Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cancer diagnosis changes perspective

(From the March 8, 2012 Grand Haven Tribune)

It’s nice to be surprised by your wife on your birthday. But not if the surprise is that she has cancer.

That was my experience a few weeks ago when I came in the house after a long day at work and started talking to my wife. I could tell something was wrong. I had no idea how wrong.

Cancer is all around us. I’ve had relatives and friends who have experienced it. No doubt a good number of people reading this column have struggled with cancer themselves or know and love someone who has. You would be the ones who understand: you think you know about cancer, but you don’t until you face it yourself, or the one person you love more than anyone on the planet has to face it.

I thought I was compassionate. I have hugged people, prayed with and for them, listened to them express themselves, and sent notes of encouragement. I hope all of this was helpful to those I was trying to help. But I can’t say I was really empathetic, that I really and fully understood what they were going through.

Such true and awful knowledge began a few weeks ago in our kitchen, when my wife and I embraced in a blur of tears, fear, and uncertainty. This was more than a bad day, a trivial annoyance, something that I could fix with a few tools from the garage.          

This was cancer.

We knew enough to be afraid. We heard words from the medical professionals that we had heard before and knew were not good. They were words such as tumors, metastasized, lymph nodes, and stage 3. Now these words were about my wife, about us.

We went through the human reaction of asking ‘why me?’ My wife is an avid and competitive runner. She has us eating the healthiest of foods, from whole wheat to organic produce and meat, and fresh herbs instead of salt. How is it that such a healthy person gets cancer? But asking ‘why me?’ is selfish. We’re not the only ones to deal with cancer or other hardships.

Also, there may be a profound answer to the “why” question. We know and believe what the Apostle Paul said of struggles and trials in this life. They produce perseverance, which produces character, which produces hope. We do not wish to deal with cancer, but nevertheless the experience may be a blessing in how it changes us.

Self-pity is also just not productive. This is the reality we must face. Facing reality causes a change in perspective. In one sense, our horizons became very close. Vacation planning, professional goals at work, and almost everything else long-term becomes irrelevant. We are thinking only about the next day or week, the next doctor’s appointment, the next phase of treatment.
On the other hand, our perspective has become extraordinarily long term. As lifelong Christians, the initial devastation of a cancer diagnosis has mellowed for us into a realization that this life is very short for all of us. The life to come, for those who have accepted the free and gracious gift of salvation because Christ suffered for us, will last forever. In that life, according to the assertions of Jesus and the apostles, we will have non-perishable bodies. I’m hoping and praying that my wife beats cancer and is with me for a long time. But if not, I know that cancer is not the end of the story.
At times the uncertainty of cancer is frustrating. We don’t know what to expect. Of course, none of us ever knows the future. We didn’t see this coming a few weeks ago. But then again, we do know the ultimate and eternal future. It is that long-term knowledge that gives us peace and hope. It is in fact the most--if not the only--comfort we have in life as well as death. That comfort is so strong that sometimes I feel the need to console those who are trying to comfort us.
But we are here now. So we are focused on fighting this terrible disease. The doctors have a treatment plan, and we have resolve to get on with it with strength and hope. Our family and friends and church community are walking along side of us on this journey. We have experienced blessings in the middle of this trial already. We are closer to God and each other. We have had a renewed focus on the things that matter most. We have had conversations long overdue.
This year my wife’s Valentine’s Day card to me said: “I love all the little things we do together.” Next year, for my birthday, if my wife wants to surprise and delight me, all she has to do is be there.