By Eric Gorski, The Associated Press
DALLAS — Matt Chandler doesn't feel anything when the radiation penetrates his brain. It could start to burn later in treatment. But it hasn't been bad, this time lying on the slab. Not yet, anyway.
Chandler's lanky 6-foot-5-inch frame rests on a table at Baylor University Medical Center. He wears the same kind of jeans he wears preaching to 6,000 people at The Village Church in suburban Flower Mound, where the 35-year-old pastor is a rising star of evangelical Christianity.
Another cancer patient Chandler has gotten to know spends his time in radiation imagining that he's playing a round of golf. Chandler on this first Monday in January is reflecting on Colossians 1:15-23, about the pre-eminence of Christ and making peace through the blood of his cross.
Chandler wears a mask with white webbing that keeps his head still as the radiation machine delivers the highest possible dose to what is considered to be fatal and incurable brain cancer.
This is Matt Chandler's new normal. Each weekday, he spends two hours in the car — driven from his suburban home to downtown Dallas — for eight minutes of radiation and Scripture.
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Chandler is trying to suffer well. He would never ask for such a trial, but in some ways he welcomes this cancer. He says he feels grateful that God has counted him worthy to endure it. He has always preached that God will bring both joy and suffering but is only recently learning to experience the latter.
Since all this began on Thanksgiving morning, Chandler says he has asked "why me?" just once, in a moment of weakness.
He is praying that God will heal him. He wants to grow old, to walk his two daughters down the aisle and see his son become a better athlete than he ever was.
Whatever happens, he says, is God's will, and God has his reasons. For Chandler, that does not mean waiting for his fate. It means fighting for his life.
Thanksgiving morning. Chandler pours himself a cup of coffee, feeds 6-month-old Norah a bottle and — as he is about to sit down — collapses in front of the fireplace.
Chandler has no recollection of the seizure. He bit through his tongue and punched a medic in the face.
At a hospital, Chandler gets a CT scan, followed by an MRI.
Not long afterward, the ER doctor delivers the news: "You have a small mass on your frontal lobe. You need to see a specialist."
It was Thanksgiving. Chandler had not seen his kids — Audrey, 7, Reid, 4, and the baby — for hours.
He had collapsed in front of them. For whatever reason, those grim words from a doctor he'd never met did not cause his heart to drop. What Chandler thought was, "OK, we'll deal with that." Getting the news meant he could go home.
Chandler can be sober and silly, charming and tough. He'll call men "bro" and women "mama." He drives a 2001 Chevy Impala with 144,000 miles and a broken radio. He calls it the "Gimpala"
One of Chandler's sayings is, "It's OK to not be OK — just don't stay there."
Chandler's long, meaty messages untangle large chunks of Scripture. His challenging approach appeals, he believes, to a generation looking for transcendence and power.
His theology teaches that all men are wicked, that human beings have offended a loving and sovereign God, and that God saves through Jesus' death, burial and resurrection — not because people do good deeds. In short, Chandler is a Calvinist, holding to a belief system growing more popular with young evangelicals.
Chandler grew up a military kid, moving around the country until landing in Galveston, Texas. He was taught that Christianity meant not listening to secular music or seeing R-rated movies. His views began to change when a high school football teammate started talking about the Gospel.
After college Chandler became a fiery evangelist who led a college Bible study and traveled the Christian speaking circuit. He was hired from another church in 2002 at age 28 to lead what is now The Village Church, a Southern Baptist congregation that claimed 160 members at the time.
The church now meets in a renovated former grocery store with a 1,430-seat auditorium; two satellite campuses are flourishing in Denton and Dallas, and Chandler speaks to large conferences.
"What Matt does works because it resonates with the deep longing of the soul the average person can't even identify," said Anne Lincoln Holibaugh, the church's children's ministry director.
Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Chandler and his wife, Lauren, meet with Dr. David Barnett, chief of neurosurgery at Baylor University Medical Center.
The weekend had brought hope: A well-meaning church member who is a radiologist looked at Matt's MRI and concluded the mass was encapsulated, or contained to a specific area.
But Barnett delivers very different news. He saw what appeared to be a primary brain tumor — meaning a tumor that had formed in the brain — that was not contained. It had branches.
Chandler is facing brain surgery. He schedules it for that Friday, Dec. 4.
Questions start to haunt him. Am I going to wake up and be me? Am I going to wake up and remember Lauren?
The surgery begins around 2 p.m. A biopsy determines that it is, indeed, a primary brain tumor.
As far as Chandler knows, there is no history of cancer in his family. His tumor, like most others, was likely caused by a genetic abnormality, Barnett says.
The surgeon is aggressive, pushing to remove as much of the mass as possible.
"You cannot be a timid neurosurgeon when you deal with these things," Barnett says later. "Your first shot is your best shot at treating this."
Seven hours after entering surgery, Chandler is wheeled to intensive care.
He wakes to Barnett's voice.
"Matt ... Matt ... Who am I?"
He knows the answer. Relief. His left side is numb. His facial expressions are frozen and his voice has no pitch, what doctors call a "flat affect."
This is all good, leading Barnett to believe he pushed hard but not too hard.
Each day after the surgery, Chandler gets better, stronger.
"The first four days were just ... not scary, but hard," Lauren says. "I'm wondering, 'How much of this will stay? ... How much of this will be the new normal?'"
Tuesday after surgery. Barnett meets with Lauren and Brian Miller, chairman of the church's elder board. Barnett tells them the tumor was malignant. Such tumors send tiny fingers of cells beyond their borders — and eventually a branch will reach back and grow another brain tumor, Barnett says.
Barnett asks Lauren and Miller to keep the diagnosis to themselves for a week so Matt can concentrate fully on recovering from surgery.
On Dec. 15, Barnett shares the pathology results with the Chandlers. Tumors are designated by grade — with Grade 1 being the least aggressive and Grade 4 being the most.
Chandler's tumor is a Grade 3.
The average life expectancy, Barnett says, is two to three years. The doctor says he believes Chandler will live longer because of the aggressive surgery, treatment and Chandler's otherwise good health. There's also a chance the cancer goes into remission for years.
Before the meeting ends, Matt prays that his children and others do not grow resentful.
"Lord, you gave this to me for a reason. Let me run with it and do the best I can with it."
Chandler says learning he had brain cancer was "kind of like getting punched in the gut. You take the shot, you try not to vomit, then you get back to doing what you do, believing what you believe.
"We never felt — still have not felt — betrayed by the Lord or abandoned by the Lord. I can honestly say, we haven't asked the question, 'Why?' or wondered, 'Why me, why not somebody else?' We just haven't gotten to that place. I'm not saying we won't get there. I'm just saying it hasn't happened yet."
Later, Chandler clarified that. There was one moment when he saw a picture on a Christmas card of a man who chronically cheated on his wife and thought, "Why not that guy?" He says it was wicked to think that.
Monday, Jan. 4, a month after surgery. Morning breaks with Reid singing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Chandler sits at his laptop in the dining room, nursing a cup of green tea.
He's preparing to drive to a clinic for an infusion of Vitamin C to bolster the immune system, followed by radiation in downtown Dallas. He's in the midst of a six-week program of radiation and chemotherapy, to be followed by a break and more treatment.
Chandler never thought such a trial would shake his faith. But until now, that was just hope.
"This has not surprised God," Chandler says on the drive home. "He is not in a panic right now trying to figure out what to do with me or this disease. Those things have been warm blankets, man."
Chandler has, however, wrestled with the tension between belief in an all-powerful God and what he can do about his situation. He believes he has responsibilities: to use his brain, to take advantage of technology, to walk in faith and hope, to pray for healing and then "see what God wants to do."
"Knowing that if God is outside time and I am inside time, that puts some severe limitations on my ability to crack all the codes," he says.
Chandler has preached the last two weekends and is planning trips to South Africa and England. He lost his hair to radiation but got a positive lab report last week and feels strong.
"If he suffers well, that might be the most important sermon he's ever preached," said Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church and a friend of Chandler's.
Chandler is drinking life in — watching his son build sandcastles at the park, preaching each sermon as if eternity is at stake — and feeling a heightened sense of reality.
"It's carpe diem on steroids," he says.
At the dinner table on the sixth day of radiation, new normal looks like this: Reid in Spiderman pajamas. Peanut butter and jelly dipped in honey for the kids, turkey chili for the adults.
And peppermint ice cream.
It is a diaper changed, dishes done.
Matt Chandler takes his chemo pills and goes to bed, grateful for another day.
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