On our first concert tour with the Josties, we met an amazing, big-hearted, hospitable family who had an even more amazing testimony to share. Here are some bits of their story that I hope will encourage you to keep trusting God…
Cancer and God’s Faithfulness
So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan River. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. 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. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” Joshua 4:4-7
Jerry Durston keeps in his wallet a business card given to him by a director at the Regina cancer clinic. The card is dog-eared from all the times Jerry has pulled it out to show to other people as he shares the story behind it, and why he calls it “a memorial stone of God’s faithfulness.”
One Friday, Jerry’s wife Sharon was in the cancer clinic for her weekly breast cancer treatment, and Jerry had been going around with his usual box of doughnuts, handing them out to patients and sharing about God’s amazing provision for his family.
A woman beckoned him over as he finished chatting with an elderly couple in the treatment room. “I heard what you were sharing with them,” she said. “Would you talk to me, too? This is my first day here, and I just feel like there’s no hope for me.” Jerry sat down and told her about his great God, the God who had carried them through financial difficulties and cancer and the possible loss of wife and mother. When he was finished, one of the woman’s teenage sons said, “See, Mom? There is hope.”
On his way back to rejoin Sharon, Jerry was approached by a man who handed him a business card and introduced himself as the director of psycho-social nursing at the clinic. Inviting Jerry into his office, the director said, “I hear you’ve been sharing your faith with people here. Is that right?”
When Jerry said yes, the director asked him to stop talking about God with the other patients. “We have chaplains and social workers who are supposed to do that.”
Jerry observed, “I’m sorry, but whatever they’re doing doesn’t seem to be working, because the nurses and patients say that Fridays are different around here.” Politely, but firmly, he refused to give up his Friday visits to the patients.
The following week, a volunteer at the clinic told Jerry that the director was gone – he’d been given early retirement.
The business card is only one of many memorial stones piled up during years of pain and uncertainty in the Durstons’ lives.
For several years, Sharon’s parotid glands (saliva glands under the ear) had been growing, and so had her fatigue level. By 2000, the glands were so enlarged that her earlobes couldn’t be seen. Sharon was home schooling four of their five children and helping her husband Jerry run their bakery as well as their weekly outreach kids’ ministry, Club DJ, but found it hard to keep up with everything because she was so exhausted. After going in for blood work to discover the cause of her fatigue, Sharon was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and referred to a rheumatologist. The specialist’s own diagnosis prompted a trip to the hospital for fine needle biopsies. After taking a larger sample with a bigger needle, the doctor said, “I need to phone your doctor.”
Sharon fell apart emotionally. If the rheumatologist was right, and she had Sjogrens syndrome (her chronic dry mouth and the enlarged glands were both strong indicators of the syndrome), she might be well on her way to lymphoma, which is a cancer of the immune system. She thought of her kids – Sheena was only 17, Shea was 13, Tyler 12, Levi 7, and Danae almost 3. If she had cancer, how bad was it… and what would happen to her family?
Jerry and Sharon’s bakery had been undercut in contracts with a hospital and university. In one month, they lost $250,000 of their annual business income, and were forced to lay off the majority of their staff. The oldest three Durston kids went to work in the bakery with their parents – fifty to sixty hours a week – to replace the former employees. Home schooling came almost to a standstill. There was no time for textbooks; the Durston kids had to get their learning that year from their work and real life experience. When the children wrote the provincial evaluation exams at year’s end, there was another memorial stone of God’s faithfulness waiting in the exam results: Sheena, Shea and Tyler scored higher in math and comprehension than ever before!
Meanwhile, God provided for the family’s needs in all kinds of ways. There were $50 bills left in the Durstons’ mailbox. A friend took them out to coffee and gave them a box of chocolates containing a $200 gift certificate to a local meat shop. She told Jerry and Sharon that God had put it on her heart to write their name on a fundraiser raffle ticket, and was thrilled when their name was called for the winning ticket. Another friend gave Sharon a fur coat, which she wore into the bakery one day and totally surprised Jerry. The fact that it was a fur coat and not merely a sweater was, to Jerry, God’s message that He could better provide for the Durston family than Jerry ever could.
God was taking care of them all. With the threat of cancer looming for Sharon, would He prove trustworthy again?
Sharon met her oncologist at the cancer clinic. He told her, “You don’t have lymphoma yet, but you will.” Could they do anything to slow the process? The oncologist’s answer was no.
With a bone marrow biopsy and CT scan booked for January 2001, Sharon tried to go on with life as usual. Not much was usual about it, though. “So many things were happening in our lives then,” Jerry said, “that nothing could surprise us anymore.” Then Sharon found out she was pregnant, at age thirty-nine, with their sixth child. “We’d left it up to God to determine the size of our family,” she said.
Sharon canceled the biopsy and CT scan (both are potentially harmful to a baby in the womb) and told her oncologist at the next appointment about her pregnancy test result. He remarked to Jerry and Sharon, “From what I’ve gathered about you, abortion isn’t an option.” Then he went on to tell them that the baby might provide the best treatment Sharon could receive, since a pregnant woman’s immune system interacts with the baby’s. If a baby’s immune system is strong, the mother’s tends to be strong as well.
As the baby grew within her, Sharon experienced a renewed energy. “I felt better than I had in years!” Six months into the pregnancy, her swollen parotid glands were measured again – they had shrunk to half the size that they had been when she was first diagnosed. They rejoiced at the news – maybe their Great Physician would heal Sharon after all.
The family finally decided to put their bakery up for sale in order to do full-time ministry with Club DJ. The mall owners generously allowed Jerry to pay his lease for the space from month to month until the business sold.
Baby Durston #6 was born Aug. 30, 2001. He was named after Luke, the physician in the Bible. In February 2003, after Luke was weaned, Sharon went in for a CT scan. The results came back clear – “there’s no sign of lymphoma,” her oncologist reported. “Luke was a gift from God, a source of healing for me,” Sharon said. Jerry added, “He was a sign of God’s faithfulness. People try all sorts of things to lick cancer… I could have thought about it for a thousand years, but I would never have dreamed of having a baby.”
Three months after her CT scan, Sharon scratched her underarm one day and felt a lump. A couple of weeks later, she was told she had breast cancer. The lymphoma and breast cancer were not connected, the oncologist said; it was medically impossible for the two to be linked. God had used baby “Dr.” Luke to truly heal his mother. What would He do now?
Jerry and Sharon went home and sat the family down in their living room. After he told the kids that their mother had cancer, Jerry said with tears, “Our house is full of memorial stones of things that God has done. And I don’t know how this is going to work out, but I know that God’s going to give us another memorial stone.”
Sharon entered the full regimen of cancer treatments: 16 chemotherapy, 25 radiation, and 52 Herceptin. She remembers spending a lot of time cuddling Luke, “When you come face to face with life-threatening illness, you realize very few things matter in life – the Word, and the Lord, and people.”
Hearing about Sharon’s cancer, a local Christian school offered the Durston children free tuition. But though Jerry and Sharon were very grateful for the generous offer, they declined. They strongly felt the need to keep their kids at home – keep the family together during this difficult time, regardless of how much or little school got done. Sharon said she second-guessed that decision at first, not sure what was best for her children. But even through all the treatments, she was able to keep home schooling them. Before the breast cancer diagnosis, the Durstons’ oldest daughter Sheena had turned down a request to stay on as staff at the Bible school she’d just graduated from. She quickly discovered why she hadn’t felt at peace about remaining at the school – her mom would need her help at home.
Another amazing thing began to happen. Two ladies signed up neighborhood families to provide hot meals for Durstons for weeks on end. Jerry and Sharon had been praying for and seeking opportunities to share God with their neighbors for many years. Now the folks next door and down the street were coming into Durstons’ home weekly!
Seeing these things, the Durston children realized more than ever how well God could answer their prayers and provide for them. A friend of Shea’s asked once, “How come you’re not angry at God?”
Shea answered simply, “How could I be angry with Him? He’s done so much for us.”
An elderly man (also struggling with cancer) would sometimes come over on Sundays and read the Bible to Sharon, since she often didn’t have the energy to go to church. One Sunday, he reminded Sharon of this story from John 9: “As Jesus went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.’”
The elderly friend said to Sharon, “This is what God is doing through you.”
About four months after her cancer treatments were finished, Sharon experienced searing chest pain. One of her medications, Tamoxifen, had a listed side effect of increasing the risk of blood clots. Sure enough, multiple clots were found in her right pulmonary artery (between her heart and lungs). She could have died instantly.
For several months, she struggled with fear about facing death and leaving her family without a wife and mother. But God clearly still had a purpose for Sharon: to display His power in her life. Today she is cancer-free, yet the Durston family’s day-to-day reliance on God continues; they realize how much they need Him, whether in a trial or out.
Jerry concludes, “We save all kinds of little things to remember stories. It’s a privilege and honor that God would give us these memorial stones, and we’d encourage others to look for God every day.”
Jerry’s dad, Vaughan Durston, started U.B. David & I’ll B. Jonathan, Inc. over 20 years ago, the free Bible correspondence course and award program (www.ubdavid.org). Jerry and Sharon started Club DJ, a mid-week church club program and an arm of David & Jonathan, in their own church around 1998; it spread from there to many other churches (www.clubdj.ca).