Peter van den Berg

Bible Study

“From a Death Sentence” to “The Sound of Life”

One man’s miraculous journey through aggressive cancer

Peter Vandenberg

The phone rang unexpectedly at 8am, and a very agitated doctor’s voice crackled in my ear. It was the oncologist whom I had visited the previous day because of a lump forming in my left eye socket. “Your diagnosis is not as expected,” he said. “It is Burkett’s Lymphoma!” I did not know exactly what that was but assumed it was bad because he was calling me so early in the morning!

“It is a very aggressive form of cancer, known to spread rapidly and to grow tumors at a very fast rate. I have spoken with a leading authority on Burkett’s who is at Shands Cancer hospital in Gainesville, Florida. Go to emergency and check in. The oncology staff will meet you there.” Asked when, he emphatically said, “You must go now! As soon as we finish this call you must get there as quickly as possible.”

It had started some weeks before on a ministry trip to Germany and Africa. I noticed a slight swelling in my left eye. Thinking it was a stye or similar, I was not alarmed at all. But it continued to grow until team members commented. By the time we returned to Florida, the eye was 80% closed with double vision, flashing lights and shadows, and a loss of focus. So I immediately went to an ophthalmologist.

The doctor was not unduly alarmed, declaring it to be a benign tumor that could be removed surgically. He cut my eyelid open to excise the tumor. But before removing it he did a biopsy, which showed positive for cancer. I was referred to an oncologist whose first assessment was that it was a typical “orbital lymphoma” that would respond well to radiation. He booked me for the radiation and more tests, stating that there was a section of the original biopsy pathology that he still had not seen and needed to check first.

This resulted in the revelation of Burkett’s Lymphoma and his urgent phone call the next morning that changed everything.

I asked a friend to drive me the two hours to Shands hospital. While I waited for him, I researched this “Burkett’s Lymphoma.” It was indeed a rare and very aggressive form of cancer known for a high fatality rate. It characteristically spread rapidly throughout the body, spinal fluid, and bone marrow. The survival rate for persons over 60 years of age was very low, with the best results being four more years. I am 68 years old, and I knew I had been handed a death sentence!

Both my wife and I were shocked to the core and we immediately jumped into action by informing everyone that we could think of about the crisis and asked them to pray. I also handed all of my computer ID’s and passwords over to her and we set in motion the sale of a second property that we owned in order to simplify our financial world given the strong likelihood of my imminent demise.

I arrived at Shands Hospital Emergency and was admitted immediately. Many intensive tests were carried out during the day, including scans, X-rays, ultrasounds, and multiple blood tests.

In the meantime the bad news went out to our colleagues in ministry, and to many friends and family around the world. Due to the public nature of our work, this resulted in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people joining us in prayer for the desperate situation.

When the results of the many tests came back, there was not enough information to support the diagnosis. We had to wait till the following Monday for clarity. Meanwhile I stayed in hospital since Burkett’s is a full emergency. On Monday the doctor was back, saying that the pathology showed beyond doubt that it was Burkett’s Lymphoma. The most extreme chemotherapy regimen possible was to start immediately with the shortest recovery time between sessions. He said that there were many side effects to this extreme treatment that would make me very sick. Being familiar with regular chemotherapy as witnessed from the experience of friends and family, I had some idea of what to expect. Further excursions online confirmed that the side effects would be extreme – some long lasting, while others could even be fatal.

When the results of the many tests came back, the leading doctor came to inform me that the tests did not support the Burkett’s profile and that he needed to see further aspects of the original biopsy. It was Friday and that information could not be obtained before Monday so everything went on hold. I asked if I should go back home to which the doctor became quite animated, saying that Burketts is a full emergency and I was to stay right there in the ward. Needless to say, I was happy to receive a ‘downgrade’ from the aggressive cancer to ‘regular’ cancer and I likened it to having your death sentence reduced to ten years! We saw it as the hand of God at work.

But on Monday the doctor was back with another change. The pathology showed beyond doubt, through observing the cancer’s DNA, that it was Burkett’s Lymphoma and that chemotherapy would start immediately. It was to be the most extreme regimen possible with the shortest recovery time between sessions. I was politely and sympathetically informed that there were many side effects to this extreme treatment that would make me very sick in a number of ways. Being familiar with regular chemotherapy as witnessed from the experience of friends and family, I had some idea of what to expect. Further excursions online confirmed that the side effects would be extreme, some long-lasting, while others could even be fatal.

At this stage my daughter asked me what it felt like to receive a diagnosis of aggressive cancer with a poor prognosis. She reminded me that this was her, my very frank daughter asking, and that she did not want the sanitized version as a reply. I gave it thought and responded from my heart.

“It has been a great shock to both your mother and me – shocking us to the depth of our being because in our society, the word cancer is regarded as synonymous with sickness and death.

But despite this, I have an inexplicable, deep, calm confidence inside me that is not dependent on staying alive. It doesn’t sound reasonable to my enquiring mind, but I know it is the work of the Holy Spirit because I don’t have that capacity naturally.”

The chemotherapy began with seven powerful chemicals, some of them deadly. Constant monitoring was made of all vitals during the first infusion, with a slow rate of infusion at the beginning, but increased slightly every 30 minutes as I was able to tolerate it. I readied myself for the drama ahead and promptly fell asleep! I was woken up three hours later to be told that it was all in! It went in so fast that the pharmacy was not ready with the next chemo chemicals for two more hours. And I had felt nothing.

This was the first indication that something good was going to happen. My beloved Evangeline told me she had been praying that my case would be atypical…. and it had indeed started that way.

As the week of continuous chemotherapy progressed, it became apparent by the hour that I was doing very well. To this point, I had no adverse side effects at all. I even refused the anti-nausea tablets because I didn’t need them. Most amazing of all was the fact that the tumor in my left eye, large enough to touch my glasses and close the eye completely, started to shrink dramatically and was completely gone in just three days. The chemotherapy was definitely working very well, and one nurse made the comment that this was “unusual.”

After the first 100-hour session was over, and I was still feeling very good, well-meaning personnel said that I would definitely feel sick when I went home. But the exact opposite happened, and I was able to fill my ministry role for three days the very next week at our School of Evangelism in Orlando.

The second session also progressed very well indeed. And despite the warnings that I would “definitely be sick this time,” there were still no side effects.

During the first chemo session, they drilled a hole in my head and fitted something called an “Omaya reservoir,” which made it possible to inject chemicals directly into the spinal and cerebral fluid (a common destination for Burkett’s lymphoma). At that time they withdrew some spinal fluid to test for cancer cells, and wonderfully, the results were negative! This is what we, and so many others, had prayed for.

There were smiles all round as once again we could see the hand of the Lord at work. The nurse who called my situation “unusual” during the first session, now upgraded her observation to “amazing!”

I went home again for two weeks to recover, and still the much-predicted sickness never materialized. On my return for the third session I was told they would do tests to see what the present state of the cancer was. We decided that if there were no cancer, we would hold a “Thank You Jesus Party!!”

When I arrived in the cancer ward for this third five-day session, I had a really moving experience.

Many nurses and orderlies came to say hi, smiling and laughing and shaking my hand. I responded that their patients must all look forward to returning to such a reception. They whispered, “This doesn’t usually happen because others are depressed or angry and bitter about being here... But you are different!”

I responded that it wasn't me, but Jesus in me. HE was making all the difference.

Did I mention that, from the second session onward, I had so much energy that the staff brought me an exercise bike, and each session I climbed random hills for a total of 35 miles? And still no side effects at all, prompting the nurse to upgrade her observation, yet again, to “incredible!”

It was readily apparent now that something extraordinary was taking place. And I was eager to point to Jesus as the one answering prayer, even though I myself really could not explain exactly how that works. The longer I progressed without side effects, the more others acknowledged that God was at work.

By Saturday morning, when I was about to leave the hospital after the third five-day chemo session, I felt better than I had after both previous sessions. So I decided to drive myself home. The one doctor heard about this, and shaking his head in disbelief, said that he never had a five-day chemo patient drive himself home around the corner – never mind for two hours. I simply smiled and said that Jesus was definitely at work! 

These reports were sent out to the many people praying, with the request to “keep it up because your prayers are working!” And that was no publicity stunt, but rather a simple passing-on of what we witnessed day by day.

Between the third and fourth chemo sessions, I had the PET scan that would reveal the extent of the cancer, and guide further treatments.

I received a phone call from the doctor’s assistant to give me a summary of the scan. “It’s a very good report. A very, very good report. Even the radiologist said that this is a great scan report. The disease is not totally eradicated, but is very close. A very good report!” He then wished me well on my upcoming mission trip to Africa.

I couldn’t help but be reminded that the last phone call we had received from a doctor on this subject had been just nine weeks earlier, and it had been tantamount to a death sentence.

The whole process to this point can best be described by the nurse who upgraded her observation, yet again, to “You are a miracle in process.” All glory to Jesus!

I went to Blantyre, Malawi, and preached my full share in the Fire Conference alongside Daniel Kolenda. At the end of it I felt happy, grateful, and privileged – but not tired! Not bad considering that I was supposed to be in chemotherapy that whole week. Amazing? Yes, Jesus definitely was at work!

On my return, I travelled back to Gainesville and Shands Hospital for the fourth chemotherapy session. But first I met with the leading doctor for her review of the recent PET scan. As I had suspected, the scan showed that the cancer could not be seen anywhere. I was told that, after a PET scan returned clear for lymphoma cancers, they usually still do one more session to be sure. That would bring me to a total of four sessions. Yet the doctor said there is no data on doing less than the full six sessions for Burkett’s Lymphoma. But after she talked with a colleague and looked at other data, she recommended doing the present session and then one more to complete. That would be five in all. And from what I could gather, this had never been done before with Burkett’s Lymphoma. It really was miraculous!

At the end of the fourth chemotherapy session, when the team of doctors saw me, they reiterated that all my blood work and tests were perfect. Then they “instructed” me to have a photo taken downstairs standing next to the huge “Total Remission Bell,” and to post it online.

I questioned whether this should be done before the final chemo session. They said, “Yes, because the scan is already clear and the final session is now only prophylactic.” There were smiles all round as this was not the usual speech given to Burkett’s Lymphoma patients who are over 60 years of age.

Needless to say, our hearts were full of joy and thanks to our Savior for His intervention on my behalf. Evangeline and I then went downstairs together to ring the “Total Remission Bell.” It was a very emotional moment indeed. I took the wooden club provided and struck the bell so hard that it nearly burst our eardrums! With a broad smile I said to her through the ear splitting noise: “This isthe sound of life!”

I left soon after this for our CfaN-campaign in Tema, Ghana. As you can imagine, I was really looking forward to it with my whole heart!

Once again, immediately on my return to Florida, I drove the two hours back to Shands Cancer Hospital in Gainesville and met with the doctor who headed up the team working on my case. She looked at all the records again and said, “Your case has exceeded all of our medical expectations! It has been extraordinary.”

A social worker who was sent to “build up my spirits and help me,” turned to the doctor as she left and said, “I came in to help him. But being in this room has helped me instead!”

All of these amazing comments are directly attributable to the tremendous work of the medical team at Shands, and definitely to the miraculous intervention of God. I thank the Lord for making my case atypical.

During the last few days of the final chemo session, many of the medical personnel came to my room to greet me and acknowledge that my case was amazing and miraculous.

The gravity of what transpired was graphically brought home to me after the remarks of one nurse. She said that she had been on this cancer floor for two years, and I was the fifth Burkett’s Lymphoma case during that time… but I was the first one ever to leave. Not only that, but I was leaving early! Other cases had the five months with six sessions, but then kept returning after several months for six more sessions. She added that one patient would not be returning, but would be going on to hospice. I said, “It really is miraculous, isn't it?” She simply nodded, and with teary eyes, gave me another big hug.

This is the fingerprint of God! He is at work, and I am an amazed but grateful beneficiary.

From a death sentence to the sound of life, by God’s grace.

“Let there be life”, said God, and what he wrought
Went marching past in myriad lives and brought
This hour.....This quiet small thought
Holding invisible vastness in its hands.
Siegfried Sassoon

Peter Vandenberg