Beginning our missionary journey
Sitting at the dinner table with the family one evening, I answered the phone in deference to my desire. I fought with the tension between having my life dictated by the phone and being unresponsive to something important. We were having family time, but the unresponsive guilt won and I got the phone since I was nearest.
“Hello, this is Bert.” On the other end was my doctor that had recently done a biopsy of something in my chest they didn’t like. The doctor had been consulted because of something the military doctors had seen a couple of weeks earlier. I had begun the process of reenlisting in the Navy Reserve to augment our income.
The Navy was happy with me until they did a chest x-ray. The Navy corpsman said, “There’s something showing on your x-rays that needs some explanation.”
“You’re probably seeing some scarring from the pneumonia I had several years ago. My doctor has seen it and wasn’t alarmed,” I assured the corpsman, but I could tell he wasn’t convinced. He may have believed me, but he needed documentation. “I’ll have my doctor prepare the documentation and we’ll resume the process,” I told the corpsman as I gathered my stuff to leave.
My doctor agreed to see me within the next few days and he took another x-ray. This time, he was less inclined to pass it off as he had earlier as scarring from pneumonia. He ordered a needle biopsy to see what was going on. The x-ray wasn’t conclusive as to whether the occlusion was fluid or solid.
Without going into lots of detail about what was a routine needle biopsy, the results were inconclusive. The doctors ordered an open biopsy, which was a little more of a deal. I was put under a general anesthesia for that biopsy and when I awoke, I felt quite like the victim of some accident involving a crash. I got over that quickly enough and waited for the results. I wanted to resume my Navy Reserve process as soon as possible.
The doctor was on the phone, “Bert, sorry to call you at dinner time, but we got the results back from your open biopsy. You should know there were some cancer cells in the sample, but try not to get alarmed yet.” my doctor proclaimed the “C” word as I sat there with the family. Heather, our oldest daughter, 14 at the time, had plans to go to the movie with some friends. Debbie was on my right and the rest of the five children were lined up around the table as usual. Of course, I was aware they were watching my expressions and listening to my voice. I tried to make only normal eye contact so not to alarm the family.
“Oh, I understand,” I said, trying to sound unemotional. “What does that mean exactly?”
“Well, the tissue sample will be sent to M.D. Anderson in Texas for another opinion and, locally, the Tumor Board at the hospital has agreed to review your case so we can get this addressed as quickly as possible. I’ll be in touch with you in the next couple of days,” my doctor said sounding a little stressed.
I hung up the phone. Everyone was quiet and focused on me. Instantaneously, I had to decide how to couch my comments since the audience was from five years old to eighteen. Debbie had her hand on my leg and had already read my response before I said anything. I decided not mince words, but not to cause panic in the children.
“The doctor said they found cancer cells in my biopsy.” The kids were silent. Erin teared up, but didn’t say anything. Heather and Kiffin were paying solemn attention as were the twins, Shaun and Kristen, who were trying to understand what happened to the calm dinner interaction of five minutes before.
Debbie mirrored the low key, but asked the second question first, “What did he say was the next step?” The first question would have been, “What exactly did he say?” She was trying to avoid scaring the children any more than the word “cancer” already frightened them. She would ask that later, several times.
Heather asked if she should stay home instead of going out with their friends. We said of course not and for them to go and have fun. We assured them that everything was all right. Ironically, Heather’s friends chose to go see the movie “Dying Young.” From our conversation at dinner, Heather was concerned, but after the movie her concern had turned to fear.
The next two months were a mix of medical tests and waiting for results. It seemed much longer than two months, but it had a life-changing affect on our family. We quickly realized that relationships were the only important things in life. Our relationship with the Lord and our relationship with our family and friends are what endure. Things don’t endure. Jesus tried to make it pure and simple with his answer to the question “What commandment is most important?” (Mark 12:28-34pp — Mt 22:34-40)
I had surgery on September 16, 1991, my dad’s birthday, at Emory’s hospital in Atlanta. Our whole experience at Emory was excellent. The doctors, led by Dr. Joe Miller, were able to extract an eight and a half pound tumor from my chest. It was quite a happy day because the prognosis was death within two months without the surgery. The doctors were confident they had gotten the entire tumor so there was no plan for aggressive aftercare related to the cancer, which turned out to be slow-growing and a very low-grade (nearly benign) cancer.
The next couple of months of recovery were bathed in prayer and support. In the midst of that time near the end of the calendar year, the company for whom I worked decided to discontinue my position. I wouldn’t have that income source to depend on. They had been very helpful in extending my coverage time as long as possible, but now I was in new territory, uncharted.
I remember lying on the bed in the twin’s room, where I went to rest out of the mainstream of activity. I felt a warm sense of the Lord’s presence wash over me as I was praying about our situation. He gave me an excitement and a confidence that He would provide and in the midst of that emotion, I told the Lord I was available and willing for whatever He had in store. My motivation had honestly become focused on His desire for my life, whatever that may be. I had no preconceived notion as to what that might be.