School principal learns faith lesson

He was strong, independent — a man who prided himself on handling life with a sense of control and ease. But on a wintry February day, the school principal found his world turned upside-down.

“I was sort of in denial because I didn’t feel anything,” Chuck Watson of Kennewick, Wash., said, recalling the yearly exam that had resulted in off-the-chart PSA numbers. “But when the urologist called and said to bring my wife, I had a strong fear.”

“He said I had incurable cancer, and it’s like you hear it but you don’t hear anything else,” the now retired elementary school principal said about the devastating news. “We’re driving home afterward and I had to pull over.”

It was Chuck’s first anxiety attack that belied the calm exterior he would wear on school days in front of teachers and students. But in the darkness while his wife, Dawn, slept beside him, the typically strong husband found the nightmarish news haunting him.

“I woke up at least once, maybe twice a night and I’d be bawling,” said Chuck, then 48 years old.

“I tried to hide it, and I’d crawl into a fetal position,” he said, hoping to not disturb his longtime bride.

Alone. Solo. It was part of the cancer journey only he could walk.

Inevitable surgery brought an avalanche of cards, many from friends or parents of students who said they were praying; churches wrote to say he was on their prayer chain. Although Chuck wasn’t a man of faith, he realized how much the cards written with those words gave him comfort.

“I was still waking up having panic attacks and I realized this was something I couldn’t handle — and I’d always been able to handle stuff, and I was proud of it,” Chuck said. “One night I was thinking about the cards and I decided to pray — and I wasn’t good at it, but I just said, ‘God, this is beyond me and if you’re real, I need you.’ “

Sleep came within moments of his prayer. But in the predawn hours he awoke, expecting fear to grip his heart.

This same night, I woke up at 3:12 a.m.,” Chuck said, still remembering the exact hour on his bedside clock, “and I felt this indescribable peace. And along with this sense of peace was this message, ‘Whether you live or die, you’re going to be OK.’ I’ve never had a panic attack since.”

It was the first step of his faith journey.

Even so, life wasn’t without its valleys. Chemotherapy was not an option for his situation, the surgeon had told him early on, offering only a bleak prognosis. Chuck could only wait, knowing cancer would take its toll.

While Chuck prayed for strength, he serendipitously met a Spokane resident with a similar prognosis — terminal — and who was healthier after homeopathic treatments and a holistic diet. The plan offered hope and it held Chuck’s cancer at bay.

But cancer is fierce. One of his Seattle area doctors finally told Chuck he needed to find someone who would “think outside the box” and suggested a physician doing controversial treatment for Chuck’s type of cancer.

“I flew down to California and I had to make a decision right then about chemo,” Chuck said of how he wrestled with the decision to set aside his holistic lifestyle. “Was I going to do what I’d said I’d never do, or not?” was a question he called home to ask Dawn.

Ultimately, it was a choice only Chuck could make.

“But then I stepped away and just said, ‘Lord, I need some help. I don’t know what to do,’ “ Chuck said. “And then I remembered the joke about the guy on his roof and it’s flooding all around him and God says, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll save you.’ But he drowns and blames God.”

Chuck relayed the joke with a smile, remembering how a boat and helicopter had shown up, but were refused because God was going to save the man.

Chuck felt it was an answer and stepped out on faith, believing this was his “rescue boat.” He went on to complete the series of unique chemotherapy treatments. And what has been astounding to doctors who have been involved with his many steps on this cancer journey is that it has spanned almost 20 years — a journey predicted to last only five or six and a rarity, 10.

“I used to wonder about death and if it would be better to get hit by a truck and not know, or to know way ahead of time,” Chuck said. “Now I say: to have the gift of time, to fall in love with my family all over again, and the reassurance that it’s going to be OK.”

To see Chuck today, he is the picture of health. Yet, he knows the sinister disease is now in his bones.

“No matter what pain we’re going through, God can use it for a purpose,” Chuck said with quiet confidence. “He may not get you out of it, but he’ll get you through it.”

Spoken by a man at peace on a continuing journey — one he doesn’t walk alone.

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