August 24, 2010


The word "malignant" is one of the ugliest words in the English language. I heard it in 1986, from a doctor who removed a spot on my back and sent it to the lab. It was melanoma. I'll never forget that phone call.

I am in the hills of southern Indiana today, completing a two-day annual retreat for pastors and program staff of my church. I offered my car for others to ride, and one who rode with me was a woman on our pastoral staff.

This morning she joined me on the dock of the lake, telling me she was expecting a call from her doctor. She said yesterday she'd had a biopsy on a lump in her breast and was awaiting the results. Moments after she sat down near me on the dock, her phone rang.

"It's my doctor. This is it," she said quietly, picking up the phone. "Hello."

She nodded, saying "uh huh" several times. Then her mouth tightened and the tears began to flow. She acknowledged what the doctor was saying, although if her experience is anything like my own, she probably has no recollection of what was said after the diagnosis. She eventually hung up after taking a few notes. The pad read "Invasive Ductal Carcinoma."

She looked up at me. "Fuck."

I grabbed her in a hug as she let the tears and sobs finally free. "I've had that same phone call," I whispered.

If she follows my own pattern, the next ten days or so will be filled with making plans and forgetting all of it unless it's in writing. The moments alone will be spent grappling with "why me" and "what if."

The "why me" part isn't about victimhood so much as it is about purpose. What should I do about this, now that it's here? What in my life is incomplete? What can I let go? This becomes a time of allowing grace into one's life, allowing others to help in whatever way they can.

Being in a position to help is a great privilege. If you're used to being the one helping, then you know. But to suddenly become the one who needs help is jarring, and our first impulse is to keep everyone at arm's length. Having been on both ends of giving and receiving help, I can tell you how humbling it is to be in need. But grace is not on a balancing scale; it is not a matter of keeping score; it simply is. It is a gift to allow others to show their love in whatever way they can.

If you are someone who believes in the power of prayer, please lift up my friend and colleague in prayer as she deals with this illness and stress. Her own mother has recently completed treatment for lung cancer, and that prognosis is good. There is always hope.


rox said...

My thoughts are with your friend Birdie. Cancer is the great equalizer, isn't it? Makes us all the same.

I didn't know you were a melanoma survivor. You're a lucky lady. Let your friend rub your belly or something. Big hugs.

A Lewis said...

I continue to be amazed that we find ourselves in precisely the right places at the right times in our lives -- at least people like you and I do. She needed you to be right there. And you needed to be there as well. Big hugs to you both as her journey continues.

Doorman-Priest said...

Glad you were there - no coincidence, of course.

Blobby said...


Is it an ugly word, or do we just assign it that because of what it means?

Either way, I've been there.

I'm always surprised when I hear a diagnosis like that given over the phone. It seems careless to me - though I had the lead-in for that telephonically. Did that lessen the blow for the actual diagnosis? I think it did.

Your experience of survival could be a great comfort to your friend. ...but you already know that. :)

THIS IS ME....ONLINE said...

At a retreat with pastoral types, in a beautiful location, at the end of a dock, with a good friend who had been there and then the phone rings... Sounds like HE really set up a scene of comfort for your friend. What an honor to have been there.

I had one of those calls one time. Hub was out of town and my second grader was due home soon. I called a good friend and when she asked what she could do, I asked her to pick up my son. I stayed home alone (because that is how I roll) and laid across my bed for several hours just taking in the words. I remember thinking "So this is the way it's going to be. That's how I would die." Luckily, the drama queen survived. Surgery took care of it. I will have to die another way, another day.

I'm so glad that you're friend has you. She is in my prayers.