In November 2012, as I was transitioning from my law practice to full-time work with the legal clinic ministry, a mucinous adenocarcinoma tumor burst my appendix, spilling cancer cells into my abdomen. I was treated by a team of cancer surgeons at Penn who explained the gravity of my diagnosis: those cells had a 75% chance of growing into new tumors and available treatments were either ineffective or very risky. The median life expectancy of someone with this rare appendix cancer is seven years. I decided to undergo a high risk surgery known as HIPEC at a specialty surgery center at the University of Pittsburgh. During a six-hour procedure, heated chemotherapy was poured into my open abdomen, in the hopes of killing the cancer cells before they could grow. Several small cancer seeds were removed during the surgery. Not fully recovered from the surgery, I underwent twelve chemotherapy sessions over a six-month period, which ended in December 2013. Over that year, I endured three lengthy hospitalizations, two surgeries, nine CT scans, and countless IVs and blood tests. It’s been over a year since my last treatment and I am feeling well again. But more importantly I’m changed.
We get old, we get sick, and we die. And there isn’t anything we can do about it. After being so healthy all of my life, I had lived in denial about these truths. My faith was weak and shallow, as I had never been forced to truly trust Jesus, or anyone else for that matter. I was able to get by just trusting myself. However, facing the reality of sickness and death put my faith to the test.
I have always insisted on being strong and capable, on never being weak or needy. That made it hard for me to receive love from others. This battle with cancer made me so sick and weak that I couldn’t take care of myself. “In sickness or in health, till death do you part” took on new meaning as Wendy took care of me. Marriage seems to be going out of style in our culture, but when you are suffering, you need someone to lean on. Wendy was with me every step of the way, from my first stomach pain to the last chemo treatment. I shared my trials with many people, and it was very comforting to know that so many friends were praying for me. I’ve learned that a lot of people care about me. Friends brought meals and neighbors mowed my lawn. My heart was often overwhelmed, and I was often moved to tears of appreciation for the love and support that was shown to me.
Cancer made me poor. Good health is a treasure that should never be taken for granted. My poorest clients wouldn’t trade places with me. Suffering leads us to explore deep mysteries. When I was hooked up to a dozen tubes and surviving on hits of morphine, unable to even think, I could still pray a groan too deep for words. As I struggled, I studied the importance of perseverance, the secret of being content in any and all circumstances, of what it means for Jesus’ strength to be made perfect in my weakness. I studied how the privilege of participating in his sufferings enables us to know Jesus better. I learned that Jesus was there for me, that prayer is effective, and that God’s word is really helpful in times of trouble. I learned that suffering has a good purpose and that the Bible has the answer to life’s hardest questions. We can face the worst that this life has for us, knowing that everything will always have a good end for the Christian.
My year of cancer was God’s perfect preparation for this legal ministry. It came at just the perfect time. I had a real breakthrough spiritually when I was able to thank God for my cancer, to realize that it was a gift from the hand of a loving father. Until then, I was just trying to get past it, and if that’s all I did, it would have served no purpose for me. Being dysfunctional for so long humbled me. It has honed me, matured me, made me deeper. I learned that I am not what I do. It has made me more patient, more compassionate. I care now for what is most important: loving people. It’s enabled me to be more helpful to others who suffer, and to be willing to ask for help when I need it. God called me to do this work and he used my cancer to equip me to do it…and I’m still learning.
Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia (CLCPhila.org) is a community partner of Tenth, and a number of lawyers in the congregation volunteer with CLCP. Pete worships at Spirit and Truth Fellowship Church.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Peter Hileman. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org