by Jennifer Wing Atencio
David said, “The Lord, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” 1 Samuel 17:37
What is your Goliath? We all have that impossible, seemingly giant and insurmountable need or threat to our lives, our families. I am going to tell you a personal story about how having a radical logic-defying, crazy and audacious faith in God, like David did, can transform even the most hopeless situation. How God is still working miraculously in our world today and how you can access His unfailing assistance through prayer and faith in Jesus.
My doctor said to me, “Jennifer, if you don’t find a way to get those kids into a summer childcare program so you can get all of your chemotherapy, you are going to die!” It sounded harsh, but my oncologist was telling the truth as she saw it, really pleading with me as another woman full of concern. She, who is about my same age and also a mother to three children, was trying to get my attention, because well, my life depended on it.
The facility was declaring my husband and I could no longer bring the kids with to my chemotherapy sessions as it was too disturbing for other patients. I reluctantly agreed with my oncologist to use my network in order to ask for money for some childcare. For the two years before this cancer diagnosis, I had given every extra penny we had to the costs of a start-up ministry. Trying to find Christian purpose while working in the arts, I quit my paying job (that I really loved!) to start the only Catholic-friendly Christian film festival in Los Angeles, having been encouraged by many that it was greatly needed and seeing an opportunity to promote Christian collaboration, I gave it everything I had.
Christian unity is my passion and purpose so I had a strong desire to make this festival happen, bringing Christians of different traditions together to collaborate on such a powerful and far-reaching evangelistic catalyst as Christian film. I used our savings to cover initial costs and worked full-time hours for no pay, pouring every ounce of my energy into it, even neglecting my health, blowing off my scheduled mammogram. Now I was paying even more dearly for it than I thought could be possible, my life was in danger due to the most aggressive and difficult-to-treat form of breast cancer, with a 4.2 cm, triple-negative tumor growing rapidly inside my breast. We had no second income to pay for the high costs of full-time, summer childcare for three kids with my husband’s salary alone just meeting our expenses for a family of five living in Southern California and the costs of adjunct therapies.
“Don’t you know a lot of people because of what you do? People who would help?” my doctor grilled. “If everybody you know gives you just a little towards your childcare, you can get through this chemotherapy prescription – AND YOU HAVE TO FINISH IT!!” she stated emphatically. (My chemotherapy regimen involved one infusion a week for twenty weeks, about four months of unpredictable side-effects.) I immediately felt embarrassed at the thought of asking for money. We had good health insurance to pay for my treatment at nearby City of Hope, but no one close-by who would watch my kids full-time. As far as my professional network, just about everyone working in the Christian film industry is a struggling artist. Only a very small few have found financial success, holding it only long enough to keep them going to the next project before it slips through their fingers again. Just a couple of weeks before this moment a person I recruited to help run the ministry had threatened to sue me for several thousand dollars, payable immediately. Of course I did not have the money, and it was a rude awakening to the fact that not everyone needed to run the show felt a calling to volunteer ministry. At this moment I really couldn’t even form a coherent thought, but if my feelings could have been put into words it would have been “Oh why did I give so much? Now there is nothing left … not even to save my life.” Everything was falling apart and I had nothing to show for my efforts.
At the beginning of my treatment we had talked to Dr. S, my oncologist, about our faith in answers to prayer. She stated something to the effect that all that support was good, but she approached treatment completely scientifically because “I am a scientist”, she stated definitively. She was staying true to her convictions, putting all her confidence in the expected results from me receiving the full prescription of chemotherapy.
The breast tumor was so large and fast-growing that the City of Hope specialists could not even perform “an effective mastectomy”. The chemotherapy was prescribed to shrink the tumor first so they could perform surgery. Triple Negative Invasive Ductile Carcinoma resists all other treatments. Like most people I always thought a malignant breast tumor meant a simple lumpectomy. My husband and I were shocked to find out how not-simple my treatment was going to have to be.
It was a vulnerable feeling having a picture of me at my worst, receiving a chemo infusion publicized to everyone I knew. I was very uncomfortable asking for money for my personal need and the request, penned by a friend, sounded shocking. I can’t explain the gamut of emotions that a person goes through as a newly diagnosed cancer patient. You are on a whirlwind of tests, treatments, feeling a bit in shock – a kind of numbness-permeated with intermittent blasts of emotion. Like with most cancer treatments for a fast-growing cancer, I was urged to start treatment immediately. There was barely any time to think about what was happening. Boom – diagnosis, boom – start chemo, and then came the side-effects. My first infusion was truly the worst of them all. I woke up that night with the worst headache and nerve pain of my life. It felt like my head was being squeezed in a vice and someone was shocking my limbs with electric currents.
Many people surprised me with their generosity and enough was raised to pay for childcare tuition and my weekly chemo treatments continued. However, the therapy was starting to cause the unpredictable and feared side effects that some chemo patients get. Along with the usual nausea and fatigue, I suffered the most excruciating pain from an inflamed nerve in my leg, which drove me to the E.R. more than once for pain relief. The dizzy spells were getting worse to the point that I was afraid to drive, and my husband really had to work, commuting an hour and a half each way between work and home. I felt so alone and still with a 10, 8 and 5-year old for most of the days by myself and no other regular help in sight. Then my liver became inflamed from the treatment and it could not flush out the chemicals, making my body excessively toxic. I was only one-fourth of the way through chemotherapy and I already couldn’t take any more. The doctor had made me think that without chemotherapy my prognosis was terminal. What was I going to do?
Two years prior to this time, for the Year of Faith, I had been part of a parish ministry where we wrote the personal stories of faith-filled Catholics who had received miraculous answers to prayer. One parishioner’s story kept coming to my mind from that year of a man named Dennis Church whose brain tumor had been completely healed by the sacramental prayers of baptism, along with this scripture reference:
“ Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person…” James 5:14-15; Matt 10:8, Luke 10:8-9 and Mark 6:13.
I had written about other people’s miracles of prayer through faith. Now it was time to put my own faith into action.
The Catholic priest closest to me and my family had moved to take his first assignment as a pastor of a parish in a different state. Although I knew that many, many caring and faithful Christians of multiple denominations were praying for me, I just really believed in this priest’s spiritual authority over my life as his ministry had felt God-sent, so I kept asking and asking and asking him to come in-person to give me the anointing of the sick. For this he would have to travel 500 miles and leave his 24-7 pastor responsibilities at a time when he had little help. So I begged him unrelentingly. I told him I absolutely believed that Jesus was going to heal me through his prayers, so he “had to come!”
The poor guy, he never said to me “Jen, what if I come and you are not healed?” but I’m sure that Father David was feeling the pressure of my expectations.
To overcome the cancer giant that was rapidly taking away my health and threatening my life, it was going to take some crazy, logic-defying, audacious faith. I realized that once he agreed to come, the rest was really all between me and Jesus anyway. In fact Father David always did say to me that it is our faith that makes the sacraments efficacious. Looking back I can see that at that moment nothing and no one could have convinced me that Jesus was not going to heal me. I wonder now if my confidence sounded crazy to him, but he had compassion for my desperate plea and agreed.
Thinking again about the example of David the Would-be King, I am just so amazed how this often self-centered and imperfect man was so brazenly confident in God’s power and favor. Goliath had taunted the servants of Saul, “Choose your man to come down and fight me! “ (1 Sam: 17:8)
On a delivery to the front lines, David got wind of the challenge and actually started boasting that he could beat the giant. Now imagine how this must have looked to King Saul’s soldiers: David was young, untrained, short in-stature, lacked superior weaponry and experience. His confidence that God would help him take down the giant was really rather cheeky and audacious. The only weapons he had to wield were his slingshot and five small stones.
(This is the point in the story where we can infer a response typical from today’s vernacular “LOL!!!”).
But, word of his confidence made its way to the ear of King Saul.
If it wasn’t for the desperation of the Jews in their ongoing battle against the Philistines, I’m sure David would have been laughed off as an impudent youth. In fact, everything in the natural world said that David had no advantage over Goliath. But, we know that it was just one of David’s tiny stones, his cheeky faith, and the hand of God that together brought down the giant.
“Then David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you and take your head from you. And this day I will give the carcasses of the camp of the Philistines to the birds of the air and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands.’” 1 Samuel 17:45-47
[Stay with me for Part 2 of this article and we will discuss how we all can apply audacious faith to our seemingly impossible challenges for potentially miraculous results.]
Back to my story– it was the middle of July 2015 and my oncologist was on vacation out of the country. She had agreed before she left to order a mid-treatment ultrasound to determine progress even though it was “not protocol,” but “anything to motivate you to finish chemo,” she said she would do. For two weeks of her absence, chemotherapy had been withheld. The day before my scheduled ultrasound Father David came to see me, on July 21st.
It was a turn-around trip, so there was no waiting for my family to get home. He arrived to our home mid-morning and celebrated mass on our humble wooden table, that had once belonged to my grandparents, where we eat all of our meals.
After celebrating two sacraments he began the third, the Anointing of the Sick prayers. Father anointed me with oil and after the scripted prayers laid hands on my head for silent prayer. Up to this point I had no feelings except the consolation of his presence and the experience of The Lord’s presence in the sacraments. My own thoughts had been silent, while I watched him do what he did best. A desperate and interior cry broke my peaceful silence, “Jesus!” I cried out inside my thoughts, “Please heal me through the prayers of your servant!”
This I heard back in reply, “My daughter, you are already healed by your faith.”
This was not Father David speaking, it was the Lord. I could hear His voice loud and clear. The rest of the silent prayer ended while I experienced quiet joy.
Father David returned to Arizona, and the next day I went for my ultrasound with the same radiologist who had performed my diagnostic tests and biopsy. Doctor F. rushed into the room with a huge smile on his face after reading the results, his face looked slightly flushed. “The results of the chemotherapy are really amazing!” he exclaimed excitedly. “The tumor has shrunk significantly!”
Really?, I thought to myself…with only five infusions?
Other than the doctor and technician, I was there alone for the test. Both of them were beaming, telling me the tumor had shrunk down to almost half its size from the last test.
Waves of relief slowly moved throughout my body as I realized what he was telling me and their smiles reassured me I was not dreaming or hearing things. You know, I believed it would happen, but now the proof was there and it took a minute to sink in. I was relieved to have some sci-en-TIF-ic evidence that Jesus was working my healing. I knew right then something my doctors did not – no more chemo. Even though they credited the chemotherapy, I believed by their surprised reactions that this result was more due to the prayer than the chemo.
After a third week of test results indicating liver inflammation, my chemo was withheld again that week. I asked for the ontological nurse who was handling Dr. S.’s patients to speak with me. I smiled while looking her into the eye to say what I had to say with determination, “ I am not going to argue with Dr. S. about this and I have made my decision that due to the chemo being withheld, I want to go to surgery, now. “ To my surprise, they went ahead and scheduled my surgery with no resistance while my oncologist was still away, my breast surgeon being a different doctor. The surgery would happen in four weeks, with one more ultrasound a few days before it. The ultrasound, done the second week of August, showed the tumor had continued to shrink WITH NO TREATMENT, and was now even smaller. About a week later at surgery, they took a large chunk of tissue where the tumor had been because there was NO TUMOR there at all visible to the doctor. They also removed four lymph nodes from under my arm.
I vaguely remember my surgeon speaking to me as I became conscious. “I have been doing this for a long time”, she paused looking at me to make sure I understood her, and then continued, “and I have a trained eye. Now, we are going to run some tests on the tissue we took out to be certain, but YOU HAD ALMOST A FIVE CENTEMETER TUMOR IN THERE AT ONE POINT, and..
I did NOT see anything in there that looked like a tumor to me, and I know what I am looking for from doing thousands of surgeries on breast-cancer patients!“ she pointedly stated.
They tested the 5 cm chunk of tissue taken out and the removed lymph nodes for three days to make sure they achieved good surgical margins around the cancerous tissue. If they do not achieve good margins, they have to do more surgery. In my case, the tests came back to inform that NO CANCER CELLS were detected at all! This was what they call a “complete response”, although the doctors could not explain how a complete response was achieved with me only receiving a quarter of the chemo, nor could they explain, scientifically, how the tumor continued to shrink in the four weeks before surgery while no treatment was administered for a total of six weeks with no treatment at all.
After healing from the surgery, I met my radiation oncologist who was the first doctor yet willing to recognize supernatural power at work. As an experienced radiologist, Dr. C, a petite Chinese woman who talks in a really high pitch with her patients, had no problem exclaiming enthusiastically at my work-up “Jennifer, this just doesn’t happen! I’ve never heard of anyone with your type of cancer getting a complete response from only a few infusions! The doctors here are really amazed because this just doesn’t happen.”
“It was the prayer, doctor”, I replied. “I had hundreds of people praying for me.”
As she checked my body cast that would guide the precise measuring process needed to set the radiation machine, she loudly stated, “Well, you definitely have something else working for you because this just doesn’t happen!”
I received 34 doses of radiation over a seven-week period to prevent the cancer from coming back, without seeing my head oncologist.
As we approached the holiday season I wanted to get the out the port-device that had been put in my chest for infusion therapy, so I went back to see my oncologist and it was the first time I had spoken to her since before she left on summer vacation. My goal was to get her permission to have the port removed before Thanksgiving.
“I thought I would never see you again!” she greeted me smiling.
“Well, I want to get this port removed”, I smiled back at her. After she greeted my kids who were with me, she sat down at her computer and said to me, “Jennifer I am thrilled with the results that you had, but I want you to know that….”
I interrupted, “I got off easy?”
“Yessss”, she nodded with a knowing look. “You really did! And, if you were to have to face cancer treatment again, it won’t go like it did this time.” She explained that if the surgery would not have shown a complete response, she would have hunted me down to get me to finish my chemotherapy. As she continued to look at my (scientific) lab results she quietly exclaimed under her breath “A – maze – ing!”
As I look back through my calendar to recall the timeline of these events I am keenly aware that my normal standard operating procedure would be to block all of this bad stuff out of my memory. But, as I look back I see my treatment and recovery days are marked with meetings at movie studios, with filmmakers, church leaders, my kid’s activities, family events and I really have to marvel at what an extraordinary experience I have lived in the past couple of years of my life. I always knew that it took great faith in God to take the ministry thing on, to learn to do things I never dreamed I would do, to go where I never thought God would take me, (like to Hollywood!!) But, to face down a life-threatening illness with Jesus at my side and then receive such a healing from Him is true love from God.
I am telling you this so that you understand I am not bragging, but I am marveling at the wonder of God and His plan and how Jesus is here with us, working through us and in us real miracles in our everyday lives, here and now and not just in the past stories of the Bible. My medical records verify it.
Jesus reached into my experience because of faith, and defied natural law to produce a contrary-to-science result, leaving me completely cured and now retracing my steps so that I can share the wonder of it with you.
But the sharing of it will not give its full impact if I can’t tell you what I learned from this experience that I know that you too can apply to your life.
Please come back for Part 2 of this article: Audacious Faith and Moving (YOUR) Mountains