Friday, April 13, 2012

#403: Getting Cancer is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me

I've only said that out loud a couple of times. Now that I've written it down for the first time, it looks even crazier than it sounds.
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. (James 1:2-3)
Look, people go through worse than I did every day. I'd rather go through 10 years of chemo than a day of combat in Afghanistan. Every time a single mom comes into the Y, trying to get financial assistance so her kids can go to camp, or a divorced dad comes in to find a way to help the family he can no longer share a home with, I realize how much worse things could be for me. What if it had been Mrs P, and not me? What if Mum hadn't been able to come and stay with us for half a year? What if there had been no hospital that would treat us when my insurance stopped paying? What if there had been no family to help us when the bank finally foreclosed on our house? Believe me, I know how blessed I am.

But that's not what I mean when I say getting cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm talking about what happened to me because I got cancer.

Just as James' epistle promised, cancer's greatest lesson is patience. Cancer treatment is all about set-backs and changes in plan. I don't think I know anyone whose treatment has gone by the book. To overcome an elusive opponent, you have to be willing to accept the surprises and change your tactics. Cancer teaches you patience, and patience nurtures hope. That's true in the radiation clinic, and it's true in the gym. Healing takes time. You have to trust that truth, and you have to be patient enough for hope to come. Getting cancer taught me that.

There's something else, too. One of my favorite sayings is, "There are an awful lot of things that used to be important to me." 

  • How I look
  • How little money I make
  • The disrespect of strangers
  • Dreams that didn't come true
This stuff used to camp out in my head, filling my quiet hours with shame and regret. Now, when I look at my life all I can do is thank God for the chance to open my eyes; to feel the sun; to hear my wife breathing softly beside me in bed; to spend 10 minutes scouting around the yard picking up dog poop in a plastic bag. Every breath I draw is a blessing: a chance to love my life, my wife, my God, my neighbors. Nothing else is really important.
Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. (Book of Common Prayer, Holy Eucharist II)

Jesus prayed for the cup of Calvary to pass from him, and I would have prayed the same words about the cup of cancer. But I could never have imagined the strength and renewal that bitter drink would give me. I know now that there is nothing that I can't live through, no battle that I can't fight to the finish. I have seen that strength in other cancer fighters, and for the first time in my life, I can feel it in myself. It is strength that comes from inside me, but it is also the strength of all the people who love and support me. Their prayers and kindness make me stronger, and together we can endure anything. 

Renewal? Oh, yes. I don't ask, "Why am I here?" any more. I know why I'm here. I've been called to preach. My sermon? Cancer can kill us, but it can never defeat us if we live strong. Every waking moment, that story is my life's work. A day doesn't go by that I don't encounter at least one person who needs to hear it. There are probably a lot more who are sick of me going on and on about it, but there may come a time when they'll need it, and I'm going to make sure I'm here to tell it - to live it.

My prayer for you is that you won't have to get cancer to learn the things it taught me. You are blessed. You are stronger than you can imagine. You are not alone. You were created to do wonderful, amazing things. You can make the world a better place than you found it. I know those things about you, even if you don't know them about yourself yet. And knowing that about you, has changed me in more ways than I can count or recognize. 

Cancer isn't evil. It's just a blob of crazy cells fighting for their lives. Our real opponent isn't disease. Our enemy is death: not just the death that puts you in a box in the ground, but also the death that kills your spirit and leaves you walking around empty and afraid. Getting cancer gave me the antidote to death. The prescription is one part purpose and one part love. Repeat as needed.

Being a cancer fighter means fighting for life. That's why I'm here. That's what getting cancer gave me. I'm not grateful to cancer. And I won't pretend I'm grateful for the days spent puking or the nights spent shivering while I wondered what would become of Mrs P when I was gone. I don't treasure one moment that I spent with the disease in my body. 

But I'm grateful as hell for what it left behind.



You can help cancer survivors like me learn to fight for life. Give to Living Strong at the Y. Follow this link to learn how.

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