Not Just a First - A Series of Firsts
I don’t believe anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer can forget the moment that they first hear the news. For me, I was sitting in a meeting with my church executive team when my doctor called. I dismissed myself from the meeting and walked to a quiet place. I don’t remember what proceeded or necessarily much of what came after, I just heard the words Stage 4 Colorectal Cancer that had spread to my liver.
At that moment, my world paused. I’m a high functioning autistic man, so my autism kicked into high gear. My mind began making mental notes of everything I would have to do when I hung up the phone. The first being...I had to tell my wife. That led me to thoughts on how I would carry myself when I told her. Should I smile, should I make my conversation light and positive. What would give her peace in this moment? What would her reaction be? Then my mind raced to our five daughters. My mind was serving up images of their childhood as fast as I could process them. How much time do I have left with them?
This began my journey not just the first of being a cancer fighter, but a series of firsts...a barrage of unknowns.
Once I told the woman of my dreams, my lover, my partner..who had endured so many things through the years and who was relentless with her love towards me...I knew I should tell my lead pastor as I was the Executive Pastor of a large church and a large team, and he should know right away. This led to a new first, one that I thought was unique to my story, but later, after talking to literally hundreds of cancer fighters, it was all too common. His response to the news was to ask me a question: Do you think you’ll be able to fulfill the duties of your job while fighting cancer and going through chemo?
It’s a question that, looking back, might be practical, but it is truly one of the most unfair questions that cancer fighters have to endure. I’ve known of my diagnosis for barely an hour. I’ve never had cancer. I’ve never journeyed through chemo. I don’t know how to answer that question. I’ve not even met with my oncologist and my cancer team. So, I answered honestly and raw: “I don’t know. I’ve never gone through chemo.” What followed is also all too common for cancer fighters to hear from their employers/leadership. “Well, I’ve had some close friends who went through chemo and they really struggled. So, you need to think about that.”
Over the past year, I have met with countless cancer fighters and their families and loved ones. I was shocked to find that they had almost identical experiences. Their leaders had taken a few experiences and then projected those experiences onto each of them, almost predicting the future of their careers. And what we are left with in those moments is this hopeless thought: Well, maybe they’re right...this might be it. My career, my team, my passion...it’s all coming to an end.
For me, I felt like I was living out Cory Asbury’s song, Unraveling. No words rang truer to how I was feeling than his opening lyrics: “I’m coming apart at the seams...and everyone is pulling at me...and I am unraveling…” I’ve had cancer fighters just fall into my arms sobbing when they relive those moments on their journey. A bloody mixture of anger, injustice, and determination flowed through every vessel within my body as I listened to their internal suffering. Because WE CAN DO BETTER. In fact, we have to.
This began my journey into firsts. A friend of mine recommended that I read a book called Chasing Daylight. What a hope-giving book. It showed me that my first step was to come to terms with my mortality. I was smart enough to know that even before my diagnosis, I had no control over my physical life. Life is a vapor. But, when you get that diagnosis, life puts its hand on the back of your head and pushes you to stare and focus on the absence of control. It opened a new door for me to change the nature of my conversations with God. Then, God took me by the hand and led me to a place of hope in spite of circumstances.
More firsts were to quickly follow. My first round of chemo. Two days of being violently ill and thinking this was just how chemo was going to go. That’s when true heroes entered my life. If you talk to 100 cancer fighters, you will hear 100 stories of these heroes. A hope-filled first: My Infusion Team. When I arrived to have my chemo pump removed to close out my first round...they saw I was not okay. They sprung into action. They dropped everything to give me hydration, anti-nausea through IV, and weren’t about to let me leave until I was on a path to recovery. My eyes are filled with salty, big tears, even now as I think about that first. That team gave me HOPE. They were in the fight with me...I wasn’t just a number.
Then my first paradox. If you know me, I am very open about my faith in God and my love of his church. And, at first, I had this outpouring of people praying for me to be healed. But, a paradox confronted me. As weeks and rounds of chemo went by with no healing, more and more friends started falling off. Fewer comments and when I did run into them, the comments were reduced to two words: “I’m sorry.” This was a paradox, because I believe it is born out of a poor theology that we have let creep into our churches. It is as though we only have one prayer or one thought when it comes to life threatening disease: Healing. But, when healing doesn’t come, we don’t have any more words. But, I believed in a God, a Savior that gives HOPE in spite of circumstances...that peace, joy and hope can fill me regardless of what I am facing. That’s the prayers and the words I needed...that’s what I desired the most. God granted me a very big opportunity: to show the world what it means to die well, which requires me to truly LIVE well. Cancer fighters are some of the greatest living examples of HOPE our communities and cities could ever see. But...instead of being given a voice and a platform...we are given expiration dates and pity.
Weeks before my diagnosis, I had friends who would just hang out with me and we’d talk about football, fishing, and just shoot the bull. Then, shortly after my diagnosis, those moments came to an end. That was a first for me that I never saw coming. Now, I know they love me...so I have to conclude they just have been given a toolbox with one tool: pray for healing. They don’t know what to do when healing is elusive...cancer is often a long game. This inspired me. This didn’t make me angry, it just showed me an area where I can help them fill their tool box with so much more. And it all starts with HOPE and giving a voice to these beautiful, faithful cancer fighters.
I’m not angry, depressed, or jaded...I am determined to not be silenced...I will be a loud voice for HOPE and my God who gave it to all of us! I’m excited and passionate. This message of hope courses through my veins. This has led to GREAT FIRSTS.
Great Firsts. While some firsts are challenging and difficult...God always shines light into our worlds brightly. My next blog post will begin telling the stories of so many who risked and loved and inspired me deeply.
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