Finding Joy Amidst Stage IV Colon Cancer
How facing cancer gave a pastor a deeper hope and the ability to live in the moment.
Before stage IV colon cancer, I was a get it done, let’s charge the mountain kind of guy.
In some ways, I still function that way. But I am not the same person I was before cancer. As a result of my diagnosis, and I have learned that hope is essential to living with purpose and joy.
Here’s what happened.
I serve as the pastor of a church in Pennsylvania.
In May of 2016, I officiated a funeral for a good friend of mine who had taken his life. It was a very difficult week.
I remember sitting in the back of the church, and I felt this pain in my shoulder, like I had a kink that needed to be worked out. The next day, I woke up and I couldn’t take a full breath of air.
Not the news I wanted to hear
I delayed going to the emergency room, because maybe I was just stressed, and especially because I didn’t want to wreck my daughter’s prom that Friday night.
My pain grew worse, and after my daughter arrived home safely, my wife took me to the emergency room at 3 a.m., where I was admitted and received several tests.
A few days later, a doctor stood at the foot my hospital bed and told my wife and I that I have stage IV colon cancer.
It was not the news we wanted to hear. The cancer had spread to my liver, which swelled so much it pushed against my diagram, which explained my pain and difficulty breathing.
A long and dark night
I did not sleep much that night. The nurses were great, and I had plenty of pain medication, but my emotions were all over the place. It was almost like the longer and darker the night got the more my emotions danced, and further afield they roamed. I awoke with fits and starts all night long.
Later that week, I met with an oncologist. I’m a numbers guy and I wanted to know all of the information and to process it and so I could make a plan and deal with it.
He told me the best I could hope for was two years, which was difficult to hear.
I am a planner, a dreamer, a visionary, always thinking about what could be. But now, as my plans lay in shreds, I was trying to figure out what God was doing.
Within a week, I began chemotherapy.
What does a pastor listen to when they sit for hour upon hour and get chemo pumped into their body? U2. Especially the song 40, which I played on loop for an entire night in the hospital.
Based on Psalm 40, the song captures the sacred response of crying out to God in suffering asking, How Long? How long must I cry out? How long must I wait before I am heard?
This summed up what I was feeling in that moment.
For more about this topic, please read my article, How a popular U2 song reveals our universal desire to cry out to God in suffering.
The death of Super Pastor
As I began walking through stage IV colon cancer, my circumstances quickly forced me to make some changes in my life.
I’ve served as a pastor for nearly my entire career and I felt this pressure to accomplish everything and make everyone happy. It’s the burden of being “Super Pastor,” and I wrote about it in my book, along with the rest of my experience in The Journey Continues: Finding Joy Amidst Life’s Struggles.
I do not know when we first began to let this illness of Super Pastor root, but it is destroying our churches.
I quickly realized I needed to let Super Pastor die, by facing my limited energy and limited resources, which was hard for me.
How I found hope, strength and peace
I tend to think of hope in two ways: hope for today and hope after I have completed my journey here on this earth.
I often share about the way in which God works to redeem, transform and restore all things, even in the most difficult situations in our lives. Through my cancer journey, I’ve seen God do that and it continually gives me hope.
God is redeeming the awful diagnosis, the difficult treatments, the recurring tumor growth as he works in and through me. I am not the same person I was pre-cancer and I like the new me better. I wish I could have learned some of these lessons without the trial and difficulty of cancer, but I don’t think it would be possible.
Something else I’ve found hopeful is that God is my Abba Father, an intimate term the Bible uses to characterize a real and personal relationship with God.
Abba Father knows the completeness of who I am. Rather than turning away in disappointment when I fail, Abba Father allows me to grow and develop a real relationship with the One who has come “to set captives free.” That gives me hope, joy and strength to continue during the darkest of days.
How cancer has changed me
One of the first steps toward experiencing hope with my circumstances was re-ordering my priorities. Cancer robbed me of the ability to be “all things to all people” so I had to quickly discern what was most important. I am learning how to say no without apology and to see the opportunities that stand before me in the moment.
It’s not about what happened earlier today, or what will happen two hours later. What is God doing in this moment? In this conversation?
Cancer may shorten my life, but this sharper focus, attention to those areas that truly is giving me hope and joy.
What’s crazy is, this has actually helped my church. As I didn’t complete things and let them drop, other people stepped up to do them. And I think in some ways it was good for First Baptist.
How I am doing
Initially, I started treatment with some aggressive chemotherapy. After my body couldn’t handle it anymore, I tried some other forms of treatment. For some reason, my body responds well to chemotherapy, which helps keep my cancer in check, which is a blessing.
My doctors are very clear that they will never use the word “remission” as they speak about my cancer. They will never call me “cured.”
However, soon, I will reach the five-year anniversary of my diagnosis, which is great considering the original outlook.
Regardless of what happens to me, my peace comes from the fact that I have already been cured from stage IV colon cancer.
What I mean is because of what I believe, whether I experience a miracle in this life or in the next life, cancer does not define me, nor does it shape who I am. God has cured me. The only question is whether I will experience the fullness of that cure in this life or the next. That truth gives me peace. There is nothing that can be done to me that will harm me.
Abba Father walks alongside me. And he can walk alongside you, too.
If you would like to learn more about to begin a relationship with God, read Knowing God Personally.
For more about finding strength outside of yourself, read Asking God for Help.
Read Dan’s article about how U2 song expresses our desire to ask for help God in suffering.