Photo from flickr by U.S. Army (CC BY 2.0).

Cancer diagnosis an unexpected life sentence

“If I didn’t have my faith, I wouldn’t still be fighting this cancer.”

LANDMARK, MB—When Paul Giesbrecht started feeling the first twinges of abdominal pain two years ago, he never imagined the turn his life would take in the months to come. He was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer, treated with chemotherapy for six months and told that his scans were clear. But during a follow-up scan, he learned the cancer had returned.

In November 2014, Paul was diagnosed as terminal. Doctors gave him an estimated six months to live without treatment, and two years with treatment.

“It has been an emotional roller coaster every day,” says Paul, who is married to Samantha and father to two boys, Zander, 4, and Jude, 3. “I don’t know when I’m going to wake up or how I’m going to feel the next morning. And that’s just me. My kids know that Daddy is sick, but they don’t know the true reality of it... my wife doesn’t have the same support from me anymore.”

No longer able to work, the 35-year-old has had to face many other unexpected challenges along with the physical pain including loss of physical intimacy, psychological trauma, reliance on disability pay, depression, dependence on medication and frustration at being unable to perform simple tasks, like mowing the lawn.

Depression hit hard after he was diagnosed. Paul says he didn’t expect to fall into it so deeply.

“I always considered myself to be a steadfast Christian,” Paul says, “and suddenly I’m given this life sentence. It’s really hard to look at that number every day and not count it down.”

Samantha created a Facebook group for those who want to keep updated on the family’s situation. “I think things are slowly starting to sink in for both of us,” she wrote soon after his diagnosis.

“I think we both went through the full range of emotions last night... I am also having a hard time with day to day feeling. Laughing at funny stuff my kids do or say, feeling sympathy and compassion for others in their time of pain and suffering, enjoying the weather. I feel guilty for feeling anything other than pain and heartbreak.”

They both rely on a lot of prayer to keep them going.

“When I was in my depression, it was very difficult to focus on spirituality. That was a dark time that God had to carry me through,” says Paul. “I’m walking again with Jesus definitely at my side and my wife at the other.”

The tribulations in his life up to this point are challenges that Paul finds himself grateful for now.

“If I’d had an easy life up to this point, this would have broken me,” he says. “Suicide was a very real consideration for me. If I didn’t have my faith, I wouldn’t still be fighting this cancer.”

Dealing with depression is a daily prayer for Paul, and he tries to focus on the small joys in life: being able to spend more time with his two children, appreciating the community and the churches that have stepped forward to help.

One of the most challenging aspects for him was learning to ask for help, Paul says. “Even receiving help was easier than asking for it. We rely on a lot of people, and often people are more willing to help when they know exactly what the need is.”

Paul says one person drops off a carton of milk for them every so often, because they didn’t know what else to do, and they figured a family could always use milk. “Those little unexpected blessings can make a day, make a week,” he says.

Even though the cancer is a looming element in his life, Paul says doesn’t want to be consumed by it and miss out on everything else. “I have cancer,” he says, “but my identity isn’t all about being sick. I’m not going to let cancer define me.”

Despite a lack of response to treatments, Paul has hope that he will be cured.

“Passing the six month mark was a small victory,” he says. “Every day is a victory. There is a life after diagnosis.”

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About the author

ChristianWeek Correspondent

Allison is a writer, editor, and graphic designer with a BA in English from Canadian Mennonite University and a Certificate in Publishing from Ryerson University. She currently manages Area of Effect magazine and is a missionary with Geekdom House in Winnipeg, MB.