Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mileposts: Medical and Spiritual

One of the ways of dealing with the extended length of cancer treatments is to try to break it into manageable chunks of time and identify mileposts along the way.  A milepost lets you pause to look back over your shoulder and say, “Yes, there’s a long way to go, but I have made some progress.”   

Setting mileposts are part of the mental game you play with yourself to survive.  I’ve never run a marathon (and don’t intend to), but I’m guessing that marathoners use a similar technique to deal with the mental side a long race.

I’ve got a few mileposts ahead of me, and I think (hope) I’m coming into the final leg of this part of the cancer journey.  Others who have walked this path ahead of me tell me that you never really consider yourself “cured” of cancer; once you’re officially a cancer “survivor,” the emotional side of cancer stays with you.  Not only because there are no guarantees that your cancer will never return or because you are subjected to regular screenings for the rest of your life, but also because cancer changes who you are and your outlook on life.

On the medical side, the four mileposts left on my journey are a surgery in January and three chemo treatments in Feb-March.  After that, I believe the treatment phase of cancer will be over.  I’m really looking forward to having this behind me and discovering what life post-cancer treatments is like.  What will “normal” be? 

From the beginning, when I was first diagnosed, I began praying for spiritual renewal as well as physical healing.  I’ve always said them in that order believing that both were needed, both were possible and both would be a work of God.  Looking back, I can see that mirroring the medical mileposts there have been spiritual mileposts along the way.  Just as cancer will always be a part of who I am in the future, I hope these spiritual markers will define me going forward.

Milepost #1 – A corporate journey

In many ways, the diagnostic phase of cancer, the first three weeks, was among the most agonizing.  There were just so many unknowns, questions about the future that couldn’t be answered quickly.  I really just wanted someone to tell me what was going to happen next, but that’s just not possible.  Wanting to know is a part of trying to control.  Part of the emotional disorientation is being out of control, knowing that you are dragging your loved ones along on a journey with an unknown destination.  Because of their love for you, they are happy to walk alongside, but it’s still difficult to subject others to the emotional roller coaster.

My first milepost was the decision to let the full church know about my condition and ask for as much prayer as I could get.  (For those who don’t live in Rochester, this got the word out to over 2000 people very quickly.)  Maybe this seems like a “no-brainer,” but I’ve discovered that many people carry deep burdens around without telling even their closest friends.  More than they should (more than we typically deserve), people often put pastors up on a pedestal, believing we have no problems and have all life’s struggles under control.  I wanted to shatter that fallacy and give everyone permission to be open with the tragedies that come by living in a fallen world.  I didn’t share the news of my cancer to be heroic or to get attention; I truly believe in the power of prayer, I’m in a church full of accomplished pray-ers, and I wanted as much prayer as I could get.  I’ve jokingly mentioned that the benefit of being kicked out of so many good churches is that people all across the country are praying for me.

Milepost #2 – Thankful for cancer

Yesterday I talked to someone that I had not seen in several years.  He heard about my cancer and was shocked that I could get cancer.  He recounted (accurately) my high-fiber, low-fat diet, disdain for desserts and love for regularly working out.  “How in the world did you get cancer?!” he asked. 

That’s a question even the best Mayo doctors and scientists can’t answer.  To say that age 49 I’m outside the bell curve of the typical cancer patient is an understatement.  A possible reaction to the diagnosis would be despair mixed with anger, the “Why me?” response.  (Okay, honesty time: when I see the long line of Mayo nurses on their break, standing outside smoking, the “Why me?” response sometimes rears it’s ugly head.  I’ve learned to pray they don’t get it). 

Since cancer isn’t my “fault” for any environmental/lifestyle reasons, I had to come to the conclusion that I “needed” cancer.  As if my approaching 50th birthday weren’t enough, cancer has given me the chance to stop and take an assessment of my life.  Cancer gives you the chance to take Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey, reviewing your past, present and future.   I can’t imagine that there are too many people who can look into the mirror and not find some areas of their lives that need attention.

After looking in the mirror and beginning the prayer for spiritual renewal, I found that God was slowly making changes and that I could pray and say “Thank you” for cancer.  In some ways, the only thing worse than getting cancer is not getting cancer and losing the opportunity for a Holy Spirit guided self-assessment.  I’m not sure that any of us has the wisdom or strength to face the mirror until tragedy forces us to do so. 

Milepost #3 – Moved with Christ’s Compassion

During this phase of my life, I’m on a journey with thousands of others who are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  The valley can be rather beautiful (if you’ve seen the spacious lobby of the Gonda building at Mayo, you know what I mean).  The valley is full of professional caregivers, art, music and caring loved ones.  But the presence of beauty can’t hide the pain, sorrow and fear that’s also in the valley.  When you look in the eyes of patients, or even worse, the parents of patients, you see agony.  Their agony is my agony, and a milepost for me was seeing, sensing and then owning their agony as my own.  I can’t just rush up to the 10th floor for my treatment then escape to my car without looking in their eyes.  I remember Jesus feeling the touch of the woman in the street, turning around and saying, “Who touched me?”  The disciples thought he was kidding, “In a crowd this size he asks, ‘Who touched me?’?”  The weren’t seeing the people in the crowd as Jesus saw them.  The Man of Sorrows had already made the agony of the people his own personal agony; what the disciples couldn’t see He couldn’t escape. 

I wonder sometime if anyone has watched me from a distance and seen me lift my hand in a sign of blessing to a fellow-patient nearby, wondering if I’ve got some strange Darth Vader fixation.  I’ve found myself praying over and over for people I will never meet, people suffering agony like and beyond my own, other valley-people.  I wasn’t doing this before cancer, but I do now.  Especially for the parents and their children. 

Milepost #4 - Encouraging Susan

Though an odd, God-ordained series of relationships, I’ve gotten to know a woman named Susan who lives in Minneapolis.  Susan is 72 and while on an Alaska cruise met a pastor and his wife with whom I worked in the 1980s.  They struck up a friendship on the cruise and have stayed in touch ever since.  When my pastor friend heard of my diagnosis, the “Minnesota connection” was made and my name came up in conversation with Susan last summer (again, I’m happy for all the prayer I can get). 

Remarkably, several weeks after hearing my story Susan was also diagnosed with grade 2 rectal cancer.  She is about three months behind me on the treatment journey; we’ve had many conversations about my experiences and what she may expect.  She’s going through the initial chemo/radiation treatment now, facing surgery in the spring.  Her doctor has prescribed a treatment path very similar to mine. 

Talking with Susan regularly has allowed me to reflect on God’s goodness during this journey and to celebrate the progress I have made.  We always look for “reasons” for these tragic life events.  If part of my reason is to encourage Susan, pray for others I will never meet and reassess the life God has entrusted to me, I’m happy for the experience.

But I’ll also be happy when it’s over.


  1. I also learned a very similar lesson on Christ's compassion during my journey through the deep valley of depression. Not long after that, I remember sitting in a restaurant weeping as I watched a very disabled young man struggle to get into a car with his family out in the parking lot. I didn't understand the tears at first, but I realized that my heart was crying for him and the physical and emotional pain that he must deal with on a daily basis. At first I was embarrassed at this new "emotional weakness" I had developed. However, I have since realized that caring enough to cry and pray for someone else--the act of feeling compassion--was a new strength, not a weakness. Prior to this journey my focus had been more on surviving my own struggles. Through this journey, my focus has become much more on others. Yes, it is still sometimes embarrassing to find myself in tears for someone at "inapporpriate" times; however, if that is the cost that must be paid to share in the compassion of Christ, I am willing to pay it over and over. If that was the only milepost that I could look back on from that journey (and it is not), I believe that it alone would have been worth it. I pray that He will continue to soften my heart, let me see others as He sees them, and let my heart break for them as His does.


  2. Pastor Bill,
    I know many people including me will be so happy for you and your family when your journey with this disease of cancer is done and over. I continue to pray for strength, courage, and spiritual renewal for you and your family as you positively look at what God has already done and will do for you.Believing he has perfect plans for you and your family can encourage you on your journey to its end. God bless you and may you have a wonderful Christmas with your family. Our God reigns!