On Tuesday July 14, 2020 at 2:45 in the afternoon, I walked to a bell, read an inscription, and rang a bell.
Up until that point, I didn’t want to ring that bell.
I had just finished up several hours of one infusion after another of the “killer cocktail” delivered via IV. I was tired, I didn’t feel good, and I just wanted to go home and sleep.
But the nurses said, “This is your last one, Mr. Lee! You get to ring the bell!”
They were so nice to me … I didn’t have the heart to tell them I just wanted to get out. But I went to the bell and was about the ring it when they said, “Oh, you have to read the plaque, first!” I wanted to tell them, “Can’t I just ring the bell? Isn’t that enough?”
But I complied. I’m so glad I did.
I’m BRAVER because I fought a giant and won. I’m STRONGER because I had to be. I’m HAPPIER because I’ve learned what matters. I STAND TALLER because I’m a survivor!
It took me some time to appreciate those four statements, but looking back after two years, I know they are true.
I didn’t start chemotherapy because I was brave, I did it to save my neck! "Courage," said Franklin D. Roosevelt, "is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear." “Timmy the Tumor” was a disease that needed to be put down. He was trying to murder me and cripple my family. I didn’t feel brave. But it had to be done. I guess that’s bravery? Taking my stand no matter what the cost and saying: “Only one of us is coming off this field alive - and it ain't gonna be you.”
But was I strong? I just sat there, really. I just received chemicals that ordinarily should be considered poison. One of them, doxorubicin, is so toxic, it’s called the “Red Devil” because it causes heart damage, and will destroy exposed skin. The nurses had to wear double gloves and double gowns to give it to me. Sure, they all made me sick. They made lasting changes to my body. But I had no choice. I suppose one never knows until they come to a decision of what they’d do until they actually have to do it. Would I jump out of a plane and skydive? Would I stand-up to a villain if they came after me? Could I run off a ramp on D-Day? I guess sometime you don’t know how strong you could be until you have to be.
Happier? Oh, yes! Not just because I’ve had three scans (one more to go in August of 2022), but because of the great lessons I’ve learned. Cancer sharpened my senses to the reality of our mortality. You, dear read, will not “make it out” alive. You’re going to die, one day. But for the disciple, it just leads to the existence where NOTHING will ever hurt me again! Sure, I’m going to fight for life now, but death is a win-win situation! Cancer also taught me to be a better steward of my relationships and my spiritual formation. I jumpstarted Cancer with Grace, a cancer support group! I came face-to-face with my out-of-control thoughts and behaviors that I thought were manageable. It was time to deal with the emotional and personality cancers of my life: So off to Celebrate Recovery I went! I joined a Step Study Group! When I say I am grateful for cancer, I mean it. It’s made me – ironically – a happier person.
Do I stand taller? Did I need to? Having “joined” the cancer club, it makes it easier to talk to others with the same diagnosis. Some of them have far more serious cases – so serious, it makes mine look like a “baby cancer”. But these people? They’re the bravest, most resilient, most noble people I’ve met. There’s something about how this brush with death makes them happier and even “healthier”. They DO stand taller than the average mortal. They needed to. It changed them. Did that happen for me? I don’t know.
I have one more scan to go. If all goes well, I’ll never visit MD Anderson as a patient – but as a friend. My relationship with Dr. Saatva Neelapu will change from patient to “former patient” and I can just be a friend who’ll always buy his dinner if he’ll let me.
July 14th is just another summer day. It always comes after the 13th, and is followed by the 15th.
July 14th means that guns went silent pointed at Timmy the Tumor.
He wasn’t moving. Good riddance.
But July 14th will always remind me of where I’ve been, how I’ve been refined, and a humble reminder that every day 5,250 people are diagnosed with some form of cancer. Everyone of them deserve a meaningful look in the eye and a hearty encouragement: “You can do this! You can beat this! You are more than this disease – let it refine you, not define you!”
It is a great privilege for me to say to them as one of them. I’m grateful to God for the opportunity.