Alive

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, 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 metal 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 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!