Cancer may be one of the most terrifying words we hope to never hear. It was for me. But, on December 4, 2015, I heard, “Your son has cancer.” I had wondered how I would really respond if I were ever to hear the worst.


I was surprised at my initial thoughts. You might be too.


Just two weeks shy of graduating from the University of Florida, my then 21 year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Stage 3B to be exact.


Daniel had called us the night before, matter-of-factly informing us of his visit to the college infirmary due to prolonged chest pains. The doctor had noticed his “pigeon-shaped” chest and ordered an x-ray which revealed a large mass in his chest. They said they would call him with further results the next day. He left the hospital, somewhat concerned, but went directly to Navigators, a college Christian discipleship ministry, where he played the drums for their worship service.


Daniel said he just wanted to let us know what was happening, and added there was no need to head that way.  When I hung up the phone that night, I did some googling using key words large mass chest. I looked only briefly, not wanting to needlessly alarm myself, but long enough to see the words tumor and cancer as possibilities. I closed my laptop. How would  I really respond if I were to hear the worst? Would I burst into tears? Would we collapse into each other’s arms? I recall a quiet dialogue with the Lord reassuring me of his sovereignty and that nothing catches him by surprise. I can trust.


But, would this situation be different? Would I still walk with peace through even the frightening world of cancer?


The next morning. “Mom, they’d like for you to be here to discuss the next steps.”


My husband and I packed a few things, not knowing what we were about to hear and if we would be staying overnight.  As he drove, we prayed. I phoned our older kids and our parents. I texted family and a small group of dearest friends, giving them only the accurate facts – no embellishment. No speculation. Keeping this private was important to me. This prevented gossip, drama, jumping to conclusions, and mishandling of information that wasn’t theirs to share. (Make a note. When someone trusts you with their heart and shares information, whether they say, “don’t tell anyone” or not, it should simply be understood that you honor confidentiality. Repeat only with permission, only to whom is approved or requested, only accurate information, and only what they would like shared.)


We arrived at his home to pick him up before heading to the infirmary. I recall thinking, “This is what my son looks like the day we will hear he has cancer.”


I walked behind him from the parking lot to the infirmary.  “This is what my son is wearing the day we will hear he has cancer.”


Each movement was viewed in slow motion. Each image mentally memorized for future reflection on this potential life-altering moment.


The infirmary staff was incredibly friendly, smiling and calling Daniel by name. Hello Daniel. Come this way, Daniel. How are you today, Daniel? The wait time was very short, but even still, we witnessed a few heads popping out.. as if to catch a glimpse of this patient before hearing the news. Later, we would each share our own perspectives on this “red carpet” experience, adding little details we independently observed and would all chuckle about the signs leading up to the news. We were quite certain that a cancer diagnosis would be rare at a college infirmary where the typical student health care concerns were more along the lines of illnesses, infections, and accidents.


The doctor greeted us. I thought, “This is the doctor who will deliver the news that my son has cancer.”


We sat down. “This is the room where we will hear my son has cancer.”


I snapped this photo with my cell phone sitting on my lap. I was listening intently to her words, yet simultaneously I was observing the manner in which she was delivering this news.  Later I would thank her.

Hearing Daniel has cancer

She had such a gentle way about her, so kind and compassionate. Careful to not give information overload, she made it easy to understand. She calmly shared what they knew up to that point. She used the word cancer, not talking around it. I wanted the straight-forward information.


One of my concerns was being overwhelmed with managing details, paperwork, schedules, medicines, accurate medical information, and research. You may have never noticed this, but most people have a natural filing system predesigned in the brain where random pieces of data are categorized, stored and retrieved. I do not have this filing system, so I pass on to other people the tasks of handling details and filter through information, saving only “the bottom-line.”  To me (and perhaps to others whose brains are like mine), trying to systematically organize and retain facts is like tossing into the air a pile of loose papers of various sizes with sloppy handwriting. Disorganized. Chaotic. Thank you for listening.


The doctor said, “We believe this to be one of three things:  Germ cell tumor, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, or Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.”  These are types of cancers, she had to spell out. “Daniel will need more tests. We’ve already called Shands Hospital and they will be expecting you. (ie. They took care of the scheduling details for me and made it easy for us. Bless them.)


The doctor gave me one directive. It overwhelmed me. “Go home and do your research over the weekend. Choose an oncologist.”

Hearing Daniel has cancer


I quietly took this photo, too. How bizarre, right?  I mean, photos are for joyous occasions. Cancer is certainly not that.


Yet, I snapped it with foresight. This could be a Stones of Remembrance photo.  It could serve as a momento when Daniel reflects back on this moment of being thrust into a frightening world of uncertainties. “When I had cancer” could be one of the big stones- remembering God’s faithfulness and passing on specific stories to his children and grandchildren.


Image: Stones-of-Remembrance-Robin-Dance1


I knew full well from my own journey with Christ, that difficulties have resulted in the most beautiful experiences with Christ, deepening my faith and ability to truly yield and trust his plans, refining my heart, developing passions, building character, giving me a compassion for others. Yes, I knew full well that crisis means opportunity for God’s craftsmanship. I welcome it. I don’t look forward to it, but I embrace it.


Our greatest life messages will come out of adversity.


God could have chosen any tool to work in Daniel’s life… and my life.. and those directly impacted by this. But here it is. Cancer.


Like a secret agent having his next assignment revealed, is how I see these clearly visible hardships. An assignment from God .A difficult assignment must get God’s approval, as we see in Job’s life, recorded in Job 1:7-14. What Satan intends for evil, God uses for good. Boom!


And our response, like theirs, should be, “Okay. Let’s do this.” 

We just heard Daniel has cancer and are heading to the hospital for a CT scan. Notice his pigeon-shaped chest where the softball sized mass had been growing. We hadn't noticed it before.

We just heard Daniel has cancer and were heading to Shands, Gainesville for a CT scan. Notice his pigeon-shaped chest where the softball sized mass had been growing. We hadn’t noticed it before.


And as his mother, my prayer is, “May Daniel not waste this crisis. May he lean on your and know you more intimately through this. May he look back on this as a Stones of Remembrance in his life.”


And I pray, “May I not waste this crisis. May I lean on you and navigate my family well through this. May I personally have the viewpoint from which all is experienced of expecting and recording your faithfulness and lead the children to view difficulties in this way. May your sweetness meet us in suffering. Thank you for what you are doing and the fruit you are producing. You are worthy to be trusted and worthy to be praised.”


Friend, how will you react when your heart hears the worst?


Rhonda thereispeacewhenrestinginGod ellis

  1. Cathy McQueen

    Rhonda, since reconnecting with you on Facebook, I have followed Daniel’s story (and your entire family’s) with great interest. Having heard that word “cancer” myself just under five years ago, I could understand much that you’ve shared about your thoughts…. your emotions… your prayers — as you began a “journey” you never hoped to take. My cancer was found simply because I noted a very small change that I thought deserved attention so headed to the doctor who began the process of discovering whether this would be something simple to “fix” or much more serious. After a surgical procedure, it turned out to be the latter and I recall vividly when I got that news. Unfortunately, I had put my doctor in the bad position of having to deliver this news over the phone because I did not feel well enough to go to his office as he’d preferred. I was home alone, and never expected what he’d apologetically tell me then tell me the oncologist appointment was in two short days. Stunned doesn’t define that first emotion I felt as I hung up the phone then immediately called my husband. Undeniably, I was frightened and immediately started crying and pacing back and forth across the room then after only a short time, I stopped… took a breath and prayed “God, You knew about this before I did… You know what is going on right this minute and… You know what is going to happen! This is Yours… and I refuse to worry!” Rhonda, that was the last tear I shed before surgery and honestly can say that I did not worry but carried on as normally as I could while planning major surgery and what that entailed both at home and at work. That surgery turned out to be three weeks later in which time my mother-in-law passed away, I took a trip with scrapbooking friends (which the doctor and Tommy insisted on) and took care of work not knowing how long I’d be out. Over a week after the surgery while recuperating at home, I got another call… This time Tommy was home and heard my side of the conversation as the doctor began by happily saying “I have the best kind of news…” and went on to tell me, all reports indicated the surgery got all of the cancer and he was so confident, he didn’t even think I needed radiation or chemo. I hung up and immediately started crying which thoroughly confused Tommy having understood it was a “good” call. I laughed and told him I was simply grateful that it was over and that no treatment was required. I guess you could say those were truly tears of joy. That was in November of 2011 and the doctor has been very optimistic for me and has noted that I will reach the five-year mark this year. My life verse even before then and still is Jeremiah 29:11 where God tells me “I know the plans that I have for you… to give you a future and a hope!” wherever my life journey may take me. I believed it then – I believe it now. And having said all that… I am so excited for the plans that He has for Daniel and his life!! Thanks for sharing your story… and forgive me for such a long “comment”!!

    • Rhonda

      Cathy, thank you for sharing your story. It was a blessing for me and I’m sure it will be to many others who read it. “This is yours and I refuse to worry.” I love that.

  2. Terri Brantley


    Thank you for so beautifully sharing this with us! Your faith in God is remarkable and has certainly influenced the lives of many, beginning with your own son and family. Only time will tell how many lives will be impacted, to the glory of God, through your sharing! Keep kicking cancer, Daniel!

    Much love and prayers,
    Terri Brantley

    • Rhonda

      Terri, may this journey be used to point people to Him. There is peace and joy in the midst. Thanks for your encouragement and prayers.

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