Over 40 years ago, my parents heard those exact words. At only the age of four, I was much too young to remember much of the initial experiences with cancer, but I do remember and daily deal with the struggles in life as a result of having such a deadly disease.
Long ago, God showed me that one of the main reasons He allowed me to go through such a traumatic experience was so that He could use my life as a testimony of His greatness and glory, and so that He could use me to bring hope and encouragement to others who have and will experience cancer’s grip or that of some other disease or life-changing trauma.
No matter what happens in our lives. God is always in control of everything. He has a perfect plan and purpose and knows exactly what is best. Most of the time, we can’t understand or even see His plan until many years later.
I was born on February 4, 1966, the second of seven children in my rather small family. My life as a young child was as normal as one would expect. Being raised in a Christian family, we always had a time of family devotions each evening. We would read the Bible, sing, and eagerly listen to my father’s rather animated stories from the Bible.
One evening after our time of devotions, I prayed and expressed my faith in Jesus Christ. That action was just the first of the life-changing events which would happen to me at the age of four. The second incident, although maybe not as important in light of eternity, was a much more involved and painful experience.
The area under my jaw began to swell up, which is not exactly something that is supposed to happen. Being obviously concerned, my parents took me to the doctor. The doctor closely examined the swelling, but could not figure out what was causing it. He began to check through several medical journals and reference books. They performed an operation to remove my lymph nodes for testing. The operation, though it was successful, did not reduce the swelling. Finally he came to the conclusion that there was probably a peritonsillar abscess. My tonsils were so swollen they almost touched each other. After consulting with a specialist in that field, they decided to operate again and remove my tonsils.
After this second operation, my mother noticed that I could no longer keep control of my eyeballs – they would just roll around in their sockets, like marbles in a bowl of grease. I couldn’t keep them focused in the same direction. Because of this, they decided to perform a third operation to take a biopsy of the swelling, and I was soon wheeled into the operating room for the third time in a matter of weeks. The trauma of having three major operations in such a short time was quite overwhelming for a four year old boy, and the doctors were very concerned about performing this third operation.
In order to do the biopsy, they would have to cut through the side of my neck. If they accidentally damaged a nerve, close to the area of the swelling, they would permanently paralyze half of my head. Not exactly an exciting thought!
Following this third operation I spent a long time in the recovery room, having a very difficult time. My mother said I didn’t look like I would make it.
A couple of days later, after they had time to check the tissue from the biopsy, my mother was in the hospital room where I was asleep, and the doctor came by and motioned her out into the hall where he told her the results of the third operation. They had finally diagnosed the swelling as a malignant tumor called, “Rhabdomyosarcoma”, which is a deadly type of cancer. The doctor stated that this type of cancer was very serious, and as far as he knew, no one had ever lived through it. My mother called my father who had gone home to check on my siblings. All she was able to say was â€ścome hereâ€ť. I can’t imagine what they must have gone through during this time.
The next morning, my parents met in the doctor’s office. The cancer specialist described how serious the cancer was. He told my parents that I had only one week to live. He had looked through his record books, and every case he could find had been terminal. He admitted that there might be an exception, but in my case it was highly doubtful.
The doctors finally decided that my only hope was radiation therapy. My parents were to take me out of the hospital each morning and take me to a different hospital where I was to receive my radiation treatments.
I almost didn’t live to receive the radiation treatment!
On the night before my first treatment, I was asleep in my hospital bed. My mother was half asleep in the chair beside me. Because of the swollen tumor in my throat, my breathing made a loud hoarse sound which could be heard across the room. All of the sudden, in the middle of the night, I stopped breathing. My mother knew immediately what had happened. She went immediately to find help, and a doctor and two nurses responded to her calls and came running. They were able to get me started breathing again. They said I looked really bad, as though I were already dead. I guess that is one of the closest moments to death I encountered during this difficult experience.
The following day, before I left to go to my radiation treatment, my mother’s cousin and aunt came by to visit me. They said that judging from the way I looked, they doubted if I would live much longer, or even make it through another night.
Then, my parents took me to receive my first radiation treatment. The Radiologist had more discouraging news. He said that usually when they treated a cancerous tumor like mine with radiation, the cancer spread even faster. He didn’t think I would make it. Every day for thirty days, I returned to receive my treatments. However, instead of the tumor spreading and killing me, it went away, and around the time when everyone thought I would be dead, the cancer was gone. And after spending almost two months in the hospital, I was allowed to go home.
But it wasn’t over yet.
That same year, my family and I took a trip to visit relatives out of town. One night during our visit, I awoke with a terrible headache. Later, when my mother was cutting my hair, she noticed a slightly swollen area in the back of my head. Her first thought was to recall the other swelling they had found several months previously, and we immediately returned home and back to the hospital. The tumor had returned. This time it was in the back of my head around the main nerve. Because of the location of the new tumor, operating was impossible without killing me, or at least causing some serious damage.
I continued to have serious headaches, and they continued to get worse. Soon I just had a constant 24-hour a day headache. The pain was tremendous, and I had to be always kept under sedation. As soon as one pain killer wore off, I would cry from the pain. All I did was lie in bed either heavily sedated in a little pain, or else half-sedated in intense pain. I could hardly move at all. When my parents came to give me medicine, they had to hold my head up, because I was so weak.
I began to receive a newly developed type of Chemotherapy. Because of this, all my hair fell out. The new treatments upset my stomach so much that I couldn’t keep any food down. I lost so much weight my bones could be seen pushing against my skin. I began to look like the pictures you see of starving children in 3rd world countries.
Around March of that year, one of the doctors ran a blood test and made the discovery that my red blood cells were not developing properly, the cancer was taking its toll. He wrote in his report; “Joshua is sinking fast.” He told my parents that I would never make it. He couldn’t believe I was still alive then.
At this time, the doctors started using a new type of Chemotherapy that had been developed by the Ohio State University Medical School. I received an injection once a week, every week for five weeks, and five days a week on the sixth week. This cycle was repeated for almost a year. I became so accustomed to having a needle stuck in me I would just sit and watch. Because of the many injections I received, my veins began to shrink. Sometimes they would have to stick me five or six times before they would find a vein that wouldn’t collapse on them. I began to feel like a human pin cushion.
One time a doctor was giving me a shot and the needle slipped. The medication went under my skin and caused a very painful burn. I still have a few scars today as a result of those many injections.
One afternoon, the doctor called my mother and asked her to bring me to the hospital. There was a cancer specialist from New York City visiting, and he wanted to see me. After as examination, he said; “This is a terminal case. Joshua will not make it.”
But again God had other plans and almost two years from the time the first deadly tumor appeared, the cancer was gone. The doctors said they still considered it a terminal case, and that it would eventually take my life. That was many years ago and there has been no sign of the cancer since!
However, even though the cancer was now gone, it left behind several scars that would remain with me for life. My life was now drastically changed.
From the time the cancer disappeared until I was eight years old, I did not grow more than one or two inches. After checking with a doctor about this, we found that radiation had killed all my growth hormone. They said I would most likely not grow any more. Since then I have grown to almost five feet. I am still quite short. But at least I am not as short as I was when they said I wouldn’t grow.
At times, this has been somewhat of a problem for me. People are constantly thinking I am much younger than my age. While hundreds of people wish they could look younger, I often wish I could look older. When I went to take my driver’s test, I had quite a time trying to convince the examiner that I was actually 17 years old.
Another effect that has really bothered me is, the radiation destroyed all of the roots in my teeth. Because of this, my teeth have slowly fallen apart. I spent hundreds of hours in dental chairs growing up, and often with an entire group of dental students looking inside my mouth.
By 1989, my teeth had totally rotted away, and I had to have what was left completely removed and have dentures made.
Probably one of the greatest problems I have had as a result of the cancer and it’s treatment, is the partial paralyzation of my vocal chords, and soft palate. My vocal chords were partially paralyzed, making it difficult for me to speak, and difficult for me to be understood. This has been a great problem, especially when talking over the phone, or trying to order in a restaurant. I many times have to repeat myself before people can understand what I am trying to say. My voice sounds perfectly normal to me, but that’s just because I know what I’m trying to say.
I can remember having great trouble with this in elementary school. When I was in the first grade, my teacher would take me out in the hallway away from the other students when it came time to recite something from memory, because all the other kids would laugh when I talked.
And there are still more problems which are too difficult to describe. It is certainly not easy to experience such a life changing experience as this. The first inclination is to crawl into a hole somewhere and never accomplish anything with your life. There have been many times when I have felt like doing just that. At least people wouldn’t laugh and make fun of me. However, I knew God had kept me alive for some purpose. There must be something He had planned for my life.
When I was in the fifth grade, I felt God calling me to do one of the last things most people would expect me to do, become a preacher! I wanted to share with people my life experiences, and about my wonderful Savior. When I first expressed this interest to some people, they just laughed and told me there was no way I could do that, I was too short, talked funny, etc. But I knew that if God wanted me to, I could do it. I have spoken hundreds of times since then, and have spoken in many different places ranging from county jails to fortune 500 companies, and many people have shared with me how encouraged and challenged they were by hearing my story, and God’s work in my life.
If the choice were up to me to redo my life, I would have cancer again. I would undergo all the painful surgeries, all the tests, and would endure the great times of difficulty again, so that my life and testimony could be used as God has graciously allowed them to be used.
God has proven to me that He does not want us to focus on our problems. He wants us to give everything completely to Him and trust Him with our lives. When we finally learn to do that, He has promised to faithfully take care of every need we have, and to always be with us no matter what.
If you do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, let me tell you that you are missing out on one of life’s greatest joys. Now, I feel I must clarify myself here. Many people in today’s world “claim” to be Christians, however they do not act or live at all like a true Christian should. There is a vast difference between knowing “about” God and personally “knowing” Him.
The Bible tells us in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Over 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ gave His life on the cross of Calvary in payment for our sin. Because of that, we are given the greatest gift ever given – the promise of Salvation and life in Heaven when we die. We must simply believe in Him, and pray – asking Him to come into our hearts and our lives and be our Lord and Saviour.
If you have never done this, I invite you today to make this life changing decision.