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Losing Control and Learning to Trust: My Unexpected Diagnosis

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This is a very personal column. In December of last year, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. There were no symptoms or problems, just some results from a routine blood test that needed to be checked out. I remember being on a conference call when I saw the doctor was phoning with the results of a biopsy, but continued on with the other call assuming I could return it later to hear that there were no problems. There were problems, he told me, and I would need to see a surgeon.

Surprise was not the right word — not even shock. I felt incredulous about the news. I was about to launch a new book tour early in 2013 and everything seemed to be in control. And Sojourners was involved in intense advocacy work around immigration reform, gun violence, and the budget/sequester battles. There had to be a mistake, or surely some convenient treatment that would suffice. Certainly, I would work this all out privately, and stay on schedule for everything else. But then the conversations started, as did meetings, further testing, time-consuming activities, discussions of medical options — and a deepening anxiety began to grow over the next several weeks.

The book tour for On God’s Side, both U.S. and U.K., had to be postponed and reset without saying why. I kept the health news and discussions in a small and close circle of family, friends, and senior staff. And I did my best to go on as if this wasn’t happening. But it was.

A quick surgery at the end of the year didn’t work out for a number of frustrating reasons, discussions about medical options continued, and my care shifted to the research center at NIH, the National Institutes of Health. There, I took part in a new program using resolution MRI to guide surgical decisions — still a research effort, and not currently in use elsewhere. Such opportunities are available to anyone in the general public, and people can find out about the work going on at NIH and across the nation at its website. The NIH strives to innovate constantly in all areas of medicine, and their constant hope is that participation in such programs can provide both direct benefits to the individual, and an opportunity for their physician researchers to learn more about how to improve diagnosis and treatment for others in the future. (And, of course, this critical work is being severely cut in the sequester.)

The NIH staff’s extraordinary knowledge of this cancer and all cancers, which is prolonging and saving lives, was immediately evident, as was the wonderful care they were showing to me. After more and much deeper testing with their extraordinary methodologies and new technologies, a plan was reached and a date for surgery was set for last Wednesday, June 5.   

About one week ago, I had major surgery for prostate cancer. It all went very well; the cancer was contained and removed with no signs of further spreading, pending more pathology reports. This significant surgical procedure, the recovery in a hospital room, and then coming home from such a major impact on my body were all new experiences for me. I went back to the hospital this week for follow-up procedures and check-ups. Everything seems to be fine. The surgery “couldn’t have gone better,” the doctors say, and I seem to be recovering well, too. They keep telling me to go slow and take my time, which is a very good reminder for me.

It’s not only good physical advice for healthy recovery but also spiritual counsel for those of us who sometimes tell time by how much we hope we are changing the world.

This was certainly more “major” surgery than I was acknowledging and admitting to myself. I was stunned by the news in December, and wanted to keep it private — partly to avoid answering too many public questions on it, but also likely because of some self-denial about it all. I really didn’t want to let it affect my book tour, but of course it did in significant ways. During this whole process, I’m learning more and more lessons about losing control and learning to trust instead.

I was in very good hands with my surgeon, and I feel our work is in good hands with all of my colleagues at Sojourners, as I take a few weeks now to rest and recover. It’s never just about a leader here at Sojourners because we have such a remarkable team; and it's never just about the team because we have such an extraordinary mission; but it’s never even just about our mission because we have a God who will always find ways to bring love and justice into the world with and without us, and sometimes despite our best efforts and human attempts to keep “control.”

I spoke with a few close friends before going in for my cancer surgery, a day full of anxiety for someone who had never faced a major health issue before. My old and dear friend, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, contrasted our need for control with the “Prayer of Abandonment” by Charles De Foucauld. So I went back to that classic prayer, and found it the right one to take into surgery for someone who had been totally preoccupied with the absolute craziness of an 18-city book and media tour and was now facing a very personal health crisis.

“I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
And in all your creatures-
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of
my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father."

It was a perfect prayer for surgery and recovery, and I hope one I remember before my next book tour! A week after surgery, my wonderful colleague at the publisher Brazos/Baker, BJ Heyboer, wrote me what a member of her discernment committee for the Episcopal priesthood had said to her: “Control is an illusion, an illusion that we all pursue. But the sooner you see it as the illusion it is, the better off you — and your ministry — will be.”

My friend Richard Rohr, who also had a bout with cancer, told me that “these things change our relationship to God.” He writes these days about how the “fallings” and “failings” in the second half of life, which are completely beyond our control, can lead us to deeper places than the first half of life can ever go.

And after agonizing repeatedly about how the changes in timing, preparations, focus, and unexpected events significantly altered what I expected this book tour to be, I encountered these words from Soren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.”

I am trying to live into that with this book now too, trusting God to use it and take it to the places and people it needs to go. The “tour” was certainly affected by this cancer, more than I wanted to acknowledge or admit. But I believe in the message of the book even more than when I wrote it on sabbatical last year, and the signs of the times suggest that a renewed understanding of “the common good” is absolutely central to a better future for us all. These more relaxed summer weeks for me now will give me time for physical recovery, spiritual reflection, and perhaps some creative space to think about how I might be useful to what God wants to do with this common good message in the days ahead.

Sitting in that hospital room, even in times of pain or anxiety, I was thinking about the billions of people around the world who don’t have all these health care resources available to them as we do, and don’t even have the chance or option to fight for their lives. That must become a fundamental issue of love and justice for us; and I hope this experience will make it all more personal for me.

My pastor, Jeff Haggray, suggested I not be so private about all this, and that it might be time to offer some personal reflections on this whole process which might be helpful to other people. So I decided to write this.

But life goes on, and I am still coaching my son’s Little League baseball team through the play-offs (but in a chair and behind the dug-out fence, at doctor’s orders not to risk dodging line drives while coaching at third base!) Our Tigers won their semi-final game last night and we are now in the Championship Game on Saturday! My time with these 10 year olds is my best therapy for recovery.

I would appreciate your prayers for all of us who are wrestling this summer with issues of physical health and spiritual transformation.

Jim Wallis is CEO of Sojourners. His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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