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A Cancer Story: The Dark Days

I’ve tried recollecting my journey through cancer a few times now over the  past six years. I have no problem telling about the pre-cancer tests and anxieties, the surgery and post-surgery gloom. Talking about the ileostomy comes easy. But the next nine months, those months when I endured chemo and it’s dark side effects, that’s another story.

It’s a rocky story, one of faith and doubt, courage and fear, strength and weakness. Truthfully, much of those months is a blur to me. There are moments I remember, images, feelings, but mostly, the events of those months reside in a fog, the kind that rolls in off the ocean and distorts the landscape, blurs the fine edges.

I received chemo every other week. It was on Wednesdays and the infusion took about three hours. The nurse would them hook me up to a portable chemo pump and send me home. I’d then receive a steady infusion of chemo over the next 48 hours. On Friday’s I’d return to the doctor’s office to have the pump removed and I’d be free for another week and a half.

The side effects of chemo included numbness in my fingers and feet, an extreme sensitivity to cold, decreased ability to taste, fatigue like I’d never felt before, and nausea. Lots of nausea. After every chemo session the side effects would be worse for a few days, then would taper to barely noticeable. Each round they got worse and lasted longer, though. By the end, I had the side effects the entire two weeks.

I was working during those days, too. I’d have off on chemo days then just work a half day on Thursday, go home and sleep. Friday I’d be back at it but would have to take time off to have the chemo pump removed.

Thus was my schedule for the nine months I received chemotherapy. It was a steady spiral down both physically and emotionally and psychologically.

Looking back on it, those were dark days. Tears came easily. I did a lot of staring, a lot of thinking. My emotions sat on a knife’s edge. But in spite of the darkness the Light was always there. I felt Him, heard Him. I’m not crazy. I did. And in many ways I’ve never felt closer to Him.

The valley has a funny way of pushing us closer to our Father, doesn’t it?

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A Cancer Story: The Gross Stuff

Because of the surgery I had where they removed the tumor and part of my colon I was left with a temporary ileostomy. For those who don’t know, a colostomy has to do with the large intestine, an ileostomy with the small intestine. Part of my small intestine was now on the outside of my body (not where it was intended to be), and a bag attached to the skin around it caught everything that came out. Note: the bag adhered with adhesive which, yes, sometimes failed. Not good.

Pretty gross stuff, really.

The protruding intestine is called a stoma, or more sentimentally referred to as a “rosebud” because someone somewhere thought it resembled one. It doesn’t. If it did no one would ever stop to smell the roses.

Let it be clear, I hated the ileostomy and everything about it. The bag was a nuisance, it was difficult to conceal under my clothes, the odor was anything but rosey, and it needed to be emptied at the most inconvenient times and places. The stoma was gross, it, too, didn’t exactly smell pleasant, it was sensitive to touch and developed a nasty rash around it from the adhesive. Did I mention I hated it?

But. BUT . . . that ileostomy gave my damaged and traumatized colon the time to heal that it needed. It served a purpose and one that was ultimately for the good. And because of that nuisance I learned to deal better with the discomforts of life.

This taught me that the most important lessons in life aren’t learned on the mountain tops, but rather in the valley.

If we’re paying attention, we can learn something from hardships and trials. But we have to go through the darkness with our eyes open so we can see the pinpoints of light that show us the way through. To cover our eyes and hold them shut in an attempt to block out the shadows and obstacles that surround us is only to prolong our stay and set us up for certain misery.

So what about you? Share with us one nugget of wisdom you learned while journeying through life’s valleys.

A Cancer Story: The Emotional Maelstrom

Part of cancer’s charm is the roller coaster of emotions brought on by both the disease and the treatment for the disease.

Cancer’s part is mostly psychological, the constant reminder that life is tenuous, frail, here today, gone tomorrow. The disease is a bully, puffing out its chest and reminding you at every turn that it has killed, will kill, and won’t hesitate to add you to its long list of victories. It is ruthless and respects no one. And no matter how many surgeries you have or what kind of treatment is administered the thought is always there: what if it doesn’t work?

And the chemo is no walk in the park physically. It’s poison–given at doses strong enough to kill the rogue cells but not quite potent enough to kill the host (you)–has side effects that are relentless and come in waves, strongest the first few days after each treatment, then subsiding gradually until it’s time to get juiced again. The constant nausea, the parasthesias, the cold sensitivity, the restlessness, sleeplessness . . . it all wears on you like the steady drip of water boring a hole in rock.

Up and down the emotions go (mostly down): the depression, the anxiety, the moodiness. Ebbing and flowing like some dark, mysterious psychological sea.

I’d go from feeling light and optimistic to bawling my eyes out while watching the kids play in the backyard. I spent a lot of time sitting in my recliner, staring. Just staring. Jen called it “the chemo stare.” Any confrontation at all, whether with Jen or the girls, would send me into an emotional tailspin.

But through the maelstrom of emotions there were always the blessings to keep me tethered to hope. The folks who brought us meals, mowed our grass, ironed our clothes, paid our bills, watched the kids, and numerous other things served as beacons in the night, guiding me back to God by showing us His love, His care, His concern. They were His hands and feet, His voice, His touch, His heart; they showed us in a very practical way that no matter how bad things got, how dark the nights were, or how deserted the wilderness became, we were not alone.

What was it that sent you on an emotional roller coaster? And who did God bring into your life to keep you tethered to hope?

A Cancer Story: Feeling Vulnerable

I came home from the hospital forty pounds lighter than when I was diagnosed. Mind you, I was never a big guy to start with. My weight loss was all too obvious. I was a sliver of my former self. And weak. So weak. I could barely walk from the car into the house.

The word for the next several months would be VULNERABLE. Suddenly, I had been removed from the safety of the hospital. I was sent home with this ileostomy that needed to be cared for, a bag that needed to be emptied several times a day. I still had terrible stomach cramps and wobbly legs. And there was still the fear (though not a very realistic one) that my incision would bust open and my intestines would unwind like a spring and decorate the floor.

But the most vulnerability had to do with my inability to protect my family. I was helpless and would kid with my wife about being a pencil-necked weakling. If anything happened, an emergency, a break-in, whatever, I would be as helpful as a bag of sand. Correction, a half-full bag of sand. That scared me. As a man, I’m my family’s protector, but now the protector was the one needing the protecting. A tough pill to swallow for sure.

I was forced to put my total trust in God to be my family’s protector. He was all we had. For most of our life the trust we put in God is volitional, we choose to rely on Him or not to. It’s our call. But then there are those times when we really don’t have a choice. We’re backed into a corner and there’s no where to turn but toward Him. He’s it.

And you know what? That’s not a bad place to be. In fact, it’s the way it should be. All the time.

Was there a time when you were backed in to a corner and felt totally helpless? How did you react?

A Cancer Story: The Deepest, Darkest Valley

Anyone who has ever gone through cancer is no stranger to life’s valleys. Cancer is a geography full of deep caverns and lightless places. But of all the highs and lows I experienced, the five days in the hospital following my colon resection and ileostomy surgery were by far the worst of my life. No doubt about it. The landscape of that week was pitted with craggy, shadowed places, pitfalls, caves that burrowed to unknown depths and led to nowhere.

When I was coherent enough to see and understand what state my body was in I found tubes coming out of almost every orifice, an ostomy bag, a drain bag, a Foley bag, and multiple IV bags. I had an incision that ran from just below my sternum to my pubic area. My biggest fear when I stood up was that the incision was going to burst open and my guts would be strewn all over the floor. I was assured that wouldn’t happen.

Eventually they let me eat but the food had no flavor and caused severe stomach discomfort. I was encouraged to walk but my right leg kept spasming and cramping (the surgeon said it was due to the way they position the leg during the surgery). Nothing seemed to be going smoothly.

But worst of all was the depression. I missed my family. Jen would come to visit then she’d either get the girls or my parents would bring them by. They’d keep their distance and stare at this man in the bed who they knew to be their daddy but didn’t look like the guy they called Daddy. When they’d leave I’d open the dams and let the tears come. I wanted to go home so badly. I wanted our life together back. I wanted to go to work and come home and eat dinner as a family and read together or watch a TV show together. Instead, they were going home and I was stuck in that blasted hospital bed, alone, scared, battling more depression.

Interestingly, during that time I didn’t have a single revelatory moment. I didn’t hear God’s words in my ear; I didn’t feel His breath on my face or His arm around my shoulders. All those experiences would come later. But still I knew He was there. I just knew it. Did I question Him? Yes. Did I cry out to Him? Daily. Was I brutally honest with Him? Of course. But He never answered me, didn’t write on any walls, didn’t miraculously bring healing.

All the hours I’d put in over the years studying His word, listening to sound teaching, exploring different doctrines to better understand Him had paid off. This was the moment they kicked in like never before. And they all focused on one truth: No matter how alone I felt, I wasn’t. Not by a long shot. He was there, trudging through that valley with me step for step.

What was your deepest valley? Did you sense God’s presence there?

A Cancer Story: From Cussing to Trusting

**Just a reminder . . . To celebrate Colon Cancer Awareness Month and my six-year anniversary being cancer-free I’m giving away a book a week this month. To enter to win, just leave a comment on any of my “Cancer Story” posts.

We spent the night before the big surgery at my parents’ home. They live twenty minutes from the hospital and since we had to be there so early it allowed the kids to go back to bed once we left in the morning. When I said my goodbyes to my darling daughters and my parents I honestly didn’t know if I’d ever see them again. The surgery, which would consist of removing a portion of my colon and giving me an ileostomy, is something the surgeon had done many, many times but it was still major surgery and anything can go wrong.

I was also told they wouldn’t know the true extent of the cancer until after the surgery when they biopsied the lymph nodes around the site. I had no idea what kind of news I’d wake up to.

I still have very vivid memories of the hour leading up to surgery but they’re sporadic. I remember the nurse shaving the surgical site and being careful to maintain my modesty. I remember her getting me a blanket from the warmer. The anesthesiologist came in, explained everything, and asked me if I had any questions. I told him to make sure I stayed asleep; I didn’t want to wake up with my guts all hanging out. He assured me he’d put me way under and keep me there.

But the most vivid memory I have is when they rolled me down the hallway to the operating room. Jen walked beside the gurney and held my hand. I remember them wheeling me into the room and watching Jen in the hallway, staring at her, wanting to take in all I could. She forced a smile but I could see the fear in her eyes. Then the double doors swung shut and she was gone. Less than a minute later I was asleep.

And fortunately I didn’t wake up and see my guts all over the bed.

I woke up less a man than when I went in. Over a foot of my colon had been removed and I think I lost several pounds just in those few hours in the operating room. Jen said I was gray, emaciated, and cold and limp as a dead fish. She stroked my hair and asked me how I felt. I said I felt like s**t. It was one of the only times in my life that I’ve cussed in public and I’m not ashamed of it because that’s exactly how I did feel. I felt like someone dragged me to the edge of death, cut me open, fiddled with my guts, sewed me up, and brought me back to the land of the living.

But little did I know at that moment that my hospital stay would push me to the limits of my faith, that I would cry out to God like I never had before. It would be my moment of truth, where I decided if I trust Him or not, where I run from Him or turn and fall into His arms.

What was your moment of truth? That moment where you had to make a decision: do I trust God or don’t I?

A Cancer Story: Waiting for the Hammer to Fall

**To celebrate Colon Cancer Awareness Month and my six-year anniversary being cancer-free I’m giving away a book a week this month. To enter to win, just leave a comment on any of my “Cancer Story” posts.

Immediately after seeing the surgeon I was sent for a CAT scan. This would show if the cancer had metastasized to any other organs. The scan was no big deal, a lot of “hold your breath, now breathe, hold your breathe, breathe.” The hard part was waiting for the results.

And waiting.

And waiting.

It seemed like an eternity. The results would determine the final course we would take for treatment. They would also be the messengers of hope or doom.

A couple of days later I got the results and they showed there was no visible metastasis.

But it was only the beginning. More tests would follow–x-rays, ultrasounds, internal ultrasounds, scopes, blood work–and more waiting for results. Waiting for the hammer to fall.

By the time I was diagnosed I’d worked in the medical field for ten years and now I knew what it was like to be the person whose life revolved around the next test, the next result. The waiting became almost unbearable, one day ran into another, but each test brought the surgery that much closer.

Through that jungle of tests and results and interpretations and explanations one truth pointed the way and guided my course.

Be still and know that I am God.

I’d repeat it to myself constantly. Frankly, the being still part was difficult. That peace that surpasses all understanding was hard to find. My worry meter was stuck on maximum. But the know that I am God part? Ah, now there was something tangible I could grab onto.

I knew that no matter how I felt about the situation, how I worried, how I fretted, how I impatiently waited for the next result, God was still God, He was still on the throne, He was still calling the shots, He still had me in the palm of his hand.

That was a truth emotions couldn’t manipulate. It was a lighthouse upon a solid rock in the midst of the storm beating against me.

What was the one truth you clung to when the waves swelled and the rain fell?

A Cancer Story: The First Time I Cried

The first time I cried about the cancer was about a week after diagnosis. I had already seen the surgeon and the oncologist. I’d gotten the news, the plan, and the prognosis. I knew what the next year would look like . . . or so I thought.

But it was one morning on my way to work when the weight of the entire ordeal broke loose from its moorings and landed on my shoulders. I remember it like it just happened last week. I was doing forty-five down Lehman Road and those pesky thoughts of death wormed their way into my mind. I wasn’t afraid of dying, though. No, I know where I’m going, that’s not the problem. There’s no fear there. I was afraid for my family. I didn’t want my wife being a widow at 31 years old; I didn’t want my three daughters, just 9, 7, and 6, to grow up fatherless. I couldn’t stand even the idea of it. And the more those thoughts bounced around in my head the more the tears pressed on the back of my eyes.

Finally, the dam let loose and the tears surged. And there I was, blurry-eyed, all sniffles and sobs, praying, “God, let this thing be as uncomfortable as it has to be but please spare my life.”

It was the first time in my life I had ever stared death in the face. It’s ugly, let me tell you. Like I said, I wasn’t afraid of that beast either, I was afraid of the destruction it would leave in its wake.

I needed that cry too, needed it to cleanse my worries and push me to the point of throwing the ordeal at God’s feet. I wouldn’t cry again until chemotherapy did its dark magic on my emotions.

I learned during that trip to work that suffering serves as a reminder of our own mortality. It forces us to the realization that we’re not as in control as we’d like to think we are . . . and we’re not as strong as we imagine ourselves to be.

So how about you. What trial have you endured that reminded you of your own weakness and insufficiency? That pushed you toward a deeper reliance on God?

Not Gonna Let Life Slip By

time

(Photo credit: Judy **)

I recently discovered the group Finding Favour and their song “Slip on By.” Now, I listen to it every morning to get myself ready for the day. The song is all about the preciousness of life, of each moment of life. It’s about cherishing every minute of every day and not letting one moment slip by.

I need this reminder to begin each day.

You can listen to the song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YtWeUEgFkQ

This month I’m celebrating five years as a cancer survivor. Cancer also reminds me of the frailty and preciousness of life. When you sit at death’s door you acquire a whole new appreciation for life.

So here’s my declaration: I want to live life to its fullest; I want to cherish each moment, make the most of every opportunity, invest in the lives of others; and I want to let every one I ever come in contact with know the same thing and make the same declaration.

I know I won’t always get it right, not all the time, but for goodness sake I can try.

And trying is better than not trying.

A lot of you know what I’m talking about. You’ve been through the valley, walked in the shadow of death, lost loved ones, battled regrets. Please, join me; spread the word. Testify. Get the message out to others. Tell them how precious life is, how important it is not to let another moment slip by. People need to hear that, they need to understand.

Question for you: What do you do to remind yourself not to take life for granted, not to miss another opportunity, not to waste a moment? How do you keep life precious and cherish every day?

5 Years a Survivor . . . Take That, Cancer!

IMG_0917Five years ago I sat at my desk at work, phone to my ear, while my doctor told me the biopsy was positive, he was very sorry but I had colon cancer. That was a little after lunch. I called my wife, told her, and finished my work day. When I arrived home our pastor was already there, ready to pray with us and offer some words of encouragement and support.

I have many memories of that battle, the surgery, the chemo, the doctor visits, ER visits, the depression, the fear. Most are bad, some are good. I lived through much I’d never want to revisit but I experienced many blessings as well.

It’s funny how time affects your memory. Some of it I relive as if it just happened last week. Some of it is fading, becoming fuzzy and harder to dig out of the recesses of my mind.

But even now, five years later, I think about it every day. Several times a day. They tell me five years is the magic number, that I’m cured now, but I still worry about it returning, still glance over my shoulder wondering if, when it will sneak up on me again.

I know I shouldn’t, that I should focus on living the life I’ve been given. And I do. Cancer teaches you a lot of lessons and one of the most important is that life is precious, that each moment of life is precious, and that not one should be allowed to slip by. Life should be celebrated, enjoyed, lived to the fullest. Sometimes that makes for some tough decisions but if kept in perspective regrets will be far and few between.

Three months after I finished my chemo and just two months after having my ileostomy reversed I ran a 5K in Philadelphia. After the run we walked over to the Museum of Art and my daughters accompanied me as we ran the same steps that Rocky Balboa climbed. I raised my hands above my head, Rocky-esque, and in my heart stuck my finger in cancer’s face.

I’m still relishing that victory, enjoying every day, and praying God gives me many more.

I want to squeeze everything I can out of life, make the most of it. I don’t always succeed at that but I’m sure trying. And I’m trying to inspire others to do the same.

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