My Child Has Cancer: One Family’s Spiritual Journey

by Kelley Mathews

Jace in facemask

Jace Poncio was two years old when he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (A. L. L.). Initially, his parents, Jason and Tisha, were told his treatment would take three years, but it took an extra six months. He completed his last chemo treatment at age six on May 25, 2016—a week before his Kindergarten graduation. The first year involved intense chemo daily, then weekly. The second year he went for chemo infusions monthly but took oral chemo at home daily—some days his chemo totaled seven to eight pills at once. In the middle of all of that, he potty-trained, went to preschool, and completed kindergarten.

Jace has two older sisters: Madison, age sixteen, and Avery, age twelve. They were twelve and seven, respectively, when Jace’s diagnosis was confirmed. How did their little brother’s health, with all the corresponding fears, disruptions, and hurts, affect them? What sort of faith did the children and their parents have before, during, and after those three years? Tisha graciously answered a few questions about the impact of their cancer journey on their faith and family.

poncio family
The Poncio Family

KM: What was your family’s spiritual “temperature” before cancer?

TP: Before cancer, our spiritual life was pretty normal. We had been planted in a church home and were attending regularly as well as servant leading. For Jason, cancer was one of the first big tests of faith in his life. I had lost a little brother prior, and the events surrounding that event tested my faith at a very young age. I think my experience with that helped me be stronger in my faith in God during the tough times because I had seen Him work strongly in my life before. But in those three-and-a-half years of Jace’s struggle, I lost both my mom and dad and struggled often not only with grief over them but also the strain of being their sole caretaker long distance as they lived in New Mexico. 

KM: What specific actions did you take to help your older kids remain strong in their faith during Jace’s ordeal?

TP: First, we put in place a support team of friends closest to our family. Many of them had relationships with the girls beforehand, and we knew that both girls would be trusting of them. The day Jace was diagnosed we asked six of those friends to join us at the hospital to surround the girls as we shared with them the news of the cancer. We reminded them that, because of the intense treatment that Jace would have to endure, we would be called away from them more often than we would like, but every face surrounding them that day would be there to fill the gap for us and lock arms with them in faith.

Second, we have a list of family values that we all made together in 2012 (Prayer, Gratitude, Excellence, Honor, Relationships, Leadership), and we created a morning affirmation that we said every morning before we set off on our own paths. (Thank you, Lord, for this day. I will rejoice and be glad in it. I will not have a spirit of fear because I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I am anointed, highly-favored and incredibly blessed. I will feel the fear and do it anyway. I will be a lightbringer, an honor-giver and I will make someone feel awesome not awful. I was meant to serve, be thankful in all things and elevate my thinking, being and doing. And I WILL do that today. Amen.)

Because this was our mission every day before cancer, we continued to model for the girls that this was our mission through cancer, too. Even as we spent many days and nights apart, we continued to pour our values and affirmation into their hearts. There were lots of times as we each were grieving over the new life we were to lead that we struggled to even get our affirmation said aloud, but we all continued to push through day by day. Both girls went through a period of time when they felt like no one noticed them and that everyone only cared about Jace and what he was going through. Thanks to great teachers and friends they both learned that this experience was equally about them, too.

KM: How did the girls handle the situation, and how did those years impact their relationship with God?

TP:  Avery focused on going through each day trying to be “normal.” She prayed often and continued to be strong in her faith in what God’s word said and his promise that he will use everything for good even if it feels bad. She surrounded herself with friends that helped to take her mind off of the treatment and the yucky stuff and who helped her be positive. She feels that this experience has made her stronger. Unlike her classmates, she has a maturity about not taking things for granted, not sweating the small stuff, and being careful what you say to people who are struggling.

Madison answered this question herself: “I handled Jace’s diagnosis with acceptance. I didn’t try to fight against it or question it. During his years of treatment, I definitely think it impacted my maturity and perspective of life’s priorities. I learned quickly what was really important.

I lost many friends because of this journey because my priorities in life became vastly different than theirs. Many of the things I saw and experienced was greatly different than what they were doing at that time.  I had to choose carefully who I let in my circle and who I trusted because not everyone understood my perspective and some were even critical of it.

It changed how I was spiritually by helping me reach out to God and have a relationship with Him that I did not have prior. I learned to seek Him and draw nearer to Him for comfort that came from nothing else. Cancer taught me how to deal with pain the right way—learning to give it a purpose. I also learned how important it was to do relationships well because life is short.”

KM: How did you handle God questions with Jace?

TP: Believe it or not, Jace had no God questions. Jace was leading us with his faith and his prayers and his joy in the Lord, and he continues to do so today. Even last week as we tucked him in he told us, “I do want to be a singer, but I also want to do something else. It’s a God secret. Only me and God know about it.”

Even during chemo, Jace would ask to go to church even if there wasn’t a service going on. He just wanted to be there. Because he his immune system was so low, we would take him with us to the “big service” instead of sending him to the kids’ service. In doing so, he has experienced a level of worship and teachings that not many six-year-olds have.

Our signature verse was Matthew 19:26, and this along with Planetshakers’ “Nothing is Impossible” is what got us through initially. Jace would sing this song every morning before preschool months leading up to his leukemia. This is really how #superJace and NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE came about for his t-shirts. 

We also clung to a number of scripture passages:

Deuteronomy 20:4 —We declared victory every day, out loud, and all made signs to put over Jace’s bed and around our house (even in the car).

Daniel 6:27 —Jace loves the story about Daniel and the Lions and how everyone thinks the lions will attack him, but God’s power prevails and protects him.

Hebrews 6:19 —”We have this hope . . .” this verse and Hillsong’s “Oceans” (before it was so popular).  

Phillipians 2:10 — Cancer had to bow in the name of Jesus.

Psalm 27 — He was going before us so we didn’t need to walk in the spirit of fear.

KM: What was your biggest spiritual struggle since diagnosis?

TP: We got attacked often. I could list for you all of the ways that Satan tried to deflect our focus on faith, but I won’t give him that kind of time. Many times the attacks would come out of nowhere and be full on battles.

He used our own family members, situations, people that appeared supportive but truly weren’t, our own fears and anxieties against us. We struggled with the many negative things people would throw our way about how we were handing things, how much work we were missing or even about Jace. This was probably the most surprising and hurtful thing we went through.

We were never convinced that Jace wasn’t healed, though, and we just keep declaring victory over Jace and our entire family.

jace first-last chemoKM: What kind of help from non-family members proved the most supportive?

TP: We had (still have) an amazing support group of people both at our jobs and at our church. If we had not been plugged into a church and had not had those relationships, we would not have survived this journey so well. It is because of them that we were able to stay the course. They would pray when we didn’t have the energy or words to pray. They would text us messages of encouragement or leave voice mails full of powerful prayer. They dropped off food often. They came to the clinic on chemo days. They donated days at our jobs so we could spend them with Jace. They continued to remind the girls that they were not forgotten, either.

KM: How would you encourage other families walking this road when it comes to their faith?

TP: It is pretty impossible to endure cancer with your child for so long without faith. We would encourage families to know they are not alone and to humble themselves enough to learn one or two of the biggest lessons we learned.

  1. Asking for and accepting help is a sign of strength not weakness because you’re recognizing God can work though those that want to bless you. Reach out to at least three to four people that can help you each day.  
  2. It’s easy to ask “Why Me/Us/Our child?” But respond back with this question: “Why not you?” God never guaranteed us an easy life, he simply promises that he will never leave us nor forsake us. 
  3. One of the best things we ever did was to begin serving others during some of the most painful days. We not only served as a family on Saturday nights at our church, but we also began On The Wings of Gratitude’s Operation Love. We continue to donate to the childhood cancer community as well as deliver care bags to local children’s hospitals and those we know are in need. We encourage you to find ways to help those affected. We have a list of ways here.

Two of my favorite recent quotes remind me how to get through tough times to the other side: “Not everything is God sent, but everything is God used! Getting past your pain will help other people heal from theirs. “~Andre Olivier

Kelley Mathews

Kelley June30
Kelley Mathews (Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary) serves as Managing Editor of ChristianParenting.org. Mother of four school-aged children and wife of a public school district administrator, she has written and edited for the Christian market for 20 years. A lifelong fiction lover, her current sideline work as book reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly proves to her mother…
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