Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The retreat that began October 16, 2015, can end now

In January 2016, my Blog entry was about that retreat. The retreat had started as usual, but after a few days, I began to experience abdominal pain. I ended up driving home early from Guelph to check it out in Kingston. I thought it was appendicitis. But after 8 hours in Emergency at KGH, the doctors had done a CT and found a mass. I was quickly referred to hematology oncology, and started treatment after the diagnosis of lymphoma was confirmed.

There began the most incredible spiritual journey. The amazing thing was that the beginning of the retreat, prior to the pain or the trip home, etc, turns out to have been the beginning of my spiritual journey with cancer, and the opening of a retreat that did not end with my leaving the property. Here is a paragraph from the January Blog that describes what took place when Fr. Govan gave me a book to read by Clarence Enzler, titled “Let Us Be What We Are.”

Enzler had a devotion to St. Therese, and also faced cancer surgery. Following the spirit of abandonment that St. Therese wrote about so eloquently, Enzler decided to approach the surgery by uniting himself to the Passion of Jesus. Like St. Therese he let himself experience his “smallness” so as to be completely filled by God’s will for him.

Now why would I write that? Well, I was going to be having minor surgery for a basal cell skin cancer, and I had been talking about my devotion to St. Therese, in particular about her ‘Little Way’ and her uniting herself to God’s will.

The book set the tone for my treatment experience, and I do not mean basal cell treatment. From the beginning, after absorbing the news that I had lymphoma, I was given the grace, as was Peggy, to treat this as our reality. I learned to stay in the present with God’s graces, and to trust that nothing happens outside his Will (which is not the same as saying that He causes bad things like this to happen. Only that it would not be permitted to happen if He willed otherwise). The gift of peace came with that, along with the realization that slipping out of the present into the future (the land of what-if, and of terrible possibilities) brought terror with it.

Through the six rounds of Epoch and the subsequent three rounds of high-dose methotrexate, the physical toll got bigger as the doses increased and the effects accumulated. Worries about the chemo pump alarming over air in the line or ‘occlusion’ in the line became the attention-getters. Two trips back to hospital with fever spikes provided additional drama, especially when of those trips led to a two day admission. But I was spared the terrible experience of getting sick, as sometimes happens, and mostly had to deal with losing my hair, with fatigue, and with vigilance about catching infections. I was very graced in that regard. I understand it can be really awful. I am so grateful for the development of the science in the chemo itself and in the supplementary meds that counteract side effects. I am so grateful for the skilled hands of doctors and nurses in our Regional Cancer Centre.

And I never once Googled anything about my condition. I left that to others, because I know from experience that the results you get are varied, and you could develop panic attacks thinking about the worst case scenarios, even if they have low probabilities attached to them. That’s just me.

Anyway, throughout the seven months, I also made the decision to keep the parish informed. My motivation was to prevent rumors, and to dispel the ‘elephant-in-the-room’ phenomenon in which no-one talks about the thing that is on everybody’s mind! Well, the dividends from this decision were unexpected and wonderful! People talked about their own journeys with cancer. I heard some incredible survival stories that buoyed my own ability to remain hopeful. Most of all, though, were the prayers and the promises of ongoing prayers. We talk about being a community of love in a parish like this. No experience has ever driven this home or made it more real than have these interactions.

And all the while, my role, I came to realize was to witness to the goodness of God, and to show people what it looks like when someone trusts the will of God for them, and is at peace. I heard over and over that this was being noticed. People would comment that such an attitude would bode well for my own healing process. But I think an even more important outcome was that people were shown, perhaps, how to do it, and to be encouraged to trust in the same way - for cancer or any other body blows that life might deliver. I am grateful for the grace that was given to me to do this right from the beginning.

And so it all came down to the ending of the nine rounds of big treatment. Two CT scans had shown shrinking of the mass, and no involvement of other organs (we won’t mention the compression fracture in my back! Hopefully on the mend). The second of those scans showed an ambiguous bit of tissue that might be scar tissue or cancer still present.

My wonderful doctor had warned me that this might very well happen. And so, as we had discussed, she sent me to Ottawa for a PET scan - kind of like a CT but able to confirm cancer sites. If it was cancer, we would be in for a course of radiation. If not, we go straight to maintenance chemo (2 hours every three months, for two years).

On July 22, 2016, we went for the results appointment. Fully prepared to receive a date with radiation. Our doctor walked in and said: “All good. You are in total remission. Perfect health, my friend.”

What? The world stood still for a moment. What? Peggy jumped up and hugged her. Me, I’m crying. Well, sobbing if you must know. Lol. Then I hugged the doctor. Plans were made for the first round of maintenance which I have now had.

I was preaching on the weekend that immediately followed. Scripture on prayer. Homily on prayer. And mercy. And trust. I saved the big announcement for the end of Mass, though. Cheering and sustained applause.

I told the parish that this was the result of the power of prayer, I have no doubt about that. And since their prayers have been steadfast for the past now 8 months, I offer this outcome to them as a gift from God. Let it be said that our God is awesome. Let it be said that God mostly wants us to trust him, and to let him show his miracles in whatever way he chooses. For me, the first miracle was the peace I received right after the diagnosis. And then the deepening trust in his Will for me. I would have still been there if the PET scan had said cancer.

And so the retreat that began October 16, 2015 can now end. July 22, 2016. It has changed me. Praise God. God is awesome. God loves us. God loves you. Never ever give up on that thought.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The retreat began October 16: it has not ended yet

The trip to Loyola House in Guelph is a much-anticipated annual getaway for my retreat – some 23 years now, and counting. Pretty much always in the fall, and for many years my week has been embedded in the larger 40 day retreat that is already on. The retreat atmosphere of silence is already in place, and my immersion in it is seamless and easy.

Every year I spend some time thinking about the grace I will be asking for on the retreat. Every year, God takes me on a turn in the road, a change in direction. I smile when this happens, and I take it as a clear sign that God is watching over me from the very beginning.

This year, I was still reflecting on a gospel I had preached on recently, the one of the young man asking Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. The message from Jesus was that he should basically empty out and come follow him. For me, this led to a reflection on emptying myself out to totally trust God for upcoming surgery I was to undergo for a basal cell skin cancer. That in turn very quickly led me to reflect on the suffering of St. Therese of Lisieux in the last year and a half of her life when she was essentially suffocating with tuberculosis. I talked to my director about this and came back to it a couple of times. He gave me a book to read by Clarence Enzler, “Let Us Be What We Are.” Enzler had a devotion to St. Therese, and also faced cancer surgery. Following the spirit of abandonment that St. Therese wrote about so eloquently, Enzler decided to approach the surgery by uniting himself to the Passion of Jesus. Like St. Therese he let himself experience his “smallness” so as to be completely filled by God’s will for him .

This is where my turn in the road really began. I was just getting into this and resonating with it not only for my upcoming minor surgery, but for my life in general. And then, I started experiencing the pain in my lower right abdomen . It became sharp, and I began to be worried about an appendix attack.. I left the retreat three days early and drove home, straight to the Emergency department . After several hours of investigation, a CT scan was done, and they found the mass in an abdominal lymph node. There followed a referral to hematology oncology and a whole new diagnostic process. Long story short, a diagnosis of lymphoma was confirmed a couple of weeks later. It was decided that chemotherapy would begin right away, on an inpatient basis. I would have six rounds of this, a week at a time, every three weeks.

At time of writing this, I have completed three rounds and have tolerated the chemotherapy very well. The Kingston Regional Cancer Center has just adopted the Princess Margaret portable pump protocol for my particular brew, and I have been able to have this last round at home!

Back to the retreat. It clearly has not ended, and it clearly has continued to deepen the themes that were opening up in the few days that I was in Guelph. I have smiled many times at St. Therese and asked her if this is what she had been up to all along, preparing me for this over the past three or four years of my devotion to her. The first fruit of that devotion and of my being totally taken with her Little Way was that I have not had a moment of anger or sadness or despair or indignation or “why me?”. Very shortly after absorbing the significance of the news, my response was, okay Lord, what are you asking of me here?

The answer to that also unfolded over the weeks. I developed a very sharp perspective on what was important and not important in life. I suddenly could not believe the things that have upset me in the past, including how righteously indignant I could be at the behavior of other people! I recalled in a whole new way the story St. Therese tells of how she decided to love the nun who drove her crazy by criticizing her every little move. Therese eloquently framed the discussion within her own reflection of the love Jesus has for all of us with our foibles, sinfulness, and brokenness.

This is all stuff that I had previously read and reflected on. I was amazed at how much deeper it was all going. And then I recalled a reflection exercise we had done at a workshop on Discipleship here in Kingston on November 28 last year. The reflection was on the story of St. Paul being knocked off his horse by a blinding light and being led blind to Ananias. Ananias laid hands on him and said “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the holy Spirit.” Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.

I have tried to be a prayerful person. I have lived long enough to become aware of my own brokenness and sinfulness. I am grateful every day for the gift of being in ministry as a Deacon. I therefore had no idea that I had scales on my eyes. But I did. The cancer is the blinding light that knocked me to the ground. Therese of Lisieux is Ananias. And Jesus has blessed me, dramatically getting my attention! I have never seen or appreciated or experienced my relationship with Jesus as clearly or as personally as I am now. And I know that this is not done! For that reason, there is no other way to characterize this journey than as one of great giftedness. Can you believe that in the middle of the chemotherapy and everything that goes with it, I am overwhelmingly grateful for what is happening in my relationship with God.

For that reason, the retreat continues. More later.