Alec Hill is President Emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. In our interview, Alec discusses his recent battle with cancer and God’s provision through it.
Josh Moody: Alec, many of the readers will know about your recent battle with and overcoming of cancer, but for those who don’t can you fill us in with what you’ve been through?
Alec Hill: Two years ago, I fainted the day after my youngest daughter’s wedding. Chalking it up to fatigue, I neither informed my wife or contacted a doctor. Very stupid. When I finally told a friend, he scolded me: “Never self-diagnose.” Great advice.
One medical test led to another and I found myself sitting across from an oncologist. When he told me that I had something called Myelodysplasia Syndrome (MDS)—a form of bone marrow cancer—I asked him if it was as bad as leukemia. I’ll never forget his reply: “It’s worse.” As he spoke, I grabbed my wife’s hand. My mind went numb.
He proceeded to tell us that 7% of my white cells were already junk. As that percentage increased in the months ahead, my immune system would be severely compromised. “It’s like AIDs,” he explained. “MDS won’t kill you. A common cold will. Eventually you will have no ability to fight infection. Without a successful bone marrow transplant, you will die within 18 months.”
At first, I was rated a “moderate risk” to survive—about a 50% chance. But when later tests indicated that my third chromosome was damaged—a rare occurrence—I was bumped to “high risk.” Suffice to say, that was a really low point.
JM: We are far more than our feelings, and we’re called often to rise above our feelings, but even Christian leaders have feelings; were there moments when you felt despair? How did you counteract/deal with those feelings?
AH: I had three fears. The first was pain. But this concern subsided as there seemed to be a drug for every ailment. “Palliative care” has come a long way in recent decades. Having said that, the ride was not fun. It included a spinal tap, three bone marrow biopsies, a surgically implanted chest catheter, 87 straight days of infusions, diarrhea, nausea, insomnia, a 20-pound weight loss and translucent skin.
The second fear was death. For about a month post-transplant, when my white cell counts were zero, I took 50 pills a day. My life hung in the balance as we waited to see if my donor’s cells would graft. Despite the physical discomfort, I sensed the Lord’s presence so intimately that any anxiety about death totally dissipated. There was no “dark night of the soul.” To the contrary, the veil between this life and the next got really thin. I was ready to go. His presence was palpable.
I fared less well with the third fear—concern about physical limitations if I survived. Many transplant patients suffer severe organ damage, chronic fatigue, heavy dependence on powerful drugs and/or a drop in mental acuity. While, thankfully, that has not been my story, I have been fully cognizant of these possibilities. I am not proud to say that my identity remains too wrapped up in my capabilities instead of my status as a beloved child of God.
JM: Who was your donor?
AH: It turned out that my brother Grant, who is 18 months older than me, was a perfect match. There was only a 25% chance of this happening. Whereas most donors are under the age of 30, he was 64. Thanks to some nifty science, doctors were able to elevate his white cell counts to a sufficient number.
JM: What Bible passages were meaningful to you on this journey?
AH: Isaiah 43:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze…
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…
You are precious and honored in my sight… I love you…
Do not be afraid, for I am with you…”
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult…
Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth…
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
JM: What would you say to people who are right now facing a diagnosis with cancer?
AH: Its ok to say: “this sucks.” It really does. But simultaneously declare: “Lord, you are here. I trust you.”
JM: What about human suffering?
AH: Scripture teaches us five truths about suffering:
- The Lord is not the author of evil.
- He heals.
- It is right for us to lament the suffering of others.
- We must never accuse or harangue the Lord when healing does not occur. There is simply too much mystery involved.
- We have a stewardship responsibility towards those who suffer. By caring for others, our pain is repurposed and our suffering redeemed.
JM: In what ways has God reshaped/retuned/revived your character through all this?
AH: In his excellent book, “Being Mortal,” Dr. Atul Gawande observes two things often happen to those who face death. First, emphasis shifts from achievement to relationships. We become less goal oriented and more people focused. Second, our time orientation shifts from the future to the present.
I am certainly experiencing both. As a classic overachiever, this has caught me a bit off guard. “Success” has been redefined. If, by the end of a day, I have touched someone in a meaningful way, I sleep quite contentedly.
JM: Given what you’ve been through, are there new focal points that you have now going forward that God has given you in terms of a focal point for calling or vocation or vision for your life now?
AH: At this stage of life, my call is to invest in the next generation leaders. And a noble calling it is.
The core of my activities is mentoring. I currently have monthly calls with 15 rising leaders within InterVarsity and four outside. Mentees select topics they want to discuss. My role is to ask really good questions, recommend resources (e.g. books or people) and to dispense advice when appropriate.
During a year of post-transplant isolation, I was blessed to have monthly calls with Leighton Ford. Now 85, Leighton has become a dear friend. Next month, I will travel to be with him (and others) in Virginia for a week where I hope to improve my craft as a mentor.