A flat tire on your way to work. That phone call in the middle of the night. The overly talkative neighbor knocking on your door precisely at dinnertime. Interruptions. We all face them.
Most interruptions are momentary inconveniences that easily come and go. But then there’s the other kind. The most urgent kind. The kind that changes everything. Like the unexpected medical crisis that interrupted Tracey and Greg Murtha’s life in 2011.
Greg learned he had cancer.
A cancer diagnosis might stop most people in their tracks and fill them with despair, but Greg Murtha wasn’t like most people. For him, cancer was the catalyst God used to get his attention, to transform him from a man who was following Jesus his own way to one who was all in.
And recognizing God’s hand in the interruptions became a matter of life for Greg, even as he fought against death.
Interruptions Become Opportunities
Greg Murtha, 46, was living a life most anyone would describe as blessed. Husband to his beautiful wife, Tracey, and father to their young son, Jackson, Greg had a lot to be thankful for. He was active in his Brentwood, Tennessee, community, had a worthwhile and fulfilling job, and enjoyed serving in his church. And he was the picture of good health, an active runner who was physically fit and feeling great.
So when doctors told Greg he had colon cancer, he was shocked.
But that shock was short-lived. Greg quickly devoted himself to physical training to prepare for the surgery that would remove one foot of his colon. He was confident he would beat the cancer and felt terrific after the surgery. Greg planned to fight his cancer with the same optimistic extroversion he used to face anything else in his life. And that same optimism helped carry him through seventy-five grueling rounds of chemo and two (Yes, two!) heart attacks.
In the hope of encouraging others to live an authentic life for God, Greg documented his journey on his Facebook page and in a book he was writing about his cancer journey. The goal of his book, “Out of the Blue,” was simple: “Celebrate every day you have on earth, view interruptions as opportunities to play a role in God’s ultimate story, and do what God prompts you to do.”
In his book, Greg explains further, “I committed to living an authentic, vulnerable, filter-free life of what you see is what you get — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and I committed to sharing this with others.”
That commitment led to viewing life through a different lens, accepting interruptions as divine appointments to spread God’s love and hope.
A Wife Searches for Answers
While Greg never asked doctors about his prognosis, Tracey did. Having a background in health care, Tracey poured herself into research, hoping to find answers that would help Greg beat his diagnosis of aggressive, stage III cancer.
Over the course of the next five years, Tracey took her husband to different doctors to explore his options. Greg’s mother had died from complications of colon cancer, and Tracey longed to spare him from going through what his mother had endured.
While Tracey searched for possible treatments, she noticed Greg’s perspective had changed. He became more aware of the people around him and made efforts to reach out to them with a message of God’s hope and love.
She explains, “Greg lived with a super focus on his passion and mission. He wanted to make every breath count before the last breath.”
Seeing the Sick People
Even as Greg fought his cancer, there were three things he believed it was essential to do each day:
- Read the Bible.
- Do what God says.
That last essential often involved paying attention to God’s interruptions to connect with those in need. “Interruption has taught me an amazing truth: When I focus on what God leads me to do, I get to play a role in the ultimate story — his story — and that’s where I’ve found life,” Greg wrote. “That’s where the adventure begins.”
Greg found that accepting interruptions as gifts from God meant noticing the hurting around him. He often found people just like him, cancer patients enduring another round of chemo, to welcome his care and concern for them.
“For the past five years, I’ve been hanging around people with problems. They are fascinating individuals. Before my diagnosis, I would have viewed them as frustrating interruptions, at best. At worst, I would have completely ignored them,” Greg wrote.
Treatments Take a Toll
As the years of treatment began to take a toll on Greg, Tracey began to question what she could have done to prevent this journey for Greg.
“I kept thinking that it was dependent on something I did or didn’t do,” she recalls.
In the end, Tracey accepted that Greg’s diagnosis and recovery were not dependent on her. They were completely in God’s hands. God knew when Greg’s life would begin and when it would end, and she could trust Him with the outcome.
The treatments became harder on Greg as time went by, but his optimistic and generous spirit never wavered. Greg recalled, “God radically changed my plans, but the worst diagnosis is the best thing that ever happened to me because it changed my heart.”
Eventually, Greg found himself in the hospital with a life-threatening case of hospital-acquired pneumonia. As his condition worsened, a decision had to be made whether or not to place him on a ventilator. After an agonizing twenty minutes, Tracey knew in her heart the answer was to leave Greg off of it.
“And that was the gift,” Tracey says.
Because by staying off of the ventilator, Greg was able to spend his final days encouraging and thanking the doctors and nurses. He was able to speak to friends and family who came to visit him from all over the world. And, perhaps the most miraculous thing of all, he was able to finish his book — his memoir on the gift of cancer.
A Relationship Interrupted
Greg passed away on June 22, 2017, just five days after he finished “Out of the Blue.” Tracey said she believes that is the day Greg “went skidding into Heaven broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’ ” as he was ushered into the presence of his Savior.”
She knows they will be reunited one day.
Tracey doesn’t consider their relationship over — only interrupted. In the meantime, she reflects with hope on the journey they shared together. “Greg embraced the big interruption of cancer and the little interruptions,” she says.
As she raises their 15-year-old son Jackson, she hopes to notice those little interruptions, too. In fact, Tracey plans to embrace the adventure in a life full of God-ordained interruptions.