When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:13)
Monday, December 5, 2011 was supposed to be a day in which I had no pressing matters to deal with or undue stress. It was the day before my surgery to remove an aggressive tumor in my right parotid gland. However, my E N.T. oncology surgeon had scheduled appointments for that day with my medical oncologist and radiation oncologist so that I could meet these doctors who would be working closely with me post-surgery – and so that they could get a look at my face and the tumor before it was removed. However, the appointments were set up before my surgery was re-scheduled for an earlier date, so originally they would have taken place eight days before surgery, not the day before. Had I known the disastrous effect they would have on me emotionally and spiritually, I would have cancelled these appointments and stayed home. But that insight only came after the fact.
Since I could not drive because of the side effects of the pain medication I was taking, my friend, Catherine, drove me over to the UNC Medical Center and stayed with me. I was grateful for her calm presence – and that Gil didn’t have to take another day off from work. My first appointment was at 10 am with the medical oncologist, Dr. Hayes. He oversees chemotherapy treatments for patients with head and neck cancers and monitors their health while they are in treatment. Although no one knew for sure what kind of parotid gland cancer I had (there are several different kinds), he was fairly sure chemotherapy, in addition to radiation, would be an option – and that I might be a candidate for a clinical trial.
Dr. Hayes seemed competent and very likeable. However, I realized while he was speaking with me that I didn’t want to be thinking about possible post-treatment therapies on the day before my surgery. I had struggled with trusting the Lord with the outcome of my surgery and had reached a point where I believed he could – and would – do anything on my behalf, but now I had to sit and listen to a medical expert tell me about strategies that might keep the cancer from returning. I began to grow anxious as Dr. Hayes spoke to me and I sensed my confidence in the Lord beginning to weaken a bit.
The appointment began late and ended just before lunchtime. My next appointment, with the radiation oncologist, wouldn’t take place for at least another two hours, so Catherine and I decided to get something to eat in one of the hospital cafeterias; we also wanted to get as far away as possibly from the clinics and examining rooms. After lunch we found two big comfortable wingback chairs in which to sit in the Cancer Hospital lobby and I napped briefly. At 1:55 p.m. we took the elevator from the lobby, which was on the first floor, to a floor below ground to the radiation oncology department.
The elevator doors opened onto a white hallway. The outer wall of the radiation oncology department is made of glass, so that one can see from the hallway how warm and inviting the reception area appears. I could tell that a lot of thought went into making that area welcoming. The employees behind the registration counter greeted us kindly and I found myself relaxing a bit. Once I completed the registration process Catherine and I found a place to sit. I noticed natural light streaming into the waiting area from a skylight. This waiting room was much different from Dr. Weissler’s, which was crowded and hectic. Here, everyone seemed calm. I could tell that the furnishings, color scheme and paintings on the wall had been chosen in order to create a calm environment.
When my name was finally called, we were escorted to a waiting room by a friendly nurse. As she took my vital signs, she talked with great affection about the doctor who would be overseeing my course of radiation; I could tell she admired him. He was running late, however, and she had no other patients to attend to at the moment, so she took the opportunity to give me a brief overview of the radiation treatment process. I could tell she was trying to reassure me, but something she said about “possible side-effects” caught my attention. I had heard an unpleasant report about the side-effects of radiation while listening to a radio program several months before, so I wanted to hear from her what I might be facing. She hesitated, but I asked her to explain her comment to me, since I was growing anxious. I thought it would be better to know as much as possible than to let my imagination run wild. This too, was a mistake.
She told me that for the first week or two it was likely I would not notice any side effects. However, by week three I would begin to lose my sense of taste and by week four it would be gone, resulting in a loss of appetite, and I would most likely develop a strep-like sore throat. I would begin to lose the hair across the back of my head, but it should grow back in time. At this point I would also have to contend with a ropey saliva-like liquid (dying mucus cells) in my mouth and running down my throat, but I would be prescribed a mouth rinse that would give me some relief from the aggravation. It was also a possibility, she said, that I would develop thrush – a yeast infection of the mouth and that my mouth and tongue would be covered with sores. She added that less likely but entirely possible was a loss of hearing in my right ear and even, in rare cases, damage to the brain stem. She noted also that the symptoms she had just described would not end with the radiation treatments but would continue for several weeks after the treatment ended. And sometimes, the effects are often so bad that many patients cannot eat by week five and have to have a feeding tube inserted.
At this point, I wanted to go home; I was in a panic – and I hadn’t yet seen the doctor. When he did enter, along with an intern, shortly after the nurse left the room, I asked if the exam could be brief because I was having surgery the next morning and was feeling very anxious. He looked at me skeptically, but said it shouldn’t take long. He asked me to sit in the examining chair and after looking into my mouth he examined the tumor. Then he proceeded to discuss with the intern all the possible complications involved in treating me. They debated how large the tumor was and decided together that it was very big, possibly five centimeters in size. My doctor noted, more to the intern than to me, that it was likely my surgeon would not be able to remove the entire tumor, although he would certainly need to remove the facial nerve, and because the cancer was so aggressive up to fifty percent of the tumor might grow back in the time between my surgery and the possible start date of radiation. He finished up this assessment – in which it seemed as though I was simply a fascinating case study instead of a real person with feelings and needs – by noting to the intern that it was likely part of my jaw would need to be removed, as well as the mastoid behind the ear, along with muscle and skin.
Now I was completely undone. In those few moments, the evil one used that doctor to deliver a flaming arrow straight to my heart (Ephesians 6:16). Although Dr. Weissler had said much the same during my first appointment with him, two weeks previous, I had reached¸ by the grace of God, a point where I trusted the Lord with the outcome of my surgery. I had come to believe he could do infinitely more than I could ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). However, in just a matter of minutes, almost all the hope and confidence I had gained in the Lord over the previous two weeks ebbed away. Emotionally and spiritually I returned to that dark pit I found myself in after my first visit with Dr. Weissler, when he gave me such devastating news about the tumor and my chances of survival.
After this most unnerving appointment, I was barely able to walk out of the Cancer Hospital and toward the deck where Catherine had parked her car. I sensed fear rising from the pit of my stomach and I began to shake uncontrollably. Very little was said between us; we were both deeply disturbed by the doctor’s words.
Gil was on hand to greet me when I arrived back home. I gave him a brief summary of my doctor visits and told him I needed time alone to pray. I went up to our bedroom and knelt down in prayer. I struggled mightily to find a way to return to the faith in the Lord I had before that day, but I made little progress. I sensed I was in a spiritual battle for my life. I thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and how the devil had waited for that moment so he could tempt Jesus one last time. I was not sure how my own time of temptation would end; I feared for my sanity and well as for my soul.
Late that evening, still on my knees in prayer and still shaking, I began to have a sense God’s peace. Although still fearful about how the surgery would go the next day, I was no longer in the grip of fear. The Lord had prevailed on my behalf. I showered with the anti-bacterial soap provided by the hospital and then took something to help me sleep. Before I got into bed, I sprinkled holy water on the tumor and commanded, in the name of Jesus Christ, that any presence of evil leave and go straight to Jesus. Then, Gil anointed me with holy oil and prayed for healing. At this point I had done all I knew to do and I left my outcome in the Lord’s hands.
Unbeknownst to me, my friend, Bill, had sent me an email earlier that evening. When I finally opened it a number of days later, I realized that many, many people had been interceding before the Lord on my behalf that night – and that the Holy Spirit was at work directing them in prayer. I had not been alone with the Lord in prayer that night, after all. The “Church Militant” stood for me as my own knees sagged in fear. This was Bill’s message to me:
“I know you must be facing tomorrow with fear and trepidation but I hope also with joy. Tomorrow is the beginning of the medical counterattack on the evil that has stricken you, and morale is always greater when you are on the offensive. The spiritual offensive has already started, and from reading your blog posts has already produced good results. You will go into the operating room tomorrow physically alone, but spiritually an army will be beside and around you – and this is an army already battle-tested by campaigns we have fought together before. Take heart and have courage for the Lord is with you!”