Monday, April 15, 2013

#429: What's Past is Prologue

What's past is prologue; what to come, In yours and my discharge ~ The Tempest Act 2, scene 1.

As I conclude this look back at some of the highlights of my cancer journey, I realize just how good a teacher cancer has been to me. So many lessons...


Tuesday, May 18, 2010


#163 What we might be...

Since I became ill, I have experienced mercy, compassion, and generosity in the most remarkable way. People have poured out their hearts, their hours, and their pocketbooks to Mrs P and me in a demonstration of gratuitous love that leaves me awestruck. It occurred to me last night that this is who me might be.

If we choose, we might be a people who share one another's burdens.

Who build one another up and encourage one another to succeed.

We might be a people who treasure and shelter one another from life's unfairness and cruelty.

Had we the will, we might be companions who make one another feel stronger, more capable, more known.

We might create places where our neighbors could bring their fears and find solace and comfort. Maybe not always understanding, but always acceptance.

The world might be such a place. Or the church. Or our heart.

Cancer is teaching me what beautiful, holy people we might be... what a world we might share...



Thursday, May 20, 2010


#166: Don't Tell Mama

She is stronger than I will ever be, and I spent three weeks "protecting" her from the truth. Maybe I wanted to be in control of at least a small part of my situation. Or maybe I was protecting both of us from having to face the possibility. "It isn't real if you don't say it out loud." What actually happened was that I gave her all that time to worry. Helplessly. I realize now how cruel my kindness had been. I gave her no opportunity to help, so all she could do was fear and pray. The people who love us deserve better than that.

Don't tell Mama, but I'd be lost without her. On second thought, go on and tell her. Mum always knows anyway.




Saturday, May 22, 2010


#168: This is Happening to Us

The days between the PET scan and our next meeting with Dr. Colin were distracted. The nights were filled with unblinking stares at the blackness above our bed. Long fearful silences. "Denial" is as good a word as any.

Kammy was the first to notice at work. She is a young woman (nearly everyone is young at work) who pretends to be a silly girl to hide her intuitive compassion.

"You aren't as cheerful as usual today," she observed in that musical Congolese dialect of hers. "What's wrong?"

My candor took me by surprise. "I've been having some tests. The Doctor thinks I might have Cancer." It was the first time I'd said it out loud. Her response was honest and startling.

"I hope you don't. I don't want you to die."

And there it was, out in the air. Together, we had given my silent fear a voice. It was the first of many times I would realize how much I share my condition with the people who know and love me.

The day the Doctor gave us his opinion, Mrs P took it harder than I.

"I can't say for certain that it's Cancer, but if it walks like a duck... There is no time to lose with this. If you delay..."

I finished his thought, bad habit. "It will just keep growing."

The Doc corrected me sternly, "It will take your life." This was not a joke.

It was a lot to take in. We rode the elevator down to the lobby and left. In the car, Mrs P started to cry. I was angry about the insurance. She was frightened about the diagnosis.

"I just don't understand why God is letting all this happen to you.."

I would deal with God later. "This isn't happening to me. This is happening to us."

What Kammy had taught me, what I wanted Mrs P to know was that I knew this was a burden we would share. I would not have the luxury of playing the victim. This was going to hurt everyone who cared about me, starting with her.


Saturday, June 12, 2010


#182: What Cancer Can't Kill


"How are you today, Miss April?"

"Honey, any day I get up out of bed is a good day."

There may come days when getting up is not an option for me. But still, morning will feel like a victory.

I think I'm finding out who Pennsy is. He walks. He walks like an old man, hobbling around the block. Maybe a 10th of a mile, once or twice a day. But by God, the Fat Man is Walking. Morning is best. The night can feel like a coffin, sometimes. Walking feels like life.

I know there may come a time when Cancer takes that, too. It's not something I would welcome. I have yet to come to terms with my own mortality, I promise you. Mrs P's Mamma once told me, "They all say I should stay home like a sick old lady. Well, I'm not gonna do it. When death comes for me, he's not gonna find me lying in my bed, he's gonna have to come looking for me running the roads in my old car."

Well when he comes looking for Pennsy, he's gonna find this Fat Man Running.


Saturday, July 31, 2010


#240: I Know You...

I know you... It's an unspoken nod of recognition. We members of the cancer fraternity can spot one another in the halls, in the waiting rooms. In the parking lot while one of us is waiting for a ride, the other will smile. I know you... Today, waiting for the elevator, the door opened and our eyes met. He was emaciated and was wearing the mask that the hardcore chemo people wear. He avoided touching the buttons or the door has he tried to hold it open for Mum and me. We smiled. "I know you. I know your struggle. Keep fighting."

No words are exchanged.  They are unnecessary between us, and meaningless to others. No matter how devoted our caregivers, they can never know us the way we know one another. A silent nod. Nothing more need be said.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010


#259: What the Old Timers Know

The head and neck cancer support group was much less scary yesterday. They reminded me how really badly I was doing just four weeks ago. I was making progress without even realizing it.

Last month I was scared by the stories of people whose sense of taste took two or three years to get back to normal. Some people never get all the way back. Yesterday those same stories gave me hope. You can recognize the long time survivors because they are so positive and encouraging. Those of us closer to treatment are more worried, but the folks who actually make it for years are the ones who keep hoping for the best. I talked a little about my anxiety, and they just kept telling me, "You're gonna be fine." And I will be fine. Whatever the outcome of today's scan, I'll be fine. I'll still have great doctors and people who love me. I'll still have God, no matter how frustratingly silent God seems to be. And I'll still have this blog to share my story with people who need to hear it.

It's gonna be fine.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010


#268: Saying "Yes" to Now


There is something sort of funny about this spiritual awakening of mine. I've spent most of the year angry and doubting God. Just at the time when I would have expected to lean on Jesus the most, I felt the most alone. Now that the danger has past, I've started to realize just how present God has been. God may not have felt close, but the people God sent sure were. They answered "Yes" when God told them to call or send an email or make a casserole. God was present in the faithful people who cared about me.

Maybe that's as good a definition of faith as any. Faith is saying "Yes," to life. "Yes," to love. "Yes," to now.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012


#407: 2012 Pittsburgh Marathon


Mrs P and my sister, Beth had managed to sneak into the VIP grandstands. It wasn't too hard, since the winners had finished over 4 hours earlier. I saw them cheering and snapping pictures just as I passed and their smiles gave me the last boost I needed to run across the finish line. A lady handed me my medal. Two young girls doused me with water. I staggered to a photo area where a man snapped my picture and handed me a business card. I guzzled Gatorade and water and grabbed a banana before wandering to a bench at the entrance of Point Park and prayed that the girls would somehow stumble across me. We embraced. "We did it," I said to Mrs P. "YOU did it," she corrected me. "WE did it," I insisted. "We kicked cancer's ass." My sister looked at the two of us and said, "You sure did." "We did it," I repeated. "F**k cancer." "Yeh," my little sister affirmed, "F**k cancer."

Nobody loves you like your little sister


My God, what a great day for a run.

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.

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.

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.

Peace,

Pennsy

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