While there are a lot of feelings one might expect to go along with a terminal cancer diagnosis, gratitude isn’t one of them. Daniel (Dan) Nicewonger, a retired Baptist pastor and stage IV colon cancer patient, was first diagnosed in 2016. He has since long surpassed his original life expectancy of two years.
Dan, along with his wife and caregiver, Nancy, have used this experience to reflect on the important things in life. Authors of several books, including “The Journey Continues” and “Caring Conversations,” the Nicewonger’s share their differing struggles with others who might find themselves in similar situations.
“If someone can gain strength, learn language, or develop skills to better navigate these challenging life disruptions, that is the best thing we can hope to come out of a tremendously difficult journey,” Dan said.
Dan lives each day to the fullest and is grateful for the time he is given.
“Every little bit of life is a gift,” Dan said. “It’s something I was told I would never experience, and yet, here we are. My doctors can’t explain it. We’ve given up talking about dates and numbers because it just doesn’t make any sense. I’ve learned enough over the past seven years to know that I just don’t know. It’s anxiety-producing at times, but then I remember to make the most of each day I am given.”
It is Dan and his wife’s hope that through their transparency and vulnerability, they can improve the lives of people struggling with adversity. Dan walks a difficult road, but still manages to find the beauty and gifts in each moment.
The Journey Continues: Dan Writes His Own Funeral
Just 48 years old and given less than two years to live, Dan struggled to make sense of this drastic life change.
“I felt frozen,” Dan said. “So one day I went into my office, closed the door, and wrote my own funeral. When I was done, I handed it to my administrative assistant and said to myself, ‘It’s taken care of now. I’m going to live each day the best I possibly can.’ That decision set me free. I started thinking about how to make the most of this life, whether it be for two weeks or two years.”
Dan wrote a book, “The Journey Continues,” documenting his experience as a terminal colon cancer patient.
“It started as a blog. It was a way to not have to go into church and answer the same questions fifty times,” Dan said. “Over time, it developed into a book. I’ve always been very transparent about the whole thing. I wanted the way in which I talk about my cancer journey to be redemptive, giving others a sense that they are not alone when experiencing adversity.”
All profits made from Dan’s book go straight to his non-profit organization, A Place in the Conversation, which is committed to working towards the restoration and transformation of individuals and communities so they may enjoy life to the fullest.
“It’s not about selling books,” Dan said. “We use the literature to help other people, plugging resources to the places that need it.”
Through Dan’s acts of service and leadership in his community, he utilizes his cancer experience as a means to help others, and a part of his sense of purpose in this world.
Caring Conversations: Differing Perspectives on a Cancer Diagnosis
Something that Dan learned while maneuvering his cancer diagnosis was just how different the perspectives were for each person involved in his life. His book, “Caring Conversations,” includes an entire chapter on this very topic. “Caring Conversations” is about the uncomfortable, yet essential, questions that help one navigate life’s biggest disruptions.
Over ten of the chapters include excerpts from various people in his life relaying information from finances and legal issues, to day-to-day realities, and end-of-life considerations. Dan wanted to make sure everyone had a “place in the conversation.”
“The longer we travel this journey the more it becomes apparent that everyone shares a different perspective,” Dan said. “One of the biggest surprises to me was learning about my daughter’s experience, which she shared in our book and podcast. My wife and I were trying to shelter her from the harshness of our reality. However, we learned that we actually caused harm by failing to disclose certain information. By being so immersed in our own perspectives, we failed to realize how it might have affected those around us.”
Taking a look at the bigger picture, Dan was able to tap into a more holistic perspective.
“One of the things that makes this book unique is the myriad of voices that are a part of it,” Dan said. “It’s the lawyer, the financial professional, the grief experts, the real estate agent, the friends, the family. We don’t provide answers. Instead, we provide the questions you ought to be wrestling with. The collective wisdom will guide you to the right questions for your particular journey.”
There’s Something Beautiful About That
Being in the hospital every other week for cancer treatments can be daunting. Something that Dan realized early on was how to make the most of the situation he’d been given.
“A hospital staff member would wheel me back for a procedure and I’d start having conversations with them,” Dan said. “I’d ask how long they’d worked there and what they were passionate about. You can find out so much about people that you wouldn’t have otherwise known or expected when you give others the chance to share their story.”
Dan used connection with others as a means to experience joy in an otherwise depressing situation.
“Instead of me thinking, ‘I’m going back into surgery again,’ I started using it as an opportunity to connect with people. Suddenly, there’s something encouraging, uplifting, something to celebrate. All of life is a gift. Even in the darkest of places you can find and see it.”
Dan reflects on these stories with a sense of admiration for the gift he is given when he meets people he wouldn’t have otherwise known.
“I remember this young nurse caring for me at the hospital,” Dan said. “I wasn’t in the best shape – constipated to no end – but here came this nurse bouncing into the room with nothing but smiles. I wondered how she could do the work she did with such exuberance. She had this energy that made her happy about life even when doing difficult work. There’s something beautiful about that, and we miss it if we get too focused on ourselves.”
Five Years After Dan’s Diagnosis
Dan is currently on his sixth round of systemic chemo treatment and five years past his original life expectancy date. Every day seems to throw a new curve ball in his direction.
“Everything from a cancer perspective is stable, which is wonderful,” Dan said. “But I now have the threat of liver failure.”
Dan views this setback as a chance to sink even deeper into the lessons life has been teaching him.
“Listen to your doctors – they have wisdom and experience,” Dan said. “At the same time, they do not know. You’ve got to understand what they’re saying and also look at every day as a gift. Don’t live as if there’s a cloud of death hanging over you.”
Dan is determined to get on with the business of living, no matter what adversity may come next.
“Emotionally, spiritually, if you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, it’s going to make things a lot more difficult,” Dan said. “It’s important to know what the doctors are saying. It’s equally as important to make the conscious decision to make the most of your life and whatever time you have left.”
Dan’s story reminds us that there is something positive that can be found even in the utmost dire situations. While a colorectal cancer diagnosis isn’t at the top of anyone’s bucket list, it is still possible to feel joy in life’s most difficult circumstances.
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