Victory in the Valley

Experiencing the presence of God in times of trouble
Nov. 28, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

On this Thanksgiving, The Herald invited local pastor and television personality Tom Welborn to share his thoughts about being thankful in difficult circumstances. In this narrative, Welborn, 65, the pastor at Southside Baptist Church in Broadway and sports director of WBFT-TV46, talks about his experience after being diagnosed with Burkitt's Lymphoma, a rare form of blood cancer.

  On Thanksgiving Day, most people try to find some things for which they are thankful.

It’s easy to thank God when times are great: there's enough money, no sickness and maybe no stress. The difficulty of being thankful is when things have suddenly slapped you in your face and knocked you down. It especially becomes harder when you are trying your best to do right.

I want to share with you the hope we have found in what has proven to be a difficult journey through 2013.

Life was going terrifically well: our church at Southside Baptist was growing and we were serving God as best we could when suddenly, in February, my wife Cheryl suffered her fourth stroke. She was hospitalized in Chapel Hill. We felt God's presence and she survived. She continues to be the best one-handed pianist I know. It was quite a journey, but God was with us every step of the way.

Our latest journey began on Aug. 19. I was sitting on the couch and suddenly I felt a small lump on the left side of my neck. Over the next three weeks, the mass grew to cover the entire left side of my neck, and I was diagnosed with Burkitt's Lymphoma, a rare blood cancer.

Cancer. CANCER!! CANCER?? I can't have cancer, I thought; other people have cancer. I have way too much to do: a church to pastor, a wife to care for, daily radio programs in two cities, high school football broadcasting just starting, plus other shows on WBFT-TV46.

But on Sept. 12, it all stopped. At 7 p.m., Cheryl and I walked into room #4824 at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Cancer Hospital, with my Duke blanket in hand, to begin perhaps the most difficult journey of our lives. To be honest, it was very disappointing; I didn't get to preach for six weeks (Thanks to Scott Parker for filling the pulpit, Dave Ryser for taking over the teens and a church that came together). Kim Lilley had to scramble to replace me on TV, plus I had to cancel my radio programs … and suddenly Cheryl changed from being a care receiver to a care giver.

God stepped in immediately to provide complete peace, leaving no gaps. We only had six hours from the diagnosis in Sanford to be in Chapel Hill. Our son, Jimmy, had already taken a leave and came to Sanford for the duration of my treatment. Our daughter, Tammie, was already living here. Cheryl packed furiously as we pondered what was ahead.

We knew whatever it would be, God would be in control. As we headed to Chapel Hill, we made one commitment: we would share Jesus Christ with every staff member that would enter our room. Praise the Lord, we have kept that commitment, and the fellowship and camaraderie have been terrific.

Our first stint in Chapel Hill lasted 22 days, from Sept. 12 until Oct. 4. It was filled with heavy doses of chemotherapy both through drips and spinal taps. You hear all the horror stories about what you suffer through in chemotherapy — sick all the time, hair falling out and basically the end of any normal life.

Each day, we began with Cheryl doing a devotional out of "Our Daily Bread." We wanted to make sure that each day got off to a spiritual start and that we were spiritually prepared to meet the new challenges. What a blessing Cheryl has been to me, watching out for me day and night. Each morning and evening at 7 o' clock, the nurses and CNAs would sign in; we would always try to share some word for the Lord to try to encourage them for their shift. The doctors constantly changed, so we made sure with each new doctor, I would take them by the hand, welcome them to the team and pray for them.

One example that stands out is with a young doctor who did my spinal tap chemo. The first time she tried, she couldn't get the needle completely in; it was painful. She had to call another doctor in to help her finish. She felt really badly, but I grabbed her hand, told her not to beat herself up and prayed with her. Two days later, she came in and said since we prayed, she had not missed a single one. The last one she did on me was perfect.

We knew coming in that Carolina was a top-five ranked cancer hospital, and they lived up to expectations. Even though they were constantly surrounded by my Duke paraphernalia, I could not have received better care. The banter back and forth with the Tar Heels was a great experience. The skill, detail, and compassion of the staff were unbelievable.

Being completely out of your element for 22 days brings a great desire to go home. On Oct. 4, we got to go home for four days. Jimmy, who spent many nights at the hospital, was given the responsibility for my meds at home, including the giving of shots. What a trooper he has been. I was extremely weak and could barely get out of bed. The humility of having to be bathed, shaved, and dressed by your wife and children sometimes is tough to handle, but it made me realize how tragic it is to be alone. It was such a blessing on that Sunday to slip into church at noon and administer the Lord's Supper. The lesson — learn to celebrate every victory.

On Oct. 8, the journey took us back to Chapel Hill for two more weeks of intensive chemotherapy. God had been such a vital part of the first trip, I couldn't wait to see what God was going to do.

Barbara, one of the cleanup crew, said to me, “Coming into your room is like coming to church.” There was never a moment we didn’t feel the presence of God. The apostle Paul said in Philippians 3: “I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith, to be content …” I have learned to be content in this journey because I am convinced the cancer is God's will for me and that he will always be there for me.

Going home for a week allowed me to preach at Southside Baptist Church for the first time in six weeks. I was pumped, and our people were excited. Then the period from Oct. 28 through Nov. 1 marked our third stint of chemotherapy. We left the hospital on Nov. 1 with the hope that everything else would be outpatient. We are home now not exactly knowing what the future holds with treatments or what the status of the cancer even is. We pray every day that God will heal the cancer. If he does, we will praise him; if he doesn't, we will still praise him and be content in the journey he has given us.

We live with hope! I offer the same hope to you in Jesus Christ.

What I am thankful for during this Thanksgiving are the lessons I have learned. I don't know what you might be going through, but I hope that these lessons will provide some hope for you.

1. Tom Welborn does not possess the strength to fight the battle alone. I am just a human being, depending on God and a lot of others to do this.

2. God has the strength to get me through anything with joy. Just because I have cancer, it doesn't mean that I have to be miserable every day. I received Jesus Christ as a 15-year-old boy, and I became his child. If you are his child, he will do the same for you.

3. I strongly believe in the power of prayer. It has been estimated that through Facebook, churches, word of mouth and many other sources that prayers have been sent up from over 100,000 people on four continents. I feel those prayers all the time. Encourage people to pray for you.

4. Let family and friends help you fight the battle. In any battle like this, people want to help; let them help! There are usually financial, transportation, medical and other needs. I have been blessed by our church at Southside and other churches like Grace Chapel, by the many friends we have acquired since coming to Sanford in 2005 and by people we don't even know. We have been helped by so many people in so many different ways. Hopefully, there are those people there for you.

5. Marriages are either strengthened or damaged during hard times. My bride of 43 years and I have never been closer; keep that close relationship with your spouse.

The thing for which I am most thankful is that God sent his son to be born of a virgin, live a perfect life, take my sin on the cross, arise from the dead and save a 15-year-old boy, and he has been with that boy every step of the way, providing hope for the journey. That same hope is available to all of you. Please pray for me and my family that we will run our race well and we will continue to experience "Victory in the Valley."