Thursday, August 18, 2016

Heart On My Sleeve

Cancer has changed me in many ways. In most ways, I believe it's made me better. Less self-centered, certainly. And definitely happier. More at peace. I think the two go hand in hand. The less self-centered we are, the happier we are. That's certainly been true for me.

I've always been an emotional guy. If I was asked to say grace for a meal with loved ones, I would always get choked up. I come by that honestly. I'm my father's son. But now, I'm that way all the time. I wear my heart on my sleeve, as the saying goes. It was Shakespeare who coined that phrase in Othello in 1604, and we still use it today.

I never used to be one who was moved to pronounce blessings on people. I was never known as an encourager. But these days, I just can't seem to stop myself from that kind of behavior. And I don't want to stop myself. It's too much fun.

It comes out in my desire to mentor young musical talent. I never used to have time for that. I was too busy trying to make money. Now I have this urge to share what I've learned with young people who want to have a career in music. I got the chance to do that recently, and I'm incredibly grateful for the time I got with those kids and my friends. It was, in many ways, just what I needed. I hope I helped them, but I feel like I got more out of it than they did.

Trust me, I was never that guy before. Not even close. Volunteering to help others, unless we were very good friends, was not my style. I was more interested in promoting myself. It turns out that it really is more blessed to give than to receive. The giver gets the greater blessing than the receiver. I wish it hadn't taken cancer to teach me that. But at least I finally learned it.

It also comes out in my intense, constant desire to tell people how much they mean to me. There's been a whole lot of "Sit still while I tell you how much I love you" since I learned that I have cancer. That's the thing about love. The more of it that you get, the more you want to spread it around. And I have received more of it than I can possibly hold. So I have to share the love. If I don't, I feel like I'll burst.

As a result, I tend to make speeches now. I write notes to people. I propose toasts. I can't help myself. It's who I am now. I never used to be that guy, either. Here's an example that I'm not proud of.

When my wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in 2002, we had a big party with a recommitment ceremony. We had a cake, and we asked our dear friend Galen Koch to do the toast. He prepared and delivered a beautiful speech which touched us deeply.

Eight years later, in 2010, Galen committed suicide. He had struggled with depression for years. We flew to Ft. Worth, Texas for the funeral. After the service, a group of us went out to eat, and I was asked to toast him. I couldn't come up with anything. It wasn't because I was too broken up about it. It was because I was empty inside. Also, I was angry with him.

But after I got cancer, my attitude changed. I wrote a long, heartfelt tribute to Galen and his family in this blog, Introducing The Kochs. It's one of my most viewed posts. It took cancer to make me realize how much I love Galen and his family, and to tell them so publicly.

Now, when the occasion arises, I'm expected to make a heartfelt speech. If you've only known me well since my diagnosis, you'd think I've always been like this, but that isn't true. Now, I wear my heart on my sleeve. And as I said in an earlier post, I don't care if I get blood all over you if you get too close.

Now, when an occasion is coming up when I feel like I have something to say to someone I love, I work it out in my head ahead of time. I rehearse it. I need to do this so I don't cry. If I try to ad lib, it's all over. I can't get through it. So I prepare.

But last Saturday, I almost dropped the ball. Some close friends of ours who are moving away had a goodbye party for their friends here in Denver. My wife and I were honored to be there, though we had not met most of the guests before. A couple of hours in, it dawned on me that someone should propose a toast to our hosts. Naturally, I thought that someone should be me.

I can't for the life of me understand why I hadn't realized this and prepared for it well in advance. But once the decision was made, I started putting it together in my head. 30-45 minutes later, I was clinking glass together and calling for everyone's attention.  I had to pronounce my blessing. I would have regretted it forever if I hadn't.

Afterwards, the couple I toasted told me that they had both totally expected me to do that. One said she would have been disappointed if I hadn't! I've gone from being the guy that doesn't know what to say to being the guy who is expected to say something heartfelt.

As I keep saying, I can't take credit for any of this change that's taken place. It's not like I sat down one day and said, "Well, Mark, now that you have cancer, you'd better start being nicer to people!" It just happened. It's what another friend of mine calls the gift in the wound. Sounds like the title of a blog post to me. I think that will be next.

I have no interest in going back to being the guy I used to be. Giving and receiving love is what I live for now. I have been blessed, so I must be a blessing. Otherwise, the blessings I receive go to waste.

I don't know how much longer God is going to keep me on this planet, but for as long as I'm here, I'm gonna keep wearing my heart on my sleeve. If it gets bruised along the way, so be it. When I feel the time is right, I may make you sit still while I tell you how much I love you. It may well happen in front of others in a public setting. Don't think you're gonna squirm out of it, either. It's who I am now.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

I'm eternally grateful to God that this has finally come true in my life. My heart of stone has been replaced by a heart of flesh. I wouldn't have it any other way. #waroncancer

Monday, August 15, 2016

From Belief To Knowledge

In my last post, I talked about how I've always believed in God, but that God only became real to me when I found out that I have cancer. "It took cancer to turn belief into knowledge for me" was the way I put it. But a comment from Michael Goertz forced me to examine this. He simply asked how I got from belief to knowledge. That's a question that many books have been written about. I am not as smart as the authors of those books, but I'll give it a try.

I thought I had answered the question in the post, with the above statement. But I suppose more explanation is in order. I'm going to try hard to keep this from being an esoteric philosophy treatise. Or a theology paper. I've been praying about how to explain this in a way that would make sense no matter what you believe.

The classic definition of knowledge in philosophy comes from Plato. He said that knowledge is "justified belief." I take that to mean that if you believe something, there has to be some justification for your belief to turn it into knowledge.

I believe that, the next time I get into my car, it will start. That belief isn't based on nothing. It's based on the fact that it's started every time I've turned the key in the ignition. I base my belief on personal experience. That makes it justified belief. That doesn't mean that my belief is necessarily true, though. The next time, it might not start. So, while I'm confident that my car will start the next time I need it, I can't say that I know that for sure.

Here's a better example. How do I know that my wife loves me? I know because I know her. I know because I've lived with her for the past 39 years.  I know because she had dinner waiting for me when I got home late last night from an all-day recording session. And I know for a million other reasons. Again, I know that she loves me because I know her.

The theme of this blog, from the very beginning, has been this topic. Not just my cancer, but how God has used it to get through to me and change me. Hence the title, God's 2 By 4. Cancer was the 2 by 4 that God used to whack me upside the head in order to get my attention. I don't think God gave me cancer, but he used it to bring me closer to him.

Don't get me wrong. I haven't heard God speak to me audibly. As I said in an earlier post, I used to want God to do that. But in every example of that I've seen in the Bible, when God speaks audibly to someone, it's not usually a fun experience for the listener. I'm no prophet. I have no evidence that I could use to prove God's existence in a court of law. What I have is my own personal experience.

I'm a believer, and I'm also a science guy. I want proof. I want evidence. While I have nothing to show you to prove God's existence, I do have some justification for my belief, to meet Plato's standard.

While I've tried to live as a Christian for most of my life, I admit that I haven't worked very hard to know God. I loved God, but I wasn't in love with him. There were times in my life that I felt very close to God, and other times when he seemed very far away. And yes, there have been many times in my life when I've questioned his existence. But not now. Now, the reality of God seems all too obvious to me. All I needed was some challenge in my life, to quote a friend.

That challenge came in the form of cancer. Not the kind that can be taken care of with an operation, but the kind that will almost certainly shorten my life drastically from what I was expecting. When some people get a diagnosis like that, they get angry at God, or become convinced that he must not exist, or else this wouldn't have happened to them.

But I didn't react that way. And as I keep saying, I can't take any credit for how I reacted. Control was simply ripped from my hands, and I had to rely on something more than myself. That's when God came flooding in.

I've experienced God's presence before, but not like this, and not this effortlessly. I can feel God's presence all the time now. Not just when I'm praying or worshiping, or in church. It's constant. If I let myself focus on him for too long, I lose control of my emotions. He's all too real.

What's more, because he's been so real to me for the last year, I am finally getting to know him. I know that this sounds weak to a skeptic, but I know God is real because I can feel him with me all the time.

I realize that this is what some refer to as "appealing to the burning in the bosom." I know that, logically, just because we feel like something's true, that doesn't necessarily prove that it is. People are persuaded to believe all kinds of things. Our minds and emotions are very powerful. So you may choose to dismiss my experience as wishful thinking or delusion. I can't prove you wrong. I only know my own experience.

I can't prove to you that my wife loves me, either. But I know that she does because I know her. And I know that God is real the same way. I know he is real because he's made himself real to me in ways that I can't explain. I know he loves me because I've gotten to know him over the last year. He's made his love plain to me in much the same way that my wife has. She's been there for me. So has God. So have many people, by the way. The reality of love gets proven to me every day, in many ways. How can I not know this, after a whole year of it? My experience of the past year, in my mind, constitutes justified belief, which, according to Plato, equals knowledge.

I don't know if I've explained this very well or convinced anyone. It wasn't my purpose to prove God's existence to you. Only he can do that. I hope that it doesn't take a cancer diagnosis for you to gain that knowledge. But that's what it took for me. And because of the way that his love for me, and yours, has been proven to me in my own heart and life these past twelve months, I am confident that God is real, and that he loves me. I know. That's how I got from belief to knowledge. #waroncancer

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Unknown

One of the greatest fears that we face as cancer patients, and that our loved ones face, is fear of the unknown. I've heard it over and over from friends I've made on this journey. A close friend of mine faces fear of the unknown because of her husband's rising PSA, as incremental as those increases have been. A new member of my online support group, still reeling from her husband's diagnosis, talked just today about her fear of the unknown. My friend Ed Heck, who has just been diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer, has a long, unknown path ahead of him. We all face it.

I too am facing the unknown. The most immediate unknown for me is my next PSA test. If that number goes back down, it will mean that my current treatment, Lupron, is still keeping my cancer in check. I'll get my next shot soon thereafter, and everything remains the same for now. But if the number continues to go up, the way my last number did, it means that Lupron has stopped working a year to six months earlier than was expected. That won't be a good sign, if that's the case.

I have a little more than two weeks until my next test. A few days later, I'll meet with my oncologist, and we'll see where we are. Until then, I'm staring into the unknown. It's like a fork in the road. One direction looks like a familiar path. The other is shrouded with fog.

This phenomenon is not unique to cancer, of course. We all face the unknown, and many of us fear it. I've never been one of those people. I tend to look into the unknown with anticipation, even excitement. I want to see what there is to see when the fog lifts. But that's my optimistic nature taking over. I'm very grateful for that. It's helping me a lot during this time in my life.

But everything that happens in my life, both large and small, is seen through the lens of cancer. Within the last few weeks, I've noticed a numb area on the outside of my left thigh. It's in the shape of a long oval, about six inches long. I occasionally feel sharp pains in it that only last for a second or so. It began about the size of a dime, and grew to about eight inches long, then receded to six inches, where it's stayed. I called my oncologist about it, and he didn't think it was anything to be concerned about unless it kept growing. I asked about it in the support group, and nobody else has experienced this. But I can't help but wonder if it's related to the cancer. It's an unknown.

If it does turn out that my current treatment isn't working anymore, then we really will be facing the unknown. Will my new treatment regime help, or will the aggressiveness of my cancer win out? If Lupron only lasted half as long as my doctors expected, what does that mean for other treatments? What does that mean for my life expectancy? These are big unknowns.

But while we may fear the unknown, I find myself asking if I really want the answers to these questions. I do want to know if I've had my last Lupron shot, but do I want to know how much longer I can expect to live? Do I want to know if I'll have pain from my cancer? Do I want to know what I can expect as I deteriorate, should that happen? I think I do, but do I really?

I've never been much of a worrier, so I try not to think about those things. The unknown will become known all too soon. As Jesus said, each day has enough trouble of its own. Instead of thinking about the unknown, I'd rather focus on the known. So here's what I know.

I know that I am loved. You prove it to me every day. Until I had cancer, that was an unknown. It was only after I went public with my diagnosis that the reality of love was brought home to me.

I know that I have a purpose. I'm trying to fulfill that purpose right now, by writing this blog. Some of my posts reach many. Some only reach a few. But each post comes from my heart and experience. Like a preacher whose sermons hopefully help a congregation, but are really for the one who preaches, I hope my blog helps those who read it. But it's really for me. I do it because I need to do it.

I know that there are many others on this road with me. I know I'm not alone. That doesn't make the road easy, but it does bring comfort along the way.

And as I keep saying, I now know that God is real, and that he loves me. You may not feel like you know that for sure. I didn't know it for sure for most of my life, even though I believed. But belief and knowledge are two different things. It took cancer to turn belief into knowledge for me. The knowledge that God is in control (and that I'm not!) is what has given me peace and joy for the first time in my life.

So given what I know, why should I fear the unknown? It reminds me of the words of an old gospel song:

Many things about tomorrow
I don't seem to understand
But I know Who holds tomorrow
And I know He holds my hand

That's all I need to know. #waroncancer

Sunday, August 7, 2016

My Year With Cancer

One year ago today, on August 7th, 2015, I received a phone call that changed my life forever. It was my urologist calling to tell me that the biopsy I'd had done a few days earlier had come back positive. I had cancer. For the next twelve months, my life has been transformed in many ways, good and bad. I couldn't let this day go by without writing about those changes.

This will not be a retrospective, blow-by-blow post. I've written a few of those already. If you haven't been following along with my story, and you want to know those details, I invite you to read 2015, Things I Learned In My 60th Year, and the depressing epic, Full Disclosure. Or better yet, start from the beginning and read this entire blog in order. Many have done that and continue to do it. It makes me very happy when I see that.

Instead of a post like the ones above, this one will focus on the changes that have taken place since August of last year. They are many, and they are profound. Positive changes and negative ones. Which do you want first, the good news or the bad news? Let's start with the negative, and end with the positive.

When you're diagnosed with cancer, everything changes. In one moment, I went from being a professional musician, singer, songwriter, arranger, producer, and worship leader to being one thing; a cancer patient. As I wrote in my post What Am I?, "Like many, if not most cancer patients, I feel like that's what I am. That's all I am. It's the entire focus of my life. Everything else fades in comparison." That pretty much sums it up.

One year ago, I was still physically able to do all of the things that I did before. I didn't need to think about pacing myself. A simple thing like going to an event at Red Rocks in the evening was still doable. But after nearly a year of hormone treatment, things like that seem out of reach. I have to be very careful now how I commit myself. I have to go to bed early. I have to make sure that I get enough rest. If a friend had a late gig a year ago, I could go. Now, if it starts later than 6:30, I have to pass. I just don't have the energy.

Before I was diagnosed, I expected to live into my early 90's, as my family tends to do. Now, I have to plan as though I won't be here a few years from now. That doesn't mean that I don't have hope for a cure, and it certainly doesn't mean that I've given up, but I have to be realistic. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

Lupron, the hormone suppressant that I've been on, has wreaked havok on my life since my first shot. I've struggled with hot flashes, emotional peaks and valleys, extreme sensitivity to cold, and weakness. This blog has been, in many ways, one long record of the effects of Lupron on my body and mind. The good news is, I may have had my last Lupron shot. The bad news is, I may have had my last shot because it isn't working anymore. I'll know that in a few weeks.

I've lost a friend or two since I was diagnosed. Most have been there for me in a big way, but a few disappeared. Every once in a while, I think about a conversation I'd like to have with one of them, and realize that that conversation will never take place. They've opted out of my life, so I'm not going to waste any of my limited remaining time on them. There are far too many real friends and new friends that I'd much rather spend time with now. Every one of my cancer brothers and sisters knows what I'm talking about. That's how life is for us.

I've learned about the struggles to get and keep insurance coverage for my medical needs. If you don't live in the United States, you probably have no idea what that's like. When I was diagnosed, we had one private health insurance provider. It went out of business at the end of the year. At the beginning of this year, we qualified for Medicaid, which covered everything at no cost to us for a few months. Then, we lost that coverage, and had to shop for insurance again. Now we have insurance, but with a high deductible. That hasn't been a fun process, and it was a major topic of this blog for a while.

For several months since my diagnosis, I struggled with weight loss. I've always been naturally thin, so losing ten pounds was not a good thing for me. I had to see a nutritionist to learn how to gain the weight back. That process was documented in this blog as well. But I've been staying at my optimum weight for a few months now with no problem.

That's a good place to transition from the bad to the good. And there has been an amazing amount of good.

Over the course of the past year, I've developed a different relationship with money than I used to have. I used to be the guy who was all about making money. I didn't do much volunteering, and what I did, I mostly resented doing. My priority was my paying work, and trying to find more of it. Now, I've discovered the joys of volunteering. I love it. When I have the energy to do it, that is.

Since my diagnosis one year ago, I've gone from trying to keep my failing music career going to seeing it as a thing of the past. I feel like one chapter has ended, and a new chapter has begun. And I don't regret that. It's actually liberating. The stress of trying to find new gigs at my age has been replaced by thankfulness for the career that I've had, and a new desire to do what I feel I've been called to do now; write this blog in an effort to help those who are going through similar things. And mentor young musicians in their formative years.

While I've lost a very few people in my life, I've gained many more. I'm not going to start naming and tagging people here, because the internet would run out of space, as I'm fond of saying. But the relationships have been the best part of this, without a doubt. Old ones have been revitalized, or have deepened. And many new ones have started. It's been an incredible blessing.

As I've said many times in this blog, the biggest, most life-changing revelation that I received from cancer is that I am loved. More deeply and by many more people than I dared imagine. The support that my wife and I have received, financially, emotionally, and spiritually, has been beyond calculation. That support continues to this day. We are more thankful for your support than we can possibly express.

When I was diagnosed last August, we didn't have a church. Our last church had closed in May, and we were adrift in terms of a church home. Now, we have a church that we love and are part of. I experience God every Sunday now on a level that I rarely had before. This morning was a huge example.

Knowing that today was the one year anniversary of my diagnosis has been on my mind all day, as you can well imagine. The fact that it occurred on a Sunday was big for me. I always seem to get emotional in church these days, and I knew that I would be extra emotional today, and not just because of the occasion. It was also Communion Sunday, being the first Sunday of the month. I always get emotional during communion now. But this time, my wife and I were asked to serve communion for the first time in our lives. It was a great honor.

My favorite worship leader these days, Michael Wygant, led us in worship. I always get emotional when he's there. He always seems to pick a song that "gets me." Today was no exception. And to top it all off, the theme of today's service was healing. With all of those factors put together, I was unsure how I'd even get through this service without completely breaking down.

For the uninitiated, most Christians believe in some form of divine healing. In our tradition, our heads are anointed with a dab of oil, and the one who anoints us places their hand on our shoulder and prays for our healing. That was part of the service today. It was the main focus of it. I had this done in a church last September, not long after I was told that I was metastatic. But I've been very public about my cancer in my church. Everyone knows about it, so I spent this past week struggling with whether to be anointed for my healing today.

As you know if you've been reading this blog, while many pray for my healing every single day, I never have prayed to be healed. I don't think I ever will. I'm thankful for those who pray for me, and if you are one of them, please keep right on praying. But as for me, I am at peace with whatever God wants to do. If he wants to heal me, awesome! If not, awesome! I win either way, as I've said many times before.

And there's also the fact that I have a complicated history with divine healing. If you want a full explanation of that, I recommend that you read the post where I wrote about that early on in this process. To bumper sticker it for you, I not only believe that divine healing happens, I know it does. But I also know that it doesn't happen for everyone. And I accept that it may not happen for me.

But back to today's church service. As it started, I was still unsure as to whether I'd go forward to be anointed or not. I didn't really want to, but I felt that I was expected to. I've lived my whole life under the weight of expectations from a church where I was prominent. But now, I think I'm finally free of that. Here's how it happened.

Michael's second song was one that I've sung many times. I've led congregations in singing it many times. But it never hit me the way it did today. It's a song called "Better Is One Day" by Matt Redman. The second verse goes like this:

One thing I ask, that I would seek;
To see Your beauty
To find You in the place Your glory dwells

As I said, many continue to ask God to heal my cancer. But I don't ask for that. I don't want to ask. I want to accept whatever God has for me, no matter what that means. This church service was all about asking God for healing. I didn't want to get anointed today because I felt that it would amount to asking, and I didn't want to ask. But I was afraid of what people would think if I stayed in my seat. I decided that I would let God lead me in the moment. If I felt prompted to do it, I would. If not, I'd stay seated.

Throughout the time that was set aside in the service for anointing, I prayed. Actually, I wept. It was Niagra Falls the whole time. And all I kept thinking about was the words of that verse. One thing I ask. One thing I seek. Not to be healed of cancer, but to see His beauty. To find Him in the place His glory dwells. That is what I ask for. That is what I seek. And that's what I've found.

I never felt prompted to be anointed for healing this morning. I felt that the words of that song gave me permission to stay in my seat. I knew that I might be asked by someone afterwards why I didn't do that, but I no longer cared. And no one asked.

How was I going to serve communion after such an emotional time? Communion was scheduled immediately after the anointing time. But while I cried through most of that part of the service, as that time drew to a close, I felt a strange sense of calm come over me. I was able to be composed during communion. It all worked together for my good. (Romans 8:28)

I can't think of a more perfect way to spend the anniversary of my diagnosis. That church service was exactly what I needed. And of course, I had to write about all of this today. It's my calling. It's my ministry now, as a good friend said to me recently. I hope this post has ministered to you.

The past twelve months have been a year of trial, heartbreak, trauma, and upheaval. It's also been a year of great love and great blessing. If you have been part of this journey with me, thank you! I love you more than words can say. I'll never be able to express my appreciation enough. Your love and support keeps me going.

But one relationship has sustained me more than any other, and it's the one that will last forever. One thing I ask. One thing I seek. To continue seeing His beauty. His glory dwells with me and within me. He is in front of me, behind me, over me, and beneath me. And it's just a taste of things to come.

My year with cancer has been the most incredible of my life. I expect the next year to be even better. Exciting prospects are on the horizon, regardless of what my next PSA test says. And I'm so grateful that you and He will be with me the whole way. #waroncancer

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Adversity, Suffering, And Ice Cream

The amazing artist Karen Sperling posted a quote from Jerry Seinfeld yesterday that resonated with me. As with many Seinfeld quotes, it's funny because it's true. In a recent interview, Seinfeld talked about suffering. He said, "I don't mind suffering. You suffer in all things — work, relationships, whatever else you do … Unless you're eating ice cream, you're suffering."

That's a slight exaggeration, but you get the point. None of us can escape suffering. Not even Jesus could. He even asked his Father if there was any way he could get out of it. If he got a "no," what hope do we have of skating by?

My suffering, even now, is minimal compared to many people that I know, my brothers and sisters in the cancer community in particular. I'm writing this post for them and their loved ones, who suffer alongside them. There are a few who are especially close to me. You know who you are. Even with all of my difficulties, I would not trade places with you. My heart breaks for you, and you are always on my mind and in my prayers.

I think of one friend who is stage 4 and going through chemo right now. He suffers every waking moment, but keeps a smile on his face. This post is for him. I think of another who has had one terrible thing after another happen in her life, and it never seems to stop. This post is for her. I think of my dad, who suffers from constant, pounding headaches all the time. This post is for him. I think of many in my support group who have it so much worse than I do. This post is for them, and many others, too numerous to mention. What all of these dear people know about suffering, I hope to never learn. But I'm sure I will.

I know that my lack of pain and symptoms will not last, unless a miracle cure is in the works. Suffering is on the horizon. And I know that my cancer has been harder on my loved ones than it's been on me. Their suffering is all too real.

While searching through scripture verses about suffering, I came across the verse from Isaiah that's pictured in the graphic above:

Though the Lord gave you adversity for food and suffering for drink, he will still be with you to teach you. You will see your teacher with your own eyes. (Isaiah 30:20)

Adversity for food and suffering for drink. Personally, I'd rather eat ice cream! But unfortunately, none of us can subsist on a diet of ice cream alone, as much as I'd like to try. Eventually, we get adversity for food, and suffering for drink. While I don't really feel that I've suffered all that much, I certainly have experienced adversity. If you've been reading this blog, you know all about it. 

This month is especially hard. My work schedule does not let up until September, in spite of everything I have to endure. Also, some very close friends of ours are moving out of town in a matter of days. That will be very hard for me.

And at the end of this month, I'll get my next PSA test that could very well prove that my current treatment is no longer working. If that happens, it's very bad news. I don't intend to pursue conventional treatment after that point. I expected to get another year out of this treatment. If the expected time I got out of it is cut in half, it means one thing; My cancer is on the move.

So all of that is hanging over my head this August. I don't think stress qualifies as suffering, and stress is mostly what I'm feeling this month. But I expect to know sorrow this month. I already have known it. Adversity will be my food and sorrow will be my drink. I just hope I can have some ice cream for dessert.

But the second part of that verse is just as true as the first. In the midst of adversity and suffering, God is with me to teach me. He uses suffering as a teaching tool. Why does he do that? It's because, most of the time, he can't get through to us when things are going well. Ask a teacher how easy it is to teach when all of the kids in class are eating ice cream. It's when adversity hits that he can get our attention. It's the whole God's 2 By 4 thing.

I haven't seen my teacher with my own eyes yet, but he is very close. The things that he is teaching me should have been obvious long ago. But he had to take away my ice cream to get me to see them. And one day, I will see him with my own eyes.

This is my advice to all who suffer, to all who know adversity. You may not think God understands or cares about your suffering, but he does. He took on human form and suffered unimaginable horror. So he knows pain, anguish, heartbreak, and adversity as well as anyone ever has. So let him teach you in the midst of your suffering. He is right there with you. He wants to show himself to you, if you'll let him.

In three days, I will mark the one year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. It's been a year of adversity, but also a year of great blessing. The things I have learned and the love I have felt as a direct result of my adversity are so great that I would not change my diagnosis if it meant I had to give up all that I've gained. I love having my teacher with me all the time, teaching me what he wants me to learn. I can't wait to see him with my own eyes. And when I do, I know that he will have some incredible ice cream waiting for me. #waroncancer

Sunday, July 31, 2016

What I'm Afraid Of

A dear friend of mine, Miki Chambers, asked me a penetrating question this week. What am I afraid of? That's a good question for all of us to ask ourselves, and it's what I feel I should talk about today.

The comedian in me wants to say that what I'm really afraid of right now is Mark Sanchez being the Denver Broncos quarterback. Be very afraid of that, Bronco fans.

But she was speaking in reference to my cancer, not in general. She wanted to know what aspects of it make me afraid. I suspect that many men with prostate cancer have specific fears about it, but don't talk about their fears. That's why so many of the participants in my online support group are not the men with cancer, but their wives and daughters. The men don't want to talk about it. As you know, I don't have much trouble talking about any aspect of this disease, and how it's affected me. So I'll tell you exactly what I'm afraid of.

But first, I'll tell you what I'm not afraid of. I'm not afraid of cancer. Maybe that's because I have no symptoms. If I was wasting away and in great pain right now, I might feel differently. I admit that. This will probably sound strange to most of you, but I am comfortable with my cancer. I'm at peace with it. I expected it to come, because I'm genetically predisposed to it. Both my dad and his dad had prostate cancer. I didn't expect it to come at age 60, or be so far advanced when it was discovered, but I knew it was coming at some point. So when it came, I accepted it.

I'm not afraid of dying. Accepting my cancer means accepting the shortened life span that's likely to come from it. The main reason for this obvious. I am a Christian. I believe that if I die, I win. If I am cured, I also win. It's the ultimate win/win situation.

You see, God has made himself very real to me since my diagnosis. This morning in church, he was so real that I could hardly hold myself together. When I die, I believe I will be in his immediate presence forever. That's not something to fear. It's to be eagerly anticipated. If I believe that, how can I be afraid of death?

I'm a little nervous about my next PSA result, which will come in about a month. But I'm not afraid. If the result means that I have to change course when it comes to treatment, I'll take that in stride. And I'll be open about that part of the process every step of the way.

Miki asked if I'm afraid that, if my cancer gets worse, it will hurt. Well, I don't want to be in terrible pain, of course. Nobody would. But since I've had no pain so far, somehow it doesn't seem real to me. I know men for whom it is very real, and my heart breaks for them. It breaks for one in particular, Christopher.

From what I have read, pain can be managed if you're not trying to extend your life. If it gets to that point for me, I won't be trying to extend it. I will opt for pain management rather than fighting for a little more time on this earth.

I don't want you to get the impression that I have no fears about this. I'm no hero. Courage has never been one of my strengths. I think it's just my nature and my faith that helps me feel this way.

I know I'm in the minority on this. Many with this disease feel great fear about their cancer, and fear of death. This is true of believers as well as non-believers. In an old post that I wrote when I was very afraid of losing disability, called Fear Not, I said that fear is an involuntary response. Here's a quote: It's literally a chemical secretion in the brain that signals danger, which is vital for survival. It's an advanced mammalian characteristic, I think. All mammals feel fear. I could be wrong, but I don't think reptiles or fish feel fear. But mice, dogs, and people do. It seems to go right along with having hair and being warm-blooded.

So fear of cancer and death are natural, and nothing to be ashamed of. My question for my brothers who do feel fear about their disease and the possibility of death is this: Do you talk to your wife or significant other about what you're afraid of? Are you vulnerable about it with anyone?

This is a problem for many men. We're supposed to be strong and silent. Stiff upper lip, and all that. But that doesn't help you or your loved ones. Real bravery is not the absence of fear. Sometimes real courage is shown in being willing to talk about what you're afraid of with those who care most about you.

I obviously don't have that problem. If I did, I wouldn't be writing this blog. I not only talk to my wife about all of this, I tell the world! Does that make me brave, or just an exhibitionist? Actually, it's neither. I do this because it's my calling. Music used to be my ministry. Now it's this. I just hope it helps someone besides me.

Here's what I am afraid of. I'm afraid of long-term side effects from treatment. I'm afraid of spending my remaining years in misery from harsh conventional treatments, and having cancer come back and get me anyway. Hence my attitude toward chemo and radiation. I'm more afraid of those things than I am of dying.

Readers of this blog know that I was very afraid of losing our Medicaid coverage a few months ago, which we did. I was afraid of being back on private insurance with a high deductible, which we now are. But God has demonstrated that he will take care of us. So that doesn't scare me now.

I was also afraid of losing coverage for my counseling, which I did. But God, through a wonderful friend, supplied that need.

As I mentioned earlier, I was very afraid of losing my disability, which I did. But again, God and some very special friends showed us that we didn't need to be afraid of that.

The biggest fear I have about all of this - that I can think of right now, anyway - is failing to provide for my wife. She has just retired from her job of 25 years. I still have some music work to do that will provide some income, but that will only take us through the first quarter of next year. In the event of my death, we have insurance, but not enough to pay off all of our debts and allow her to live comfortably.

I'm afraid of using up all of our meager retirement savings and leaving her with nothing but insurance money and a house that still has a mortgage. We don't have a car payment or credit card debt, but we do have a line of credit that will take years to pay off, if it's ever paid off. So while we're OK financially right now, and for the next several months, after that, some doors need to open for me to feel like we'll have enough to live on, and that she'll be provided for after I'm gone. That's what I'm working on now. Trying to provide those for her in the months to come. If I live, and those things turn out to be a new career path in retirement for me, so much the better.

But after what God showed me about my fears regarding disability, counseling and Medicaid, how can I not trust him for this? How many times does God have to prove himself to me before I really trust him?

In each example of fear I gave, the key phrase is but God. I was afraid of losing things that were important to me, but God showed me that I had no reason to fear. In all of the Bible, there are very few phrases that are more powerful than the phrase but God. Here are a few examples.

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20)

My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever. (Psalm 73:26)

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. (Acts 3:15)

I used to be afraid about some things, but God. I am tempted to be afraid about some other things, but God. But. God.

What am I afraid of now? Not a thing. #waroncancer

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Elephant In The Waiting Room

When you have a medical condition, you spend a lot of time in waiting rooms. I have yet to visit one that was a fun place. I used to consider them merely boring. Maybe annoying if the TV is tuned to the wrong channel. But now, they are places of dread.

My next visit to a waiting room isn't for another month. Between now and then, I have a lot to get done. There's a show to help put on and a CD project to finish, all by the end of August. So, I won't be bored. At least I'll have things to occupy my attention.

Because, in reality, I'm spending every moment for the next month in the waiting room. My waiting room follows me wherever I go. It's always there. And there's an elephant in it that I'm trying to ignore. Not the obvious one, cancer. That's one nobody can ignore. It tramples all over everything, and it's all we can do to minimize the damage. But that's not the elephant I'm talking about.

In case you're not familiar with the expression, "the elephant in the room" is a subject that's obvious to everyone, but one that nobody wants to talk about. Cancer is a huge example of that. Even though it's taken over my life, I don't want it to be the subject of every conversation. So it's the elephant in the room. It's just that my room for the next month is a waiting room. And there's another subject besides cancer that I'm trying not to let occupy my thoughts 24/7. Another elephant.

How many elephants can you fit in a room? When you have cancer, maybe two. An adult elephant - cancer itself, and a baby elephant - whatever your next immediate concern is. My baby elephant in this waiting room where I spend all of my time is my next blood test. My next PSA number. That number will tell me everything.

As I sit in this waiting room, I try to ignore the baby elephant that keeps crashing into my field of vision. I wish its mother, cancer, would keep it out of my sight. But the cancer elephant doesn't care about me. She wants to trample me. It's just a matter of time before she does, because there's no escape from this waiting room. I'll always be waiting for my next test.

My hope is that, just over a month from now, the baby elephant will leave the room. My PSA will have gone back down, and the crisis will have been averted. I'll get a little break from the waiting room for a while.

But if not, if my number is up again, then the baby elephant grows into an adult overnight. When it matures, it will force me to make treatment decisions that I don't want to have to make.

That's why I'm glad I'll be able to keep busy for the next month. It helps to have deadlines. Deadlines have always had a great way of focusing my mind. I perform best under a deadline. I need them. Thanks to them, I won't have to pay so much attention to the elephant.

Fatigue and my emotional state still slow me down. That makes it harder to get the work done and harder to do fun things, but I have to power through. No choice. If I surrender to the things that try to hold me back, it's like I'm giving up. I'm not going to let cancer or treatment keep me from doing as much as I can. I'm not going to let the elephant trample me. Not yet.

I know I have to recognize my limits. I know I have to pace myself. From time to time, I push it too far and realize that I forgot about the elephant. That happened this week. But that's not going to stop me from doing some things that I have planned. It may be hard for me to do some things now, but it may be even harder later. So I want to do what I can while I can.

My wife and I have plans that will take the next year to complete, at least. Things we intend to do to enter our next phase of life. God willing, I'll tell you all about them when the time comes. We're hoping for the best, but planning for the worst. We're not ignoring the elephant in our waiting room.

But as we all know, while we plan, God laughs. As John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens while we're making other plans." After the last year, nobody knows that better than me. And I've learned my lesson when it comes to listening to God rather than my own ideas. If he's leading me the way I think he is, the next year or so will be full of changes and opportunities.

Until then, I'm stuck in this waiting room anticipating my next test, and trying to ignore the elephants in the room. Like I did the last time I was in an actual waiting room, I'll "check in" every few days to let you all know where I'm at. The support that comes from that is vital in this waiting room. I just wish I could change the TV channel. #waroncancer

Friday, July 22, 2016

Breaking News

Don't let the title of this post fool you. I don't have big news to report. I expect to have some news to share in a few weeks, and it will be big. My next PSA number will tell me a lot. But that won't happen until the first week of September.

Is anyone else as tired as I am of the overused term, "Breaking News?" Everything seems to qualify as Breaking News these days. It's the cable news version of crying wolf. But I digress.

What I'm talking about is something that every cancer patient has to do over and over, and it's never easy. Breaking the news that you have cancer to someone you care about. I did a lot of that in the initial months after my diagnosis. And I was made aware yesterday that the job is not finished.

I'm coming up on the one year anniversary of my diagnosis. Just a little over two weeks away. When I was diagnosed on August 7th, 2015, I kept the news private for a while. I told family and close friends. I told my church family so they could pray for me. But I didn't go public until October. As I said in an early post, I kept it close because "I didn't want to be the guy that everyone feels sorry for." I'd never been that guy, and I didn't want to be that guy.

During that two-and-a-half month period, I did a lot of one-on-one news breaking, in person and over the phone. Each conversation was a difficult one, especially considering the advanced state of my cancer when it was discovered. Nobody wanted to hear it. Nobody wanted to believe it. But I had to keep telling it.

Once I went public on Facebook, started our GoFundMe campaign, and began writing this journal on October 22nd, 2015, the news spread fast. But I still had to let some people know individually. Unbelievably, there are still people who are not on Facebook, and don't read blogs.

Over the next few months, the times when I had to break the news to someone in person or over the phone, or maybe in an email, grew fewer and fewer. The news spread organically. Friends told their friends. I began to assume that everybody I knew was aware of my illness. That belief persisted until yesterday.

Yesterday afternoon, after an emotional therapy session, I had to stop at the grocery store on my way home. As I walked up to the self-checkout, I heard a voice say, "Hi Mark!" I turned around and saw an old friend who I probably hadn't seen for 15 years. We exchanged pleasantries. She told me what was going on in her life, and asked me how I was doing.

When someone asks me how I'm doing these days, I assume they're asking how I'm feeling, or how treatment is going. So I began by asking if she knew what was going on with me. She didn't. I was very surprised by this, because she and I have many mutual friends. I'm Facebook friends with her. How could she not have heard? Somehow, she slipped through the cracks. So it was up to me to fill her in, right there in the grocery store.

I told her my story. She was taken aback, and expressed how sorry she was. She told me about a friend who had prostate cancer, had surgery, and is fine now. This was meant to encourage me. I told her that my cancer is aggressive and inoperable. We talked for a few more minutes, and said we were sure we'd see each other again soon, even though we're neighbors, and this was the first time I'd seen her in our mutual neighborhood store in 15 years.

I was already close to tears from my therapy session. I hadn't taken a 5-HTP in a day and a half, so my emotions were close to the surface. So this encounter hit me harder than it should have. As my friend walked out of the store, and I still had to ring up my items, it took me a moment to collect myself. I didn't want to break down at the self-checkout. After a heavy sigh and a few deep breaths, I managed to finish my business and drive home.

It wasn't just my emotional state that did it to me. After I got home and took a 5-HTP to calm me down, I was still reeling from that encounter. It shook me up. Two hours later, maybe more, I was still feeling the effects of that conversation.

Here's the thing. I thought I was done telling friends that I have cancer. I thought that everyone knew, and I wouldn't have to break the news to anyone else. At least not anyone who I consider a friend. It's a hard conversation to have with someone that you care about, and who cares about you. And apparently, I still have people to tell.

Retail stores are not the place for those types of conversations, but is there any good place for that topic? If you've ever been in the situation where you have to give very bad news to a lot of people, one at a time, you know how hard it is. I think of my friend Tony, and two terrible phone conversations that we've had. One where he was giving me tragic news, and another where I broke news to him that he didn't want to hear. We've both been in that boat. It's a boat that nobody wants to row.

Thankfully, the times when I have to break that news are getting farther and farther apart. But it will probably never stop for as long as I'm still here, unless a miracle cure is in the works. And it could be.

If you haven't had to take a turn in the Breaking News Boat, I hope you never do. But most of us are saddled with that responsibility at some point in our lives. And sometimes, we're blindsided by that responsibility, like I was yesterday. When you've been as public about your difficulty as I've been about mine, it's easy to be incredulous when you learn that someone you know hasn't heard. Ten months after you shouted it to the world.

News like that is hard to hear, and it's doubly hard to tell. No matter how many times you do it, it never gets any easier. I had kinda forgotten that until yesterday. Probably about the time I let my guard down again, I'll have a chance meeting with someone who hasn't heard my breaking news. And this will happen all over again. I just hope that I'm in a better place emotionally when it happens. #waroncancer

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Thorn In My Flesh

There are certain passages of scripture that I've heard and read for my entire life that had little meaning to me until now. This is one of them. But before I talk about it, I want to begin by thanking the amazing Nicki Morgan, the daughter that I never had, for this beautiful image. I asked her to create this piece of artwork especially for this post. Thank you, Nicki! You really need to start signing your name to these things.

The full passage that struck me when I heard it again this past Sunday in church goes like this:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9a) 

For much of my life, I struggled with being conceited. That's a struggle for any performer who's good at what they do. You get a lot of praise, and it tends to go to your head. I think I pretty much overcame conceit in my 20's and early 30's, and eventually became merely self-centered. You know, the guy who only cared about himself and his music, according to one very perceptive friend. The kind who can tell you the truth and get away with it.

The trouble with me was that I had never had any real tribulation in my life. No thorns in my flesh. I felt like I could pretty much take care of myself. And most of the time, I did. I had no experience with weakness.

A good friend of mine was recording in my studio a few years ago, and I expressed an insensitive opinion about someone that I won't share here. She laughed, and said, "Oh, Mark, you need more challenge in your life." Boy, was she right.

You know what I'm going to say next. Long time readers, say it along with me. Then, I got hit by God's 2 By 4. To quote the Apostle Paul, I was given a thorn in my flesh. I was made weak, and unable to take care of myself the way I used to. And it changed my perspective for good.

Paul says that he was given his thorn. But he doesn't say who gave it, or what it was. But I will, at least when it comes to my thorn, cancer. First, let me say that I don't think the devil gave me cancer. I don't regard my cancer as a "messenger from Satan." Messengers from Satan don't reveal the truth of God the way my cancer has made God so real to me.

So am I saying that I believe that God caused my cancer? Yes and no. No, I don't think that God decided one day that he'd had enough of my big head, and gave me cancer to teach me a lesson. My cancer was caused by one thing, which I discussed in an early post last November; Genetics. I have prostate cancer because my father and his father both had it. No other reason.

Of course, I believe that God created all life, including DNA and our genetic code. So ultimately, he is responsible. He could have stopped me from getting cancer if he had chosen to do so. He could cure me now if he chose to do so. 

But I'm not asking him for that, though many have, and continue to do on my behalf. Unlike Paul, I'm not asking God to remove the thorn from my flesh. I'm too busy being amazed at the way his power is being made perfect in my weakness.

While I don't believe that God gave me cancer in order to get me to depend on him, or to get me to care more about others and less about myself, he certainly has used it to do those things and more. Many continue to ask God to remove my thorn, but God keeps showing me that his grace is sufficient for me. And it's so much more than merely sufficient. It's overwhelming.

I have made friends with weakness. It's my daily companion. I have to account for it in everything I try to do. It slows me down, but it hasn't stopped me from doing the things I love. Maybe one day soon, it will. But for now, God's strength is being made perfect in my weakness. Or as another translation puts it, his power works best in weakness. (NLT) I like that translation better. God's power is perfect whether we're weak or strong. But when we think we're strong, we don't allow his power to work in our lives. It's when we're forced to confront our own weakness that our need for God is apparent to us. At least, that's been true in my case. I don't think I'm alone in that. If I was, this passage would not have been written 2,000 years ago.

I don't know what the thorn in your flesh is. It may not be cancer, though for many, it is. It may be another illness or disability, for you or a loved one. It may be depression. It may be a compulsion, or a toxic relationship, or any one of a million other things. Or you may not have one that you're aware of. I didn't for many years. But one day, you will, like I did. We're all subject to the same human frailties. I only hope that, in your difficulty, God makes himself as real to you as he has to me. I hope that his power works best in your weakness.

Well, this post has turned out to be an all-out Bible lesson, hasn't it? I'm sorry if this post hasn't been your cup of tea. If it isn't, you probably haven't read this far. But I've felt strongly since Sunday that this is what I should write about next. I think there are some who need to hear this today. Whoever you are, this post is for you. So let me close the same way I began; with scripture. The rest of the passage I'm quoting today goes like this:

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10)

I can't really say that I delight in my weaknesses, hardships, or difficulties. Thank God, I haven't experienced much in the way of insults and persecutions. But I am at peace with weakness, hardship, and difficulty. Because of those things, I've experienced blessing unlike anything I've ever known. As Paul said, Christ's power has rested on me.

If you've been praying that God would remove this thorn from my flesh, thank you! Please keep right on asking him for that. I never have, and I don't think I ever will. Because I thought I was strong before, and now I'm learning what real strength is. For when I am weak, then I am strong. #waroncancer

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Feeling Helpless

Yesterday, we had a sudden hail storm at our house in Denver, Colorado. It was the first time that I can remember since we've lived in this house that we had ping pong ball sized hail. I picked up a few samples for this picture.

Most of it was marble sized, but I found these on our patio afterwards without too much effort. I don't think we have any serious damage, but the emotional toll on me was awful, and I'm still feeling it now.

While the storm was going on and on and on, it was all I could do to keep from running around our house, screaming, cursing, and crying. Yes, I was worried about potential damage from the storm, but it was more than that. I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do but wait for the storm to be over, and wonder what would be left in its aftermath.

I could blame my emotional reaction on hormone treatment, and I'm sure that played a significant role, but it was more than that. In my mind, the storm outside our house reflected the storm in our lives for the past year. My helplessness in the face of the hail storm shined a light on my helplessness in the face of the biggest storm I've faced in my life; cancer. And my feeling of helplessness while waiting for the hail storm to pass was merely a reflection of my feeling of helplessness in the face of The Big C.

That's the flip side of loss of control over circumstances in my life. I've often written about the peace I've experienced since realizing that I don't have control. Most of the time, I embrace that. But today, that loss of control leaves me feeling helpless.

There wasn't a thing I could do to stop the hail yesterday. There isn't a thing I can do to control my PSA number, either. We're already doing what we can about that, and it may not be enough. Long term, it definitely won't be enough. Lupron won't keep my number down forever. It may have already stopped doing that. So I feel helpless.

Now, when I look at the mess that was made of our yard and patio from the storm, it makes me want to cry. The energy that it will take to clean it up is more than I have to give, which is discouraging. I'm afraid to have our roof inspected. Any damage will cost more than we can afford to pay, even with insurance.

Likewise, now that we have private health insurance with a high deductible, certain treatments to try to mitigate the damage cancer has inflicted on my body seem out of reach. On some days, I feel relatively normal, and have the energy to fight, and to do things that I want to do. On days like today, I don't. I feel helpless on both fronts.

Of course, I know that I'm not actually helpless, helpless meaning without help. We have had a lot of help, and continue to receive help and encouragement from many. I'm mindful of the fact that I had a roof over my head during the storm yesterday, when I'm sure there were those who did not. If we need financial help, I know there are those who will give it to us. This is a great blessing that we don't take for granted.

But for all of my raging against the storm yesterday, I couldn't keep it from coming. Once it started, I couldn't make it stop. The same is true of my cancer. I couldn't keep it from coming, and I can't make it stop. That makes me feel helpless.

None of us can stop the storms of life from coming. But we can learn where to go for shelter. For refuge. I'm glad that we weren't out eating dinner somewhere yesterday when the storm hit. If we had been, our damage would have been worse. Maybe much worse. But we were at home, so we could mitigate the damage to our garden, keep our cars in the garage, and stay inside. We had shelter. We had a refuge.

When the cancer storm hit almost a year ago, we had our family, our friends, and our God to turn to for refuge and shelter. My wife and I have huddled together for warmth inside this shelter since the storm hit. No amount of screaming or crying will stop the storm, but we are grateful for the shelter that we have, thanks to God. Thanks to you.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”
(Psalm 91:1-2)

Shelter does not keep the storm from coming, but it mitigates the damage. I still feel helpless, but I know we are not without help. #waroncancer