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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“My journey with cancer” (speech: Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church)

(Note: This is the text, except for the postscript, of a talk I gave to my church (Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC) in the summer of 2001. I subsequently sent the remarks to several friends.)

My journey with cancer really begins in the fall of l996 when a good friend, Bronwyn Rayburn Leonard, the wife and sister of fellow seminarians, died of cancer at the age of 49, leaving a husband and four children behind. I watched her brother, my friend and pastor, labor through that time with remarkable equanimity and peace that supernaturally came from the Holy Spirit as the Spirit applied the truths pastor Rob Rayburn learned of the triune God’s sovereignty and perfect kindness towards all His children, the Leonard and the Rayburn families included. It seems to me that if my faith in the revealed Christ is not real in times of personal affliction and suffering, then my faith in Christ is not real at all.

The Watchful Waiting

The gift of cancer became personal to me the following spring (April) of l997 when I began my series of prostate biopsies because I had a rising PSA (prostate specific antigen) count of 6. I was 52. I had wonderful and watchful care from my rural physicians in central Washington State where we were living. The early biopsies showed no cancer, but my prostate count continued to rise over the next four years. In June, 2000, Kathy and I moved to Asheville, N.C., to accept the calling of director of the World Journalism Institute. This too was providential because Asheville has an extraordinary medical community to care for the retired folk who have moved here. After four biopsies, the last one, a major 16-snip biopsy this past May in Asheville, showed the presence of a small bit of cancer. The biopsy was taken on Wednesday, May 9, and Kathy and I left two days later for New York City for the WJI May term journalism course in Manhattan. A week later (May 16) I called from New York City and my urologist, Dr. Ricky Bare (a junior partner of Kenny Simpkins of Arden PCA) confirmed what I had been waiting for for several years – I did have a small bit of cancer in my prostate. As it turned out, this news of “a small bit of cancer” was the first of several surprises in my ongoing cancer journey. At Dr. Bare’s recommendation, Kathy and I immediately scheduled surgery for the first week after May term.

I hung up the phone and went back to work. My reaction to the news of my prostate cancer was one of settled acceptance. While the notion of cancer was never far from my mind, I was able to put it aside in favor of the task at hand – running the journalism program in New York City. At a friend’s suggestion, I did make a call to a prostate cancer survivor who was very reassuring and helpful, and I would suggest such personal interaction with someone who has gone through what you expect to go through to demystify the situation.

The Operation

When we returned home on Memorial Day weekend, we set about arranging our affairs for the operation and the recovery period, and began educating ourselves as to what prostate cancer was and what we should expect. But even during this pre-operational period of a week or so, I still wasn’t preoccupied with my condition. It was a conscious choice not to let my cancer dominate my life. I went to work, made personnel changes at WJI, and talked with incoming students and faculty for the upcoming summer/fall journalism course. There continued to be a strange detachment from my cancerous condition. It was as if I wasn’t facing reality. Perhaps I really didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. Was I whistling past the graveyard?

I had the operation (radical prostatectomy) on Tuesday afternoon, June 5, a week and a half after I returned from New York City and only three weeks after I was informed I had cancer. Again, all during the immediate couple of days and hours before the operation, I possessed (and I mean it really belonged to me) a strange settled assurance that whatever happened, my personal divine Shepherd was orchestrating the outcome. After the operation, I was in the hospital for a couple of days: taking my first walk the next day (Wednesday) and being released early Thursday, so I was home about 10:00 in the morning. I was rapidly coming off pain medication so that by the time Friday rolled around I was barely on any medication. Saturday morning, I went into the office for a couple of hours and I felt pretty good, all things considered. I probably could have come to church that Sunday, but I was tired and I was a walking MASH unit with bags and tubes and plastic bottles still attached to my body, though surprisingly without much discomfort. On Monday, June 11, less than a week after the major surgery, I began to go into the office for 2 or 3 hours each day, and continued to do that until Thursday, June 21, when I began to work full days.

On that first Monday after the operation (June 11), we also had our first post-operative appointment with Dr. Bare and he told us then that the cancer was not small but in fact, large (about 35% of the prostate). That was our first surprise. And he told us that it was an aggressive cancer (Gleason score of 8). That was our second surprise. And he told us that the cancer had broken out of the prostate capsule and was probably in my body tissues, which prudently would require further treatment. That was our third surprise. We were pleased to hear that the cancer had not spread to recognizable and customary body parts so that the cancer was probably contained in the prostate bed. The recommendation was that since the cancer was probably still localized in the prostate bed, and since it was aggressive, and since I was young for a prostate cancer survivor, aggressive treatment should be quickly undertaken to eradicate the remaining cancer cells, if there were any. The concern was, and is, that if left alone, the cancer will move to the bone and then eradication will be almost impossible and only containment likely, and at my age of 57, that containment option would eventually cease. On Wednesday, June 20, two weeks after the operation, I had my catheter removed! Free at last! Free at last! The only side effect of the operation I experienced was a bit of inconsequential soreness with the incision for a couple of months. It is a remarkable providential kindness that two and a half weeks after my operation I was able to spend a Saturday transplanting azaleas in our front yard. God be praised!

The Radiation

On Friday, June 22, we met with our radiologist, Dr. Thomas Scheer, and he explained what I should expect concerning the radiation. It was at that time that my permanent impotency due to the combination of the operation and the radiation was discussed. Nevertheless, I elected to begin radiation treatment of the prostate bed beginning on July 16 for the next seven weeks (35 treatments). On July 5, I underwent a bone scan, a pelvic scan (CT scan) and mapping, and the fitting for a pelvic sled for the radiation treatment. I spent from 10:30 to 4:30 in medical examinations and procedures. It was along day! On Monday, July 9, we met with Dr. Scheer to discuss the results of my bone scan and to simulate the radiation treatments. I was told that my bones were clear of cancer and that radiation should proceed on schedule (Monday, July 16, at noon for 15 minutes a day until Labor Day weekend). Our blessed Lord could have given me bone cancer but He was merciful to me, again. The radiation treatments ended on Labor Day, 2001, and I entered the second “watchful waiting” stage of prostate cancer.

The Prognosis

I continue to be under the care of Dr. Ricky Bare. My physical condition after the radiation ended was that all bodily functions operated as advertised. There is the one exception: The current impotency now appears to be irreversible after the radiation treatments. There was a little ache when I urinated and the stream was slow due to scarring of the urethra tube during radiation. The cost of treating my prostate cancer after the radiation treatments was approximately $40,000. Again, I am blessed to have a good health insurance policy through God’s World Publications.

The Lord has given me two wonderful and godly daughters (and a wonderful and godly son-in-lawyer) and a warm and affectionate wife, so there is reason to rejoice in my good gifts of heritage and loving companionship. The Lord is to be my eternal pleasure and delight (Is. 56:3b). If my impotency were not in my best interests and not an expression of love from my heavenly Father, then I would still be as virile as Ezekiel’s despised Egyptians (Ez. 16:26). But praise be to God for my condition, whatever it is (Phil. 4:11).

Based on what I have read and heard, I believe my recovery to date has been remarkable and a textbook case of a rapid return to normalcy and a demonstration of the power and sufficiency of my Lord. I was told to clear my calendar for 6 weeks and not plan on returning to work or play for that period of time. In fact, I returned to work part-time 4 days after the operation and I have not missed a day of partial work since then. I was told I would probably be tired after the surgery and then after the radiation, but that has not been the case. I was told that I might have bowel movement problems after the surgery and then after the radiation, but that has not been the case. I am no tough guy; I can’t concentrate if I am in pain or discomfort. Now, there are still lingering side effects of the double treatments (surgery and radiation), but these side effects are diminishing with each day and my life has returned to an almost pre-operation state – minus one prostate, a major change in lifestyle and a minor irritation.

I believe that I will not reach the actuarial age that is expected in my family due to my genetic make-up. My parents are hale and hearty in their mid-eighties and many of my immediate ancestors lived to be in their mid-nineties. Despite the aggressive and fine efforts of my team of doctors I have hunch that my cancer will take me to glory long before my mid-eighties. Every day of health is a blessing from my gracious Lord, and I take no day for granted.

——————————

When I think of what I have been through over the last month or so after first learning of my serious cancer, I am almost moved to tears by God’s goodness and care and loving-kindness towards me. Why is it that I have such an unexplainable peace? Here is what I understand about my cancer that gives me enormous comfort.

The Heidelberg Catechism (#1) asks: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” It answers: “That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me whole-heartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

God’s Mercy and Incomprehensibleness

First, I believe I don’t get what I deserve. The question, “Why me?” which is so easy to ask, is evidence of spiritual pride and a lack of understanding of my relationship with God and a lack of understanding the character of God. Concerning the relationship, the question always ought to be, “Why not me?” Concerning my cancer, the fact is that I don’t deserve health. What I do deserve is a body filled with cancer as judgment for my continued unfaithfulness towards my eternal Redeemer. As I read the prophets, particularly Ezekiel, I am struck by how God suffers the unremitting rebellion of Israel even after He has chosen them for favor. The more I read of Israel’s constant revolt, the more I see my own constant revolt. And so when James writes in 2:13 that “mercy triumphs over judgment” or “mercy trumps judgment,” I find myself saying, “Praise the Lord, that’s good for me.”

But, before I ever get to James, I read Ezra’s prayer of confession and contrition due to the interminable faithless lives of the Israelites when Ezra acknowledges, “What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins have deserved” (9:13).

Before Ezra we read David’s words. Clearly here was a fellow chosen-one who experienced both judgment and mercy, and exclaims in Ps. 103:10, “The LORD does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” And this from a guy who loses a son on account of his sins!

Before David, I read Job, and young Elihu’s wise words to Job and his companions when Elihu says, “Then [an afflicted man] comes to men and says, ‘I sinned and perverted what was right but I did not get what I deserved’” (Job 33:27). Now it seems to me that a correct understanding of the profound seriousness of the Fall and original sin forces me to the conclusion that I don’t deserve health, that any health is a gift of my long-suffering Lord and that what I deserve as a renegade is the Nebuchadnezzar curse for pride (Dan. 4:28-37). For after all, pride is at the root of the question, “Why me?” So every day of health is evidence of God’s kindness and compassion and open-handed love to all His creation, especially His redeemed ones, especially me (Ps. 145).

Concerning God’s character, the Scriptures don’t indicate that God’s will for me will be disclosed to me. Quite the contrary! What I know of God will always be a result of His self-disclosing revelation, and He is generous and true and precise but not exhaustive in His revelation to me. In fact, His ways are “unsearchable” and “beyond tracing out” (Rom. 11:33) and that is because “no one can fathom” the character of God (Ps. 145:3). I am the clay and He is the heavenly potter and I have no standing to ask, “Why did you make me like this?” (Rom. 9:20).

God’s Sovereignty

Second, I have taken great comfort in my understanding of God’s utter sovereignty over my life. Nothing catches God by surprise, nor is anything out of His control. If He is concerned with the “lilies of the field” (Luke 12:17-18), then He is concerned with the health of one for whom He died. James again gives me comfort as the apostle states that everything that happens to me from birth on is “a good and perfect gift “from my heavenly Father (1:17-18; cf, Deut. 26:11). Paul says the same thing in Romans 8:28, and tells me, therefore, to be “joyful in hope and patient in affliction” (Rom. 12:12; cf., Job 2:10; Is. 45:7; Lam. 3:38). One of the reasons Paul exhorts me “to stand my ground in the face of suffering” (Heb. 10:32) is that the “bread of adversity and the water of affliction” (as Isaiah so poetically puts it) comes from the LORD (Is. 30:20), and is meant for my good. My cancer is therefore a gift from a loving Creator who knows my frame better than I. God promises never to give me anything which I am not able to appropriate for my conforming to his image (2 Cor. 1:3-7; Heb. 4:14-16). Meanwhile, Paul and I will groan a bit waiting for the blessed transformation into the new resurrected body (1 Cor. 15:42; Rev. 21:4).

But when you have cancer you not only think of the “furnace of affliction and adversity” (Is. 58:10), but you also think of death. And once again the comfort of my LORD’s sovereignty comes riding to the rescue, for He tells me that every day of my life is accounted for. And nothing will either keep me from or take me to glory until my appointed time. Solomon poetically tells me that there is an appropriate time for everything, including death (Eccles. 3:1-2, 11). Solomon’s father, David, tells me that “all my days were ordained and written in God’s book before one of them was lived in the flesh” (Ps. 139:16). And Job tells me that my days are determined by God and that God has decreed the number of my months and He has set life span limits that cannot be exceeded (14:5). So, the clear teaching of Scripture is that cancer is not my enemy. As far as death is concerned I have no enemy because my Great Shepherd and Redeemer has conquered that enemy (1 Cor. 15:54-56), and I simply wait for His heavenly call. My task is to do that waiting with faithfulness and joy and praise on my lips. David prays in Ps. 25:18, “Look upon my affliction and my distress, and take away all my sins.” Not take away “my affliction,” but take away “my sins.” Make me worthy of my gift of affliction.

Ultimately of course, all things in the created universe will rebound to God’s glory since everything comes from Him, is sustained by Him and returns to Him, including me and my condition (Rom. 11:36).

God’s Kindness and Compassion

Biblical revelation is not the only worldview to teach the utter sovereignty of a supernatural being or force. The Greek philosophy/religion of Stoicism taught the same thing. “Bear and forebear” was its motto. So if you just have a fatalistic attitude about life –”Whatever will be will be” — you are a classic Stoic, and not a Christian. Christianity adds another indispensable dimension to God’s sovereignty that is totally missing from Greek religion, and that is the loving personality of God. And God’s kindness is the third great comfort for me.

God is not only sovereign, but He is kind and compassionate and generous. I rely on the fact of God’s open-handed kindness and love towards me. David tells me that our God is full of grace and compassion, that He is slow in getting angry with me and that He is richly in love with me (Ps. 145:8). That is wonderful news. One of the blessings of reading the Psalms is the poetic way in which God’s care for me is described: God is my “rock of refuge” (Ps. 71:3); He is my “fortress” within which I am safe and protected against my enemies and against myself (Ps. 71:3); He is a “shield around me” protecting me from the slings and arrows of life (Ps. 3:3); He is my “stronghold in times of trouble” (Ps. 9:9); He will “set me high upon a rock” and in “the shelter of His tabernacle” (Ps. 27:5); His very “presence is my shelter” (Ps. 31:20); and my favorite is this: “I will find refuge in the shadow of His wings’ (Ps. 36:7) – what a wonderfully peaceful and serene picture this is – the soft, silent, uplifting wings of the Master keeping me safe and secure. I can’t explain how it works, but it has been true in my journey with cancer.

In Ps. 4, David tells us that he will “lie down and sleep in peace for you alone, O LORD make me dwell in safety” (vs. 8). After my doctors have done their healing best on my behalf, after friends have expressed love and sympathy in tangible and intangible ways, after family members have reiterated their love and concern, even after my closest companion in life has done all that she can, I am ultimately left alone with my pain and my cancer. No one, after all, can really feel my pain. Except the indwelling Holy Spirit! In the dark hours of the night, when everyone is asleep and I am alone with my thoughts and troubles, it is the Holy Sprit, my supernatural and constant Comforter, who brings to my lips and mind the powerful and anchoring thoughts contained in His word to me. It is He who whispers to me and tells me there is a divine and eternal purpose to my affliction. My peace, which passes beyond my understanding, depends on the Holy Spirit urging me to live not just by the truth of God’s word but within the truth of God’s word.

Conclusion

For years I studied the Scriptures for the edification of others. For some reason several months ago I became hungry to study the Scripture for my own edification. I seldom read the Bible just to let the words of the Lord waft over my mind and soul for personal enjoyment and understanding. But since I have been doing that kind of scriptural reading, what a marvelous preparation these past several months have been to prepare me for this riveting focus of prostate cancer. The power and sufficiency of doctrinal living is my only hope as I continue to understand and learn from my gift of cancer. Praise be to God. Amen.

Postscript

I am posting this piece on August 29, 2011. It was been ten years since I wrote the above comments and I have had my PSA checked every six months since then. In July of this year I had my semi-annual check and the PSA is below one. So, statistically I am told that I am cured of my prostate cancer. However, since 2001 I have had a mild skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma) and a serious spinal cancer (ependymoma). While the spinal cancer seems to be gone for the moment I do have an MRI every six months and I am told to expect that to recur in the long distant future. Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving and I live under a divine Damocles Sword. So I continue to have PSAs every six month along with my MRI in the same month and wait upon my Lord for His blessings and heavenly optimism.

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One Response

  1. Alan Orsborn says:

    My friend, I had no idea you have undergone such trials, and yet your testimony is that it was not a trial but our Lord ordering your life for your good. What an example of faith in Christ you are to me.

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