As cancers go, it was the best kind to have, the doctor said. Basal cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, that lives at the base layer of the skin, but rarely metastasizes to other parts of the body. The bad news, he said, was that it was in the worst place it could be — in the middle of Debbie’s upper lip. It would have to be removed. There would be a scar. He couldn’t work miracles. That was only for Hollywood, he said.
Debbie had noticed what appeared to be an enlarged pore just at the bow of her lip. Early last summer, she noticed a lump inside her lip just under this pore. Summer was busy, though. We had Vacation Bible School in June. In July, my brother died and we made a week-long trip to south Georgia for his funeral. In August, I spoke at a conference at Myrtle Beach, where we had a few days in the sun. In October, Debbie went to a new dermatologist because the lump was bigger.
The dermatologist immediately diagnosed the enlarged pore and the lump as skin cancer, probably basal cell. We were both stunned. Neither of us had thought about cancer. A cyst, maybe. A clogged pore. But cancer was a complete surprise. A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis. Then we had to wait for an appointment with the surgeon. Debbie had the option of scheduling a consultation with the dermatological surgeon prior to her surgery. On a November day we met him in his office. That’s when he told us the good and bad news. Most of it seemed bad to us. Surgery was scheduled for December 11.
Last Friday, she went in for what would be called minor surgery by a casual observer. With Mohs surgery, they don’t even put you to sleep. She walked into the clinic, then out again four hours later. The cancer was excised, and the doctor, who is also a plastic surgeon, did a wonderful job of repairing her lip where the cancer had been. It was larger than he thought it would be, he said. About the size of a nickel, right on her upper lip.
What surprised us both was the grief that was companion to the cancer. Our first reaction was shock and disbelief. How could this be cancer, even the least invasive kind? It didn’t look like cancer. Not like all the warning signs of cancer you typically see. Our shock turned to anger at another doctor who had dismissed the enlarged pore with an “I don’t know what this is, but don’t worry about it.”
And then we prayed. And read books on healing, and wondered if somehow God would not heal her so she wouldn’t have to go through the surgery. And we prayed until we could not pray about it anymore. We had no more words, no ability to sit together and ask God for anything — healing, peace, grace, calm, nothing. We had come to the end of our prayers. We had to hope that Paul was right, that the Spirit would pray for us because we did not know how to pray for ourselves.
And we cried. We cried in our private moments, when we turned out the light at night, lying in bed. We held each other and cried for the uncertainty, the loss, the fear, and the anxiety. We wept because we had no words with which to comfort each other in the face of this disease that had crept into our life and now occupied almost our every thought.
We cried for each other when we were not crying for ourselves. We grieved the loss of this part of Debbie’s body, this part of her lip on which I had seen a million smiles take form and blossom. We grieved because no one else could grieve for us. Because all the well-intentioned assurances did not help.
But the prayers of others did help, we believe. The surgery went well, the doctor was skillful, and Debbie is healing. Her lip no longer has its Cupid’s bow, as that little curved part is called. But she’s well, the cancer is gone, and we’re on the other side of this experience. What surprised us was the grief, whose shadow is just now fading.
I have always tried to visit my members who were facing in-patient surgery, and I have sat with families waiting the outcome of open-heart, cancer, and other types of major surgical procedures. Day surgeries don’t seem as serious. Medically, I suppose, they are not. But few will know the emotional and spiritual pain accompanying those procedures we call ‘minor.’ Grief, however, makes no distinction and visits us at surprising moments of our own vulnerability. I’m going to remember that, I hope.
Jesus never denied the presence of grief, never dismissed it, but always was present with those in grief. “Blessed are those who mourn,” he said, “for they shall be comforted.” I want to be among those who are the comforters, as well as the comforted.