—Victory in the Valley – Chapter 6—
Now read on . . .
On Sunday morning, during an open time of prayer in the church service, one of the few people who knew about my cancer diagnosis, prayed aloud for me. She didn’t use the word “cancer” but prayed that the Lord would undertake for me as I faced surgery the next morning. Only the leadership knew why.
Asking questions without listening for the answer
At the door of the Church after the service, a few wished me well with my coming operation without asking about it. Only one person asked me. I have never forgotten her response.
“Sorry to hear about your surgery,” she said. “I hope it’s nothing serious?”
“Yes, it actually is!” I replied with forced cheerfulness.
“Oh I’m so glad!” she replied as she made her way through the front door to join her friends.
The four of us spent the rest of Sunday at home. Laughing, talking, sharing, trying to forget. Later in the afternoon, I received an email from Debbie and Craig. A short message. A difficult message. There is no easy way! They loved me. They were praying. I knew it was right I had told them—yet how I hated adding to the pressure they already faced as they adjusted to life in the Amazon jungle.
Was this our last meal together?
That night Rob and I went out to a restaurant for dinner. I chose something light, yet even then, it took an effort to empty my plate. My mind kept trying to feed me negative thoughts. Is this the last time we’ll go out together like this? We drove away from the shopping center in silence. Is this the last time I’ll be here with Rob?
We went quietly to bed and curled in each other’s arms as we prayed for peace and strength. Will we ever lie and pray like this again? Amazingly, the Lord’s peace came over us both. We slept. We slept soundly. Too soundly. Morning came quickly.
Before leaving for the hospital, we spent a few minutes in prayer together with David who was going to write the last of his final examinations at the University of Johannesburg (then called the Wits Technikon.) His initial reaction had been, “I’m not going to write the exam. I need to be at the hospital with Dad.” Although touched that he felt this way, we would not hear of it. Nor would the I’m-in-charge Stephen, who had already arranged to take time off work.
“David,” I said, “I want you to forget that you even have a mother for the morning. There will be plenty of time to come alongside us in the days ahead. For now, you need to pass this examination.” I kissed him goodbye and assured him he didn’t need to worry, I’d be fine.
I got into the car and Rob drove us to the hospital which was going to change my life.
Preparing for war
“Isn’t it strange?” I said as we walked up the paved pathway to the hospital entrance in the early dawn light. “I feel quite cheerful. My mind doesn’t seem to grasp that next time I walk on this path my life will have changed, and I’ll be in pain. “
“Yes, it feels unreal.”
I knew that many patients who face a life-threatening disease go through a phase of denial. Were we in denial? Not the way I understood the term. But I wasn’t afraid.
Many were praying, “Please don’t let it be cancer”. Somehow that never occurred to us as a family. We knew this was the real thing. By the day of my surgery, I felt as if the ordeal ahead would be nothing other than a nuisance. Maybe this was where the denial crept in. The night before, I’d fought down waves of fear. By the day of the surgery, I experienced a calm, if numb, confidence. Sure, there would be some pain for a day or two, but then I’d be fine. Other people died from cancer. Shirleys didn’t.
I was insured of a never-ending supply of visiting colleagues by the fact that the pathology laboratory where I worked serviced this particular hospital. It was also reassuring to know that I would be in the busy surgical ward where the nurse in charge (known in South Africa as the Charge Sister) was my good friend and nursing colleague, Ria.
Arriving in the ward
When I arrived in the ward, the night staff showed me to a bed in the corner of a six-bedded room. I could see nothing but four walls, the other beds, and the toilet door. It felt claustrophobic. Instinctively I knew that I had to see life; to be as optimistic and positive as possible.
I also sensed a growing need to be in charge of my own body and treatment wherever possible. I wanted to understand what people were doing to my body, and why. I did not understand this, but some weeks later I was encouraged when I read, in the excellent book by Bernie S. Siegel, Love, Medicine & Miracles, about what he calls The Exceptional Patient, or The Survivor. In his introduction he states, Exceptional patients manifest the will to live in its more potent form. They take charge of their lives even if they were never able to before, and they work hard to achieve health and peace of mind. They do not rely on doctors to take the initiative but rather use them as members of a team, demanding the utmost in technique, resourcefulness, concern, and open-mindedness.
Acting like a survivor
Without knowing that I was behaving like A Survivor, I wanted to take charge of where I would lie for the next week, and I didn’t like the position of my allocated bed. I decided to speak to Ria when she came on duty.
I didn’t need to ask. As soon as she came on duty she moved me to another bed. On my right, the pretty dusky-pink curtains framed a view across the town of Krugersdorp. Looking left, I could see as far as the ward door, able to watch the comings and goings of this busy surgical ward. As cheerful a room as a hospital ward ever is. The Lord understood my need to see life.
I unpacked my night clothes and wash-bag into the locker and filled the drawer with an assortment of crafts and books to keep me busy. I introduced myself to my new neighbors who were also getting ready to go for surgery later in the day. Although my surgery was first on the slate, it was very early, so I believed I had plenty of time.
Where to now?
“Why do I need to go to X-rays?” I asked, puzzled. Surely they had all the X-rays they needed? No one could tell me why. One nurse said something about needing to locate the tumor.
“What nonsense!” I grumbled to Rob as he strode next to the wheelchair along cold, smooth, polished corridors. “Why do they need to locate the tumor? They know very well where it is!”
I attempted an uncertain smile at Rob as I was speedily moved into the same small, curtained cubicle where I had received the bombshell of my diagnosis. Was it really less than a week ago?
I climbed up onto the hard table-like bed and greeted the Radiologist cheerfully, glad to see a different man to last time. I was determined to stay on top of my emotions and not allow fear to get hold of me. He confirmed pleasantly that he had to locate the tumor. This still didn’t make sense to me, but I determined to co-operate to the full.
As I lay on my back, stripped to the waist, he put the cold steel of the scanner onto my left breast. Immediately, the ugly black beast that I remembered appeared on the monitor. I lay back, arms above my head as instructed, and glared at the beast.
“He can count his minutes!” I muttered to the radiologist who gave me a sideways look. “Not long now and he’ll get what he deserves.”
Little did I know what the next few minutes would bring.