Cancer experience a journey of faith, Stam says

Communications Staff — February 14, 2008

Many on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus noticed that Carl Stam was absent last semester from his normal position of leading worship in chapel services, but most did not know why he was absent.

After being diagnosed with intermediate grade Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in July, Stam, associate professor of church music and worship, underwent months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments before being declared cancer-free in January. Despite the physical and emotional trials of his experience, Stam said God was gracious to him and grew his faith through the entire experience.

“The most striking thing was the fact that I was not all that worried about dying,” Stam said. “Rather, I was concerned for my family, of course, and for how the glory of God would be displayed through all of this—sort of like Jesus’ comments about the blind man in John 9.”

He added that there was at least one benefit to being away from his usual role of worship leadership in chapel.

“I enjoyed watching seminary chapel (on television) in my pajamas each Tuesday and Thursday of the semester,” he said.

Stam, who also serves as minister of music at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, first noticed a physical problem when he experienced back pain after a late-night tennis match on Feb. 16 of last year. When the pain persisted, he had an MRI in early July and went into the hospital for tests the next day, where doctors made a diagnosis of cancer.

The months of treatment brought physical sickness and discouragement at times, but Stam said he retained a largely optimistic outlook and received encouragement along the way.

One unexpected bit of encouragement came when seven of Stam’s former students from the University of Notre Dame, where he taught choral music for ten years, traveled to Louisville to cheer him on during treatments.

“It was sweet,” Stam said. “Four of them sang with the Clifton Baptist Church choir that Sunday morning. These are men and women in their thirties and forties with families and jobs.”

Because of the concern from his former students and colleagues at Notre Dame, Stam joked, “I am sure I have more Catholic prayer candles burning for me than any Baptist seminary professor in history.”

Another encouragement has been the ways Stam’s cancer gave him opportunities to present the Gospel to lost men and women.

“The huge white back brace I wear is not comfortable,” he explained. “But it has afforded me countless opportunities to tell my story and to explain how the Lord has been faithful through the cancer journey.”

One such opportunity came in December when Stam participated in a 3.1-mile race in Louisville. In past years he has run the race, but this year physical weakness forced him to walk. At the race, one of the event’s organizers started a conversation with Stam when she noticed his back brace.

“She was shocked to see me in the back brace and with the scanty collection of hairs on my head,” he said. “I explained my story, how my treatment seemed to be going very well, and how I considered my cancer and treatment to be an unexpected blessing from the Lord. Her jaw dropped in disbelief, and she said, ‘Please explain that to me.’ She asked, and I told her. I’m sure I will be able to follow up on that conversation.”

Despite the many encouragements, Stam’s journey has not been entirely positive, he said. One difficulty was having to cut back his responsibilities at the seminary to teaching only two classes. He also was forced to cancel a trip to Canada to visit his mother and reduced his worship leadership responsibilities at Clifton.

“Honestly, I am not very discouraged,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of letting people down. It has been really hard to rest and to be content not doing things.”

As for the future, Stam will continue to wear his back brace until April and still has weekly appointments to receive tests and various medications. Soon doctors plan to do another MRI and compare the results to past MRIs.

He hopes this experience will allow him to pray for and minister more effectively to other cancer patients.

“I have spent a great deal of my life thinking of cancer patients as something akin to lepers,” he said. “But now that I have been through this journey, I know better. I have a heightened sense of what it means to stand with someone in prayer.”

To read Stam’s online journal of his cancer experience, go to www.caringbridge.org/visit/carlstam.

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