I am not much of a NASCAR fan. In fact, I rib some of my friends who follow NASCAR by saying something like, “If you drive that fast, for that long, you shouldn’t end up where you started.” Well, I recently went to a weigh-in at the oncologist one year from when I started cancer treatment and weighed exactly the same as the first appointment, to the pound. I had ended up right where I started.
I may have to give NASCAR another chance because, based on my experience, an awful lot can happen between the start and the finish. What happened during the “laps” of my past year?
1) I ran and completed the White Rock Half-Marathon with my wife, Robin.
2) Two months later, I was diagnosed with Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) in the base of my tongue.
3) I underwent outpatient surgery to take a piece of the tumor for a biopsy.
4) I had PET and CT scans for my radiation treatment mask.
5) I endured forty radiation treatments and three chemo treatments resulting in a 40-pound weight loss.
6) I submitted to weekly blood panels.
7) I lost my Dad.
8) I underwent post-treatment outpatient surgery to remove an uncooperative lymph node.
9) I had three more PET scans (two of them clean! Thanks be to God!).
10) I ran in two 5K races.
11) I turned 50!
Sure, I was right back where I started, and I would often say it was “like it never happened.” But, it did happen. While even casual friends would easily recognize me, there are scars and physical changes to my outward appearance that will remind me of the experience for the rest of my life. My hair will grow back. Much of my sense of taste has returned, and I am pretty confident that my love of sweets will also return some day. It is not hard to imagine a time in the not too distant future when it might be hard to convince someone I had actually had cancer based on my physical appearance. Outward appearances don’t always tell the whole story. The most fundamental and lasting changes I experienced this last year are not visible to the naked eye.
What changed? These are the biggies:
Take hold with your heart what you know in your head.
I wrote that phrase on a Saturday night bulletin fairly early in treatment. In an instant, that thought completely took my mind and demanded to be either written down or spoken or both. I had thought I was a pretty sharp guy. I am a member of a church with an amazing pastoral staff. Want to talk theology? Not a problem. Want scripture read directly from the Greek? They can make that happen. I listened when they spoke. I attended Bible studies. I had weekly breakfasts with a group of guys a heck of a lot smarter than me, and I listened when they spoke. When I started treatment, I knew what the Bible said about my relationship with the Lord and facing trials. He would never leave me. He would walk me through the things He chose not to spare me from. I knew all that … but I didn’t KNOW it. Huge difference.
The day I wrote in the bulletin, I remembered mentally going over those promises and feeling shame that I felt no comfort from them. Obviously, I wasn’t doing something right. I would have told you then that I trusted in the Lord to carry me through, and I would have believed it when I said it, but there was just more to it than that. It’s the difference between stepping into the dark in the hope there is a step there and stepping into the dark AGAIN because the last time you did it there was a step there.
With God’s help, we are capable of way more than we think.
There was some dishonesty between the doctors and me early in my treatment. In some ways, I remain thankful. The idea is if they told you everything, it would appear like an impossible task. Therefore, they give you some information and then let you process it. Next time around, they give you a little more information. At some point, even someone like me can figure out what is going on, and when that time does arrive we are in no physical or emotional state to properly deal with the totality of the treatment plan.
I would have to ask Robin how many times I said “I’m not going to make it” yet here I sit typing this note. There was a personal, spiritual event that took place mid-treatment that fundamentally changed my spirit. There were certainly bad days after that, but for the most part I walked into the clinic every weekday like I owned the place. I stood tall and walked with purpose. I smiled even when I didn’t want to. The spirit of fear had been replaced with a spirit of confidence.
I wish I could share the magic formula for how this happened, but all I can tell you is how I learned to bring back the spirit of fear: look inward. Every time–100% of the time–I thought about how bad I felt or worried about whether the cancer may still be there post-treatment, I fell into a tangible spiral of doubt. Every time–100% of the time–I found someone sicker than myself and spoke with them and encouraged them, I felt a tangible sense of power and purpose. It occurs to me that we were created to walk in that spirit of confidence all the time. How many things have I been called to do that never “panned out” because they weren’t done confidently?
God changed my idea of what prayer is.
Once again I was faced with the discrepancy between what I knew in my head and what I would come to know in my heart. On several occasions complete strangers stopped Robin and me and prayed with us. They prayed with us in the parking lot of Lowe’s holding hands in a circle in a driving rain as lightning crackled overhead. They prayed with us in the QT parking lot unfazed by cars maneuvering to the gas pumps and other pedestrians walking by just feet away.
How many times had I seen someone and for a brief instant thought I should pray for them and then immediately worried what I would do if they said “No” or laughed at me. No doubt, the people who prayed for us had both of those thoughts as well, yet chose to stop and lift us up.
I have heard men whom I consider to be spiritual giants pray, and been brought to my knees in humility or lifted to my feet and readied for action by their words. I always admired their eloquence and coveted their ability to stir our passions. “Lord, I don’t want to get on that treatment table, but I can’t finish treatment until I do. You are going to have to help me.” That is certainly not an eloquent prayer, but I said it with as much passion as any prayer I have ever prayed. How foolish of me to think God would be impressed by my choice of words.
God blessed me with a new yardstick.
If you have ever been to the emergency room, one of the things they ask you now is to rate your pain on a scale of 0-10 with 10 being the worst. That question started being asked of me about midway through treatment. As time went on it became a ridiculous question. I was getting a new scale every other day or so.
Money can certainly be tight and having a car break down or some other significant problem can have a ripple effect touching every other facet of our life. Cancer, from diagnosis through treatment and recovery, gave us a much clearer picture of what a “10” is. I started feeling a little silly for ever thinking that the misunderstanding I had allowed to come between my father and me was an “8.” The boys’ Bronco breaking down was nowhere near the “6” we used to think it was. New scale in hand, I started measuring what was important to me before cancer. It was an eye-opening experience.
Comfort zones are useless.
I had a comfort zone. It was tied in some way to everything you have read so far. I now understand it serves no good purpose. If you have one, put it on eBay. Scratch that, don’t give it to someone else, just get rid of it completely.
What does getting rid of your comfort zone feel like? It feels like looking someone in the eye and telling them the Lord loves them and will not leave them and saying it like you KNOW it. It feels like walking in a spirit of confidence and not a spirit of fear. It feels like blurting out the encouraging words God had placed on your heart to the single mom shopping in Walmart. Seriously, why were those words put on your heart to begin with?
We all “trade paint” with life (a little NASCAR lingo there), and many of us have the visible scars to prove it. That very same trading of paint can be used by God to sand our rough edges, strip away feelings or material things that are impediments to a proper relationship with Him, and reach significantly more people with God’s message of hope and love than we ever could on our own.
Chris Nolan is a member of Peace Lutheran Church and plays regularly for our Saturday night contemporary worship service. His fight with cancer has left him very willing to talk with and encourage others who struggle with that terrible disease, especially with cancer of the tongue or throat. And he would love to see you in worship some Saturday night!