My name is Danny Steenhoek, and I had the unique experience of battling cancer this summer and fall. It was definitely the hardest experience of my life up to this point, being a 29-year-old single adult, and came as a surprise.
I felt an abnormality in my body and went into urgent care on July 3. I quickly got the appropriate tests and scans. Within three days I found out I had to have surgery by the end of the week. I was then scheduled for chemotherapy 10 days after surgery with a good chance of making it through cancer free. I was told I would lose my hair and that I would be much weaker than usual. I was told I might be able to do very light exercises and I definitely shouldn’t expect to be gaining any muscle.
Chemotherapy is a long-drawn-out process that essentially is poisoning you just enough for your body to handle, and then they back off for a little bit to let your body recover just enough before the next round.
The pain manifests itself in the constant discomfort in different parts of the body. With the pain came lots of resting and waiting for the process to work. In the meantime, there are hours and hours of reflection that take place amidst the discomfort, serving as a constant reminder that I have cancer. It allowed me to think about some beautiful principles and taught me so much about life. I’ve learned too much to keep it to myself. Below are some of the things that I learned:
Danny Steenhoek smiles for a photo with Rebecca Erickson, a friend he met while undergoing chemotherapy. | Provided by Danny Steenhoek
1. Everyone is going through something
Cancer has taught me that the best attitude to have is one of gratitude. There is always someone who has it worse than we do or who has had it worse. It was eye-opening to walk through the halls of the infusion center where people get chemo and realize that the rooms are always full. One of my chemo buddies had to go through similar treatment as I did. The difference is she is much lighter than I am but receives the same dosage of poison, not to mention she had to endure an additional round due to her type of cancer. It definitely made me not want to complain but also made me want to give her some of my strength.
Cancer isn’t the only tough trial in the world. Natural disasters kill and displace people from their homes, innocent people are victimized all over the world simply for being defenseless, tragedy and accident can occur in the life and family of anyone. We don’t always have visuals of what’s going on, but I witnessed the devastating toll cancer takes on the lives of the people who’ve contracted it firsthand.
2. Over-complaining isn’t going to solve any problems
If you’re feeling pain, it probably feels good to let out some grunts and complaints about the pain. In some cases, it’s productive because a lot of the symptoms can be mitigated if you tell your doctor or someone who knows how to help. But it can weigh you down if complaining is your focus. There are incredible things to look forward to and even things you can do now that can take your mind off the pain and suffering.
One way I personally was able to take my mind off of the pain of chemotherapy was by reading. I am a sucker for inspirational fiction books; books that have mesmerizing stories of people overcoming great odds. Placing myself in the shoes of these characters who are going through crazy hard times provides me empathy that helps me forget about my current situation. As I cheer on the protagonist I find myself more able to develop a positive attitude in cheering myself on amidst my own struggles.
3. Come closer to Christ
My faith is very important to me. If there is anyone who has gone through hard things, it’s the Savior of the world. One of my favorite descriptions of Christ’s suffering comes from Tad Callister’s “The Infinite Atonement,” which explains:
“ It is common knowledge that the area of a rectangle is equal to its length multiplied by its width. No matter how small the width is made, the area may be held constant by proportionately increasing the length. Could that also be true with suffering? Perhaps the totality of suffering is expressed by a similar formula: Suffering = Intensity of Pain x Time. If this is so, could one decrease the time and inversely increase the pain so a lifetime of suffering could be compressed into one day, one hour, even one second, and yet the total suffering remains constant?
“Man’s concept of pain is shortsighted at best. When we reach our threshold of pain, a release valve ‘kicks in.’ We either lapse into unconsciousness or we die. Accordingly, we cannot know nor can we relate to an intensity of pain that transcends death or unconsciousness.
“In the case of the Savior, however, there was no such escape mechanism. The pain would continue to escalate far beyond that ever experienced or envisioned by any mortal man. Elder Erastus Snow suggested that at this crisis moment, when the ‘end was nigh at hand, all the infirmities of the flesh, as it were, crowded upon him.’ King Benjamin reminds us that the ‘Savior suffered even more than man can suffer’ (Mosiah 3:7). If there were no death or unconsciousness, and pain could escalate without limit, then it seems not unreasonable to suppose that suffering could remain constant — even if the time factor were drastically decreased.”
I know that he suffered for me individually and my burdens can be swallowed up in him as long as I exercise the appropriate faith. I have felt great strength from my Savior and know he can heal us still, 2,000 years after his death. Because my suffering was so long and annoying, it gave me so much opportunity to reflect on Jesus Christ. I have felt so much closer to him and am grateful to my experience with cancer for allowing this to happen.
4. Surround yourself with good people
When you have cancer, you find that the good people definitely flock to your aid. They don’t always know what you need or want but they’re willing to ask. Sometimes all you need is good company to keep your mind off of your pain and circumstance. The important thing is to pay attention to who those people are, they’re the ones you want to keep around.
Danny Steenhoek is photographed before his diagnosis with cancer. | Provided by Danny Steenhoek
5. Happiness and self-esteem are not skin deep
Before chemotherapy, I got very into lifting weights and hitting new personal bests. I started to compare myself to others more and to pride myself on my “gains.” With the news of cancer, I realized pretty quickly that my lifting and workouts would be eliminated from my schedule. I quickly started dropping weight from lack of appetite, and maintaining muscle mass was near impossible. I lost 25 pounds, much of which was muscle.
I soon realized that I would be miserable if my self-esteem was based off of my strength or physical appearance. I wished I hadn’t been so caught up in physical appearance before my diagnosis. It does feel good to look good, but it also feels good to serve and lift others instead of just lifting weights. It feels good to gain knowledge, to enjoy the beauty that surrounds us and to joy in the successes of others. I realized that life should be balanced between loving ourselves and loving others. I still plan on hitting the gym after I recover, but I want the joy in my life to be based on knowing that I’ve deliberately lifted others and have built lasting relationships, because muscles don’t always last.
6. Accept the service of others
Being able to accept the help of others may not be one of your strong traits but I have learned that allowing others to serve you is also a way to let love into your life. When someone else is serving you or thinks they are serving you, it opens them up to showing unconditional love. I have learned to accept every act of service with open arms and as I have, I’ve found an overwhelming love. Instead of the prideful, “Why do they think I need help?” I opened myself up and acknowledged the truth: I really did need help. In the future, when help is offered, I plan on better evaluating the motive so I can accept service. I’ve learned service is actually a chance to connect.
For those serving, many times this simply requires observation. I have become increasingly more grateful for those who can read a situation and then immediately act based on what they’ve observed. I can give countless examples but will offer just one: A friend noted that I was most likely going to have a fever most Mondays following treatments so she got me ready-to-go ice packs to cool my overheating body. I’ve found that people who frequently give service have developed this ability to discern the need in any given situation. It has become a skill for them, a skill developed because of practice.
7. Go a step further and help others serve you
Many times, people want to help but don’t know how. Many times my appetite has been at an all-time low or nothing sounds good. But sometimes one or two things actually sound good to me. With people bringing food over, I learned to help by giving them a heads up on any cravings I was having because I knew this would make their service more meaningful and in turn, I would get what I really needed. This goes for any difficult trial. “Ask and ye shall receive” is a true principle! How much greater is the joy for the person serving if they know that they provided exactly what you needed? Being honest and open is key for both sides. It’s true that “it’s the thought that counts,” but that thought becomes more impactful as we communicate. The thought does count, but the service becomes more impactful when we identify the need.
8. Be aware and control the symptoms
There are quite a few symptoms of chemo that are quite uncomfortable at first, and if left unchecked can turn into big problems down the line. I didn’t know what to expect from my body during the first round of chemo and found myself unable to sleep because I did not manage the oncoming symptoms that could’ve been avoided with daily medicine. Once I discovered the symptom, it took time for me to figure out the best medicine and how much of the medicine would work. My doctor helped me, but it was up to me to acknowledge the symptom such as acid reflux and nausea and then seek the appropriate help.
I think that this applies to all situations in our lives. There are times when we will be weak and not able to live the way we want. Weakness is inherent in all of us, whether it’s getting distracted while trying to perform a task, not meeting others' expectations or failing to meet attainable goals. Like cancer, our situation can worsen if we do not control the symptoms. I had the ability to have a good night's sleep as long as I took my antacid pills regularly. I was able to eat when I took my anti-nausea medicine. Sometimes we have to diagnose our life situations and figure out the best way to treat our weaknesses. Sometimes it is even necessary to go to someone who knows better, like a doctor in my case, about how to remedy the symptom.
9. Live in the moment
Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to build something for the future that we stop living in the now. Or sometimes our trials seem so rough that we lose hope of anything good coming in the future. If we are not satisfied now, then how do we expect to be satisfied in the future? I found that there were actually many satisfying moments during chemo like when it only took them one poke to get a vein, or when I was actually craving any type of food or reading a good book. I figure if I can be happy during chemo, how much happier and grateful will I be when I’m done with treatments? If we can learn happiness no matter the circumstances and celebrate the wins, then we are building one of the most important things in life: a good attitude.
We can’t focus on the bad, even when the bad is inevitable. Before each round of chemo, there were a few days where I felt good enough to be semi-active. Although my hardest week was almost upon me, I was determined to make the most of my weekend before a hard week. My bishop invited me to go out on his boat with some friends from my singles ward. I wasn’t physically in a condition to do much and I’ve typically been an all or nothing type of person. I knew I would be weak, and wakeboarding wouldn’t a smart decision because the chemo was weakening my bones. But sitting at home potentially wallowing and dreading the upcoming treatment wasn’t an option for me. I knew that being with friends and enjoying others’ company would be enough for me, even if I couldn’t participate in my normal activities. Even when our situations are not ideal, it’s important to take advantage of the highest level of happiness we can obtain.
10. There is no right time to start living
I think achieving things is based largely on our desire. I’ve never been musically inclined and have never had any desire to be the next “American Idol.” But I believe that if I had a strong desire to be an amazing singer, I could. I believe that anyone can achieve anything. We often hear people say, “I’m not good at such and such a thing,” which is possibly true. Its sister statement is “I could never do that,” and I would submit that in most cases both statements are likely false. With that attitude, you’re probably right, but a true statement would be, “If I work hard at practicing, I could be good at that.”
With chemo, more than any other time in my life, I feel set back physically but I am excited to put this principle to the test. Post-chemo I am still very weak and out of shape, and knowing this, I dreaded the thought of walking onto a volleyball court or into a weight room and not being able to do the things I used to be able to do. The daunting work ahead of us can often deter us from even starting something, but we must begin where we are. Showing self-compassion and understanding is vital until we begin to see progress.