A Pastor's Journey Through Brain Cancer
Dr. David Rumley, the executive pastor at First Assembly of God in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, considers himself blessed. He has three great kids, 13, 12 and 9 years old; an incredible wife, Michelle; a church family who loves him dearly; and a God who is there for him.
Dr. David Rumley also has brain cancer.
Rumley, a graduate of Evangel University, earned his master’s degree from AG Theological Seminary and his doctorate from Indiana Wesleyan. He spent time teaching at First Assembly in Niceville, Florida; seven years at Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, as middle school and young adults pastor; and then was lead pastor at Danville (Illinois) Assembly of God for seven years, where he also completed his doctorate.
“God seemed to be taking us along a path,” Rumley says. “I loved being a lead pastor, but then Michelle and I felt God was calling us to a change. We looked at my strengths, and it was like God revealed to us that I could be an executive pastor somewhere.”
It wasn’t too long after that when a friend called Rumley. He had a position opening for an executive pastor. This was no coincidence. The Rumleys headed to Bloomington-Normal, not knowing the incredible challenges they were about to face or how God was already at work.
About two years after Rumley became an executive pastor, he started having odd bouts with what he now knows were brain seizures. “I would have moments where I could hear and process things, but simply couldn’t speak,” he says. The length and frequency of these occurrences increased and Rumley sought medical help.
Meeting with specialists — and having the diagnosis confirmed by two different neuro surgeons — Rumley learned he had a “mass” in the left frontal lobe of his brain. Surgery to remove the brain tumor was the only realistic answer.
Although the words “brain” and “tumor” put together never are good things to hear, Rumley’s tumor was aggressive and fast growing — and already somewhere between the size of a baseball and a softball!
Rumley further explains: “My brain tumor is a rare type of tumor — only four percent of all tumors are this type. It’s intrinsic, meaning it’s actually in my mind, not sitting on top, and it’s what they call a ‘smeary tumor.’ It has fingers — it reaches out and attaches to other parts of the brain . . . and it’s not just like a foreign object that’s in there, it’s something that actually eats the helping cells for the brain cells.”
To top it all off, the tumor was near his speech center, meaning an already delicate surgery to remove this tumor could end up impacting his ability to talk, comprehend, or respond in any manner.
July 30, 2015 (click here for video message), Rumley underwent surgery to remove the tumor, a portion of which, he had to be awake for. “They needed me to be awake so I could talk to them so they could tell if what they were doing was damaging my speech center at all,” he explains.
The surgery was a success by all accounts, with only minimal impact on his speech center. However, due to the nature and location of the tumor, not all of it could be removed. The neuro-surgeon would later reveal that the mass and brain tissue were the same color, making the already complicated extraction that much more difficult.
Three weeks later, Rumley got still more bad news. The tumor was cancerous. “I then began 32-consecutive weekdays of radiation, and 42-straight days of chemotherapy in Chicago,” Rumley says, his voice growing weary with the memory. “For the radiation therapy, they take this plastic sheet, soak it in water, and mashed it to my face creating a mask for every treatment . . . I guess it’s lucky I’m not claustrophobic.”
Normal First Assembly of God Senior Pastor Joel Labertew says the news of Rumley’s tumor deeply impacted the congregation. “Dave is a gem of a guy — a very gifted people person. He so gregarious and friendly — this church loves Dave and Michelle very deeply. They (the congregation) have gone through all the normal grief stages, just like one would if something like this was happening to an immediate family member.”
With Rumley now in Chicago, and only 12 miles from the hospital, there was radiation treatments every day along with multiple hours of driving back and forth in heavy traffic. Michelle was left to manage their active family in Bloomington-Normal. The situation was stressful, with Rumley admitting that he still feels a deep pain for the mental and emotional weight his illness has placed upon his family.
Even though David and Michelle have been married for more than 18 years, and their marriage was strong, nothing could prepare them for this crisis.
“At first, no one else knew — not our church or kids — about the diagnosis, and that was very difficult,” Michelle Rumley says. “I took many walks, cried, and talked to God. Later, it was hard to know how to support my husband — managing this disease while also managing family — I wanted to be there for him [in Chicago], but I also knew our kids needed stability at home.”
What could possibly be added to this stressful burden? In September, with David still taking treatments in Chicago, Michelle was called away from home to witness the sentencing of the woman who had murdered her brother the year before, the kids’ beloved pet cat became ill and died, and then their dog was sprayed by a skunk.
The passing of a cat and the “aromafying” of dog are things that people go through on a fairly regular basis — but for the Rumleys, it was that “one — no, make that two — more things” that were going wrong.
Some may ask, “Where was God in all of this?”
The Rumleys agree: Front and center.
David Rumley begins by explaining that God knew what He was doing when He led them to accept the executive pastor’s position in Bloomington-Normal.
• The church itself has surrounded the family with unfathomable generosity and provision, providing rides for kids, meals, and support in countless ways.
• God led Rumley to pull his name from consideration when the senior pastor position opened in 2013, as God confirmed his calling to be an executive pastor.
• The man the church ultimately elected as lead pastor, Labertew, is a close personal friend of Rumley’s.
• Rumley’s nearly 8-week stay in Chicago was taken care of when Pastor Doug Banks of Maranatha Chapel in Chicago allowed him to stay in the church’s missions home at no charge.
• God gave Michelle and her family the ability to forgive and responded so remarkably at the sentencing of her brother’s murderer that even the judge made comment.
• God has given David energy to the point that even a nurse commented that he was out of the ordinary.
• God has used this trial to draw David’s extended family closer together, growing David in his ability to be compassionate while still making the difficult decisions.
• The church, Rumley says, has incredible health insurance, which has helped keep the family from financially imploding.
• God has even helped the children through the loss of their pet.
And for Michelle Rumley, God directing them to a neuro-surgeon in Chicago whose technique spared David months of relearning how to communicate following surgery was a gift from God.
“Before the surgery, we spoke to a patient of a local surgeon we were going to use and it took him six months of speech therapy to relearn how to communicate — beginning with flash cards,” she recalls. “Joel (Labertew) encouraged us to consider other surgeons in other cities, so when David first woke up following surgery in Chicago, he looked at me and asked, ‘How do I look?’”
For Michelle, the memory of David speaking those four words and the relief she experienced still overwhelms her with emotion. “He recognized me! He spoke to me!” she says, pausing amidst tears. “That was God’s mercy on display!”
Even the friendship between Rumley and Labertew and the timing of their shared ministry has God’s fingerprints on them.
“The Lord has brought us together again for this season of his life,” Labertew says. “My son was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and we’ve gone through all these same emotions — we have a bond of grief between us in this cancer valley.”
Michelle says that being the one with a crisis illness is a new experience for the family as typically it’s a pastor’s position to pray for the sick and provide comfort to those facing hardship. “This has caused us to really look to our foundation and understanding of Scripture and put it to the test,” she says. “This has also caused us to think carefully about what we say to those who are in crisis — because unless you’ve been touched by this, it’s hard to fully explain the emotions, the feelings . . . we’ve learned some of the most meaningful help often is from those who just are willing to come sit with you.”
David Rumley uses the metaphor of being in an ocean, where God creates waves and people, like surfers, learn how to ride them. “Waves can be powerful and unpredictable, but the more we do it, the better we ride them,” he says, “and sometimes when we want a wave, you want to climb aboard that momentum, it’s not there — it may be God’s way of getting our attention.”
Rumley says that God has also made him aware of how he has fallen short regarding part of his call on his life.
“I know I’m called to write, but I’m abusing that call because I’m not,” he says. “When you’re standing in the furnace (of a trial in life), God clears you out. Now I’m focused and committed to write as a part of my calling.”
God’s presence has been evident throughout Rumley’s battle with brain cancer and he says he has felt the prayers of people lifting him up, but the fight is far from over. The statistics for this type of tumor are typically negative, but the family has chosen to live past the statistics. However, Rumley still goes through five consecutive days of chemotherapy every month in this battle.
“It (the tumor) has not been fully cooperating,” Rumley says. “We want it to become stable — no growth — but it’s a very aggressive type of cancer. However, at the last MRI earlier this month, the MRI showed only a millimeter of growth, so we’re prayerful that the tumor has stopped advancing and it will start to regress.”
In reflection, Rumley remains realistic, knowing that the cancer could take still take his life in short order, and he has prepared for that possibility. Yet he also remains committed to doing everything within him to beat the odds, as life is precious to him, especially in light of his wife and children.
“I don’t want to go anywhere, I have an amazing wife and amazing kids, each with life in front of them . . . ,” he says, pausing. “But in the end, I still trust God.”