This column is part of our ongoing Opinion commentary on faith, called Living Our Faith. Find the full series here.
It was just a freckle. Not the kind on your skin that you might have your dermatologist check. It was in my right eye and so tiny that only an ophthalmologist could spot it.
I was supposed to have it checked each year in case it had grown, but I wasn’t concerned. Who’d ever heard of a freckle behind your retina anyway, much less one that might morph into melanoma? It happens to fewer than 1 in 77,000 people.
When it came time for my annual checkup, at the height of the pandemic, I feared catching COVID-19 in a public space more than being taken down by a freckle. Then, when I spotted some drooping masks in a crowded waiting room, and the receptionist told me I’d have to wait 45 minutes to see the doctor, I weighed the risks and canceled my appointment.
That choice may cost me my life.
When I went back to the ophthalmologist more than a year later, my freckle had grown by a millimeter and my doctor asked to see me back in his office.
“We’ve looked over your scans,” he said. “I hate to have to tell you this, but you’ve got a malignant tumor.”
He continued speaking softly and slowly and leaned toward me with a pained expression. But nothing else he said registered. I’d slipped into some blurry state of shock, unable to absorb the absurdity of it all. I’d dodged COVID countless times. I beat the run on toilet paper and secured N-95 masks before any of my friends knew what they were. And now a freckle in my eye might take me down?
My ophthalmologist, Dr. Timothy Fuller, is a leading ocular melanoma surgeon. He assembled a medical team with lightning speed.
I think I was supposed to find each specialist’s mantra reassuring:
“We’ll work to save your life first, your eye second, and your vision last.”
A radiation oncologist rushed to create a small plaque covered with seeds of radiation. My surgeon would sew it into my eye as soon as possible, killing the cancer cells before they could spread.
Another oncologist ordered labs and scans of my lungs and liver, where ocular melanoma cells travel first.
I followed orders, vacillating between numbness and terror, afraid to ask the terrible questions. But before dawn on the morning of my cat scans, I called my close friend Ruth, an ophthalmologist, from a dark hospital parking garage.
“Am I going to be all right?” I asked her.
“I think your prognosis is good,” she said. “The tumor is small and has grown slowly. You’ll probably just lose some vision in that eye.”
“What if it’s already spread to my liver or lungs?” I asked.
“Then you die.”
That’s how I learned there’s no cure for ocular melanoma if it spreads. And you can’t always predict whose will spread and whose won’t.
I plunged into research and possible cures on the horizon and found almost nothing. I tracked down more experts, looking for any kind of hope.
Dr. Jade Homsi, chief of melanoma cancer at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, put it bluntly.
“You have an orphan disease that strikes only 3,000 people a year in this country,” he said. “There’s no cure because pharmaceutical companies can’t make any money looking for one.”
I got it.
“Why would drug companies sponsor walks for ocular melanoma like they do breast cancer or heart disease?” I asked rhetorically.
He shot back with the frustration of a physician whose hands are tied.
“Because your life matters as much as a woman’s with breast cancer.”
In the days following my diagnosis, I ricocheted between a free fall of despair and a struggle to hold onto hope.
Some of my doctors said there was no way to know if my cancer would metastasize. Others assured me that my prognosis was good. My oncologist told me there was only one thing I could do to help prevent its spread: reduce my stress.
“Exercise, meditate or do yoga, and slow down,” she said. “Eliminate everything in your life that causes you stress. Cortisol is particularly bad for ocular melanoma.”
The thought that I could cause my cancer to spread if I didn’t manage my stress, stressed me out.
I downloaded the Calm app on my iPhone and reached for it when I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, my heart pounding. But the sounds of gurgling brooks didn’t soothe me, nor did the dreamy, nighttime voices of storytellers who were supposed to steal my imagination.
I tried to think of myself as a leaf floating down a peaceful river. I pulled out my essays on detachment and suffering by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk.
All of it helped a little, but none of it was sustainable, so I turned to someone I’d leaned on for help through most of my adult life but not without considerable struggle. I looked for signs of God in my abyss.
I catch glimpses of God most Sundays when I join Christians all over the world in the retelling of the mystery we believe by faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
It’s that “coming again” part, to make all bad things good in the end, that I needed faith to believe now. If the Easter story is true, if there is a God who defeated evil and death by dying on a cross and rising again, then maybe suffering and death won’t have the last word in my life either.
One of scenes I like best in the Bible is of the man who came to Jesus begging for help. Falling to his knees weeping, he said, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” That’s how I went into my second eye surgery.
This time I asked my doctor to hold the anesthesia that puts you in a twilight zone before they give you the hard stuff that knocks you out for surgery. I was wide awake when they rolled me into the operating room, laid out the instruments under glaring lights, and called out a surgical checklist as though a Boeing 737 was about to lift off.
The whole scene made me a little jittery, but something inexplicable in me wanted the veil between me and death pulled back a little. I wanted to shrink the buffer I’ve cultivated between me and my mortality; to see how my faith held up in the face of total helplessness.
While Dr. Fuller and a team of masked nurses, techs and anesthesiologists prepared to cut into my eye, I folded my hands across my chest and prayed silently. Instead of imagining myself as a leaf floating down a river, I imagined myself as a beloved daughter of God, falling into his arms.
By the time the anesthesiologist was ready to put me under, I felt surrendered and at peace, maybe the closest I’ve come to believing that one day I, too, will rise again.
Sometimes I wonder which takes more courage: to believe in God and an afterlife, or to live without the comfort of such faith.
Has my religion anesthetized me against the terror of death or does it give me the tools and bravery I need to face it?
Theologian and New York Times columnist Esau McCaulley calls Palm Sunday “the tremor before the earthquake of our resurrection celebration.”
It’s one thing to celebrate the resurrection of a historical figure who lived more than 2,000 years ago. It’s a more frightening test of faith to trust that his resurrection guarantees my own.
I mark my time now between CT scans and blood tests that tell me whether I’m winning my battle with a rare cancer.
A freckle gone bad is teaching me the art of living life backward. By keeping my end in sight, I’m finding it easier to live more fully in the present, embracing the smallest things I once took for granted — a sip of morning tea, a walk with a friend, a hug from a grandchild inevitable.
Even if all I lose in this struggle is some of my vision, I’ll count it as a severe mercy this Easter season, because fighting cancer has schooled me, again, in the mystery of what it means to live by faith and not by sight.
Peggy Wehmeyer is a writer in Dallas and a former religion news correspondent for WFAA-TV and ABC News. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
Find the full opinion section here. Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor and you just might get published.