Christmas Day 2002, the phone rang-it was my surgeon. The lab results were in from the biopsy of the lymph nodes under my left arm. At age 44 I had metastatic melanoma. As the father of two teenagers, I and my wife, Terri, had already been shaken by initial reports that I had some sort of cancer. This was doubly hard because my dad's life was rapidly coming to an end via melanoma. He first discovered a skin lesion on his back, while I had no lesions, which undoubtedly slowed my diagnosis and treatment.
By the time the surgeon removed the entire mass under my arm it had grown to 8" x 6" x 4". The cancer spread to my stomach. I had surgery to remove a third of my stomach. The day I was to be released from the hospital my wife walked in and said my dad had died. In my weakened condition I couldn't even make the trip from Dallas to Pittsburgh to attend my father's funeral. I was devastated.
As a pastor for thirteen years, all the lessons from my sermons about the testing of our faith flooded my mind, but the test had just begun. After recovery from the stomach surgery, my cancer doctor suggested a harsh drug treatment called Interleukin-2. I was amazed when he recommended I travel to Pittsburgh for the treatment. I jumped at the opportunity to be with my Pittsburgh family. Interleukin requires hospitalization because of dangerous side effects. It induces an immune reaction like a bad flu. I experienced bed-rattling shakes, high fevers, and general misery for two one-week periods.
My family's support was incredible. With seven brothers and sisters there was almost always someone by my side, even through the nights. My church, Fellowship Bible Church White Rock in Dallas, was also so supportive and caring. They were praying fervently for my total recovery. Friends and relatives flooded me with encouragement and covered me with prayer, but the Interleukin didn't seem to work at all and the prayers had not worked either-yet.
A new scan revealed the cancer had spread to my pancreas in two spots. One tumor was fairly large. Other tumors were above and below my collarbone, on my kidneys, lungs, rib, lymph nodes in my abdomen, and a large area around my pelvis. The cancer grew through my pelvis to my ischium (sitting) bone and fractured it. Before I left Pittsburgh I was re-hospitalized for another four days with pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that prevents digestion of solid food. I began to lose weight rapidly. I eventually lost sixty-five pounds. Soon after returning to Dallas I was re-hospitalized for bad pains in my abdomen-more pancreatitis. My doctor gave me days to live. I began preparing my funeral with Tommy Bailey, my great friend who is also an elder at our church.
Despite concerns that chemotherapy might be too much for my system, my doctor prescribed a round of chemo drugs to try to save me. He started the drugs while I was hospitalized. Some of my symptoms seemed to improve and I was astonished that the tumors around my collarbone began to shrink. The second round was very tough as far as side effects but it was evidently kicking in. I vomited and had diarrhea every twenty minutes for two full days. But a later scan showed that there was significant shrinkage of all but one of the tumors! The large tumor on my pancreas was not responding so I underwent shaped-beam radiation from a Novalis machine.
With God's intervention, the radiation worked and killed the tumor. My appetite returned and I began gaining weight and strength. After the third round of chemo in August of 2003, I had another scan that was completely and miraculously normal. My doctor is still amazed and calls this a miracle. He had never seen the chemo have a "complete" response on fourth-stage, metastatic melanoma. God had clearly answered our prayers and all the glory goes to Him.
There were times I prayed for death. It would have been easier to just die go to be with the Lord. I really started fighting in prayer and faith when I realized that I would rather stay on to be with my wife and finish raising our kids and continue to fish for souls for eternity. The light and momentary struggles of this world pale to the glory of bringing others to Christ. I can wait for heaven. For those of you who fought with me, I can't thank you enough. Again, God gets all the glory for a miraculous healing!
Joe Fornear (ThM, 1989) is pastor of Fellowship Church White Rock in Dallas, Texas. He is now three years and one month with no evidence of cancer. Reprinted with permission from www.fbcwr.org/writtentestimony.htm.