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God and cancer: Having faith when your husband is diagnosed and your world tilts with worry

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Cameron Dezen Hammon, husband, cancer diagnosis, October 2012
A cancer diagnosis makes the little things (like touch) more important. Photo by Lindsey Martin
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"I'm tired all the time,” my husband told the therapist.

“I don’t know why.”

He was reading from a dutifully prepared list of concerns, one he had spent hours composing in preparation for our first meeting with a counselor.

I was pleasantly surprised by his earnestness. “I don’t want to feel this way anymore,” he said. “I think I should go get a physical.”

I’d been cajoling, suggesting and insisting Matt do just that since before we married 10 years ago. But he’s a man, and a Texan. He’s stubborn and immune to the coughs and colds I fall victim to every year. He never thought he needed a physical.

 Decisions, procedures, names of hospitals, doctors; a new vocabulary emerged through our speech. Fear hurtled toward us like bugs at a windshield. 

Earlier in the summer he kicked a substantial espresso addiction. After a few hours on WebMD, Matt decided his dependency on caffeine was depleting his adrenal glands. Initially his energy came back, but after a few weeks off coffee he fell back into his usual exhaustion.

The week of Matt’s physical the weather turned cool. It felt premature, wrong. It was only the second week of September and in Houston we expect to cook until at least after Halloween.

Time was cantering ahead of me like a startled horse, moving too fast. I couldn’t keep up.

That Friday the results of Matt’s physical and subsequent CT scan came in. It showed a mass growing in his bladder, foreign and menacing. His doctor emailed the radiology report to us at five that Friday afternoon. It took my breath away.

I don’t speak doctor, my husband and I are pastors, but I knew the word “carcinoma” well enough.

“It’s what we thought,” Matt told his father, who’d left work and appeared in the hallway outside the doctor’s office, a few days later. “It’s cancer.”

We walked in silence through the three-story garage. The slightest hint of mercy laced the humid air — a premonition of the too-early fall. Decisions, procedures, names of hospitals, doctors; a new vocabulary emerged through our speech. Fear hurtled toward us like bugs at a windshield.

We crossed the street and walked through the mall. Matt stopped in the Gap and bought a jacket. I hid behind the miniature helicopter kiosk to call my mother. My voice held steady as I rattled off the facts: Seventy percent of these cases are low-grade and non invasive. Typically, Matt would  need only outpatient surgery to remove the tumor, and he could return to normal life after that.

I couldn’t help but think that nothing about my husband was typical. Not his dry humor, not his taste in loud, early '90s rock bands, not his startling green eyes. Nothing. Why should I think his cancer would be any different?

I could barely hear my mother’s response. The whirring of the remote control helicopters and the screech of music over the mall’s loudspeaker dulled her words. I started to cry.

The Surgery

Four days after his initial diagnosis Matt had a transurethral resection— an outpatient surgery to remove the tumor in his bladder. We camped out in the waiting room at Houston Metro Urology during the surgery; me, his parents, our pastor and a few friends. We took turns with small talk (the weather is unusually cool, isn’t it?) We talked about the disease, about the surgery, about cancer itself.

Sarah is in the medical field, and though she’s nearly eight months pregnant and otherwise busy with a small daughter and a successful career, she sat and held my hand for hours. She offered reassuring statistics and reason. And when that didn’t work, we closed our eyes and prayed.

 One thing I know for certain is that God is bigger than cancer. God can, and does surround cancer. 

God has never seemed nearer than during Matt’s surgery. I’ve experienced that nearness only once before, on September 11, 2001, when at 9:45 a.m. I was on the N express train to work. Earlier, as I waited for my train on the crowded platform, a man shouted that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I brushed it off. Typical New York Crazy, I thought, and hopped on the train.

We stalled on the Manhattan Bridge, and watched, horrified, as the twin towers burned like haystacks. I looked down. Below me was water; I could see the East River churning angrily beneath the bridge’s iron lattice. Ahead of me was fire unlike any I had ever seen. In the moment I registered that water and fire surrounded me, I also registered that God surrounded me. I knew that faith, not fear, would carry me through whatever came next.

God does not guarantee our safety. I have always known this. But it’s another thing to know that most unsafe thing, to sit face to face with that threat, not to your own body (which would seem infinitely more manageable) but to the body of your beloved, your person, the one whose place you would gladly take on a burning bridge, a plane falling out of the sky, or a body invaded by cancer.

Matt and I started counseling earlier in the summer because our 10th anniversary was coming and there were issues and arguments we suddenly weren’t able to resolve. We were ministers, he at Chapelwood United Methodist and I at Ecclesia Church.

Weren’t we supposed to be one flesh, I thought, two parts to one whole? I remembered the story in Genesis about Adam’s missing rib, the birth of Eve, and the completion of both Adam and Eve through their union.

Adam is lonely, and God, always present with Adam in the garden, sees his loneliness and calls it “not good.” Adam is sensitive, he’s a poet, he shouldn’t be alone. Adam sings a love song to his new bride:

She is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.

Connecting

After Matt’s diagnosis I couldn’t stop touching him. For months we’d passed each other on the stairs, in the kitchen, sometimes with little more than cursory acknowledgement. Now I lay my head on his chest as he slept, listening to his heart. I held his hand in the car and during dinner. I held his bearded face in my hands. I placed my hand over where I imagined my own bladder to be and prayed for mercy.

Whatever gulf had grown between us, whatever had led us to counseling in the first place had swiftly and miraculously been bridged.

 We’re learning to live in sips, in three-month increments between check ups. We are learning to relish and celebrate and savor each moment. 

Matt’s surgery went well. His doctor was meticulous and confident. We waited an agonizing week for the pathology report, a week that left me feeling like a deck chair on the Titanic, but the report brought with it the best news we could’ve hoped for. At least in cancer, Matt is, in fact, typical. His tumor was low grade and non-invasive.

And so we’re learning to live in sips, in three-month increments between check ups. We are learning to relish and celebrate and savor each moment. And sometimes it isn’t easy, but we are learning.

One thing I know for certain is that God is bigger than cancer. God can, and does surround cancer. And though I’ve seen Him in our victories I have also seen Him in our setbacks. I have seen Him wandering the garden of our lives looking for just the right thing, just the right helpmate for this journey.

Whatever comes next will come, but God has never been closer than He is right here, right now.

For more information on Bladder Cancer visit the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network.

Cameron Dezen Hammon writes the blog Hipster Christian Housewife

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