Lessons Learned from my Struggle With Cancer

On October 30, 2020, my life was turned upside down when a doctor told me that a colonoscopy revealed that I had stage 3 rectal cancer.

My treatment for this cancer over the past seven months has been challenging, to put it mildly. It started with a combination of radiation and 24/7 chemotherapy by means of a pump strapped to my waist that proved to have disastrous side-effects: severe diarrhea and dehydration that landed me in a hospital for ten excruciating days starting two days before the start of a new year. My treatment was changed to a continuation of my 27 radiation treatments, without chemotherapy, followed by a series of twelve weekly chemo infusions.

The good news is that on May 18, my oncologist told me that a Pet-Scan revealed that I am now cancer free. Thanks be to God and a very caring, encouraging  and competent oncologist, Dr. Nasser G. Abu-Erreish.

My focus now is on gaining back some of the 35 pounds that I lost during my treatment ordeal (from 175 to 140) and strengthening my severely weakened body by means of a rigorous physical therapy regimen.

I have shared the above story with cherished friends, but not with readers of my website, since at first glance reporting on this aspect of my personal life didn’t seem to fit well with the purpose of my website, which is to model respectful conversations among persons who have strong disagreements about contentious issues. At the end of this essay, I will share how I eventually concluded that this aspect of my personal story fits with the purpose of my website. But I will first share some reflections on lessons I have learned these past seven months that may be helpful to readers of my website (inspired to do so by my reading just this morning the chapter on John Donne in the splendid book Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey that I recommend all readers of this Musing move toward the top of their “to read” list).

What are some of the lessons I have learned during my cancer treatment ordeal? The first lesson is to be thankful for those blessings in your life that you have taken for granted.

I remember well what my primary care doctor said to me when I was about 80 years of age (five years ago) after my annual physical check-up: “Harold, I hope that when I am your age, I will be as healthy as you are.” Those words made my day, bringing me much joy. But there was one thing I didn’t do that day and all the days before that day, which I now deeply regret. I didn’t thank God for the lifetime of good health that I had taken for granted.

So, if you have been blessed with good things, big or small, that you have taken for granted, I encourage you to pause, even at this very moment, to thank God for these blessings.

A second lesson I have learned, a close cousin to the first lesson, is enjoy the small blessings of life. I will illustrate with an example that may seem downright trivial and even a bit strange to some readers but is precious to me.

We Norwegian Americans love our coffee and we love it strong (at least on the east coast, not so much in the mid-west). So, throughout most of my life, I enjoyed quite a few cups of strong coffee each day, not giving much thought to this practice. But as I struggled with my cancer treatments, I was told to limit my caffeine intake. So, I now drink one cup of caffeinated coffee each day – Dunkin Donuts coffee with hazelnut flavoring and a touch of milk. I drink this cup the first thing each morning as I watch cable news. I have come to cherish this small blessing. I look forward, with great anticipation, to savoring, with much enjoyment, another cup of that delicious coffee each morning. That is my personal experience of enjoying one of the small blessings of life. I hope that you may find similar enjoyment in one or more small blessings.

My third lesson learned takes the form of advice I give to all readers who are also coping with health challenges: As much as your health challenges allow, keep doing the things you love to do.

My good friend, Dr. Timothy Johnson, former Medical Editor for ABC TV News, once responded to my asking how he was doing as follows: “I’m great from the neck up, lower down not so good.” I now echo that response. I am very thankful that my mind is still sound (although some of my critics may dispute that claim). And this allows me to continue doing two things that I love to do with my mind, in collaboration with my heart: writing and dreaming up new projects.

I love to write. So, I am thankful that during my struggle with cancer these past seven months, I have been able to continue writing. First, I put the finishing touches on a book that Cascade Books will release either late this summer or in the early fall. Tentatively titled. Let’s Talk: Bridging Divisive Lines Through Inclusive Respectful Conversations, the content of this book flows from my experiences these past ten plus years, both beautiful and ugly, orchestrating, both on my website and in face-to-face small group conversations involving local residents, some respectful conversations among people who have strong disagreements.

I have also continued writing more “Musings” on my website; mostly dealing with how Christians can plant “tiny seeds of redemption” (see Matthew 13:31- 32) in our broken political system.

My being able to continue writing has been good therapy for me during my struggle with cancer.

But the big new news is that during these past few months, in the midst of my struggles with cancer, I have been planning for my next big electronic conversation (eCircle) on my website, titled “Following Jesus: Perspectives from Diverse Christian Traditions.” This ecumenical conversation is based on the premise that adherents to all Christian traditions aspire to “follow Jesus.” They just disagree on how best to do that, and can therefore learn from each other by means of respectful conversations. A huge challenge was to recruit conversation partners for the eleven Christian traditions to be included in this ecumenical conversation.  But I love a challenge, even when I am hurting. And my eleven conversation partners are now in place

So, as you can see from the above my struggle with cancer has not been so deleterious as to prevent me from continuing to do some things that I love to do, for which I am very thankful.

I hope that you find the above reflections to be helpful, especially if you are presently experiencing adversity relative your health or anything else.

But why do I post these reflections about an aspect of my personal life on a website devoted to modeling respectful conversations among people who have strong disagreements about contentious issues? I have two reasons for doing so. The first is that one of the results of my struggle with cancer has been an amplification of my desire to ramp up my Respectful Conversation initiatives while I still have a sufficient degree of health to do so. I especially want my reader to understand that this is my primary motivation for embarking on a new very ambitious eCircle that seeks to create a full-orbed ecumenical understanding on what it means to follow Jesus.

My second reason is more foundational. I want to call into question the prevailing assumption that our beliefs about important contemporary issues (in my case, my beliefs about how to overcome the extreme polarization that is rampant in American culture) are independent of our personal stories.

My contrary view is that our beliefs about any contemporary issue are deeply informed by our personal stories. Since our personal stories are different, we may well come to embrace differing beliefs about the issue at hand. Therefore, persons having different personal stories need to talk respectfully with one another about the ways in which their personal stories inform their beliefs about the issue being discussed, which may be an initial step toward uncovering some common ground relative to the issue.

Therefore, it is inevitable that the initiatives I take to model respectful conversations are deeply informed by my personal story, which includes my recent struggles with cancer. So, I want my website readers to understand the way in which my struggle with cancer has informed my decision to ramp up my Respectful Conversation project by adding a new eCircle on my website that will address the important issue of how diverse Christian traditions give expression to their shared commitment to be followers of Jesus. This new eCircle, which will start on August 1, 2021, will soon be announced on my website.

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