In January 2000, I had a routine physical, the first one in several years. The doctor noticed a mole on my arm. We decided to have it removed and I was referred to a dermatologist.
A week later the doctor shared the lab results. He said, “We need to talk. This wasn’t just a mole, it is skin cancer.” At the time I didn’t think it was such a big deal; people have skin cancer all the time. So I thought with more sun protection, it wouldn’t be a concern.
My doctor further explained that there are three types of skin cancer. The cancer I have is the most dangerous type — melanoma. Because of the tumor size I was placed in an extremely dangerous risk group.
I was told to press “pause” on life — I had a fight ahead of me. It was a sobering wake up call. I had no health problems up until that time, and I felt fine. To have this thrust on me was a big shock, and now I had to go home and tell Becky.
I remember I was in the shower and thought, “what is he doing home?” He was just getting his stitches removed. He said, “You’re not going to believe this. I have cancer.”
It was such a foreign thought. I was in shock. I dreamed if we ever had health problems it would be later on in life — he’s only 37! How can he have cancer?
I remember thinking, is this really our life? Is this a dream? Are we getting back to our lives tomorrow? Is this really happening?
As time wore on, we of course knew it was real. It took time to set in; especially when he felt perfectly healthy. One doctor appointment changed everything.
For me, it became quite real a week later when I was at my oncologist. In the course of that appointment, he explained I would need surgery and possibly drug treatment. Because of my risk group, he ordered an urgent CT scan. There was concern that the cancer might have already spread to some organs.
I remember thinking that, as I was lying on a table with radioactive tracers running through me and this big donut-shaped thing whirring around me, “Times have changed. What is going on?”
That day was when we truly faced the medical reality of what was happening. And it was real scary.
People ask us, “How are you and Becky getting through it; what are you doing?” There are four key items, and every couple should give them consideration.
First, Becky and I we were able to tap into the strong communication habits the two of us already had with each other before the cancer. We overtly agreed that humor was okay; cancer jokes were okay. From the start, we’d trivialize it and make light of it; knowing it was serious, but that we would have fun with it. We weren’t going to let the joy be sucked out of our lives.
Even more than that, our communication bonds were strong going in to it. We spend a very intentional time every day communicating with each other. We call it our Bowl of Popcorn Time. For many years prior to this, every night after the kids go to bed, we have a bowl of popcorn together — sometimes two bowls ? and we talk through stuff. We know that at least one time every day we can devote time to talking about what’s really going on. We had a lot of activity to discuss; doctor appointments, surgery, treatments, and big decisions. The days were crazy, but we knew at night we could sanely communicate with each other. That was really big because when we were communicating it reinforced our core belief that we are best friends. We could talk about how the future might look if I don’t make it. We could talk about how scared we were. There was more than just popcorn happening; we were talking about real life stuff.
Without that established pattern of communication, it would be tough. My natural tendency is to crawl into my shell and not talk about things.
We hold each other up as our best friends. With many couples, guys have best guy friends, and gals have best girl friends. I think when you hit a crisis it’s very important to have your spouse as best friend as opposed to someone else. That has benefited us.
Instead of connecting with a guy friend, Dave is real with me; I’m truly his soul mate.
We were already best friends that way. During smooth times, this might not seem that important, but when you hit a very turbulent time, it makes all the difference in the world. It is very important for Becky to know where I am emotionally and it’s very important for me to know where she is, too.
It’s good to have a network of friends, no doubt about that. But it’s more important for Becky to have the whole story from me. Then there is never any doubt that I am fully by her side and she is fully by mine.
I wouldn’t encourage couples to try to become best friends during a crisis. You need to work on that before crisis hits.
We challenge people to take an honest inventory by asking themselves, “Are you and your spouse really best friends?” If not, figure out how to do it. The litmus test is to ask if there is anything you feel more comfortable telling someone else that you can’t or haven’t told your wife. Becky and I are at such a deep level of friendship and strong communication, that there is nothing that comes up I can’t tell her. Absolutely nothing.
Fact is I see it as a danger sign if any thought goes through my mind wondering if I should tell Becky about something. That says to me, “You have to tell her right away.”
We’re connected to a biblically functioning church. We have heard about cool things happening to people in crisis, but it’s another thing to be on the receiving side of them, such as prayers from people we don’t even know. Love and care from people you know and don’t know.
Several men from the church, who I don’t even know that well, showed up at the hospital when Dave was in surgery because they didn’t want me to be alone. These were guys from the church who knew Dave, and really didn’t know me that well but just thought they should be there. That was huge. The prayers, the cards, and support… Nothing can fill you up like the church. I don’t know how people do it if they’re not connected at a church.
The church fills one need, as far as prayer, crisis support, emotional support and love — love you can’t even imagine. Group is the place you can be super-real. We were able to laugh, cry and pray and if we just wanted to talk all about Dave at a meeting; that was okay.
It was incredible to have another couple come along side of us not just in prayer, but being there for us emotionally, someone to do the yucky part of life with us. Everyone wants to do the good part of life with you. But when it gets yucky, that’s when a small group kicks in. That’s when you can sort out your real friends.
I don’t know what we would do without our small group. They were there for us. They understood our humor deal. When Dave was in his treatments he was so messed up, but we were able to laugh and cry with them. It’s important that you have people who are close enough in crisis and can be with you where you’re at — even if it’s yucky. That is so important
And this is the part that is absolutely amazing — we started the group just a month before Dave was diagnosed.
Our group is an extension of our family. We can send our kids over there and they sometimes pick up our kids and take them away just to have fun.
I went through a very intensive drug therapy program. I received treatments every day at very high doses for a month. I chose to stay at home; we drove back and forth from the hospital. I was a wreck, sick all the time. So it was great to have the group. They would come over and really distract the family from what was going on.
People from the church would serve us and bring us meals. One even sent us away on a vacation after I was done with my drug therapy. We didn’t ask for it, and to be honest, some people did things and didn’t ask if we wanted them to do it. They just did it because they felt God prompting them to serve us. It was generosity and love beyond anything we ever could have imagined.
When you hit turbulent waters, you really understand what your relationship with God is all about; it’s either really there or it isn’t.
Just after I was diagnosed, I was journaling my thoughts, and was able to have an honest conversation with God from the heart about fear and how scared I felt. Not about death or dying. I know my eternity is set; I’m going to heaven.
The fear I felt was the fear of leaving Becky and the kids behind. That was ripping me apart, because I had a less than a 50% chance of making it five years.
I was playing that out, “Yeah, I’m going to heaven, but everyone else stays behind and I know that’s going to really wreak havoc on them”. I was really laboring over the fact that I love them so much that no one else could love them as much as me.
Then, based on the relationship I have with God, in a real gentle spirit way, God reminded me there is someone who loves them more than me, and that’s Him. Even if I went away, He would be there to take care of them.
Comfort and peace from God doesn’t come from the hope for a miraculous healing. It comes from knowing that God’s going to be there and will take care of anything, even if I’m not there. That helped me a lot. There are moments like that when God reminds me that no matter what my world is like, He’s still in control. If it ends up that I don’t make it, God will still be the God that He was last week, and that He is today, and will be for years to come. He’s going to take care of my kids and my wife, just like He’s been taking care of me. He has the whole thing under control. That’s a level of peace I don’t think you can get if you’re frantically searching for God when you hit a storm. It’s something you can only realize about God when you already love and know Him.
I would counsel people to be careful about starting a relationship with God when you’re in the middle of crisis. It’s not easy. You have to sort through the wild thoughts and the desperation. It makes more sense to seek out that relationship now, before things get bad.
Through the whole cancer ordeal, we’ve seen openness from our friends and family to consider their own mortality; I’m almost 40 now and you know, if it can happen to me it can happen to them. I can’t tell you how many people have visited my dermatologist to have moles removed!
Many people are considering my plea to evaluate what their relationship with God is like. It’s been encouraging to see friends embrace that thought and begin going to church and ask questions and check out God.
We’ve learned to live for today in a real sense. It used to be if-this-then-do-this — very logical. We were always on a planned course, thinking longer term. Now we live for today. If there is something we want to do, instead of putting it off, we say, yeah, we’ll do it. We get it done. We have a freer spirit about living that way. Unfortunately, it took Dave’s cancer to get us to live like that and not be so worried about the future.
I used to be goal oriented with calendars, plans and agendas. God has funny ways of helping you let go and live more for today.
Dave There was a time when I hit the really low point of my therapy; I found it difficult to speak and I was sleeping all the time. I couldn’t function. It was exhausting just to get out of bed.
I remember one night I’m lying there, and Beck was talking to me; I was conscious but couldn’t talk back. She pulled the covers up on me, kisses me and says, “I sure miss the real you.”
Through the course of what we’re going through, she gets to see the real Dave and I get to see the real Becky. We get to see how strong our relationship really is. If there were weak points, this would be the time where they would be exposed. It’s taken us to a level of understanding our relationship that we might not have experienced otherwise. We have seen the real “each other” and we love the real “each other”.
David and Becky Staal live in a suburb of Chicago, and have a nine-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. Although their battle with David’s cancer is going well, he had surgery the morning of this interview. Biopsy test results are still pending as of the date this story was posted.
Copyright © 2002 David Staal. Content permission granted to Marriagetrac.