Finding Incredible: What Cancer—and Trials—Can Teach Us

By Heather Whittle Wrigley, Church News and Events – 3 February 2012

It’s incredible that I had a stage-four cancer, and I’m still alive. It’s incredible that the doctors thought I would lose a leg, and I didn’t. It’s incredible that they gave me a 30 percent chance to live, and here I am.

In September 2011, Daniel Hedlund, a seminary teacher in Layton, Utah, USA, wrote the above words and submitted them to an online competition called “In Search of Incredible.”

Singer and filmmaker Jason Mraz was in search of incredible stories from around the world, and he invited people to share theirs. And in December, people from around the world voted.

They chose Daniel’s story, which was made into a short film and presented at the largest independent cinema festival in the United States—the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, USA—on January 19, 2012.

Daniel’s experience is incredible, but he is quick to point out that he doesn’t think his story is much different from that of anyone else who has been through something difficult.

“I think the lesson to be learned is that our Heavenly Father loves us, and He wants what’s best for us, like any father would,” Daniel said. “If we can trust that simple fact . . . then all of a sudden there’s this paradigm shift because we look at our trials and challenges and obstacles as a means to an end. It all of a sudden became for me something that would grow me as a person, would grow my testimony, would grow my faith in the Savior, would help me to rely on somebody other than my own capabilities.”

Since he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma (bone cancer) four years ago, Daniel has undergone 20 rounds of chemotherapy and 10 surgeries. The cancer has returned twice, but Daniel is currently in remission. Through these experiences, he said, his understanding of the Atonement has deepened.

“[Christ’s] ability to be there for us when we need Him, His ability to give us the peace and comfort that we seek when we most need it, and the reality of His atoning sacrifice and how far-reaching that is. . . . To me, that’s incredible,” Daniel said. “It is an infinite Atonement. And its effects are much more far-reaching than my living room.”

Living with Cancer

The Friday morning leading up to a new scan is one of the most difficult for Daniel and his wife, Melanie. It’s January, and it’s been three months since Daniel has been scanned for any new cancer growth. The last two scans, taken at three-month intervals, have come up clean.

The time between when Daniel is scanned and when he receives the results the following Monday is “nerve-wracking,” he said. “Luckily, one of those days is Sunday, so we get to go to church and receive that spiritual charge.”

This time, the scan comes up clean for the third time in a row. As the Hedlunds leave, they stop at the desk and set the next appointment for three months from now.

Daniel’s first scan occurred in December 2007. Newlywed in November 2007, Daniel and Melanie, 23 and 20 years old respectively, were eager to begin their life together.

But three weeks after their wedding, during a checkup for a sore leg, doctors saw that something on the x-ray didn’t look quite right and recommended an MRI immediately.

In the waiting room of the imaging center, Melanie wrote out wedding thank-you notes as they waited for a phone call that would tell them the results. Finally, it came. Daniel said he remembers everything about that phone call.

“I remember how the doctor sounded. I remember the words he said. But most of all I think I remember how it felt to hear those words, ‘You have cancer,’ for the first time,” he said. “He told me . . . I would have to do chemotherapy, and I might lose my leg.”

He dropped his head and began to cry. As he hung up and turned around, he realized Melanie hadn’t heard any of it, but could tell from his expression something was very wrong.

“I had to sit next to her and tell my bride of three weeks that her new husband had cancer,” Daniel recalled.

Osteosarcoma is generally a pediatric cancer that occurs in younger patients and teenagers. Daniel had no history of cancer in his family, and he said the unknown was terrifying.

In his case, the cancer had metastasized, or spread, to his lungs, making it a stage-four cancer with a 20–50 percent survival rate.

Rounds of chemotherapy involved Daniel being administered a series of drugs in various cycles. Some treatments required that he return to the hospital every day for several days, while others required that he stay at the hospital for an extended period of time.

Chemotherapy often left him feeling nauseous and exhausted. Within two months of his diagnosis Daniel had lost 30 pounds and his hair had begun falling out.

Because of his faith in the plan of salvation, Daniel said he was never afraid to die, but he did fear not being able to experience much of what life has to offer—having children, playing with grandchildren, serving missions with his wife.

“I was afraid, especially at the beginning, that I was failing at being a husband,” he said. “I felt like it was my job to prevent things like this from happening, and here I was the cause of this happening.”

Since his initial diagnosis and during each recurrence of cancer in his lungs—for five months in February 2010 and for another five months in February 2011—Daniel said he and Melanie have learned specific lessons that have application to any trial or challenge life may present.

After the Rain Comes the Rainbow

When Daniel was diagnosed with cancer the first time, he said he believed Heavenly Father wanted him to learn something before he could move on. When he was declared in remission the first time, he thought he had “passed the test.”

But then it came back again, and then again. For a long time, Daniel said, he wondered if there was something he wasn’t learning that God wanted him to. It was during the cancer’s second recurrence that he reached a turning point.

He was reading in the New Testament:

“And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.

“And [Christ] was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?” (Mark 4:37–38).

“I thought to myself, ‘That is exactly the way I feel right now,’” Daniel said. “’Master, carest thou not that I perish? Carest thou not, Heavenly Father, that I have cancer? Carest thou not that my wife and I want to start a family? Carest thou not that I’m tired of doing this? Carest thou not that we want to continue our lives?’”

When Daniel continued reading, he said, he found the answer to all of his questions.

“The Savior’s response to His disciples was, ‘O ye of little faith,’ and He stretched forth His hand and He calmed the tempest,” Daniel said, quoting Matthew 8:26. “I had to ask myself in that moment, ‘Do I believe that this actually happened? Do I believe that Christ calmed the waters that day?’ And I do. And because I believe that, I know that He can calm the tempest going on inside my body. . . . And it’s not my job to ask why or to wonder why this is happening to me again. My job is just to have the faith that Heavenly Father is in charge and that He knows what’s best for me.”

On March 25, 2008, just three months after Daniel’s initial diagnosis, Melanie wrote on their CaringBridge blog, “Although I don’t believe God GAVE Daniel cancer, I do believe He ALLOWED the cancer to come into our lives at this time for a purpose that we do not yet know. But I know there is a purpose that He has in mind.”

Melanie said she continues to learn what that purpose is.

“I hope I never fully figure it out, because trying to figure out the purpose behind Daniel’s illness helps me to learn what I think my Heavenly Father would want me to learn,” she said.

When, on March 11, 2011, doctors found cancer in Daniel’s lungs for a third time, he wrote that he knew that not only had he and his wife been blessed during the previous three years, but that they had come out ahead of where they would have otherwise been.

The past four years have helped Daniel and Melanie to be more aware of the blessings of family and friends, they said. In 2008, during Daniel’s first bout with cancer, supporters put on a benefit concert themed “After the Rain Comes the Rainbow,” alluding to the story of Noah.

Funds went to help with the Hedlunds’ medical costs—costs for treating for this type of cancer can run from $500,000 to $800,000 USD.

Over the past four years, the Hedlunds have spent more than 100 days in the hospital. Regular visits from friends and family, coupled with the support of compassionate doctors and nurses, were a great source of comfort and support to them during those hospital stays, the couple said. Daniel’s mother even moved to Utah for four months to be near her son and to allow Melanie to continue to attend school.

Daniel and Melanie also found a greater appreciation for temple covenants because of their trials.

“The doctors can give me a 30 percent chance to live, but I have a 100 percent chance to be with my wife forever,” Daniel said. “And that knowledge keeps us sane and gives us peace and gives us comfort in those otherwise stressful times in our lives.”

Perhaps most importantly, the past four years have taught Daniel and Melanie that the gospel is the ultimate source of comfort and hope.

“I wanted that newlywed life—and not only that, I wanted a full life with my husband. And all of those things were up in the air and questionable,” she said. “And I learned that the gospel . . . is the only thing that can help you overcome that sorrow of that loss. And it’s because we’ve been promised all of those things that are most important. We’ve been promised eternal life if we’re faithful. We’ve been promised eternal families if we keep our covenants.”

Daniel recalled how prayer comforted him during late nights when chemotherapy treatments kept him up and he felt alone.

“Those were the times that the Atonement was most real to me because it was almost as if the Savior were there in the room with me and telling me, ‘It’s OK. I know what you’re going through because I’ve gone through it, because I’ve been there,’” he said. “That was the single source of comfort on so many occasions for me—knowing that I had a Savior who loved me enough to suffer what I was suffering.”

Conclusion

As of January 2012, Daniel Hedlund is cancer-free. The eight-inch donor bone that replaced the cancerous part of his femur has yet to incorporate fully, so he continues to walk with the aid of a cane. Every three months for the rest of his life, Daniel will undergo scanning to check for new cancer growth throughout his body.

Daniel continues to hold the same perspective he’s developed through his experience with cancer, which he wrote about last March when he was diagnosed with cancer for a third time:

I’m looking forward to seeing what the Lord has in store for me. . . . What lessons He’ll teach me. How He’ll stretch me and school me. And most of all, what He will turn me into. Where I see myself going and who I see myself becoming are very different from where God sees me going and who He sees me becoming. But each step of the way, I can see that where He has taken me is a much better place than I ever thought of for myself.

Always Your Happiness In Mind,

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