“I guess it started a year ago in October,” Bob said, looking down at his desk as he considers his story. “I had been working out and losing weight—on purpose—and Marilynn and I were at dinner. I had to scratch an itch on the right side of my chest and I felt this lump.” A week after finding the lump, Bob encountered a skin rash in the same area. “I hadn’t told my wife about the lump, but when I got the rash, I thought, I just need to go the doctor and get checked out,” Bob recalls. “So on Monday after fall break I called the doctor, told him about this lump and about the skin rash. He got me in immediately. He doesn’t deal with men who have breast cancer very often, so he sent me to another doctor who has lots of experience to do a biopsy. The following Monday we were called in and I was told that indeed I had breast cancer.” He points out that one in one thousand men gets breast cancer—as opposed to one in eight women who get it. There was no history of cancer in his family, or anything to explain this bombshell. That was the beginning of his fifteen-month battle, which included chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. Eleven lymph nodes were removed from his right side. The room is quiet, as though paying its respect to the story, except for the tapping of keys as I take in his words. “So where are you at with your cancer right now?” I ask. " I just finished my last infusion three days ago,” Bob can’t seem to help but smile a bit—and neither can I—as he reports this. “The next step is to get my port out. And I will be on tamoxiphen for five years—” here he pauses and, as though he can hear my hands fumbling across the keyboard as I try to figure out how one might spell “tamoxiphen,” Bob graciously looks up the word on his computer. “I’m also dealing with some mild lymphedema. That’s why I’m wearing my sleeve and gauntlet.” A black compression sleeve and gauntlet have become Bob’s new accessory this year, to help with his lymphedema. He wears these almost constantly on his right arm. They help him, just as many people have also helped him in this time of trials. Bob makes certain to mention his wife Marilynn, who serves as the accompanist for the concert choir. “Marilynn has been with me every step of the way,” Bob said. “Everything has been a tiny bit easier because she has been with me. I am also thankful for many Bethel students, faculty, and administration who’ve prayed for me, encouraged me, walked with me.” Bob mentions how humbled he was by the student leadership in the choir last year when he was so sick. The 2011-2012 concert choir president and vice president, Rachel Wilkins and Geoffrey Carter, respectively, took it upon themselves to divide up the music between them and learn to conduct it all in case Bob was unable to do so. “I was filled with so much pleasure to watch these two students lead the choir and, in my opinion, not miss a beat,” he said. “I was gratified to see that it’s really not all about me; it’s all about working together with God’s strength to accomplish a task.” We turn our attention to the theme of this year’s Christmas concert: “Nothing is Impossible.” It’s a theme the concert choir probably hears about at least once a week, but it never gets old. If anything, it’s like surge singing—which Bob tells me is a style of vocal scoops and trills to draw every ounce of meaning from the music. With every mention of “Nothing is Impossible,” we realize that much more the truth of the words. Bob reaches for his Bible and opens it up. “Luke 1:37: ‘For nothing is impossible with God,’” Bob begins, offering this message for what must be the hundredth time. “Last year in November as I was getting ready to direct the Bethel choir I was feeling extremely weak, tired, and was questioning my ability to even get through the Christmas concerts. I was so exhausted that the next week I couldn’t direct the cantata at our church that I was supposed to do. This scripture was something I read before the Christmas concerts; it gave me something to cling to and to hope for. And I decided at that moment that if I survived, the next year’s theme for Christmas was going to be ‘Nothing is Impossible.’” If. It occurs to me that a year ago when Bob chose this theme, his survival was indeed an if. Something inside me stirs, and I’m not sure what it is at first. Then I realize that Bob is right in front of me; his hair has grown back, he’s had more than enough energy to conduct the choir this year, and he’s doing so well. I realize what I’m feeling is more than just gratitude; it’s a heavy dose of thank you, Jesus. Whatever weariness I was feeling when I entered this office is long gone now; and as grateful as I am for the coffee, I know that’s not what chased it away. Naturally, one does not remain unchanged after a bout with cancer. “Probably the 2 most profound changes for me have been my realization that we live in a God-is-with-us life. So when I read “nothing is impossible with God,” I take it not only for what I think we all see in that scripture, but the sense that with God we’re not alone—we’re in this together,” Bob said. “The other thing that guides my thinking is I live very much in the present. I don’t think about the future as much as I used to. It’s enough to think about today. And for today, nothing is impossible with God.”
A baby grand piano sits directly behind me. Photos of smiling faces in concert attire line the walls. At least one Christmas card sits on the desk before me. It’s an early morning, and I already feel drained of energy. Bob Ham reenters his office carrying two steaming coffee mugs and hands one to me. I don’t think I realized how much I’d wanted a cup of coffee until one was given to me. I take a sip and, hallelujah, the coffee is good, strong, and just the right level of hot. Now the real work begins. How do I do this? How do I ask my choir director about battling cancer and fighting for his life? Fortunately, Bob is more than just the director of our concert choir; he’s also a friend to each of the 88 members. Unlike most professors, we’ve never called him “Professor Ham.” He is Bob as he teaches us and Bob as we chat in his office. With that in mind, I ask him the very big question of what his journey through cancer has been like.