The Word Among Us

June 2010 Issue

I’ve Seen the Face of God

How my faith helped me survive childhood leukemia

By: Anthony M.J. Maranise

I’ve Seen the Face of God: How my faith helped me survive childhood leukemia by Anthony M.J. Maranise

The year was 1994. I was five years old and on the "little league" soccer team of Holy Rosary Catholic School in Memphis, Tennessee. I was eager to play, but after only a few moments on the field, my legs would begin to twinge in pain and feel too heavy to run.

Alarmed by this and by my persistent cold-like symptoms, my parents took me to the doctor. He found nothing unusual. Three months later, bruises appeared on my legs and thighs, and a blood test revealed that my white blood-cell count was extremely high. I was referred to the world-famous St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in my hometown of Memphis.

Memories from my first visit there are etched in my mind: the smiles of the doctor and nurses who greeted us . . . the seemingly endless tests . . . my equally endless repetition of the only question on my mind that day: "When do we get to go home?". . . the look on my parents’ faces when they emerged from their consultation with the specialists. They had just learned that their only child had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer.

Being so young, I could tell only that something was wrong. What this would mean in practical terms, though, I began to experience right away. Instantly, I was started on a plan of treatment that would bring me back to St. Jude hospital for intravenous chemotherapy every Tuesday.

It would be impossible to count the number of needles used for my blood tests in the two and a half years that followed—the doses of medication I received, the moments of nausea and pain, the prayers offered on my behalf, or the sleepless nights of my parents, family, and friends. But finally, all those prayers to Christ and to St. Jude Thaddeus, "the patron of impossible causes," were answered. On a sunny day in April 1997, I was declared cancer free and have remained so to this day. The arduous fight was over.

"How Come, Lord?" All my life, I have been told, "It’s something special to be a cancer survivor." But of course, there is an element of mystery in the fact that I survived cancer while so many other people have not. And so, even as I enjoyed living my normal life again, I could not empty my heart of two huge questions: How come God gave me this second chance? What am I supposed to do?

I was nearly fourteen when I began to glimpse some answers. It dawned on me that God might be calling me to serve him by serving others as a religious educator. My own faith and love of God had been planted by the teaching I received in my family: from my parents and maternal grandparents, who taught me how to pray, assured me that Jesus was with me in my suffering, and introduced me to saints, including Jude. What a privilege it would be to lead other people closer to God, I thought. And now, seven years later, my hope has been realized. Not only do I have the opportunity to share my faith with others but I can also share my experience with leukemia as a way to encourage them to trust in God.

In all honesty, I don’t know if surviving cancer makes me special. But I do know that reflecting on my experience has opened the door to many insights about the Christian life. Some of these thoughts have to do with the virtues of faith, hope, and love, and how they work together.

Faith and Hope. When we talk about people who have cancer, we often say things like, "He’s fighting," or "She’s battling it." This always makes me think of how St. Paul urged Timothy to fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12). For anyone who has been thrust into combat with cancer—and all the discomfort, pain, and even agony that come along with it—Paul’s encouragement takes on special meaning.

It’s by faith that we believe in Jesus and come to have a personal relationship with him. In the fight against a disease like cancer, this virtue is an anchor in your darkest moments. I remember days when I truly thought that I was going to die. The smiles of family and friends brought comfort, but the only certainty came from faith in Jesus, who said, "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25). Young as I was, this truth spoke to me, and I felt the great peace of Christ that comes along with it.

I also experienced the way that faith joins hands with hope, the virtue that "does not disappoint" (Romans 5:5). Hope strengthens us to place our trust in Jesus’ promises and to long for the kingdom of heaven as our ultimate happiness. In this continual looking forward, we trust that God is bringing us closer to this goal and working for our greater good in every circumstance, no matter how bleak things may appear.

And so, when cancer’s sufferings seem unbearable, something deep within propels you to keep going. You realize that you will reach the end of the pain—either because tomorrow will be better or, in the worst-case scenario, because you know that all earthly sorrows will vanish away once you see Jesus in his glory.

This happened to me one day while I was receiving a treatment. Due to an allergic reaction, my breathing slowed down in an alarming way that brought doctors and nurses rushing to my side. I was terrified, but then came a most powerful experience of hope. As I began what I thought would be my final prayers on this earth, I felt a deep trust in God’s providence, along with a fervent desire to look into the loving eyes of Christ. That hope sustained me until I was stabilized and the threat was over.

Created to Love. Scripture tells us that "God is love" (1 John 4:8), and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross perfectly exemplifies what that love means: It is to place the interests of others before your own. I am convinced I would have lost my fight against leukemia had it not been for the way my family showed me this kind of love.

In every agonizing moment of chemotherapy, as I wrestled with severe nausea or writhing pain, my parents or grandparents were there to soothe me with a cool cloth, a heating pad, and soft words of comfort and encouragement. Continuously, I heard, "We love you" and "We’re praying for you," and "What can I do to help you feel better?" My family could have left the bulk of my care to the nurses, but rather than thinking of themselves, they thought of me. What wondrous love!

"Your son has seen the face of the Lord," a priest once told my father. I believe he’s right. We are all made in the image and likeness of God. Each of us is called to share and grow in the characteristics of Christ the Lord. If "God is love," I have surely seen him through every person who demonstrated Jesus’ selfless giving in the way they cared for me. Now it’s my turn to show the face of God to others.

Anthony Maranise directs the Faith Development Program for Christian Athletics at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, Tennessee. Every year, he assists in coordinating a benefit concert for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (