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Heart of the Matter: Rickey & Karen Peck Gooch
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Sometimes right in the middle of our routine day-to-day lives, a bomb goes off — something happens that absolutely shatters life as we know it, and causes us to reevaluate everything we thought we knew about God, faith, and what it truly means to be a follower of Christ. Last February, that happened to Karen Peck Gooch and her husband Rickey.

After enjoying a banner year with Karen Peck & New River, fresh on the heels of a successful awards season and poised to release a highly anticipated new project (Pray Now), the Gooch family suddenly found themselves facing the unthinkable — strong, healthy, physically fit Rickey was diagnosed with squamous carcinoma cancer.

“It was a bolt out of the blue,” Rickey tells me. “Cancer normally doesn’t run in my family, heart conditions do, and that’s what I always figured I’d end up having. So when that lymph node was swollen on my neck, I just thought it was a cold or something and I’d go get some antibiotics. But after the doctor checked it, I saw fear in her eyes and she said we needed to get it biopsied right away.” The following weeks were a whirlwind of doctor appointments and countless medical tests. Karen says, “We’d do one test and then have to wait a week to hear the results before doing another test. The days were so long, and the waiting was torture.” Finally, on a bitterly cold Wednesday at 10:30 at night, they got the news.

“The doctor told us it was cancer,” Karen remembers. “Rickey and I sat on the end of the bed and I literally felt my entire body start shaking. He looked at me and said, ‘Well, it’s in God’s hands. I feel a peace about this, but I know we’re not going to go to sleep tonight any time soon, so let’s turn the TV on and find something to watch.’ I said OK, and just sat there staring, totally in shock. We decided not to go wake up the kids and tell them, because as Rickey said, ‘Their world is about to change drastically, so let’s just wait until tomorrow.’ The next morning we were completely honest and open with them, and they were just so precious. We are all on this journey in different ways, and I believe that God will guide and teach each of us individually as we go through it.” Rickey adds, “I told them, ‘ is is the diagnosis, this is where we’re at, and it’s totally up to God to decide what happens now. I am standing here with open arms, trusting Him 100 percent.’”

After a second opinion confirmed the diagnosis, Rickey was scheduled to begin a brutally aggressive five-days-a-week regimen of 33 radiation treatments interspersed with three rounds of chemotherapy. Soon a decision had to be made about how to publicly handle this very private matter. “The two of us weren’t even talking about it very much at that point,” Karen admits. “I’m an open book — the way I deal with things is like, ‘Katie, bar the door, let’s talk this out!’ But Rickey likes to process things first; we are total opposites in that way. So I was trying to be strong for him and not rush him, then when he wasn’t looking, I’d go off into a room and cry. Finally we had a conversation where I said, ‘You’ve got to open up to me; we’ve got to deal with this together’ — and that’s when he broke. I watched him have a total meltdown and that was the turning point. He let me in, and started telling me what he was thinking and feeling.” She stops, then says, “I know we are not perfect, no marriage is perfect, but we have had a great marriage. We got married later in life, we had our kids in our mid to late 30s. We’ve always had such a great life together. And this absolutely was rock bottom.”

Rickey says, “All my life when people would ask me to pray for them, I’d always say sure and I’d do it, but now I wonder if I maybe took it all too lightly. When you’re the one facing those doctor’s reports and Satan is coming against you with all kinds of fear, prayer takes on a whole new meaning. But to tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure I was ready to deal with everyone knowing.” Karen says, “I told Rickey that the Bible says to bear one another’s burdens, and there are a lot of people out there who love you and would want to pray for you. So he said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ Once we started asking for prayer, we were just totally amazed and overwhelmed at the outpouring of love and support.” Karen’s voice chokes with tears. “It makes me cry … I’m sorry. I keep thinking I’ll have a day where I won’t cry, but since February I haven’t had that day yet!” After a moment she continues, “Anyway, when we were driving down for his first radiation and chemo treatment, Rickey looked at me and said, “You know what, I think there’s a lot of people praying today because I can feel it.’ He was so calm, even when they started hooking him up to that machine. My heart was breaking, but it wasn’t as overwhelming as I thought it would be, because we could honestly feel the prayers.”

Thankfully, Rickey’s type of cancer usually responds well to the rigorous treatment regimen his doctors prescribed. “The chemo doctor told me he sees hundreds of cases of it, and it’s very curable. He also said, ‘But you may think you’re gonna die before we get you through this, because the treatment is barbaric.’ I had a relative who had a similar cancer and he told me, ‘You’ll think the chemo ain’t that bad at first, but hold on, the Mack truck’s coming!’ And sure enough, the first week or so I didn’t really feel all that different, then it started hitting harder and harder.”

Karen says, “As his caregiver, it is such a helpless feeling to watch the person I’ve been married to for 25 years, the strongest, hardest working man I know dwindle down to nothing. He’s lost almost 35 pounds because he doesn’t have any saliva or saliva glands, and he can’t swallow because of all the blisters inside his mouth and throat.”Rickey adds, “I didn’t really comprehend how serious it was going to be to have the radiation totally focused on my mouth, palate and taste buds. It was so bad I couldn’t even think about drinking water, much less eating. My brain was telling me that I can’t live without eating, but some days I probably wasn’t even taking in 20 calories.” He shakes his head. “Yet somehow the Lord gave me enough strength to keep me going.”

At the time of this interview, all of Rickey’s chemo and radiation treatments are completed. “It’s been about a week to 10 days now, and I’m starting to feel different, a little better; every day. The taste buds are starting to come back and the sores in my mouth are getting better; everything is turning around at this point. I feel good today. Not good as in normal good, but so much better than I was.” Rickey pauses, and then says with great feeling, “Prayer changes things. I’m living proof.” Karen chimes in, “And where there’s breath, there’s hope!”