This last May 9th I was in Dulles International Airport with a 15 minute lay-over prior to boarding my overnight flight to Zurich to consult/coach a group of gifted Swiss leaders who were initiating the first German language Boot Camp. I plugged in my computer hoping to charge the battery a skosh and noticed an email from my doctor.
It said, “Craig, please give me a call. Your labs [from routine physical 2 weeks earlier] are back and Houston, we may have a problem..."
I read it twice. Is this a joke?
Moments later I boarded the plane with my “Friendly Skies” companions and informed Lori from my cell of the email and asked her to follow up with my doc on what’s going on. Fifteen minutes later as the announcement to turn off all portable electronic devices for takeoff is being made my phone rings and Lori hurriedly reports, “Your white cell count is elevated. When you get back into town he wants to do some more tests. On your flight he wants you to take an aspirin, get up and walk around every hour, and lose weight.”
I ’m a little disoriented/spinning with what’s unfolding. Not sure if I was offering reassurance or asking for it, I ask Lori, “Is everything okay… are you okay?” She responds, “Yeah, I’m okay, I’m fine. It’s just a little something he wants to check out later, I love you”.
Wheels up and into a long night my heart’s posture was, “God, what’s up?”
I didn’t take the Ambien® (sleep aid) I was anticipating because I had to get up and move around every hour. I had taken an aspirin with my vitamins that morning so I checked that “box”, but wasn’t sure how to lose any significant weight on an 8 hour red-eye to Switzerland other than resisting the Snicker bar in my carry-on (which I did).
Every moment of the flight I was praying and pondering life… my life, death… my death, my family, my script of the future, my health and whether or not I had blood clots, heart issues, high blood pressure, H1N1, a parasite or a brain tumor?
Was I overreacting, misinterpreting a doctors generic concern over a minor abnormality in my blood work? Am I a hypochondriac? Or it some scheme birthed in hell to spin me into a self-absorbed disengagement from the team and epic importance of this mission (The FIRST German language Boot Camp!!)?
In what felt like the same amount of time it took Rome to fall I arrived in Switzerland, and though it was in the middle of the night in the states, I emailed my doctor, “Hey I’m speculating about my health and have died and buried myself five times on the flight… what’s going on?!”
He responded: “Your white cell count is elevated, around 20 thousand, normal is 10 thousand or less. The kind of cells are lymphocytes. We need the hospital to run some tests and repeat the counts to confirm the possibility of CLL, chronic lymphocytic leukemia. When you get back let’s get the testing done and I will get you in to see a hematologist.”
And then there was the silence of my entire being recalibrating as I grasped each of the eight letters of the word and then the word as a whole… L-e-u-k-e-m-i-a .
It felt foreign, intrusive, large and daunting and very, very personal word.
I had a friend die of that as well as a colleague I supervised in my last church!
I’m a dead man walking… what do I have, 3 weeks to live and I’m stuck here doing a men’s retreat in Switzerland for 2 of them?
I chose not to call Lori and tell her the news over the phone from so far away nor did I share it with the Swiss Team. I was on mission and sensed strongly that God would give me the grace to accomplish this task while privately processing all the anxieties, fears, free roaming emotions, questions and the reorientation my diagnosis was raising.
On the second day in country the Swiss guys suggested I spend some time with one of the team, Gerd. The other four team members and I had spent time together at Boot Camps, Advanced Camps and at our home in Colorado. So Gerd and I went for a walk along a streamside trail in a high elevation meadow with the Eiger and Jungfrau peaks overlooking us. It was stunning beauty. I asked Gerd for a bit of his story.
He shared that he was a retired professor at a German Medical School, former president of the German Cancer Society, and a survivor of an aggressive/acute Leukemia. I managed to ask a few more questions about his “survival” of cancer and then stopped walking to find a rock to weigh down. Finding one, I begin to sob, eventually finding the words to tell him that I had just learned of my diagnosis, the day before!
He sat alongside me, and took all the time needed for me to express my shock and fear, he listened… asked several questions and reassuringly led me to a deeper understanding of “life” and “health and how neither is determined by the condition of my body.
He was fathering me. And God was fathering me through him.
I’m 36,000 miles from home, alone for the next eleven days (hiding my diagnosis from my wife), about to participate in a historic “first” that will require all of me, and I’ve just learned I have cancer… and yet I’m not alone, God is present… so very present. And he has silver hair – just as I’ve always imagined, a German accent and responds to the name “Gerd”. I was BLOWN away! I don’t know how long we sat there. It was a good amount of time.
Not wanting my time with the team nor the conference to be about me I asked Gerd to keep my issues confidential. Throughout my time their he would put his hand on my shoulder during times of worship… it was Gerd’s hand… yet it was a larger, even stronger hand – the same hand that has touched us all at our times of crisis and need. It was God. And it was Gerd… who would pull me aside to offer words needed to stay the course while fear, anxiety and confusion surged back and forth. It was Gerd who would pray and check in on the fragile condition of my heart. Several times he spoke to my fears and doubts insisting that “We simply must life! Live life!” and that the best offense against cancer is waged from the heart. With his vast medical knowledge and in a sagely voice he told me that a certain and sure indication of living well was to… “Have a little whiskey and chocolate every night”.
So much more could be shared.
After 12 days I returned home. I hadn’t shared my diagnosis with Lori over the phone, choosing to wait until we could hold one another and talk with our eyes and heart. Reunited I found that she had known of the cancer from the beginning and choose to wait until my mission was over so we could circle the wagons together.
There will come a day when I attempt to put a few sentences together that describe what my wife means to me… and brings to me.
I went in for extensive blood and genetic tests that confirmed I have Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). I’m asymptomatic and in the early stages. My Hemoc used an analogy to describe my specific situation: there is a burning ember in a dry grassy field with a warm breeze blowing. The hope is that the ember is extinguished by God, or never ignites the grass.
I’m under the care of great docs and am getting good counsel. Since May I’ve survived the initial waves of fear, hopelessness and the frisky dose of the “blues”.
I’ve got a lot more to say about all of this, and will in time.
My goal is to live life fully; not let my identity be defined by cancer; fight like hell, and have a little whiskey and chocolate every night!
- Craig McConnell
Note: Until last week only my family, close friends and a few intercessors were aware of my diagnosis. I wasn’t ready to deal with a wider circle. Now I am. Besides, so much of what God is doing in my life now is linked to cancer… how could I keep silent about all of it?
Within a few weeks of the diagnosis of Leukemia I got another call from a different doctor on the pathology reports from several biopsies that had been taken… they proved to be Melanoma; thus the “frisky dose of the blues”. They’ve been removed! I blog on that experience as well.
Another blog from this summer pretty well captures one of the primary themes of God’s work in me through this season thus far.
Thanks so much for your prayers.