As Death Draws Near—An Interview with A Pastor Diagnosed with Terminal Cancer
On December 18, 2014, Rev. Wally Yew was diagnosed with malignant pancreatic cancer. The affliction came without warning. The doctor’s prognosis was that Wally had a life expectancy of three to six months. With this type of aggressive, painful cancer, it seemed too late to have hope of recovery, and he was heading for the valley of death.
Wally's beloved wife, Maryann, was facing the situation with him, and there were also many relatives and friends showing deep concern. But Wally knew that he had to face his impending death by himself, because it was he alone who would step off the platform of this earthly life upon arrival at his final destination—his heavenly home.
An interview with Wally and Maryann was done on January 26, 2015, by Cecilia Yau, a co-worker with Wally for over forty years. Having coauthored with Wally, Cecilia says she has witnessed his way of living, his example as a Christian leader, and his fruitful ministries. Her prayer is that the influence of Wally’s inspirational life received from God will remain forever, and that his words of wisdom will help all of us who will be facing death to better prepare ourselves for the unknown road awaiting each of us.
From the interview
“Words of Wisdom” from Wally and Comments by Maryann
“I am now looking in the rearview mirror to reflect upon the road that I have traveled. When death is so imminent, the perspective of your focus is bound to be different. A person who has twenty years or more to live views life very differently from someone who is destined to die in a few months. In retrospect, I deeply sense that all the teachings I have given to others are actually now, in this moment, more real and precious to apply to myself.”
“Do I see suffering as a magnifying glass that helps me see Truth more clearly? The truth is that a Christian cannot lose—he always ends up double winning. Let me explain. The Bible tells us: to live is Christ and to die is gain.1 So, dead or alive, both are good to us—this is what I mean by double winning. The Apostle Paul also says that I can be grateful in all circumstances.2 The choice is mine. Even facing death, those who rely on the Lord can choose to be grateful. Whether a Christian's life is easy or hard, smooth or rugged, he can always choose to be grateful. This is double winning. Jesus says to shoulder the worries of life one day at a time.3 The worries of today are to be borne just for today. At some point, tomorrow will become today. Worries can be borne when tomorrow comes. This is still double winning. The truth of the Bible has never changed from the very beginning. I have held on to this belief for several decades, and I've taught others about my conviction. Now it remains for me to live up to this belief.”
“Do I feel pain at this moment? How about the next moment? I don't want to worry about the pain of the next moment. Right now, I am taking two pain-relieving pills every day. Since there is already present in my body painkilling morphine, I can control my pain momentarily. When the pain increases in intensity, the dosage of pain pills will increase to taking one pill every four hours. Nevertheless, there will come a point when the dosage will need to increase to a level to stop the pain altogether—yet, in this state, I shall have lost consciousness. No matter how effective modern medication has progressed, there is always a limit to what it can do. What I can hold on to now will vanish in a flicker of time. So I need to treasure every moment the Lord gives me and rely on the Lord to receive my soul at His time. The things I believed and taught others in past decades, I am now facing the challenge of making them come true for me.”
“I have sometimes asked my congregations to answer the following question: ‘In what way do you want to die? From a heart attack or from Alzheimer's disease? Do you want to die quickly or slowly?’ Then I tell them that no matter what their preference might be, death ultimately cannot be escaped. I am absolutely sure that God has the power to heal. God is capable of performing miracles at any time. But the key point is: If not dying is a miracle, then resurrection is a greater miracle! Resurrection cannot happen if a person never dies in the first place. He will not get a new resurrected life without dying. Would you prefer not to die and live forever in a deformed body, or to have a whole, glorious body that comes with resurrection after death? If God healed everyone, doesn't it mean that no one would ever die?”
“Someone wrote a letter to me saying that his theology was vastly different from mine. He thought I ought to ask to be healed. If I were a bit younger, I would start a debate with him. Just think: If God does not answer his prayers to be healed, does it mean that God is not a faithful God to be trusted? The words of Job's friends seem to make sense on first impression. Their faith seems stronger than that of Job! But what conclusion can we draw from what the friends say about Job at the end? To me, it is not a matter of whether you believe that healing will happen or not. The conclusion lies in understanding the truth of the entire Holy Bible. All of us have to face the reality and inevitability of death. The Bible clearly states that because of sin, death came upon all humans.4 Lazarus experienced the miracle of being raised from the dead5—but eventually he had to die again. When confirmation of my malignant pancreatic cancer came, I said to my wife, Maryann, ‘We have to be prepared!’—meaning, to be prepared for death.”
“Do I wish I could live longer? Since I am afflicted with pancreatic cancer, there may not remain many days for me to live. If I were to live longer, it would mean that I must endure the pain—and suffer more. How long to live is long enough? I may want to live to 80 if I am 70 years old. When I am 80, I will want to live until 90. This is the normal expectation of a human being. A Chinese saying reminds us that not too many people reach the age of 70. The average life expectancy for American males is 78. I am not far from approaching this age. There are many people who die younger than 74, my present age. Should we have regret if we don’t reach the average life expectancy?”
“I feel that I have lived a full life. I have tried my best to live through God's grace. Even if God were to lengthen the days of my life, what else could I do to serve Him now? My physical stamina, power of memory, and energy level that would keep me active are all declining. Of course, if God wanted to use me continually, He would have His own plans to suit my ability to minister. But right at this moment, I am grateful for whatever plans He has already given me. I have no complaints, nor any regrets whatsoever. God has given me the best wife to spend my life with, and my sons are both married and have children of their own. When working at Chinese Christian Mission, God gave me a great team of co-workers. Throughout several decades, many good co-workers and numerous precious brothers and sisters at churches where I served worked and walked alongside me. So now, I am fully satisfied! God has supplied all of my needs, and He has led me all the days of my life. I have truly experienced His faithfulness and
trustworthiness. The time spent and the ministries given me throughout my life are His grace to me, and I have unyielding faith and trust in Him.”
“Of course, all of us have our own dreams and longings as human beings. Everyone wants to achieve the very best in life. No one wants to have a limitation to constrain him, including the limitation of death. Whenever I think about all that I will be missing soon—spending Christmas with my family this year, seeing my grandchildren grow up and having families of their own—my heart yearns for relief. But I need to learn to accept limitations. I have to accept the limitations death brings. And this is hard on me. But it is time for me to accept all these limitations whether I like them or not. To be obedient is now the only way I can be at peace in my heart.”
“Another struggle I have now is to knowing how to draw the line between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. For instance, do I really want to be treated with chemotherapy? Right now, I have decided to receive two rounds of chemotherapy. After that, I shall decide whether I want to continue with more. If further treatments are too much on me, and if the results of the treatments are no better than the suffering and pain I have to endure, then why continue getting treatments? According to medical statistics, the average life expectancy for a malignant pancreatic cancer patient is from two to three months up to a year. Of course, there may be exceptions. For me, should I insist on my case being the exception?”
(Maryann) “Immediately after I learned that Wally might have pancreatic cancer, I could foresee the outcome. So I was mentally prepared to face the worst. When the diagnosis was confirmed, I said to Wally: ‘We have no alternative other than to trust and obey.’ When Wally mentioned that he might not be able to spend Christmas this year with his family, I thought to myself: It will be more meaningful for him to do so in Heaven, face to face with the central figure of Christmas. I know Wally is going to an absolutely superb place of beauty, and I long to be there with him one day.”
(Maryann) “Really, the one to go first is comparatively more blessed. The day when the doctor called Wally to confirm the bad news, I was the first to know of the diagnosis. I was then doing volunteer work away from home. After hanging up the phone, I tidied up things before going home. Thank the Lord, I could still be calm and have peace in my heart in spite of the bad news. I need all the help I can get from God to increase my strength. Right now, I push myself to exercise every day in order to keep fit. This is actually a spiritual war. I need to keep myself clear-headed. I need to keep the routines of my habitual way of life. Sometimes I am not able to do what I need to do—but I try my best.”
“I can't get over feeling some remorse which is haunting me at this time. I am getting ready to depart from this life, and my dear wife is standing close and tending to my needs. But when it is her turn to leave, I will not be there to tend to her needs. In these moments, I do have regrets. I am not master of my thoughts and my heart. I cannot help thinking and feeling about certain earthly things I care about. Perhaps I have to accept the fact that life is not perfect after all.”
“This world is made for the ones living here, not for the ones who have died. So the ones who are about to die should try not to cause unnecessary trouble for the ones who are living. When the time of death comes for me, I will just let go of everything and leave, but my family will have to take care of many things before and after my burial. I have already submitted my advance directive to my doctor. This will make it easier for my family to make decisions when my affliction becomes critical. It is especially important for me to take care of this matter.”
“Our family is close-knit and we have a loving relationship, so the idea of separation from each other is hard. A while back, my two sons and their families spent a week with us. We were able to talk at length. I especially thanked my two daughters-in-law for the selfless love and sacrifice they have shown to me. Everyone realized there is not much time left, so we treasured every minute of the days we were together.”
“Recently I phoned a friend, a former co-worker of CCM. I apologized to him for possibly having offended him with my words during a meeting. To my relief, he replied that he had totally forgotten about the matter. The days we have on earth are very short. This kind of settling things is important to me.”
“The ultimate thing that matters now is relationships—not what else needs to be done. To me, what matters most is the loving bond to be cherished with my family members, co-workers, and friends. The accomplishments and successes of my work are not important. I'm reading a book by my good friend, Dr. Herbert Lee, who was also afflicted with pancreatic cancer and passed away. He says in his book that he received every kind of sympathy and get-well card during his last days, but among them all, the one that blessed him the most was a letter from a friend with the words, ‘I will always miss you!’”
[The interview ended with Rev. Wally Yew—slightly sobbing and with tearful eyes—recounting the words, “I will always miss you.” From Rev. Yew's innermost heart echoed the sadness he feels at leaving behind his family and friends whom he knows will always miss him. Indeed, we will always miss Rev. Wally Yew!]