It all started at a two year old’s birthday party. Balloons, cupcakes and merry toddlers gathering at the park on a warm spring afternoon. What a treat considering that my children are teenagers now and it’s been awhile since I’ve enjoyed a celebration of such innocence. Making my way around the affair, I introduce myself to a bubbly woman named Masi. I sense something special about her and soon discover what it is. This woman is passionate about God. At this realization, our conversation takes on a new energy. And within minutes, Masi has me at complete attention as she shares a powerful story about her brother, Jey, and his family. I am riveted by her narrative that highlights the faithful, courageous journey of Jey, Casi, Lauren and Matthew Willis. Right then I know that I want to meet this extraordinary family and, if I am so fortunate, to share their story with you.
So here I am on a Sunday evening five months later driving up to a part of my state that I have never seen before. And as I get closer to their home in Canton, Georgia, I am struck by how peaceful it all seems here. Surrounded by green open spaces, I have left the traffic and busyness of the Atlanta city and made my way to a place where life seems to slow down and become more deliberate. I arrive early and wait at the bottom of the driveway, rolling my windows down to enjoy the first fall day we’ve had this year. Suddenly, a handsome white lab charges down the front yard to my car. I wait for him to bark at me, to warn me that he is on guard in this place, but he never does. Instead, he sits at attention, cocking his head back and forth with enthusiasm. His eyes almost telling me, “Come on up! These people are really nice. You are welcome here.” And when I finally ascend the driveway and enter the home of the Willis family, I know for sure that Buster was right.
I am greeted first by Jey, the gracious, outgoing patriarch. I learn quickly that this man wears his heart on his sleeve, while simultaneously shouldering his family with solid protection and unwavering devotion. Casi, his wife, embraces me with a tender smile as she reaches for my hand. She has a quiet benevolence to her and honestly looks so youthful that I wondered for a second whether she was the daughter or the mother. Lauren, their daughter, is a senior in high school and possesses an obvious maturity well beyond her years. She is enchanting with her long hair and slim figure, but it is her radiant smile that lights up her entire being. Lastly, I meet Matthew. He is the celebrity here. The man of the hour. The one I have heard so much about. A sophomore in high school, Matthew is adorable and a bit shy at first with his irresistible grin. But in no time, I discover his unique confidence and toughness that has proven to be part of the foundation for this family. As we gather in the den, I witness the closeness they feel toward one another. With a mutual respect and tenderness, the Willis family comes across as a team, an army even. Soldiers that have fought a long battle and made it out alive. Maybe a little beaten up, but stronger, more grateful and with quite a story to tell.
Their story begins in the early spring of 2013. The Willises were living life as a normal family. Jey enjoying his job as a State Farm insurance agent and Casi as a stay at home mom very involved in her children’s education. Lauren was a sophomore in high school and Matthew was in the 8th grade. Both kids were active in church and school, loving to spend time with friends. The family was especially thrilled as they had recently bought a lot and were making plans to build a new home. Around this time, Matthew began to feel a sharp pain in his left hip. His parents took him to an orthopedist who told them that it was most likely an injury that he would outgrow. Matthew played soccer and had just started running cross country, so the doctor felt that his hip was simply adjusting to the new exercise routine. But when six months later, the pain had gotten worse, Casi and Jey became concerned. They took him to the doctor again and were told, once again, that it was nothing. Watching three more months of their son struggling with pain, they decided to take Matthew to a chiropractor. The chiropractor felt an x-ray was needed and brought in a doctor affiliated with their practice, Dr. William Almon, to conduct the examination. This x-ray quickly revealed a mass in Matthew’s hip. Casi and Jey were floored. What they had hoped would be a simple explanation for their child’s suffering had now turned into cause for great concern. And from this point on, everything moved very fast. CT Scans were ordered that same week and surgery planned for early the following week, as Dr. Almon wanted to determine whether the mass was cancerous. And when the surgery and scans were completed, it was revealed on April 15, 2014, that thirteen year-old sweet Matthew had cancer.
Have you ever felt like the rug has been pulled out from under you, my friend? Your once “normal” life has been turned upside down from a diagnosis, the betrayal of a loved one, or loss of a job? You are overwhelmed with fear as you face the now unknown future. Or maybe you constantly worry about what bad things could happen in your life and it tortures you? You find it hard to sustain any real joy and peace in your day due to the worry and fear that consumes you. How do we cope with this? Where do we turn?
“When you say cancer, people immediately freak out,” Jey says. It is a parent’s job to protect their kids. They have dreams and plans for their future. Cancer threatens to change those dreams. And this is what Jey and Casi were facing. And for this couple, this was a situation they were unfortunately familiar with. Back in 1999, Jey and Casi had lost their infant son, John, at only thirty days old. A parent’s “worst fear” had already become a reality for them, and they didn’t know if they could survive another tragedy. “We had already been through this,” Casi says.
Matthew’s tumor was diagnosed as an Undifferentiated Sarcoma, which means they didn’t know for sure what it was. The scans showed that Matthew’s bladder was pushed way to the side in his body because the tumor was 13.4 centimeters in diameter. Parents of children who have been diagnosed with cancer go through an array of emotions. They initially feel shock and numbness. Helpless with all the information that gets thrown at them, the anxiety becomes overwhelming. They can grow angry at the unfairness of the present and uncertainty of the future. All these feelings were certainly true for Jey and Casi. Even though their love for God was solid, they couldn’t help but worry if they could make it through this. Would they be able to comfort their little boy? How would they hide their fear and stress? What if their precious child could not be healed? But they quickly learned that Matthew was the one who would guide them. Even though he was so young, he possessed a unique confidence and peace. They remember how Matthew, from minute one, believed that God would take care of him. “Our faith started with him,” Jey says. “From the very beginning, he believed,” Casi adds. “He believed God was going to heal him.”
From the start of his treatment, Casi and Jey wanted Matthew in every meeting with the doctors. Jey remembers the pediatric oncologist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Dr. Bradley George, telling them, “Going into this, you need to know your son has a tumor that may take his life.” He followed up with scary statistics that no parent wants to face. As their fear increased, Dr. George quickly calmed them by announcing that they were going to put all those statistics aside and simply focus on a positive outcome. They knew in that moment that they had a very special doctor, and this gave them hope.
Matthew began a four week regime and would need nine months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. For any parent, this is daunting. While other parents are going to sports events, driving carpool, and making plans for spring break; the parents of a child with cancer spend their time in doctor’s offices and hospital rooms, watching their child become sick from intense treatment and fearfully facing an unknown future. I ask Jey and Casi how they survived during this excruciating time. They both say emphatically that prayer and a reliance on God’s Word helped them through. Constantly carrying their Bibles with them to the hospital, they received encouragement and inspiration. They prayed openly in Matthew’s room, both alone and with friends. Casi says that she even slept with her Bible on her chest at night. “I couldn’t get close enough,” she says. “I tried to give it all over to the Lord. There were moments when I wanted to take it back. But I knew He was in control. You have to give it over and know that God can take it.”
“Do you want to know what our family verse is?” Matthew suddenly asks me.
“Well, of course I do,” I respond.
“It’s Psalm 109:26-27,” he proudly replies, “Help me, O Lord my God, save me in accordance with Your love. Let them know that it is Your hand, that You, O Lord, have done it.”
I watch as the family looks at Matthew as he speaks. As he recites the familiar verses that they have claimed over him, I am struck by the solidarity of their faith. And I sense that even though he is the youngest one here, and even though he was the patient, they gained their strength through his influence.
Early in the treatment, Jey had to learn to give shots to Matthew and this was terrifying for them both. He was told to practice on oranges, but says that this was “flipping useless.” His first attempt was horrible as Matthew screamed out in pain. Lauren remembers, “We were all crying when he gave that shot the first night.” Jey knew that he needed help if he was going to do this every day. So, before the second night’s shot, Jey and Casi reached out to many family members and friends to pray about it. And that second night, as Jey inserted the needle into his son, Matthew didn’t feel a thing. The Willises knew that those prayers had been answered.
Do you believe in the power of prayer? Do you know that God wants you to come to Him with everything in your life, no matter how big or small? Ephesians 6:18 says to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” God’s Spirit and His holy Word have power in your life, especially when you are worried. You have a Heavenly Father who adores you and wants to be involved in every part of you. When you pray, He is listening. When you commit your life to His Word, He will use it for your benefit.
In addition to prayer and the reliance on God’s Word, the family tells me how comforting other people had been to them in this journey. “It is so important to have a church family,” Jey says. God placed other people in their lives to help. The members of First Baptist Woodstock immediately set up a meal team. Their Sunday school class had a “blessing basket” that was delivered every week containing magazines, cards, gifts, and candy. Matthew’s school, King’s Academy, went out of their way to help him with his schoolwork. There was even one little girl named Kennedy who went above and beyond for him. She recorded his classes on her iPad and collected all of his homework, even preparing it ahead of time to make it easier for him. When Matthew had to miss the class trip to Washington D.C., his classmates took a large cardboard cutout of him called “Flat Matthew” and had pictures taken everywhere they went so he wouldn’t feel left out. Close friends, Lisa and Angie, had shirts made that read, “Willis Warriors,” on the front and on the back, “Because no one should fight alone.” A boy named Cody chose for his senior project to organize a benefit concert to raise money for Camp Sunshine in honor of Matthew, and raised over $5,000. Their pastor, Johnny Hunt, texted Jey in the wee hours of the morning to let him know he was praying for their family. Lauren says, “My friends were amazing. My house was silent when my parents were at the hospital, so they would come over and do homework with me so I wasn’t alone.” Their family members, including Masi, were constantly present with encouragement and prayers. Matthew says, “It was overwhelming…and nice to know that people were praying for me.” The concept of prayer has changed Jey. “I’m praying for you means something different now,” he says. “Knowing there were twenty men who stopped what they were doing at a certain time of the day to pray for Matthew and our family was huge. I don’t say I’m praying for you now unless I mean it.”
Do you, dear reader, ever feel helpless when a loved one is suffering? You worry for them and don’t know how you can help. Galatians 6:2 says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Praying for one another and reaching out and using your gifts when others are suffering can not only calm this fear, but can truly make a difference. God can use you, no matter who you are.
I glance over at Lauren and begin to wonder what it’s like to be the sibling of someone fighting cancer. As his protector, she felt helpless watching Matthew suffer. She remembers thinking, “Why couldn’t I have gotten it instead?” And with both of her parents focused so heavily on Matthew’s treatment, it was difficult for her to navigate her way. “I didn’t know what my role was. Hospitals are designed for the patient and parent. It took me a while to know how much to be involved.” Her kind eyes reveal such unselfishness as she speaks, and I am touched by what may have been a lonely time for her. But she quickly reminds me of how Matthew’s attitude helped shape her own. “My friends and I would be complaining about our schoolwork and I would catch myself, remembering that Matthew had gone to school that day after his radiation treatment. The idea of ‘I’m having a bad day‘ is not what it used to be. My perspective has completely changed.”
Throughout their experience, the Willises stood out. Matthew’s attitude touched the nurses and doctors. Even though he was stuck with needles, poked and prodded constantly, Matthew always treated everyone with respect. When he became ill in his hospital room and a nurse had to clean it up off the floor, she was amazed when he apologized to her and then thanked her for her help. “There’s something different about y’all,” she said. The anesthesiologist was so affected by the Willis’s faith that she reached out to a friend in common about it. And this friend was able to share the Gospel with her. One of the doctors even called Jey simply to tell him how touched he was by their faith. Jey says, “Matthew took everything cancer could throw at him, but he never complained.” Casi includes, “Matthew never felt well during this whole experience, but he never complained…God can take care of whatever happens and He can use it.” Jey adds, “We decided that at the end of the day, let’s just point everyone back to Christ.”
In this world where life often seems unfair, where do we find faith? When we watch the news, our minds are inundated with images of crime and corruption. Our hearts break as we hear stories of destruction and despair…how do we keep from becoming hopeless? The Willis family is an example that even in the toughest times, there can still be joy. That even when we are struggling, we can still show kindness to others. And even when the cards are stacked against us, we can still point people to Christ. Could this be true in your life? Whether you are suffering right now with a seemingly impossible situation or feeling worried about your unknown future, do you believe that your attitude could shape your reality? Could others see Christ in you?
After four months, Matthew’s body had responded so well to the treatment, that the doctors wanted to see if he was ready for surgery. The doctors couldn’t explain why he had reacted so well, but the Willis family knew that something bigger was going on. The tumor had shrunk to 5.6 centimeters, which to the doctors, was unexplainable.
The Willises now had a big decision to make. They had to choose the next course of action for Matthew, which was between doing an intense, localized radiation treatment or having surgery to remove the tumor. The radiation would mean that the tumor stayed in, but the treatment could possibly cause serious health issues for Matthew in the future. The surgery, called a Hemipelvectomy, would remove two-thirds of Matthew’s left pelvis, then pull the femur up three inches, drill a hole through it and tie it off with a wire. This surgery would considerably shorten Matthew’s leg. “We were very sad to imagine putting him in that situation because he was so used to running around,” Casi admits. Jey adds, “We felt like we would be making our son crippled.” If you think they had help from the doctors, think again. The surgeon told them to do radiation and the radiologist told them to do the surgery. And it seemed that everyone around them had a different opinion, as well. The Willises were overwhelmed. They decided, once again, to let prayer and God’s Word guide them. They asked their friends and family to pray, so all the “Willis Warriors” got on their knees. Now, Matthew wasn’t uncertain at all and knew exactly what he wanted, the tumor out. But Jey and Casi feared that in his young age, Matthew was not fully aware of the consequences of this. So, the surgeon, Dr. Nikolas Reimer, sat Matthew down to shoot him straight about the life changes that would come from this surgery.
“Matthew, you won’t be able to run anymore,” Dr. Reimer said.
“Will I be able to camp and hunt and fish?” Matthew responded.
“Well, yes,” the doctor answered.
“Then I am fine,” Matthew said.
When Dr. Reimer presented Matthew with the fact that surgery has a risk of death, Matthew’s response was, “What’s so bad about dying? I will get to go to heaven.”
Everything the doctor and his parents told him would be a potential negative, Matthew continually came back with a positive. Everything they told him he would no longer be able to do, he came back with what he would be able to do. In the end, Casi and Jey believed in their son and felt God leading them to choose the surgery. So, they all prepared themselves for what would lie ahead.
The day before the surgery, Matthew’s best friends took him to play laser tag, ride go karts and camp out in the backyard, knowing that he may not be able to do these things at any time in the near future. And early the next morning, these same friends were waiting for Matthew at the hospital when he arrived. Surrounded by loved ones at the hospital waiting room, everyone continued to pray as Matthew headed in for a six hour surgery. And when it was finally done, Dr. Reimer emerged with a smile and reported that he had gotten all of the tumor. So much so, that there was no radiation needed after the surgery, which they had been planning on beforehand. Matthew’s margins were 100% clear, while there also was no cancer found in his lymph nodes. And as it stands today, there is no evidence of active disease! Casi tells me that Matthew must receive scans every three months and that it will take two years for him to return to as normal as he is going to be. She reminds me that her dependence on God through all this is essential in her life because, “Cancer is forever,” she says. “There is no 100% cure. The future is unsure, that’s why you must give it to God.”
After the story has been told, I look over at Matthew sitting quietly on the sofa. He hasn’t really said too much in this discussion, but his positive attitude, the influence over his family, and his constant faith in the face of great difficulty have spoken quite loudly. I am filled with wonder at it all, especially since he is so young. So I ask him, “Matthew, how in the world are you like this?” And he looks me straight in the eyes with a soft smile and replies, “I trust God in everything.” The room is quiet as I sit back in awe at the simplicity and confidence with which he announces this. Then his mother adds, “It’s just the way he’s wired.”
“I trust God in everything”….and there it was. After spending an hour hearing this boy’s story and wondering how he handled it all so well, I found the answer in five simple words.
Let me ask you, my friend, do you? How could your life be significantly changed if you chose to trust God in everything? When you’re struggling with a difficult relationship; when you lose your job; when your dreams for your future remain unfulfilled, what if you chose to simply let go? No matter what you are dealing with now or will face in the future, couldn’t Matthew’s words make all the difference? Psalm 56:3 says, “When I am afraid, I will trust in You.” Could you adopt this verse for your life? God knows that we worry. He understands that life is hard. But He wants us to trust Him in everything and know with certainty, with the faith of a child, that He will take care of us.
As the interview comes to a close, I look up on the wall in their home where a Bible verse has been painted. It is 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” How fitting, I think. God asks us to trust Him in both large and small and the Willises are a shining example of what happens when you do.Through dependence on God’s Word, the belief that prayer has power, the reliance on loved ones for strength, and the pulling together as a family, Jey, Casi, Lauren and Matthew have, indeed, glorified God.
So, in answering the question, “Is it worth it to worry?”
Hmmm…You tell me.