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Out of Control
When you think you have your life in order, something can happen that can send it spinning.

"Your body's doing something really bad to itself."

All I could feel was pain. All I could imagine was death.

On March 31, 2003, my family doctor uttered those words while I lay upon an ambulance stretcher in the Emergency Room of New Westminster, B.C.'s Royal Columbian Hospital.

As I lay under coarse white sheets—gritting my teeth, inhaling nitrous oxide and staring at the fluorescent lights above—she spoke about tumours, lesions and bone damage: one vertebrate gone, others damaged.

My wife, Yvette, and parents, Willi and Louise, stood nearby, straining to hear the conversation. Then my doctor delivered the kicker. "You've got cancer."

Immediately, I felt myself lose control over my own life. Time slowed and I felt like an actor in some familiar tale, created by some famous writer/director.

One by one, my doctor led my wife and parents into an empty adjacent room.

One by one, they returned teary-eyed.

On cue, my pastor, Lawrence Koehler, showed up, followed by my brother, Steve, and his wife, Tara.

All I could feel was pain. All I could imagine was death.

As a journalist at newspapers in B.C. and Washington state, I'd written countless anecdotal leads, like the one above. An anecdotal lead grabs readers' attention and introduces a story's characters and complication. It took me a while to catch on, but looking back I can see God was using storytelling techniques, like the anecdotal lead, to grab my attention. He was introducing a complication, and rewriting my life's script. He was preparing to teach me some lessons, most notably He, not me, was in control and was the writer/director of my story. He'd written this beginning, and he'd pen the middle and end.

Before March 31, 2003, God and death were not my life's lead characters. Career was tops. Writers would call this my back story, the part of my tale when readers learn how I, the protagonist, lived before the complication, cancer. Sure, I attended church—sometimes the church of my youth, St. Luke, Lutheran, Surrey, B.C.—and I prayed, but I led a secular life. Most of my friends didn't attend church. Meanwhile, my career was taking off. A growing daily paper in Washington State where I was born, hired me to run a news bureau. I just turned 30, and I'd worked hard for this chance. I'd freelanced for a national paper, spent six years at weekly and small daily B.C. papers and earned a journalism certificate and BA. There'd be no stopping my wife and me after she graduated with her teaching degree. My life was on script, my script. But late in 2002 my back blew out. My doctor blamed a slipped disc. It never healed. I booked a private MRI for March 30, 2003. Those words, "you've got cancer" will stress out anybody regardless of age because cancer is associated with death. Looking back, I can see God—the story teller—was just beginning to build tension in the middle of my story.

He'd increase it slowly during diagnosis and treatment until I learned lessons about family, friends, career and death.

After my initial shock, my tension level rose when doctors diagnosed me with multiple myeloma.

Multiple myeloma is incurable. It occurs when bone marrow's plasma cells turn malignant, accumulate in marrow, and cause anemia, bone and kidney damage, immune system problems, and infection. Eventually, the victim dies. Its causes are unknown, although doctors suspect toxic chemicals, radiation and viruses.

One treatment is a stem cell transplant. During this procedure, specialists nuke a patient with chemotherapy—killing bone marrow and its ability to create malignant and non-malignant cells. Then, they transfuse a donor's stem cells, hoping cells seed inside the patient's bones, creating new marrow and disease-free blood.

Immediately after diagnosis, American colleagues, family and old church friends, many of whom I had not seen in years, visited and provided emotional support. They reminded me I was not alone.

For the first time in my life, I didn't rush my prayers. I returned home, and called secular friends and former colleagues. All promised something.

I felt as if an army of supporters was growing, as I faced the next stressful question: could doctors treat me?

After receiving radiation to control pain, I met with a specialist from Vancouver General Hospital's (VGH) Leukemia Bone Marrow Transplant Program. She said a stem cell transplant was the best treatment, however, I needed a donor. My brother was the ideal donor, but there was a problem: our tissue types had to match and our chances were just 25 percent.

Nurses took our blood, and I took a deep breath. My stress level shot up. I'd never been lucky with games of chance.

For two weeks, my family prayed. Our church prayed. Every time the phone rang, I jumped. I waited for old friends to call or visit. Few bothered.

Finally, the hospital called: Steve and I matched.

The tension eased until I learned I could die from organ failure during the transplant. I took tests at VGH to determine my chances, returned home, and waited. Again, I expected old friends to call. Few bothered. Finally, my specialist called. My survival chances? Seventy-five percent.

In early July, VGH admitted me. I'd never felt so scared or stressed because this was it; this was when I'd learn whether I'd live or die. I entered the hospital with less support than I figured.

Nevertheless, family, church friends and a few secular friends continued calling and visiting, easing my anxiety. My wife even moved into my hospital room.

Two days later, I began chemo. It lasted six days. Every morning I awoke and thanked God for life. Every evening I prayed to survive the night.

For the first time in my life I didn't rush my prayers.

I was so stressed doctors prescribed blood-pressure medication.

Seven days after chemo began, I rested. Day eight, I received my brother's cells.

We waited.

For ten days, family, church friends and a few other friends prayed for the cells to seed.

Finally, the new marrow began growing. Seventeen days after the transplant, VGH released me. I survived the transplant and returned home. That evening, a church friend visited and gave me a quilt covered with messages of hope and signed by the church's Sunday school.

I was out of hospital but still didn't know whether the cancer was gone and whether I'd live or die. The answer would come in about 100 days.

It's called Day 100 for a reason. One-hundred days post-transplant, doctors test a patient for signs of cancer. For 100 days, I lived with uncertainty and stress.

I got through with the help of family, church and the few other friends who stood by me. I also read.

Then days after my 31st birthday, I met with my specialist. She said I was in remission. I was ecstatic but realized I could always relapse. So, my fear of death didn't disappear.

That's when I hit my plot point—the moment when the main character, me, recognized how I could resolve the complication, death. I was reading a magazine story about Johnny Cash, who had just died. Cash recounted a 1967 religious experience in the Nickajack Cave of the Tennessee River. "I felt something very powerful happen to me, a sensation of utter peace, clarity and sobriety," said Cash. "Then my mind started focusing on God. I became conscious of a very clear simple idea: I was not in charge of my own destiny. I was not in charge of my own death."

I put the magazine down. It was really that simple. All I had to do was surrender to God and acknowledge He controlled my destiny.

More than a year has passed since I read about Johnny Cash, but the lessons I learned from the article and throughout my ordeal remain vivid. As at the end of many stories, I, the protagonist, will summarize lessons learned and describe how I overcame my complication.

Out of Control
In the spring of 2005,
Keven Drews was surfing
again off Vancouver Island.

So, what about those lessons?

Career? It doesn't matter anymore. Months after my transplant, my newspaper replaced me. Co-workers stopped calling. Many former colleagues didn't even call at all.

Friends? With the exception of a few secular friends, the church offered the most assistance. Most of my other friends abandoned me. As a friend said, "the church will baptize, marry and bury you."

Family? Well, I couldn't have gone through this story without my wife, parents and brother. My family is my second priority now, after God, of course.

Prayer? I've never had much luck with chance. I prayed a lot. God answered.

And finally my main complication, my fear of death? Every day, I face death.

But every day I get out of bed and thank God for life. I submit to His will and acknowledge His control. It really is that easy. I'll die when I die. God's the master story teller.

He wrote my story's beginning and middle. When He's ready, he'll write the end.

Keven Drews is a freelance writer and editor. He is a member of St. Luke Lutheran Church in Surrey, B.C.

Originally published in Canadian Lutheran, June 2005.

Used with permission of the author. Copyright © 2005




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