“It looks a lot like cancer to me,” my doctor told me over the phone.
It didn’t hit me at first. It felt like when you first get a tickle in the back of your throat signaling a coming cold. I felt like the lumps in my lungs were just a problem which would come and go. But my doctor had used the C-word.
I was sitting in a Starbucks when my doctor called. Since people were sitting all around me, I tried to keep my voice down after he used the C-word. I was almost embarrassed to say it out loud, as if saying it aloud would confirm my diagnosis.
“Are you sure that’s…what it is?” I asked
“No,” he replied, “but by looking at the CT scan, that’s what it looks like. I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s probably cancer.”
A few minutes later I had hung up and was walking out to my car, dazed. I called my mom and told her the news. I got a text from my dad saying how much he loves me. My mind was churning out a million thoughts a minute.
I’m super healthy and young! I thought, followed by, But cancer can happen to anyone, young or old. Think about all those kids with shaved heads. Or the film The Fault In Our Stars. They were in high school.
One line from that film kept echoing through my head. The boy is talking about his PET scan and how his body “lit up like a Christmas tree,” and I wondered if that’s how my scan would be. I felt fine, but I guess most people do in the early stages of cancer.
The more my anxiety spun my head, the more I wondered if this was nearly the end of Ethan Renoe; if the scan would light up like a Christmas tree and the doctor would give me a grim prognosis in a hushed voice.
Suddenly every film about—or even containing—cancer ran through my mind. 50/50, Annihilation, and a thousand tragic photo diaries of someone withering away and ending with an empty bed plagued my mind like hornets. It’s one thing to watch those films as a spectator, but an entirely different thing to participate in them. I felt helpless, as if my body was also withering away and I couldn’t stop it.
Over the next 48 hours I began to think about time wasted in the gym, performing a facade of health and fitness while my body was destroying itself inside. I regretted every fast food meal I’d ever eaten, or every drive I’d ever taken with my phone between my legs. Whatever it was that caused this, I regretted it. But not knowing was the worst part.
No. The worst part was thinking about what happened after.
Another line which rotated through my frenetic mind was from Brand New’s song, Jesus:
“Well Jesus Christ, I’m not scared to die,
I’m a little bit scared of what comes after
Do I get the gold chariot?
Do I float through the ceiling?
Do I divide and fall apart?”
That’s exactly what I wondered. What happens the moment my body stops? Does my consciousness continue? Does it go black until the resurrection? I imagined the quietest place I’d ever been, the backside of the great sand dunes, and tried my hardest to imagine a deeper peace which would be gifted me in that moment.
Or what if it hurt? What if I didn’t rest in peace?
Suddenly every theological debate I’d ever had seemed trivial in light of reality. It seemed that when I talked about life and death before, I wasn’t really talking about life and death at all, I was speaking about theories. The past decade of my life has been filled with doing Christian ministry and suddenly it was all being put to the test. How real was Jesus? How real was God?
It was no longer a theory, but it became the center of my reality.
I thought about my grandma’s email address: assurance46. When I was younger, I asked why that was her name and she said it’s because she was saved in 1946. That’s the year she received assurance of her salvation. That’s the year she was given possibly the greatest gift a human can receive:
Some sort of anchor for your existence to latch onto.
Solidity in a sea of unbearable lightness.
Nothing is more terrifying than the void before us all: death. The Great Mystery. To those without this assurance, yes, it is a mystery. It is something to be terrified of. But in the hours I thought I had cancer, I hit my Bible more than I had in a long time, and more desperately. The passages reassured me. They were like aloe vera on my searing angst.
I can’t describe it better than to say there IS something supernatural about the Word of God. They are not mere words on paper; it is the very breath of God. It’s not nice thoughts to be spouted off as colloquial maxims; it is a very real rock on the ocean floor, anchoring us in the storms of our lives. And our deaths.
Two days after that phone call, I went in for my PET scan. I was shivering, both from fasting and nerves. The nurse inserted my IV and the contrast ran through my body, making me feel like I had pooped my pants. I lay in the center of the tube for 15 minutes, all the time wondering what it was seeing. Was I lighting up like a Christmas tree, or was it just an innocuous lump in my lungs?
I thought about cell mutation and the division of my own body. I thought it strange that my body could be imploding within me and I didn’t even feel it.
When I came out of the tube I couldn’t wait for the doctor, so I asked the technician what she thought. “You’ve done a lot of these, so how do I look?”
She told me she wasn’t supposed to do this, but she showed me the scans. “It doesn’t look too bad to me,” she said. “Nothing is jumping out at me.”
I hadn’t lit up like a Christmas tree.
A million-pound burden fell from my entire body.
I was free.
I had more years to fill with life.
Later that afternoon I got a call from my doctor, who confirmed the technician’s findings. It wasn’t that bad, it was just something to “keep an eye on.” I was overjoyed. Life was more real than it had ever been before. So was death.
Even though my doctor should not have prematurely used the C-word with me, I’m glad he did. I’m glad I had a wake up call to remind me of the reality of my imminent death. It may not have found me this time around, but it will. And when it does, will I be ready? Will I have filled every one of my days with meaning and sweet communion with Christ, or will I have wasted them all?
If you’re reading this, death has not yet found you either. But it will. And I hope that when it does, you are ready. I hope you are anchored to the same rock that I am: Jesus Christ from Nazareth. A humble carpenter who was pinned to a tree outside the city, where people burned their trash.
But remember, the story doesn’t end there. If you want to learn about death, listen to someone who went there and came back. That’s Someone you can trust. He’s someone you can trust with your life AND your death. He’s Someone who can not only explain the Great Mystery, but Who has experienced and destroyed it.
John 11, the resurrection of Lazarus, shows us that Jesus has authority even over death itself, and if we bind ourselves to Him, we no longer have anything to fear.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”