As a minister at Christ’s Church in the City near downtown Los Angeles, Bill Pile has met the challenges of gangs, the drug culture, and extreme poverty. Now he is traveling “where I’ve never been before,” as he fights a battle with cancer. Bill and his wife, Carmelita, have ministered in Los Angeles for nearly 40 years while raising five kids who have presented them with 16 grandchildren. Bill is also the chairman of the board of Southern Mexico Missions and produces a widely read monthly newsletter, Heartbeat.
When did you find out you had cancer?
I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in October, 1999. My case was diagnosed as extremely aggressive. On the Gleason Scale (a scale of 1 to 10) I was a 9. The life expectancy for a “Gleason 9” is two to four years. Since that time I have done several experimental drug trials and I’m currently on traditional treatment for stage four (of four stages) prostate cancer.
You had a chemo treatment this morning what was it like? What happened?
It’s about a 2 ½ hour infusion of what I call a “witch’s brew,” and of course I have my vitals checked and all that stuff. Then I go about my business. It doesn’t really slow me down. I’m really blessed that the chemo I have received so far I have tolerated well. It really has not interfered with my life or ministry.
Seven years is a long time to be fighting cancer. What makes the fight worth it?
From the day I was diagnosed I was praying, Lord, if this is what you have for me I’m fine with it. I will fight it, but I will accept whatever you have for me in the future. Beyond that, I have a very supportive family and my church has been extremely supportive. My hair all fell out and ten of the guys came to church with their heads shaved! They made a seven-minute slapstick, comedy video of the process of getting their hair cut off. They had it playing when I came into church that Sunday morning.
Do you ever want to just give up?
(pause) No. I guess the biggest dread is prolonged disability, for which I’m sure God will also give the grace.
Do you think about dying?
Boy, Paul’s statement in 2Corinthians 5–I’d rather be “away from the body and at home with the Lord”– I really can identify with that. I would love to be finished with this life. The prospects of it coming relatively soon are not negative at all. However, I have no desire to become disinvested in this life. I want to continue living and serving as long as God has for me.
How does your family react to that?
They handle it according to their personalities. They all have responded well, it’s brought us closer together, and a lot of things get said that haven’t been said before. They’ll ask, “What’s really going on?”, and they’ve been very supportive. I have no worries about when I’m gone they’ll take care of their Mom. Basically it’s the fruits of a Christian family.
My wife goes with me every time for the chemo, she’s been absolutely supportive, warm and comforting and… challenging. Like, “don’t let it get to you. Don’t just lay down.” Encouraging me to go ahead and do stuff that I’d like to do but don’t know whether I should. I can sort of begin to get tentative, but she encourages me to not put everything else on hold. Live life to it’s fullest to please God for as long as you can. She’s encouraging on all levels.
She’s also gladly watched us spend her retirement money on things that aren’t covered by insurance and hasn’t complained a bit (laughs).
What do you think of death?
It really looks pretty positive. I walked alongside my friend Ed McSpadden during this experience. I was able to be with him the day before he died. I thought to myself, when you’ve given your all to the Lord and you have a supportive family and supportive Christians, why would death look so frightening? I used to fear the process of dying, but if this is what I’m going through, it looks OK to me.
How do people react to your attitude? Do you get “Are you nuts?” reactions?
People recommend remedies and I try to explain gently and kindly that you have to make choices about medical treatment and when people make those choices you should respect them. It’s their life, and they’re seeking God’s guidance, and they’re praying, and that’s the way it goes.
So much of that reflects the way our culture views death, and I’m afraid that there’s a little of that in our pulpits: “God’s going to keep you from dying and you’ll live a long time.” Death is part of life and it can interrupt our hopes and dreams, but that’s the way it’s always been.
Can people understand what you’re up against?
I have now discovered the same attribute in people that I’ve had in myself. People are disinclined to want to talk about death. In my case, the people who would like to ask are fine with a very brief non-informative answer Our culture has made death foreboding, but what makes the difference is people’s relationship with God and concept of God.
It sounds like “Why me, God?” just isn’t a part of your thinking.
I decided at some point — after I had the prostate removed and it was obvious that I still had the cancer — that if I had this to do over, and had a choice, this is what I’d choose: prostate cancer. The benefits of it have been unbelievable. It’s not where you would think to go for benefits, but the Lord has blessings for us in places we’d never guess. It’s totally changed my relationship with my wife and kids — not that it was bad, it’s just different. But I thank God just about every day for this experience, which will presumably end my life, probably prematurely, but with extreme riches attending it.
How would you have reacted when you were 35?
Wow. That’s a tough one. That’s a hard question. You still have your kids growing up. I’d say it would be a whole lot tougher to accept it. But I think the same ingredients (spiritual) would come into play at some point. You’d say if 35 years is all God intends for me, I’ll give him my best. The initial shock would be a lot stronger.
Do you feel like you’ve gone through the “stages” of dying?
I just re-read that a few months ago. Years ago I met and talked with Elizabeth Kubler- Ross, the one who identified the “stages” of dying. The denial stage that she talks about – I could not identify with that at all. I never had the sense of “Why me?”, or “There is some misdiagnosis here.” By the time all the diagnosis was done and they yanked out my prostate and said this is shot full of cancer, I never really denied the truth. Some of the stages I could identify with, but she really writes from a secular viewpoint — she doesn’t appear to have any real spiritual bearings. While it was enlightening, the missing point was the connection with God.
Do you ever get tired of platitudes? Do people try to “comfort” you inappropriately?
I’ve had people say, “Don’t you think you should pray for God to heal you?” Of course I do! And I have. This has brought to light something I had never thought of in my life. I consider that I havebeen healed. I’ve been given extended life that I wasn’t supposed to have. My definition of healing has changed. ‘Cured completely of the disease’ wouldn’t be my definition now. The cancer is now active, and we’ll pray again, and this chemo may slow it down; I would consider this a form of healing.
I’ve tried to express to people that illness is not evil; it’s part of the human condition because of evil. Illness, like all other events in life, provides us with some keen insights into God and life. I know the last enemy is death, but that’s been taken care of.
What would you say to people who are walking through the valley of the shadow of death?
Now is the time when your faith kicks into high gear. You’ve trusted God in small things. He’s been faithful. Why would He not be there for the biggest event of your life (outside of your conversion to Christ)? We died to sin and He was there and some day we’ll die to this earth and He’ll be there.
What do you think makes a life worth living?
I guess I’d say denying one’s self, taking up one’s cross and following Christ. There is no better life.
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.