Christian Media: Where Truth Meets You

When Someone You Love Has Cancer

When Donovan was diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic, he and his wife Jhoana leaned on their faith and on each other for support and encouragement.

When Someone You Love Has Cancer

Bernie Rosquites: Hi everyone, you’re listening to the Faith and Family podcast, a Christian family community that aims to promote Christian values for every phase of your family life. I’m Bernie Rosquites. You know the line, “in sickness and in health”? Sound familiar? When the minister mentions, “in sickness and in health” during the marriage vows, we tend to think of a cold, maybe a bad case of the flu, but not this.

Jhoana Parto: Hi, I’m Jhoana Parto. I’m 38 years old. My family and I live in Sydney, Australia.

Donovan Parto: Hi, I’m Donovan. I’m 39 years old. Jhoana and I have two sons, Isaac and Ezekiel.

Bernie: Jhoana and Donovan’s story actually begins with the flu in 2020. The world had shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the midst of this, the Partos were devastated to find out that Donovan’s lingering flu symptoms led to further testing and a biopsy. The diagnosis was Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, and he needed chemotherapy immediately.

Donovan: It was March… sorry, actually it was in April of 2020, where I actually got sick. You know, one of my passions is sport, and I was playing tennis that day with a friend. From that day onwards, I started to get high temperature fevers, extreme sweats.

Jhoana: You lost a lot of weight.

Donovan: And I also lost a significant amount of weight. I probably lost about seven kilos, which is about 15 and a half pounds or so within two weeks. And basically it was like that for about two and a half, three months until my doctor suggested I reach out to a cardiologist, thinking that it could be a heart issue. And it was a Friday morning. I do recall it was July 9 of 2020, where I got a blood test in the morning and while I was cooking dinner in the evening, the doctor called and suggested that I should go straight into the emergency department of a hospital that was close to us in our previous place or our previous home. And so I did. I rushed through, got a whole bunch of tests done and it was crazy. You know, the doctor was telling me that my blood results had, you know, certain readings of potentially leukemia or a really bad virus. And so I ended up staying there overnight. And yeah, it was just a crazy time in my mind. And at that stage, you’re in shock. You actually go through the whole process of, you know, managing the process of trying to accept it, the fear and the acceptance and basically going through that whole process of managing grief because for a 37-year-old, I think at that time I was healthy. I was working hard.

Jhoana: You were traveling, you were playing sports.

Donovan: Yeah, I was traveling. I was playing sports. In my role at my company I used to travel, you know, four out of five times a week, whilst performing as a deacon during my visitation, joining the caucus meetings for our local congregation back there in St. George. And yeah, it was extremely busy, but then suddenly COVID hit.

What was the hardest thing to accept?

Jhoana: So what was the hardest thing to accept about being diagnosed with leukemia?

Donovan: Yeah, it’s the uncertainty. I think that is the hardest thing to really accept with leukemia. You know, I talk about the shock. I talk about the fear of not being able to recover quickly enough. But something triggered in my mind that you have just got to accept it. And when I say move on, it’s really about just going through the process. You know, I’m fairly pragmatic in terms of how I approach life and if there’s an issue or a concern or a bump in the road, you know… What do I need to do to be able to get through this? I’m very lucky. I’m very fortunate. I’ve got an amazing wife. I’ve got two great kids now. My family has been extremely supportive. The Church has been extremely supportive. And even, you know, from a work perspective, they have been so supportive these last couple of years where I’ve had a significant amount of leave, but I’m still employed by my current employer.

You know, living with cancer, I’m fortunate that I’m no longer classified as having cancer. So I am in remission, but I’ve been in remission before. So this year was actually my second transplant that I had. So I relapsed last year in August. And so going through the process of having a second stem cell transplant, I’m in a quite unique group of individuals who have actually done it twice. So probably the hardest bit to accept on that front is, you know, what if I was to relapse again? The other factor is when you get cancer, the probability increases in getting other cancers as well.

But one of the things I know is hard is just the normalcy. We no longer, you know, live our typical day-to-day life. If you look back to when we didn’t have children, there’s an acronym called a DINK, and that acronym spells out Double Income, No Kids. It was different, you know, there were no limitations. We could go out anywhere. We could jump on an airplane and fly wherever we wanted. Times have changed. You know, I’m quite conscious about where we go, who we see, practicing good social-distancing because of COVID-19. There’s just so many things that have changed. I’ll wake up every morning, I’m taking medication for breakfast. You know, I’ve got my weekly or fortnightly visits to the clinic. It’s no longer normal, but that’s the new normal for us.

Jhoana: It’s our new reality.

Donovan: Yeah.

Jhoana: Yeah, I remember visiting you at the hospital the day you went. The doctor sat us down to give us an update, and worst case was that it was leukemia. He said you needed to do a bone marrow biopsy because of the type of leukemia they think it might be, that it would spread quickly, and that you’d have to undergo chemotherapy pretty much immediately.

And then he changed the subject. I remember he changed the subject and he asked us how many kids we had. We told him we have one child who was three years old at the time, Isaac, and then I remember he said, “Look, if it is leukemia, you’ll need to get into medication and undergo chemotherapy straight away.” And unfortunately, chemotherapy will affect your ability, our ability, to have children in the future. And I remember it felt like someone was kicking us while we were down because the doctor didn’t know that for the past six months, we had been praying for another child. For the past six months, we had been getting negative after negative and…then to be told on top of, you know, you being sick and possibly having cancer, we may not even be able to fall pregnant again. So it was very heartbreaking. It felt-

Donovan: Overwhelming.

“The first miracle that we’ve seen in this journey that we’ve had”

Jhoana: I remember crying and praying every day at home. I would just spontaneously cry and break down throughout the day. I remember praying and asking God to, you know, give me the strength and the hope because at that time, I didn’t feel like I had any of that. I remember getting up and sneaking out of our room at home because I don’t want Isaac to hear me sad or to see me sad or hear me crying. So I snuck out and I went into the lounge room, and I cried and I prayed, and I started getting ready for the day. And I remember going to the bathroom, and I saw that I had one more pregnancy test left, and I thought, “Why not?” You know? So I took the test, and immediately I saw a line saying that I was pregnant. It was a faint line, but it was definitely there. And I remember just saying to myself, “No way, no way, no.” I couldn’t believe that at this time, you know, there’s that possibility that I was pregnant after the doctor had told us that there’s a possibility we couldn’t have children in the future. Then I cried some more. And then two and a half hours later, you called me and told me that you were with the doctor and that they had the results and the official diagnosis was, unfortunately, cancer. Leukemia. You know, I was sad. I was devastated. But in the back of my head, I was like, I’m pregnant.

But it was definitely the news that we needed to hear. You know, we prayed for hope and strength, and God answered in a way only He could. You know, with the pregnancy and His timing, He gave us exactly that. He gave us hope for the future and the strength that we needed at the time to get through this. And even up to now, we speak about it all the time that we see that moment in our life as a reminder of the power of our prayers and the peace that we’ve had together. And the possibilities of what could happen whenever we pray to God and we have God on our side, so… You can’t deny that that was the hand of God telling us that, “Hey, I heard you and I’m here for you.” And I think that was really the first miracle that we’ve seen in this journey that we’ve had.

And we’d go to the hospital and drop Donovan off at the hospital, and then we’d go to daycare and I’d drop off Isaac to daycare. So Isaac got into that routine of seeing his dad go to the hospital every morning. And so we had, you know, no choice but to explain to him that, you know, dad is sick and he’s going to the hospital to get better. We also had nightly devotional prayer and nightly anointing of oil, so we always had people coming over every single day, every single night anointing with oil, and Isaac would join sometimes on that. And so it helped us explain because, you know, he’d listen to the prayer and it’s basically us explaining to him that daddy’s unwell and we’re trying to get him better by going to the hospital, by praying and all of that.

I remember, though, it was during COVID… So he’d go to school… Yeah, I remember also when I had picked him up, the owner of the daycare came up to me and was like, “You know, your son has been going around asking his friends to pray for his dad?” And I thought, oh my goodness, that is the sweetest thing. Just because he sees us doing it at home, so he’s asking his friends to pray for him. He’s three years old, and I feel like he definitely had to kind of grow up quickly. There was a sad moment, I remember… because Donavan couldn’t carry him – he was only three – he couldn’t carry him, and I couldn’t carry him because I, you know, I was heavily pregnant. And I remember he was with family. And at that time, one of his relatives picked him up and scooped him up, and he told him, “You know what, my parents don’t get to hold me or carry me anymore or hug me anymore like this.” And that made us really sad, you know? I mean, like as much as we wanted to, we physically couldn’t. So now that we’re well, he’s like five years old. He’s like 20 kilos now. We’re still carrying him around like a baby just because of that one year where he felt like we couldn’t do that for him.

Bernie: Donovan had a stem cell transplant in December 2020 and another transplant this past March after a relapse. Thankfully, he’s in molecular remission now, but the fight against leukemia continues and a prayer is a constant action.

Jhoana: So what are you most afraid of, you know, living with leukemia?

Donovan: It is that risk. It’s the risk of relapsing or getting another cancer. I just want life to be normal again. I want to get stronger. I want to be there for you. I want to be there for the boys. And that is my biggest motivation to get through the fear of relapsing and getting leukemia again. So after the transplant, the first time I had total body radiation, I had cranial radiation, and the actual treatment was okay. It wasn’t painful at all. But after getting all that radiation in my body, I’d be sleeping anywhere between 16 to 18 hours a day, just trying to recover. Now living with leukemia, thankfully, I’m no longer living with it. So we took family photos recently and it’s something we’ve been putting off for whatever reason. You know, reasons like my hair trying to grow back because it fell out back in 2020, you wanting to lose the baby weight from having Zeke.

Jhoana: It’s not really baby weight anymore if it’s been two years.

Donovan: Well it depends on how much pizza you have.

Jhoana: It’s just weight now.

Donovan: Is there anything else you don’t want to put off anymore?

Jhoana: I think I just want to achieve. I think I just want to achieve more of my dreams with you by my side sooner rather than later. Things like, you know, simple things – well, not very simple, but like traveling to Greece, which is something that I’ve always wanted to do. I want to do that with you. You know, I want to experience that with you next year. Preferably. No pressure. Our own goals career wise, our goals when it comes to our faith, our home, our family, everything that’s spoken about when it comes to our future, I want to put all of that into action now and experience all the ups and downs that come with it, with you.

Coping with a spouse with cancer

Donovan: Now, knowing that I’ve had cancer, how are you coping with it? And how has it changed your life?

Jhoana: It feels like I have three kids now instead of two. No, I’m kidding. No, I love taking care of you now. But since you were diagnosed, everything has definitely changed. You know, it’s been so difficult watching someone I love, someone who has always been so strong go through something so painful. All those times I would take you to your appointments and seeing you get weaker and weaker physically… I felt so helpless. People would come up to me and ask me how do I do it, and I always think to myself, what choice do I have, you know? I have to be strong. I can’t be anything else. My husband needs me more than ever.

My three-year-old son at that time couldn’t fully understand what was happening, and he needed me there physically and emotionally as well. And I had to stop myself from being too sad. I had to stop myself from moping around. I had to look after myself because I was pregnant, because there was a little human growing inside of me. So I had to take care of myself to take care of the baby as well. So it’s definitely forced me to be stronger and change my perspective on things. And, you know, it’s just reminded us to always be grateful for each day. God gave me the strength, and the love I have for my family also gave me the strength. So speaking of strength, what gives you strength at this time?

Donovan: One of my biggest inspirations is you… is Isaac and Ezekial… it motivates me to try and get better every single day. Knowing that we have God in our life, it is definitely a big inspiration because, you know, others may not have that same perspective, having a faith that, in our lives, [is] controlled by a higher power. For me, that is some of the strength that I receive. But at the same time, I look at this diagnosis and this whole treatment that I’ve had as a war. And with every war, there’s individual battles that you face on a daily basis.

You might not win them all every single day, but with the inspiration that I’ve received from the people around me and the different coaches that I’ve had, I’ve definitely gotten through my treatment because of that. I’m not sure if I told you this, but that is a big factor, you know, having visitors come see me at the hospital. Because of COVID, there was a survey that some of the pathologists did during that period where people with stem cell transplant and the probability of them succeeding actually went down when the hospitals limited the number of visitors that you can have.

Jhoana: Recovery was so hard for you because you weren’t around the people that you need, to be around you. You know, there were so many limitations as to who could be in contact with you, and you found that so hard, and I realized that you are the type of person to get energy from other people. You know, and we’ve been so blessed with all these people in our lives to give you that strength as well. I remember the nurse told us that you had people who were passing away without their families next to them.

Donovan: Yeah. If you had no visitors, people were dropping like flies. People were passing away whilst they were getting the treatment. The day I got my second transplant, the hospitals actually changed the rules for COVID, and I was actually able to have visitors. And that really got me through my 50 days within the hospital. So I was actually very lucky, very blessed. Imagine just the day that I get admitted, I was allowed to have visitors.

Jhoana: I remember I was dropping off food for you and I thought I couldn’t visit you, that I just had to drop it off at reception. But they were like, “No, you can go up.” And you were so surprised to see me and I was so surprised to be there, and it was just nice being there for you. You know, I remember the nurse-

Donovan: So actually, just a quick shout out to the ministers and also the head deacons and deacons.

Jhoana: They made a timetable.

Donovan: Probably a roster.

Jhoana: …To visit him, to do anointing of oil, so every single day, you know, there was someone there for him. There was someone doing anointing of oil at the hospital or at home if he was at home. So everyday he had visitors and then, you know, myself and family and friends and deaconesses. Remember, we had some deaconesses coming over, doing anointing of oil at our place.

Donovan: Yes. So very grateful to them because they were definitely part of my journey, seeing the officers every single day just to give me anointing of oil and that I will be forever grateful for.

Jhoana: And there’s only so much you can do, you know, and it’s just prayer. Prayer was just a big part of this… Yeah, it was our medicine. It was the only way that we can get through this, and we made sure every day he had anointing of oil. I think there was only like two or three times where you didn’t have the anointing of oil because you were in lockdown, you were sick, and they couldn’t let anyone near you. But even up to now, we’re still having a devotional prayer every single night with our family overseas, like my parents in New Zealand, my brother in Melbourne, my other brother here in Sydney. Every night we would pray because that’s all you can do at times like this. What was nice was, you know, when he was at home, when he was in St. George Hospital, that was near our home, the officers in our local would do the anointing of oil for him. They would either come to the house if we were at home or to the hospital. But then when he went to St. Vincent for his transplant, it was a bit further. It’s in the city. So not everyone in the local was able to make it. So we called up the District Minister and said, “Can we ask for help from other local congregations?” And then we just took out our phone and called everyone and anyone we could think of, and it was just so nice because they’re like no questions asked, like, “Yep, what time, we’ll be there.” You know? And people, ministers and officers just made time for us, and it was nice to feel their love and their concern at such a difficult time in our lives. And I remember the nurses, there were two nurses in your room, and you were telling me one of the nurses said, “It’s because of your positive attitude, you know, it’s really getting you through this.” And then the other nurse was like, “It’s also because of all of those ministers that are coming, praying for you.” Do you remember when she said that?

Donovan: That’s true. Yeah, I do remember that.

Jhoana: Because they saw it everyday, there was always someone there praying for you. And they would also arrange the schedules around the prayers and she was like, “You know, it’s also because people are coming here, praying for you, and that really helped, too, with your recovery.” So that was nice to hear that people noticed it as well.

Donovan: You know, when we took our vows, love, and we talked about for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, you are exactly that. Like, we’ve gone through a lot. We’ve been married for… What is it? Please remind me. I’m kidding. 11 years. 11 years, we’ve been married.

Jhoana: 11?

Donovan: Yeah!

Jhoana: Yeah, I’m just kidding.

Donovan: We’re going on 12, if my math serves me correctly. We’ve been so blessed, you know. We’ve had challenges, happy to admit that. But we’ve gotten through it. In terms of, you know, getting sick with leukemia, you have been my rock, you have been my strength. You have gotten me through so much and that, I will be forever grateful for and I thank God that I’ve been blessed with you, and now two additions, our two boys. There’s nothing more that I could ask for.

One of the things I didn’t mention that I do want to mention now is despite being a cancer patient, having leukemia, I always feel blessed. So much positivity has actually come out of me being sick. I know that might sound really, really strange, but we’ve had so many blessings come through. You know, we’ve had friends and family just pop out of nowhere that you haven’t seen in many years. Being reunited to some degree has just been an absolute blessing. But if I was to say what’s the one fundamental thing that’s really, you know, made things better is really you and the boys. It’s just been extremely inspiring.

Jhoana: One instance when I was glad that God chose you for me was whenever I would ask you, “How are you going?” You know, I made it a habit to ask you – not just how you were feeling physically, but also how were you mentally. You know, the doctors always said that half the battle is in your mind. So I made an effort to always find out how you were going just in your mind, mentally. And every time I’d ask you, you’d always say, “I feel so blessed.” Here you are going through chemotherapy, having a lot of punches, and your answer to me would always be, “I feel so blessed.” And for me, it was just reassurance that we’re going to be able to get through this. You know, the way that you were thinking, the way you had this positive outlook, it helped me. It helped me get through it.

And I’m thankful because we’re all going to go through challenges in life. That’s a given. And this just happens to be our challenge. And I’m so glad that if I had to go through this, which obviously we are, I’m glad that, you know, I’m going through this with you. Because this has, you know, it’s taken a toll on us and it’s taken a toll on me emotionally, but to have someone there with such a strong mind, it’s just reassuring and it really helps me as well. It helps me focus. It helps me think positive; your positivity is contagious. It helps me focus on you guys, on my family and it just tells me that you are the right person for me. Because if there’s one thing that we’re promised in this life is challenges… I think just going through these challenges with you, I wouldn’t want to go through it with anyone else. You know, you just help me so much, and I’m just so thankful for that. You’ve helped me even though you’re not always in the position to help me. But just even the way you think, it’s made it easier for myself and for our family. So I’m thankful that it’s you I get to go on this journey with.

Donovan: I sound like a great catch, don’t I?

Jhoana: Yes, you do. Remember how I’d tell you, it’s like I’ve been on survival mode these past two years. It’s like you’re constantly feeling like you’re… How would you describe… On edge? That you’re always so nervous and anxious about everything.

Donovan: Well, that’s one of the things that I pray for, for you specifically. You know, first and foremost, I pray that you have the physical, the mental and emotional strength to be able to get through what we’ve gotten through in the last two years. I pray that your faith gets strengthened every single day. Last but not least, I pray for your happiness. That God gives you the comfort and blesses you and blesses our family. Because at the end of the day, I pray for myself to have longevity, to be there for the family and that is one of the ways that I show you my love because, you know, we are one unit and I want to grow old with you.

Jhoana: My prayer for you, and you know I pray for you every single day, I pray for the obvious, which is that God blesses you with His healing power. I pray for you to have a long and happy and healthy life with us, for us to, like you mentioned, go all together, but also for our children to build more happy memories with you, with us, and for us to just have that peace and have that sense of normalcy back. You know, we have so many goals for our families, and I just want you to feel better, to get better, so that we can achieve more of those goals, and do all the things that we’ve planned to do in life. And I just pray that God continues to bless us with more miracles. So one of the things I say that, you know, let us be witnesses to Your miracles, to perform miracles in our lives just like it’s done from the very beginning. You know, and just you getting better and being happy and spending more time with us… I think it’s a miracle already. So yeah, that’s my prayer for you. Just the fact that we had online worship services and how you’ve been able to attend every single worship service.

Donovan: Yeah, I haven’t missed one.

Jhoana: Yeah, because it’s been online even when you were in hospital.

Donovan: Yeah.

Jhoana: You know, just being able to hear the lesson… That’s another thing! It’s just some of the lessons. It just really hits home for us, you know?

Donovan: Especially the pastoral lessons.

Jhoana: The pastoral lessons – I remember there was a lesson where the night before we were talking about, you know, we want to do more and God’s blessed us so much, and then literally the next day was exactly about that, about being thankful for all our blessings and that we should be doing more. And it’s just so coincidental every time we’re going through something, not coincidental, but it’s just God talking to us. Every time we go through something, the lesson would be about that. Even just the previous lessons about King Hezekiah, you know, you were saying how it just felt like the lesson was for you.

Bernie: Thank you to Donovan and Jhoana for taking this time and sharing your journey with us. Though unexpected, this couple, with their boys, have leaned on their faith and their love for each other to find the strength to face this illness. I’m Bernie Rosquites, thanks for listening to the Faith and Family podcast. Don’t forget to like and subscribe and follow @incmedianews on Instagram for the latest on