Life After Cancer Surgery

The doctor said, "You have cancer." As anyone who has heard those words knows, it was devastating to hear. It was especially difficult for me because of where I was in life.
11/02/2013 07:15 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The doctor said, "You have cancer." As anyone who has heard those words knows, it was devastating to hear. It was especially difficult for me because of where I was in life.

At age 59, I was offered a 10-year extension to my contract as a college president. I was thrilled and accepted. But a few months later, I began to question my decision. Being a college president is very demanding, and I was tired, had very little energy, and thought I was just burned out. So I resigned, and my wife and I moved to St. Louis to retire where two of our daughters lived. There was some writing I wanted to do, as well as explore some consulting opportunities, and I looked forward to a less hectic existence.

But soon after getting settled in St. Louis, I began to suspect that my tiredness was more than being burned out. I went to a highly-recommended doctor in St. Louis. After waiting a week to get test results back, then taking more tests and waiting another week for results, and so forth, the doctor could find nothing wrong. Still concerned, I went to the highly-acclaimed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Tests began early on a Monday morning, and by late Tuesday afternoon I was told there was a sizable growth in my large intestine. The doctor said he could not be certain until examining the tissue that would be removed during surgery, but because of its size he believed the tumor was malignant. I was admitted to the hospital on Wednesday, and underwent surgery Thursday.

It was not until Monday morning, after all test results were in and I was up to having an in-depth conversation, that the oncologist came to my hospital room and discussed the results of the surgery with my wife and me. We learned that the tumor was, in fact, malignant, but the tests suggested that the malignancy had been caught in its relatively early stages and that the surgeon had been successful in removing all of the cancerous tissue. He added, "Of course, we will not know for certain for several years, but the prognosis looks very good at this point."

I cannot put into words the terrible feeling of coming to grips with the thought: "I have cancer." Nothing is much more scary or devastating. Those of you who have had to deal with being told you have cancer know exactly what I mean. So many worries and unanswered questions came to mind: How much pain will there be? What treatment will I have to undergo? How will my wife and other family members cope? Will I be able to stay at home, or will I need to go to some type of care facility? Are my affairs in order? Will my wife have enough money to get along if I do not survive? And on the list goes. And I immediately checked in with Jesus -- all of a sudden the forgiveness of my sins and the promise of everlasting life in His Kingdom seemed much more relevant.

I am writing about this experience so those of you who have just learned you have cancer or have recently undergone cancer surgery may know that there can be meaningful life after cancer. Since my cancer surgery in June of 1993, I have served as the president of a career college, been a fund-raising consultant for a private school and a nursing home, have written three books, have served as a consultant for a movie, have been interviewed on TV and radio, have conducted seminars and training conferences for school districts, have been the bookkeeper for a small company, and have written more than 90 articles and blogs that have been published in various newspapers. So, to say the least, I have led a very active life since cancer surgery.

It is not my intention to brag about my achievements, but to give hope and encouragement for people who are facing, or have recently undergone, cancer surgery. There can be life -- abundant life -- after cancer surgery. I am not suggesting that everything will be the same. I certainly have had to make many adjustments -- some temporary and others permanent. But there can meaningful life.

I know that everyone is not as fortunate as I. My cancer was caught early. I know from personal experience that you may not want to go to your doctor because you suspect he/she will give you bad news or you just don't want to take the time. I would have put off going to the doctor had it not been for my wife's insistence that I "go see the doctor now." That was absolutely the right thing to do, even though I thought I was macho enough to fight off whatever was bothering me, never expecting it was cancer. And I strongly suggest that you go see your doctor as soon as you suspect you may have a major medical problem. Doing that early on could be a real life-saver for you, as it was for me.

Each year I go back to Mayo Clinic for a physical examination. The doctors tell me I may die of cancer some day, but that it won't be the same cancer I underwent surgery for twenty years ago. Even so, I still get up tight when going to Mayo Clinic, and I breathe a sigh of relief when the tests come back showing that there has been no recurrence of the cancer.

I am writing about cancer this week because on Monday morning November 4, I will check into Mayo Clinic for my 2013 annual check-up. I am by nature a very "positive" person, but I will breathe a sigh of relief when I hear that all the test results are "negative."