Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Dr Dan sports a turban in the aftermath of a gamma knife procedure

I am happy to report that we have survived yet another gamma knife procedure (#6). On Monday, 4/20/09, Dr Sheehan focused ionizing radiation on ten lesions located in the right cerebral hemisphere. All told that amounts to 43 times that metastatic deposits in my brain have been placed in the cross hairs of the gamma knife device (some of them requiring more than one treatment session).

Perhaps because of the sheer number of lesions treated, or because of the close proximity to the previous procedure, this particular session proved to be the most challenging one yet. Having your skull suspended by four screws inside a titanium frame for hours at a time while high-energy gamma rays are destroying space-occupying lesions in your brain can produce a headache that crescendos to explosive proportions when the frame is removed.

During these sessions I have tested an age-old approach to pain management that I have found to be very effective. Let me share it with you. It is a method advocated in scripture and now touted by modern psychology as “cognitive therapy” – the power of positive thinking. It is the biblical antidote to depression and distress outlined in Philippians 4:8 “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

When in distress (physical, emotional or spiritual), I always have the choice to engage my mind in the prescribed pattern of this verse which I elicit with an acronym “THERRAPPY”. While I lie immobilized inside the gantry of the gamma knife machine, even while ionizing radiation is traversing my brain, let me invite you to listen in on some of my thoughts that were:

True – “There is no doubt that God loves me... This is truly wonderful technology…

Honorable – “What an honorable and brave man Captain Phillips of the Maersk Alabama must be to offer himself as hostage to the pirates in place of his crew…

Excellent – “Dr Sheehan and his staff are excellent clinicians… What an excellent experience to have participated in the baptism of ten new believers on Easter Sunday…

Right – “I certainly made the right choice in choosing Linda as my wife… I am so proud of my son-in-law for taking a stand for what is right…

Reputable – “When I grow up I want to be like my friend Hap, with a reputation as a passionate follower of Christ…”

Attractive (lovely) – “I am truly blessed to have such a beautiful wife… who surrounds me with beautiful things…

Pure – “What do I know that is pure? Ah yes, Jesus’ life and His unfailing love!... and I remember the pure delicate flavors of the gelato we enjoyed last week with friends…

PraiseworthY – I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the prayers of so many, for God’s amazing grace, for the fact that in spite of 43 brain tumors I am still able to praise Him!

While not refusing the blessings of modern chemistry (e.g., intravenous fentanyl), I have found this prescription for the mind to be truly therapeutic. You can try biting your lower lip, humming The Battle Hymn of the Republic, or screaming if you like, but this really works! Next time you are down in the dumps or distressed, try this mode of THERRAPPY. When taken with a generous potion of prayer, the outcome is guaranteed: “...And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6-7)

Dr Dan

PS – We will return to Charlottesville in two months for repeat imaging studies to assess the effectiveness of these recent procedures.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What Does It Matter?

"What does it matter anyway? We all die in the end." -- the character Diana in Knowing.

I cannot let this Easter season pass without commenting on the enormous impact my recent experience has had on how I celebrate the Resurrection. My purpose is not to debate the veracity of Christ’s resurrection. (You are free to pursue that on your own. Here is just one resource.) In spite of “many convincing proofs” (Acts 1:3) an affirmative answer will ultimately be based on faith – it was intended to be so (Heb 11:6). Rather I am driven to urge you to contemplate the consequences to you and me if the resurrection is true.

In the recently released science fiction thriller Knowing, an astrophysicist (portrayed by Nicolas Cage) reviews the evidence of the incredible precision required for intelligent life to exist in the universe and poses to his students the philosophical alternatives to explain this remarkable phenomenon: Life exists either as a result of “randomness” (materialistic world view) or “determinism” (a more politically correct way of referring to intelligent design). He is then confronted with a document written by a little girl 50 years earlier who accurately predicts every major disaster including the events of 9/11/2001 and a world-wide calamitous event yet to come. At a climactic moment in the movie, with all mankind facing what appears to be inevitable and imminent destruction, the question is asked "What does it matter anyway? We all die in the end." The scene is reminiscent of another sci fi flick Aliens when Hudson proclaims, “Game over man!

I wanted to shout out right there in the movie theater, “It does matter! The game isn’t over!” The Easter story, made more poignant by my own brush with death, has prompted me to contemplate anew “What indeed does it matter?” When Jesus was confronted with His imminent (and we might add untimely, unfair and horrible) demise, what impact did that knowledge have on His attitude and actions? What difference did the awareness of His rapidly approaching, active suffering and gruesome physical death make? As I pondered once more the details of His passion and resurrection, I found answers that resonate powerfully with my own experience.

Intimacy – The scene in the garden of Gethsemane portrays a relationship between the Heavenly Father and the Son that is at once intimate, honest, tender, and ardent. In a more public setting, He addresses God as “Our Father” but in this sequestered moment He pleads "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will." (Mat 26:39) The Father responds by sending an angel to Him to strengthen Him. (Luke 22:43) I can honestly say that I have never known a more intimate, powerful, palpable presence of God than when I lay powerless, breathless, and wracked with pain one year ago as the melanoma was spreading rampantly throughout my body.

Immediacy – Jesus seemed to sense the need for events and individuals to move to a point of decision, to “fish or cut bait”. Knowing what was lurking in the heart of Judas, and having just shared with him a portion of the Passover bread, Jesus urges him “What you do, do quickly." (John 13:27) He compelled Judas to get off the fence, stop the pretending and commit himself. Throughout this past year, knowing fully what is at stake, more appreciative than ever of both the inestimable value and frailty of this earthly life, I have gained a sense of urgency to share the lessons I have learned on this journey with cancer. I rarely miss an opportunity to tell my story and actively look for ways to engage others in conversation about eternal values. Each of us needs to make a choice. (Deut 30:19, Josh 24:15)

Immunity – Once Jesus made His choice in the garden, there was nothing that could deter Him from the course He had chosen. Fully conscious of both the suffering and separation that He was about to endure, He was impervious to dissuasion or discouragement. He put down a brief attempt by Peter to avert His arrest, commanding that he sheath his sword. (Mat 26:52-54) He was driven by an immovable purpose that no amount of adversity or humiliation would alter or defer. (Phil 2:5-8) While I cannot claim the same degree of immunity to difficult circumstances, this experience has engendered a new-found strength and resilience that is anchored in a firm relationship with Him. Stripped of all the external trappings of self-worth (e.g., esteemed physician, financial success, etc.), I have found a rock-solid foundation in my core identity and purpose as His friend and servant. (John 15:15)

Impassioned – Above all else, the story of Jesus’ tortuous death reveals His passionate fervor to complete that which the Father had called Him to do, and in the midst of His suffering to reach out to others with love and mercy. While in agony on the cross, He ministered to the repentant thief (Luke 23:43) and even uttered words of forgiveness to His torturers (Luke 23:34). Having a fresh taste of the Lord’s goodness and grace as He clearly sustained me when near death and favored me with a remarkable recovery, I am constrained to share the rewards of knowing Him with others like never before. My prayers for others are more specific, more frequent, and more fervent.

Invincibility – Finally, Jesus’ anticipation and confident expectation of His own resurrection allowed Him to claim victory over sin and death even before it was literally accomplished. (John 12:23-27) And in this anticipated victory He was filled with joy despite the enormous suffering He had to endure. (Heb 12:2) This is not a silly giddiness that ignores or denies the pain, but rather a transcendent satisfaction and elation that comes from certitude over the ultimate outcome of the battle. Whether you believe in the resurrection or not, Jesus’ disciples clearly did. There could be no other explanation for how their despondency was transformed into overcoming gladness, passion and sustained courage. My personal experience of this phenomenon is perhaps the most difficult to explain. Both Linda and I now possess a settled joy that, to the casual observer, sometimes appears inappropriate. I won’t try to fully explain it – I just know it is real. (Rom 8:37)

When confronted with imminent death, Jesus provided for us a powerful answer to the question, “What does it matter, anyway?” His life, His agonizing death, and His resurrection provide the tapestry upon which have been woven an image of hope and victory that can cover and protect us if we are willing to follow Him. “Since the children are made of flesh and blood, it's logical that the Savior took on flesh and blood in order to rescue them by his death. By embracing death, taking it into himself, he destroyed the Devil's hold on death and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death.” (Heb 2:14-15)

In contrast to those characters in the movie who faced their inevitable demise with either panic or resignation, I have learned to live each day with a new intimacy toward my Maker, a sense of immediacy regarding decisions that impact our destiny, a newly-acquired immunity to adversity, more impassioned toward the needs of others, and sustained by a settled confidence in the ultimate victory. This is the life we celebrate at Easter. This is the life of faith.

May you too know the transformative power, freedom and joy of His resurrection.
Dr Dan

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Gooood Friday!

Sitting in a hospital bed this Good Friday, awaiting yet another gamma knife procedure (#5), and wearing my own ‘crown’ (a titanium frame held in place by four screws piercing my skull), I was reminded of the unbearable suffering our Lord must have endured.

Jesus was beaten and whipped within an inch of His life, mocked, spat upon, adorned with a crown of thorns, forced to carry His own cross, pierced with heavy nails through His hands and feet, and slowly suffocated to death while suspended between heaven and earth. Yet in the midst of His agony, He pleads on behalf of His torturers, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” [Luke 23:34]

Kind of a strange moniker for a day marked out by unbelievable torture and suffering, isn’t it? Yet we call it good, because in that day, and through that unique suffering of the God-man, we are forgiven. The consequences of my own rebellion were deflected from me to Him, absorbed by His broken body even as the ground absorbed His blood that day.

He was given no anesthesia, offered no intravenous fluids or narcotics, refusing even the paltry poultice of “wine and gall” [Matt 27:34]. With bittersweet emotion I take hold of the promise: “…by His wounds you were healed.” [1Pet 2:24] I remain in awe of His love, held captive by His goodness.

The mapping MRI done this Friday confirmed that there has been progression of the brain lesions, numbering at least twenty and several of these believed to be new. Given the time required to treat all these tumors, it was decided to target only those on the left side of the brain for this session. Even so, the process took the entire day. Thanks to great nursing care, a doting wife, and a little Dilaudid, I not only survived the ordeal but will enjoy taking the grandchildren to an “Eggstravaganza” (Easter egg hunt) at our church later today.

I am most grateful for all your prayers and genuine concern. May you too know His goodness!


PS – We will return to Charlottesville for another gamma knife procedure on April 20.