A Cancer Story: The Darkest Valley and Feeling Vulnerable
March 17, 2016
[This entire week I'm posting snapshots of my cancer story. The entire story, along with thoughts, insights, devotionals, and all the honest-to-goodness truth about dealing with cancer can be found in my memoir, Finding My Way.]
Anyone who has ever gone through cancer is no stranger to life's valleys. Cancer is a geography full of deep caverns and lightless places. But of all the highs and lows I experienced, the five days in the hospital following my colon resection and ileostomy surgery were by far the worst of my life. No doubt about it. The landscape of that week was pitted with craggy, shadowed places, pitfalls, caves that burrowed to unknown depths and led to nowhere.
When I was coherent enough to see and understand what state my body was in I found tubes coming out of almost every orifice, an ostomy bag, a drain bag, a Foley bag, and multiple IV bags. I had an incision that ran from just below my sternum to my pubic area. My biggest fear when I stood up was that the incision was going to burst open and my guts would be strewn all over the floor. I was assured that wouldn't happen.
Eventually they let me eat but the food had no flavor and caused severe stomach discomfort. I was encouraged to walk but my right leg kept spasming and cramping (the surgeon said it was due to the way they position the leg during the surgery). Nothing seemed to be going smoothly.
But worst of all was the depression. I missed my family. Jen would come to visit then she'd either get the girls or my parents would bring them by. They'd keep their distance and stare at this man in the bed who they knew to be their daddy but didn't look like the guy they called Daddy. When they'd leave I'd open the dams and let the tears come. I wanted to go home so badly. I wanted our life together back. I wanted to go to work and come home and eat dinner as a family and read together or watch a TV show together. Instead, they were going home and I was stuck in that blasted hospital bed, alone, scared, battling more depression.
Interestingly, during that time I didn't have a single revelatory moment. I didn't hear God's words in my ear; I didn't feel His breath on my face or His arm around my shoulders. All those experiences would come later. But still I knew He was there. I just knew it. Did I question Him? Yes. Did I cry out to Him? Daily. Was I brutally honest with Him? Of course. But He never answered me, didn't write on any walls, didn't miraculously bring healing.
All the hours I'd put in over the years studying His word, listening to sound teaching, exploring different doctrines to better understand Him had paid off. This was the moment they kicked in like never before. And they all focused on one truth: No matter how alone I felt, I wasn't. Not by a long shot. He was there, trudging through that valley with me step for step.
I came home from the hospital forty pounds lighter than when I was diagnosed. Mind you, I was never a big guy to start with. My weight loss was all too obvious. I was a sliver of my former self. And weak. So weak. I could barely walk from the car into the house.
The word for the next several months would be VULNERABLE. Suddenly, I had been removed from the safety of the hospital. I was sent home with this ileostomy that needed to be cared for, a bag that needed to be emptied several times a day. I still had terrible stomach cramps and wobbly legs. And there was still the fear (though not a very realistic one) that my incision would bust open and my intestines would unwind like a spring and decorate the floor.
But the most vulnerability had to do with my inability to protect my family. I was helpless and would kid with my wife about being a pencil-necked weakling. If anything happened, an emergency, a break-in, whatever, I would be as helpful as a bag of sand. Correction, a half-full bag of sand. That scared me. As a man, I'm my family's protector, but now the protector was the one needing the protecting. A tough pill to swallow for sure.
I was forced to put my total trust in God to be my family's protector. He was all we had. For most of our life the trust we put in God is volitional, we choose to rely on Him or not to. It's our call. But then there are those times when we really don't have a choice. We're backed into a corner and there's no where to turn but toward Him. He's it.
And you know what? That's not a bad place to be. In fact, it's the way it should be. All the time.
Part of cancer's charm is the roller coaster of emotions brought on by both the disease and the treatment for the disease.
Cancer's part is mostly psychological, the constant reminder that life is tenuous, frail, here today, gone tomorrow. The disease is a bully, puffing out its chest and reminding you at every turn that it has killed, will kill, and won't hesitate to add you to its long list of victories. It is ruthless and respects no one. And no matter how many surgeries you have or what kind of treatment is administered the thought is always there: what if it doesn't work?
And the chemo is no walk in the park physically. It's poison--given at doses strong enough to kill the rogue cells but not quite potent enough to kill the host (you)--has side effects that are relentless and come in waves, strongest the first few days after each treatment, then subsiding gradually until it's time to get juiced again. The constant nausea, the parasthesias, the cold sensitivity, the restlessness, sleeplessness . . . it all wears on you like the steady drip of water boring a hole in rock.
Up and down the emotions go (mostly down): the depression, the anxiety, the moodiness. Ebbing and flowing like some dark, mysterious psychological sea.
I'd go from feeling light and optimistic to bawling my eyes out while watching the kids play in the backyard. I spent a lot of time sitting in my recliner, staring. Just staring. Jen called it "the chemo stare." Any confrontation at all, whether with Jen or the girls, would send me into an emotional tailspin.
But through the maelstrom of emotions there were always the blessings to keep me tethered to hope. The folks who brought us meals, mowed our grass, ironed our clothes, paid our bills, watched the kids, and numerous other things served as beacons in the night, guiding me back to God by showing us His love, His care, His concern. They were His hands and feet, His voice, His touch, His heart; they showed us in a very practical way that no matter how bad things got, how dark the nights were, or how deserted the wilderness became, we were not alone.
All this month my memoir, Finding My Way, is on sale. The ebook is only 99 cents and the paperback is $7.70. It's so much more than a story about cancer. It's a story about life, about trials and struggles and finding hope in the midst of ever storm.