Sober celebrations

20130316-140139.jpgGrace has organized a team of 24 for the Relay for Life again this year. There are hundreds of people walking, running, hanging around. The theme is:

Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back.

There’s not much to celebrate about cancer. Only last night my very good friend lost his mum after a relatively short battle with lung cancer. It’s a cruel killer. It takes life and twists and distorts it. It ruins other lives and the sadness spreads. It reminds us that life isn’t how it should be. It’s a sign that our world has been subjected to disease, decay, and death and we groan for things to be set right once more.

Last year I walked the survivors lap and felt rather like a fraud. This year I celebrate a year of survival, another year of life. With God’s help, the support of family and friends, and powerful chemo, I’ve been fighting back.

I remember some who are no longer with us. Like my friend’s mum, my wife’s boss, my cousin, a number of friends, and countless friends’ friends.

More importantly I remember that God has fought back so that we can celebrate life forever through Jesus. We might beat cancer in this life but only God can enable us to beat death for eternity. Please turn to him while you have breath!

With love,

Smoking – because I care!

smokersEarlier today I visited the local chemist to pick up some scripts for drugs I’m taking. Pretty normal really. But the conversations I had out on the street, while I was waiting, weren’t! I spoke with four different guys, each of them were smoking, and the conversations went something like this…

Me… Hey mate, there’s a good chance you’ll get lung cancer if you keep smoking.

Him… (Smiles at me and keeps smoking)

Me… It’s true you know

Him… Yeah, I know

Me… I’ve got lung cancer and I can tell you it’s not much fun

Him… Yeah?

Me… You don’t know whether to believe me, do you?

Him… (Shrugs)

Me… It’s true. You want to see my scars?

Him… (Shrugs)

Me… (I lift up my shirt on the left side to reveal 3 rather ugly scars around my ribs) They had to stick tubes in me to drain out all the litres of fluid from round my lungs. You know, it’s a good idea to give up.

Him… Yeah, I know.

Me… I know it’s hard, but you should try. Start now, it’s worth it.

Him… Did you give up smoking?

Me… Mate, I didn’t smoke and I still got lung cancer!

Him… Yeah?! Have you got rid of it?

Me… Mate, I might never get rid of it. They can’t cut it out, and I’ve got to keep on chemo.

Him… Yeah?!

Me… So give it a shot, eh? It’s worth trying to give up now.

Him… Yeah, thanks mate. And hey, good luck eh!

Then, back in the chemist, picking up my scripts, I say “I understand you guys help people to quit smoking.” To which the pharmacist replies, “Yeah, that’s right.” And I say, “Well, there’s three guys outside smoking right now. You could help them!”

Dying, surviving, or what?

How do you describe someone with advanced cancer? A cancer sufferer? A cancer patient? Struggling with cancer? Fighting cancer? Being treated for cancer? Having a terminal illness? Having the Big C?

It’s hard to know really. Is there an etiquette we should follow? In the last week or so I’ve been introduced to others both as a cancer survivor and as someone who is dying of cancer. Sounds to me like two different people!

I’ve found the whole terminology thing awkward for a long time. Earlier this year we joined in the Relay for Life and I was invited to walk a lap of honour as a cancer survivor. Seemed strange to say the least. I wasn’t long out of hospital. I was still coming to grips with my diagnosis. You could hardly describe me as a survivor. I’d only just begun the journey and the prognosis was bad. Surely I’d need to be in remission, have no evidence of disease, or be pronounced ‘cancer free’, in order to qualify as a survivor! Last week I was introduced to a gathering of people with lung cancer – and their carers – as a cancer survivor. It seemed a little more reasonable now. I was still alive and I’m approaching my one year anniversary.

Am I survivor? The reality is I am. I’m still living, breathing, and at this point I’m in better health than I was when diagnosed. I’ll be a survivor until such time as I die. But to be honest, I’m keen to do much more than survive. I don’t want to be defined by my disease. I want to live well – not indulgently – but in a way that honours God and others. I want to have the life and death of Jesus at work in me, to serve others rather than serve myself.

I’ve also been described as dying of cancer. It’s understandable to speak in this way, because it’s potentially the most unique or distinctive thing about me. I’ve been described as ‘husband of Fiona’, ‘father of Luke or Matt or Grace or Marcus’, ‘son of Norman and Ruth’, ‘Pastor of Crossroads’, ‘chaplain to the Brumbies’, ‘keen on fishing’, ‘friend of someone or other’, and lots of less charitable things! At the moment, the characteristic I’m best known for is ‘having cancer’.

But, am I dying of cancer? I’ve been told what I have is incurable. The treatment is not expected to eradicate the cancer. The survival rate over 5 years for lung cancer is only 16%. Few people ever fully recover from lung cancer. Initial diagnosis at Stage IV is seriously bad news. So, am I dying of lung cancer? The truth is that I don’t know. Nobody does, not even the oncologists. People do get healed. God is completely capable of healing me. Will God heal me? I‘ve got no idea! Modern medical options are amazing. They’re discovering new things about cancer all the time. New treatments are being invented at a rapid rate. Who knows what the future holds? Many people die with cancer rather than of cancer. How will I die? High odds on it being the cancer that causes my death, but ultimately only God knows. And I’m happy about that!

The one thing I do know is that I am dying one way or the other. But it seems strange to introduce me as someone who is. After all, we’re ALL dying. It’s not unique to me. I’ve been reminded in this past week of how true this is. There was the sad story of the teenage girl who plunged to her death from the 22nd floor of a Gold Coast building, during schoolies week. Bryce Courtenay lost his fight with cancer, dying in his Canberra home at the age of 79. On Saturday I joined with others in celebrating the life of my good friend, Chappo, who passed away at the age of 82, because his body was no longer able to fight the infections. Another friend has just lost her sister. It may be sooner or it may be later, but we should recognise the fact that we’re dying. We need to take stock of this reality. In fact, a friend reminded me of this again recently, when she asked me what was on my bucket list!

I know it’s awkward, and it’s so hard to know how to say things, but maybe cancer survivor or dying of cancer aren’t the best ways to describe me. At present, I’m living with cancer. But I don’t want that to define me either. Yes, I’m dying, but I was dying before my cancer diagnosis. In reality, nothing has fundamentally changed. Maybe I’ve got a better idea of the time frame, but then I hope that I don’t! I’ve survived so far, thanks to God, but will I survive my cancer? In this life, I can’t say. But I firmly believe that this life is not all there is. Along with Chappo, who’s enjoying his new life now, I look forward to the day when there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  (Revelation 21:4) Can I encourage you to do the same?

End the unspoken

This has been a big media week for me. First time ever! On Tuesday, I was interviewed by Mike Welsh on 2CC radio about my experience with lung cancer. [Podcast for 13 Nov 2012] On Friday, I was interviewed by WIN News about the devastating impact of lung cancer. On Saturday night, my family and I joined with other lung cancer survivors, their families, carers and other supporters to Shine a Light on Lung Cancer. About 150 people gathered outside Parliament House, donned T-shirts, and walked together to the Old Parliament House rose garden. We shone our torches and observed a minute’s silence for those who had lost their battle with this killer. We heard some info about cancer from a local oncologist before I joined another lung cancer survivor and a carer in speaking about our experiences. Here’s a very brief outline of my words:

Three things give me hope and make me thankful…

  1. The wonderful support of my family and friends. Let’s show our appreciation to these people.
  2. The amazing oncology care available in our wealthy society, and the rapid advances in understanding and treatment that are taking place – especially genetic understanding and targeted therapies. We need our government to invest seriously in this.
  3. I’m thankful for the prayers of so many and my hope is firmly in God. He offers us genuine hope in this life and in eternity. Please call out to God and seek him. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Lung cancer is the silent killer. Every year it kills more than 7500 Australians, which is more than 20 people each day. Lung cancer kills more people than breast, ovarian and prostate cancer combined. Recent research commissioned by the Global Lung Cancer Coalition found that Australian adults think breast cancer is the biggest cancer killer, followed by skin cancer. Whereas most other countries recognised that lung cancer was the biggest killer. I suspect this confusion is because breast cancer and skin cancer seem to get the most media attention. The excellent work of the McGrath Foundation and others in promoting awareness of breast cancer, and the high visibility of the Cancer Council on products such as sunscreen, hats and sunglasses, have increased awareness of both these diseases. And yet, other than anti-smoking campaigns, there has been virtually no publicity about lung cancer.

People don’t want to talk about lung cancer being the biggest killer. Tropfest winner and director of End the Unspoken, Jason van Genderen, was personally impacted by lung cancer as his father passed away late last year from the disease. He said:

“I have seen, first hand, how aggressive this cancer is and I hope End the Unspoken can raise awareness about this deadly disease. One in 16 Australians will develop lung cancer before they’re 85, yet it is a topic which is rarely spoken about. Perhaps this is because of the stigma which is attached to lung cancer?”

This week I met Victoria Tabor, a 31 year old teacher in Canberra. Victoria is a lung cancer survivor. She was not a smoker, yet an x-ray for a routine health check, before heading overseas for work, revealed a tumour on her left lung. As I spoke with Victoria, her experience was so close to my own, only it appears they caught the cancer earlier. She said in a recent Lung Cancer Foundation press release:

“I never had any symptoms but was diagnosed with lung cancer and have since had my left lung removed and been treated with both chemotherapy and radiation. I’m living proof that lung cancer doesn’t discriminate – it affects males and females, the old and the young, smokers and non-smokers – and is the most deadly cancer in Australia. I was so lucky to have been diagnosed early enough so doctors could operate and save my life.”

endtheunspokenbannerWe need people to speak up about lung cancer. While it’s true that smoking is the single biggest cause of lung cancer, and we need to dissuade people from taking it up, we also need to dispel the myth that it’s only smokers who will get this disease. You don’t have to smoke to get lung cancer, you only need to have lungs. Funding is needed to advance research, develop better treatments, and support those affected by this awful disease. We heard information last night showing that the Australian Government’s support for lung cancer has been very small, and it finishes next year. So far, there is no commitment for the future. We need to speak up, make some noise, and let people know the truth. This November is Lung Cancer Awareness month. Check out the Australian Lung Foundation website. Share this post with others. Do the very quick online survey. Please help end the unspoken.

A strange urge

I’ve developed a strange urge this year. It hits me every time I see someone smoking. I feel like going over to them and asking them to give up – to quit. I’m seriously tempted to take off my shirt, show them the scars on my side, and let them know that lung cancer is no fun at all (even though mine isn’t from smoking). But you know what? I don’t! I just turn away and keep on going. The problem is I’m gutless!

I have another urge, a deeper urge. Every time one of my friends shows a disinterest in God or dismisses Christianity, I feel like pleading with them check it out – to reconsider. I want to point to the scars on Jesus’ hands, the wounds in his side, and let them know that God offers each of us a fresh start because of Jesus’ crucifixion. The consequences of rejecting God are serious, but I want to speak of the love of God, his offer of forgiveness, and his promise of life beyond death. But you guessed it! Too often I say nothing at all. I just ignore the issue and continue as though it doesn’t really matter. Let me apologise for being gutless! Seriously, let’s talk.

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