The Sargent family — Chris, Sofia and daughter Juliana — enjoy a hike in the mountains. Photo courtesy of Chris Sargent

Faith in the face of death

By  Andrew Ehrkamp
  • May 16, 2019

Edmonton -- “Live like you were dying.”

It’s the lyric to a song by the country star Tim McGraw, and a call to live all aspects of life — professional, familial and spiritual — to the fullest. For Chris Sargent, it could be a mantra for his own personal story.

At 39, Sargent is dying. He has a rare, inoperable form of bile duct cancer, which has an estimated two-per-cent survival rate, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. When he was diagnosed in August 2018, doctors told him he had about 11 months to live.

The news dropped just as Sargent and his wife Sofia learned they were expecting a second child, a sister for two-year-old Juliana.

He knew he needed to get a few things right.

At the Easter Vigil on April 20, Sargent fulfilled a promise he made to his family, the priest who officiated at his wedding and to himself. He became a Catholic. He received the sacraments of Baptism, Holy Eucharist and Confirmation at St. Anthony’s Parish in Edmonton.

“I really am leaving this for the 11th hour and 55th minute,” Sargent admits with a laugh. “Sometimes when you’re faced with something that’s so fundamentally hard to understand … there’s just more to things in the world. Faith is important to my wife. And I know how I want my family to live its life. If I can help set that foundation for the family, I’ll do that. Also for myself — it’s not just ‘OK I want to do this just to hedge my bets.’ It just spoke to me. I don’t know how to say it in a better way.”

On Easter Monday, the Sargents welcomed their new daughter, Lucia. With his future uncertain, Sargent’s priority now is to spend as much time with his family as he can.

“I know that I’m dying, likely. I can set affairs in order. But also to spend time with people you care about. It’s a gift in a way.”

Sargent hopes that sharing his journey with terminal cancer — and his commitment to faith — will inspire others to live each day like it could be their last. 

A GRAPEFRUIT-SIZED tumour is eating away at Chris Sargent’s body, spreading from his liver to his lungs and lymph nodes. Sargent is undergoing chemotherapy and clinical trials at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary to try to extend his life. But the odds are against him.

As a hiker, marathon runner and careful eater, he considered himself a healthy guy. Then in August 2018, he felt some minor pain while on a hiking trip in the mountains with his wife and friends, ironically to spread the ashes of a close friend. On Sept. 7, doctors confirmed he had bile duct cancer.

“When I was diagnosed it was a huge shock, absolutely a huge shock,” Sargent said. “I never hoped for this, but I was hoping for lymphoma or colon cancer, something with better outcomes. I was diagnosed with a cancer that’s almost exclusively fatal and it works pretty fast.”

Then came another shocker. Sofia found out she was pregnant.

“It was such a joy to have that positive news, to have that life-affirming news. I consider it a bit of a miracle as well, because we certainly wouldn’t have started to grow our family after I was diagnosed with cancer, after I started chemo,” Sargent said.

“It’s a really strange time to have so much joy with a young daughter and a growing family … yet being in a place where I don’t know if I’m going to pass away next week or two years from now.”

When Sargent was diagnosed, he was enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program. He was fulfilling a promise he made to the priest who officiated at the Sargents’ 2014 wedding in Tucumán, Argentina. Suddenly, Sargent’s desire to become a Catholic was urgent.

JD Carmichael, a student at St. Joseph Seminary, helped Sargent through the RCIA at St. Anthony’s Parish in south Edmonton. 

“His story sounds bad,” Carmichael said. “You think, ‘Oh that’s terrible; his kids may grow up without him.’ But at the same time isn’t this amazing? This man has come to Christ. He has come to the Church. What an amazing story!”

Sargent grew up in an agnostic home in Sherwood Park, Alta. The family respected faith, but it didn’t play a big role in their lives. However, as an avid outdoorsman and world traveller, Sargent always felt a connection to something larger than himself.

“I’ve often felt in touch with God, or in touch with something more transcendent, when I’m out in my canoe, at a cabin or high in the mountains, places far away from civilization, usually when I’m out on my own. I felt that there’s something more. That’s never been a doubt.”

Why even bother becoming a Catholic if he’s dying anyway?

“There’s so much uncertainty, and this is really the only thing in my life that’s been able to give me a level of peace and a level of clarity and shelter from the storm,” Sargent explained.

“Being diagnosed with cancer really sped things up in terms of my own desire to become Catholic, to be part of the Catholic family, to have our family unified under one faith, to be baptized.”

His marriage to Sofia was the initial spark. But as he explored the Catholic faith, he had a burning desire to learn more. “So many things were appealing to me about the Roman Catholic faith as someone from the outside that give me trust that it’s the right path for me.”

CARMICHAEL SAID Sargent has always put on a brave face in regards to his cancer. But Sofia offers a different picture, so much so that she asked Carmichael how she could baptize her husband herself if it came to that. And, in his family’s privacy, Sargent deals with the enormity and gravity of his situation.

“My world is really simplified. I’m not worried about material things,” Sargent said. “All those other distractions, all those things, are just gone. It just happened naturally. There’s just a few things that become important. I talked about spending time with family.

“Faith has become really important. And it gives meaning, too.”

As he faces death, Sargent said he’s not embittered or angry at God. In fact, he considers his diagnosis a blessing. “To me, in many ways, it reaffirms the existence of God. God working to bring us close towards Him.”

Would Sargent be as fervent in his faith if he weren’t dying? As one of Sargent’s mentors, Carmichael says no.

“It’s like that country song: ‘I wish you had a chance to live like you were dying.’ I wish we all had that same urgency. This cancer is actually a gift from God. That might sound weird to say that, but what a gift. It did kind of set a fire under him. It’s a fire in his heart. All of a sudden, this really has a lot of meaning, a lot of significance,” Carmichael said.

“It’s really become clear what’s important to me, and that’s time with my family,” he said. “I’d rather be in the house hanging out with them than scuba diving in French Polynesia or something like that. That sounds awesome, but when the clock is ticking — and it’s potentially ticking very fast — it’s really clear as to where I want to spend my time.”

That’s where Sargent also finds his greatest fear — not for himself but the young family he will leave behind.

“It’s very hard. For me, 95 per cent of the hardship is the impact this has on other people. That’s what keeps me up at night. That’s what makes me frustrated. That’s what makes me angry. And that’s what challenges me to accept this, is thinking that my daughter … is not growing up with a dad,” Sargent said.

For his part, Carmichael hopes he and Sargent can one day enjoy their mutual love of fishing, sitting in a canoe on a still lake framed by a blazing sunset. But Carmichael knows that his friend is destined for a higher purpose.

“I said to him, ‘Just remember that the greatest moments you’ve had here on Earth are just a dim reflection of what’s in Heaven.’

“He said, ‘Yeah, isn’t that great? I can’t wait to go.’ ”

(Grandin Media)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.