Facing the Unthinkable


That word came to me in a text from Audrey, my wife.

What we thought was a nothing — a tiny polyp removed during a routine colonoscopy, was cancer. Not pre-cancer, not “a little abnormality,” but cancer.

She got the message while she was at work from the doctor who performed the colonoscopy. A brief phone call with very little context and zero bedside manner. No perspective, just cancer.

Both of us have demanding jobs which we enjoy.  This news hijacked us.

We texted back and forth. Shock. Rising anxiety. Questions about what to do.

Later in the afternoon, Audrey got a call from her own doctor. Dr. C is a fighter and an advocate for her patients. She reassured Audrey who texted the gist to me: “We caught it early. I’m doing cartwheels! I see so many cases where the situation is far worse.”

The doc’s comments got us through the day.

A New Reality

When we both finally arrived home, the digital conversation became a real one. We cried, we apologized, and we hugged. I reassured her and we camped out on the doctor’s first estimate:  Early stage cancer, easy to treat, a minor inconvenience.

That was a Tuesday.

By Thursday, the tune had changed. After carefully reviewing everything. Dr. C thought it would be best for us to see a surgeon. She pulled strings and got us an appointment the next day.

Thus began our immersion into the world of doctors, nurses, waiting rooms, pre-operatory prep, and hospital cafeterias. At the point I write this, we’ve done three 4-day hospital stays, two major surgeries, and three minor procedures. We’ve spent every other Monday for the last six months in a cancer treatment center and had numerous other appointments and tests.

We learned two months in that Audrey had stage III colon cancer. Not a disaster yet, but not a minor convenience either. Cancer had become the defining mark of our new reality. It was like entering a parallel universe.

Entering the Parallel Universe

Spending a lot of time in a hospital is like being transported into another world. People dress differently, use different vocabulary, and have different work schedules. At NYU hospital, different types of staff wear different color scrubs; orderlies are different from nurses who are different from doctors. Docs are different from residents. Specialty nurses are different still. Most have challenging schedules, working blocks of three 12-hour days before getting time off.

We were hoping to be mere visitors to this world of blue and green uniforms but it didn’t turn out that way. I was fascinated though, by watching how these people worked. Being there with Audrey has been like an immersion experience — a deep dive into the realities of a different way of working. And this is not academic; these humans from another reality are essential in keeping my wife alive and bringing her healing.

Work-Related Lessons from the Hospital Waiting Room

Medical work, which we have now been the regular recipients of for eight months, can teach us something about work in general:

1. Work is forming.

To be a doctor or nurse or emergency room triage receptionist shapes the way you think, dress, talk, and schedule your time. Dealing with people who are physically challenged and psychologically a mess, develops you as well. Most of us don’t work in medicine, and we may fail to see how the job we do is shaping us, but we are still formed by the industries and companies where we work.

How is your work shaping you? What is good or bad about the results in you? How can you lessen the impact of the aspects that are potentially damaging?

2. Callings are operative everywhere. 

We have met and been cared for by people who are so good! They are smart and they care. They talk you down from the ledge. I’m not sure how many of these people know God, but God knows them. He has made them in amazing ways. They have such talent and drive to care for you that it just leaves you awestruck.

Dr. Chip Roper is the President and Principal Consultant of The VOCA Center. VOCA’s vision is to rescue individuals and teams from the forces that would rob them of joy and effectiveness at work. Certified in Executive Coaching at Columbia University, Chip tackles the vocational challenge from 30 years of experience as a small businessman, a pastor, a career coach, and a business consultant.  You can learn more about VOCA’s faith-based services at www.vocacenter.org and more about their commercial offerings at www.vocacenter.com.