I’ve been asked why…why are you doing this? Why have you set out to help families make memories that will last for a lifetime? If you’ll give me a few minutes of your time I’d like to meander down a path, with you, for a moment and tell you why.
About 10 a.m. on July 15, 2012, with music playing in the background, her 13 year old son and 11 year old daughter, and me, by her side, Jennifer took her last breath, finished her race and passed the baton.
The journey began in the spring of 2005 and for a moment the world stopped rotating, and it stood still. My life as I knew it flashed before my eyes. No, I hadn’t received a terrible doctor report, I hadn’t lost my home, a parent, child or loved one. What happened? My wife, my best friend, my lover, my soul mate had just been told they found a mass during her colonoscopy. It was odd enough that a 28 year old, beautiful, fit, health conscious woman had to have a colonoscopy. That’s for old people, right? Nope, not at our house. But now we sit, starring blankly at the doctor, and then at each other. Did she just say cancer?
Yep, that was the report. I believe the words were “a blanket like polyp was found, they took a biopsy of it and found it to be stage 2 colorectal cancer.” But I’m not sure – at all, to this day, what exactly she said. It seems like a dream. No, it seems like a nightmare. How could this be? Isn’t this an old person’s disease? How could it be? Our lives are just now gearing up. We have now only been married for seven years, in our dream home for just 4 years, working ministry together, praying together, raising our children together, loving God and loving people. Can this be right? I mean Jennifer, of all people. Never smoked, never drank, I’m not sure that she ever said a cuss word. This isn’t fair! What about all the people that do all of the aforementioned and are walking around old and seemingly healthy? Come on, not fair, not fair, not fair!
That was what I thought – not fair. Jennifer, on the other hand, embraced the diagnosis with grace, humility, confidence and faith. Now we had no idea what this “cancer” thing meant. All we knew is that usually when the word cancer is uttered it was a death sentence, and in some cases an unpleasant, slow process. The doctor gave us some assurance telling us that it was completely operable. She didn’t share any statistics with us on success rates, long term prognosis and we didn’t ask. But somehow, despite our complete ignorance to understand what the diagnosis actually meant, there was a peace. I don’t remember what was said. I really don’t remember much – but I remember this. We just asked the question – now what?
The ‘now what’ is a road filled with biopsies, countless rounds of chemo therapy, two rounds of radiation, five surgeries, hair loss, loss of bladder control, a permanent colostomy, loss of feeling and mobility of her right leg, second opinions and a trial procedure. Report after report, visit after visit, exam after exam the news would be the same. And after a while you become numb. After a while you are scared to have “faith”, to “believe”, to “have a dream” because in the end it hurts when you feel that you are let down.
I remember one of the first things that struck me was how many people were going through the same thing as my beautiful bride. The majority of them fit into what many of us stereotype as people that battle cancer. But intermixed were a few younger folks like Jen. I don’t know why we, or maybe I should say I thought of cancer as a disease that strikes the elderly. I’ve seen some broadcast that show children that fight the disease – but it just doesn’t seem real into you are in the middle of it. Jennifer would see her Oncologist and then report to the treatment center were we would be surrounded by people with “stuff” going on, just like us, or even more serious. The reality was that we were sitting in the middle of a huge waiting room filled with people who were fighting for their lives.
Along the way, without really knowing what we were doing, we took moments; moments to embrace life! Whether it was as simple as watching the kids chase and catch fireflies in the back yard after one of Isaac’s baseball games on a warm summer day or soaking in the magic of Christmas at Walt Disney World or watching Jennifer and the kids search for seashells at sunrise on Maderia Beach or enjoying an amazing getaway to one of the worlds best kept secrets – North Captiva Island.
In the fall of 2009, in a private little ceremony with our family, Jennifer and I stood on the beach of North Captiva Island, the sun piercing through the storm clouds in a showing of great support and love we renewed our vows. We recommitted to one another that we were in this, together. Whether in the good times, in the bad, in the healthy times, in the cancer times, we were going to walk this out, hand in hand, heart to heart. It is those memories, those photos and those videos that give us joy and have sustained us through the years.
It was in the midst of this journey that Jennifer’s heart didn’t turn cold, bitter or inward but grew warm, loving and strong and turned to others who were in the midst of their cancer journey. During this time Jennifer journaled these words:
“Cancer… why cancer why? Why do you impact so many of us? It’s not fair…it sucks! I can’t tell you how many people we know or know of who has been so dreadfully, fearfully, miserably impacted by cancer. We have heard so many stories that start “my mother, my father, my sister, my cousin, my friend, my child”… it’s horrible. And it’s sad. What do you do? You feel helpless. Some people need more than a pretty word to get them through the crap that cancer is going to take them through. What some people need is gas to get to their next doctor appointment, money to pay the bills, groceries to feed their children. What do you do? Not enough. “I’m not going to let my life slip by without doing something so big for God that He is the one to blame for it. I can’t control what happens to me, but I can control what happens in me. I will stay in a place of complete surrender – fully convinced He is still God; avoid, at all cost, strife, bitterness pride, unbelief and un-forgiveness.”
And it is in these words that the Jennifer Wynn Vancil Cancer Foundation was founded. I want to make this abundantly clear – preachers have used it in sermons, speakers have used it in their inspirational speeches, grandparents have told you over breakfast in their impartation of wisdom and I’m telling you from living it; nothing, absolutely nothing, will matter except the time, except the memories, the laughs, the tears, the joy, the places, the experiences, in the end. Because in the end, that is all that you will have.
In closing, her strength, love, compassion and grace inspired all who knew her, including me. You may be thinking, really? How could it be while she hadn’t received a full realization of her healing? Simple, because despite her pain and challenges she always looked beautiful, she always smiled and took time to listen to others stories and she continued to work with and pray for people. I don’t know about you, but I find it amazing that even when you aren’t seeing an answer, the way you want to see an answer, you continue to believe, you continue to press on. You see she wasn’t dependent on seeing healing in her own life to know that it happen for another. Her faith and encouragement reminds me of lyrics from one of Jennifer’s favorite country artist, Kenny Rogers:
And she believes in me, I’ll never know just what she sees in me
I told her someday if she was my girl, I could change the world
With my little songs, I was wrong
But she has faith in me, and so I go on trying faithfully
And who knows maybe on some special night, if my song is right
I will find a way, while she waits… while she waits for me!
I’m so thankful that she believed in me and I believe that together we can change the world of families in the midst of their cancer journey by simply giving them a chance to create memories that will last for a lifetime!
Thanks for taking a stroll with me! I really appreciate it. We are looking forward to an amazing 2016 and beyond. Here are our goals:
- Send a minimum of 12 families on memory making getaways
- Begin exploration of having a home on North Captiva Island for the exclusive use of our JWVCF families
- Branch out to new markets starting with our partner, Dr. Johnna Bendell, in Nashville Tennessee
We appreciate your friendship, encouragement, insight and support! You can make a tax-deductible gift on our website, www.jwvcf.com or you can mail it to: JWVCF, 443 Deer Run, Moro, IL 62067. And be sure to be part of our community on Facebook by liking our page at www.facebook.com/jwvcancerfoundation. If you have any questions or comments feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Committed to the cause~