I first met Steve and his wife, Pat, at a group breakfast that was hosted at church. They had asked if we had a wheelchair available because Steve was recovering from a post-surgical infection and felt a little unsteady.
Steve explained that this had been his second surgery for an aggressive form of brain cancer, but that he was doing well — and was very confident that he was now cancer free. I told him about our faith-based support group at a local cancer center, and that it was also open to families and loved ones.
Later that afternoon Steve called me and confessed that everything was not OK, and that he was struggling both emotionally and spiritually. Before his first surgery, he hadn’t given much thought to spiritual matters, and he didn’t have any real faith tradition. But Pat was a Christian and had been urging him to attend church for some time, especially after his diagnosis.
After our conversation, Steve started checking out local churches in hopes of finding something that might “work” for him. He even asked Pat to attend a synagogue with him once. That was all before he found a kind of spiritual connection at a church that they began attending. Although Steve had settled into a community of believers, he had not yet given his life to Christ. He simply reasoned that he needed the hope that Christ could offer him.
Steve and Pat joined the cancer support group I had originally told them about. After several weeks of meeting together, a pastor suffering with metastatic pancreatic cancer sensed Steve’s new openness to a real and saving faith. The pastor asked if Steve would like to give his life to the Lord — and Steve did so. One month later, surrounded by everyone in our support group and most of their families, he was baptized.
Although Pat was grateful for Steve’s group participation and his baptism, she still wasn’t sure if Steve had indeed given his life to the Lord. Because they were close as a couple and Pat knew that Steve always did things methodically, she wondered if he had just been “checking off the boxes” in case he relapsed — or maybe even just to please her.
And then about four months later Steve received the results of a new MRI. It was bad news. He acted like everything was OK and was almost dismissive of what the doctor had said regarding his condition. Pat was worried; she thought Steve was in denial.
Growing in faith
A few days later, Steve and I met for breakfast. I asked him how he felt about the test results. He told me that he really didn’t feel anything, and that it surprised him. He wasn’t sad or upset, but he wasn’t happy about it either. He went on to explain that although he didn’t really feel anything, what he was experiencing felt different than numbness.
Steve informed me that he had been praying the whole week before his MRI that he would be able to “just give it all to God, no matter what the results were.” Then he sat up a little and, as if he were finally convinced, said that he really thought he had been able to give it to God. He seemed to have a genuine peace.
Steve further explained how the days after the test results felt a little like the movie Groundhog Day: Every day that the character Phil (Bill Murray) wakes up, it’s the same day all over again. Each day Steve woke up after receiving his “not good” news, the first thing he would think of was the MRI and what the doctor had told him. But right after those thoughts, he was able to give it to God again. Immediately he would experience peace. What a wonderful gift he had received — he was able to experience a genuine peace in accepting the bad as well as the good. I knew that his wife no longer needed to wonder if Steve had simply been “checking off the boxes.” It was obvious that he had been changed.
Steve declined noticeably in the next couple of months, never giving up hope for a physical cure, but at peace with whatever was before him. And his relationship with Pat during that time? They grew even closer to each other because they were truly able to come together emotionally and spiritually. Steve’s struggle with cancer had ultimately brought him closer to his wife and to the Lord.
I saw Steve a couple of days before he passed away — on one of the last days he could communicate vocally. Before I left, he took my hand and with a smile said, “It’s still Groundhog Day.”
Pastor Ken Wolter has more than eight years experience as a hospital and outpatient oncology and palliative care chaplain. He is the founder of Esperas4Cancer.
If you’re experiencing a family crisis, Focus on the Family has resources and counseling to assist. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 855-771-HELP (4357) or [email protected]