Fighting cancer taught me to live by faith, not by sight

This column is part of our ongoing opinion commentary on faith, called Living our faith. Find the complete series here.

It was just a freckle. Not the kind on your skin that you might want to have your dermatologist check out. It was in my right eye and so small only an eye doctor could spot it.

I was supposed to have it checked every year in case it got any bigger, but I wasn’t worried. Who has ever heard of a freckle behind the retina, let alone a freckle that could turn into melanoma? It happens to less than 1 in 77,000 people.

At the time of my annual checkup, at the height of the pandemic, I was more worried about catching COVID-19 in a public space than being beaten down by a freckle. Then, when I spotted falling masks in a crowded waiting room and the receptionist told me I had to wait 45 minutes to see the doctor, I weighed the risks and canceled my appointment.

This choice may cost me my life.

When I went back to the eye doctor over a year later, my freckle had grown a millimeter and my doctor asked to see me back in his office.

“We have reviewed your scans,” he said. “I hate to tell you this, but you have a malignant tumor.”

He continued to speak softly and slowly and leaned towards me with a pained expression. But nothing else he said registered. I had slipped into a vague state of shock, unable to absorb the absurdity of it all. I had dodged COVID countless times. I beat the race on toilet paper and secured N-95 masks before any of my friends knew what they were. And now a freckle in my eye could knock me down?

My ophthalmologist, Dr. Timothy Fuller, is an ocular melanoma surgeon. He assembled a medical team at lightning speed.

I think I was supposed to find each specialist’s mantra reassuring:

“We will work to save your life first, your eye second and your vision last.”

A radiation oncologist rushed to create a small plaque covered in radiation seeds. My surgeon would stitch it into my eye ASAP, killing the cancer cells before they spread.

Another oncologist ordered labs and scans of my lungs and liver, where ocular melanoma cells first travel.

I followed orders, oscillating between numbness and terror, afraid to ask the terrible questions. But before the dawn of the morning of my cat scans, I called my close friend Ruth, an ophthalmologist, from a dark hospital parking lot.

“Am I okay? ” I asked him.

“I think your prognosis is good,” she said. “The tumor is small and grew slowly. You will probably lose some vision in that eye.

“What if it has already spread to my liver or my lungs?” I asked.

“Then you die.”

That’s how I learned that there is no cure for ocular melanoma if it spreads. And you can’t always predict who will spread and who won’t.

I dove into research and possible remedies on the horizon and found almost nothing. I tracked down more experts, looking for any kind of hope.

Dr. Jade Homsi, head of melanoma cancer at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, put it bluntly.

“You have an orphan disease that only strikes 3,000 people a year in this country,” he said. “There is no cure because drug companies can’t make money looking for one.”

I get it.

“Why would like to drug companies sponsor walks for ocular melanoma like they do for breast cancer or heart disease? I asked rhetorically.

He fired back with the frustration of a doctor whose hands are tied.

“Because your life matters as much as that of a woman with breast cancer.

In the days following my diagnosis, I ricocheted between a freefall of despair and a struggle to maintain hope.

Some of my doctors told me there was no way to know if my cancer would metastasize. Others assured me that my prognosis was good. My oncologist told me there was only one thing I could do to help prevent its spread: reduce my stress.

“Exercise, meditate or do yoga and slow down,” she said. “Eliminate anything in your life that causes you stress. Cortisol is particularly bad for ocular melanoma.

The idea that I could spread my cancer if I didn’t manage my stress was stressing me out.

I downloaded the Calm app on my iPhone and reached it when I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with my heart racing. But the gurgling of the streams didn’t soothe me, nor did the dreamy, nocturnal voices of the storytellers that were supposed to steal my imagination.

I tried to see myself as a leaf floating on a peaceful river. I released my essays on detachment and suffering in Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk.

It all helped a little, but none of it was lasting, so I turned to someone I had relied on for help for most of my adult life, but not without considerable struggle. I searched for signs of God in my abyss.

I see God most Sundays when I join Christians around the world in telling the mystery we believe in by faith: Christ is dead, Christ is risen, Christ will return.

It was that part of “come back,” to make all the bad things good in the end, that I needed faith to believe now. If the Easter story is true, if there is is a God who conquered evil and death by dying on a cross and rising again, so perhaps suffering and death will not have the last word in my life either.

One of the scenes I like the most in the Bible is that of the man who came to Jesus for help. Falling to his knees crying, he said, “I believe. Help my disbelief. That’s how I started my second eye surgery.

This time I asked my doctor to suspend the anesthesia that puts you in a twilight zone before giving you the hard stuff that knocks you out for surgery. I was wide awake when they wheeled me into the operating room, laid out the instruments under glaring lights, and called out a surgical checklist like a Boeing 737 was about to take off.

The whole scene made me a little nervous, but something inexplicable in me wanted the veil between me and death to be lifted a little. I wanted to reduce the buffer I cultivated between me and my mortality; to see how my faith held up in the face of total helplessness.

As Dr. Fuller and a team of masked nurses, technicians and anesthesiologists prepared to cut my eye out, I crossed my hands over my chest and prayed in silence. Instead of imagining myself as a leaf floating down a river, I imagined myself as a beloved daughter of God, falling into his arms.

By the time the anesthesiologist was ready to put me to sleep, I felt abandoned and at peace, perhaps the closest I’ve come to believing that one day I, too, will rise again.

Sometimes I wonder which takes more courage: believing in God and an afterlife, or living without the comfort of such faith.

Has my religion anesthetized me against the terror of death or does it give me the tools and the courage I need to face it?

theologian and New York Times columnist Esau McCaulley calls Palm Sunday “the quake before the quake of our resurrection celebration.”

It’s one thing to celebrate the resurrection of a historical figure who lived over 2,000 years ago. It’s a scarier test of faith than believing that his resurrection guarantees mine.

I’m marking my time now between CT scans and blood tests that tell me if I’m winning my battle against a rare cancer.

A freckle gone bad teaches me the art of living life upside down. By keeping my inevitable end in sight, I find it easier to live more fully in the present, accepting the smallest things I once took for granted – a sip of morning tea, a walk with a friend, a hug from a grandchild.

Even if all I lose in this struggle is a part of my vision, I will count it as a stern mercy this Easter season, for battling cancer has instructed me, once again, in the mystery of what it means to live by faith and not by sight.

Peggy Wehmeyer is a Dallas-based writer and former religious news correspondent for WFAA-TV and ABC News. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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