It’s Called Cancer And It’s The Scourge Of Our Time


Okay, here’s my story.

A year ago, during my regular semi-annual checkup, my dentist said, “What is this whitish stuff under your tongue?” I had no idea what he was talking about. I mean, who checks under his tongue. Even looking in the mirror, all I could see was a glistening, somewhat like saliva, and aren’t we supposed to have saliva there. “You’re seeing things, Doc,” I said. “We’ll keep an eye on it,” he said.

Six months later. “It’s a little more pronounced,” he said. He had to remind me what he was talking about.

A few weeks ago, even I could see it. Again, it was just a silvery film, surely nothing to be concerned about. The dentist prescribed an antifungal mouthwash, thinking it could be a yeast infection. When it did not respond, he sent me to an oral surgeon.

The doctor put me to sleep and sliced off a sliver of the offending flesh. For a week, I carried around a swollen tongue and drank only juices before it began to return to normal. Then, Margaret and I went in for the pathology report.

Carcinoma in-situ. Squamous cells. In other words, cancer. The kind that usually smokers and drinkers get.

“But you’re neither,” the doctor said. “You’re a preacher.” I was tempted to leave it there, but I had to admit that there was a pipe in my closet. Three of them in fact. And a half can of “Captain Black” tobacco. Even though I haven’t smoked a pipe in ages. I used to.

It was 30 years ago. A dear preacher friend, my mentor in a hundred ways, smoked a pipe. It looked so relaxing, and it surely was non-habit forming, or so I thought, that I mentioned to my wife I might want to start. At Christmas, she gave me a gift certificate to a local pipe and tobacco shop, and I was off.

I used to make a little joke that went like this. “Baptists think cigarette smoking is worldly. They think smoking cigars makes you look like a Pharisee. But smoke a pipe and they’ll call you spiritual.” It’s not true, of course, but it does pick up on the respectability of pipe smoking, as opposed to its less reputable brothers.

At various times over the next decade, I smoked the pipe regularly, usually at night on my back porch. Never in the house, rarely in the car. It truly was relaxing to me, although not to the extent that it appeared or that I wanted. Finally, when it got through to me that it never actually tasted as good as it smelled, and that my tongue needed 24 hours to recover from one bowlful, I quit. Over the next decade or two, I might have smoked a bowl a month, if that. That’s why I was surprised when the doctor said smoking the pipe had given me cancer.

As a minister, I surely would have preferred that my cancer be mysterious and not of my own doing. That way, I could claim all those terrific Scriptures about suffering for righteousness. Alas, as with much of the suffering we undergo in this life, mine is self-inflicted. I did this to myself.

Ten days before Christmas, I entered the hospital and my doctor removed all the cancerous material under the tongue. Then he went into my sinus cavities and esophagus and lungs, taking little pieces of me! to send out for analysis. That was three weeks ago, as I write this, and my voice is still weak and somewhat hoarse from being messed with. The tongue healed nicely, although there is still a deadness underneath that seems to be lessening. My wife and I are the only ones who can hear the lisp with which I’m speaking these days.

All the reports came back good. The doctor says he got all the cancer. But, lest I think this is all over, he says we need to do radiation.

Radiation treatment anywhere is chancy and dangerous, but aiming that gun around the head and neck brings special concerns. As the orthodontist pointed out, “The saliva glands underneath your gums are what protects the teeth from decay. Radiation kills those glands, kills them permanently. As a result, decay can set in and you’re in big trouble. You could end up losing your jawbone.” He had my full and undivided attention.

That’s why last night I did my first fluoride treatment. The way I understand it, the fluoride is supposed to seep into the gums and harden the teeth and protect the glands. You squeeze fluoride out of a tube–it looks like clear toothpaste—into a “tray” made to fit my teeth. Ten minutes on the bottom, followed by 10 minutes on the top, then 30 minutes without food or drink. Each night. Starting now. For the rest of my life.

These days, my life has been taken over by visits to doctors in preparation for the radiation treatments scheduled to start later this month. I’ve sent out a letter to local leaders in our work, asking for their prayers and telling them how life is going to be for me the next couple of months. It should come as no surprise to any of them. Everyone knows someone who has had cancer. In fact, one of the most encouraging signs I know is that cancer survivors are all around us.

Two ministers with Franklin Graham’s evangelistic organization have been in and out of New Orleans recently, meeting with some of us trying to plan for a future meeting. The other night, I was asking one of them for prayer, when he said, “Did you know both Tom and I have cancer?” I was shocked. Not “did have” but “have.” Skin cancer in one and the other prostate. We agreed to exchange prayers.

After getting the first pathology report, the one that first used the word “cancer,” I called both my sons and said to them, “Son, you know that pipe of yours? And that skoal you sometimes use? It hates you. It wants to see your children end up as orphans.” I promised myself I won’t say anything else to them about tobacco.

One of my boys said, “I’ve quit smoking several times before. But when my job got stressful, I picked it up again.” Then he said, “Don’t say anything else to me about this. Just pray for me.” Fair enough. I promised.

Last Saturday, at the family farm in Alabama, I joined a group of birdhunters who had built a fire at the edge of the field and were sitting around, swapping stories. They had heard of my cancer, so we talked about that a little. Then I said to one of the men present, “I told my son about you, how you quit smoking when you were–what?–twenty-seven? I told him you just made up your mind and walked away from it.” He didn’t say anything, and then I remembered his wife had said he was smoking cigars much too frequently these days. I said, “How old were you when you quit?” He laughed and said, “The first time, I was 27. The second time is today. I just quit.”

The nurse in the office of the radiation oncologist said today, “We’ve had people in here who never smoked, but who breathed in secondary smoke from their parents and got cancer.” She said, “Maybe the Lord wants you to help get the word out about the dangers of tobacco.”

In a doctor’s office the other day, I picked up a brochure on “Raising Kids Who Don’t Smoke: Peer Pressure and Smoking.” I was a little suspicious at first because the leaflet comes from the Philip Morris company. I mean, isn’t this a little like the ads telling you to get help for gambling addiction, placed there by your local neighborhood casino?

But, the brochures seem safe enough. I recommend them for your teens. You can get them at the Philip Morris website Or write to “Youth Smoking Prevention”, P. O. Box 34336, Washington, D.C., 20078-1694.

I’ve heard people scoff at the drug program which calls on young people to “Just Say No.” They dismiss this as unrealistic in our sophisticated and complex world. But there is one group of people for whom it is precisely what they need to hear: young adolescents, pre-teens. The first time they are exposed to drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, saying ‘no’ is surely the way to go. Someone needs to prepare them to face these issues, and the time for that is before they meet.

What I didn’t realize was that just because my wonderful Christian friend was doing it did not make it right.

The mechanic says in the television commercial, “Pay me now or pay me later.” That, in a few words, is the whole story on tobacco.

Look around. A lot of us are paying later.

22 thoughts on “It’s Called Cancer And It’s The Scourge Of Our Time

  1. Thank you, Dr. Joe, for sharing this with us. I’ve given copies to Bill and Richard. You will be in our thoughts and prayers. We’re so glad they got it all!

  2. I have been receiving your newsletter for some time thanks to Laura Novak, a member of your congregation My heart goes out to you during this time. I have found that sharing your concerns with God’s people is like giving it to God, and He is a very present help in time of trouble. May He bless you and comfort you ..

  3. Joe,

    I recently wrote you to express my views on an article you had written.You were kind enough to write me back and I did appreciate your reply. Now its my time to respond to you. My wife and I are members of First Baptist Birmingham for about 20 months. We have an outstanding Pastor (Anton Fourie a South African)who received both his Masters and Doctorate at Beeson.I meet with him regularily as we are hunting and praying partners.Additionally I’m envolved in a men’s Bible study and prayer group that meets each Monday night.I’m including you on our prayer list at the Church and also in the men’s group. I enjoy your articles and share most of them with my Pastor.I definitely will share this one with him.

    God Bless you as we wait to see His Power at work.

    Bob Dreher

  4. Dear Bro. Joe,

    Just be assured that many of us who receive your wonderful news letter will be remembering you at this time in your life. The C word is one that always stirs any of us. I would say that all of us in our families have been touched by it at some time or the other.

    I know from experience that God gives us the strength that we need for each phase of our lives, and you already know thqt too.

    Praying for you,

    Irma Glover

    Smackover, Arkansas

  5. Bro. Joe,

    Thanks for sharing your story with us. You are in my prayers!


    Glenda Suggs

    Northeast Baptist Association

  6. Dr. McKeever,

    I am so sorry to hear of your cancer diagnosis. My prayer group here at work meets on Thursday mornings. We will be lifting you up in our prayers without ceasing. God is still a God of miracles even when we do things to contribute to our misfortunes. We will pray for a mighty miracle for you and for divine healing. I hate to hear that your doctor has opted for the radiation therapy. Maybe a second medical opinion is in order? I saw a piece on proton treatment which focuses the radiation to a narrow point rather than the “shotgun approach” where they scatter it all around and hope it hits the target. (That’s kind of like your bird hunting trip, huh?) It is worth a look to see if you are a candidate for that type of therapy.

    Best wishes,

    Jim Hinton

  7. Dear Joe,

    I think sin is like cancer. Many people think preachers or elders are flawless, but it is harder for me to flee from my sinful nature growing inside of me. I have been in faith for many years, but it is getting harder each year.

    I think I will look at God, at the LORD only and remember even when no one is watching He is looking after me with love.

    I heard early cancer is no worries. May the Lord protect, guide, and watch over you.

  8. I am sorry to learn that you have cancer. My husband and I walked that road a couple of years back when he had kidney cancer and it is a scary road.

    First Baptist Kenner supported us in prayer and we will be supporting you in prayer.

    God Bless

  9. Joe,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I am glad to hear that they got the cancer. I will be praying for your continued ‘all clear’ reports. As we know, His grace is sufficient for us. I thank God that He never leaves us during the bad times. I am only 27 and after that many years of thinking I’m ‘healthy as a horse’ my grandfather passed away earlier this year from a heart attack, and my father had a heart attack and three stints put in. So, I’m now dealing with the prospect that I may have similar issues. I must say in the context of being married for just over three years and having a 9 month old boy, I surely would like to be as healthy as possible until my life is required of me. BTW, I work with your son here at the “monetary mecca” of the SE and he pointed me to your site. I enjoyed your latest cartoon as well.

    May God Bless You and your family!

  10. I’m so sorry to hear about what you are going through. I was glad to read that the surgeon did remove all of it. Know that our prayers are with you during your radiation therapy. Lindsey says to tell you hello.

    Sincerely, Gena

  11. Bro. Joe,

    I wish you the best of luck with treatment and recovery. I also admire your desire to warn others about tobacco use. I thought you might like to know that there are several cessation programs sprouting up in Mississippi that provide free counseling and nicotine replacement (patches, gum, etc) for those interested in kicking the habit. To find out more, people can go to the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi’s website and read about the ACT Center. Good luck and thanks for sharing your story.

  12. His strength is made perfect in our weakeness.

    I will continue to pray for you, your family, and your ministry as you go through this trial.

    I know that He will bring you through and that He will be glorified by what is done.

    God Bless You

    Ray Davis

  13. BrotherJoe,

    Let me assure that one of your spiritual sons

    (and our church)are interceding on your behalf.

    May the peace of God, which does in fact trancend all understanding, guard your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus.

    Mike McCain, Pastor

    Lake Union Evangelical Covenant Church

    South Haven, MN

  14. Joe,

    It was good to visit with you on the telephone the other day. Our church prayer team, Becky and I have been and will continue to pray for your complete recovery. We love you as a dear friend and brother in Christ. Thank you for your ministry to other cancer patients. Several articles in the January 17, 2005, TIME magazine address a person’s attitude in health. One article is titled, “Can Sunny Thoughts Halt Cancer?” The article starts off, “It’s almost an article of faith:” Knowing you it is all a matter of faith. Most of the conclusions found in these articles are not new, they are clearly articulated in Scripture.

    Becky and I look forward to visiting with you all soon.




  16. Bro. Joe,

    I talked to my father Sunday and heard about your struggle. I’m praying for you. I’m glad to know about your web site and will be checking in with you in the future.


  17. Joe McKeever:

    It is never to late to share our story with others nor to soon. I think with any one that has ever been a tobacco user there is the love/hate thing going on. I loved smoking and have never been able to quit unless the smoking was hurting me. Perhaps your experience will help me to not start again ever. It is with pleasure I write to your site and add you to my families prayer list. You have meant so, so, much to mine and my fathers(Windy Rich). Sammy S Rich

  18. Hi Joe,

    You are such a special person to so many. God will surely use you, through this, to bring glory to His name AND preventative measures to those who read your story. In both, we do not realize the impact that one person can make on the lives of many. I am praying for you and Margaret. May His peace surround both of you.

    Dianne Taylor (NASBS)

  19. Bro. Joe,

    All of us here at Pineville Park Baptist Church are praying for you. May the Lord’s hand rest upon you during your treatment phase.

    In His Service,

    Karen Gillen, Sec.


  20. Joe:

    Yes, your story has reached ALABAMA! Max & I were members at 1st Baptist Kenner from 1991-1994. We still have the drawing you did for us with Max riding “shotgun” in a Mardi Gras parade.

    We will be praying for you!

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