I just joined a club no one wants membership in. My certificate came in the form of a pathology report the doctor didn’t expect.
I have colon cancer.
A couple days after the diagnosis, I was in surgery to have half my colon robotically removed. The tissue and surrounding lymph nodes were extracted, biopsied and turned into a few lines of technical text. What we now know is that I had a thumbnail-sized tumor which penetrated the colon wall and impacted at least a couple of lymph nodes. Chemotherapy is in my near future. So are more tests.
This has all been a shocking turn of events. My annual physicals and blood results are stellar; my comparative “heart age” is 35. In my nearly 65 years, I’d never spent a night as a hospital patient since being born in one!
A dear friend wrote today, “Cory and Janet, we are a bit speechless here at the quickness with which your lives have just changed.” He said a mouthful.
Two weeks ago today I had a possible show of blood in my stool. Had I exercised too hard at the gym last night, I wondered. The next day was a spectacular show, and I drove myself straight to ER. They kept me over for a colonoscopy, and the GI doctor who claims he has done 50,000 of these was convinced he’d find nothing but a bleeding polyp to remove. Today I’m home recovering from surgery and several complications, with the remaining half of my colon and five holes in my hairless belly, wondering what the next tests will reveal in terms of further cancer spread along my lymph system, preparing to meet “my oncologist” tomorrow.
It’s been a literal gut-punch and gut-check season I certainly hadn’t anticipated. And the future is unclear.
Yet perhaps the most surprising aspect is my attitude the past two weeks.
There’s an illusive place between stoicism and phony religiosity. I don’t think you can coax yourself there or arrive by force of will. You’ve either taken the journey in advance and settled in, or you can’t get there when the storm hits. And you probably never know for certain until you are actually tested. I’d never really been tested. But I’m being tested now. And I discovered that I was already in my safe harbor.
I can only describe where I am. I am floating on the Sea of God. It’s a spiritual motif I’d read 30 years ago in an obscure and poorly written book I slogged through because the concept was so compelling. It’s based on peace and trust in a loving God who is in control of the tides and currents of all life. The only way to get where God wants you to go on the Sea is to float, not to fight the currents or flail against the tides.
This image has been my constant companion on this journey. As they wheeled me out of my room toward the colonoscopy lab, I gently squeezed Janet’s hand and quoted from the musical Les Miserables: “Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in heaven has in store.” And so, we are discovering.
Of course I’m sad. Of course the news has been a burden to bear. Of course I’d like all the answers now and all of them to be great. But I’m eternally grateful for life–for my life. Life owes me nothing. Life gave me everything and I owe everything to life. For me, another way to say this is God owes me nothing. God gave me everything and I owe everything to God.
I think this is a big part of the reason I’m not freaking out from the news.
Two tears. Two tears came into my right eye as I lay with Janet in my hospital bed. Just we two cuddling and talking for an hour. Those tears were precious to me. They were about Janet, about our life together, about our amazing decades and my amazing 65 years.
Then I got up again to walk. Because walking is part of my recovery so I’m healthy for the next part of the journey. This is the path I am on, whether I chose it or not, whether I wish it or not. And I’m certain there’s a treasure trove of learnings from it if I’m attentive. And so this is my goal: to be attentive to the journey, and trusting of the path. God is with me on the journey.
Now let me add that in my privileged life the real worries of so many others around the globe are not my reality. My family won’t starve if I can’t work. I won’t be fired if I need time off. I have guaranteed medical insurance and soon Medicare to help with the bills for the treatment I need. And I am surrounded by highly competent medical care. Godspeed that we might all soon live in such a reality. I can’t imagine what it would take to have peace and trust otherwise.
Already the journey has been spectacularly rich. The Mission Hospital staff are like angels, caring for me physically, emotionally and spiritually with equal deftness. They brought the ethnic blend of the world to my bedside, even in Orange County CA. Within 24 hours, I had made friends in four languages from my global travels: Amharic, Arabic, Swahili, and Vietnamese, not to mention Spanish of course. The wonderful African-American woman who cleaned me up the most actually considers that her “ministry”. Many of the staff lived out that concept.
The doctors have been very caring. I have my surgeon’s personal cell number and have used it multiple times. We wrecked his weekend off. I know doctors like him make a good income, but it’s hard to imagine they are “in it for the money.” I’ve found them to be servants and committed healers.
And I met Bud, a retired volunteer, sanitizing door handles on the oncology floor as I padded around. When he came to do my room, we struck up a conversation. How had he gotten involved as a volunteer? His dear friend had shown him the ropes. Then his friend developed cancer, and the friend did not recover. “My dear wife died of cancer six years ago and she was treated here, too. This is payback time for me. ” Janet and I realized afterwards that Bud must be coming to the same floor and even the same room where his wife and his dear friend were each cared for.
I was fortunate that Bud insisted on giving me a chauffeured wheelchair ride to the front door to drive home. As we waited together for the car, I asked him about that. “Oh yes, I’m in there often. I get sad when I walk into the hospital, and especially for the terminal patients, but I’m glad to be paying back these past years.”
There’s an incredible kindness and commitment to people and to whole-person healing right down the street that I had been unaware of all these years. What a pity, but what a gift to me. I was a “Candy Stripe” volunteer at an inner-city hospital as a teenager. I think I know what I may eventually do in retirement to bring that full-circle.
Janet had providentially ordered a book that arrived the day I went to the hospital, Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. The general idea is that our fears of the dark make us run from it instead of become comfortable while we’re in it. Talk about perfect timing! We’re slowly reading it together, and in last night’s selection the author tucked in a short story about finding a giant sea turtle who had just laid eggs and gone the wrong way back to the ocean. She was now half dead: half-buried by sand and half-baked by the sun. Barbara and her husband fetched a beach ranger, who flipped her on her back, put tire chains around her front legs and dragged her back toward the seawater, her head dangling to near breaking as her mouth filled with sand. But they got her to water’s edge and the waves revived her enough to slowly paddle out to sea, though the ranger warned she still might not recover.
Then the author summed it all up: “Watching her swim slowly away after her nightmare ride through the dunes, I noted that it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.”
I’m in God’s hands. God didn’t turn my life upside down. Cancer did. But when I swim in the ocean at La Jolla Cove, sometimes I find myself in a kelp bed. You initially tense up and forget to breathe, thinking it may entangle you and drag you down. Eventually you realize the kelp is just floating there, and you are there. You are simply there together. And soon enough you gently swim through it.
Now, I’m floating in the Sea of God. Cancer is floating there too, and right now I find myself in a cancer bed. But the sea is the same. And God is the same.
I can breathe.
And soon enough I shall discover what my God in heaven has in store.