I was slowly coming out of the “anesthetic fog” after surgery for cancer the day before. My surgeon came to my bedside and said “The operation was difficult, and you have at best ten percent chance of surviving.” He then turned around and left, I never saw him again. By today’s standard, this was an atrocious way to talk to a patient. Later a nurse came and asked if my surgeon had visited me, and if so, she wanted to apologize for his “terrible bedside manner”. I appreciated her, and the other nurses who were kind and considerate.
Three days later, soon after lunch (I think hospital food was better in those days?), the head nurse came to visit me. She said “Dieter, you are the most seriously ill person in this entire hospital. How is it that you crack jokes with the nurses? I told them about your situation, and that they should all be sure to encourage you. But you make them look sad in comparison. How is this possible?” I then answered “I am a Christian, and although I feel that I will be healed, but if not, I have the assurance of eternal life. So whether I live or die, the issue of eternal destiny has been decided. If I die early in my twenties, it only means that I will have lived a shorter life here on earth.” She looked at me and then across the room for about 20 seconds and without saying anything, she got up and left. I never saw her again, but prayed for her after the dialogue, that my witness would make a positive impact in her life.
About two weeks later intense chemotherapy treatment began at the Kingston General Hospital for a month while I stayed at the Kingston Cancer Lodge. I had many rounds of chemotherapy with two different drugs plus radiation treatment, much more in those days than today. After the first few injections, I could only eat dry toast and grape juice – not the best way to lose weight! I felt nauseous at times and would throw up if I tried to eat anything else. My Mom would pick me up on Friday to go home for the weekend. By Saturday evening I could eat a decent meal again, and Sunday lunch was often a really decent German meal – schnitzel with sauerkraut and more – Mom went all out for me. Mom drove me back to the Cancer Lodge Sunday afternoons. Monday morning after the first chemo injection I would be nauseous and again could only eat dry toast and grape juice.
I stayed during the week at the Kingston Cancer Lodge with other cancer patients. I remember some deep conversations, sharing feelings and life’s journeys. No one “pretends” in a place like that; you can put on a “brave face” only for so long. I met an atheist and a few agnostics willing to rethink their belief system now that they were facing the hard questions of life and death. Their belief system provided little hope and comfort whereas I could talk to Jesus who heard me and sustained me. I found it hard to see a few young children there, diagnosed with cancer so early in life. I remember looking out a window many times, seeing people walk by on the street, in good health, hoping that I would be healed and wanting to live with a future. I had to face the reality of giving up all hopes and dreams, all of life’s plans, but all bearable because of the certainty of eternal life in Jesus.
I felt like I had cancer twice. After all the treatments and progress, X-Rays were taken to help confirm my recovery. I remember the oncologist showing me an X-Ray of my lungs, with many developing lesions. Apparently the cancer cells were in my lymphatic system, and spreading to my lungs. He said that each lesion will become a tumor, and therefore I would need another round of chemotherapy. He didn’t seem too hopeful and tried not to show it. My mother was with me, and she nearly collapsed on hearing the news. I however felt peace about it, somehow still hopeful that I would be healed. Back to the dry toast and grape juice.
Two months later, I had recovered enough that I was allowed to resume my studies at the University of Guelph in the fall semester of 1975. I had to agree to chemotherapy injections twice a week at the university’s medical centre. The campus doctor would give the injections at 8 am in the morning, and I would then go off to class. My veins weren’t the best — small, “hiding” and bruising up, so the doctor resorted to chemo injections in my feet. It wasn’t easy at all, it hurt even more. I still have scars in my feet from that time, sort of a reminder from the past.
That fall, the Victorian Flu came to campus and a cold winter came early. My doctor warned me that because of the chemotherapy I had zero immunity and I was a “sitting duck” to get a cold or worse yet, the flu. She said that there was very little anyone could do to help me in case I succumbed. Many of my classmates missed days from illness yet miraculously, I attended every single day and didn’t even get a cold. Incredibly, I had the highest marks ever that semester. The chemotherapy injections became less frequent the following year, and eventually stopped. For over 40 years now I have been in complete remission from cancer.
So how does one cope with cancer? You can entertain the philosophical arguments or questions like “why me?”, “… is cancer part of the evil in this world?” and so forth. But when you are in the midst of it, how do you cope with your feelings? Fear, discouragement, disappointment, regrets, hopelessness, a sense of loss, and more, can invade your mind like a “pack of wolves”. Coping with those feelings and emotions is the immediate need – forget theory and rhetoric. I basically put all the philosophical questions and debates “on the shelf”. Everyone’s journey is different, but there are some commonalities. To this day, I am so thankful for all the medical staff, especially the nurses and the doctor at the U of Guelph campus who agreed to give me the injections even though that is not what she usually did as a university campus doctor. I am thankful to the Canadian Cancer Society for help in transportation and more that I was not aware of. I am thankful for one oncologist who actually gave me a ride a few times. I am thankful for my supportive family.
I cannot claim ever to be that Stoical or “courageous” or any such other nonsense – it was the Lord’s doing by his grace alone. It was only years later that I realized that the Lord had given me the gift of faith – that faith when you know something will happen, when someone will be healed, when an opportunity will come through (1 Cor. 12:9). Over those months, I read the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, and the passages about eternal life. I was honest with Jesus about my feelings and my fears, and came to realize that I had to face the fact that I might well die, but as a Christian my life was not my own, I belonged to Him. In short — I faced my worst fears head on in the Presence of Jesus. Denial or avoidance were not options. The Gospel of John became “more real”, more relevant. Deep down I had peace, which was from the Lord, not from me. Along with caring people around me, with my hope and assurance of eternal life in Jesus (John 3:15, 36; Romans 6:23) I was able to cope.
I never had a healing prayer session, the whole concept was unknown to me at the time. However, I did have many friends and fellow students at the Guelph IVCF campus that I knew were praying for me. Intercessory prayer is incredibly important, and to this day I am ever so thankful for those who prayed for me. How else can I have achieved an almost straight A-average in university while still on chemotherapy?
Alarmingly, cancer is becoming more prevalent. Few families, it seems, remain unaffected by cancer. Either an immediate family member, or an extended family member will be diagnosed with cancer in the future. There are many forms of cancer, and in some cases upon diagnosis, a person has only weeks to live. This has happened to someone I once knew. Such situations are really hard for everyone involved, and grieving individuals often take a long time to process and heal emotionally.
Some clinical studies have shown that when a patient has hope and if there are people praying for him or her, the chances of recovery are significantly better. In short, a “will to live” makes a difference. We are integrated beings with body, soul and spirit all interacting. Healing is for the whole person. In my journey, I am thankful for Jesus.