When Mike Dellosso won a one-year battle with colon cancer he set out to help readers of his books discover it before they had to go through what he experienced.
“I want others to avoid what I had to go through,” he says. “It was an experience that taught me a lot about myself, others, and God, but one I wouldn’t want to repeat. If I can help even one person battling this disease, it would have been worth it.”
Mike set about writing a novel quite different from what his fan base had come to expect from him. Not a thriller, but a character-driven novel, so he wrote it under a pen name, Michael King, and entitled it A Thousand Sleepless Nights. His publisher, Charisma Media, went for it and the first copies went on sale in October.
Mike’s next step was to determine whether a partnership between him, Charisma Media, and the Colon Cancer Alliance was possible. This month both announced their cooperative fundraising venture, with Charisma Media making a significant contribution to CCA and Mike committing a portion of the proceeds from the book through December to CCA.
Speaking about A Thousand Sleepless Nights Mike says, “I want people to see colon cancer (and all the other cancers) for the monster it is, but also to show it does not need to defeat us. There is hope, there is strength, and there is courage and love. And though cancer may rob us of our physical vitality, it has no power over our spirit.”
***I’m extending the downloads giveaway! Purchase your copy of A Thousand Sleepless Nights and go HERE for details on how to get access to a free short story, my personal journal entries during my battle with cancer, and a collection of essays on suffering.
Because of the surgery I had where they removed the tumor and part of my colon I was left with a temporary ileostomy. For those who don’t know, a colostomy has to do with the large intestine, an ileostomy with the small intestine. Part of my small intestine was now on the outside of my body (not where it was intended to be), and a bag attached to the skin around it caught everything that came out. Note: the bag adhered with adhesive which, yes, sometimes failed. Not good.
Pretty gross stuff, really.
The protruding intestine is called a stoma or more sentimentally referred to as a “rosebud” because someone somewhere thought it resembled one. It doesn’t. If it did no one would ever stop to smell the roses.
Let it be clear, I hated the ileostomy and everything about it. The bag was a nuisance, it was difficult to conceal under my clothes, the odor was anything but rosey, and it needed to be emptied at the most inconvenient times and places. The stoma was gross, it, too, didn’t exactly smell pleasant, it was sensitive to touch and developed a nasty rash around it from the adhesive. Did I mention I hated it?
But. BUT . . . that ileostomy gave my damaged and traumatized colon the time to heal that it needed. It served a purpose and one that was ultimately for the good. And because of that nuisance I learned to deal better with the discomforts of life.
This taught me that the most important lessons in life aren’t learned on the mountain tops, but rather in the valley.
If we’re paying attention, we can learn something from hardships and trials. But we have to go through the darkness with our eyes open so we can see the pinpoints of light that show us the way through. To cover our eyes and hold them shut in an attempt to block out the shadows and obstacles that surround us is only to prolong our stay and set us up for certain misery.
Suffering serves a purpose. It does. If you look at it through the right set of lenses.
Friedrich Nietzche said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
It serves to humble us, focus us, clear away all the junk in life that has crowded our vision for so long. Suffering also reminds us of some important life lessons.
Here are five things suffering reminds us of.
But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
Are there any other truths that suffering reminds you of?
Cancer’s part is mostly psychological, the constant reminder that life is tenuous, frail, here today, gone tomorrow. The disease is a bully, puffing out its chest and reminding you at every turn that it has killed, will kill, and won’t hesitate to add you to its long list of victories. It is ruthless and respects no one. And no matter how many surgeries you have or what kind of treatment is administered the thought is always there: what if it doesn’t work?
And the chemo is no walk in the park physically. It’s poison, given at doses strong enough to kill the rogue cells but not quite potent enough to kill the host (you) has side effects that are relentless and come in waves, strongest the first few days after each treatment, then subsiding gradually until it’s time to get juiced again. The constant nausea, the parasthesias, the cold sensitivity, the restlessness, sleeplessness . . . it all wears on you like the steady drip of water boring a hole in rock.
Up and down the emotions go (mostly down): the depression, the anxiety, the moodiness. Ebbing and flowing like some dark, mysterious psychological sea.
I’d go from feeling light and optimistic to bawling my eyes out while watching the kids play in the backyard. I spent a lot of time sitting in my recliner, staring. Just staring. Jen called it “the chemo stare.” Any confrontation at all, whether with Jen or the girls, would send me into an emotional tailspin.
But through the maelstrom of emotions there were always the blessings to keep me tethered to hope. The folks who brought us meals, mowed our grass, ironed our clothes, paid our bills, watched the kids, and numerous other things served as beacons in the night, guiding me back to God by showing us His love, His care, His concern. They were His hands and feet, His voice, His touch, His heart; they showed us in a very practical way that no matter how bad things got, how dark the nights were, or how deserted the wilderness got, we were not alone.
What was it that sent you on an emotional roller coaster? And who did God bring into your life to keep you tethered to hope?
I came home from the hospital forty pounds lighter than when I was diagnosed. Mind you, I was never a big guy to start with. My weight loss was all too obvious. I was a sliver of my former self. And weak. So weak. I could barely walk from the car into the house.
The word for the next several months would be VULNERABLE. Suddenly, I had been removed from the safety of the hospital. I was sent home with this ileostomy that needed to be cared for, a bag that needed to be emptied several times a day. I still had terrible stomach cramps and wobbly legs. And there was still the fear (though not a very realistic one) that my incision would bust open and my intestines would unwind like a spring and decorate the floor.
But the most vulnerability had to do with my inability to protect my family. I was helpless and would kid with my wife about being a pencil-necked weakling. If anything happened, an emergency, a break-in, whatever, I would as helpful as a bag of sand. Correction, a half-full bag of sand. That scared me. As a man, I’m my family’s protector, but now the protector was the one needing the protecting. A tough pill to swallow for sure.
I was forced to put my total trust in God to be my family’s protector. He was all we had. For most of our life the trust we put in God is volitional, we choose to rely on Him or not to. It’s our call. But then there are those times when we really don’t have a choice. We’re backed into a corner and there’s no where to turn but toward Him. He’s it.
And you know what? That’s not a bad place to be. In fact, it’s the way it should be. All the time.
Was there a time when you were backed in to a corner and felt totally helpless? How did you react?
Anyone who has ever gone through cancer is no stranger to life’s valleys. Cancer is a geography full of deep caverns and lightless places. But of all the highs and lows I experienced, the five days in the hospital following my colon resection and ileostomy surgery were by far the worst of my life. No doubt about it. The landscape of that week was pitted with craggy, shadowed places, pitfalls, caves that burrowed to unknown depths and led to nowhere.
When I was coherent enough to see and understand what state my body was in I found tubes coming out of almost every orifice, an ostomy bag, a drain bag, a Foley bag, and multiple IV bags. I had an incision that ran from just below my sternum to my pubic area. My biggest fear when I stood up was that the incision was going to burst open and my guts would be strewn all over the floor. I was assured that wouldn’t happen.
Eventually they let me eat but the food had no flavor and caused severe stomach discomfort. I was encouraged to walk but my right leg kept spasming and cramping (the surgeon said it was due to the way they position the leg during the surgery). Nothing seemed to be going smoothly.
But worst of all was the depression. I missed my family. Jen would come to visit then she’d either get the girls or my parents would bring them by. They’d keep their distance and stare at this man in the bed who they knew to be their daddy but didn’t look like the guy they called Daddy. When they’d leave I’d open the dams and let the tears come. I wanted to go home so badly. I wanted our life together back. I wanted to go to work and come home and eat dinner as a family and read together or watch a TV show together. Instead, they were going home and I was stuck in that blasted hospital bed, alone, scared, battling more depression.
Interestingly, during that time I didn’t have a single revelatory moment. I didn’t hear God’s words in my ear; I didn’t feel His breath on my face or His arm around my shoulders. All those experiences would come later. But still I knew He was there. I just knew it. Did I question Him? Yes. Did I cry out to Him? Daily. Was I brutally honest with Him? Of course. But He never answered me, didn’t write on any walls, didn’t miraculously bring healing.
All the hours I’d put in over the years studying His word, listening to sound teaching, exploring different doctrines to better understand Him had paid off. This was the moment they kicked in like never before. And they all focused on one truth: No matter how alone I felt, I wasn’t. Not by a long shot. He was there, trudging through that valley with me step for step.
What was your deepest valley? Did you sense God’s presence there?
We spent the night before the big surgery at my parents’ home. They live twenty minutes from the hospital and since we had to be there so early it allowed the kids to go back to bed once we left in the morning. When I said my goodbyes to my darling daughters and my parents I honestly didn’t know if I’d ever see them again. The surgery, which would consist of removing a portion of my colon and giving me an ileostomy, is something the surgeon had done many, many times but it was still major surgery and anything can go wrong.
I was also told they wouldn’t know the true extent of the cancer until after the surgery when they biopsied the lymph nodes around the site. I had no idea what kind of news I’d wake up to.
I still have very vivid memories of the hour leading up to surgery but they’re sporadic. I remember the nurse shaving the surgical site and being careful to maintain my modesty. I remember her getting me a blanket from the warmer. The anesthesiologist came in, explained everything, and asked me if I had any questions. I told him to make sure I stayed asleep; I didn’t want to wake up with my guts all hanging out. He assured me he’d put me way under and keep me there.
But the most vivid memory I have is when they rolled me down the hallway to the operating room. Jen walked beside the gurney and held my hand. I remember them wheeling me into the room and watching Jen in the hallway, staring at her, wanting to take in all I could. She forced a smile but I could see the fear in her eyes. Then the double doors swung shut and she was gone. Less than a minute later I was asleep.
And fortunately I didn’t wake up and see my guts all over the bed.
I woke up less a man than when I went in. Over a foot of my colon had been removed and I think I lost several pounds just in those few hours in the operating room. Jen said I was gray, emaciated, and cold and limp as a dead fish. She stroked my hair and asked me how I felt. I said I felt like s**t. It was one of the only times in my life that I’ve cussed in public and I’m not ashamed of it because that’s exactly how I did feel. I felt like someone dragged me to the edge of death, cut me open, fiddled with my guts, sewed me up, and brought me back to the land of the living.
But little did I know at that moment that my hospital stay would push me to the limits of my faith, that I would cry out to God like I never had before. It would be my moment of truth, where I decided if I trust Him or not, where I run from Him or turn and fall into His arms.
What was your moment of truth? That moment where you had to make a decision: do I trust God or don’t I?
Immediately after seeing the surgeon I was sent for a CAT scan. This would show if the cancer had metastasized to any other organs. The scan was no big deal, a lot of “hold your breath, now breathe, hold your breathe, breathe.” The hard part was waiting for the results.
It seemed like an eternity. The results would determine the final course we would take for treatment. They would also be the messengers of hope or doom.
A couple days later I got the results and they showed there was no visible metastasis.
But it was only the beginning. More tests would follow–x-rays, ultrasounds, internal ultrasounds, scopes, blood work–and more waiting for results. Waiting for the hammer to fall.
By the time I was diagnosed I’d worked in the medical field for nine years and now I knew what it was like to be the person whose life revolved around the next test, the next result. The waiting became almost unbearable, one day ran into another, but each test brought the surgery that much closer.
Through that jungle of tests and results and interpretations and explanations one truth pointed the way and guided my course.
Be still and know that I am God.
I’d repeat it to myself constantly. Frankly, the being still part was difficult. That peace that surpasses all understanding was hard to find. My worry meter was stuck on maximum. But the know that I am God part? Ah, now there was something tangible I could grab onto.
I knew that no matter how I felt about the situation, how I worried, how I fretted, how I impatiently waited for the next result, God was still God, He was still on the throne, He was still calling the shots, He still had me in the palm of his hand.
That was a truth emotions couldn’t manipulate. It was a lighthouse upon a solid rock in the midst of the storm beating against me.
What was the one truth you clung to when the waves swelled and the rain fell?
Cancer does a lot of things to you. It’s a formidable foe that deserves respect. From the beginning my oncologist told us we needed to respect this disease and not treat it lightly. It’s truly the stuff of life and death.
And that has a profound effect on you. On the way you see life, the way you see yourself, your accomplishments, your goals, your family, your purpose for being here.
I remember early on being so overwhelmed with all the information we were being fed that I just wanted to get away from it all. I wanted to seclude myself away, deal with this ordeal, then get back to living when it was all said and done.
But God is more powerful than cancer and He, too, does a lot of things to you. During those occasional moments of clarity and, yes, maybe even sanity I heard God’s voice through all the clutter of appointments and tests and results. And what he told me really made me think.
During one of those reprieves from the stress and fear and clouded outlook I had such a certainty about the whole thing that I told my wife something I would never forget, a truth that I clung to throughout the duration of the battle (and still cling to).
I said that through this trial we were about to enter two things would be accomplished.
Knowing the frame of mind I was in at the time, I don’t know where that came from. Well, actually, I do know where it came from and it wasn’t from me . . . it had to be of God.
So what was your moment of clarity in the midst of the storm?
The first time I cried about the cancer was about a week after diagnosis. I had already seen the surgeon and the oncologist. I’d gotten the news, the plan, and the prognosis. I knew what the next year would look like . . . or so I thought.
But it was one morning on my way to work when the weight of the entire ordeal broke loose from its moorings and landed on my shoulders. I remember it like it just happened last week. I was doing forty-five down Lehman Road and those pesky thoughts of death wormed their way into my mind. I wasn’t afraid of dying, though. No, I know where I’m going, that’s not the problem. There’s no fear there. I was afraid for my family. I didn’t want my wife being a widow at 31 years old; I didn’t want my three daughters, just 9, 7, and 6, to grow up fatherless. I couldn’t stand even the idea of it. And the more those thoughts bounced around in my head the more the tears pressed on the back of my eyes.
Finally, the dam let loose and the tears surged. And there I was, blurry-eyed, all sniffles and sobs, praying, “God, let this thing be as uncomfortable as it has to be but please spare my life.”
It was the first time in my life I had ever stared death in the face. Like I said, I wasn’t afraid of that beast either, I was afraid of the destruction it would leave in its wake.
I needed that cry too, needed it to cleanse my worries and push me to the point of throwing the ordeal at God’s feet. I wouldn’t cry again until chemotherapy did its dark magic on my emotions.
I learned during that trip to work that suffering serves as a reminder of our own mortality. It forces us to the realization that we’re not as in control as we’d like to think we are.
So how about you. What trial have you endured that reminded you of your own weakness and insufficiency? That pushed you toward a deeper reliance on God?
Please share these posts with others and encourage them to share their stories with us.
Cancer has a way of launching a full-scale attack on a number of fronts. Physically it’s pretty stealthy, laying beneath the surface, spreading its poison without detection. But in every other way it’s unashamedly in-your-face. Emotionally it wears you down. Day after day the uncertainties and anxieties just keep coming with no relief. Psychologically, it capitalizes on its reputation as a ruthless killer reminding you at every turn of its deadly history and many victims. Spiritually, it tests even the strongest faith and pokes holes in long-held beliefs.
It’s quite the formidable foe.
The first doctor I saw after the diagnosis was the surgeon. I don’t know what I expected him to say but it certainly wasn’t what he said. He began to lay out the plan of attack and the farther in he got the more it felt like someone was kicking me in the gut over and over again. He mentioned surgery, ileostomy, temporary but possibly permanent, recovery, chemo, radiation, more surgery. The hammer of reality swung down and struck me square in the chest. I remember thinking, “This is real and it’s dangerous.” I left there in shock, knocked back, reeling from the gravity of what we were facing, what lay ahead.
I went home and had an anxiety attack. I remember every detail of it. I was sitting at the dining room table and Jen was there beside me. We talked about what would come next even though we knew nothing of what the future held. And then it hit me. The truth of the matter was that while we waited for the secretary to call us with an appointment for the oncologist this monster inside me could be spreading, reaching its scaly tentacles throughout my body, infesting other organs with its rogue cells. I wanted to see the doctor right then, get things going, extract the monster from me. I couldn’t wait even one day longer. One day may be too late. Every day, hour, minute was one moment too long.
I began to shake and sweat. I wanted to holler out. I didn’t want to die, not like that, not at the hand of some merciless disease.
Eventually, I calmed but that seed of doubt had already been planted. From that day forward I began to entertain thoughts of death. That was right before Easter, the day we celebrate life and the Life.
How do you feel about waiting, especially when it seems life and death are in the balance?
Please share these posts with friends and family you know who have been touched by cancer. I’d love to hear their stories too.
Read the previous post, “The Battle Begins” here.
With the release of A Thousand Sleepless Nights just two months away my thoughts are turning more and more toward a battle that too many fight. Cancer. The book is about cancer, how it invades and destroys, strikes fear, steals joy, dumps buckets full of anxiety and uncertainty, but ultimately, if you let it, gives the gift of a blessing. In the story, Nena Hutching is a woman who has endured a bumpy but beautiful life living on a thoroughbred farm in northern Virginia. Her life, though, is full of regrets and when she finds out she has cancer those regrets prop themselves up and stare her straight in the face.
Much of the character development is drawn from my own experience with cancer so for the next couple months I want to share some of that journey with you. It’s a story that’s not unlike millions of others who have travelled or are travelling the same road. My story is one of fear and uncertainty and a roller coaster of emotions, but ultimately it’s a story of hope and blessings, of light and glory. It’s a story of God’s grace.
I hope you’ll share these posts with others you know who have experienced cancer, whether personally or through a loved one or friend. They may find some comfort in knowing they aren’t/weren’t alone in their battle. And I welcome comments, experiences, questions. I’d love to know how others were feeling, how they coped, where they found strength, normalcy, hope.
My story began in early 2008 with bleeding where it shouldn’t be. Over the course of a few weeks it got heavier and heavier until I finally saw the family doctor who referred me for a colonoscopy. We were both thinking a mild case of colitis. Imagine my surprise when the gastroenterologist showed me color photos of a tumor the size of a golf ball residing in my colon. The thing looked hideous, like a monster with a will of its own. He said he took a biopsy and would notify me as soon as the results came in. A couple days later I got the call at work.
“Michael,” he said, “I’m very sorry but you have colon cancer.”
I didn’t know what to say so I thanked him and hung up the phone. I called my wife, Jen, and told her what he’d said then finished my work day and headed home. I was numb and thinking irriationally, assuming it was just a quick procedure to extract the tumor and be done with the little monster inside me. No more cancer. Have a nice life.
That evening we argued. Jen couldn’t understand why I wasn’t more upset; I didn’t understand why she was so upset.
Neither of us had any idea of the storm that was brewing just over the horizon and how much we would need each other in the next ten months.
You’re invited to share your own experience with diagnosis here, whether you’re a survivor or know a survivor. Please share these posts. I’d love to get a small community of survivors and caregivers/friends/loved ones involved in this discussion.