What Matters Most: An Interview On Life & Death

Dec 18, 2013

July 8, 2013.

He woke up that morning a healthy, 69-year-old father of two, grandfather of nine. Within hours of the sunrise, he heard the words “pancreatic cancer.”

Just that fast, everything changed.

I spent the last six days in Henderson, NV with my dad, Loren Trethewey. Much has happened in the five months since July 8. On July 15, he and my mom flew to New York City to meet with docs at Sloan-Kettering Hospital. On July 26, he underwent the Whipple Procedure, a ridiculously complicated surgery during which an expert surgeon removed his gall bladder, all of his bile ducts, 40% of his pancreas, and part of stomach and small intestine. For two months, they remained in NYC while he recovered. Since returning to Nevada, he’s endured two different types of chemo and five long weeks of six-days-a-week radiation. Now, he has a two-week reprieve before starting another three-month chemo regimen.

It was in this window of space, hovering on the edge of Christmas, that my brother, Chris Trethewey , and I flew to Nevada for a few days family time. And it was there I asked my Dad the questions that begged asking.

I don’t know what hill you’re facing, what grief or loss or challenge has you weary and ready to quit. Whatever it is, today I offer you the voice of someone who gets it, someone who is choosing to live. Be encouraged, and know you’re not alone.

Describe the day (and then the following week) you heard your doctor diagnose you with Pancreatic Cancer.

It really started before I heard those words. The doctor called to say I needed to get in right away to hear the results of the CT scan. I could hear his urgency, had a feeling something serious was to come. Immediately, once he told me I had pancreatic cancer, I received it as a death sentence. But then the doctor went on to say they’d caught it early, and immediately outlined a course of action. 

It was a rollercoaster, trying to get my arms around it. I’d never had a serious illness in my life, since I was a child. This was entirely new for me. I’d walked with so many other friends through serious diagnoses, but now it was my time.

You have a positive prognosis, cancer caught early and a best-case scenario. Even so, you’ve experienced a significant sense of loss.

Yes, exactly. That’s a good way to say it. The loss of innocence. Really, that’s what it was. You live your life healthy. Occasionally you see other people lose that innocence, see the loss on their face. But it’s always someone else. This time, it wasn’t.   

I haven’t told many people this, but one year ago my good friend Wayne was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Just before Christmas, our small group surrounded him to pray for him. During that prayer time, I felt God whisper to me, “You’re next.” I didn’t know what to make of it, and I felt no fear or anxiety. Instead, for six months I felt I was being prepared for something. Now, looking back, I realize that was God’s grace. He was delivering peace even before I needed it.

Practically speaking, how has your daily life changed? What has stayed the same?

The biggest challenge has been the uncertainty of every moment. From those moments when I feel almost normal to those unexpected moments of weariness, when I can’t stand or keep my own head up any longer. It’s all so unexpected, and I never know what each day—each moment—is going to hold.

As for what has stayed the same, the one thing that has remained consistent and true throughout the whole process is a sense of peace. God is control of the outcome. I feel responsible to do what I’m supposed to do, but beyond that it’s out of my control. 

Life-and-death scenarios offer the gift of “perspective.” Like a fresh breeze that blows away a fog, it brings a unique clarity. Have you experienced this?

Yes, yes. It has brought so much clarity in my life. The sense of God’s reality and presence. The depth of His Word. The joy of knowing hundreds of others are praying for you. It all brings clarity to everything.

How has this changed how you view your life and the lives of others?

It’s brought an immediacy to everything. There’s no hesitancy in wanting to say “I love you.” There’s no hesitancy in sharing my faith. There’s no split second when I wonder “if” I should say or do what I’m feeling nudged to do. Time cannot be wasted. I’m keenly aware of how precious every moment is. I lean over at night to simply touch your mom. The importance of being able to do that is not lost on me.

This isn’t the first time you’ve experienced the insurmountable. As a child, you lived in an abusive, alcoholic home. As a young adult, you served in the Army in Vietnam. As an older adult, you faced tough career blows. How have those challenges prepared you for this one?

Each one of them taught me an element of hope. I saw that life was made up of choices. Your view of situations and your perspective influence your choices. As a young man, I learned my choices determined the kind life that I lived. I couldn’t change the family I was born in. I couldn’t change the fact that I was going to Vietnam. But I learned that by making right choices there was always hope.

Those situations helped me to see that nothing is ever really terminal. It may take big changes and it may take time. But even the worst of things can be turned around. That’s the hope. Nothing is so desperate that there can’t be hope.

When an individual faces a huge life-altering illness like cancer, it’s often difficult for friends and family to know what “to do.” What offerings of help have been the most meaningful or helpful for you?

People are generally well intentioned and want to help, and I appreciate it. But many are too quick to offer advice or a cure. I don’t need another person to tell me what I should and shouldn’t eat, what I should and shouldn’t do.

Instead, I savor their presence and encouragement. The “I love you’s.” The emails and cards that tell me how my life has somehow made an impact. As you face the possibility that time may be short, to know that you’ve lived well means the world. It gives you a sense of real peace that your life has mattered.

To the person and family who find themselves in a life-and-death scenario today, what words do you have for them?

Take captive every thought.

Be careful how you let yourself think and speak. 

Live in the moment. 

Don’t get ahead of the calendar. 

Allow yourself grace.

And there’s always hope.  

Chris, Dad, Michele

What is your one takeaway from this interview? How will you live differently as a result? 

 

24 Comments

  1. Linda Lochridge Hoenigsberg

    Hi Michele. This was beautiful. I’ve been in that space where I received a serious diagnosis and then came a sense of peace that made no sense at all considering the circumstances…a peace that passes understanding. As I read your Dad’s words, I knew exactly what he felt. I’m so glad they caught it early for him. Tell him thanks for sharing with us.

    Reply
    • Michele

      Thank you, Linda. I have a feeling your faith and courage in the middle of your challenge was equally as inspiring.

      Reply
  2. Charlie Paparelli

    You are your dad’s daughter. Look at those two identical smiles…and attitudes.

    This was a terrific post because it was so personal. Please thank your dad for me.

    Because of this message from your dad, I will trust God and live in the moment. I will not hold back.

    Thank You and Merry Christmas! charliep

    Reply
    • Michele

      Thank you, Charlie. What a generous compliment. I’m a blessed girl.

      Reply
  3. Jo Lynn Robinson

    Wow, this was really impactful! While my immediate family is fine, my mother has been going through cancer this past year at 87. She is still doing well and treatments still have her going, just going through that and reading your post, has really made me think about the way I live life now!!

    Thank you for sharing!!!!

    Reply
    • Michele

      I’m so sorry to hear about your mom, Jo Lynn. It’s tough, both for the patient and the ones who love her. Heart is with yours!

      Reply
  4. Lucille Zimmerman

    I love this: Instead, I savor their presence and encouragement.

    Praying it’s all uphill from here!

    Reply
    • Michele

      Thank you, Lucille.

      Reply
  5. Marilyn (Hoglund) Fowler

    Wow….just….WOW!
    Thank you for sharing.
    Love and prayers.

    Reply
    • Michele

      Thanks for commenting, Marilyn. Your encouragement means the world to Dad!

      Reply
  6. Tammy

    Loren, is still the most encouraging person I have ever known. His love for the Lord is so fully present today as it was years ago! I pray for him constantly and have hope he has many years to be dad and Grandpa and friend!

    Reply
    • Michele

      Thank you for being a faithful pray-er, Tammy. A tremendous gift to us!

      Reply
  7. Tammy Helfrich

    This is so beautiful, Michele. I loved all of it, but especially this part.

    “Those situations helped me to see that nothing is ever really terminal. It may take big changes and it may take time. But even the worst of things can be turned around. That’s the hope. Nothing is so desperate that there can’t be hope.”

    Thank you for sharing this. And thank you to your Dad, for sharing his wisdom.

    Reply
    • Michele

      I loved those words of his, too. Powerful. Thanks, Tammy!

      Reply
  8. Lois

    Amazing faith. Thank you for sharing your heart. Love you Neighbor.

    Reply
    • Michele

      Lois & Marv … *HUGS*

      Reply
  9. Jon D Harrison

    wow – what amazing wisdom – it was already mentioned, but “Nothing is so desperate that there can’t be hope” is now etched on my mind.

    To harness immediacy and live always to the fullest – this is what I need to start doing now.

    Reply
    • Michele

      The “immediacy” perspective really struck me, too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jon.

      Reply
  10. Dana Rhodes

    Beautiful, Loren and Michele!

    Reply
  11. Lindsey O'Connor

    “Live in the moment.”
    “Give yourself grace.”
    These are life savers for me. You’re dad is a wise, brave man. Thank you and please thank your dad for giving us the gift of this interview.

    Reply
  12. Jill Savage

    This is beautiful, Michele. Thank you to both you and Loren for sharing it. Loren, you and Deanna have made a profound impact on our family and we are very grateful for the investment you made in our lives in the years we spent together at Eastview. So glad we can support and pray for one another in our respective cancer journeys even across the miles.

    Reply
  13. Brent

    Michelle,

    Wow, what a good interview. What a great perspective to know what can’t be changed. This is a lesson for all of us. I like his repsonse to those trying to help. I never have liked anyone helping and especially telling me they know how I am feeling. I always try to listen most and not say those unhelpful things.

    That is a great picture at the end. Thanks for sharing your Dad’s story and our hope. Blessings to you and the family,
    Brent

    Reply
  14. Leah Ann Crussell

    What an impactful interview. Thank you so much for sharing. Your father’s testimony is one we can all learn from. I think what resonated with me the most was his comment on the immediacy of everything, living for the moment. And being so acutely aware that God is the one in control of each day….not us. We do what we can, but the rest is ultimately up to Him. What joy radiates from your father’s face in that photo! He is a blessed man, and so are you to be his daughter. I will be praying in earnest for him and that God give your family continued peace and strength.

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      Thank you, Leah Ann. For the words and the prayers.

      Reply

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