Two years ago, Phil Warners was diagnosed with Stage 3 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
It’s something no one can ever be prepared for: Phil had just started a new teaching job, they still had two children at home, and his wife Connie had previously fought a battle with breast cancer 10 years earlier. They thought they were done dealing with cancer.
It was a difficult, painful journey: one that Phil hopes to never go through again. When his white blood cell counts were wiped out, he had to travel everywhere with gloves and a mask. He felt incredibly tired all the time, and didn’t even have the energy to get up and walk a few steps. In the worst of his chemotherapy, there were times where it felt like letting the cancer win might be preferable to suffering through it. On those days, “death felt like a pretty good alternative.” Phil stated, “There was a point where I wasn’t sure what I hated more: the cancer or the chemo.”
However, after 11 long months of battling lymphoma, Phil is now able to say that he’s cancer free.
Physically, Phil is a changed man. His weight fluctuated throughout his time in chemo, and his doctor would still like him to gain 15 more pounds. A little neuropathy has caused him to lose feeling in his feet. His hair has grown back with far less gray in it, although he jokes that he wouldn’t recommend this particular method for changing your hair color.
But all of these details are simply what Phil calls the “nuts and bolts” of his story.
God had a bigger purpose for this season of his life.
While God did choose to heal him, Phil’s focus is on something different: “I think, really, through it all, God chose to change me. And I think the experience has been allowed to change others as well.”
In the middle of the desert—the struggle and pain and confusion—God met Phil in new ways.
One of the verses that Phil clung to throughout his battle with cancer was out of John 16: “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
In the middle of suffering, it can be easy to turn to God with questions of “Why? Why me? Why am I going through this?” But early on in this journey, Phil came to realize that that was the wrong question; the right question was “Why not me?”
“Every day that I have health is a blessing from God,” Phil explained, “Who am I, that I think I should deserve more?” Changing his viewpoint and taking the approach of “why not me?” was so much healthier for Phil, because it dismantled the idea that God was doing something unfair and cruel to him. He didn’t “deserve” health any more than anyone else did.
In addition to the new lessons that God taught Phil in this season, God was also able to move through him in unique ways, and he was able to connect with people in a way he never had before.
During one of his stays in the hospital, Phil felt compelled to take a trip up to the chemotherapy floor. On the way, he met a young mother who was also headed there with her daughter. As they sat in the waiting room, Phil asked what brought her into the hospital, and she told him that the doctors thought she might have cancer. She confessed that she was incredibly scared. And Phil was able to simply say, “It is scary. I know. I was there six months ago. It was really hard.” She began to cry, and opened up about how difficult her life had been. Even though they had never met before, Phil was able to speak words of comfort and then pray with her, right there in the waiting room, all because he had known some of the same hardships as her.
As he told this story later, he reflected, “I never would have had that chance if I didn’t go through what I had to go through.”
Throughout his battle with lymphoma, Phil kept a blog, documenting his health, the questions he was wrestling through, and the day-to-day aspects of his life. Some days, his wife had to write the posts, because there was no way he physically could.
People connected with his blog, and often passed it on to people who were walking through similar seasons. By just writing honestly about his journey, Phil was getting 1,500–2,000 people reading his blog.
One particular post touched on the role that suffering can play in a Christian’s life: how does God use suffering? Are there benefits to it? “People just responded to that one! I got emails and notes and all kinds of stuff about what I had said. I read back [over it], and it was almost like they weren’t my words. They were really good!”
The blog allowed Phil to connect with a young couple named Brandon and Danielle. They had discovered the blog and instantly related to it because they shared the same struggle: Brandon was fighting the same type of lymphoma as Phil. Without ever meeting in person, the three of them became friends, messaging each other often and following each others’ journeys online.
When Brandon passed away at age 30, leaving behind his wife and two young children, Phil felt prompted to go to the funeral. When he introduced himself to Danielle, she just began weeping: “I’m so glad you’re here… You have no idea what a blessing you were to me and my husband.”
Even in the middle of the deepest pain and sorrow, as Phil wrestled through why he was allowed to live, while a 30 year old was allowed to die, God was there. God used him to comfort Danielle and Brandon through their struggle, and God used the two of them to encourage him in the midst of his.
Now that Phil is on the other side of this journey, the new struggle is remembering the ways that God moved and the lessons He taught him in this past season. In the middle of the struggle, when God was all he had to cling to, it seemed a lot easier to remember those lessons. But now, in “normal life,” it’s a lot easier to forget.
Phil recalled the way that the Israelites set up memorial stones, as a way of remembering the works that God has done in their lives.
After spending 40 years in the desert, God brought the Israelites to the banks of the Jordan River and parted the waters so that they could cross over into the Promised Land. When they reached the other side, Joshua called them to take 12 stones from the Jordan and set them up as a memorial, to remember the way that God brought them across the river and into their new home. He told them, “In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord… These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
God understands the human heart better than anyone. He knew that, once His people left the desert, it would be easy for them to forget the way that He had provided for them. Even though He walked with them for 40 years, they would quickly forget. So He called them to set up physical reminders for themselves, so that they would consistently be called to reflect and remember His faithfulness.
For Phil, the blog that he kept throughout his battle with cancer serves as that reminder.
It’s a visible record of his entire journey: the good and the ugly. The ways that God worked in him, through him, and through the countless people that surrounded him in this time.
“You’ve got to recall those things,” he says of the moments where he could see God working, “You’ve got to come back to those things, and say, ‘God used it. He just did.’”
And it’s a good reminder to all of us: to take time to reflect and remember. Not just on the bountiful seasons of our lives: but on the times where God was all we had to cling to, and the way He faithfully walked with us through those dark places.
Phil’s story is far from over. And he’s humbly willing to share his story with others because he knows that “ultimately, this is not my story, anyway… I just happen to be a character in the story.
The story’s a whole lot bigger than me.”
If you would like to check out Phil’s blog to hear more of his story, you can find it here.