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