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What I learned after a year with cancer

It has now been over a year since my diagnosis in June 2020 and God has taught me so much about himself, but also about me.  There has been several verses, poems, quotes, and books that have especially provided comfort through the most difficult days. Among them are:

  • “Let me learn by paradox, that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crowns, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision.”  The Valley of Vision 
  • “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty” Psalm 91:1
  • “Ithere is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.”  R.C. Sproul
  • God’s Grace in Your Suffering—a book by David Powlison

As we go through difficulty and suffering, let us remember that God has a purpose in it.  Over this past year, there were times that I felt I understood his purpose for my suffering and yet other times I had no clue.  The one thing that remained my rock was relying on what I knew was true about my God and Father.  As we go through a trial, even as pastors, we will be constantly preaching to ourselves.  I found myself doing this often this past year mainly because my mind was full of so many emotions and doubts that I needed to be reminded of what was true about God.  


And that is why… theology is not just something we study in the academic classrooms of seminary; theology is the lens through which we examine and respond to everyday life. Our understanding of God will inescapably shape our perspective on our circumstances.
Here are 4 points that I came to understand more fully this year through His Word, His Spirit, and His gift (yes, I said gift) of suffering. 

  1. God is in control!
    In some ways, this is the most vital point.  God’s promises are only as trustworthy as the extent of his control. What good is his goodness if he lacks the authority to exercise it?  I have often gone back to R.C. Sproul’s quote above to remind me that God could have used my immune system to eliminate this cancer, but he allowed it to grow into a tumor.  This is often the fork in the road for many who suffer, either they despise their creator or they realize he has purpose behind suffering.  For me, it was tremendously comforting.  It did not catch God by surprise – God knew before my doctors.  He has a purpose in it, maybe even my death, but he has a purpose in it!!  He is in control – and if, by His mercy, it can be removed by transplant (which I will tell you about later) – then I will thank the doctors and the Lord, who gave them that ability and knowledge.  Let me address just one small point, acknowledging God’s control does not mean that I relinquish my responsibility.  That is fatalism.  I followed the doctors, nutritionist, and surgeons dutifully over the past year with hope and an acknowledgement that God may choose to heal me supernaturally, but He may also use medical intervention.  Either way, He deserves the glory!!
  • God’s promises are reliable! 
    Few questions in life are more important than this one. Since we are small and weak, since we never really know what is going to happen next, and since God calls us to do difficult, sacrificial things, we need to know that his promises are reliable.  The Word of God is full of promises!!  
  • God cares for me!
    Perhaps this is the question we’re most conscious of, but the Bible never debates God’s care; it assumes and declares it. God’s care is foundational. I love how Psalm 91:1 says it: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.”  Over this summer, I reread C.S. Lewis’ series of books on Narnia.  Repeatedly, Aslan would show how he cared for the children, not always on their timetable, but his care was made evident through each book.  How has God cared for me over this past year?  Three words:  His Word, His Spirit, and His people!  Over this past year, I have kept all the cards and notes that people have written to me, they stand as a testimony of God’s care in my life and a pretty significant paperweight.  
  • God is good!
    The age-old question about God’s goodness.  Every pastor has answered it a million times to people in our congregation, but how do we answer it to ourselves?  As long as there is evil in this world and we continue to live broken lives in a broken world, this question will remain.  We simply must understand that our perspective is not God’s perspective. 

I have shared in other blogs my uncertainty of God’s plan.  Last year, I felt like I had some momentum in my ministry and family.   I had been at my church for about 4 years and God was using and blessing my ministry, I had just finished my doctorate, and my family was at that perfect age of enjoyment, curiosity, and ease (in other words, they could wipe their own butts, dress themselves, and make their own food).  How could God allow my wife and my kids to suffer without a dad?  In more than 20 years of ministry, I have seen this situation several times, and it is by far one of the worse I have observed. 

Let me introduce to you a character from my childhood named “Little Man”.  Little Man has traveled all around the world with me on mission trips.  I created Little Man in 7th grade in art class.  He is a reminder and often an illustration of God’s goodness amid our brokenness.  As you look at him, he is fragile, he lost his arm when he was little, his face is a bit distorted, and let’s just say this was his creator’s first time working with clay.  But he was mine, he is precious to me, he is valuable!!!  I created Little Man; therefore, I love him.  He sits on my bookshelf in a cherished spot. 

Little man outside the safe embrace of my hand, my pocket, my shelf is not safe and should be fearful outside my control.  I have a much different perspective then he does.  He came with me for a couple of chemotherapies.  I didn’t show him to any of the nurses and doctors, so they wouldn’t think me crazy, but he served as a reminder of these four points.  

The application should be apparent – We are broken, fragile, it is impossible for us to understand why and how God as a sovereign, perfect God acts, but we can always hold on to God as good because: 1) He created us.  2) He loves us (so much that He died for us). 3) we are going to spend eternity with him (John 14:1).  He is good and He has our best interest in mind, even though from our perspective, it doesn’t appear that way (Romans 8:28, Phil. 1:6). 

Now for a health update.

Now as I transition to giving a health update, I fully admit that I am encouraged right now, my prognosis is better and so I sit now with a feeling of victory in understanding these four points above but acknowledging that I am only one bad CT scan away from diving right back into these questions and wrestling with them all again.   We all go through struggles and sufferings.  Yours may not be cancer, but yours is just as significant and difficult. How are you wrestling with these truths?  How is your knowledge about who God is shaping how you understand these truths?

A lot has happened over the past several months since my last update.  My apologies for not updating sooner but life has been busy and good.  On the family side, I was able to walk (although a year late) for my doctoral graduation, plus we also decided to get a camper over the winter.  We have enjoyed several camping trips this spring and summer making memories as a family who loves the outdoors.  I also have enjoyed several months of a normal schedule at the church.  I got back to doing individual and marriage counseling as well as attending church on a regular basis, it felt good to be on a regular schedule plus feeling stronger and healthier.  

In regard to a medical update, it has been exciting and encouraging.  As I last told you in March, Johns Hopkins did an exploratory surgery to determine how much my cancer had spread.  I was originally diagnosed as stage III, which meant that my cholangiocarcinoma had travelled outside my liver to surrounding lymph nodes.  The surgery in March was to remove and test those lymph nodes which, due to chemotherapy, had shrunk back to normal size before the surgery.  Fortunately, the lymph nodes came back clear which opened up surgery as a potential (the surgeons, doctors, and of course my family (both of blood and the church) were overjoyed).  Prior to this news, my cancer, which was assumed to be in my lymph nodes meant my tumor was inoperable and did not have a good prognosis.    

The doctors decided that liver transplant would be my best chance for long term survival. Unfortunately, due to my type of cancer, it had to be a live donor.  How do you ask someone to sacrifice so much for you?  The response has been overwhelming.  The nurses and doctors at the transplant clinic have said repeatedly that they were amazed by the response.  I am excited to share that I have a donor and he is a good friend of mine, now even a better friend.  I don’t want to share his name just yet on this blog for his privacy.  He and his wife are very humble, gracious, and kind and I hope to be able to share more with you in the future, but for now I will let his story be his story. 

Prior to transplant happening, the doctors ran me through a vigorous protocol.  First, I had to lose weight, about 30 pounds in total to get closer to the donor’s weight and increase the success of the transplant.  I have become very familiar with the new YMCA in Urbana, MD, and would recommend it to everyone.  Secondly, I had to go through radiation.  It was a total of 5 treatments in June.  I had no complications and was able to finish those treatments.  I even got a tattoo out of the experience.  Third, I had to continue chemotherapy treatments, this time through a pill called Xeloda, which is a common chemotherapy.  

I am excited to announce that I will be having liver transplant surgery on Tuesday, August 3rd, at Johns Hopkins.  I have shared in the past how rare cholangiocarcinoma is but let me attest by saying that I will be the first patient with my cancer to undergo a liver transplant in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins.  There are only a few hospitals in the country that have performed liver transplant for cholangiocarcinoma patients. I am very fortunate to be the first at Hopkins and one of the few in the country that are able to be transplanted.  I hope that my battle with cholangiocarcinoma can raise awareness to this terrible and difficult cancer which claims many a life in a very short time.  The number of people who survive this cancer for more than 5 years is in the single digits.  For more information on this cancer, please visit the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation at  www.cholangiocarcinoma.org.  Because so few are transplanted, there are no studies and protocols for treatment after transplant.  My liver will be undergoing pathology and my oncologist will make decisions on how best to treat me post-transplant.  My surgery will be about 12 hours and I will be in the hospital for about 7-10 days followed by recovery at home.  I am excited and anxious at the same time.  I realize that I am one of the fortunate ones with this terrible cancer and struggle to fully understand why God saw fit in his sovereignty to allow me to qualify and receive a transplant while others do not (but that is for another blog post).  

If you feel compelled to pray for me, please pray…

  • For safety and provision for the donor and his family during his surgery and recovery and that God would bless him and enlarge his understanding of Christ’s sacrificial gift of eternal life as he so sacrifices part of his life for me.  John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
  • For my family during my surgery and recovery.
  • For my surgery and recovery.  My surgery will begin first, followed by the donor; they will begin by exploring my abdomen for any metastasis of my cancer, while they are not expecting any spread, please pray that they won’t find any.  
  • For others dealing with cancer, especially those with ductal cancers (cholangiocarcinoma and pancreatic).  Yesterday I lost a friend named Matt who I met while we were receiving chemotherapy at Hopkins to pancreatic cancer.  
  • Pray that more awareness and funding can be made available for rare cancers like cholangiocarcinoma and that my historic first surgery at Hopkins can be the start of many more for this cancer.  

Thank you for steadfastly finishing this blog, I apologize for it being so long.  I promise in the future to update sooner with shorter blogs 🙂 

Categories: Health Updates, My Journey of Suffering
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