The testimony published in the print magazine is excerpted from this extended story.
I can’t believe I’ll probably be dead in less than a year,” I kept saying to myself as I mowed the lawn that late summer afternoon.
This story begins on the evening of Aug. 14, 2017, as I was sitting at my computer. My elbows were propped up on my desk, and my hands were supporting my chin when I felt a strange lump on the side of my neck with my thumb. I found it concerning enough to tell my wife, who thought I should have it seen by our family doctor. Just a few days previous, our family had spent a day at the lake. I had been wakeboarding and tubing behind our boat and had some pretty wicked wipe-outs. I thought this lump could be attributed to overdoing it a bit. Something simple, I thought. Nothing to worry about.
When our family physician felt the lump, he stated that it could be several things. He advised that I watch it for two weeks, and if it was still present to come back and see him again. After waiting one week, the lump seemed to be getting larger, so I called my doctor. I remained optimistic even after I was informed that I needed an ultrasound and an appointment with the local surgeon.
Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, I saw the surgeon. He performed a needle biopsy and said results would be back in a few days. At this point I started to feel a little uneasy and hoped to receive a call from the surgeon’s receptionist to tell me it was nothing. I figured that if the surgeon called me directly it would be bad news. Two days later at 4 p.m., I noticed a missed call and a voicemail. The voicemail was from my surgeon asking me to call him. I sensed he had some bad news for me, so I gathered a notepad and pen and called him back. My fears were realized as he explained that I had some type of malignancy in my lymph node but that he hadn’t been able to determine what kind of cancer was at work in my body.
He scheduled surgery for the following Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, to remove the lymph node and test it.
I immediately texted my pastor: “Please pray for Julie; she is going to be so sad when I tell her this evening that the test looks like I have some type of malignancy in my lymph node.” I went to the computer and googled my early diagnosis. I gathered from reading several articles that there was a good chance that I had less than a year to live.
I was in shock since I had no symptoms of any kind. I was healthy, I thought. I am active. I operate my cattle and farming business by myself. I do many activities like snowboarding and wakeboarding that few men in their fifties can claim to do. But now, as I mowed the lawn, I kept saying to myself, “I can’t believe I’ll probably be dead in less than a year.”
I was also contemplating how to tell my wife the bad news. I met Julie the summer after I graduated high school. We fell in love and dated four years before getting married. We finished our bachelor’s degrees together before starting our family. This past March, we celebrated 31 years of marriage. We had raised four children and were about to become “empty nesters.” I was looking forward to this next stage of our lives together. Our children aren’t married yet, but some have serious relationships.
Looking back over my life, I knew I had truly relished raising our children and was greatly anticipating grandkids someday. How do you tell your best friend, the mother of your four children, whom you have loved for 36 years, that she is soon to become a widow? This may come as a shock to most of you reading this, but my answer to this question was “I’ll text her.”
This way of communicating my predicament made perfect sense to me. I’ve always had difficulty expressing myself in emotional situations. Whether it’s a wedding or funeral, I have trouble staying composed. Tears flow much too easily, and it becomes impossible for me to talk. Therefore, my decision was made to text Julie while she was out to eat with her sister.
This is the text I sent, “Very bad news, looks malignant. I am looking for a way for you to get your crying over with before you see our daughter. I do not want this to affect her studies. Maybe not tell her? Sorry.”
At the time, our daughter was living with us while she was going to college. Julie told me later she was thankful she had her sister with her. They cut the night short and after Julie dropped off her sister she replied, “I’m in Weatherford. (20 minutes away) I dropped my sister off, and I’m on my way home now. I’m not happy that you texted me that. But maybe it’s just the content.”
Then, exploding with grief and sorrow, she cried and prayed for the rest of her ride. When she came home to me that night, we held each other and cried together, consoling each other about the news.
We decided that we would wait until after the surgery and the results were back before we would tell the kids. We wanted to know exactly what we were looking at. Julie is a pharmacist working in an outpatient clinic, and to keep our four adult kids from finding out before we were ready to tell them, she continued to go to work every day. She didn’t tell anyone and tried to hold herself together. The loss of her mother just a couple of weeks prior provided an explanation for any outburst of tears at work.
The morning of the surgery at 6:01 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, my pastor texted me a verse, Deuteronomy 31:8: “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged.”
This verse became my comfort in the storm, and I kept repeating it in my mind. While I was still under from the anesthesia, the surgeon informed Julie, who was waiting for me, that the lymph node was completely black, indicating melanoma. He said melanoma is a skin cancer, and in order to have gotten into the lymph nodes it had to have metastasized from the skin to other areas of the body.
A chest x-ray was performed to see if it had spread that far, and we received a call the very next day to confirm that the x-ray had revealed additional tumors in my lungs. Since the malignancy originated in my skin and spread to at least two other organs it was considered Stage IV Metastatic Melanoma. He referred me to a local oncologist and ordered more testing to determine the extent of the metastasis.
We called our kids and invited them for supper the following day to tell them the news. Each of our children responded differently, but by the end of the evening they were all sharing memories. There was a lot of laughing and crying in the room. Julie read a devotion a friend had just shared with her. It talked about how the God who created and knit us together in the womb is continuing to stitch together each area of our lives, fulfilling his purpose for our lives. God was comforting us in our hour of need.
That Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017, our senior pastor was out of town. We shared my diagnosis with the youth pastor that morning, and he shared it with our church. After the message, he asked our family to go up front. Our church gathered around and laid hands on me. Many prayed out loud. I was very emotional. The moment was spirit-filled and awe-inspiring.
The first appointment with the oncologist Sept. 5, 2017, was in a nearby town. He walked in the room with my records from the surgeon and quickly confirmed the diagnosis, Stage IV Metastatic Melanoma with a prognosis of six months to one year. Although very disheartening, it wasn’t a shock, since I had done some research and concluded that myself. The oncologist recommended immunotherapy as a means of extending my life.
When I told one of my best friends about my diagnosis, he asked me how he could pray for me. He asked me, “What do you want? Do you want to live? Or, do you want to go be with Jesus?”
After thinking about it, I told him I wanted to live and use every day I had left to serve God, proclaim his goodness in my circumstance and share his love with all I come in to contact with. He spoke the following Sunday to our entire congregation: “I’m going to pray for Robert every Sunday after church until Robert is healed or until God takes him home. Anyone can join me, if you’d like.” That was very special to me.
I read a quote a while back that stuck with me and became quite a truth in my life: “When you find out you don’t have long to live, your priorities change, and your boldness level goes way up.”
I began an ongoing personal prayer for opportunities to share my faith. I started then and continue now to make it my mission to look for people who need a touch from Jesus. I don’t pass a hitchhiker without stopping. I talk to anyone who will listen. I have a testimony to share! It is amazing how God is leading me and opens my eyes to people in need.
I wanted to make sure my kids and Julie knew about the farms and cattle I took care of. Since Julie has her own full-time career as a pharmacist, she doesn’t have firsthand knowledge about my business. One Sunday afternoon, our entire family loaded up in our suburban and I drove them around to explain the ins and outs of each farm and the cattle. Julie was voice recording me on her phone and taking notes as the kids asked a lot of questions, tentatively delegating each task to one another. God gave me peace that it would all work out.
After only two visits with the local oncologist, I found out my insurance did not cover that particular doctor. My primary care provider referred me to another whom he routinely recommended. The new oncologist scheduled me to see her early the next morning. She ordered a PET scan that same day. The next appointment was the following day to review the scan results.
She certainly didn’t beat around the bush, although she somehow positively informed us that I was “lit up like a Christmas tree.” The cancer was in the lymph system over my entire body, including the abdomen. It had also spread and created tumors in my lungs, spleen and an adrenal gland. Prognosis from this oncologist was four to six months to live with no treatment. She recommended immunotherapy as well.
Her protocol was to infuse two medications, Yervoy and Opdivo, which would be infused through a central port. One puts a tag on the cancer cells and the other boosts the immune system to attack those tagged tumor cells. After getting more information about them, Julie and I decided we had to give it a try. There were significantly fewer side effects than with traditional chemotherapy, so I got a port installed later that afternoon.
My prognosis led me to text the following message to a missionary friend of mine: “Oncologist confirmed what Julie had found during her research. I think there is a good chance to live one year. Some have lived four to five years. We will do scans and probably immunotherapy. I don’t know if I have asked you this and I don’t want to get you down, but I would like you to speak at my funeral if you are not out of the country. I want a very cool funeral with a lot of laughter. Love ya, bro.” I continued, “Many people are praying and believing for miraculous healing. But I am also preparing for worst-case scenario. “
The reality I was facing was, in a way, shockingly confirmed one evening when Julie asked if I wanted to listen to a podcast about heaven. I felt comforted after listening to it. I even talked to a friend about someone I thought might make a good future husband for Julie.
Julie said she sensed the prayers of so many and had peace that God was going to take care of me, that this was all a part of his plan. She had faith that I wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Even though we didn’t know what God had in store, she continued to trust him. She knew God would take care of her and the kids if he decided to take me home.
My first treatment was Sept. 18, 2017. I felt fine for about a week but then started to feel like I had the flu, with a high fever. At first Julie thought that since it was attacking my cancer cells and because there were so many, that my body was super inflamed causing me to feel sick. Blood work revealed my liver enzymes were super high. I was put on a high dose of steroids, and finally after two weeks I started to feel better. After about a month, my liver enzymes finally went down to the normal range, which was miraculous, as I found out later I was on the verge of stage four liver failure.
After consulting with the drug company, my oncologist decided to discontinue the Yervoy, concluding that it boosted my immune system so much that it attacked my liver. I continued to get the Opdivo infusions every two weeks after the Yervoy was stopped.
About nine weeks after my first treatment, my doctor wanted to see what was happening to the tumors, so I had another PET scan. The second scan revealed my cancer tumors were already half the amount they were the first time! We felt very excited and knew that God was hearing our prayers. There were so many people praying for me through church, relatives, friends, friends of friends, Facebook friends, missionary friends, Julie’s patients and coworkers. The list expanded over many states and even around the world.
Every nine weeks I got another PET scan to monitor my progress. Everytime, praise the Lord, my tumors were less in number. I asked the doctor how long we would have to continue immunotherapy if we killed all the tumors. She responded it would be for the rest of my life. Even if there are no active tumors, melanoma can return so easily even after you think you have destroyed it.
Finally, in the scan from January 2018, there was only one stubborn active tumor left on a lymph node in the center of my abdomen. Each scan after revealed it had stayed the same. Unfortunately, the scan in June and October showed it had grown a little and activity had increased. My oncologist felt it was time to see if we could kill it with radiation since it was not responding to the immunotherapy.
Sept. 12, 2018, I had my first appointment with a radiation oncologist in Oklahoma City. He talked about the options and what they would entail. We decided to wait and pray even harder until the next scan October 29, to see if the tumor was still there or not. Unfortunately it was, so we moved forward with the radiation. I started the first of 30 treatments on Tuesday, Nov. 13. My last one, with weekends and holidays between, was Dec. 27. I had another scan at the end of January 2019 to determine the success of the radiation. Unfortunately, there was no change. Subsequently, I am continuing my Opdivo infusions every two weeks with PET scans every three months.
Since I have been diagnosed with cancer, facing my mortality has influenced my life greatly. This Billy Graham quote has become a profound truth in my life: “I am convinced that we will never be fully prepared to live until we are prepared to die. God has a plan for us right now, and life’s greatest joy comes from knowing him and living for him each day.”
I feel so much joy being in harmony with God’s plan for my life. I break down often weeping tears of joy, thanking God for allowing this trial to come into my life and change it for the better.
I believe God will use this trial to minister to people. It might come through a miraculous healing that so many are praying for, which I could proclaim throughout a long life. It might come from the testimony of others at my memorial service, telling of a servant putting his total trust in God and sharing the love of Christ with people he met along the way.
I will follow as God leads. The truth of Isaiah 55:8-9 rings loud and clear: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
I really don’t know what God’s plan is for my physical body. What I do know is that I can trust him fully and use each day to profess his goodness and shine the light of his son Jesus Christ to those who may not know him. As it says in 1 Peter 3:15, “…to always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that I have.”
I have met a few people during this journey that believe in God but do not have a personal relationship with him because they have gone through a lot of hardship. They have seen loved ones suffer and die and can’t understand why a loving God would allow that. My answer to people in these situations is that God is a loving God. He loves us so much that he sent his only son Jesus to suffer and die on a cross to save each of us from the curse of sin that all of us on this earth have committed.
Jesus, though he is God, took on flesh and was born fully human, grew to become a man, was despised and rejected by many, faced temptations and never sinned. He was eventually tortured and killed to redeem us. He willingly gave up his life so that any who call on his name and repent of their sins and accept his free gift of salvation will be able to live for eternity in heaven.
Jesus would have done all this even if you were the only person on earth. He loves you that much. This is a sin-scarred world, and there will always be suffering and death until Jesus returns to fulfill the promises of the Bible. But we can rejoice that the suffering on this earth is only temporary, and the loved ones who die in Christ will live forever in heaven, and we will see them again if we have asked Jesus to take control of our life.
Soon after I found out that I might not have a lot of time left on this earth, I had a strong desire to write my story and wanted it to include a prayer that anyone could pray to God if they desired a personal relationship with him and the assurance of everlasting life. It is as simple as accepting the fact that you are a sinner (Romans 3:23) and asking God to forgive you. Believing that Jesus died on the cross for you and rose again (2 Corinthians 5:15), and saying you want to surrender your life to him and let him be lord of your life.
You can simply pray a prayer like this: “Dear God, I am a sinner. Please forgive me for my sins. I believe that Jesus was your son who died on the cross for me and rose again. I want to trust him as my Savior and follow him from this day forward. Thank you Jesus for what you did for me on the cross. I now put my trust in you and surrender my life to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
If this story has helped you, your comments are welcomed, especially if you have prayed this prayer to salvation, I would love to hear about it through a text or phone call (580) 331-9917.