Cancer: My Story
In January of 2001, my life was seemingly idyllic. The previous autumn I had taken a new job as Executive Director of the non-profit ministry of famed evangelist and former-Clinton confidant Tony Campolo. I was charged with taking the ministry—which for nearly 30 years had created programs for “at-risk” youth in inner-cities and the third world—from being primarily “personality-driven” to being instead vision-driven—something that could survive Tony’s allegedly slowing schedule and lowered profile. I was in a position of influence and power and, most importantly, immense creativity.
After 13 years of work in various Christian “social justice” ministries, I was finally in charge—at least as much as you can be with a guy like Tony in the room. And because of this new position (along with a good history of writing for PRISM magazine and some seminars at Christian rock festivals) I was beginning to be frequently invited to speak around the States and Canada. I’d finally begun some sketches at my first book, and at 38, it felt like my professional life was coming to a peak.
The only wrinkle in my otherwise well-made bed was the word from my doctor, after my annual physical, that I needed to lose 45 pounds. No surprise there. My life as a desk-jockey had taken its toll. The regular basketball and squash games of my 20s and early-30s had given way to a few rounds of golf each month and, more often, 10-12 hour days of work. My once relatively slim 6’3” frame had ballooned to 255 pounds. Sheri was complaining that my girth was hurting our sex life, and I certainly felt the drag on my endurance, in and out of the bedroom.
And so, after suffering with a mild case of Shingles in January, I began an exercise routine early in February, hoping to lose some weight and get myself in shape. At first things were fine—I rode our exercise bike and used our apartment’s weight room, using the elliptical rider and rowing machines. It felt good to be exercising again, but noticed some slight pain in my lower back and left hip—a pain that was different than my “regular” chronic lower back pain. A few trips to my normally amazing chiropractor failed to make a dent in the pain, and he suggested I return to my GP for some further examination.
The doctor examined me and suggested a pinched nerve, gave me some anti-inflammatorys and Percoset to take the edge off, and told me to take a couple of days off. Two days on the couch left the pain even worse, so I just went back to work and hoped it would get better. After a grueling conference in Washington DC I could barely walk, so I cancelled a planned trip to join Sheri in New Orleans at the annual conference for the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) (with whom she had recently found a job managing their awards program) and instead returned to visit our GP for more tests.
On the morning of Wednesday, March 29, 2001 I had a CTscan, and that afternoon received a voice mail from the doctor who had initially examined me. The doctor and I played voice mail tag--just as I was doing with Sheri who was due to come home the next day--and I went to bed terrified, to be honest, fearful that I would need surgery for a herniated disc, the “worst-case” scenario that my doctor had presented me.
The next morning I was in my office at 7am and almost immediately started calling my GP. Around 9am he finally called back, sounding grim.
“You don’t have a herniated disc or pinched nerve,” he began, “but I have to be honest with you. The results of your CTscan suggest some lesions on your pelvis and hip consistent with Multiple Myeloma, an incurable (although often treatable) cancer of the bone marrow and blood.. I want you to come in after lunch and see me and talk about our options. In the meantime, I’m going to set up an appointment for you immediately with an oncologist.”
Not long after being diagnosed, I decided to make this journey of illness, treatment and recovery a public process. At first I thought I would just send out short email notes and journal entries--"Cancer Updates" to the friends and colleagues I trusted the most, asking them to join Sheri and me in our struggles, fears, hopes and prayers.
Those initial notes were short and to the point--just what you might expect from someone struggling to make sense of a diagnosis that completely alters one's life. But as we began to wrestle more deeply with the process we were being forced to endure, the "updates" grew into longer, more complex and intimate narratives.
(For more on this process, take a look at my "Introduction" to the Cancer Updates here on this site. There's already too overlap on this page with that page, largely because I'm lazy and have written at least 7 or 8 versions of these self-involved bio sketches in the last couple of years and as we were putting this site together, well, they got confused and intermingled and well, anyway, for more go here: http://www.dwightozard.com/cancer_journal_entry.asp?cankey=25 )
Not long after my first few "updates" and having been overwhelmed by the positive response to my request for prayer--I remember thinking about my friends who are HIV-positive and wondering if they would get the same response to a prayer request as I did? Would they be embraced as fully and wonderfully as I had been if I was sick with a disease I had allegedly "earned"?
I knew the answer, and so I came to the conclusion that if there was a "battle" to be had, I'd have at it, and I'd make a deliberate decision to resist the temptation to make this struggle and the "updates" about that struggle only about me--a private matter--in the most literal way imaginable: I'd invite anyone, regardless of how religious or irreligious they might be, to pray, and then ask them to do this one simple thing:
If you remember to pray for me, remember to pray also for the other, the "least, the last and the lost, those who have no voice."
And so, my initially fearful request for prayer became a kind of ministry, a gentle challenge to the status quo to expand their world, to be willing to come along beside and offer comfort, kindness and grace to those our society--and to often our North American (would-be) Christian culture--actively or passively neglects, rejects or just otherwise ignores.
An otherwise fairly shitty pray-er, I found myself leading a growing group of my readers (and the readers of many of those readers who were forwarding my notes) in intercession on my own behalf.
When you say my name to our Redeemer, remember to pray too for those who don't have a high-powered Outlook address book or an impressively cluttered Rolodex or a cell phone cluttered with the numbers of friends or their name on church prayer chains.
When you ask our Father in Heaven to care for me like an Eagle gathers her young under her wing, remember that there are far too many in this world, both far away and next door, for whom the very fact of their suffering means isolation from the love of family, friends and even their place of worship.
If you remember me, remember too those born into death and suffering and who literally have no one in this world who even knows their name, let alone someone to breathe it in prayer to God.
That process of making my cancer a chance to help others expand their world--to begin to think about issues of justice and suffering and who has a part in that suffering, both as creator and as potential reliever of it--that process, that ministry, has been pure gift to me, a chance, as the rock star has said:
...to make beauty out of ugly things.
And that's pretty freakin' cool.
In the more than three years since my diagnosis, I have been through a cornucopia of treatments and procedures, including: VAD chemotherapy via 96 hour, in-patient infusions at Paoli Memorial Hospital, a stem cell transplant at the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, Interferon, Thalidomide (the old morning sickness drug that my mother took during her pregnacy with me and that now has been shown to be very effective with my disease), Velcade (the first drug developed specifically for Myeloma) and now, Revlimid, a yet to approved Myeloma-specific drug for which I am serving as a guinea pig in a double-blind studybeing administered by the drug company Celegene and the University of Pennsylvania, taking it (or a placebo) in combination with high doses of the steroid Duragesic. (For what it's worth, as I edit this "story"--late Spring, 2004--the results after eight months in the trial have been as extraordinarily positive as the side effects from the steroids have been maddening.)
Since leaving EAPE in the summer of 2001 to concentrate on my treatments, I have created a consulting business, the details of which you can read on this site as well. I also continue to write for a few different publications, and am working on a few books--both as a ghost-writer and for myself. And, of course, since I got me a floppy Bible and a testimony now, I'm for hire as a speaker too.
The process of battling cancer--and self-absorbtion--continues. We appreciate your prayers, for Sheri and I, and for those who are alone.
Read selected examples of Dwight's Cancer Updates
Revised: 6/23/2005 3:09:51 PM