Interrupted by cancer, a college journey continues
By Erini Shields ’07
“I have begun to take the next step towards finishing what I had started before having to go home for almost two years,” wrote senior Nathan Detweiler of Washington, Iowa, on Aug. 29, 2006, in the online blog (nathanstory.blogspot.com) he started nearly two years ago.
It was in October 2004 that Detweiler was diagnosed with an advanced stage of rhabdomysarcoma – a form of soft tissue cancer that affects the muscles and is more common in children than adults.
The diagnosis of the disease came as a shock during the fall of his senior year in college. “It blew me out of the water and completely took over my life for the time,” Detweiler wrote in December 2004. “And I didn’t actually believe that I had cancer. … In my life, only in dreams do bad things happen, and then I wake up. But each morning I wake up, I always wake up in my bed and still don’t have hair. I still go to the hospital and I still have cancer.”
Though Detweiler knew he would have to postpone his senior year, he thought he would return to campus and his social work internship placement in 2005. “I thought I’d be back sooner,” he said, in a recent interview. “It was supposed to be a 10-month treatment.” But it took two years of treatment and surgery to rid his body of cancer.
Almost a year after his initial diagnosis, doctors discovered a tumor in Detweiler’s brain that was “the size of the surgeon’s fist,” according to his mother Carol. A lifesaving surgery took place in August 2005.
The surgery to his brain did bring some difficult side effects: a reading disability and problems with word recognition. “People who I have a lot of contact with would probably be the only ones who notice,” he said.
After a year of treatment, Detweiler’s body still wasn’t rid of the cancer. In January 2006, his doctors initiated a stem cell transplant – the only option for further treatment since too much chemotherapy and radiation can be fatal. “I was fortunate to be able to use my own stem cells. My body accepted them,” he said.
While Detweiler was away from college, students and faculty organized to keep in touch. “The main person was my best friend, Mark Gingerich, who was a senior at that time,” Detweiler said. “He took it a step further and sent my letters to [other] people here at Goshen.”
The college’s Campus Ministries team held a prayer and healing service dedicated to Detweiler and pieced a quilt for him. Proceeds of a campus fund-raiser featuring the band Thirstborne – some of the members of which had attended Hesston (Kan.) College with Detweiler – helped cover medical costs. Social work faculty members also kept in contact, and Vice President for Student Life Bill Born surprised Detweiler by visiting him. “During his travels he stopped by my house and we chatted – he’s been one of the connections I’ve appreciated,” Detweiler said.
Individuals from his home congregation and from “places I’ve never been to around the world” reached out to him, too. Detweiler said he was amazed to learn that people from different denominations and countries were praying for him and keeping in contact with him through his blog. Many found inspiration in Detweiler’s unwavering faith in the midst of his personal struggle. “Before this, I have never completely allowed myself to be fully, and I mean fully, dependent on God. It’s a wonderful feeling,” he said.
Detweiler has been cancer-free for more than six months and is beginning at Goshen College where he left off: in his senior year. His professors are helping him succeed and he is glad to be continuing his internship at La Casa of Goshen. “I enjoy working with people who take the time to show they care about others,” he said.
Not only is he glad to be back at Goshen, but he is also grateful for the restoration of health as he sets his sights on the goal of graduating – cancer-free – in April 2007.