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.

My 2010 Christmas Letter

2010 – Quite An Event-full Year

Two things I’ve promised myself to do in the near future: #1, write a Christmas letter (I’ve never been very consistent at this), and #2, plan a 50th birthday for myself for next June (I’ve always shied away from these events, but this one I plan to embrace!)

My cancer is “The elephant in the room” for 2010, but as I decided months ago not to let cancer define who I am, so I’ll get to that later.

For a full year prior to 2010, I had been exploring a major choral work to do with the church choir and orchestra.  I finally decided on Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and found it to be the musical high point of my career.  As a Jewish believer in Jesus, Mendelssohn chose wonderful biblical texts to reveal the holiness of God, God’s power to answer prayer and the victory we can have through Christ.  It was a great joy to lead 100+ voices and an excellent orchestra in some of the greatest choral music ever written.  (view YouTube clip here)

Many Price family events converged in May, changing our lives in many ways.  The first of two performances of Elijah was on Friday, April 30.  It was a wonderful evening, then we were up before dawn to drive to Chicago for Blaine’s graduation from Judson University.  He received his Bachelor of Architecture on Saturday afternoon.

Blaine (B.A.) has been working very hard all year since getting his degree.  He sent scores of resumes to architectural firms, but found that the depressed economy has greatly affected the design industry.  He set his sights on preparing for the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) and applying to grad schools (UVA, Va Tech, NC State, Clemson, USC, etc.).  I get the impression he wants to move back east.  Given my health situation, it’s been great having him back home for a year.  He’s now working 30+ hours at Kmart in Rochester, but was just contacted by an architectural firm in Va Beach, VA about a possible position beginning in early 2011.

Back to the Elijah part of the story, we got up early on Sunday morning, driving back to Rochester from Chicago for a 6pm performance of Elijah.  It was another wonderful experience that was fulfilling both musically and spiritually.  I decided to take a week of vacation after the demanding weekend…time to get some rest.  I had been having some light rectal bleeding for a few weeks, but assumed it was due to the increased stress of a major performance endeavor on top of my already busy job.  When the symptoms did not subside after a week, I saw my doctor who called for further testing.

On May 28, I was diagnosed with grade 2 (moderate cell growth), stage 3 (lymph nodes minimally invaded) rectal cancer.  Because I wanted as much prayer as I could possibly get, I decided not to “suffer in silence,” choosing rather to let our entire congregation know about the diagnosis.  The outpouring of love, prayer and support continues to be overwhelming.  I started this blog to allow people to travel this journey with me.  Fortunately, as many have noted, I have lost neither my hair nor my sense of humor. 

Blair graduated from Mayo HS on June 11.  He had taken all his classes at RCTC for his senior year, focusing his attention on courses in psychology and guitar.  He is continuing those studies at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA.  Next year he will probably double major in psychology and guitar…he seems to enjoy both very much.  (view YouTube link of Blair’s guitar exploits herehere and here - hey! I'm a proud dad!  Sue me!)

July was spent receiving chemo and radiation.  Fortunately the painful side effects subsided early enough for us to take Blair off to college and for Charlene and I to enjoy our first two-week vacation together.  We said a brief, tearful good-bye to Blair and headed straight for the Blue Ridge Parkway/Appalachian Trail.  It was one of our best vacations ever.  A week of strenuous hiking, followed by visiting friends and family in SC, NC and VA, finishing off with a couple of days at the beach.  This may become an annual trip as long as Blair’s at LU.

Major surgery took me completely out of commission in September, and I’ve spent much of the fall and winter recuperating and undergoing additional chemotherapy.  The surgeon was very optimistic about having identified and removed the cancer cells; the second round of chemo is double-insurance for the future.  The chemo in Oct-Dec has been much more difficult to take, especially with the onset of cold weather.  Our friends have been wonderfully encouraging during this time.  Of course, Charlene has been an angel…we’ve never been closer, even (because of?) in the midst of emotional agony, physical distress and concerns about the future. 

A less invasive surgery is planned for January 10, then I’ll complete the treatment phase with three more rounds of chemo in Feb/March.  I’m really looking forward to Easter and having all this behind me. 

This is already too long.  In the space of this letter I can’t capture all the blessings I’ve received this year, all the lessons learned and all the prayers answered.  I am so grateful for friends all over the country who regularly pray for me.  It’s great to have been part of so many wonderful churches and have so many godly friends. 

Realizing early on that both were needed, I’ve been continually praying for spiritual renewal and physical healing.  I believe God is working and will continue to work in both of these areas of my life.

Now, to get started on that 50th birthday party...

Grateful for innumerable blessings and abounding grace,

Bill Price
December, 2010