When a doctor walked into Cal Walker’s hospital room in early 2015 with biopsy results, Walker got some sobering news.
Walker, at the time outreach liaison for Cornell’s Office of Community Relations, learned that the lymphoma with which he had been diagnosed normally leads to death within weeks if not treated. Walker had been experiencing symptoms for nearly a month already.
Standing in Sage Chapel four years later – at the Soup & Hope event, Feb. 14 – Walker reflected on his illness and his experience of hope, anchored in faith, that led him through chemotherapy and into recovery with a greater peace and clarity about his life’s purpose.
“Often during life struggles we stand in the greatest need of sustaining hope, hope of a breakthrough, hope that we will get through this,” Walker said to an audience of more than 100. “That is what I want to share with you – the struggle of a personal challenge that may well have been the toughest I’ve ever faced, and the hope that both brought me through it and, in fact, has me here today.”
In December 2014, Walker knew something was wrong when he went to bed on a Friday night feeling fine and woke up the next morning overcome with extreme fatigue. No amount of sleep the next few days could overcome it. For the next two weeks, he visited several doctors and medical specialists, who ran diagnostic tests and scans but could not find anything wrong.
Walker lost 21 pounds the first week, and more in the weeks following, growing so weak he needed hospitalization. He knew his weight loss was not sustainable, yet he promised his children he would be fine.
As his body grew weaker, so did his faith, which had been a constant anchor since early childhood. One night, he said, he spoke to God about his condition and his need to keep his promise to his children.
“And this was, unmistakably, God’s response,” Walker said, “which I heard as clear as a bell: ‘The sickness is not unto death; you shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.’”
Walker immediately recognized those words as scripture passages and experienced a “breakthrough moment.”
“The hope that had been failing was activated and elevated,” he said. “I went from doubting I could survive to knowing I would. I was at peace, even in the midst of what had been troubling weeks of uncertainty.”
His family was amazed at the serenity with which Walker faced intensive chemotherapy treatment. His regimen – five chemo drugs for five consecutive days, every three weeks for five months – was highly potent, yet he had none of the typical nausea or vomiting. Once chemo was finished, Walker spent two months at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, for a bone marrow/stem cell transplant, followed by a round of vaccinations.
Since then, the fatigue Walker felt from chemo and the transplant has receded, and he has taken time to assess his priorities and decide on the activities he wants to pursue.
Walker’s activism – which led him in his earlier years to co-found Village at Ithaca, become associate director for the Learning Strategies Center and, with his wife, foster 49 children – now is channeled in his business venture with partners around the country making access to legal services easier, simpler and more affordable. He promotes early literacy and continues to tutor and mentor students. Walker also walks four miles each day and is learning to swim.
While waiting for an actual diagnosis, Walker had been told by the hospital chaplain that the illness Walker saw as an interruption to his life could “lead to a great invitation.”
With his strengthened clarity of purpose, Walker has RSVP’d to that invitation, living each day to the fullest and inviting his audience to do the same.
The next Soup & Hope is Feb. 28, featuring Imani Majied ’19. Majied is a social entrepreneur, Sufi practitioner, sister to four, and aspiring global citizen. In her junior year at Cornell, she and her co-founder began their social enterprise, Everybody Eats, with the vision of providing food-insecure individuals and families with affordable and convenient meals. Imani will explore how her passion for social entrepreneurship has been led by her gut instinct.