Two words devastated David McDonald. Tumour and incurable. Stage 4 lung cancer and its brutal chemotherapy regime plunged his body into a toxic war to live, and his mind on a quest for hope. His journey is shared in “Hope Beyond Cure”, and he is visiting Wingham to reveal what he learned about life, faith and hope.
Hope Beyond Cure is a remarkable story of a life and faith exposed and tested by the diagnosis of terminal cancer. How did it begin?
In 2011 when I walked up a flight of stairs, I would stop and pant and blame myself for being so unfit. Then one day when I was meeting with friends at a coffee shop, I felt pain in my chest and between my shoulder blades, and then my left arm and left leg started to go numb. I interrupted my friends and said, “Look, there’s something going wrong, and I don’t know what it is”. One of my mates was a doctor and said, “Quick, we’ve got to take you to hospital”, because he thought I was having a heart attack.
When I got to hospital, the ECG seemed normal, so I wasn’t having a heart attack. I went for an X-ray, which showed nothing, so they wheeled me off for a CT scan. By the time my wife, Fiona, arrived, everyone was baffled. They knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what, until they examined the scan. It showed a huge build-up of fluid around my left lung, and there was a dark patch on the edge of the lung.
The oncologist came in a few days later and said, “You have lung cancer”. I didn’t understand, because I thought you had to be a smoker to get lung cancer, and I had never been a smoker. He said, “It’s incurable; we can’t get rid of it”, and I just broke down at that point.
When he told me I would probably only live 10 to 13 months, I remember praying a prayer, a kind of “bucket list” prayer. I wanted to live long enough to see grandchildren, I wanted to live long enough to see my second child married … I had this list of things … and now, it’s been a privilege to go to that son’s wedding, it’s been a privilege to spend time with grandchildren, I’ve walked my daughter down the aisle at her wedding, and seen my youngest son graduate from high school – my “bucket list” prayers have been answered, and I feel there is so much to wake up to each day.
Your life is built on a foundation of faith; you are the National Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches in Australia, you were the pastor of Crossroads Church in Canberra for nearly two decades, you were the chaplain to the Brumbies Super Rugby Team, and now you are the part-time pastor at Salt Community Church in Bonny Hills. How did the cancer diagnosis test your faith?
As a pastor, I’ve sat with the sick and dying, prayed with them, and comforted them with the hope of life beyond death, but my diagnosis brought me face-to-face with fears and doubts that were very personal, scary and raw.
I’d grown comfortable with my faith over the years, and my cancer diagnosis began to seriously test that faith. I began questioning my convictions, I went back to the Bible to read things afresh. I asked questions, watched interviews with experts, and read books about the reasons for Christian belief. I found myself asking questions and searching for answers with an eagerness I hadn’t experienced in years.
It was like plugging my life into high definition; it helped me to see the urgency and the importance of things more clearly. I had the privilege of being able to meet with some people with whom I had damaged or broken relationships and to mend those relationships. It gave me an urgency in wanting to share with people the truth about life and death; it gave me a new compassion for people who were really doing it tough. A lot of things changed.
Your fight to live required chemotherapy; how did it impact your life?
Chemotherapy is brutal, and it had a huge physical impact. One doctor described it as figuring out the dose of poison that would kill the patient and then dialing it back a notch. I’d have the chemo in hospital, and then a couple of days later I would be sick in bed, and I’d be sick in bed for up to a week.
Generally people would only have something like four, or maybe eight cycles of chemo, but I ended up having mid-60s over a four year period. It’s pretty hard to work out how much damage that has done to other parts of my body in the process.
You chose to have a break from chemotherapy three years ago. How big a step of faith was that for you and your family?
The treatment had become very hard mentally and physically to tolerate, and remarkably the scans were showing no evidence of the cancer after 18 months, but my oncologist wanted me to stay on treatment, and initally was terrified that I would stop. We talked it through, and it was particularly important that Fiona was on the same page about the decision, and so we decided that it was a risk worth taking.
I’m not fatalistic, but I do believe that God has me in His care. It was something that we were praying about, and prayer had been part of the whole cancer journey, with literally hundreds of people praying for my recovery.
What inspired your decision to write Hope Beyond Cure?
I was at the funeral of a good friend who died of cancer, and she died as someone who was trusting in God for her future after death. Her funeral was very sad, but there was strong hope. I came out of her funeral thinking that I’d like to write something to help people to see what she believed, and what I believe; that there is a hope even if you are given no hope of a cure. Hope Beyond Cure came out at the beginning of 2014, and it’s sold over 20,000 copies.
What is the purpose of coming to speak in Wingham?
The Cancer Council is now saying that one in two people are going to get cancer in their lifetime, and I want to help people to be prepared for those challenges when they come.
People often ask the question, “If I had my time again, would I want to have cancer?” and I say, “Absolutely not, but I wouldn’t want to miss out on what God has taught me through having cancer”.
I’ve been deeply humbled, I’ve had so many areas of my life reshaped and challenged, and it’s given me a window into the struggles and suffering of so many people. I know cancer, and I know God. And it’s because I know God that I believe there is real hope for those who have cancer, for those who are struggling, for those who have lost hope – for everyone.
The Hope Beyond Cure talk and dinner will be at Wingham Golf Club on Thursday, March 7 from 6:30pm. Tickets can be purchased for $25 at
www.winghampresbyterian.com or from Pastor Paul Smith on 6553 0071.