I’ve got a gnarly scar on the back of my head, and my five kids think Dad’s haircut is hip. Last month, I survived my third surgery for melanoma. This time, it was a brain tumor, stage 4.
For the next three months, I will be taking a combination of drugs (immunotherapy), which, we are told, has a 50 percent chance of containing the melanoma for the rest of my life. Since it is a coin flip, my oldest says we should bet on heads for two reasons: to honor my head and because I don’t have a tail. Meanwhile, should the immunotherapy not take, my wife and I are researching and deciding how we might continue to fight — through better nutrition, and perhaps radiation and chemotherapy — even as we decide how we spend the time we might have left.
With this surgery, I have finally realized it is not a question of if, but when, the melanoma returns.
We live in a permanent state of present, between the “already” of stage 4 and the “not yet” of the immunotherapy results. Since a bout with cancer three years ago, I have learned five lessons that might help others going through it.
1. Know what you believe.
When I was in advanced infantry training with the Marine Corps in 1991, John R. Allen, now president of the Brookings Institution, shared a keen insight with us second lieutenants who believed we were invincible. I remember him saying: “The things of men will break — whether weapons, machines or bodies. When that time comes, know what you believe. It will be the only thing that keeps you going.”
Because cancer does not allow one to flee, it forces the tough questions. Do I really believe? And if so, what does that mean for how I respond? I have wrestled with this question since surgery: If I am reorganizing my life for the return of melanoma, why don’t I do the same for the return of Christ? My prayer is to finish well — continuing to live out my faith, loving my neighbor — whether that is sooner or, I hope, later.
2. Allow people to walk with you.
As a Type-A-former-Marine-introvert, I am wired not to share, to bear the burden alone. I have found this approach is not that helpful, for you or those around you. Tell your loved ones what is going on, especially your children. Share with people how you are feeling when they ask. Accept meals made or Uber Eats contributions. Let folks take your kids to practice. They do so to honor you, in a practical way, even as you bless them by allowing the blessings they bring.
One recent evening, despite the best kind of Seattle sunset, I was thinking of the darkness to follow. Trying to fight back, I pointed to the sky and asked my 4-year-old son, Jonah, what he thought. “It’s almost morning time,” he said. I was mourning me, and he was morning the morrow. I smiled. My mood broke. It was enough for that day.
3. Receive the prayers and well wishes.
As a person of faith, I believe prayer is the No. 1 counter-cancer weapon. And if you are sharing a bit with those around you, they will not only pray, they will pray intentionally and specifically for your needs. This last surgery was such a blessing as Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Scientologists and Christians said they were praying for me. I even had an old friend write: “Don’t worry, this atheist is praying for you.”
Perhaps most meaningful were the flowers from my students. My brain surgery took place in the middle of teaching a cross-cultural religious literacy graduate course at the University of Washington. While my students spanned the theological and political spectrum, they cared enough, as a group, to send flowers to a professor they barely knew.
I should also note you should never feel obligated to return all of the phone calls, texts, emails, etc. You can’t. Accept the blessing of their concerns, but get your rest.
4. Provide care for the family caregivers.
Caregivers have the toughest job. Ever. While they are providing for you and handling things you normally would do, they carry the extra, but unspoken, burden of so many questions: Are these my last days with him/her? What will happen to me? My children? It can be the worst of all worlds. So give the caregivers grace. Give them an opportunity to express their feelings. Find new ways to love them.
5. Don’t let cancer dictate who you are or what you do.
It is too easy to act like the victim. Don’t. If you know what you believe, then you will become even more of the person you were intended to be through this suffering. Take walks. Appreciate the terribly temporary beauty of the moment. As much as you are able, spend time with those you love. Make memories. Be a source of encouragement. Remember, many of those around you are suffering (silently); perhaps your approach will help them engage and share their suffering.
Don’t waste your time on the busy stuff, but be busy with the stuff of loving those around you. Be ready for the worst. Prepare your loved ones for grief. And always pray for the best.
As I look ahead, I am grateful for the blessing of living in the present, between the “already” and the “not yet.” In the Bible, Jesus asks his followers: If he made and cares for the “lilies of the field” in all of their finite beauty, how much more will he care for us?
I believe death is but the doorway to the rest of life, but until it is time to step through, I want to live like the lilies, expectantly, with enough for today.
Chris Seiple is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement.