This story is from the Summer 2015 Issue of Shattered magazine! Subscribe to read more powerful stories that break down barriers to Christian belief and action.
We all dream of having great purpose in life—a reason for our existence and a mission for our talent, time, and resources. But would we consider it an honor to live out a life purpose if it were cancer? I know I would struggle if God handed me that mission, but I pray I would have as much grace for the mission as Pastor Scott Erdman. One of the things I love about my job is getting random calls out of the blue from agents and publicists who have great stories that we need to hear. But the call I got in December 2014 from Sandy Van, Communications Specialist for Neurosciences at Cedar-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, California, was different than most. This call was not for any big name. This call was not even trying to promote their hospital. This call was simply about finding a way to tell a story that needed to be told. And for some reason, they wanted Shattered to be the ones to tell it.
Sandy asked me if I wanted to know the story of Pastor Scott Erdman, the longest living man known with metastatic brain tumors—he’s had seven of them. In all honesty, I had to google metastatic brain cancer before I could be duly impressed, and what I learned stunned me. Metastatic brain cancer is cancer that started somewhere else in the body and then spread to the brain. Approximately 25 percent of all brain cancer patients have this form of brain cancer. But it was the prognosis section that really intrigued me. I read, “For many people with metastatic brain tumors, the cancer is not curable.”
Okay, I want to know more about Scott Erdman.
When I finally got to talk with Scott, I encountered a man full of hope and life who was excited—and maybe a bit nervous—to share his story. He had taken the liberty of typing 27 pages of his testimony and how his incredible life of cancer had opened doors to great impact. His attention to the details of how God has been with him told me he gets it. He gets that even a life of cancer is meant for the glory of God. He also gets the fact that God has never left his side.
The Cancer That Never Dies
1980 was the year it all started. Scott’s wife, in a playful gesture of gently pushing his side after he made a smart comment, felt a lump under his arm. It turned out to be metastatic melanoma, and it forever altered the course of his life. It was the beginning of a cancer saga that has impacted him and countless others.
Scott describes experiencing an incredible presence and peace that has been with him throughout the journey he has been called to travel. Before the very first surgery, alone in his bed and unable to sleep due to understandable anxiety, he felt a presence come in and stand at the foot of his bed. A few moments later, he felt that same presence leave the room, taking the anxiety about the cancer with it. Scott’s anxiety never returned.
He is sure it was the Holy Spirit.
According to statistics, Scott should have lived only three years. But five years went by and he was cancer free. Remission! What relief! What miraculous healing!
But just a month later, cancer returned with an incredible gut pain—a tumor in his intestines. It was removed, and life carried on with Scott marching the path toward remission. One year, two years, three years went by, and it was looking good. 1988 held a small tumor in the groin area, but it was removed, and he kept going. 1989 revealed yet another tumor in his abdomen, which was removed, and again, he kept going. Life carried on, but in the back of Scott’s mind, he thought the thing had a strange half-life inside of him.
Two years went by with no major surgeries. But while traveling to perform a wedding ceremony in 1991, Scott was struck with a splitting, debilitating headache. Chewing aspirin like candy, he married the couple, and somehow, he and his wife made it home. His wife called the doctor who ordered a CAT scan, and there it was: A tumor the size of a lemon had lodged itself in the right frontal lobe of his brain, and two smaller tumors were making their homes not far from it. At best, he would have a year and a half to live.
That was over 20 years ago.
Seven metastatic brain tumors, kidney cancer, countless seizures, numerous sarcoma removals from the top of his head and one case of cardiomyopathy (miraculously cured, by the way) later, Pastor Scott Erdman is still alive. And he knows he’s alive for a reason. Ultimately, he says, this is his mission field. God put him in a position to be with others going through cancer in ways no one else might ever be qualified for. And even though he can’t drive and lives in the constant knowledge that cancer will probably return and another seizure might be just around the corner, he is determined to live out his purpose by the grace of God.
The People Surrounding Him
Along Scott’s journey, he has had an incredible support group. God has used a community of people to surround him in his cancer story. Scott described nurses who cared for him when he was completely unlovable. He told me about friends and church family who would come and sit on his bed and sing praise songs and pray with him. He was blessed by people who would donate blood for his surgeries and provide food for his family. He then described his incredible gratitude to his wife, mom and God.
“My wife Pam knew me from the beginning of this struggle and has lived with me for most of its duration,” said Scott. “She has been there for me morning, noon and night. I believe she has not simply shared in the pain but has taken on much more of it than she ever deserved. Also my mother sat with me in many hospitals and met me in many of my daily needs. She, too, had to watch without being able to fix the problem. I am so grateful for all the hours she sat with me. There were many others [who] came and prayed and sat with me, and I am grateful for every one of these individuals. But I am most grateful for a God who loves me and has everything under control. I trust Him for everything I don’t understand.”
He also told me of strangers that God used as well, like strangers who pulled over on the side of the freeway to help him during a grand mal seizure. And strangers who walked through the hospital and prayed with him.
And now, Pastor Scott Erdman wants to do the same.
The People He Surrounds
Scott has been honored to come alongside some incredible people who have struggled with cancer.
“It’s been an absolute delight,” said Scott. “Not an easy one, but it has been fun to sit with people while they go through treatment, just being present for folks and help[ing] them reach for future perspective instead of dwelling on their circumstances. Sometimes, it isn’t about healing, but about readjusting what they think of their future. No matter the length of their life, I want to help them maximize it. In the midst of their struggle, they can turn around and reach someone else.”
My Questions, His Answers
Q Have you ever been angry with God for giving you cancer?
AWhen things are not what we wish for our lives, anger can be a natural response, but our anger at God is misplaced because God is not the one who gives us the illness. He’s the one who gives us the strength through the illness. If we get caught up in blaming Him for our illness, we mess up our attitude and our desire and willingness to do what He wants us to do.
Q How are you able to relate to the family members of those battling cancer or to those who have lost loved ones?
AFamily members probably have a harder time than the individual with cancer. In dealing with families, I am sensitive to their place of helplessness. It hurts. A lot.
But by God allowing me to live, the families I have worked with have the chance to see that, although their future is unknown, God is doing something. He’s working.
Q What could God’s purpose possibly be for cancer?
AUltimately, His purpose is to draw us to Himself. I mean, that’s His desire. And a lot of us, for one reason or another, choose to walk away instead of toward Him. As His children, we need to respond to Him as best we can, and to walk with others so they can turn to Him.
Q You have mentioned friends and fellow cancer patients you have seen die along your journey. Do you ever struggle with survivor’s guilt?
AMy good friend Hermenia was given the same statistics as I initially was when she got out of the hospital and was also told that she had three years to live. In three years, Hermenia was dying, but I seemed to be doing just fine. This made no sense to me at first because in my mind, Hermenia was the better Christian. If one of us was going beyond the three years, it would make sense for it to be her. But she died, and I lived, and I knew what survivor’s guilt was all about. Along the way, someone showed me Philippians 1:21 where Paul says, “for me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I began to understand I hadn’t won and Hermenia lost. Rather, we were both in a no-lose situation. Hermenia died, but now she had Christ—she won. I continue to live and have the opportunity to make a difference for His kingdom—I won. After understanding this, I was able to trust God knew best for Hermenia and for me.
Q What do you say to someone who is facing death or questions God in death?
AI would say I don’t understand what God does sometimes or why He does it, but He is very much present in all we do. We need to maximize all He has given to us for as long as He does. There is not a right answer because every story given is unique in its purpose and position.
Q What about your doctors? What do they say about you still being alive?
AMost of my doctors are not believers, and my story and faith have given me opportunities to witness to people who see the most death. I am thankful to be in the places where maybe God can work through the miracles, unexplained by science, in my life to help them hopefully see God at work.