There are lots of three-word sentences. We use them all the time, right? How ‘bout trying some of these on for size:
- I love you.
- Let’s get drunk.
- Please forgive me.
- Just do it.
- Let’s have sex.
- Maybe you’re right.
- I am pregnant.
You didn’t think the above existed in the context of a single conversation, did you? Assuming you didn’t, I’ll bet you nonetheless sensed a different emotion, a different internal response, to each of them.
Some responses might’ve been sanguine. Some sublime. Some melancholy. Some excited.
Now think about your emotional response to this three-word sentence: You have cancer.
What did that rhetorical construction evoke?
I recently received those three words from an emergency room doc. More specifically, the doc uttered that it was renal cell, clear cell carcinoma. Kinda just rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?
After a bit of a pity party, I also went down a path thinking that this three-word sentence was changing me in ways dramatic. That I would never be the same. That I would forevermore be cloaked with the sobriquet of: “Oh, you know Doug — he’s the guy with cancer.” It just felt that my life was changed forever.
Or, was it? Did it need to be? Forever?
My immediate, human response to those three words from the doc was, in fact, fear. Shaking, really. Teeth chattering fear, if you will. After all, I’d done what everybody does: self-diagnosed (with Dr. Google’s help) as presenting with garden-variety kidney stones. Interestingly enough, the ER doc originally agreed with my self-assessment. Until the CT scan arrived, that is.
There was some good news peppered in with the bad, though: multiple CT scans and a chest x-ray manifested that the cancer had not spread, and there were no lymph node or lung issues, and no metastases of any kind. Just the kidney. Better yet, it was in one kidney only (remember: we have two). So, all in all, there was definite light in that peculiar news tunnel.
Further adding to cancer’s chilling oeuvre, the disease itself seemingly has is its own culture to learn — and quickly. By that, I mean newly inflicted patients first need suss out the best docs in their particular area of need and then jockey-for-surgical-scheduling position. Then, there’s the dealing with each doc’s unique bedside manner, the scary new words to learn, the which-doc-does-what soup of decisions, the negotiating of cancer’s politics, the need to determine whether a trial (and the bias and motives of those running the trial) is right for them, and all sorts of other decisions one never had to previously consider.
This, all within weeks. It’s a lot.
Amazingly though, I was at peace. Not perfect peace, but a surprisingly good-enough peace that steadily began seeping into my thoughts and decisions. The soul of me today was still the same soul of yesterday, I increasingly, peacefully determined. In that sense, I hadn’t changed at all.
After all, I did a lot of the same things after getting the Big C news as I did before hearing those words: I prayed. I loved. I forgave. I went to work. I made bad dad jokes. Played with the kids. Watched football. Read the newspaper.
What I didn’t do was start bargaining with God, negotiating how to get into heaven. I didn’t start Twelve-Stepping on all of the people I’d wronged over the years, telling them “I’m sorry.” None of that.
Just rested. Rested in my faith. Rested in the power of love, prayer, forgiveness, my family — the real treasures I already had. Powerful things, those.
Yes, to be sure, there were new activities based on my three-word sentence: surgeons to interview, test results to pore over, new cancer-y words to learn. But did soul of who I was change? No. Not really. In many ways, not at all.
It’s not that I’m perfect. Trust me, I (and others) could give you list-after-list of where I’ve erred in ways both big and small.
But, my peace came from the increasing realization that I was already perfect in God’s eyes. Just for being me — all the good that’s in me already. In my ability to love and forgive. In my ability to see goodness in others and in things big and small. In my ability to make people laugh. As a father, friend, son, co-worker, hockey player, runner, photographer, doggy owner, mistake-maker, mistake-overcomer, thinker and provider.
I had to do nothing else than I was already doing to be good in the eternal sense. What I already had was precisely what I needed — without lifting a finger and without giving into fear.
I knew I was forgiven, in spite of my sins. I knew I was accepted, in spite of my unacceptableness. I knew I was loved, in spite of my unlovability. My soul was at peace, regardless of clinical outcome.
So here I sit, albeit with robot-driven puncture wounds surgically lacerating my rectus abdomonis — all now minus one tumored-up kidney. Tummy muscles that feel like I’ve just done a thousand sit-ups. New-to-me pains that I don’t even understand, using drugs whose names I can hardly pronounce.
Healed not only in the physical sense (please, God, let the test results forever confirm this surgical healing), but also healed — or at least confirmed — in the soul sense. After facing what the secular world considers the most-dreaded three-word sentence, my soul was mostly at peace throughout this process — well before I knew the surgery was a success — because I was at peace. At peace with God.
Of course, it’d be okay if that same three-word sentence had, in fact, made me change — if I wasn’t already a God-centered person. If I didn’t know what God — through the salvific, unrelenting love of Jesus — gifted to me. How it uplifted and saved me. How I can already rest in it — without having to act in ways to earn that status.
Being, not doing.
If you’re in an already-good place, then hearing “you have cancer” shouldn’t change you in ways dramatic. Not the real you — the soul of you — anyway. But if you do need to examine some areas of change, by all means, do it.
If you do need to change, maybe it’s time to re-think (even radically re-think) your understanding of what God means to you. What brings you peace. What makes you … you. The very best you, even when you don’t always feel like you’re at your best. The kind of you that you know is really, really good — great, even. Great in your eyes and, more importantly, great in God’s eyes — regardless of the past relationship you’ve had with your Maker.
If you’re seeking a bit of structure, here’s a nine-step plan — borne from years of hard-earned experience, therapy, grit and grace that I’ve learned — to help get you started:
- Walk in forgiveness, thankfulness and prayer — always. Those are your first set of responses to any situation.
- Be known for your gentleness.
- Put a little more into every situation than you receive from it (you won’t believe the results from this one).
- Challenge yourself — sometimes gently, sometimes radically, always daily.
- Think about your body — what you put into it and how (and how often) you move it.
- Love more (and more often). More than you think you need to.
- Live in the moment — really embrace that.
- Assume that most people you encounter are going through a difficult time (spoiler alert: many are), and then, because of that chosen assumption, lead with your empathy, not your judgment.
- Know that fear lies. Know that fear is just a chemical-driven feeling based on your learned behaviors to past situations. Feelings don’t define who you are. The core of all that’s good in you and your relationship with God define and sustain you.
And, just as important as the above nine, be gentle with yourself, too, especially when you don’t meet up to your own new goals from time-to-time. Punishing yourself is often just another form of useless fear.
The great news is that, for 95 percent of those reading this, you don’t need to hear that 1) You 2) Have 3) Cancer to make the above changes. Oh, and it doesn’t matter whether you follow the exact nine steps above — I didn’t always — but they’re helpful. You’re smart enough already to figure out what’ll work best for you.
You can have a deep kind of peace regardless of whatever the world throws at you — including a cancer diagnosis. Even if you’re not really that good at this change thing, this peace thing or this God thing — just yet, anyway. You will get good at it, but getting there takes effort, hard work and maybe even some therapy. It’s worth it.
Remember that what you already have is precisely what you need: an open heart, a desire to know God more, and at least an actionable one percent of the gumption needed to kick-start your growth. You’re already good enough for this change, in the place you need to be, loving and being loved by the good people God has blessed you with.
Oh, and here’s a three-word sentence to help you start this journey. It’s all you need, in fact. It is this: “Thank you, God.”
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