by Father Trey Nelson
On October 28, 2004 at 7:15 a.m., I found myself in a place where I had never been before, in pre-op for a major surgery. Five months prior to that, out of the blue, I had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. There was a golf ball sized tumor in my esophagus. I sat down to eat lunch one day and BAM! I couldn’t swallow. I attributed it to stress, given the fact that along with the two churches at which I was already serving as pastor, I had been asked to take on a third. Five months and several doses of chemotherapy and radiation later, there I was, about to undergo what one surgeon had termed, “the most complicated surgery that a general surgeon would ever perform.”
Forget about the fact that this cancer was common in people in their late 60s and chronic smokers, I was 41 at the time and had never smoked. As far as asking “why” or “how” goes, I was way beyond that, too. I was too afraid to be afraid, if that makes any sense. I was extremely overweight, weighing almost 350 pounds at the time. I’m not proud of it, but that’s just where I was. There were major complications during the surgery, which lasted anywhere from 10-12 hours depending on whom you ask. I spent one week in ICU and another week in a room on the cardiac floor. Most of it is a blur, but I do remember some things.
I remember how amazing everyone was toward me. My doctors, nurses, and family carried me through those days. My brother, Tim, reflects back and says that, at one point one of my physicians pulled him to the side and told him, “You need to take your mom home and prepare her for the worst, because your brother may more than likely not go home.” I remember the hallucinations too. They seemed so real and frightening, that I would cry as I described them to my family. Eventually I went home. In all, I was on medical leave from my ministry for roughly seven months.
The road back was an incredibly difficult one. The upside of it all is that I became and have remained healthier than I had ever been in my life prior to that point. I backpack and climb mountains in the summer. I run. I have no difficulty walking up the stairs at work, and so on. In the ten months following the surgery, I dropped to 185 pounds and have been at or near that weight ever since. I certainly do not believe that God caused my cancer, but I definitely do believe that He gave me the blessing that came from it.
I have often shied away from a traditional notion of miracles. As a Catholic, I’ve heard stories of miracles attributed to the Saints of our church throughout my life. But I have to be honest with you, none of those ever really moved me. I don’t doubt them, but they never really moved me. My experience with miracles? It’s in everyday life. It’s seen in people who, because of their openness to God’s Word and the Holy Spirit, become conduits, vessels of God’s grace and goodness. You want to witness a real miracle? Watch a mom or dad say goodbye to a child in death and still have the resilience to move on; witness a terminally ill patient turn it around and embrace the Lord in their suffering and minister to others in their final moments; hold a newborn baby in your hands; listen to someone forgive the unforgivable.
If I were to attach the concept of a miracle to my experience of cancer, I would say that it has been in the outcome. Cancer woke me up. It humbled me. It made me realize that I am just as weak and vulnerable as anyone else, and the day that I forget that, well, that’s when the real problem sets in. In my mind, a “miracle” is any experience that unites us more closely to Jesus Christ and the grace of our humanity. It’s something that brings us to an even clearer vision of the Lord’s presence in our life and the love that He has for us, any experience that makes you realize that God is in control and you’re not.