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Prof, battling cancer, experiences God’s sovereign care

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Just 11 days before Christmas, Don Whitney received three words from his doctor that no one wants to hear: “You have cancer.”

Whitney, associate professor of biblical spirituality and author of numerous books on prayer and other Christian disciplines, was stunned. There were no signs that anything was amiss in his body — no pain, no bleeding, no mysterious lumps. He felt perfectly healthy.

The news came from a routine medical checkup that included a colonoscopy.

“I think I was kind of numb at first. I tried to ask some questions and I tried to write down [the doctor’s] answers because I knew I wouldn’t remember. My hand was quivering as I tried to write down what he said,” Whitney recounted.

“My mind was tumbling [with] a thousand things running through my head. I was trying to stay with the subject at hand and ask him questions [such as] ‘What’s next?’ and ‘How bad is this?’ At the same time I was a thousand miles away and was thinking, ‘What about my family?’ I had just finished my first semester [on the faculty] at the seminary and I was thinking, ‘Am I going to die? Am I soon to stand before the Lord?’

“I thought about my little girl and my wife Caffy and my mother who is a widow and I am an only child. It was sobering…. I wondered if there would be chemotherapy and even if after the surgery they would just sew me up and say there was nothing they could do.”

After two surgeries for colon cancer and a painful recovery period, Whitney is cancer-free five months after the initial diagnosis, and doctors have given him a healthy long-term prognosis. Early on, however, the type of cancer he had and complications rendered his future uncertain. Colon cancer can be a “silent killer” because it typically does not manifest any symptoms until it has reached an incurable stage.

“I had no problems, no pain, no symptoms,” he said. “I was absolutely shocked…. The doctor said if I had put the colonoscopy off until May, he wouldn’t have been able to save my life.”

It seemed that Whitney would face a grim waiting game; it was near the end of the year and Whitney’s surgeon warned him that most, if not all, operating rooms in Louisville would be booked until January. As the doctor called around local hospitals to find an open operating room, Whitney paced the floor in the doctor’s office and prayed. God’s hand of providence clearly trumped what seemed to be a negative set of logistical circumstances, he said.

“We got the last operating room in the city of Louisville for 2005 and surgery was set for six days later,” Whitney said.

Whitney had surgery on Dec. 20 and spent 10 days in the hospital. He went home in late December but soon developed complications and underwent a second surgery, weathering another week in the hospital and a difficult recovery period.

Despite complications from the second surgery, Whitney began to heal and was able to participate in the annual collegiate conference at Southern. He continues to regain strength and has resumed his full course load of teaching at Southern and speaking engagements for his ministry, The Center for Biblical Spirituality.

Colon cancer is the No. 2 killer among the various types of cancer, and Whitney says he is grateful he had a routine colonoscopy which led to the discovery of his cancer. He urges all men over 50 to have the procedure.

“Ninety percent of the people who die from colon cancer would not die from it if they had a colonoscopy,” he said. “Everybody should have one when they are 50. If they have a relative who had colon cancer, they should get it at 40.”

Whitney said his cancer caused him to reflect more deeply on biblical truths regarding life and eternity. He credits a strong belief in the sovereignty of God and the prayers of fellow believers for strengthening him through the ordeal. Whitney and friend John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, exchanged e-mails to encourage each other after doctors discovered that Piper had cancer on the day of Whitney’s surgery.

“It makes you realize your life is a vapor,” Whitney said. “You always realize you are going to die, but when you realize that you may be at the borders of heaven, it makes you think. It has made me appreciate time with my family more, especially with my little girl.

“I have never sensed the prayers of God’s people more. There were times I was so medicated or in so much pain that all I could pray was ‘Lord, hear the prayers of Your people.’ I knew people were praying for me. I couldn’t put two thoughts together. It was a reminder of Romans 8:26-27, ‘You do not know how to pray as you ought but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us in groans too deep for words’ and prays according to God’s will for us. I was just relying on the Holy Spirit’s prayers for this.

His belief in the sovereignty of God “is one of the things that got me through,” Whitney added. “When I learned that I had cancer, it really comforted me to know that God was not surprised and that He was in control.”

    About the Author

  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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