I have not blogged for a week or so having had a cancer scare. It’s been a roller coaster week.
This was my second cancer scare. The first was in 2004, when I was told I had a subcutaneous tumour on my nose, which had been growing for almost 4 years. Only after it was removed was I told that it was benign.
The second scare, last week, started when I found a ragged black nodular lesion on my side, just above my waist. I had noticed it three months before and dismissed it as tiny blood blister and then I forgot about it. Now it was much bigger, with pink staining around it. I am in the highest risk category for melanoma and so I have always kept a close eye on my skin. My father sadly died in 2005, six years after having one removed from his neck. Photos of this lesion showed that it had all the hallmarks of a nodular melanoma.
Three months is not a long time but for melanomas it can make all the difference. It doesn’t take long for a melanoma to burst into the bloodstream and once there for it to spread all over the body. Survival rates are very low. I think I dealt with this scare much better than the first and this blog is about what made the difference.
After the discovery, my wife and I lay awake for most of the first night. Lots of things went through our minds, including, why didn’t I get it checked out in October? Why didn’t I watch it and photograph it each month? How would Amanda and the kids cope without me? How would I break the news to my mum, so soon after dad had died from the same disease? What would we do about the new post I was starting in five weeks’ time, as vicar of Holy Trinity?
If found God’s word brought perspective. It turned panic into peace and prayerfulness.
Two bible verses helped me put cancer in perspective:
Romans 8:18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Philippians 1:21-24 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
I was crystal clear on this. It is truly better for me to die now and enter eternal life with Christ, but for the sake of Amanda, our children, my wider family and the church it is better that I live. The perspective that this life is short and eternal life is real made a huge difference to the way I viewed death.
Panic into peace
The morning after discovering the lesion I went downstairs for my quiet time. In my bible reading program I came to Psalm 13:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
This was a word in season. Not only because the psalmist, David, sings of his fear for his life with deep sorrow, but because he finishes his psalm with his focus on God’s steadfast love and salvation.
That morning, my wife read Psalm 73 in her quiet time:
Psalm 73:23-24 ‘Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And on earth there is nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.’
I went to see my GP that morning. She got me onto the melanoma fast-track. I had four days to wait until I saw the dermatologist. As I left the surgery my GP said “fingers crossed”. I said “God has control over the whole universe, even these few cancer cells. I put my trust in him. He knows what he is doing.”
Beside all the anxiety, questions and waiting, we had a sense of calm and peace, because of the promises of God. When we turned the words of these Psalms to prayer, God worked deeply in our hearts to make the promises real and the panic was turned to peace.
It is the waiting and uncertainty which makes one’s mind whizz, but each time I grew anxious I prayed. During one afternoon nap, I turned Psalm 121 over in my mind and prayed it through:
“I lift my eyes to you Lord, because my help comes from you, as you made the heavens and the earth. You don’t sleep whilst you watch over me. Lord, you said that you are the shade at my right hand, so that the sun would not harm me by day, nor the moon by night. And so, dear Lord, as he sun has caused the damage to my skin and you are sovereign over the entire universe, would you graciously and mercifully take control of these few cancer cells and heal them. Have mercy on my family, Amen.”
As I thought that God could do what he said he would do, I left it to him. The next morning the pink area around the site had turned bluish-purple. I was praying lots and kept the prayers mixed between words of assurance and promises of God’s fatherly care. Matthew 6, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (who is Jesus Christ, the righteous one [1 Peter 3:18]) and all the rest will fall into place.” Or, in other words, don’t focus on the cancer but on God, and he’ll work the rest out. Over 24 hours, the stain changed colour and faded and the black nodules reduced in size.
I found John Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Cancer” a helpful reminder of key attitudes and his talk on the economic downturn (see my Vodpod on the right menu) was also really helpful. By the end of 48 hours I had moved through the worst of the anxiety, partly by refusing to accept that my conclusion was right, mostly simply trusting the words above and now it was just a case of waiting to see what was to come.
Prayerfulness and thankfulness
During the next couple of days I would swing from slight anxiety to prayerfulness. Whenever I got anxious I prayed some of the prayers listed above. I knew that whatever happened, God had used the lesion to soften my heart and to bring Christ into really sharp focus, and so I was very thankful. There was more tenderness in our family, more concern for those who don’t know Christ and my conscience was softer. Above all, I found my dependence on Christ, my rock, my fortress and my deliverer, increased and I knew he died for my sin to make me right with God.
Paul describes the Christian life as a marathon of endurance. I found that though I could not survive at that level of spiritual sensitivity for long, I was left to wonder if I had really just been plodding along.
By the time I saw the dermatologist on the Melanoma Fast-Track program, four days after my first appointment with the GP, the lesion had shrunk and my photos provided evidence that this was probably some sort of benign hemasomething. I was very relieved but also very thankful to God for being put through the scare, as I had been drawn closer to Christ as a result of thinking I’d die.
It is a good thing to live life thinking that the end of life is nearer than we assume. I am left wondering if our reliance on modern medicine and the way we have largely hidden death from view dulls our senses and causes us to plod along with or without Christ.