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 (Manna 61: Church Life)
My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
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My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Joseph Chen—Chicago, Illinois, USA

God healed me from cancer when I was in high school. Now, twelve years later, I am pursuing a PhD at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, but the painful memories of my chemotherapy treatment are hard to forget. Through that experience, my values and priorities were changed, and I thank God for the opportunity to share His marvelous grace.

MY FIRST FIGHT AGAINST CANCER

In 1997, I had just entered an academically competitive high school in Taiwan and immediately felt great pressure. During the second semester of my freshman year, I started to get sick often with stomachaches and colds, but I didn’t think anything of it. My homeroom teacher, who genuinely cared about her students, took me to the hospital because I was so ill during class.

I was diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of cancer that originates in white blood cells, which are cells of the immune system that defend the body against infectious diseases. The doctors said it was very rare for someone so young to have this illness and recommended that I immediately put my studies on hold and begin chemotherapy.

However, my family wondered if I had been misdiagnosed and sought a second opinion. At the same time, we prayed sincerely to God for a miracle. After an examination using more sophisticated medical technology, the doctors confirmed that I had cancer, specifically lymphoma.

My mother later told me that, during this period, the doctor repeatedly told my family to prepare themselves for any outcome since my illness was in its most critical stage. My family prepared themselves by praying every day as they usually did, entrusting the matter to Jesus Christ, the Lord of life.

From the way my parents normally prayed and trusted God, I learned a very valuable life lesson: live actively by the principle, “Prepare yourself when you can, not when you need to.” I have carried this lesson with me at home and abroad, as a student and as a person, and it has been like a faithful guide to me.

Since I was so young at the time, I did not react that strongly to the news. Actually, I thought it would be a good opportunity to take a break from school! However, after my parents completed the necessary paperwork to suspend my studies, my life spiraled into a journey through the valley of the shadow of death.

I began a regimen of six treatment cycles. Every three weeks, I went to the hospital for three hours of chemotherapy and then suffered three days of very severe side effects including nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and loss of appetite. The anxiety that began soon after the medications were administered was so unbearable that time seemed to stand still as I lay on the hospital bed unable to sleep. Soft noises were amplified to the point that the sound of a pin dropping on the floor was deafening.

I began to lose my hair, which made me reluctant to go out in public. When I went to service or Student Spiritual Convocation, I felt very disrespectful because I had to wear a hat. As I became weaker and weaker during the course of the chemotherapy, diarrhea became the least of my concerns among the many other adverse effects.

The pain of the treatment helped me realize the importance of health and understand the following words recorded in the Bible: “A living dog is better than a dead lion” (Eccl 9:4).

After the chemotherapy sessions were over, I begged my parents not to let me suffer this torment again. Apart from not wanting to go through the physical pain, I was also eager to resume school in September. They agreed, even though the doctor said there was an 80% chance that the cancer would return in the next two years. As I left the hospital to recover at home, all we could do was entrust the matter to God in prayer.

THE LORD’S PROVIDENCE

Back in school, it was hard to handle all the schoolwork because I was physically weaker. Most of my friends were in another grade, and I had to make new friends and catch up with fast-paced studies. Nevertheless, amazingly, I was able to successfully repeat my freshman year of high school and enter my sophomore year.

One day in November of my sophomore year, I felt a lump on my neck when showering. Very reluctantly, I told my parents. My father led us in prayer, saying, “As we focus on Joseph’s health in our prayers, let us entrust it to the Lord. God’s will must be within all of this.”

The month before, the doctor had performed a bone marrow examination and said everything was fine. Now, however, the MRI showed that cancer cells were again active.

The homeroom teacher who had taken me to the hospital advised me to see a certain doctor at the National Taiwan University (NTU) Hospital in Taipei. My friend and I made the long trip there from Taichung and, at our arrival, were told that the doctor was not there and that the hours for making appointments were over. The lady scheduling appointments was about to draw the window blinds and shut down her computer when she saw us and asked if I was a cancer patient. I answered, “Yes,” and she gave me an appointment.

Several years later, I learned that only preauthorized cancer patients could obtain an appointment. I believe that I got an appointment because God had planned to put me under the care of a certain doctor, Dr. Chen, Director of the Department of Hematology at the NTU Hospital.

Not everyone has the opportunity to be treated by such a good doctor as Dr. Chen, who dedicated himself to thoroughly understanding my condition. It was clear that God had given him professionalism, knowledge, and a caring heart. To this day, I send him a card every year or two to thank him.

The next Sabbath, the hospital called us to say, “You are very fortunate. You can check into the hospital on Monday.” It was a miracle that I secured a hospital bed this easily. One fellow cancer patient lived in the emergency room for about a month before he was given a bed in a regular ward.

After a comprehensive checkup at the hospital, Dr. Chen told my parents how serious my condition was. It was only after I was discharged from the hospital that my parents told me what he said.

The doctor had told them, “The cancer has spread to the bone marrow and to the brain. The situation in the brain looks particularly complicated. If he doesn’t react positively to chemotherapy, his condition will worsen, and he will likely die. Please prepare yourselves for the worst.”

My parents had heard this type of bad news many times before. Although the emotional pain they suffered was beyond what I could imagine, they never let me see their tears and chose instead to cry silently for me in their prayers.

All I knew at the time was that I had to undergo extremely high doses of chemotherapy at once. The treatment itself would put my life at risk.

THE SHADOW OF DEATH

During the winter holiday, I began high-dose chemotherapy treatment at the NTU Hospital. Remembering this period of my life still sends a chill down my spine.

According to a nurse, my chemo dosage was so strong that two patients who had received a similar dosage had died. Medications were given intravenously starting in the morning, and at night I received saline and rest. This treatment process was administered for three consecutive days, during which I alternated between lying in bed and vomiting.

By the second day, I gave up eating altogether, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to keep anything down. Because the dosage was high, several side effects became many times worse. In addition to ulcers in my mouth, I had an ulcer in my esophagus. It took me twenty minutes to eat or drink anything and the process was very painful.

Apart from this, I had to take nystatin, a liquid antifungal medication with a very unpleasant flavor, before and after eating. For those eight months in the hospital, everything I ate tasted like nystatin.

I also went into cycles of constipation and diarrhea. I lost weight until I reached 101 pounds and became the proverbial skin and bones. My hair fell out so fast that the nurse had to use tape to remove all the remaining hair to keep things sanitary.

When the medications were in effect, my white blood cell count went down to almost zero, which put my life in danger, as normal white blood cell counts are between 6,000 and 10,000. Some of the other chemotherapy patients had their blood drawn every two days like me, so we started a competition to see who had the highest white blood cell count. Scoring more than sixty was a rare occurrence.

Undergoing this treatment in the sterile room was like going through hell on earth. All that was left to do was to pray with the little strength I had left and fight against time.

During those eight months in the NTU Hospital, I prayed earnestly each day, never changing the content of my prayers from the day I was admitted until the day I was discharged:

“Dear Lord Jesus Christ, I know that You might take me. If You want to take me with You, I am willing to accept it, but please comfort my family because they will be the ones to suffer most. However, if You think that I still can be of any use here in the world, maybe You could consider letting me stay, and I will certainly try my best to survive.”

My father asked many of the churches in Taiwan to pray for me. Our local church was not open at night, so each day after work, my father would go to Lileng Church at midnight and tearfully pray in the chapel.

Sometimes, while driving to work, my father would have to pull over because of sudden bursts of tears that would overwhelm him while praying for me in his heart. Although I did not know it at the time, the fervent intercessions of my family and brothers and sisters in church acted as a strong sustaining force for me.

GOD’S WONDERFUL WILL        

While I was going through chemotherapy, the doctor asked my father to prepare about $1,000,000 NTD(about $30,000 USD) in cash. The doctor explained, “It is more likely to find fully compatible bone marrow in siblings. If not, we have to look nationwide. If we cannot find it in the country, we’ll need to search internationally, and that will cost at least $1,000,000 NTD. The chance of finding a compatible person who is not a sibling is one in two million.” To prepare for this expense, my father sold farmland that was worth exactly $1,000,000 NTD.

I have three brothers and one sister. The doctor first analyzed the blood and bone marrow of my three brothers. When we found out that none of my brothers were compatible and our hopes were lost, I had an unforgettable dream.

In my dream, my brothers and I were out in the mountains. I was walking behind the rest of them and slipped off the mountainside because I was not careful. I managed to hold on to the edge, but I knew I couldn’t hang on for long. I called to my second and third brother for help but they couldn’t hear me.

As I was about to fall off the mountain, my eldest brother Shanchuan suddenly appeared and pulled me up. After that, we cleared that dangerous mountain road without further incident.

When I talked to my father the next day, he encouraged me with heartfelt words that revived my hope in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death. He said, “Don’t be worried, Joseph! As always, let’s pray to God and entrust it all to Him. We will see His wonderful will unfold.”

At this critical stage, something miraculous happened. Dr. Chen told me, “Congratulations, Joseph! In the end, we found that your brother Shanchuan’s bone marrow is fully compatible with yours, so we can do a bone marrow transplant.”

God had planned this all even before I was born! My mother and I offered our prayers to God with tears of thankfulness. While praying, I remembered that God had revealed this to me in my dream.

After struggling for so long, I finally entered the intensive care unit for a bone marrow transplant, the last stage of my treatment. A bone marrow transplant is very risky because it consists of using chemicals or radiation to remove the bone marrow that creates cancer cells and injecting healthy compatible bone marrow. Lastly, there is a session of radiotherapy. All of these steps are taken to ensure that the old bone marrow is completely eliminated.

During the month-long bone marrow transplant process, I had a fever of 108° F for several days. My mother was warned several times that my life was in danger. The last night of the fever, I completely lost consciousness.

When I awoke the next morning, it was the beginning of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I realized how fragile and insignificant humans were, yet God, who rules life, raised us from the ashes of death.

As it says in Luke,

            “Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Lk 1:78, 79)

Leaving the intensive care unit was the first step in escaping from the valley of death. I recovered for a month in a normal hospital room before being formally discharged. I still needed to go to the NTU Hospital every week for follow-up blood tests, but as the days and months went by, I started to recover little by little and march toward life again.

A SECOND CHANCE AT LIFE

When I was discharged, Dr. Chen warned me, “You have to stay at home and rest for two years. Don’t even think about going back to the high school you used to attend and subjecting yourself to that kind of pressure.”

At home, I started thinking over and over about how I survived from hospitalization to discharge. I was able to get through that time thanks to the love and the prayers of my family as well as my local church. The mothers of Tatung Church came to visit me and to pray with me every week.

Members from the churches of Lileng, Boai, and Nanshi came from afar to show their concern and pray for me at the NTU Hospital. The board members of Taipei Church sent me sterilized church publications so that I could read them in my hospital room. This moved me as well as the nurses caring for me. God heard the prayers of the many brothers and sisters from different churches, and He allowed me to have a second chance at life.

Because of this, I told my parents, “It was truly Jesus Christ who healed me. If we trust in His power, why do we fear what might happen if I go back to school? If the Lord healed me, how is it that He can’t protect me if I go back to school?” My parents were moved, so by faith they did the paperwork for me to return to school.

Nonetheless, the school had its doubts and considered my condition unsuitable for coping with the pressures of study. My father went to plead with the school officials and quoted a verse from Isaiah 42:3: “A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench.”

The school officials agreed to let me return to high school, and I took up the challenge. However, this time, my vision and attitude were different.

With a calm heart, I opened my spiritual eyes and carefully contemplated all aspects of life. People too often believe they will live to their seventies or even eighties, but the truth is that we never know! It is extremely important that we live to the utmost here and now.

Life is precious, but the soul even more so. I now study and work hard with a clear goal—to live happily with God.

I would like to conclude this chapter of walking out of the valley of death with David’s Psalm 23:

            The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD
Forever.

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Author: Joseph Chen
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