Still in God's hands
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 16, 2012 1:46 PM
He believes in Heaven, but still sheds tears.
He has faith in God's plan, but couldn't stop himself from imagining how his family would go on without him.
Even pastors have their moments.
So when a phone call revealed that the Rev. Jerry Mitchell was battling pancreatic cancer, the leader of Garris Chapel United Methodist Church broke down.
"My wife was working in the garden, so I walked out there and said, 'I've got cancer,'" Mitchell said. "We both just cried. We kind of fell apart. It was a moment of, 'I'm not gonna make it. I'm not gonna live.'"
And when, months later, a bacterial infection left him hospitalized, he nearly gave up.
"I didn't feel like praying. I didn't feel like reading Scripture. I didn't feel like taking calls. I didn't feel like taking visitors," Mitchell said. "I just laid there. You know, there does come a time -- and I don't care how much faith you have -- but there comes a time when you're no longer encouraged.
During those times, God taught me that, you know, I'm still human. But He still has His plan."
It started with a stomach ache -- a kind of pain atypical for a man who has always been "really healthy."
"I've never had a broken bone that required a cast. I've never needed stitches," Mitchell said. "I've never missed a day of work due to illness. I've never really been sick beyond a bad cold."
So when the discomfort didn't fade, he decided to call his doctor.
"I called him and I said, 'My stomach hurts.' Well, if you call your doctor and say your stomach hurts, he's gonna go, 'OK. That's fine. Go get some Zantac or whatever,'" Mitchell said. "But my doctor knows I'm healthy."
Preliminary tests revealed a bacterial infection.
"And my liver enzymes were off," Mitchell said.
But he had no idea that a CT scan would reveal something far less common -- that within days he would travel to Durham so specialists could take a more extensive look at the mysterious "shadow" it showed blocking a duct in his pancreas.
And when, only a few days before Thanksgiving, the phone rang, he had no way of preparing for the news he was about to receive.
It wasn't just a tumor.
It was "the deadliest kind" of cancer.
"That fear sank in the first 30 minutes after I got the phone call that said, 'You have pancreatic cancer,'" Mitchell said. "It's partly a desire, you know? It's, 'Wow, I'd really like to see my grandkids grow up and get married. There's just a lot more for me to do here.' I think that's a part of it.
"But I think that more than anything else, it's a fear of the unknown. We believe that when we die, we'll be with Him, but nobody we've ever met has gone and come back."
Mitchell spent the day after Thanksgiving on an operating table, undergoing the Whipple procedure meant to remove the tumor.
"According to my surgeons, it's the most difficult procedure known to man," he said.
And after chemotherapy and radiation, Mitchell was, by Christmas, back in front of his congregation.
"I told them that God is in control. He's got a great big plan, and I believe that from the bottom of my heart," he said. "It's all about Him. It's not about me. So I kept preaching that to the congregation. I was just really at ease that He was going to use this whole thing in whatever way He planned to use it."
But the fact that, to date, he has beaten the odds, is not the only side of the story he shares.
He also tells them about the healing power of faith.
"After I had the surgery, I met with the oncologist and he sat down in front of me. He had read my history before we sat down and said, 'What do you know about pancreatic cancer?'" Mitchell said. "Well, I said, 'I know it's a very deadly disease, but I also know that some people survive it.' He said, 'Yeah. A lot of people survive it. And let me tell you why I think you can be one of those people. First of all, your cancer was caught in the early stages. ... And second of all, you're in really good physical condition.' Then he said, and this is a man who is not a particularly religious man, he said, 'The third thing is, people of faith have a better chance of survival than people without faith. Research has proven that.'"
And he tells them to live life to the fullest -- to not wait until mortality stares them in the face to appreciate every moment.
"I don't care who you are, your whole outlook on life changes when you get that kind of diagnosis," Mitchell said.
But perhaps most importantly, he reminds them that they are human -- that they won't always understand why things happen.
"So the key is that it's all about Him -- about trusting Him. We understand that we don't understand all about Heaven. I don't care who you are or how many years in seminary you've had. We don't understand all there is about Heaven. But we do know this. We do know we're promised to be with Him. So this whole life, it's got to be about Him."
Mitchell is no stranger to Relay for Life.
He has participated in Wayne County's main event for years.
But when thousands of his neighbors converge on the local fairgrounds Friday evening -- when he joins a group of cancer survivors for the evening's first lap -- he knows it will be different.
"If it hadn't been for Relay for Life, that Whipple procedure wouldn't have existed," Mitchell said. "Without Relay, the test that actually detected my cancer wouldn't have been around."
And until this year, he didn't have the perspective an unexpected battle provided him with.
"This year, it takes a whole new meaning on. It really does," Mitchell said. "It's like anything. You know, before my mama died, I could be with a family who's mama had died, but I really couldn't empathize with them. I think it's the same way with cancer. All of a sudden, I have a whole different outlook."
And he has a renewed relationship with the faith that drives him every day -- the faith tested, but never broken, by a disease that has claimed so many lives; the faith that motivates him to turn his trials into something positive.
"God and I have been close for a long, long time, but I don't believe I could have gotten this close to God without the cancer. You know, after my surgery, the doctor, he said, 'You need to go home and worry about your wife and children and grandchildren. You need to worry about your church. Let me worry about cancer. Don't even think about cancer,'" Mitchell said. "Well, that's got to be the most difficult thing for me. I feel like if God has given me this avenue -- this vehicle -- to talk about Him, then I've got to think about cancer more than the average person.
"I don't believe God gives cancer. I believe God makes good things come out of bad."