by Bryan Cribb
Perhaps it's every couples' greatest fear. The doctor's grim face. The precipitous sinking of the heart. Indeed, many couples will eventually experience a terminal illness, but few ever imagine it will happen to them.
In 1996, it happened to Tom and Elaine Dixon. That year, doctors diagnosed Elaine with colon cancer-a disease that would dramatically alter both their lives. Yet God has providentially used their tribulation to point them to a later-in-life career change.
"It [the cancer] can be devastating," said Tom, a master of arts in theological studies student at Southern Baptist theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "What you have to say is that if our God is an almighty God and if He is a loving God and can't do evil, then you just praise Him for sustaining you."
God has sustained Tom for 58 years-37 of them as Elaine's husband. They met as teens. He was 17. She was 15. Four years later, the high school sweethearts walked down the aisle to be married.
The year before their union, Tom had walked another aisle-at a Billy Graham crusade. "It has made all the difference in my life," Tom said of Christ's work in his life. "It was at that point that I really understood what salvation is about and understood that Christ had died for me."
About that time, Tom began college, and he persevered through ten years of evening classes, first at the University of Pennsylvania, then at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. His experiences in college gave him a love for service in higher education. He took a job at Muhlenberg and stayed there almost nine years.
"I really felt higher education was my calling," Tom said. "I guess it was because I had to struggle so much to get my education."
The Dixons soon moved from Allentown to Duke University, where Tom eventually became vice president for administrative services. In 1993, the Dixons were recruited by DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., where Tom took a position as vice president for finance and administration.
But Tom still wasn't sure his calling should ultimately be college administration. So, as a middle-aged man, he began to consider attending a seminary. He investigated, but his commitments prevented his pursuit of that interest.
Elaine's cancer changed their direction. "When you find something like this out, it makes you think about where you're going and what you want to do," Tom said.
He kept working at DePauw the first two years, but then took a leave of absence to spend time with Elaine. "I saw that I really needed to be more available to help her through this process," Tom said. "It's important to do things together while your loved one is going through a crisis."
Tom eventually retired to care for his wife, to do independent consulting and to follow a providential calling.
Last fall, he enrolled at Southern. "I feel the Lord's leading in this decision," said Tom. "I have always had a sense that I need to stay prepared so the Lord can use me. I believe this degree is the next step in my preparedness."
And, as Tom prepares to minister to others, Elaine and her courage continue to minister to Tom. She has now endured four years of cancer treatments. The past year and a half has included weekly chemotherapy treatments.
"She's ministered to me in that she has suffered so greatly," Tom said. "I don't know how she can do that.... It's just amazing how she's been able to overcome."
The prognosis currently is unsure. "Our life right now is going from CAT scan to CAT scan-which is about every three months-to see whether we need to do something different," Tom said.
In between treatments, the two are enjoying their time together at seminary. "The seminary community surely is a powerful community. We can see that. The people are so dedicated to what they are doing, and they have given up so much to be here."
The same could be said for the Dixons. Throughout their trials, their faith has remained strong. "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose," said Tom, quoting Romans 8:28.
As for the Dixons' future ministry, Tom remains unsure, though it will probably involve missions. While they await their future ministry, their current struggles have already provided them the opportunity to minister to others. Recently, Tom counseled a professor at DePauw whose wife has cancer as well.
Tom's advice for any couple or crisis is the same, regardless of situation: "Without a deep faith, it would have been much more difficult to handle," Tom said. "In fact, I don't know how you would handle it if you didn't have faith."
"When you're in a crisis situation like this, you really feel the prayers of God's people," Tom said. "I guess our request is that God's will be done in our lives. Sure, I'd like Elaine healed. Sure, she'd like to be healed. But that may not be possible. And we understand that."