For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory. (Deuteronomy 20:4)
As I walked down my driveway toward the mailbox on the morning of Tuesday, June 26, 2012, I sensed the Lord saying to me, “Victory!” I paused and looked up toward the sky, waiting to hear if there would be an additional word from the Lord, but I heard nothing further. Yet, that one word meant everything to me because this was the day on which I would find out whether the tiny cancerous tumors in my lungs were also present elsewhere in my body. “Victory,” sounded to me like God’s confirmation that the cancer had not spread beyond my lungs — and I held onto that word as Gil and I left our house late that morning and drove over to the UNC Medical Center to meet with Dr. Haithcock, my thoracic oncology surgeon.
Four days prior to this second appointment with Dr. Haithcock I had undergone a series of tests: a PET scan, which is designed to detect the presence of cancer anywhere in a human body (from the neck down), an MRI of my brain, since the PET scan does not include the head, and an assessment of how well my lungs were functioning. It had been a very long day, especially for Gil, who waited patiently in each of the three waiting rooms, from noon, which is when the first of the tests – the PET scan – began, until 7:30 pm, which is when the MRI was over.
To help pass the time between tests I had brought along a large tote bag containing my Bible, my Greek New Testament and a legal pad so that I could work on my sermon for the following Sunday. Yet, even with fascinating work to keep my mind occupied, I couldn’t help but wonder what news the tests would reveal. As I lay on the pallet during the PET scan I had an uneasy feeling that I was about to face a “day of reckoning,” by which my fate would be determined depending upon what showed up on the scan. In order to turn my mind away from that thought I reminded myself from time to time that my life is in the Lord’s hands, and not in the hands of technicians or doctors or test results. But I knew that when I met with Dr. Haithcock on the following Tuesday afternoon there could be no escaping whatever news the reports held.
So when that day finally arrived, Gil and I made sure we were on time for the 12:45 pm appointment. However, we were told by Dr. Haithcock’s receptionist that he was running far behind schedule, so we made ourselves comfortable in the outside waiting area. At about 1:45 pm, we were invited into a waiting room, and although we expected Dr. Haithcock to enter the room momentarily, that did not occur. From time to time one of his residents – a gregarious fourth year medical student – would check on us, apologizing profusely for the delay, but there was not much she could do about it. She knew we were waiting to hear the results of my tests, and she understood that this news was of great importance to me, but hospital policy forbid the disclosure of such information by anyone other than the attending physician. “Victory,” I kept repeating to myself, “Victory.”
By 3:00 pm, my nerves were beginning to wear thin. We had been waiting for Dr. Haithcock for over two hours. Caleb had called on my cell phone several times; he was at home alone, suffering with a stomach virus. I assured him we would return home as soon as possible, but until we met with my doctor, we had to remain in Chapel Hill.
Finally, at 3:15 pm Dr. Haithcock walked through the door and mercifully dispelled our anxiety. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting for so long, but I have good news: the results of the scans indicate that there is no sign of additional cancer. It has not spread beyond your lungs.” In response, the first words out of my mouth were, “Thanks be to God!” and I followed that expression of praise by giving Dr. Haithcock, whom we knew to be a Christian, a “high five.” Yet, because I had lived with uncertainty for a number of days, I asked him to repeat the news again, just so that I could absorb it fully. Dr. Haithcock was happy to oblige me. As I heard the news again, I looked at Gil and grinned: “Victory!”
Furthermore, Dr. Haithcock told us that he had consulted with his colleagues and after comparing the C/T scan of my lungs with the PET scan, they thought that the tiny tumors might be lung cancer and not a metastasis from the parotid gland tumor. Although I had never smoked, Dr. Haithcock explained that it is possible for non-smokers to contract lung cancer. When Gil asked him which would be easier to treat – lung cancer or metastatic parotid gland cancer – he responded by explaining that because the tumors were so small, lung cancer would be far easier to treat because once the tumors were removed surgically, I would be considered “cancer-free.” No follow-up treatment would be necessary. However, if the tumors were a metastasis from the original tumor, my prognosis would not be so positive because once a cancer metastasizes, it is very difficult to stop it from spreading to additional organs; simply removing the tumors from my lungs would not insure I would remain cancer-free.
Dr. Haithcock was eager to remove the tumors as quickly as possible, but he explained that since the tumors, though small, were in both lungs, he would need to operate on each lung separately. Operating on both lungs at the same time would make the recovery process enormously difficult for any patient. However, he said that both surgeries could be done within three weeks, or less, of one another, and recovery from each would not take long, so potentially, I would be convalescing for only one month of the summer. Since there were three tumors in total – two miniscule ones in my right lung and a slightly larger one in my left lung – Dr. Haithcock wanted to remove the larger of the three first, so the first surgery would be on my left lung.
The procedure to remove the tumor, referred to as “Video Assisted Thoracic Surgery,” or “VATS” for short, would be done laparoscopically. A small incision would be made directly below and to the left of my breastbone and another on my back, near the side of my ribcage. Since the tumor was contained in one lobe of the lung, and by God’s grace that lobe was easily accessible, he would remove only that lobe. A tube would then be inserted to keep the lung inflated and would be removed shortly before I was discharged from the hospital. My stay in the hospital would be minimal.
The first available date for surgery was July 5, and I gladly accepted it, and after completing some initial paperwork, we left Dr. Haithcock’s office in an upbeat frame of mind. As usual, we were thankful for the good news we received, mindful that it could have been far worse. After completing some more paperwork in another part of the hospital, Gil and I returned home, feeling as though a weight had been lifted from our shoulders.
On Friday afternoon, three days after that appointment, Dr. Haithcock called and said that there had been a cancellation for Monday, July 2 and inquired whether I might be willing to undergo surgery three days earlier than originally scheduled. I was thrilled. However, since I had been exposed earlier in the week to whatever stomach virus had afflicted Caleb, I inquired whether this might make me ineligible for the earlier date. However, Dr. Haithcock was not concerned, so I confirmed the new date,
Now, with only three days before surgery instead of six, I was determined to clear out a few more closets, in anticipation of the renovation work on our kitchen and bathrooms. We had been hesitant to set a date for the work to begin because of the uncertainty of my health, but after meeting with Dr. Haithcock a second time, we were hopeful that once I had recovered from both surgeries the work could begin at last. However, little did I know that weekend, as I cleaned and sorted, that the Lord had a powerful message for me – and I would stumble upon it only after I had finally reached the last of the closets, two and a half weeks later.
Next time: the first surgery.