Fight Like a Viking: My husband’s battle with cancer (A letter to TX Senators)

Logertha Lothbrook, shield maiden and ruler in the show Vikings and my inspiration as we fight every day.

I layered the black eyeliner on thick and a little lopsided, above and below my eyelids. Then I started braiding my blonde hair into small intricate braids, as that of the great Viking women who went into battle with their men. I may have been a tiny bit tipsy on white wine and watching the show Vikings for a couple hours, but I was pumped. Nothing was going to stop me. I was a Viking woman and I was going to fight until my last breath. Like the great shield-maiden and ruler Lagertha Lothbrook, I would run into battle just as strong as the men and fight alongside them. I looked at myself in the mirror with great glee and screamed at the top of my lungs, my war-cry. Running around the house like a mad Wonder Woman with Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” up as loud as possible, I did a wild dance. Kicking and screaming at my imaginary foe, I was obviously kicking some pretend ass. It was probably quite a sight to behold, but I didn’t care. It was good cardio. My heart was racing and I felt like I could conquer the world. My dogs seemed to enjoy the show and watched in rapt amazement.

Why was I doing this? Had I gone mad? Maybe. But mostly it was because I really was in the fight of my life, and I needed the inspiration to keep on fighting. Months before, in an empty hospital hallway, I learned that my young, 35-year-old, vegetarian, ran-five-miles-a-day, never-sick-a day-in-his-life husband had Stage IV colon cancer. So if I needed to run around the house pretending to be a crazy Viking woman for some inspiration to keep on going, that is what the hell I was going to do.

You can never be prepared for that moment, when the doctors tell you something that changes your life forever. You see it in the movies. You know it happens to people. Maybe something like this has happened to your best friend’s aunt or your colleague’s father but not to you. Right? What are the chances?

J.R. a few days post surgery (1st time around), removing the tumor in his colon. His sideburns had been given free reign. November 2016

It started with my husband feeling sick and constipated. He had been having some irritating pain in his lower stomach area for a few months, but he was seeing a naturalist. “Bear, (his nickname for me) don’t worry, I got it covered.” He was taking care of it. I thought. I told him many times I wanted him to see a doctor, but he continued seeing his naturalist. It seemed like it was getting better. One day the pain was too uncomfortable and I convinced him to go to the local Carenow. We thought it would be easy to get medicine and he would be back on his feet feeling better in no time. They did a quick X-ray and said that out of caution, they wanted to get a CT Scan. Not too concerned, we completed the CT scan with no problems. A few hours later they called us back and told us that he had a blockage. We needed to go to the hospital immediately. I heard the concern in the doctor’s voice. “This hospital will know how to deal with this kind of thing.” There was something in his voice. Alarm? Hmmmm… “This kind of thing. What does THAT mean?” I wondered. At this point, I was still thinking it was something that the doctors could remedy easily and wasn’t that anxious. They would have told us if it was serious. It was going to be fine. We headed to the hospital. The ER was the first time we heard the word “possible tumor” blocking his GI system. They didn’t’ want to scare us. We were still OK. We would have to stay in the hospital for a couple days but they would take care of it. No worries. Hours pass.

When we were waiting for our room to be cleaned, I saw the first sign that this wasn’t just any ordinary visit. As his IV beeped, I went to check it and saw it’s label: Oncology. My heart dropped.

We got up to our room and he was finally stable on pain and nausea medicine. My parents were on their way in from out of town. A PA peeked her head in the room and I mentioned that I had not spoken with a doctor yet. I told her that there was a suggestion of a possible tumor and wondered if anyone could give me more details on the situation. I was getting a little frantic. She quickly squashed my fears and said that I had nothing to worry about; She was sure the ER doctors were just being cautious. I sighed a big sigh of relief. Thank you, God. This wasn’t going to be as bad as I thought. Everything was going to be OK. This will be a quick blip and our life will resume as normal.

An hour later the PA pops her head in the room and asks to speak with me outside. Her voice is shaking and she looks worried. As I took each step, I felt panic rise in my chest. When anyone asks you to step out of the room, it’s not a good sign, right? As she was speaking, saying words like “multiple tumors on his liver,” “possible liver cancer,” and “tumor markers,” I felt weak in the knees. Time seemed to slow down and her words became long and deep. Suddenly she sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown. My parents came rushing up at that very second and I leaned hard on my mother to keep from falling on the hospital floor. I could see in my parent’s faces that they knew it was bad too. My mind was spinning. My knees gave way. This isn’t happening. I was going to throw up.

My mom promptly took me to the bathroom. I didn’t realize how your body can actually have a physical reaction when a traumatic situation like this occurs. I kept repeating, “No…this can’t happen.”

“No.”

I thought maybe if I kept saying no, somehow, maybe I could change it. No. No. This can’t happen. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. My mom held me as I cried and flailed. She spoke words like a nurturing mother hen, none that I can remember now, but were meant to soothe. I could see it in her face too: the disbelief, the horror, the sadness. We sat on the dirty bathroom floor for a while in silence, taking it all in. Holding each other.

It wasn’t until days later till we received the official diagnosis, Stage IV Colon Cancer that had moved to the liver. It took me asking straight to the doctor’s face before they would actually say the words. No one wanted to tell us the truth. It wasn’t till days later that I had to sit down and explain to my husband what was going on. He was so doped up on pain meds that he didn’t really grasp what was happening. The first words out of his mouth when I asked if he had any questions was… “I’m so sorry we have to stop trying for a baby, but please don’t worry, we will figure it out.” Not worried about himself, but about me. I felt my heart swell with love.

So why do I tell you this story? To depress you? To help you see your life isn’t that bad? No, because you need to know that this is not just a one in a million story. This is just one of many. Many people have been called out into the hall to hear bad news from the doctor. People all over America have to wake up and fight cancer or some other horrible illness every single day, whether they feel like it or not. Yet, we are forgotten. Our Congress has decided we are not worth fighting for anymore.

J.R. during chemo treatment, hair still in tact! February 2017

My husband and I are both employed, college educated, hard-working individuals that contribute to our society both economically and as worship leaders within our own community church. However, because we are only part-time employees and self-employed, we do not get insurance through our employer and pay for access to health insurance through the marketplace. In our case, it has saved our lives and we are thankful for it every day. In 2013, when I had to resign my full time job and became very ill, I was able to see a spine specialist, psychiatrist, and psychologist to get the help I needed. A year later because of this help, I was back working again. As a self-employed full time professional musician, J.R. had decided that he would never have health insurance. It just wasn’t in the cards for him. When the Affordable Care Act came around, he signed up, three years before his cancer diagnosis. Without the Affordable Care Act, we would be bankrupt right now, even with the abundant generosity of friends, family, and our church along the way. I know that it isn’t perfect. I know many people are upset that they have to pay a little extra each month for people who they don’t believe deserve health care. So let’s FIX it.

Many of these same people, including my own Senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, say they are Christ followers, yet in the same breath will complain of “those people” who get things they don’t deserve. I always wonder about these Christ followers, and wonder if they have read the same scriptures as I have. When I read the New Testament and see what Christ does, I see an empathetic, loving teacher who taught that the greatest commandment is to love one another. In Matthew 22 it reads: “and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Also see Mark 12: 28–34)

J.R. and I at the Ranger’s game post second surgery for bowel perforation. July 2017

Many Christ followers are very clear on the first commandment: to love God with everything they have, but seem to be unclear about the second, to love your neighbor as yourself. All throughout the Bible we are called to help the poor and the needy, the widow and the orphan:

Matthew 25:44–45 states, “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

Matthew 10: 8 begins by asking to actually heal the sick. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

It is clear in the gospels that we should help those that are less fortunate than us. Yet, many Christians fail to see that health care, literally healing the sick, is just that. We have a chance to be the kind of country that works for the good of all, or the kind of country that only cares for the few. We can have a “survival of the fittest” philosophy or we can be guided by the principles of our Constitution that every human matters. I want my Senators to know that if they pass this healthcare bill and repeal the ACA, they will not just be hurting people but killing people just like my husband by not allowing them to have access to health care.

In the New Testament, James was always very concerned about what faith actually meant lived out in the real world. He writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

J.R. playing at a house concert for Sofar Sounds in Dallas, TX. October 2015

Senators, your faith needs to be accompanied by action. You cannot say you are a Christ follower and not follow as Christ lead. Are your actions truly mirroring the faith that you proclaim? Whatever you are doing for the least of these, you are doing to Jesus. When you take away basic human rights from human beings such as decent health care, you are doing so to Jesus.

My husband and I are scared. I can’t even voice how scared I was today when I saw that the Republicans will now start debate on the floor. For awhile today, I sat and ugly cried and wailed, asking God what we were going to do if they took our access to healthcare away. Not only do we have to deal with fighting this disease every day, we have to be anxious and worried that our healthcare might be taken away in mere months. We have been talking in the last couple weeks about going ahead and making the leap: having a baby. Even knowing that he may not see the next year, but we have wanted it for so long, why stop living our life when facing death? But knowing that I might not be able to be hired if pregnant, if I needed to get a full time job to keep our healthcare, makes us pause.

J.R. singing at The House of Blues in Dallas, TX post chemo treatment #2. February 2017

My Senators will never have to face a choice like this. They most likely will never have to decide between getting treatment or not doing so because they may otherwise go bankrupt and leave their wife with crushing debt. They will never have to make the decision to not start a family because they might not have health insurance in months. They don’t have to either work their last years or months away at a corporate job to afford treatment instead of doing what they are called to do in life. These are the decisions we will have to face if our access to healthcare is taken away.

We don’t know how long he has left. It could be a year or maybe more. They always say the same thing to us, “No one has a crystal ball.” We do know that every day we will get up and do everything we can to make this life count. We continue, even as we walk this road, to give to our church and preach what we believe.

My husband is a walking reflection of this. When our friend’s car broke down and he was trading his in, without hesitation, he gave him his car. He gives money to his friends who need it and tries to hire local musicians as much as possible. When I get annoyed, He looks at me with those big brown puppy dog eyes and simply says, “Laura, if we have it, we need to give. They need it more then we do.” When he says things like this or performs those simple acts of generosity to those less fortunate than us, my heart swells with love for him. I’m so proud to be married to this man. When I feel down about his diagnosis, he always lifts me up and reminds me that we have the present and that is all we really need.

We have been told there is no hope for remission at this point. We have to keep fighting it and hope for the longest possible outcome. This is not what we have hoped and prayer for but we believe that God has plans for us, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 29:11) We live in that hope and know that time is the greatest gift of all.

As I was very down today and also dealing with some stomach issues, I decided I needed to listen to something uplifting, so I turned on The Liturgists podcast. They were speaking about the Prodigal Son story in the Gospels. Long story short, a rebellious strong-willed son takes his inheritance and squanders it, while the faithful and loyal older son obeys all his father asks. When the younger son comes home with nothing, the Father (the “God” figure in the story) throws him a big party! The loyal older brother is very upset and asks his Father why he was not rewarded, for he was obedient and trustworthy. The Father says, “‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Instead of getting mad at the Son, the Father figure reminds him that you are always with me.

This gives me strength, knowing that my Divine Parent will not forsake us. God whispers in my heart, “Daughter, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” And God, I’m hoping that means health care too.

So, no matter what, I have to keep putting on my Viking warrior woman eyeliner and go to war with cancer every day. It is an indomitable foe but it cannot take our spirit or our principles. Until his dying breath, I will fight for him and we will continue to try and live out those principles we believe. We will love our neighbor, even those we don’t agree with, and hope that they see us as worthy of this precious life.

J.R. and I with our dog, Giraffe, pre-cancer. Photo cred: Michael Leza