On this day 15 years ago, my life changed forever.
I went to school in the morning. I attended a large high school with over 300 other students in my class.
It was big enough that I didn’t know everyone at the school, yet somehow small enough that by mid-semester I knew, or at least recognized, most of the other students I passed each day.
I was an active and engaged student. My teachers liked me. I was glad because I needed to confide in a few of them.
Stepping up to their desks immediately after class, I briefly mentioned my health scare and said I’d share more when I had answers. I told a few close friends too.
After school I stopped by home for a quick snack before heading to the library. I’d worked there for over three years every Tuesday night.
I liked spending a few hours between stacks of books each week. Reading titles on the spines of old hardbacks opened my imagination to a world beyond what I knew.
On this Tuesday night however I entered a world far beyond anything I could have ever dreamed.
My parents showed up together halfway through my shift and found me in the back near the children’s section. They’d spoken with the doctor and finally had answers.
With very low voices, even lower than the typical “library voice,” they explained that the concerning mass found during my colonoscopy was colon cancer.
My reaction wasn’t typical for the average cancer patient. I didn’t immediately cry or weep.
I didn’t call everyone I knew. The truth is, I didn’t know how to respond. I pushed my cart back to the front of the library, grabbed my coat and stood next to my boss as my parents explained the situation to her. She loved me like a daughter and had tears in her eyes when she hugged me goodbye.
In the following hours I struggled to comprehend the severity of the news. I couldn’t conceptualize what the future looked like. There was only one clear thought running through my head: “This is totally going to spice up my testimony.”
For some background – I grew up in a faithful, church-going family where at least twice a week we were in some type of worship service or Bible study.
Most of my earliest childhood memories involve church picnics, felt board stories and Vacation Bible School. As a kid, I’d heard about Jesus my whole life.
But not until the summer before I entered junior high did I really get why people loved Jesus so much or cried on Easter.
I attended my first youth camp in the northern Minnesota woods a month before I entered seventh grade. I felt so proud as I shuffled into a big lodge-like sanctuary with the other teenagers from my church.
Although they were a few years older than me, they let me hang out with them. I loved it.
We found a row of seats in the dim room and soon the service kicked off.
Upbeat songs playing through speakers and a loud guitar set the pace. This was not the average hymn-filled Baptist worship service I was used to. A powerful and loud voice began echoing against the sanctuary walls as the music trailed off.
A Gospel preacher began speaking to our room full of suburban white kids. I had never heard such animated yet challenging preaching, I doubted the others had either.
It didn’t matter to him that we were teenagers. He was passionate about Jesus and at the end of his message, he challenged us to consider if we were too.
I bent over with my head between my legs during the prayer time.
Thinking through the history of my short life, I realized that I’d never really prayed a genuine prayer to accept Jesus for myself in light of my own brokenness and sin.
I’d “walked the alter call aisle” and even been baptized years prior, but I’d “my decision” to appease a lot of others. With my heart feeling as though it was about to jump out of my chest and my stomach crawling up into my throat, I stood up in the room that first night of camp and invited God into my heart in a truly transformational way.
I didn’t leave the sanctuary, nor return home a few days later, as the same kid that boarded the bus for camp. I was on fire. I loved Jesus. And I couldn’t get enough of Him.
Just Diagnosed with Colon Cancer
Not long after leaving the library, I found myself at home holding hands with my family and youth minister doing what all church people do when crisis hits: praying.
I’d just spent the prior four years pouring into Bible studies and sermons, youth camps and Christian clubs. I welcomed the opportunity to face something new.
Finally I had a hurdle of my own I could openly talk about. What appeared to be my perfect Christian life wasn’t as ideal as it seemed.
I wasn’t scared of cancer, but I didn’t know what to expect.
I certainly didn’t expect it to take my life.
As the surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments began, I put my hope in God and the return to my normal teenage life. Bible verses written on colorful construction paper adorned my hospital room walls.
Newsletters featuring my name showed up in the mailbox each week.
Asking God to heal me – to become Jehovah Raphe – became as routine as eating dinner. And at one point, in a dark hospital room, I was convinced that I’d heard God’s answer: I’d never get cancer again.
On my last day of chemo, I nearly skipped out of the doctor’s office not only relieved that the treatments ended, but that God had come through. God healed me – Jehovah Raphe indeed!
For eight years, that was my story. Until one day, a doctor walked in and said the words I never expected to hear again, “Danielle, it’s cancer.”
Disappointment – Cancer’s Back
The feeling I had when I realized Santa, nor the Easter Bunny, were not what I’d believed them to be were minor previews to the gut-punch I had sitting in a hospital bed hearing I had cancer again.
The news that followed involving my genetic disease and lifetime risk for cancer recurrence added salt to the wounds.
Not the physical wounds from new surgeries, but the spiritual wounds I kept so tightly covered and convinced myself weren’t there. The wounds slowly turning into beliefs: God lied, He didn’t heal me and He certainly could not be trusted.
Without realizing it, I deployed an old trick – one that worked marvelously in my past.
I began pretending again.
I pretended that I was fine and praised God for healing me once again when the surgery scars faded and the scans were clear.
I focused my time on serving the church and encouraged others in their faith.
When I could help everyone else, the spotlight wasn’t on me. I got involved and became an advocate for the cancer cause.
But the louder my voice became and the more my story was told, the deeper my wounds grew. I was no longer the 17-year-old who once passionately viewed cancer as an opportunity to share God.
Instead, I’d become a two-time survivor hiding the fact that I hardly trusted Him.
The Journey Back to Trusting God
Some people experience breakthroughs and never see life the same instantaneously. The night I met Jesus at youth camp, I experienced that kind of change.
But the journey back to trusting Him wasn’t so instant. Instead, it was full of burnout, disappointment, a lack of boundaries and occasional relational discord until finally a situation came that allowed light to break through and the seed once planted in my heart started to grow again.
With wise counsel from many friends, and a dear professional, I stopped pretending how I felt about God and took up my case with Him directly.
I was mean.
I was mad.
I questioned everything about Him and what He said.
My questions and acquisitions went on and on. Until finally one day they stopped. I was tired and hurting, yet something in my heart had changed. I was ready to listen.
A Good Father and My Healer
Like a patient, good Father He showed me that everything I’d been holding back was not too much for Him.
Verses reaffirmed His love for me, despite my attitude and unfortunate earthly circumstances.
I slowly began to accept that it’s not up to me to define what He means by “good,” that a blessed life isn’t exempt from suffering and that maybe, just maybe, I’d heard Him wrong many years ago.
I apologized for my pretending and the sin I’d done while wandering and wounded. With each of my apologies came a new wave of grace. And the fire in my heart slowly started burning once again.
What happened 15 years ago today indeed changed my life forever.
It took me through days I hope never to relive. Yet it’s also taken me through days that have given me a taste of eternity and a sense of what the love of Jesus really means.
Despite my suffering, God’s worked for my good in my battle with colon cancer.
In Him, I’ve found freedom.
Today, 15 years later, I’m thriving and my cancer is in remission. No matter what’s behind, or what is to come, “Jehovah Rapha,” God is my healer.