The story of John Piper’s cancer, and how pancreatic cancer touched my family. How a son hurt his recovering mother because he drank the John Piper kool aid and how this was one of the factors which drove him in rage during his faith crisis.
“About 48,960 people (24,840 men and 24,120 women) will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. About 40,560 people (20,710 men and 19,850 women) will die of pancreatic cancer.”
2015 American Cancer Stats for Pancreatic Cancer
“This news has, of course, been good for me. The most dangerous thing in the world is the sin of self-reliance and the stupor of worldliness. The news of cancer has a wonderfully blasting effect on both. I thank God for that. The times with Christ in these days have been unusually sweet.”
John Piper to Bethlehem Baptist January 3, 2006
This is going to be a painful story to write about, but I want to re-visit a dark story in my family and the rage I had over something I had done. I had so pushed my Mom’s buttons that she confronted and challenged me on a pamphlet telling her that cancer is a gift from God. It was something that John Piper had taught, and at one time I thought highly of John Piper. This is going to be a post that shows how Neo-Calvinism is really pure fundamentalism. I also am going to touch on how this drove me in my faith crisis. How I was filled with rage, anger directed at myself, and anger that I once liked John Piper. I also want to touch on how my mother reacted. When fundamentalism bites you it tends to do that in times of life you don’t expect. This bit my family and caused my mother deep grief. I am going to break this out in 5 sections.
John Piper’s Prostate Cancer
On December 21, 2005 John Piper had his annual urology exam. His doctor felt an abnormality and suggested a biopsy. The following day the doctor called John Piper with the results. Cancer cells were found in two of the ten samples, and that it is estimated that 5% of the prostate is affected. John’s PSA account was 1.6 which is good, and his Gleason score is 6 which says that the cancer is not aggressive. Taken together John’s doctor did not believe that the cancer had spread beyond the prostate, and that the cancer would respond well to treatment. John and his wife decided surgery would be best and that he would undergo a surgical removal of the prostate in February 2006. There is a good write up of this on Tim Challies here.
John Piper wrote a letter to his church Bethlehem Baptist in January 2006 in which he addresses his cancer. In his letter (in the Tim Challies link above) he states that being diagnosed with cancer is good news. He also wrote how this cancer is designed for him, and quoted 2 Corinthians 1:0 when it says, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” In closing John Piper’s letter talked about how he was concerned with the (Lord’s) great glory. And he prayed that he would not miss any of the sanctifying blessings. He also prayed that Bethlehem Baptist would not miss any of the sanctifying blessings in this process. And that the Lord would bless this surgery and that this “momentary trial would work to spread the passion for (God’s) your supremacy for the joy of all peoples.” It was closed out with a hope that his wife Noel and those close to him would be given great peace.
On the eve of prostate cancer surgery John Piper wrote an article called “Don’t Waste Your Cancer” In it John laid out 10 points about cancer that he wanted to emphasize. I am going to list those here:
- You will waste your cancer if you don’t believe it is designed for you by God.
- You will waste your cancer if you believe its a curse and not a gift.
- You will waste your cancer if you see comfort from your odds rather than God.
- You will waste your cancer if you refuse to think about death.
- You will waste your cancer if you think that “beating” cancer means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
- You will waste your cancer if you spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God.
- You will waste your cancer if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection.
- You will waste your cancer if you grieve as those who have no hope.
- You will waste your cancer if you treat sin as casually as before.
- You will waste your cancer if you fail to use it as a means of witness to the glory of Christ.
Now what is interesting and I didn’t catch this, I have to credit T.C. Moore for pointing out a flip flop in John Piper’s theology. Whereas previously John Piper said cancer was designed for God’s glory; at Desiring God in a response to 29 year old Brittany Maynard’s planned physician assisted suicide in Oregon due to an inoperable brain tumor, John Piper said the following:
I hate cancer. It is regularly an accomplice in the life-robbing work of our “final enemy,” death (1 Corinthians 15:26). Death was not part of paradise, as God created it in the beginning. And death will not be part of the New Earth, as God brings it in the resurrection. In that sense, it opposes the ultimate goodness that God designed for this creation. It is an enemy.
So first cancer is a gift from God, however he then writes about how he hates cancer, and that it is the enemy. So which is it? Will the real John Piper stand up please?
Facts About Cancer
According to the National Cancer Institute cancer is the name given to a collection of related diseases. In all types of cancer, some of the body’s cells begin to divide without stopping and spread into surrounding tissues. Cancer attacks healthy tissue and cells that should die do not. It can grow and become a threat to the body. For more information I would like to refer you to this website that has a lot of basic information about cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute these are the percent of those surviving 5 years.
- Anal Cancer 66%
- Bladder Cancer 77%
- Bone and Joint Cancer 67%
- Brain and Nervous System Cancer 33%
- Breast Cancer 89%
- Cervix Cancer 68%
- Colon and Rectal Cancer 65%
- Endometrial Cancer 85%
- Esophagus Cancer 18%
- Kidney and Renal Cancer 72%
- Larynx Cancer 60%
- Leukemia 57%
- Liver and Intrahepatic Bile Duct Cancer 17%
- Lung and Bronchus Cancer 17%
- Hodgkin Lymphoma 85%
- Non Hodgkin Lymphoma 69%
- Melanoma of the Skin 91%
- Myeloma 45%
- Oral Cavity 63%
- Ovary Cancer 45%
- Pancreas Cancer 7%
- Prostate Cancer 99%
- Cancer of the Small Intestine 65%
- Stomach Cancer 28%
- Testis Cancer 95%
- Thyroid Cancer 98%
- Vulva Cancer 71%
Before I continue let me state that I know prostate cancer can and has been fatal in some men. So in writing all this I am not trying be flippant to John Piper’s cancer. However look at the statistics above…if you are a man and you are going to get cancer which would you prefer to get? Prostate, especially with 99% surviving 5 years and longer? Or would you prefer pancreatic (6%), lung (17%), liver (17%) esophagus (18%), stomach (28%) or brain (33%)?
Now with that written lets examine in more detail pancreatic cancer. The information below comes from the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research which was established in 1997 for pancreatic cancer research and support. It is based in Southern California and is involved in pancreatic cancer research at UCLA. Here are some quick facts about pancreatic cancer:
- The survival rate for pancreatic cancer has not improved over the last 40 years.
- Pancreatic cancer is the 4th leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.
- The average life expectancy after diagnosis with metastatic disease is just three to six months.
- Few risk factors are defined, one however is a family history of disease (This is why I am at risk later in life)
- Symptoms are vague and not felt until its too late.
- Treatment options are limited.
There are few survivors of pancreatic cancer, I thought I’d share this story of survival. That said, I’d like to turn the attention to educating you on some of the talent we have lost to pancreatic cancer.
- Steve Jobs of Apple
- Patrick Swayze – Actor
- Jack Benny – Actor
- Luciano Pavarotti – Singer
- Sally Ride – First woman in space
- Michael Landon – Actor
- Rex Harrison – Actor
- Henry Mancini – Composer
- Wernher Von Braun – Launched our rocket program
- William Safire – NY Times Columnist
- Margaret Mead – Anthropologist
- Fiorello LaGuardia – Perhaps America’s most famous mayor
- John Baradino – Baseball Player
- Robert Mosbacher – Republican politician
My Mother’s Pancreatic Cancer
In early 2005 I was living in Milwaukee when a job offer was extended to me in Washington, D.C. I accepted it and planned to move. My Mother was in Fresno, California and she had wanted to fly out to Milwaukee and help me pack, clean up and move to DC. I was excited and thought this would be a good quality way to spend time with my Mom. In or about late January my Mother started to itch constantly. She didn’t know what was going on, and it puzzled her. She mentioned this to me as she was also making plans to come to Milwaukee. My Mom decided to see her Internist who put her on antihistamines and she still had problems. Her Internist referred my Mom to a Gastroenterologist who immediately ordered testing. This was all in the first week of February 2005. They did tests and were having problems finding anything, then in an MRI scan they found pancreatic cancer. On February 10, 2005 my Mother was in the early stages of pancreatic cancer. What was happening is that the tumor was growing on the head of the pancreas and blocking my Mom’s bile duct. Since her bile couldn’t drain it made my Mom itch. I’m going off memory but on February 10 I was in Milwaukee starting to pack and put things in order for a move to DC. I had given my apartment complex a head’s up that I was not renewing the lease. And I was starting to look at places to live in the DC metro area. Against all this I got a phone call from my Dad late one night. He had something he had to tell me, my Mom was having problems and they found out she had pancreatic cancer. She was also rushed into major surgery, and the surgery lasted about 8 hours. When I heard that I froze at hearing the news. I knew that the news was not good. And this come out of no where…all of a sudden things were in turmoil as there was a medical crisis. After I got off the phone with the news I was in shock over the news. One thing I will say, is that nothing prepares you for pain and suffering, and when it will happen to you it you will not be prepared either. I called my Crusade director in Milwaukee Erick Lettner late after my Dad called. He said the news was not good and that he would pray. And in an apartment torn apart by packing, and a mess, I sat on the floor leaned against the wall and I wept. I thought I was going to lose my mother. In the emergency surgery that they performed they did what was called the whipple procedure. They removed 60% of my Mom’s stomach, head of the pancreas and part of her large intestine. For me I was in agony in Milwaukee as my mind wrapped around the news and this new dark valley that I and my family would be walking down. My Mother was in the hospital for 10 days, she held the record in the family until I had my medical crisis in July 2012. The following day I spoke to my Mother after her surgery and in a strained voice my Mother said that I needed to take better care of my health, as she didn’t want me to go through what she was dealing. All of a sudden things had changed for me and I wanted to place the job in DC on hold. I was concerned for my Mother and wanted to be with her and help her out. My Mother told me that was foolish, she wanted me to take this job, she wanted me to move. I was in anguish because I was so racked with guilt about moving forward when my Mom was facing pancreatic cancer. I decided to continue but moved forward so overwhelmed with guilt. As it was explained to me my Mother had a 5 year window she had to beat if she was going to survive. 6% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live. For many people its a terminal diagnosis. My Mother started chemotherapy, radiation and regular MRI scans. During this time I just held my breath as things progressed. Each MRI scan was a roller coaster of anxiety beforehand, and uncertainty afterward in waiting for the results. When the news was good for a month or so it was a sigh of relief for my family. And this was how things continued for a while.
Later that year my family visited me in Washington, D.C. if I remember correctly. My Dad gave me a head’s up as to how my Mom looked. He was trying to brace me for her appearance. Fighting pancreatic cancer and undergoing treatment had ravaged my Mother. The first time I saw her I was in shock. She had lost about 30 to 40 lbs due to the chemo and radiation. Her skin, once alive with color and healthy was stretched, and at times looked bleached.My Mom had a lot of scars and she scared easily and it took longer for her body to heal. My Mom’s hair went from brown and developed white. And most shocking as a result of the treatment it looked like my Mother had aged about 30 years. When I saw my Mom I was afraid for her and thought I’d cry upon seeing her. But I also didn’t want that to be my first reaction. Another thought crossed my mind…my Mom looked so frail when I saw her, I wondered if I could even hug her. As my Mother fought pancreatic cancer she was showered with prayers, love and grace. To this day it still moves her and my family. So many people sent cards, wanted to visit, interact with her and support her in this process. It hit a deep nerve in my Mom. And with that my family walked forward. One day at a time, one medical appointment at a time.
It was during this time period of 2005 to 2007 that I still loved John Piper. I thought highly of him and read articles he had written. I almost looked up to John Piper as a father figure. And at the time had this reverent love for his teaching. Piper had cancer surgery in February 2006, my Mom was still a year into the uncertainty of treating and dealing with pancreatic cancer. The only thing about John that was irritating me was his disaster declarations. I liked him because I appreciated his theological teaching, his comments on doctrine, and he seemed to also be the “anti-Pat Robertson.” Every time Pat opened his mouth I cringed at what he’d say. As I had said the only thing I did not like was John Piper’s teaching on disasters as he started to sound like Pat Robertson, but I also compartmentalized and thought the best thing to do was show him grace. Since I liked John Piper I then gave my Mom John Piper’s pamphlet in 2007. It was called “Don’t Waste Your Cancer“. I gave it to her causally and encouraged her to read it. My Mom took it from me, and I thought she would probably trash it though I hoped she would read it. As 2007 moved on and became 2008 my feelings on John Piper started to change. I was one year away from the bottom falling out in my faith crisis. That was on the horizon. But as things progressed my thoughts and feelings about John Piper started to change. I didn’t think life was so “black and white” and I was puzzled by some of things he said. He started to say more strange stuff and I had a harder time defending him. In 2008 I started to have private regrets on giving my Mom John Piper’s statement on cancer. It weighed on me. Privately I resolved to live with the tension but I also thought that knowing my Mom she would have most likely trashed it. And that was how I moved forward. After all my Mother would never confront me on this..right?
In 2009 the lid erupted. And in both anger, rage, and pain as my faith backfired I worked hard at distancing myself from evangelical Christianity. From Wisconsin, to California to Washington, D.C. I worked hard at burning bridge after bridge in driving evangelicals from my life. I wanted nothing to do with them. In 2010 I felt mostly free from faith. I proclaimed myself an agnostic. I had trashed a large component of Christian material and relationships to get to this point. There were so many issues at play but part of me was angry over the fact that I once liked John Piper…but now that I was outside the faith I thought he was done. In reality it was just beginning.
A Mother Confronts Her Son
I usually visit my family in Fresno once a year. The previous December 2010 my Mother due to that sixth sense mother’s have knew that I was not going to church and pushed back from faith. It bothered her immensely. My Mom told me how much she was praying for me. I loved my mother and am so grateful that she is in my life. With fundamentalism you learn how flawed it is and how it comes back to bite you. I first realized that while going through a funeral in Montana in 2009, and shortly that Christmas when I was home I would be confronted with the tragedy of fundamentalism again. In 2009 I was bitten by John MacArthur which I want to write about later, in 2011 I would be bitten by John Piper.
It was 4 years since I gave my Mom John Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Cancer”. I lived with the disgust of it but I kept it to myself. I was certain my Mother forgot about and trashed it. My Mom wouldn’t read anything like that anyway, so I was hoping things would be forgotten with time. That December of 2011, I was at home visiting my family in California. I was sitting alone in my old room with the door open. My Mom came in and asked to speak with me. The conversation wasn’t planned at all, and I had no idea what the conversation would be about. She closed the door, pulled up a chair and told me “Eagle, cancer is not a gift…” and she started to cry. When I realized what the conversation was going to be about, I became frantic. I felt like I wanted to die. I wanted to crawl into a hole in the wall and disappear. This was no the conversation I wanted to have. My mom was referencing the John Piper pamphlet that I had given her years earlier when she was recovering from pancreatic cancer. I got passionate and pleaded with my Mom for forgiveness. I explained that I had a different fundamentalist mindset at the time.
My Mom boldly and bravely confronted me. She continued to recall her fears when she dealt with pancreatic cancer. She told me about how worried she was for my Father and wondered how he would survive without her. She expressed concern for my sister as well. It was a bitterly painful conversation. While crying, my mom, who is Polish Catholic, told me that she dealt with pancreatic cancer by offering her suffering up to God since Jesus suffered for her on the cross. She hoped that I hadn’t given John Piper’s pamphlet out to other people. I sat on my old bed and couldn’t believe we were having this discussion. I was in shock that my Mom was discussing this with me. My Mom as a Roman Catholic had a healthier understanding of the theological issue of pain and suffering than either John Piper or many of his followers.
Also in the same conversation my mom was deeply upset that I wasn’t going to church anymore and even more upset that I had told her I couldn’t believe in God due the problem of evil. She didn’t want her son to be an agnostic. My Mom forgave me for giving her the John Piper pamphlet years before. However, I couldn’t accept that forgiveness because I was so angry with myself. As the conversation drew to a close, my Mom got up out of her chair, and said, “Eagle…evangelical Christianity really screwed you up.” At that point, having seen the harm that fundamentalism can do, I was in full agreement with my Mom. Evangelical Christianity did screw me up. The conversation ended and I came to realize how destructive and harmful fundamentalism can be, especially as it was still playing out after I had pushed back from it.
What my Mom did is very courageous. First of all my Mom doesn’t know much about evangelicalism. My Mom is a Polish Catholic and spent her entire life in the Roman Catholic faith as it’s near and dear to her. But giving my Mom that pamphlet revealed as to how brainwashed I was into fundamentalism to the point where I didn’t realize how much pain I was causing others around me. My Mom went through hell when she had pancreatic cancer. It took a lot of courage for my Mom to confront me and I wish many of the Christian Taliban (John Piper’s followers) who lap onto every word John Piper says would step back from their bubble and realize the danger and harm that they do. My Mom survived and forgives me…but what if she had not survived? How would I move forward if I knew the harm I did to my mother if I couldn’t have closure? What would I have done if I learned about this after she passed away? What if I learned after the fact of how much it hurt her? How could I live with myself? My Mom knows nothing about Neo-Calvinist theology at all, but she knows garbage when she sees it. And this was nothing but garbage from John Piper. As for me this is why I react and have a strong dislike for John Piper today. John Piper and his theology, is nothing more than an idol for many people. When I realized what I had done…it was years after the fact and the pain which was so unnecessary was deep.
A Rage That Was Gasoline in a Faith Crisis
A new pain erupted for me from 2011 forward as I had to live with the anger of the pain I caused my Mother. The issue was so tender at the mention of John Piper I would literally explode out of anger or disgust for how this hurt my Mother. I struggled a lot with this and it popped up from time to time. During my faith crisis one of the churches I showed up at was McLean Presbyterian. At the time I was hoping they could help me with the Problem of Evil. At a Sunday night gathering when asked I told someone that I was agnostic. They got a Pastor and in the course of a conversation it came out that I gave my Mother who was recovering from pancreatic cancer John Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.” This pastor’s jaw dropped when he heard that and said, “You did what?” He asked if we could talk and talked about the harm that John Piper’s followers (the Christian Taliban) have caused him. When encouraged to follow up with McLean Presbyterian at the time they didn’t respond to my emails and I went on looking for another church to discuss my doubts. I was stuck on many things in my faith crisis and one of the most painful situations that I was stuck on the most is this thought: What would have happened it my Mother passed away and in the aftermath I learned how deeply I wounded her? How could I have lived with the pain that I caused my Mother in her last months of her life had she passed away? When a person dies its permanent you can’t have that final conversation, you can’t seek forgiveness after the fact. Its often too late. It took me years to deal with this and what actually helped was all the people who forgave me and gave me grace as I was exiting out of my faith crisis. In the process I realized I had to extend forgiveness to myself and think of the fact that’s he was fortunate enough to have survived. I stopped beating myself up over this issue, however it is still raw for me.
My family just celebrated my Mother’s 10th anniversary of surviving pancreatic cancer last month. My Mother has dealt with survivor’s guilt and struggles with hearing the news of other people who passed away from pancreatic cancer. For me personally I stop in my tracks when I hear of someone who passed away to pancreatic cancer. A brain tumor also does the same thing as my family has been touched by that as well. The challenge is to live with the scars. Last year as I was jumping through hoops for weight loss surgery I had to be signed off by a Gasterintologist. In reviewing my family’s health history I told her that my Mother survived pancreatic cancer. This doctor was stunned and said that in her practice of years she only had about 6 patients who survived. My Doctor’s appointment went longer than necessary because of her questions about my Mom, how they caught it, her treatment, how she’s dong today, etc.. After my Doctor’s appointment I called up my family and briefly discussed this with them. As I said above I am also at risk for pancreatic cancer according to my physicians and parents. Recently my Mother went to her doctor and she saw someone who had an established presence in the medical community of Fresno. My Mother learned in time that he was dealing with pancreatic cancer. He did not survive that long and lived for a few more months. When he passed away both my parents went to his funeral. For my Mom it’s hard to attend a funeral for someone who died of pancreatic cancer. It brings about the why question.
In closing I had that list of people who died due to pancreatic cancer. One of the talents I miss is that of opera singer Pavarotti. Its with that in mind that I want to close out with Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma.