We all get blindsided with our share of hairpin curves and sucker punches. One of those life jolts came June 28 this year when a doctor diagnosed me with cancer of the tonsils and lymph nodes. Definitely a sucker punch! And it required me to practice what I preach in tough moments: Take a deep breath and a good look around.
On Aug. 1, I started seven weeks of treatment, including radiation every day and chemotherapy every Friday. For me, the chemo presented no trouble—no nausea or noticeable side effects. Radiation, on the other hand, wrecked me.
After two weeks, my throat began to feel raw and swallowing became difficult. By the fourth week, there was no swallowing to be done, other than atrocious amounts of mucus that went down involuntarily and with significant pain.
All in all, I went almost four months without eating food or drinking water. I survived—and still do—thanks to a feeding tube in my stomach. Around Thanksgiving, I began to drink water and in early December, I ate my first teaspoons of food. Today, I’m drinking water with regularity and eating small amounts of soft food on the left side of my mouth (right side is still too raw). Most everything tastes terrible, and I’ve gone from mucus mouth (required a suction machine to keep me going) to complete dry mouth, but it’s a huge blessing to be able to do something again that I previously took for granted.
Even better, earlier this week, my oncologist and radiologist delivered wonderful news regarding my most recent PET scan, a test that determines whether cancer lives in your body. The scan showed no more signs of cancer in my neck or lymph nodes. While there is one spot of concern—near the base of my tongue and throat—both the oncologist and radiologist believe this is just inflammation and rawness leftover from the radiation treatment. They will watch it closely. When I asked the radiologist point blank if I could tell people I’m cancer free, he replied: “You can tell them whatever you like. It’s a perfect scan.”
This ordeal has been both a humbling and an amazing journey. Humbling in the sense that it made me realize how much in life I take for granted. I’ve always prided myself on being physically active—playing lots of tennis, walking up Stone Mountain every day. That is no longer the case.
Beginning with the halfway point of my treatment and continuing for almost three months, I needed someone to drive me back and forth to my many doctors’ appointments. There were days when just getting from my chair in the living room to the bed seemed a major accomplishment. And on that November day when my wife and I first walked from our house to the end of the block, it felt as if I had completed the Boston Marathon. But again, there is good news to report. I am gaining strength every day and have even made it to the top of Stone Mountain on a few occasions. And the tennis court beckons!
The amazing part of my journey centers on the outpouring of love, encouragement, support and prayers I enjoyed from so many corners of the world. Just writing that sentence still sends tears streaming down my face, because I could have never imagined this level of blessing and generosity before the illness. Trying to single out people would be virtually impossible, but there are several who I must mention.
The list begins with my bride. I’m not at all surprised, but still, the love, care and tenderness she gave me throughout this ordeal overwhelms me to this day. I’ve always said God smiled on me when He brought Becky into my life, and today, that smile makes the sun seem pale in comparison. Even in the worst moments, she never wavered and was always there. No man could have asked for or received more than I did from my wife. I am blessed beyond measure.
My mother-in-law served as my official driver and feeder (I couldn’t even pour the food down the feeding tube for a long time.). My mama and sister came up to wait on me hand and foot during one of the three worst weeks physically of my life. My daughters, Dana and Tyler, took time off from their jobs to take me here and there when their grandmother couldn’t, and even my youngest, Carrie, flew all the way from California to hang out with me. She got the feeding tube thing down without even a flinch.
My MC3 Church family prayed for me and rooted for me throughout all this and people I don’t even know prayed regularly for me. A woman by the name of Stephanie learned of my illness during a telephone prayer meeting with one of my good friends and asked if she could come pray for me personally. She showed up on a Monday morning at the radiation clinic and sat in the lobby, praying silently while I received my very last daily dose.
My doctors—Alizadeh at Georgia Cancer Specialists and Merlin at Radiotherapy Clinics of Georgia—and their staffs set a new standard for care and excellence in their treatment.
I could go on and on with this list—including some very special friends who drove me to various appointments when we needed an extra hand and the literally hundreds of people who prayed for me all over the world. I hope all of these people know that their love, care and prayers literally sustained me over the past months.
I close this by saying I struggled whether to share this message in such a public way. I post often on Facebook, but rarely share anything truly personal. In the end, I opted to share it because while this has been a difficult journey, it also has brought me a sense of joy that I can’t even begin to explain. Those who know me best also know that The Waltons is my favorite TV series, and I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines from the show when a crisis helped the family realize “how great was their abundance.” I, too, am abundantly blessed.
One thing for certain is that I know where my blessings come from, and that’s the good Lord. Very early in this journey, I realized only my faith could see me through this and that acknowledgement gave me what the Bible describes as “the peace that surpasses all understanding.”
Well-intentioned people often suggest this experience should have brought me closer to God. I know what they mean, but I feel even more blessed that my walk with the Lord throughout my life had me well prepared to face a difficult journey.
After that initial breath-stealing moment of shock, I accepted very quickly that I would be a-okay, regardless of how this disease plays out. It probably will shock—and maybe even dismay some folks—to know I prayed very little for God’s healing throughout this process. I had plenty of others interceding on my behalf, for which I’m eternally grateful.
Instead, I chose simply to trust God’s will be done, and it was incredibly freeing. For sure, there were a few prayers from me that asked for God’s mercy, especially when I was on the radiation table beneath a face mask that preyed on one of my biggest fears, being trapped in a tight space (no caving for this guy!). But mostly, I saved my prayers for others who needed them more. As I said, God will take care of me.
In the meantime, I look forward to 2019. My first novel, “Plowed Fields,” will be published in February. These days, publishers publish books, but most of the marketing is done by authors themselves. So fair warning: Expect lots of self-promotion! If you choose to “unfriend” or “unfollow” me during this, I’ll understand.
While I hope to return to normal in 2019, my doctors have emphasized the follow-up regimen for head-and-neck cancer patients is a five-year process, beginning with another PET scan three months from now. Still, both doctors are very excited and believe we have licked this thing. So, all in all, an excellent report and prognosis after a tough journey. I thank the good Lord for where I am at the moment and continue to trust all will be well.
Merry Christmas to you and yours!