At some point during my medical student career, I started smoking and drinking coffee. I concluded that smoking and coffee would help me stay awake during the long hours of study. In high school, athletics and good health were an important part of my life. I would have never considered using tobacco. I must also admit, I never spent many hours studying.
The coffee and tobacco helped pass the time during the long hours of study, so I continued the habits through my internship and residency. In 1977, while brushing my teeth, I noticed a slightly uncomfortable, irregular, grey lesion on the side of my tongue. I made an appointment with the ENT department at the university. A biopsy was scheduled and performed, the diagnosis, leukoplakia. The lesion is considered to be precancerous. After the biopsy, the lesion disappeared.
I never paid much attention to the diagnosis since the lesion went away. I continued my life, with no change in my coffee and tobacco habits. Over the years, I had also wandered away from my faith and it seemed most of the life decisions I made were the wrong ones
In 1979 I was working in a private hospital practice. I noticed another sore on my tongue in the same area. The lesion was painful and ulcerated. I asked a friend, who was a general surgeon at the hospital, to look at the sore. He felt that I was too young to have a malignancy. A biopsy was scheduled and performed. He called me very early in the morning with the results. The diagnosis was cancer. He told me that I should seek care from an ENT specialist, because they might have to remove part or all of my tongue.
I will be quick to admit, when I heard the word cancer, my tobacco habit ended immediately. After consultations with two ENT specialists I elected to have surgery in Saint Louis , preferring to be close to home. The surgery was considered a success. My speech was impaired for months but, over time returned to normal.
By 1980 I had wandered so far from faith and my spiritual moorings that my life was a mess. I decided to return to the University and accepted a junior-staff position, hoping to straighten out my life. In 1981 I met and started dating Vicki. She was a nurse, and grew up on a farm in rural Minnesota . She was also divorced. Over time, we discussed marriage and we set a date; July 4th, 1982.
We were both concerned about our relationship failures and agreed that we would attend church together every Sunday morning. We agreed that the only time we would not be in church together was if we were on call or sick.
With time, the happiness that had eluded us for so long, seemed to be settling into our marriage.
In November of 1982, I experienced a persistent sore throat. Using a flashlight and looking into a mirror, I saw a round, ulcerated sore in my throat. Concerned, I told Vicki. A friend looked at the lesion and referred me to an oral surgeon. He performed a biopsy and we waited for the results.
I received a call from him on December 10th, Vicki’s birthday. It was cancer…what a birthday present! I remember thinking. “Not now! I’m just beginning to straighten my life out. Why now? WHY ME?”
The surgery was performed early in 1983. We returned home believing all was well, trusting God. We returned to Saint Louis for a two week follow-up examination. The surgeon walked into the room. He was somber. When he spoke, it was obvious he was holding back tears. I still remember his words, “I have some bad news. We were unable to remove all the tumor.” Looking at Vicki, I recognized the pain as she began to cry. She asked, “What do we do next?”
The surgeon recommend, radiation, believing it was the best treatment available to obtain a cure. I waited for two weeks to allow some healing before I returned to Saint Louis each day for six weeks of radiation therapy. By the time the therapy was complete, I was miserable. The skin on my face was burned and discolored. My throat was painful and blistered and food no longer had a taste. I had lost a considerable amount of weight during the treatment. After the therapy, I began to wonder what the future might hold.
Over the next few years, we began to distance our lives from past mistakes and also the worry of malignant disease. Our marriage was growing strong, we enjoyed our work, and in 1987 we experienced the blessing and joy of the birth of Joshua Seth. I seemed to be doing well, my medical follow-up exams were all good. I was nearing the six year point in time where I would be considered cured of cancer.
In 1988 I was re-assigned in the Army Reserves as a mobilization asset to the 1st Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg , NC . In 1989, I was allowed the opportunity to attend the Israeli paratrooper school at Tel Nof, Israel . While in Israel , I began to experience a sore throat, similar to the pain I experienced in 1982.
With my return from Israel , I could see another ulcerated lesion. We traveled to Saint Louis , the surgeon looked at the lesion and immediately, set up another biopsy, and a surgery to follow. The surgery removed not only the lesion but much of the surrounding soft tissue in my throat. It extended into my mouth along the mandible, leaving the jawbone exposed. A plastic repair was scheduled to follow after partial healing. We returned to Saint Louis to discuss the next step and received devastating news. Even with extensive surgery, residual tumor remained. I looked at Vicki, wondering in my mind what the future would hold and thought to myself…”WHY ME?”
After returning home. I spent a number of days making sure personal and legal matters were in order in case there was to be no cure. We returned to the hospital, covered by the prayers of family, friends, and people across the nation. The surgical plan was to remove both abnormal and normal tissue in my throat, mouth, tongue, and jaw, and extend the incisions down into my neck to insure there was no tumor there.
The surgery took more than ten hours. The early post-op days were miserable and physical and emotional adjustment to the disfiguration took months to reconcile. There was, however, one difference. After all the surgeries, radiation therapy, the setbacks of new and residual tumor, the question I asked was no longer, “WHY ME?” The thought, now more than a question, was, “WHY NOT ME?” I had learned to be content. My faith had reached the point where I was able to accept what God had planned for me.
I love the wisdom that Dave Roever shared in the book, A Gathering of Eagles. In 1969, Dave was severely injured in combat in Vietnam . He sustained severe burns and massive injuries to almost his entire body. His advice is, “Life is not fair, and all who live long enough to discover the reality of this truth also live long enough to discover that the really big question of life is not, is it fair, but rather, how will one deal with life’s inequities?”
I speak to groups across the nation about leadership, success, significance and the importance of faith. I enjoy introducing myself with the statement, “I’ve had five biopsies, four major surgeries, and two months of radiation therapy over a ten year period to make me this ugly…what’s your excuse?”
When I speak to men’s groups, I sometimes share my testimony of how I turned from faith and God. But God remained faithful and during the difficult times my faith was restored and became strong. God was able to use disease to get my attention, to turn my heart to love for and service to Him. I often share the Scriptural reference of Judges 15:15 saying, “Just as Samson used the jawbone of a jackass to slay the Philistines, God used the jawbone of a jackass to get my attention.” The real question in life is not, “WHY ME?” Rather it is, “WHY NOT ME?”