Healing PowersJune 8, 2013
Story by Alexandra Sondeen
Photos by Dave Weatherwax
Pastor Mark West easily towered over the crowd. The 6-foot-9 minister from Salem United Church of Christ in Huntingburg stood at the back of a group of nearly 100 people, all in purple shirts, May 31 inside the Jasper Middle School gym.
He had participated in Relay for Life events numerous other times, but not like this. This time, he used a cane for support and took part in the first lap. A sticker on his back said “3 months” and the most powerful word of the night was emblazoned on the white sash slung over his shoulder.
Pastor Mark, 61, is adamant that he didn’t win his recent battle with lymphoma alone. As visible proof, he toted a heavy plastic shopping bag filled with dozens and dozens of cards from well-wishers. His wife, 56-year-old LuAnn, joined him on the second lap and helped him carry the bag with their fingers entwined around the handle.
“This was my goal,” said Pastor Mark, sporting a fresh haircut after having been bald for months during his cancer treatment. “While I was in the hospital, one of my goals was to be able to walk for this.”
He and LuAnn, who says she’s 5-foot-3 if she cheats, moved to Huntingburg in September last year.
Pastor Mark, who graduated from Bosse High School in Evansville, had been chosen to lead Salem church after having led a church in Ripon, Wis., for the last 10 years.
He had been diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica, an inflammatory disorder that causes muscle pain and stiffness, in August. He also had been told the lump in his neck was a hematoma, a collection of blood outside a blood vessel. He visited a rheumatologist at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville soon after moving to Huntingburg.
“The doctor read the report from Wisconsin and he didn’t buy it,” Pastor Mark said. “That’s what set the ball rolling.”
The previous doctor had misdiagnosed Pastor Mark. After some tests and a biopsy, the new diagnosis came Oct. 22 — diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Stage 4.
Lymphoma is the most common kind of blood cancer and develops when a type of white blood cells called lymphocytes grow and multiply uncontrollably, according to the Lymphoma Research Foundation. The cancer can pop up in numerous areas of the body, and Pastor Mark’s medical scans showed it in his neck, shoulders, spine, liver, hips, legs and knees.
The minister’s thoughts soon turned to his new church where the two previous pastors had had serious health issues.
“Here I was just a few weeks into the job and I get seriously ill,” Pastor Mark said. “In my mind, I could just see people going, ”˜Oh, no. Here we go again.’”
He called Dave Duncan, the church council president at the time, to tell him the news.
“I was a little shocked,” Dave said. “I went to the parsonage and prayed with him.”
The council held a special meeting that Saturday and decided how to approach the matter.
“When we decided he would be our pastor, it was kind of like a marriage. For better or worse,” Dave said. “We would all deal with it together as a church.”
Pastor Mark wrote out the announcement he would make in church that Sunday. After the regular service had ended, the minister remained at the front of the sanctuary.
“I told them that the last thing I wanted to do was disappoint them because I felt that God had called me to serve a rather extraordinary church,” he said. “I told them I was confident that I would beat it. What followed for me was, in my experience, pretty extraordinary.”
He and LuAnn knelt at the altar. The council members laid their hands on the couple and invited the congregation forward to do the same before Dave said a prayer.
Pastor Mark remained at the front of the church instead of moving to the back to greet members as is customary at the end of services. He didn’t want to make people feel uncomfortable or pressured to say something when many might not have had any idea what to say to a man who had just announced he had cancer.
“But what happened was that people just kept coming up,” he said. “They formed two lines, one for me and one for LuAnn. Most of them told me survivor stories — their own or their loved one’s or their friend’s.”
Church members began praying for their new leader. LuAnn and the couple’s two children, 27-year-old Jon of Littleton, Colo., and 25-year-old Kate Leichhardt of Louisville, weren’t left out. As word spread, cards with messages of support and encouragement filled the pastor’s mailbox. His former churches in Wisconsin and Missouri also added their prayers and cards, as did fellow Huntingburg churches.
Pastor Mark had been given a 60 to 70 percent chance of being cured. His first chemotherapy treatment came on Halloween.
“The doctor told us that lymphoma responds very well to chemo,” LuAnn said. “Mark got a combination of four chemo drugs every three weeks.”
Because of his physical size and the amount of drugs needed to treat him, Pastor Mark often was the first patient inside the chemo room in the Chancellor Center for Oncology at Deaconess and the last to leave.
“It’s pretty much a full seven-hour infusion,” LuAnn said.
The minister would read, work on his laptop computer or nap. LuAnn would work on the computer or read, and sometimes ran errands while in Evansville.
Because the treatments wiped out his immune system, Pastor Mark could no longer visit church members in hospitals or nursing homes or visit homebound members. Other members of the church stepped in to fill those roles when a phone call wouldn’t do.
When he was feeling too poorly to preach — his low point was typically between seven and 14 days after a treatment — member Denny Spinner stepped in. The Huntingburg mayor had his licence with the United Church of Christ transferred to Salem church from the clustered Zion United Church of Christ in Chrisney and St. John United Church of Christ in Clay City.
“It was just the right thing to do,” he said. “To be able to serve my own church is very rewarding.”
Church members learned to keep some distance when speaking to their pastor when he was able to be in church and to bump elbows with him instead of shaking hands. The pastor no longer greeted members at the back of the church, either, to limit his exposure.
He had been through just one chemo treatment when, on Nov. 14, Pastor Mark fell just outside the parsonage. His right femur cracked in two places, one on the ball of the femur and one vertically in the bone. As LuAnn, a former special education teacher, was substitute teaching at Southridge Middle School that day, he called church secretary Kim Mohr and she and youth minister Rachel Berg rushed out.
“We prayed together and we tried to make him as comfortable as we could,” Rachel said. “I went with him to the emergency room at Memorial (Hospital in Jasper) and then LuAnn and I went to Evansville when he was transferred. I know he would have done the same with me.”
Surgeons at Deaconess stabilized the bone with a rod and two screws. LuAnn and Rachel received training on how to help him move around.
“The doctor was never able to say whether the fall broke the bone or whether the bone broke and then I fell,” Pastor Mark said. “They called it a pathological break because the bone had already been compromised by the cancer. I just know it was excruciatingly painful.”
When Pastor Mark returned home after spending a week in the hospital, he knew that when he could preach for the Sunday services, he wouldn’t be able to do so standing. The church found a tall wooden chair to place on the dais, which he still uses and calls his “preaching chair.”
The church’s health ministry provided a lift chair, a rolling tray table, walkers and other equipment he needed after the break. Members helped LuAnn clean the parsonage and took care of the couple’s black standard poodle, Frodo, during the daylong chemo treatments. They helped Pastor Mark up and down stairs and in and out of the couple’s SUV for appointments with the oncologist and the physical therapist. A group of men twice carried him in a wheelchair up and down the steps of the parsonage porch and of the church.
“I am really proud of the way the congregation has responded to everything,” Dave said. “They really came together behind Pastor Mark and supported him and LuAnn throughout this whole process.”
While the leg injury made life much more difficult and complicated the minister’s progress, LuAnn said there was a positive side to his limited mobility.
“In a way, it’s been good,” she said. “The lack of mobility has kept him inside when going out with his lowered immunity would expose him to more people.”
On Jan. 29, the minister had a follow-up scan to see how much progress his cancer treatment had made. The next day, he was accompanied to Deaconess by LuAnn and Kate to receive the results of the test before his fifth chemo treatment. Kate fiddled with a puzzle in the waiting room while her parents talked to the oncologist before finally being led back to the room where her dad would receive chemo.
“They did not find anything,” the smiling pastor told his anxious daughter.
“What?” she replied in disbelief, glancing at her mother who stood in a corner of the room. LuAnn nodded.
“The report from the scan was that they could not find any cancerous activity in my body,” Pastor Mark continued. “There could be a few more random cells running around wanting to mess with me, but that’s why there’s two more treatments. What was lit up in the first scan was dark in this one.”
With joyful tears welling in her eyes, Kate squeaked, “Dad...” but put a hand over her mouth, unable to continue. She hugged her father tightly.
“I feel like this is happier than my wedding day,” she exclaimed when she was finally able to speak.
LuAnn called Jon to relay the news and his laughter could be heard over the phone. It touched off a short round of giggles for the family.
When a nurse checked on the pastor a while later, she asked if there was anything he needed.
“What I really wanted, I’ve already been given,” he replied. “I can’t ask for anything better.”
After his sermon the following Sunday, Pastor Mark told the congregation the news. LuAnn, who sings in the choir and sits just behind her husband’s preaching chair, leaned toward her husband with her chin resting in her hand. She smiled broadly, knowing what was coming.
“We were shown a computer screen and on one side was the original scan and the other was the new one,” he said. “The doctor went through point by point of where the cancer had shown itself on the old one and then showed on the new one point by point how the cancer was no longer found.”
Loud applause erupted from the congregation. The following prayer was punctuated with sniffles from church members as they thanked God for their pastor’s recovery.
Pastor Mark had his last chemo treatment Feb. 20. As his immune system regained strength, he gradually returned to his normal pastoral work. He began going to his office in the church more often. He could shake hands and greet members at the back of the church after services. He could visit nursing homes, hospitals and homebound members.
A final follow-up scan remained devoid of cancer and Pastor Mark officially was declared in remission May 22. He celebrated by going out to lunch with his wife and then falling asleep in the car on the way home and continuing to sleep until the early evening.
“It was a weight off my shoulders,” he said. “All the worrying had worn me out and I was able to let it go.”
The couple’s 32nd anniversary was the following day, May 23.
“We really value all the little moments, the really, really, really small things in life so much more,” LuAnn said. “It all just become so much more important.”
Since announcing his cancer, Pastor Mark has found a new way to connect with those who come to him for counseling.
“For whatever reason, people now feel more comfortable talking to me about the pain in their lives,” he said. “So more and more and more when I meet with people either in the church or outside the church, they will just tell me about all the stuff that’s been going on. It’s like a door has opened up in terms of ministry for me.”
Before he became ill, he had thought illnesses like cancer were isolating. And, to some extent, that’s still true in terms of the physical isolation to protect his weakened immune system during treatment and because of his limited mobility.
“But there’s so much support, too,” he said. “Everyone has been touched by cancer in some way, either personally or their family or friends.”
His own faith and the prayers and support of all those around him, most especially from Salem church, carried him through.
“I’ve always had a great love for the power of congregations,” he said. “For me, the hero of this story is the church and the way they’ve supported me.”
Dave said church members have grown closer to each other through Pastor Mark’s illness and recovery and the congregation’s faith is stronger than ever.
“They’ve seen what is possible through faith and prayer,” he said. “They believe as Pastor Mark does that that was a major factor in his recovery.”
Spinner said the minister’s response to his illness and his ability to use his circumstances to glorify God have challenged the church members to think about their own commitments to their faith.
“His strength in his faith with all that he’s been through has strengthened the church as well,” he said.
While the Pastor Mark’s still-healing leg couldn’t handle more than two laps of the gym at the Relay for Life last weekend, he and LuAnn plan to return for next year’s event.
“It has a whole new meaning for us now,” he said.
Contact Alexandra Sondeen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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