Category Archives: “beating” cancer

The F Word and Cancer – Focus

- By Joe Fornear

Not a day goes by that I don’t read or hear the f bomb dropped on cancer, or the phrase “cancer sucks.” Trust me, I totally understand the sentiment, and I’m not in judgment mode here. Nor am I wishing to lecture anyone on how to live.walk on water - 2-18-14

I’m just wondering about the wisdom of focusing on how bad something is in order to cope or overcome it. Can we give our trials too much power, thereby making them even harder to overcome?

I speak from experience here. During my battle with advanced Stage IV metastatic melanoma, there were times I vented externally at cancer, and sometimes my venting was strictly internal. Still, the result was the same – the cancer got bigger and my God became smaller. Venting is the antithesis of praising God.

I think God illustrated forever the power of focus during the storms of life through Peter’s walk on water. When Peter kept his gaze on Jesus he was able to stay above water. When he focused on obstacles, the wind and waves, doubts overcame him and he sunk.

Now fortunately, there is a Plan B if we find ourselves sinking or under water. I have discovered, like Peter, that the Lord graciously responds to that simple prayer, “Lord, help me.” He always lifts us up with His strong right hand.

Still, He prefers we learn how to stay on top of our circumstances. The secret is to keep focusing on how big God is! He is the God who flung 300 billion stars across our Milky Way galaxy, which is just one of 100 billion galaxies in the universe. So do the math. Which is bigger, God or cancer? There is no comparison… so why focus on how bad cancer is? Eyes on Him.

Live Weak?

Love him or not – Lance Armstrong, the cyclist and cancer survivor, has helped a ton of cancer patients. His contribution to my recovery from Stage IV metastatic melanoma goes way beyond inspiration. He raised funds for a NovalisTM shaped-beam radiation unit for the Richardson Regional Hospital where he was treated. At the time, there were only six NovalisTM units in the world. I had this radiation treatment at this hospital and it knocked out a life-threatening mass that was enveloping my pancreas. So I’m very grateful to Lance, and recognize him as one of the many variables the Lord used to save my life.

As I write today, my intent is not to beat up on Lance, but to remind myself and all who read of a key lesson that emerges from his journey.

Lance once wrote that having a 40-50% chance of survival brought him hope, as it was so much better than havStronghold braceleting a 4-5% chance. I know the hopelessness of devastating odds. In May of 2003, my doctor gave me a 0% chance of making it through the week. Yet now as fellow survivors with Lance, in a strange way, I now hold an advantage.

After surviving cancer, he created the legend of Lance Armstrong, the ironman who “lives strong.” First he beat cancer, and then he climbed the mountainLive Strong bracelet of cycling fame. He won one of the most grueling sporting events known to man, the Tour de France, not just once, but a superhuman seven years in a row. What a story! And now that we know the full story – what a tragedy. At Lance’s own admission, the legend was built on cheating and lies – he used banned drugs to win. Consider his narration of a famous Nike commercial he made back in 2001:

“This is my body, and I can do whatever I want to it. I can push it. Study it. Tweak it. Listen to it. Everybody wants to know – What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my butt six hours a day. What are you on?”

By contrast, when I survived my impossible ordeal, the role I played in my survival was crystal clear to me. I knew very well that I did not “beat” cancer. My faith was weak at best; even absent on occasions. My strength sputtered during recuperation from my third surgery to remove one-third of my stomach, and it abandoned me at the news my dad had died of the same disease we both had been battling – melanoma. I was forced to accept that I was still too weak to travel to his funeral in another state. Still, it was a major blow to my macho pride.

This machismo had been crafted over the years in sports, hunting and fishing, and construction work. I thought I was pretty darn tough – until I was confronted by my own serious limitations. The sooner I acknowledged these limits, the sooner I could get the necessary help from God and man; and be freed from the trap of trying to create my own version of a legend.

It’s hard for me to judge Lance. Had I been in his shoes, I may have followed the same mountaintop path to vain glory that he chose. As I watched him confess before the world, the takeaway for me was the theme of our books and our ministry: It’s okay to be weak. Admitting weakness will make us strong as we lean on the Lord.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves. - 2 Corinthians 4:7
Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. - 2 Corinthians 12:9

“Live weak” doesn’t sound so catchy; nor does it stroke the human ego. Yet it is more realistic, and certainly more freeing. As Lance’s wife told him long ago, “The truth will set you free.” His strength goes a lot further than ours in this marathon we call life.

My hope is that Lance – and all of us – will find the One whose strong hold makes all of the difference in this  life and the next.

Lord, help us be realistic to embrace our weaknesses and limitations so that we can find true and lasting strength in You.

Advice from a Weak One Made Strong

This week I am posting parts of an interview with Kalisha Frazier of UV Skinz about my book and battle with cancer. UV Skinz makes clothing and other products that protect the skin from ultraviolet rays. The interview was “live” and posted on their Facebook wall. Kalisha asked some good questions.

Q. You have been down a long road – do you have any advice to those in the midst of battling cancer?

A. Joe:  I think my best advice is to embrace your weakness. God never intended for us to handle cancer alone. When I was in the midst of the roughest times during my fight, I tried so hard to be strong. The problem was, I had become so weary, I had no natural strength left to fight. I was frustrated with myself that I couldn’t rise above the pain and sadness. I kind of beat myself up, because I thought I should be stronger. It was OK for me to admit I was weak, even though I was a big, tough guy from Pittsburgh, the Steel City. One of my favorite Bible passages is 2 Corinthians 12:9 & 10, “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

Q. You mention that you developed a “spiteful awe of cancer” during this experience. Can you explain how it affected your outlook on beating your disease?

A. Joe:  When I began the surgeries and treatments, I wasn’t totally committed to the battle. Stage IV melanoma is a very, very serious disease, and it is unwise to fight it in a half-hearted way. Early on, I had a type of denial, that I was going to get through this very fast, and I didn’t need to “baby” myself. After my two surgeries on the lymph nodes under my arm, I kept pushing myself. I didn’t want to miss either of my two kid’s (Jesse, son, & Amy, daughter) high school basketball games, which complicated recovery. I was running around in the rain and cold and got a staph infection which carried over to the surgery to remove one third of my stomach. I really didn’t want to be in the battle, but to fight well, I needed to surrender to the fact that I needed to get my heart into the fight. Still, in the end, I don’t claim to have beaten the disease myself. In May of 2003, my doctor told me I had days to live. The melanoma had spread to both sides of my pancreas, lung, kidney, pelvis and several other sites. He had given up on me. Only God could have stepped into turn my case around. I look at it this way, Stage IV melanoma was way bigger than me. I have no problem admitting that it kicked my butt. But God is way bigger than any disease. If He decides to keep you around, you will stay. It took a miracle for me, and I am blessed to have received one.

Q. What were your feelings when you found out that you were one of the rare cases of melanoma that did not have a “primary” source of cancer and that it had spread directly to your lymph nodes?

A. Joe:  My huge disappointment was complicated by the fact that I was misdiagnosed by my family doctor for months. He has apologized for missing my diagnosis, and I forgive him, but he said twice during appointments about the growing lump under my arm, “Whatever it is; it isn’t cancer. It is too soft to be cancer.” Frankly, I would have preferred to catch the disease as a skin lesion in Stage 1, but God had other plans. I can see now why He allowed it. But, people should know, melanoma is very, very squirrelly. Always get checked once a year and always get second opinions on any lumps on your body.

Q. What changes have you made to your lifestyle to continue to boost your immune system?

A. Joe:  I eat a whole lot better. Less food overall; and a lot less sugar. I have worked less and slept more, as I have some serious workaholic tendencies. I also work on not getting worked up about life’s frustrations as stress wears down our immunities. I have learned to cast my anxiety and frustration on the Lord more. That helps; He is my Stronghold in hard times and in every day life as well.

Q. How has cancer become a gift in your life?

A. Joe:  During my battle, when someone first mentioned to me that cancer was such a gift to her, I thought that was one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard. Now though I see how the Lord has used my cancer battle in many ways. A short list:

1) I have much more compassion for weakness and for suffering than ever. We launched Stronghold Ministry because of this. We help cancer patients through their battle.

2) I learned so much about the Lord and grew closer to Him. I now share this knowledge of Him with everyone I can, and certainly with cancer patients and caretakers.

3) I learned how fragile life is, and respect my own health more.

4) I have reconnected with old friends from college and high school. They were instrumental in encouraging me and inspiring me to hang on. I also reconnected so much deeper with my seven siblings and my mother as they were a huge support to me.

5) My wife, Terri, was such an angelic gift to me. We definitely have been changed by the whole experience, and the battle has helped our marriage. We appreciate each other more for sure.

Q. The day you found out you were cured…what was that moment like?

A. Joe:  At first I didn’t believe it. We had taken the PET scan images home after the test and concluded the cancer had spread even more. We misread the scans obviously. Then when the radiologist’s report was read that I was NED (no evidence of disease), it was surreal. Eventually the news sunk in and we got very happy. My doctor was so cautious though, and said, “Now you have nine months to live.” But I proclaimed myself cured and told him all chemo would cease immediately. He talked me out of that, and I finished the remaining three rounds. I had several false alarms in the last seven and a half years where the doctors said the cancer has come back or probably come back. Five years is the official medical threshold when they consider you cured. It took about that much time to feel cured. But almost every day along the way, I thanked God for His kindness to me.

Kalisha: I invited Joe here to be apart of our LIVE FB interview so that you, the fans of UV Skinz, could hear the inspirational story of Joe Fornear. Raising awareness about skin cancer and finding the strength to fight it is all about the exchange of personal struggles and triumphs. The more we talk about it the more people will hear.

It’s Supernatural

We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves. -2 Corinthians 4:7.

At one point during my cancer fight in 2003, I finally acknowledged the battle was too much to bear alone. Believe me, I resisted the admission as long as I could. Early on, my mantra was: “Be strong, you can beat this.” At age 44, I was relatively young and in decent physical shape. I figured I was prepared as anyone. I felt I could master physical pain after years of pushing my body in sports and construction work. I could certainly handle the emotional stress because I was a tough guy from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Steel City of Champions. Plus I had been a pastor for 12 years, teaching others how to handle the most difficult trials. My natural strength held up well until the metastatic melanoma spread beyond the lymph nodes under my arm to several internal organs. Rough chemo treatments, three surgeries in a month, and a steady barrage of Stage IV complications took their toll. My illusions of strength faded to pleas for mercy. Like Peter sinking in the Sea of Galilee, I desperately reached out for help.

The Lord had been waiting all along, ready to lift me from the unstable sea of self-trust.  Now years after recovering, the Lord must still continually remind me of my limitations. Perhaps my greatest deception is I prefer to fancy myself strong. In Ephesians 6:10, Paul seems to prod us past human power, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” Fighting cancer and facing so many hurdles in life requires great strength. So why settle for natural strength, when we can tap the limitless supernatural strength of God Almighty, our Stronghold? When we embrace our weakness, we experience His strength. So turn to Him for the all of the strength you need. He is waiting.

Victory March In The Wilderness, Part 3

(Third in a series on journeying through desert places in our lives).

O God, when You went forth before Your people, when You marched through the wilderness, Selah. The earth quaked; the heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God; Sinai itself quaked at the presence of God, the God of Israel. You shed abroad a plentiful rain, O God; You confirmed Your inheritance when it was parched. -Psalm 68:7-9

The Lord reigns everywhere; deserts are no match for Him! Psalm 68 is David’s reminder that God was faithful to Israel in the wilderness, so He would be faithful to him, and us as well. In Part 1 of this mini-series, we dispelled the fear of going the wrong direction in the desert. Part 2 focused on God’s ability to march us victoriously; we are not overwhelmed in Him; we are stable and assured, even if our physical body or our circumstances are falling apart.

Another common desert fear:

  • Will there be sufficient provisions, like water and food?

In other words, what if I don’t have enough resources to handle my wilderness journey? Desert travelers are often loaded down with worries. “What-if” questions tend to focus on resources.

1) Spiritual Resources – “What if I come to the end of my strength – will I be able to cope?”

2) Material Resources – “Will I/we/they have enough money?”

3) Relational “Resources” – “What will happen if my kids grow up without a mother/father?”

Psalm 68:9 reveals that God “confirms His inheritance when it was parched.” No matter how horrible our conditions, His inheritance, or resources will be sufficient. Don’t let pain, stress, or bad news cause you to panic. Simply rest in Him and trust Him for ALL resources you or your loved one(s) need. He is committed to take care of ANY concerns you have. Twice this passage stresses His “Presence” provides a “rain” or even “plentiful rain.” He provides. During my brutal cancer fight with Stage IV metastatic melanoma, there were several times I feared running out of strength, but my anxiety was  unnecessary. When I needed something, He was there. I’m not saying it was easy to cope; it was really hard. But His presence and inheritance made the journey so much more manageable. Many times, He even made my journey pleasant. Drink the rain.

The Survivor’s New Normal

This may be surprising, but it is common for cancer survivors to struggle with depression after being declared cancer free. Now you might wonder, “They had their prayers answered, so what could possibly be the problem?” Many people expect survivors to be all chirpy. In the last three decades, the number of cancer survivors in the United States has tripled and is growing by 2% each year. In 2004, there were an estimated 10.7 million cancer survivors, representing 3.5% of the United States population. But oncologists and psychologists are only now becoming aware that mild to moderate depression in survivors is common.

Drawing from my own experience and also other warriors we’ve encountered, I’d like to offer reasons happiness can elude the survivor. Then I’d like to suggest some biblical pointers on how to handle these post-war blues.

1) Fear. Immediately after being declared cancer free, the thought that the cancer could recur is never far from consciousness. Fear lies in wait and rears up at the first sign of a new or old pain.

2) Adrenaline letdown. For many, there is a sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome after tsoldier's depression - survivorheir cancer battle. Returning to “civilian life” is not as easy as one might think.  Many patients literally fought for their life. They were all jacked up and on guard constantly. After the battle, it is truly difficult to relax, and recovery takes time.

3) Literal battle scars. Surgeries, chemo and radiation all take their toll and leave a mark. The potential list of scars is lengthy: neuropathy from chemo (painful tingling of nerves in fingers and toes and feet), burns from radiation, loss of limb function, weight gain and lasting medication side effects. Withdrawal from mood altering pain management drugs can be another factor in being down. For privacy reasons, some scars may never be shared by survivors, such as issues pertaining to sexual matters.

4) Figurative battle scars. Battle fatigue is often rampant for survivors. Chemo and other drugs depress the immune and nervous systems, it is no wonder they also depress the emotions. The grieving of lost time and opportunities with loved ones is very common. Pain-filled flashback memories can haunt the survivor at first. Often sadness due to continued or new tensions in relationships impacts the survivor as well. Normalizing relationships is never easy.

5) Purposelessness. The survivor often is paralyzed by big picture questions, “What does this all mean? How should I live now?” Life after cancer can prove so mundane, empty, boring and vacant. Priorities now must be realigned back to normal, and the survivor is often uncertain as to how to define “the new normal.”

6) Support system changes. Often supporters move on, leaving the survivor to process the aftermath of cancer  on their own. I really needed to talk, but I soon realized that not everyone wanted to listen. Expectations from work, spouse and life often return like a flood, making it clear to the survivor that the kid gloves are off. He or she must pull it together and look to contribute fully again.

So what advice does the Bible give?

1) Pray and Trust. The Bible says to cast our anxiety on the Lord (1 Peter 5:17). Jesus said we can’t add even one day to our lives, so we should trust Him completely with our longevity.

2) Number your days. Moses said, “Teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Moses suggests we make each day count for God. Following the Lord on a daily, even a moment by moment basis, is wise living advice for all. The martyred missionary, Jim Elliot, once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he can never lose.”

3) Talk or write it out. Find a support group or some other survivors and talk it over. One of the most healing steps for me was to write a book. Many people journal and write prayers to the Lord. These activities can help to make sense of the entire experience. Reading others stories still helps me today. If you are a survivor, write us and I will send you my book – My Stronghold, maybe it will help you.

4) Practice the Presence of God. There is no one who can heal our hurts and memories like the Lord. He can “restore the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25). In other words, He can make up for our losses and lost time. I think the best way He does this is by making each moment special with Him and others. So the Lord, who was our Stronghold in the midst of the storm, can continually hold us up and heal us as we live out full lives for Him.

The “new normal” for the survivor and all of us should be living moment by moment in dependence and closeness to the Lord. Every moment is sacred, whether we are doing some good deed or raking leaves. That is the sheer excitement of walking with Christ. We get to live each day with Him and through Him!

sacred and eternal work. You will bounce back. It takes a little time. Just saying, this is all very, very normal. I think the big takeaway lesson is that the “new normal” should be living moment by moment in dependence and closeness to the Lord. That is really the excitement of the Christian walk. We get to live each day with Christ.

What Not To Say To A Cancer Patient

tape over mouth“You’re going to beat this.” That’s right, lose that line for good, especially with later stage warriors. It is a bold claim and easy to spout.  It exudes confidence, reinforces optimism and instills inspiration. So how could saying it possibly be a mistake? Unfortunately, it places the burden of ultimate victory squarely on the patient. They desperately want to be healed. They are probably doing more than you realize to get well, but having complete responsibility to get well can be overwhelming. And keep this in mind, no matter how tough your patient appears, most are much weaker than they let on. How do I know this? They tell me this in private and I often felt that way myself during my own battle. I hear it all the time; very few people grasp what the patient is going through.

Lance Armstrong seems to be the epitome of the triumph of the human spirit but living strong has its limits. Consider what his longtime coach and confidante Chris Carmichael said in an interview with USA Today:

“People believe that Lance is a tough guy: He beat cancer, he willed it away. They think he left this Earth and is invincible. That’s far from the truth. He has the same mortality as anyone else. He dealt with cancer the same way as anyone else. I saw him scared and fearful, with all the human emotions associated with that intense experience.”  (USA TODAY – 5/22/2002).

To really love someone in the midst of crisis we should follow Paul’s advice and “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). And, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak” (1 Corinthians 9:22). We tend to want to lift strugglers out of weakness with just a turn of a phrase. It rarely works that way. People need to feel unconditionally accepted, understood and supported, especially in a crisis. They need to look to the Lord more than to themselves.  If they have permission to be weak around you, ironically then they will be able to draw upon your strength and the Lord’s. “With the Lord’s help, you will beat this.”