Since February 2015, Denice Marr, a home economics teacher from Kamloops, B.C., has been battling stage four ovarian cancer, yet through her faith in God, she has experienced a peace that would be otherwise impossible.
When she was a little girl, Denice says death was one of her biggest fears. Despite having no deaths in her immediate family, “I would get this gnawing in my stomach whenever I thought of it. I wanted to live forever. I was scared to think of not being on earth.” She had a belief in God through her next-door neighbours, who brought her and her siblings to church and Sunday school regularly. “We really didn’t understand what it meant to have a relationship with God,” says her older brother Lester. “It was just more activity.” Through these church experiences, Denice would try to alleviate her fear of death by reading her Bible.
Growing from a means to a relationship
When her eldest sister Frances went to study at the University of Alberta, she met a couple who worked for the Navigators named Jay and Barb Wheeler. They showed her it was possible to have a personal relationship with God, that being a Christian was more than just going to church. This new realization prompted Frances to accept a personal relationship Christ and allow him to take an active role in her life, rather than simply believing in his existence.
When Denice was in high school, she went to visit Frances at the U of A. While she was there, Frances shared the Bridge Illustration with her, telling her how she could receive eternal life. In response, Denice says she immediately accepted Jesus as her Saviour because she desperately wanted eternal life. When she went back home, she did not have much follow-up, so life went on as it had before, except she had more assurance of what would happen after she died.
After high school, Denice left home to go study at the University of British Columbia. In her first year, she noticed there were a lot of Christians on her dorm floor who seemed to have a secure relationship with God she didn’t have. “I noticed that as they bombed a test, they weren’t so upset and were still happy. So, I approached a Christian girl involved with the Navigators on the top floor of the dorm and asked her why I felt empty even though I had accepted Christ. She helped me realize that I accepted him as Saviour but not Lord of my life.” This realization challenged Denice, prompting a desire to learn more about her Christian faith. The two of them began working through the Growing in Christ Bible study, which helped strengthen Denice’s relationship with God, moving it from simply a means to eternal life to an authentic, lived-out faith.
The next year, Denice joined the UBC Navigator group, where she met Richie and Sandy Spiedel, who began discipling her into a leader. During these next three years, Denice’s faith grew immensely as she started leading Bible studies, reaching out to others in evangelism, becoming a team leader for a student summer training program and participating in a six-week missions trip to the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean. Of this trip, Richie says “she’s the kind of person who doesn’t really cope well with the heat, but was a real trooper in terms of keeping a good attitude in spite of personal discomfort.”
Facing her fears with faith
Her ability to adopt this mentality has served her well during this bout with cancer. Her brother Lester says he has observed a peace in her life in contradiction to her fears as a child. “Where everyone else, especially my mom, was all upset,” he says, “she was the only one who was at peace. My parents were crying and all upset, her friends were all upset, but she was the one who was actually comforting them, whereas it should have been the other way around.”
This is not to say it’s all been smooth sailing. When she first received news about her cancer, she says she desperately wanted God to reveal himself and give her comfort. But as she read through the Book of Psalms, she says she began to discover God’s presence was always there – in the beauty around her, the flowers, sunshine and even her cat.
During her time with the Navigators, she also committed Bible verses to memory, which she says have helped her through this time. She says Proverbs 3:5-6 and Philippians 4:6 have been especially comforting.
She says one of the big lessons she has learned through all of this has been to trust in God’s timing. At the beginning of summer, Denice had been agonizing over getting the treatments and surgery done as soon as possible, because she was thinking the cancer was still growing and spreading. However, her body is unable to quickly produce neutrophils, a white blood cell that fights infection. “The doctors have said there is nothing that I can eat, do, or take that will help these neutrophils grow,” she says. “Not even a blood transfusion will work. So basically it’s God, time and the prayers of people who have helped to keep my neutrophils up to the acceptable standard for every chemo treatment. Nothing else.”
In May, she heard a message online from her pastor back home in Kamloops. He was speaking from Psalm 33 about trusting God’s plans. “After hearing that message from Pastor Larry,” she says, “I knew God was telling me to give up my impatience and trust his plan and timing. All the best laid plans are God’s plan. No matter how much I plan and assume how my cancer treatment should progress, they are often thwarted, but God’s plan stands firm and he is in control.”
As of now, Denice has finished four rounds of chemotherapy, and underwent surgery in July to remove the tumor. She still has two more rounds of chemo to go through before the oncologists at the BC Cancer Agency can determine if the cancer has gone into remission.
Keeping a smile
Aside from her faith, Denice says finding humor in the everyday has helped her get through the treatment process. Some of her favourites have been testing whether mosquitoes like chemo-laced blood, being mistaken for a man going into a women’s washroom and trying her hand at acrylic painting.
“Find something new or something you like to do to make you passionate and happy and to give your mind a break from your illness. You want to surround yourself with positive encouraging people. Being funny helps to relieve tension. A cat is also helpful to have too.”
As he’s read the updates and seen how she’s gone through this, Richie says “the foundations that were laid in her have kept her doing well in life and in ministry for the long haul. She’s been a person who’s kept her faith.”