author discovered that the way in which all happy families are alike is that they work at it continuously.
  5. El Capitan Alatriste  by Arturo and Carlota Perez-Reverte. I chanced upon a trailer of the film Alatriste starring Viggo Mortensen some years ago. I’ve wanted to see the film ever since, but decided to read the book first. Lucky for me, the movie is based on four books in the series! Thus far, I’ve only read this one but plan to continue on with the rest as time allows. The story revolves around Diego Alatriste, a soldier turned mercenary in 17th century Spain. High adventure and wry humor. Fun, fun read.
  6. How Islam Plans to Change the World by William Wagner. The author documents the recent history and strategies of Islamic evangelism. Having done missions work in Africa, I can attest to many of the methods he describes. The most surprising find in this book was the Baptist author’s appeal to the miraculous in the “Power Encounter” chapter as one asset in the Christian arsenal lacking in Islam. This book is a vital intelligence briefing if you are an evangelical and serious about world missions.
  7. The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield. In 2012, prominent evangelicals endorsed Mitt Romney in his bid for the presidency. The nation has come a long way from sending troops into Utah to stop plural marriage. From the days that Mormon missionaries visited my family when we lived in Spain, I’ve been a student of the religion. Though the author doesn’t shy away from the controversial areas of Mormonism, he primarily focuses on what most Mormons find important in their faith. Highly readable and informative.
  8. The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis. I read this shortly after I completed my rounds of chemotherapy and radiation for tongue cancer. Dr. Davis has been in the cancer research field for many years. Her revelations from the trenches will open your eyes to the complexity of this disease and the complicity of government, industry, and the medical community in its continual propagation.
  9. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I had read this book many years ago. But they finally made the movie and I had to read it again. Card has made a whole franchise from his Ender universe, but for my money, he could have stopped with this one and been fine. I read the three subsequent works in the series in the way back and none of them approached the sheer enjoyment of the first one. It ranks up there as one of my all-time favorite science fiction reads. (Dune tops the list, but Frank Herbert is hard to beat.)
  10. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm is in the rank of one of my top five favorite authors. His insights are brilliant and his writing is exquisite. When I grow up, I want to be able to write like Malcolm Gladwell. Don’t let the title fool you. This isn’t a Bible book. It’s a book about asymmetrical thinking and winning against the odds. For an idea of how insightful Gladwell is (or how thick-headed I am), I’ve been a serious Bible student for thirty-four years. I’ve read, studied, and taught on David’s confrontation with Goliath more times than I can count. I thought I knew the story until I read this book. If you think you know all about this historic encounter, you’re in for a real treat.

I trust you enjoyed this little slice of my library. If any of the titles intrigued you, don’t be shy. Hop out on Amazon or go to your favorite book store (or library) and pick one of them up. You won’t regret it.

[1] Believe it or not, this comes from my chosen “life verse” 1 Corinthians 11:17. From the days of my late teens, it has been a continual reminder to me that gathering together should result in net benefit, not harm.

[2] CLEP – College Level Examination Program. It is a great way to rack up college credits for pennies on the dollar. The tests usually cost around $90. Scoring well on the Spanish test is worth 12 credits. Not bad for a couple of hours in the evening.

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!