If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough. – Meister Eckhart
I thought I had cancer. Was told by my doctor that chances were very good I did have cancer. And in that moment, my life changed forever.
Last October, I underwent my yearly lung cancer screening. Folks like me who have smoked for a long time are eligible to receive a low dose CT scan every twelve months to look for signs of cancer in the lungs. I’d undergone two other scans in the past three years (missing one during Covid-19) and thought of this test as my annual chance to make sure that everything was ok and that I was cancer free. I always had anxiety around the time of the scan. At that point I’d been at least a pack a day smoker for forty-five years, from the first day I picked up a cigarette at sixteen.
Like many addicts, I was in denial about how deadly my addiction could turn out to be.
But like many addicts, I was in denial about how deadly my addiction could turn out to be. Through hard life experience I’ve learned that when you are in the throes of an addiction like smoking, alcohol, or drugs, the hunger for that high or that buzz or that jolt of nicotine can all too easily push away any fears you might have had about the dangers of your habit. Addiction is a mental illness, one I’ve long struggled with around many substances, including smoking.
And yes, this in spite of the fact that tobacco use is the leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Lung cancer killed 131,000 people in 2020, making it the fifth leading cause of death in our country. Last year, 231,000 people were newly diagnosed with lung cancer, most of them smokers. Most of them will die from that disease.
Yet even with all those statistics, last fall my struggle with addictions again convinced me that the scan would be negative and yup, I’d go on smoking. Then the phone rang less than 24 hours after the scan and my nurse practitioner let me know they had found a large nodule on my right lung that was “suspicious for malignancy” in the words of the radiologist who’d written the report. She bluntly told me that I needed to see a lung surgeon right away for evaluation.
They found a large nodule on my right lung that was ‘suspicious for malignancy.’
Then she simply said, “Good luck Mr. Hudson.” I hung up the phone, and it felt like everything under my feet– the ground, the very earth I stood upon, and all the assumptions I made every day about my life, a life that I believed would continue on for many more years– shifted. My foundation shook. Rocked. Broke apart.
For the next six months, I felt like I was holding my breath, waiting and wondering and worrying. I woke up every morning with one thought: I have cancer. I told only a handful of people, in part, because of waiting for a definitive diagnosis, and also because I was ashamed of how I’d put my life in danger through a nasty and ugly addiction. I wondered about all the things I might miss in life: retirement, finishing my book, watching the kids in my life grow up, or just growing old with my friends and family.
I was ashamed of how I’d put my life in danger through a nasty and ugly addiction.
Little stuff too: riding my bike on a balmy summer’s day. Sitting at a baseball game in the twilight and listening to the crack of the bat and the buzz of the crowd. Hearing the “hush, hush” of snow falling or looking up into a cold December night sky and marveling at all the stars. It’s true—you don’t really know what you’ve got until it’s gone, or until there is a very good chance it will be gone very soon.
Much of my life became a blur of tests and doctor’s appointments, time spent in the MRI machine listening to the whir of the magnets and wondering what it would see deep inside my body. Only my immediate family and very close friends knew what was going on. My surgeon was confident the spot was malignant, but I sought a second opinion. That doctor counseled that I wait and get re-scanned in three months, in early February. Ninety days later, the scan showed the nodule had actually shrunk by half. My surgeon was not yet ready to rule out cancer completely. I had one final scan in late April. By then the spot was small enough to warrant going back to a routine yearly scan.
I was the rare patient who was mistakenly diagnosed with cancer. All the medical evidence overwhelmingly indicated I had lung cancer and would have to have part of my lung removed. A biopsy to confirm the presumed diagnosis was not possible because of the nodule’s location. (A nodule is a growth or lump in the body, a mass of cells, that is either benign, or cancerous. These are almost always discovered through medical imaging.) But the nodule turned out to be, most likely, an infectious process from some kind of pulmonary infection. Hence its shrinking size over time.
My heart breaks at all those who get a cancer diagnosis that is definitive and deadly. Too many of my loved ones have died from this awful disease: Uncle Billy, my golf partner and wise advice giver and Nora, a kind and smart eighth-grade girl whom I taught in confirmation class and Sue, who mentored me for 35 years. And so, so many more. I miss all of them so much. I wonder why some get cancer for no apparent or logical reason and why I avoided that outcome. It may sound cruel but in a way I was the poster boy for cancer, having smoked all those thousands of cigarettes over the years.
I marvel at the bullet I dodged, at the second chance that I’ve received from life. And so, I hope and I pray that I have changed and will continue to be transformed by this come-to-Jesus moment.
I quit smoking, a habit I’d embraced and been held hostage by from adolescence to my sixties.
I quit smoking, a habit I’d embraced and been held hostage by from adolescence to my sixties. It’s been eight months and I still haven’t picked up a cigarette. I’d like to imagine I am appreciating life more these days, that my close call has perhaps woken me up to how fragile and how precious and how beautiful this life really is, even with its brokenness and suffering. I have no idea what the future holds. Given my many years of smoking, chances are still higher than average that I will get some kind of cancer, and I will still go for my yearly scans.
But I do think God is somehow calling me through this weird and terrifying experience to not indulge in wasting God’s gift of life, not even one single day more. Or spending time complaining about this or that ultimately trivial concern, when the reality is I have a wonderful life and have little to whine about. That’s the truth for me. For many of us.
I just want God to wake me up and make me more alive to my alive-ness. In my favorite play, Our Town by Thornton Wilder, the main character is Emily, a teenage girl who dies in childbirth but is given the chance to return to the earth as a silent, invisible witness to the life she lived. She is given only one day and picks a childhood birthday. When she returns to “heaven” she asks this heart-breaking question:
“Do any humans realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”
I want to, Emily. I really do. And dear reader, I hope you do too.