“You’re either heading toward hope or you’re heading toward death” ~ Ryan Snyder
Ryan and Anne both were raised in a Dutch Christian family. Faith was central to their upbringing. An unspoken expectation was felt by both that there was a plan for their lives; college, marriage, house, kids. They were well on their way to realizing their life goals, practically newlyweds and enjoying their quaint little two-storey rental that they had called home for two years. Throw a cat and a dog into the mix and this lovely young couple in their mid twenties had an idyllic life set before them.
It was back and abdominal pain that first alerted Ryan and caused him to seek his doctor’s help. A subsequent ultrasound was booked for a month later. There was no reason to suspect that anything really serious was happening to Ryan’s body. He was after all a fit and healthy young male. But the pain in this back and his abdomen intensified rapidly and he couldn’t wait for an ultrasound appointment. He went straight away to his local emergency department and tests were booked immediately.
The results were quick and terrifying. As the doctor explained in calm and clinical terms the difficult diagnosis, Anne and Ryan were crying and trying desperately to hear through the tears and emotion. They had found a mass behind his pancreas and he was diagnosed with high malignant germ cell cancer. Their world, their dreams, their life plan was abruptly shifted and forever altered.
The cancer machine whirred into motion quickly for Ryan, and they had the difficult burden of delivering the news to their close-knit group of friends. Their immediate family had known all along what was happening but while Ryan awaited news of his diagnosis, his friends had picked up strongly that things were not right. Ryan and Anne decided that it was best to tell their friends all at once, face to face. They invited everyone over to their home for the next day and didn’t provide any hints as to what they could possibly be wanting to divulge. Concerned friends would drive past Ryan and Anne’s home trying to figure out what their friends were up to. A group of twenty-somethings all who had gotten married, started families and planned their lives with similar goals together, these were the most important people in Ryan and Anne’s life apart from their families.
The words came out of Ryan’s mouth with detached numbness and his friends were completely blind-sided. There was no ability to comprehend what Ryan was telling them and some couldn’t handle it. They watched as one of their friends broke down in sobs before their eyes while another had to step outside to the front porch.
Ryan and Anne describe themselves with great pride that they are the “wear your heart on your sleeve” kind of people and they have always been ready and willing to support and help their friends or family. It was a cruel twist of fate that left these two in need of seeking help from those around them. Their own initial reaction was shock but almost immediately they were left in a state of numbness. Where Ryan was positive and faith-filled and carried an attitude of hope and determination, Anne was understandably self-protective and didn’t like to think about the cancer. She felt that if she spent too much time dwelling on cancer as a whole it would make it bigger in her mind and she knew she wouldn’t be able to handle it all. Instead she thought of it in terms of tackling one problem at a time. The immediate need was to attack the tumour and that was what they were doing.
Chemotherapy began right away, and that was enough in and of itself. The treatments would likely render Ryan infertile. One of Ryan’s dreams had always been to be a father and infertility would make that dream a little more difficult to realize. When Ryan lost his hair and beard he was reduced to tears; he loved his hair. In solidarity his closest buddies shaved their head and his father kept his shaved the entire time Ryan was going through chemotherapy. And he found that with certain friends he found an unexpected bonding unlike any they had experienced prior. One of his buddies would just come and sit with Ryan after his rounds of chemo and while Ryan laid on the sofa, semi-unconscious, his friend would play video games. There were no words needed, just a comfortable silence of support.
The initial attention and concern for the couple was at first overwhelming and wonderful. Anne had expressed her desire to respond to each and every text message with as much emotional presence as she could muster, the sheer amount of messages and phone calls was intense. But that level of effort was draining for her and when she had made a comment about it she experienced the extreme opposite reaction. All of a sudden the messages stopped. Well-intentioned friends admonished others to leave the couple alone because they needed some breathing room. And life then became very isolating. It was difficult to find the balance between the two extremes. But Ryan had pointed out that even his father had warned that the attention would eventually taper off, and it did. Ryan admits readily that he is the type of guy who almost needs the emotional validation and so it was difficult for him to cope with the new existing void that he was experiencing in his life. As chemotherapy drew to a close Ryan had lost his optimism. He is depressed and bitter. His oncologist had warned that this could happen but Ryan wasn’t prepared for it.
Meanwhile Anne was trying her best to be the support her husband needed. She felt guilty when people would bring by meals or offer to help her by cleaning the house or doing the laundry. She was fully capable in comparison to her husband who was suffering through the effects of treatment. But while she knew physically she was able to do these things, emotionally she was fragile. She held herself together reasonably well while helping to care for Ryan, but she recalls one day at work when she could no longer hold in her emotion. She works in a group home and while she was helping one of her clients in the bathroom she broke down sobbing. It was a miserable feeling crying in front of her client while he used the facilities but it was beyond her mental capacity to hold it in any longer. And everyday, the things that should have come so easy were becoming increasingly difficult for her to handle. Many offered helpful suggestions but nothing seemed to provide relief, and so she found she would avoid others’ company. That too proved to be unhelpful because she did not enjoy being alone through all of this.
Their worst fear was the possibility of surgery. The proposed surgical plan was invasive and high-risk, so their hope was that the chemotherapy would shrink the existing mass so that surgery could be avoided. Their hope lie between a tension of science and faith, and Anne personally found that it was easier to seek other’s prayers before she was able to utter her own. And the faith of others was extraordinary. They were believing for the couple that God would be able to heal his tumour completely and that there would be absolutely no need for surgery. The couple wasn’t convinced and they carried a nagging, persistent knowing that surgery would be inevitable. When they received the confirmation of that belief however, the news was like a bitter re-opening of old fears and the emotion bubbled to the surface again and left them with a sinking despair in the pit of their stomachs. It was no longer an abject probability but an absolute reality with a looming cut off date.
So a few weeks after chemotherapy ended, Ryan and Anne escaped from their hometown and headed East toward New Brunswick. It was a road trip that was reminiscent of their days before cancer and they were free to hit the open road and seek togetherness, adventure, and distraction. They reconnected with friends, who in the months after the cancer announcement was made, had picked up and moved away to the East Coast in order to pursue their dreams and ambitions. The time spent together was refreshing and encouraging. Ryan’s friend, [who I will refer to as “A”] had been an incredible lifeline for Ryan before he moved away, and Ryan had missed his friend tremendously. The trip was a welcome interruption to their otherwise dreary reality and it was enough to fuel them for the next leg of their journey.
Since faith had been such an integral part of their foundation, it was natural that faith played a role in how they coped with cancer. But faith had become something distinctive from their child-like faith they had as a young, married couple. It was raw and desperate. With Ryan’s depression he found himself dwelling on subjects of death, loneliness and despair and he lamented that he no longer felt the presence of God like he used to. He was persistently crying out to God and hoping to feel Him but was growing increasingly frustrated at a seemingly lack of unanswered prayer. He quotes James, “consider it pure joy , my brothers and sisters, when you face trials of many kinds” James 1:2 But Ryan isn’t feeling the joy. He likens his circumstances to that of Job, where despite utter hopelessness he would still choose to continually say “Blessed be Your name”. It was “A” who had encouraged Ryan by saying, “perhaps what you’re going through is giving you a better idea of what it really means to be a Christian, perhaps more than most. [sic]” That sentence, while still lacking the rosy glow of optimism, was enough to provide Ryan with hope. And in essence, his motto has been you are either moving toward hope or you are moving toward death. Ryan had no desire to see cancer rob him of his life, so he clung to every shred of hope he could find.
On the long drive back to The County, Ryan at one point turned to his wife and remarked on how freeing it now was that their life no longer resembled the preconceived plans they had before. Ryan says he views life differently now, the things that used to have so much significance to him seem so meaningless in comparison. Their world was rocked this year and so now he is open to anything. Anne agreed, plans are made but then life happens. When asked whether they had looked beyond cancer, their perspectives were opposed to one another. Anne had an extreme desire to plan something, whether it was simply a weekend trip to the cottage or preparing to have Ryan apply for college next Fall. Ryan on the other hand, was resistant to look beyond cancer and simply try to continually cope with today. He has no idea how to even begin planning for starting a family or what that will look like and there are too many “maybes” to even want to try. Anne laughed and admitted that she was excited to be stopping her birth control. “If we get pregnant naturally, then it would be a miracle baby but either way, I no longer see the need for it. [sic]” But what gives Ryan his feelings of freedom is that he no longer has that unspoken expectation to constantly have a five year plan. Life has provided him and Anne with endless possibilities and a chance to pursue new and different dreams.
Almost everyone Ryan and Anne knew who had ever been diagnosed with cancer had passed away. They have bravely decided that they weren’t willing to allow cancer to be a death sentence. Ryan’s emblem on their Facebook support page was appropriately a Superman logo with imagery associated with their faith in Jesus. His faith and his love of all things DC Comic-verse is an accurate representation of part of his life. When you look at Ryan’s life you can’t help but agree that he is a super guy with abundant faith and moral virtue, but unlike his comic idol he is not impervious to illness. Cancer has been his kryptonite but his faith has been what has kept him alive and continually moving forward.
In less than a month, Ryan will be undergoing one more hurdle in his cancer battle and having the surgery to remove the mass behind his pancreas. It will require him to be in hospital for a period of approximately ten days. His wife will be by his side the entire time.
This wasn’t the life they envisioned for themselves when they stood before family and friends three years ago and pledged to love each other, for better or for worse. This though is their vows lived in action, because this is the “worse”. And they have faced this with such dignity and strength, not because they are heroes but because they weren’t really given any other choice.