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My Christian life: Battling cancer as a teenager

A pastor reflects on his battle with cancer as a teenager and how his experiences helped shape him and his ministry.

Growing up, Paul Jansen fondly remembers a great home life, strong relationships at school, and a close relationship with his Savior. All those positive experiences of the first part of his life provided a firm foundation.

That foundation received a shock when Jansen was diagnosed with cancer during his junior year of high school.

“At a young age, when you think you’re invincible, you quickly find out that that’s not the case,” he says.

Clinging to Christ

Jansen’s journey with cancer began when he felt severe pain in his leg that wouldn’t go away. He eventually went to the doctor and had a biopsy done to see what the problem could be. This biopsy was completed on a Friday, and from there, everything in his life changed drastically.

On the Monday after his biopsy, Jansen received his final diagnosis. He had osteogenic sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer. Each year, about 800 to 900 new cases are diagnosed in the United States; about half are in children and teens.

Things moved quickly, and before Jansen and his family even had time to process this major change in their lives, doctors implanted Jansen’s port on Wednesday and began his chemotherapy on Thursday.

Sickness, perhaps especially cancer, can become a period of struggle with God and create questions and doubts. But Jansen took a different approach. He trusted God as he battled bone cancer over the next two and a half years. “I don’t know how people go through this without having an anchor of faith,” he says. “The faith that I had was my anchor and my grounding through this difficult time.”

(Left to right) Paul Jansen in 1995, right after his first round of chemotherapy; Paul and his brother a few months later when Paul was at his weakest; Paul and his wife, Ruth, in 2019. Featured photo at top is Paul attending the synod convention in summer 2019.

The treatments he underwent were both mentally and physically draining. He began with a five-week treatment cycle that included different forms of chemotherapy, infusions, and monitoring periods. The number of days he spent in the hospital totaled more than the days he spent outside the hospital—245 days in all during that first year. During the periods he was allowed to go home, he had to be isolated because his immune system was compromised.

Going to school became something he desperately wanted. It was a place to stay connected, a place where he could feel a sense of normalcy again. “When you’re told you can’t go, you start to crave that family and the community and friends,” he explains.

Jansen did his best to keep up with his academics and extracurricular activities at Luther High School, Onalaska, Wis., but there were times when his treatment had to take priority. He had to drop out of school because he couldn’t regularly come to class. He still attended whenever he could until he resumed full-time status the following March.

Staying positive

Through this time, his teachers and fellow students provided priceless support. All the thoughtful gestures they made are moments he will never forget. When Jansen could not attend his junior banquet, his classmates didn’t forget about him during this exciting night. Six of the students came and visited him in the hospital to wish him well before they attended the banquet. “My faith family was amazing,” he remarks. “It meant so much to me that they thought of me during that time, prayed for me, and visited me.”

His classmates and the Luther High faculty who regularly reached out to lift him up all echo that Jansen actually encouraged them at this time. Paul Wichmann, his former principal, emphasizes how Jansen was and continues to be a shining example of Christ’s love. “He saw all of his life as being in the Lord’s hands and knew that he had a plan for him,” Wichmann says. “For someone who was facing such a serious illness, Paul was the epitome of living the Christian life.”

This was Jansen’s attitude through all his cancer treatments. His positive attitude continued even in October, when his leg had to be amputated. To Jansen, this was actually a moment of hope. He realized after the surgery that he would beat cancer and live.

Blessing others

When reflecting on what to do next with his life, Jansen thought about what would be most meaningful. Eventually, he decided to pursue the pastor track at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minn., so he could share the comfort and confidence he had in Christ with others.

His first day at Martin Luther College was just days after his final treatment for cancer. He recalls with a laugh his initial identity at the college: “I was the pale, bald, one-legged guy on campus.” But just like before, he didn’t let these things discourage him or slow him down.

Jansen dove right in and enjoyed his college experience. After all he had been through, he easily overcame the college freshman fear of being different or standing out. Instead of being worried about others’ perceptions, he was just himself. He raised his hand regularly in class and got excited about his coursework. “I’ve never regretted my decision to become a pastor,” he says. “It was the greatest decision I could have made.”

After graduating from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wis., in 2006, he was called to Holy Scripture Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Ind. In 2014, he accepted a call to be the pastor at St. Michael’s, Fountain City, Wis.

His old high school in Onalaska, only 45 minutes from Fountain City, asked Jansen to read a devotion for the school after he had moved back to the area. Many of his former teachers were still serving at the school. He shared his high school experience with the current students and how it strengthened his faith. This opportunity also allowed him to share what a blessing the high school was to him.

Today, Jansen serves as pastor at Salem, Ann Arbor, Mich. He says that his experiences have made him empathetic to the members of his congregation. He can relate to individuals who are going through cancer and understand the intricacies of patient care. He continues to bless people through each interaction, shining as a light for Christ.

His former principal describes him best when he says, “He’s clearly a blessing to all who have known him and continues to be a testament to God’s love and an example of Christian perseverance in all things.”

Author: Gabriella Blauert
Volume 107, Number 06
Issue: June 2020

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This entry is part 38 of 51 in the series my christian life

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