My Unexpected Diagnosis

THIS IS A very personal column. Last December I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. There were no symptoms, just a routine blood test. I was on a conference call when the doctor phoned with the biopsy results, but I continued on with the other call assuming I could return it later to hear that there were no problems. There were problems, he told me, and I would need to see a surgeon.

I felt incredulous about the news. I was about to launch a book tour and everything seemed to be in control. Sojourners was involved in intense advocacy work around immigration reform, gun violence, and the budget/sequester battles. There had to be a mistake, or surely some convenient treatment would suffice. Certainly, I would work this all out privately, and stay on schedule for everything else. But then came further testing and discussions of medical options—and anxiety began to grow.

The tour for my latest book, On God’s Side, had to be postponed without announcing why. I kept the health news to a small circle of family, friends, and senior staff, and I did my best to go on as if this wasn’t happening. But it was.

My care shifted to the research center at the National Institutes of Health. There, I took part in a new program using resolution MRI to guide surgical decisions. Such opportunities are available to anyone (people can find out about the work of NIH on its website—sadly, this critical work is being severely cut in the sequester). The NIH staff’s extraordinary knowledge of cancer was immediately evident, as was the wonderful care they showed me.

 In early June, I had major surgery for prostate cancer. The surgery “couldn’t have gone better,” the doctors say, and I seem to be recovering well. They keep telling me to go slow and take my time, which is not only good physical advice for healthy recovery but also spiritual counsel for those of us who sometimes tell time by how much we hope we are changing the world.

This was certainly more “major” surgery than I was acknowledging and admitting to myself. I was stunned by the news in December, and wanted to keep it private—partly to avoid answering too many public questions on it, but also likely because of some self-denial about it all. During this whole process, I’m learning more and more lessons about losing control and learning to trust instead.

I was in very good hands with my surgeon, and I feel our work is in good hands with all of my colleagues at Sojourners, as I take a few weeks now to rest and recover. It’s never just about a leader here at Sojourners because we have such a remarkable team; and it’s never just about the team because we have such an extraordinary mission; but it’s never even just about our mission because we have a God who will always find ways to bring love and justice into the world with and without us, and sometimes despite our best efforts and human attempts to keep “control.”

I spoke with a few close friends before going in for my cancer surgery. My old and dear friend Wesley Granberg-Michaelson contrasted our need for control with the “Prayer of Abandonment” by Charles de Foucauld: “I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me. ... Into your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.”

It was a perfect prayer for surgery and recovery, and I hope one I remember before my next book tour! A week after surgery, B.J. Heyboer, a colleague at the publisher Brazos Press, wrote me what a member of her discernment committee for the Episcopal priesthood had said to her: “Control is an illusion, an illusion that we all pursue. But the sooner you see it as the illusion it is, the better off you—and your ministry—will be.” My friend Richard Rohr told me, “These things change your relationship to God.”

Sitting in that hospital room, even in times of pain or anxiety, I thought about the billions of people around the world who don’t have all these health-care resources available to them as we do. That must become a fundamental issue of love and justice for us, and I hope this experience will make it all more personal for me.

My pastor, Jeff Haggray, suggested I not be so private about all this, and that it might be time to offer some personal reflections on this whole process, which might be helpful to other people. So I decided to write this.

But life goes on, and I still coached my son’s Little League baseball team through the playoffs—sitting in a chair behind the dugout fence, at doctor’s orders, so as not to have to dodge line drives while coaching at third base! My time with these 10-year-olds was my best therapy for recovery, and they even won the championship!

I would appreciate your prayers for all of us who are wrestling this summer with issues of physical health and spiritual transformation. 

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. A version of this column ran on the God’s Politics blog.

Image: Control push button, Stuart Miles /

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