Mark is a retired fishing boat captain and born-again Christian. But his troubled youth had led to a case of Hepatitis C, which turned cancerous when he was 63 years old.
While I was on vacation at my sister’s house, I got a call from the doctor monitoring my health after open-heart surgery. “There’s something on your liver,” he said, “I need you back here tomorrow.”
I knew what it was, the call was “you have cancer.” My sister, Ellyn, started looking up treatment and prognosis, and nothing looked good. Every thought was consumed with fact that I was going to die. You would think, being a born-again Christian, that I should be ready to die, but as Dad said when it was his time, nobody wants to die. I wasn’t ready. I had lived through heart surgery and multiple heart attacks, but this was different. I was convinced I was going to die and was trying to prepare myself for that.
I’m not sure what people do that don’t have a spiritual life—ultimately, that’s what carried me through, but there were times when I lost faith. I thought the Lord was going to bless me, but every day, I was in constant despair, not for myself, but for my kids, my wife and my dog.
A Christmas Gift
Eventually, Ellyn got me an appointment with a liver cancer specialist who explained that because of the condition of my liver from years of abuse, surgery wasn’t an option. It wasn’t clear that there was anything to be done, but he set me up with a radiologist to talk about chemo embolization that might help prolong my life. I remember walking down the hall in tears thinking this is it, time to get my life in order.
(Note: Chemo embolization traps concentrated chemotherapy within a tumor and
cuts off its blood supply by injecting chemotherapy and blood clotting agents into the blood vessel feeding it.)
When I met with the radiologist, I felt some hope again. Everyone needs to latch onto one doctor you can have faith in, and he was the guy for me. He was so sincere about helping. He treated me and got all the tumors so that at my next MRI, nothing lit up. That was a good Christmas gift that year.
But the tumors kept coming back.
What I really needed was a liver transplant and I wasn’t a good candidate because of my history. Because it was so long ago, and I have been clean and compliant ever since, the transplant doctor was willing to give me a chance and I got put on the list. I had to go for more chemo treatments while I waited. They were so painful. It was like my whole abdomen was on fire. I felt invaded in my organs. At one point, I made my peace with death—I couldn’t go through another painful treatment.
A Difficult Recovery
After a little over a year of waiting, I got the call. “Can you be here in an hour?” When you get a doctor that says ok, you’re going to get a transplant, it’s really a gift from the Lord.
I went, they did the transplant, and that was only the beginning of my suffering. I kept rejecting the transplant, I picked up an infection in the operating room so needed to get on antibiotics, they had to open me up again and drain the liver cavity, and from that I got a hernia. They wouldn’t touch that for a year, then when I finally had that surgery, they nicked my bowel so they had to repair that. I had problems with the main blood flow to the liver—my liver wasn’t getting enough blood—and there was a problem with my bile duct. If something could go wrong, it did.
It was not an easy recovery. It took nearly two years and I kept losing that good feeling that I was being taken care of by God, I kept losing my faith, and that was the worst part.
Cancer is scarier than heart disease because everyone knows that none of the treatments are going to be fun. Heart disease is a quick fix—they operate, then you’re well—it’s not like it’s going to come back. But cancer is a haunting disease—it owns you in a way that heart disease doesn’t. You don’t know if it’s going to come back. I was at high risk because when they took my liver out, they found cancer in my blood. That meant that in 2-3 years it could come back.
You Have to Be Bad Ass
At some point, you just stop worrying about it. It’s now been three years and I don’t think about it anymore, except right before a scan, and then I schedule myself tightly I don’t have time to get flustered. When you get cancer, you have to be bad ass. It reminds me of walking into jail the first time. You can’t go in there scared—you’ve got to go in tough.
My family was very supportive, especially Ellyn, but when you climb onto that stainless-steel table in the operating room, you can either be there alone or you can be there with God. I can’t imagine being there alone. When there’s no family there, just people you don’t know, it’s like you’re just another brake job. That’s a horrendous feeling, a very scary feeling.
In the end, my faith sustained me. I wish I had had the faith when they first found the cancer that this is where I would be. But God didn’t fail me, I failed God. I should have had faith that he would take care of me.
Now I Know Why I’m Here
Now my son, Michael, is fighting stage 4 lung cancer and I’ve been helping him deal with it. Because of my own experience, I told him you have to accept God’s will in your life. You have to get to a place where you’re okay if you get through it or you don’t. That’s where your peace is.
One day on the way to treatment he said, “I’m okay with it now, whatever comes. I just want my kids to know how much I love them.” He’s been getting treatment for 13 months, first chemo and radiation, now immunotherapy, and is still doing good. Now we know why God pulled me through this—it was so I could take care of my son.