Living in Bonus Time, Alec Hill. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.
Summary: The President Emeritus of InterVarsity/USA recounts his experience of surviving cancer, how he experienced disorientation and growth, and reframed his purpose in life in light of his “bonus time.”
I still remember the day when I opened the video from then President of InterVarsity/USA, Alec Hill, and heard the news that he was stepping down from his position to fight a rare form of cancer, Myelodysplasia Syndrome (MDS) that could take his life within eighteen months. I work for InterVarsity and Alec had energetically led us in fourteen years of growth. He communicated personal concern for us as a couple when my wife faced a cancer diagnosis for us. I was stunned, and joined with thousands of others in prayer for him.
This book describes his journey from that time onward. The first part of this book describes a journey of descent. A bone marrow donor match was critical to his survival. As it turned out, his brother Grant was an exact match. For Alec, this meant toxic chemo and full body radiation to destroy his white blood cells, while Grant received injection to boost his stem cell production. Hill describes the side effects of this treatment, including the risk that any infection could kill him, requiring isolation from all but his wife Mary, and scrupulous sanitizing of surfaces. He also describes the struggles with depression and the “dark night of the soul” through which he went, and his struggle to hang on to the disciplines that had sustained him in health. He struggled with why this had happened to him. Had he done something to cause it? He warns against the prosperity preaching and false messengers who unhelpfully approached him. And when the treatment worked and his blood counts rose and health returned while friends in treatment died, he wrestled with survivors guilt.
The second part of the books focuses Hill’s transition to new realities as he realizes that he is among those who survive cancer. He describes the lessons of control–over-control like that of Steve Jobs, who thought he could out-think pancreatic cancer, or under-control, which becomes passive in the face of cancer. He recognizes that appropriate control involves humility, trust, gratitude, and rest. Cancer forced him to learn dependence on others–family, friends, professional caregivers, and other cancer patients. In this section, he also discusses the challenges caregivers face and the needs caregivers have for self-care. Perhaps the most significant chapter in this book was his one on identity. He talks frankly about the experiences he faced in self-perception, bodily changes including those affecting sexuality, social roles and spiritual identity. He writes:
Cancer is a watershed event that divides our lives between BC (before cancer) and AD (after diagnosis). If given a choice between our BC and AD selves–what we look like, how we feel, how we perceive others regard us–most of us would gladly select the former.
The final part of the book describes how Hill came to terms with “bonus time” (a phrase he draws from soccer, where at the end of regulation time, the referee can extend the play with bonus time. He identifies how survivors often show growth in grit, spirituality, and boldness (e.g. why am I afraid what people think when I’ve had cancer?). Surviving cancer can lead to a clarifying of purpose as one faces one’s mortality. He proposes that clarified purpose comes through surrender of control to reliance on God, assessment of our responsibilities, resources, capabilities and calling, and attentiveness that requires slowing down. For Hill, it meant a shift from executive leadership in a fast-paced collegiate ministry to the thoughtful mentoring of young leaders. He concludes with a pair of chapters on redeeming the time and on wonder that get to the most important aspects of bonus time–savoring one’s life, loving, living freely, giving of himself, and delighting in wonder.
No two cancers are alike. Neither are cancer journeys, some of which end one’s life and some that pass through the valley of the shadow of death into survivorhood. One thing that is true is that one is not the same–physically, emotionally, mentally. There are bodily changes, fears of recurrence and survivor guilt, and chemo brain. But there are also the opportunities of additional years of life and the question of how one will live those years. Alec Hill has given an incredibly honest, but also life affirming account of his journey. He takes us through his process in the hope that it will be helpful to others. In this, he practices something he learned through cancer–no one survives alone, but rather with a host of others who walk with one on the way–including other survivors. He supplements his own story with those of others, questions and scriptures for reflection, and a helpful bibliography organized around chapter topics.
This is a wonderful resource for cancer survivors and caregivers. It should be noted that Hill’s Christian faith pervades this memoir, not in a preachy way, but rather as what sustained him and helped him as he clarified what life in the bonus time of surviving cancer would look like. Hill’s aim is not that people imitate him, but rather through his reflection questions and insights, discern their own paths in “bonus time.”
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.