His continuing journey
● By Richard Gaw
Daniel J. Nicewonger, who has been the Pastor of First Baptist Church in Kennett Square for the past four years, has defined himself as a planner, a dreamer and a visionary, so soon after he was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer on May 4, 2016, he began planning his memorial service.
“I had some thoughts about what should be done and who should speak,” Nicewonger wrote on Oct. 23, 2016 in his blog. “I wanted it done right. [Wife] Nancy would tell you I wanted to be in control one last time. She is probably right. I finally decided to spend a few hours to put the service together.”
Nicewonger began asking the most special people in his life to speak at the service. He chose the music that would be heard. Once he completed the outline of the service, he tucked it into the top drawer of his office desk. He then made the decision that he would get on with the business of living his life to the fullest, swimming against the current of a disease that threatened to rob him of his life.
That story – and many others like it that served to document the narrative of Nicewonger's nearly three-year diagnosis and subsequent life afterwards – are captured in his new book, The Journey Continues: Finding Joy Amidst Life's Struggles (WestBow Press, 2018), a 315-page compilation of blog posts that Nicewonger wrote from May 2016 to August 2018.
Told from the author's personal testimony, the book is an unflinching journal of honesty and vulnerability that records the faith, fear, sacrifice and ultimate survival of living with a severe form of cancer. Nicewonger takes the reader from hospital beds to doctor's offices to the haze of chemotherapy treatments; to his service at the church; and to the privacy of his own home and family, most especially his wife Nancy and their children Joseph and Rayann.
“I've always been a writer,” Nicewonger said recently from his office at First Baptist Church. “It's how I've processed life and my relationship with God. I have a journal that's personal and private, and I have a blog where I have shared the stuff that's open for the rest of the world to see. I had the blog long before I had cancer, and when I was diagnosed, it allowed me to share how I was going to walk through this.
“Writing allowed me to tell my truth and my reality, and what I am walking through, and it became very healing for me.”
The Journey Continues is divided largely into two sections – Nicewonger's first and second rounds of chemotherapy. While the content of his postings form a roller coaster of emotions that range from sadness to relief, the narrative of the book is tempered by the fluctuating weather vane of test results – “numbers,” Nicewonger calls them – that accompany several entries.
Although dedicated to his faith and the sharing that faith, Nicewonger admitted that his relationship with God was severely tested throughout his diagnosis and treatment. In several entries in the book, he takes into account the bitter irony of his condition – how a man so blessed with life's gifts and given the responsibility to share God's teachings could be dealt such a burden.
Nowhere in Nicewonger's “Rule for Life,” which he wrote for he and Nancy years ago, was cancer ever in the game plan.
“We all have plans, these pictures we create of what our life will look like,” he said. “I was 48 years old, not even 50, and my wife and I had a picture of what the remainder of our lives together was going to look like. Then this man in a white coat stands in front of my hospital bed and tells me, 'Get your affairs in order.'
“I had a friend of mine who taught me to ask, 'Where do you find God in the midst of this?' I was lying in my hospital bed and soon after I heard the words, 'You have stage four colon cancer,' I began to think, 'There's no way God is in the midst of this. God is so far away from this, but these are also the moments when God reveals himself, and he tells us, 'Yes. I am here, right in the midst of the garbage that sometimes is life.'”
It's what Nicewonger calls “Deep calls to deep.”
“That's the completeness of God, calling out to the completeness of who I am, and it is the depth of me, calling out tot he depth of who God is,” he said. “In the midst of the stage four cancer and my crying out for peace and help and comfort, the depth of God is calling out to me, saying, 'I am here.'”
Once Nicewonger came to peace with the initial irony of his condition, a second one appeared, one that created a sense of clarity.
“I realized that what God was really doing was slowing me down, and in the slowing down, I encountered my wife again, in a deeper kind of way,” he said. “We had a great relationship before. We have an even better relationship today, because I have cancer.”
Throughout the book, Nicewonger's stories are bridged by the entries written by Nancy. On April 29, 2017, for example, she included a separate list of “Blessings” and “Challenges.”
“During this time, we have felt closeness even though there was an overriding sadness at times,” she wrote. “I took a few moments around month eight of our journey to consider some of the blessings and challenges I have experienced Not being the one one going through the sickness, I often feel self-centered, dwelling on my feelings. However, I have learned that dealing with my emotions keeps me stronger when he (Dan) needs help with his.”
“Nancy's writings were more powerful than anything I could have ever written,” Nicewonger said. “She writes and reveals as my caregiver what it means to be one, revealing the struggles and the difficulty. Her voice is the collective voice of many caregivers, and there is value in that.”
Several of Nicewonger's colleagues have expressed praise for The Journey Continues.
“Dan is genuine, transparent, challenging and faith grappling,” wrote Scott Kavanagh, a retired licensed clinical professional counselor, Baptist minister and colleague of Nicewonger's. “He is honest about his wresting with cancer and living life to the fullest. These are not fairy tale musings but an intimate, personal invitation to walk in faith in a simple yet profound way.”
“Hearing a diagnosis of cancer sets our world and the world of those we love, on edge,” wrote Dr. Frank Frischkorn, Regional Executive Pastor for American Baptist Churches of Pennsylvania and Delaware. “Many people endure in silence, but Pastor Dan Nicewonger has put words to that journey... I heartily encourage you to read this book and to share it with another who may be walking this same journey.”
While he continues his work at First Baptist Church of Kennett Square, Nicewonger is currently three months into his second break from chemotherapy, after undergoing two rounds of it in the past two years.
“My oncologist said he will never use the word 'Remission,' and that we continue to talk about my cancer from the standpoints of quality and quantity of life,” he said. “If we do treatment long enough that it extends quantity, and until that begins to impact quality where it gets to the point where there is none, I choose to take a break. We watch and at some point, there's numbers that don't look good, then it's time to start back again with chemotherapy.
Nicewonger wants The Journey Continues to serve as a conduit for everyone's journey.
“I would like people to encounter God in a deeper kind of way with this book, and I would like people to be able to journey with those who are struggling, and if this books helps them do that, it would be phenomenal for me,” he said.
“If my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren some day get a copy, the more they can learn about me and what it meant for me to walk with God. If someone can learn about what it means to walk with a terminal illness, they can hopefully be able to glean a little energy to help them along their walk.”
After Nicewonger completed his instructions for his memorial service three years ago, he placed them in a folder and stored it in his office desk. The folder has not been touched since then. They are no longer a part of his journey.
A Caregiver Support Group meets at the First Baptist Church of Kennett Square on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the parish's conference room. To learn more, visit www.ksqfbc.com/support-groups, or call 610-444-5320.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.