My Journey of Facing Incurable Cancer
I’ll never forget that late afternoon phone call from my doctor.
I thought he was going to tell me that the MRI revealed a disc injury in my back. Instead, he told me I had cancer.
The news was jolting, disturbing and dark. I was the least likely candidate to get such a call, or so I thought.
My life was humming. I had an amazing wife and was a new father of a beautiful daughter. I was young and healthy, living in Colorado and working my dream job: taking college students on outdoor adventures each week.
That summer I had competed in a series of triathlon races for fun. Even against a competitive field—including some pro athletes—I found myself on the podium for my age group in each race. It only underscored my seemingly robust health.
The back pain came out of nowhere—a mystery ailment with no definitive cause. Suddenly I went from being the healthy guy, to one with crippling back pain. And then after my diagnosis, to someone with incurable stage IV cancer.
Doctors told me I literally only had a year to live.
My new reality
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has faced such a dramatic health reversal. It’s quite a shock to adjust to the perception of being healthy to suddenly one of being sick.
The reality is that everybody’s life is fragile—everyone’s life can change on a dime—but we like to act as though we will live forever.
An unexpected diagnosis, whether its cancer, a heart condition or something else, yanks us into the reality of our fragility: that our lives are not as certain as we once thought.
These ailments do not respect age. While something like cancer most commonly affects older people, the numbers among the young are rising. In the United States, more than 70,000 people ages 15-39 are diagnosed with cancer each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. In 2018, an estimated 10,590 children ages 0-14 will also be diagnosed with cancer.
The cause of these problems is complex like lifestyle, genetics and environment. But other times it’s not so easy to explain. Sometimes suffering just happens, and there is no clear explanation of why.
I wrestled with the “why” question for a long time. I still don’t have a clear answer about it. For many, this question brings them to deep despair or even anger. There is no wrong response, but none of these emotions are a great place to stay. As I soon found out in my own journey, the only productive place to dwell is in hope.
Learning about Hope
For me, one of the toughest things about facing cancer was how it threatened my hope.
Before cancer, I thought hope was abstract or wishy-washy, something that looks good on a bumper sticker or as part of a charity name, but ultimately lacks any real substance. Yet now I understand its true vitality. Hope is the belief of a good outcome, one that continues to drive us and move us toward a goal despite opposing forces that may scream the opposite.
I soon learned a truth about hope: the absence of it reveals how vital it is. In other words, when your hope is threatened, you begin to realize how important it is. You realize that hope gives you the energy to face present difficulties and an expectation of good for the future.
As someone who has a relationship with God, I would say I have always had a strong source of hope. In fact, one of my favorite verses literally says, “as for me I will always have hope.” Though, cancer has tested mine in ways I never imagined.
Some of the places I had previously relied on for hope, such as a healthy body, money or career, could do little for me against incurable cancer. These things I mentioned are not bad in themselves, but when push came to shove, they couldn’t help me much.
In the darkest of days, I found a powerful hope through my relationship with God. Here are some realities that helped me:
- God loves me perfectly, no matter what happens to me.
- God is in control of my life and has power over every circumstance, even cancer.
- God would never leave me and I would not have to face this suffering alone.
- God will guide my life, even amidst an uncertain future.
- God will take care of my family, even if I’m not around to care for them.
- When I die, I will spend eternity with God
These realities helped me face the worst-case scenario—and even find a measure of peace.
However, the worst-case scenario did not end up being my reality.
In April of 2016, I met with a cancer research doctor who said something that the two previous oncologists did not say: “I know how to treat this.”
I was stunned by the news. Also, skeptical. But what he said proved no moonshot. Within a few months of my targeted treatment, my scan revealed my tumors were blackened and dying. Several months later, my cancer was in full remission (No Evidence of Disease).
It was pretty powerful to find hope through the medical world. I have come to see my treatment as an extension of God’s hope for me.
On that note, I believe that today there is more reason for medical hope than ever before. Especially in the cancer world, breakthroughs are accelerating at an unprecedented rate. People who were previously told to go home and die are now achieving remission. And it’s not just cancer care that is seeing this revolution—but many other parts of healthcare, too. I encourage you to investigate your medical options. If a breakthrough doesn’t exist for your condition today, it very well could tomorrow.
How hope has changed my life
Three years after my diagnosis, I am still doing well. I face threats, but I am living in hope.
A lot of my life has returned to normal. A year after my diagnosis, I started rock climbing again. I’ve also returned to skiing and biking, too. My body does not feel as strong as it once was, but then again it is amazing how quickly I’ve recovered and adapted.
Most days I just feel a profound sense of gratitude—a level I doubt I would know apart from cancer. I am thankful for each day that I have, especially with my wife and daughter.
And even if the worst happens, because of my faith, I will always have hope. This hope is undefeatable because nothing can take this away (for more on what I mean, see #7 below).
I have become passionate about helping others find hope, too. Because I have been awakened to the reality of how vital hope is for those who suffer. In the spring of 2018, I started a nonprofit called Hope Has Arrived. The purpose of this organization is to help people find hope, strength and peace against cancer.
I am excited about this venture as I seek to help others benefit from my journey, even if only in a small way.
How to find hope despite your medical crisis
I realize that many people reading this might be facing his or her own health crisis, whether it’s cancer or something else. Or perhaps you support or care for someone who is. Regardless, I wanted to offer a few thoughts about finding hope on this journey. I believe these relate to any health crisis.
1. Your medical diagnosis does not define you. Don’t wear it around your neck. This is not your identity. While this health issue might be part of your story, it is not your entire story, nor should it ever be.
2. Let go of why. I realize this very difficult to do, but I think it is an important part of living in hope. It’s ok to grieve and lament that this crisis has happened to you, but you likely will never find out why—at least on this side of things. Someday you may be able to see some good that has happened as a result, but even that is an over-simplistic reason for why it happened.
3. Choose to live in hope. Living in hope is a choice. Your emotions are something that you have control over. If you want to stew on the worst-case scenario, you certainly can. If you want to google all of the worst things that could happen to you as a result of your health issue, I’m sure you could. But I would not recommend it. Instead, you must set your mind on the fact that you will choose to live in hope.
4. Help spread hope to others. Hope is contagious, just like some negative pitfalls, like fear. I guarantee you are not the only one who needs hope. Ask other people you know who are facing a crisis. What gives you hope? As your friend, how can I be someone who helps you live in hope?
5. Be good to yourself. It is good to live in reality. Facing a medical crisis can be tough, and there are certain realities such as having reduced energy and capacity during treatment. You should give yourself the space to be where you are at—if you are tired, then be tired. If you have energy on a particular day, then use it. Either way, living within your limits is a good thing. Don’t be afraid to let people help you.
6. Realize that your caregivers and supporters need hope, too. It’s not just difficult being the person facing the health issue, it’s also hard for those who support them. My battle with cancer has not just been mine, but also my wife’s (and my daughter, too). She has faced it with me, come to infusions, appointments and prayed regularly with me. This journey has not just taken a toll on me, but her as well. As I became aware of this, I have endeavored to support her, too, and to push her to spend time with others who are life-giving to her and to do things that are life-giving.
7. Seek the undefeatable hope. As I have mentioned, there are a lot of good things that give us hope, but they often fail us sooner or later. Yet, there is one hope I have found to be undefeatable: a relationship with God. This is a source of hope that has profoundly carried me through this journey more than anything else. Facing a health crisis is a great time to look outside of yourself for the help that God can offer. For more about this, check out the Finding God section on my website.
More about Chris…
Chris is the founder of Hope Has Arrived. Besides being a writer and blogger, he also is an avid rock climber, skier and mountain biker. He is married and has a daughter.
He also wrote the Pathway to Hope, which is a 7-day email series designed to help people facing cancer find hope.