[I typically use this blog for family updates and pictures. I will continue to do so, but I thought it the better place to report on my cancer. What follows is an edited version of my journal.]
It always happens to someone else, at least until now. Cancer is the penultimate enemy, the fraternal twin to death. At a cellular level life reaches out and grabs for more than God intended. Uncontrolled growth leads to the inevitable, death.
My journey through this valley began just before midnight on Christmas Eve, 2010. I was preparing for bed and noticed my right testicle was enlarged. My self-examination revealed no noticeable lumps. During the next few days I did some on-line research and discovered (1) testicular cancer was rare in my age bracket – there are benefits to being old, (2) the most likely cause for the swelling would be epididymitis, and (3) other causes might be over doses of some vitamins and minerals. Since I have been on a variety of vitamins and minerals as prescribed by various doctors and friends, I decided to immediately eliminate everything except my prescriptions for high blood pressure and high cholesterol and look for changes as we moved through the holidays.
January was quite busy. I monitored the condition. There was some soreness and discomfort, but no real pain and no apparent change. By the end of the month it was obvious I needed to see a doctor. For years I had used a walk-in clinic, but I had already gotten some referrals for an internist or family practitioner. Cheryl went through my list and contacted Dr. Dennis Thompson. I went in to see him on the third day of February. He found no palpable lumps and suggested it was probably epididymitis. He did lab work on my urine (slightly elevated protein), took several vials of blood to be sent off to a lab, prescribed an antibiotic, prescribed an ultrasound, and made an appointment for me with Dr. Thacker, an urologist.
I saw Dr. Thacker two days later. He examined me and concurred with Dr. Thompson’s preliminary diagnosis and treatment. He had already received some of the results from the blood work and the markers for cancer were negative. He made an appointment for three weeks later to follow up on the effects of the antibiotics. He advised me not to expect the swelling to go down rapidly. He felt an ultrasound was not yet warranted.
The hospital began calling about scheduling the ultrasound prescribed by Dr. Thompson a week later. In light of Dr. Thacker’s observation I was in no hurry to call them back and so I waited until I was close to finishing the antibiotic regimen. As those two weeks progressed I could tell the treatment was making no difference in my condition. My thoughts fluctuated between (1) it must be a viral infection and therefore non-responsive to antibiotics, (2) Dr. Thacker had said it would take several weeks after the antibiotics for the swelling to go completely down, and (3) this is something more serious, i.e., cancer. I had a recurring concern that I was going to miss the birth of Karisa’s baby because I would be in the hospital having my testicle removed.
I had the ultrasound on February 23 and I could tell the technician was seeing something that needed special attention. When he finished I commented “I suppose you are not allowed to tell me anything.” He responded that he couldn’t but that he could get me a disk of the images. I got the feeling he thought I should look at them. He had earlier, during the test, asked who my urologist was and commented that Dr. Thacker was very good. I knew the visit with Thacker was not going to be good.
On Friday I went to see Dr. Thacker. He examined me and commented that the antibiotics had had no effect. I told him I had gotten the ultrasound and that I had brought the disk with the images. He looked at them and pointed out some troubling images including comparisons between the two testicles. He then spoke and said “Looking at these I have to tell you this appears to me to be cancer. Please wait here while I talk with the radiologist.” He went out, made the call and returned. The radiologist agreed. The protocol was to remove the testicle. He asked what I was doing early the next week. I told him my daughter was having a baby in Wheaton, Illinois but that I wasn’t scheduled to go up until the weekend. He said he didn’t think I should wait until I got back and that if we did it on Monday he might release me to travel by the weekend.
Just to be candid I am not certain which set of words were most troubling: “this appears to me to be cancer” or “remove the testicle.” My only question was why a biopsy was not warranted? He explained that one of the goals would be to keep any cancer cells from spilling into the scrotum. Removing the whole testicle was the best prophylactic against that. I did ask about treatments and he said that varied greatly depending on the type of cancer. In the best case scenario the surgery would be all that was needed. If it was a lymphoma there would be chemotherapy and possibly radiation. He referred to lymphoma two or three times leaving me with the impression that was what he thought it was. On the other hand, he may have been just covering his bases or preparing me for the worst possibility.
My sister Shirley and her husband Mike had arrived in town for a visit while I was at Dr. Thacker’s office. Even though I anticipated bad news I didn’t expect an immediate action. While they killed time at the house I went to the hospital for pre-admittance paperwork and tests (blood work, x-rays). They tried to comfort us and they took us out to eat for dinner. They are the best example of family and of friendship. I did not want the news out until I received a more definitive diagnosis. I asked Shirley to call my brother and other sister and let them know.
Saturday was a roller coaster ride. We did research on the web. Adding “lymphoma” to the query produced different results than just “testicular cancer.” The prognosis for lymphoma is not good but varies greatly depending on the type and there are about fifty types. I found myself bouncing between responses. This is the end; what should I try to get done in the next 24 months. Denial, we still don’t really know anything. I think we have caught it early; I very well could have a normal life after treatment. I began sorting through what this meant for all the things I wanted to do for Christ. My focus was on the various writing projects I have already outlined. I resolved to drop other involvements in order to focus on those things I knew God had called me to do.
Jimmy called me and shared that he had been called to prayer for someone in our family throughout the day on Friday. He inquired about how I was dealing with the news and encouraged me that God was at work for me. I am so thankful for my family and encouraged to know they hear God and respond to his call.
I don’t think I can describe the experience of having a doctor tell me I have cancer. It was surreal. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously identified the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I entered that world not as stages but as simultaneous dimensions of my existence. It was as if I heard the word “cancer” with its multiple layers of nuance engaging multiple aspects of my being. The cold and rational side of me thought “don’t be shocked; you knew it was a possibility; after all you were the first to bring up the subject.” In a parallel universe denial responded, “he didn’t say what he just said; he was confident last time it wasn’t cancer.” Before he uttered the second syllable of the cursed word I was bargaining, “this is just a wake-up call; I will get my priorities worked out and God will take care of this.” In the midst of it all I kept hearing myself, “don’t panic, don’t over react; keep a clear head.” And I did.
Sunday, February 27 was a glorious day.
By mid-afternoon on Saturday I had traversed the dark chasm of internet information on lymphoma. I was working through scenarios of how I might focus my time if the prognosis was bad. I had a moderate sense of peace and I turned my attention to the church bulletin and Sunday services. My sermon prep was poor at best but I felt confident none-the-less.
On Sunday morning I decided to share my situation with the elders, deacons, prayer team, and staff. I gathered three or four at a time between Sunday school and worship and after the service. My presentation was matter-of-fact and included a request for prayer. During prayer time I mentioned I had a “situation” for which I needed prayer without any clarification. The prayer team asked to pray for me and anoint me with oil, an uncommon but not rare event. During the prayer, Jacqueline Smith, who was visiting in preparation for being our guest speaker the next Sunday, told me the Lord wanted her to share with me something He has told her that week. She had asked why we do not see miracles like happened in the New Testament. God spoke and asked her, “Jackie, do you know what a miracle is?” She replied that she thought so and He continued. “A miracle is just Me restoring My creation to what I intended it to be.” She continued, “Pastor, God wants you to know that; a miracle is just God restoring His creation.”
I felt God’s presence and peace as I preached. Immediately after the service Renee Bauman came to me and said, “Pastor, while you were up front God spoke to me and told me to tell you He isn’t through with you yet.” She had no idea about my diagnosis or even that I was ill. I accepted that word as a word from God, but I wasn’t confident what it meant. I had wanted a “slay-me-in-the Spirit-raise-me-up-whole” kind of miracle. I didn’t want to have my testicle removed. God could heal me, restore my testicle to its proper size and let the doctors witness to God’s grace and power.
That afternoon Cheryl suggested she would like to have Doug Slocumb, our friend and co-worker, to sit with her during the surgery. He is the closest person we have as a pastor. I called and he agreed.
We arrived at the hospital at 7:15 A.M.. Doug pulled in right behind us and we walked into the building together. Sang-Ehil and Min Han were already there. Min is on our prayer team and Sang-Ehil is a close co-worker and church member. I wasn’t expecting them but I was happy to see them.
I was in a room and in a gown by 7:30. We soon discovered the surgery would not be until 9:30. Cheryl stepped out and invited the Hans to spend a little time with me. We visited a little and they asked to pray for me. Min went to the foot of the gurney, knelt and took my left foot in her hand. She prayed in Korean. I sensed a special presence of God. My eyes were closed but as she prayed the room became lighter and lighter. I knew it was the glory of God. A deep peace settled over me and I knew everything was going to be Okay no matter what happened. That peace and calm assurance remained throughout the week that followed.
After the Hans left, Cheryl and Doug returned and sat with me. Doug prayed a beautiful pastoral prayer as well. When they came to get me I remember rolling down the hall but I was out before we got to the room. When I awoke I was back in my pre-op room; the surgery was over. Cheryl said Dr. Thacker had said everything went well. A short time later he entered and told me the same. He gave me some instructions and promised to call me when the pathology report came in, but it would be at least three days.
Before long I was up and on my way to the bathroom. You must be ambulatory and you must pee before they send you home. By mid-afternoon I was snug in my easy chair. Then the fun began. Once the pain medication had worn off and I was dependent on the prescribed hydrocodon, I discovered the joys of getting into and out of a chair after surgery.