At first I believed it was merely a frustratingly persistent cold—the sort people often get during frigid Michigan winters. But I was wrong. Instead, I found out that I had a softball-sized mass in my chest. In a single day I went from a supposedly routine doctor visit to the ICU with a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.
Months in and out of the hospital—mostly in—and a massive amount of chemotherapy would follow. If there was ever a time when I needed prayer, it was then. But in that moment, prayer wouldn’t come, except in the most rudimentary of ways—whispering variations of “Help” under my breath.
My emotional, mental, and physical energy were utterly spent by the barrage of life-altering information, procedures, and the brutal side effects that soon followed. I quickly learned how tightly our bodies and minds are connected. The host of chemicals coursing through my veins made even the most basic mental tasks difficult.
The closest thing I could have compared it to at the time was severe sleep deprivation—I couldn’t focus beyond what was immediately in front of me, and even that was often a haze. Holding a conversation with the people in the room, let alone with God, often verged on the impossible. It’s easy to wax theological and say we are embodied creatures, not merely minds or souls, but this simple biblical truth is easy to overlook until your body rebels against you.
Holding a conversation with the people in the room, let alone with God, often verged on the impossible.
During that first month in treatment, I did my best to press on through the procedures and adapt to my new life confined in a tiny hospital room. Many people came to visit—friends, family, and coworkers—easing the loneliness common to patients and offering their prayers and support. One family, a friend from work and his wife, had faced a similar diagnosis for their son years earlier and welcomed my family to a club no one wants to sign up for. They shared their story with us, gave invaluable guidance, and most importantly sat with us in the pain and the doubt and the questions, refusing easy answers yet managing to show us there could be hope on the other side.
Because, believe me, the doubts and questions were there. Not only was it hard to focus enough to pray, but what was I supposed to say even if I could muster the strength? None of it made sense, it wasn’t the “right” time, and I had too many people counting on me, in particular my two young daughters. Platitudes about “everything happening for a reason” or “things working out for the best” were worse than useless—they were infuriating and hurtful. How could it be for the best if my kids lose their dad after watching me deteriorate before their eyes?
My pastor, wise beyond his years, provided a vital example for me to look to, a needed illustration of grace in that time of pain and doubt. He visited frequently while I was in the hospital, sitting by my bedside, offering prayers for strength, peace, and healing. Those visits and his quiet faithfulness helped me make peace with my situation, and eventually to make peace with God as well. In a very real sense, the reason I can still bring myself to pray today is in part because of his guidance, along with the example of others who had kept their faith during similar times of darkness and despair.
A few days before I was set to go home, as I was finally feeling some hope, things took a sudden turn for the worst.
A few days before I was set to go home for the first time, as I was finally feeling some hope, things took a sudden turn for the worst. I spiked a high fever and my blood pressure plummeted. Efforts to stabilize me failed, and I was rushed to the ICU and hooked to what looked like a Christmas tree of IV bags. I was becoming septic. It was a terrifying 48 hours.
Weeks later, I learned that an estranged family member, not wanting to intrude at that moment but still deeply worried about what was happening to me, had spent that crucial night in the ICU waiting room, praying for my recovery. To this day I cannot express how much that unexpected gesture means to me. It didn’t instantly fix everything between us—life is, unfortunately, not that tidy—but it cracked the walls that had built up. I believe that her prayers mattered as I came frighteningly close to seeing my last day.
Eventually I did get to return home, and after a few months of being frequently readmitted, things began to normalize. Another year and a half of treatment later, I’m now in remission, which we thank God for each day. I’m still not done with chemo quite yet, but we are hopeful that the end of this chapter is in sight.
This experience has been horrific, but it has also been strangely beautiful. On the worst days, when I had neither the strength nor the words to pray for myself, or when pain and anger and doubt made praying impossible, there were people praying for my family and praying for me. I might have been weak—utterly spent physically, emotionally, and spiritually—but knowing others were stepping in to do what I could not always made me feel a little less alone.