Dat, dat…, da dat dat dat – dat daa dat dat dat daaaa dat.
That is the opening phrase of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. As the bass trombonist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the past thirty years I have heard those violin notes hundreds of times, and in December 2014, the notes were the same as always. We were playing in the orchestra pit of the Lyric Theater in Baltimore for an entire week of Nutcrackers with the ballet corps of the Baltimore School for the Arts.
But this year, those notes did not sound the same. Or I should say, my mind as it heard those notes was not the same.
This year, I had cancer. My mind struggled to focus, though the familiar music and setting were a nice distraction for me. But as soon as the music stopped the thought came immediately back: I had esophageal cancer, stage yet to be determined.
I was fifty-three years old, at least a hundred pounds overweight, a recent inductee of the Type II Diabetes Club. I was also the possessor of more blessings from God than I knew what to do with: Olga, my wonderful yoga teaching wife; Dominik, our trumpet playing oldest son on a mission in Poland; and Raffi, our math wiz youngest son with the dry sense of humor. I was a member of the best ward in the church. I had a job I liked, with great health insurance. The complete list would assault you with its length.
That September I had choked on a piece of food at dinner. My wife had just completed a CPR course, so she successfully executed the Heimlich two-step and I could breathe. But a few minutes later I realized that something was stuck down near the stomach because I could not drink or eat anything. A trip to the ER took care of the problem: Dr. Solaiman removed the piece of chicken stuck in the valve at the top of the stomach.
He was surprised to find Barrett’s Esophagus—a pre-cancerous condition usually caused by chronic acid reflux that changes the tissue to something more resembling an intestine. He performed biopsies, which came back clear. He wanted to be sure nothing was hiding there, so another round of biopsies was done three months later. This time the cancer cells were found, along with some aggressive markers.
It takes a few weeks to stage the cancer—to know if it has spread or not. The game plan for treatment has to wait until this step is nailed down. So many things go through your mind, most of them dire.
This produced the most horrible, wonderful experiences of our lives. I had the most crystalline, transparent conversations with my family—first my earthly one, and also my heavenly one. My prayers were along the lines of save me, please take away this awful challenge, and gradually grew into help me be strong enough to survive this, no matter on what side of the veil.
During the breaks of the Nutcracker I found an empty room under the stage and uttered a one-word prayer, over and over: Hosanna! I remembered that hosanna meant Save Now! and I could not come up with anything more on point with my emotions and needs. Plus, it was Christmas. It was my personal hosanna shout—my temple needed saving and dedicating. Longer, more involved prayers occurred bedside.
Though I hope to never have to live through anything like this again, I had a strong urge to make sure I never forgot what it was like to so drastically need saving. That position of helplessness aided me to learn more about my Heavenly Father, my Savior, and the Comforter. There were wonderful priesthood blessings, and special moments in the temple, thoughtful friends and stalwart family members, and a super-hero wife.
Dr. Canto found the cancer to be stage 1B, which is unusual. Esophageal cancer is normally not found in the early stages, because by the time symptoms are noticed it has often grown to stage 3 or 4 (difficulty swallowing, for example). My list of blessings was growing by leaps and bounds; the chicken incident allowed us to find the cancer in a better stage for treatment. (The best way for you to find it early is to have an endoscope done at the same time you have your regular colonoscopy—talk to your doctor about that.)
At Johns Hopkins Hospital in February I had my esophagus removed in an eight-hour surgery using laparoscopes (the list of blessings includes having some of the world’s greatest medical specialists and hospitals within thirty minutes of our house). Dr. Molena and her sidekick Dr. Lidor used parts of the stomach to fashion a new esophagus, leaving the stomach markedly smaller. They removed as many of the lymph nodes as possible, in case the cancer had spread there and avoided detection.
I took twelve weeks off of work with the orchestra. After five weeks Dr. Molena gave me permission to practice trombone again, and I was relieved to find that after getting the breathing apparatus freed up there were no long-term impediments to playing the instrument. When I went back to playing rehearsals and concerts I enjoyed all the hugs, and playing music again with my colleagues was extra special. The surgery had gone splendidly, recovery and getting used to my new stomach did not produce too many curve balls, and my scans are all now cancer free. That blessing list is a full-on monster now.
I don’t have the space now to tell you how much I have pondered those wonderful souls, much more saintly than I, who don’t find the cancer early, and don’t get the good test results, or don’t have the successful surgery. But I can say that they are on my mind constantly and I know God loves them as much as any of his children, and in his wisdom is taking care of them and their families according to his eternal fatherly role. I wish I could explain this much better, but on this profound topic my powers are limited.
As I prepared for surgery, I changed my eating and exercise habits and lost forty pounds in order to give the surgeons a little break. Stress helped in that endeavor. As I was contemplating, hopefully, a healthy cancer-free life after surgery, I came across Jane Birch’s postings on Facebook about a supposedly healthy lifestyle called “Whole Food Plant Based.” I learned about her book, Discovering the Word of Wisdom, wherein she tied this to the teachings of the Word of Wisdom in the Doctrine and Covenants. I read her articles and searched her website. I read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and other Forks Over Knives books.
I was skeptical, fearful and inspired, simultaneously—maybe even repulsed at first. Have you ever experienced that? I wonder if an investigator, such as my son was teaching in Poland, might feel the same as they are exposed to new heavenly concepts, as they begin to feel prompted by the Spirit to really pay attention, and finally know deeply in their mind and heart that they must make these changes in order to follow God’s will and increase in happiness, both earthly and eternal.
Jane’s ideas seemed like overkill at first. I did not think that such a drastic change in eating was needed. I did not think the Word of Wisdom necessarily pointed that far in one direction. But the Spirit would not leave me alone. I found that the Comforter knows full well how to click a mouse, because I kept reading all the things that I found connected to Jane’s site and articles, though it did not seem like it was my finger doing the clicking. I became more and more inspired to learn and to ponder what this might mean for me and my family for the rest of my life, physically and spiritually.
A week after I had come home from the hospital, Olga, my mother and I watched a Netflix documentary that I had seen mentioned by Jane: Forks Over Knives.
Though it scared me a bit at first, I was transfixed. Olga and mom were impressed, too. But by the time it had ended, and I had a few days to ponder the experience, I concluded that the strong, positive feelings I had in my heart and the clarity in my mind were the works of the Spirit leading me to a healthy way of living in my post surgical life. I remember telling Olga and Mom that I felt that I needed to adopt some form of this approach to health and diet, though I did not know if I would end up doing it one hundred percent or a more personalized version.
I read Jane’s book at some point in this process. I was floored at what I learned and felt, though when I ordered the book I thought I can’t believe I am buying a book on the Word of Wisdom—don’t I know all about that already?
The Spirit would not leave me alone about it. In fact, it was almost the parable of the widow in reverse: I felt that I was the judge being constantly petitioned to listen and do something, and Heavenly Father was the unstoppable widow.
Keep in mind that if you were to make a list of all the earth’s inhabitants, from most to least likely to eat only plants, my name would be third from the bottom, just above Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders. I liked to eat, I liked to cook, I liked to grill things in a manly way, I loved The Food Network. On orchestra tours I had eaten my way across Europe, Asia and the USA. My main non-gospel therapy to relieve stress was the drive-thru lane of Taco Bell and anything that could be eaten while watching TV or driving the car. I had not exercised consistently in 7 years—I liked swimming laps but the gym membership became too expensive after the economy crashed.
Before the cancer appearance I had totally lost the ability to mentally conceptualize a physically healthy me, and I had come to realize that this had been affecting me spiritually for some years. I felt trapped by these problems, despite the many wonderful things and people in my life.
I knew it was time to do it. On July 1, 2015 after much pondering, talking, and praying, my wife and I began to eat a Whole Food Plant Based diet, 100 per cent, whole hog (I have been waiting to make that joke for a long time so I hope you laughed).
Fast forward: I have lost a total of 85 pounds since my diagnosis; I have discontinued several medications; I don’t need my CPAP machine for sleep apnea; my blood work numbers are all in range (every single one, with cholesterol actually below range); I expect to be able to leave the Type II Diabetes Club soon (I need to lose probably another twenty pounds); I hardly ever feel the need to take a nap; and the increased fiber is doing much good for my colon health. I am cancer free. My body and my spirit rejoice daily. Olga has reduced her cholesterol by fifty points and feels great.
I marvel that I have changed, that I have been changed. I now see how much more useful I am to others when I am healthier in body and spirit. I say yes to things more often. When I look in the mirror I instantly recognize the person as me, and not just because of the weight loss. In addition to my wife joining me in this positive change, my mother and my sister also have done it recently, with nothing but positive results. I know that you too can make this change if you feel led to it. In fact, I can promise you that it will be easier than you think, with bigger benefits than you can imagine, both spiritual and physical.
As I ponder the miracle that is the Word of Wisdom in our scriptures—now after all these experiences—I am not only impressed by the practical physical knowledge that our Heavenly Parents have shared with us, but even more so by the deep paternal and maternal love that this knowledge represents. And I admire, as always, that they are able to do it in a way that preserves our moral agency to choose, experiment, and learn in our own way.
Taking so much more advantage of the teachings of God in the Word of Wisdom at this stage of my life has reminded me that His concern for me has no bounds, and if it is important to me it is important to Him. The only problem with this that I can see is that now I have to wonder: what other areas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ do I think I know just about all there is to know?
Randy Campora (53) lives in Ellicott City, Maryland with his wife, Olga, and their sons Dominik and Rafael. Born near Stockton, California and raised in Tallahassee, Florida, he has been the bass trombonist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the past 31 seasons, and is on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory. They are members of the Columbia Second Ward.