By Keyi Zhou
Esther’s story had crossed 1,000 kilometers to my hometown in China. I knew that she was a young lady diagnosed with a rare kind of cancer while pregnant with her second child. Instead of aborting the child, as most of her doctors advised, she chose to give birth first and then receive treatment for the cancer. Her story reminded me of the courage of Esther in the Bible.
Wanting to know more about this remarkable woman, I sent her a friend request on WeChat and was able to set a time for an interview with Esther the following week. On the phone, she sounded friendly, reserved, and a little bit shy.
Esther lives in Chengdu, the biggest city in Southwest China. She quickly filled me in on some interesting facts about her hometown: Chengdu is one of the original habitats of the world-famous pandas. The people of Chengdu live under humid weather conditions year-round because of the lower terrain, and they love spicy food.
From our conversation, I learned that Esther has a kind of malignant tumor called Ewing's sarcoma, a very rare type of cancerous tumor that grows in the bones or soft tissue around the bones. It is more common in children and teenagers but can occur at any age. Because of the tumor’s rareness, medical research lags behind other more common cancers, and aggressive treatment with chemotherapy and radiation is required. At this point, Esther had already gone through four surgeries, including the c-section with her first baby and seven rounds of chemo. She still would need 10 more rounds of chemo, 25 rounds of radiation, and possibly two more surgeries.
Esther gave birth to her first child in 2018, and with much joy, she was expecting her second child in August 2021. She had always lived a healthy lifestyle—no drinking or smoking—and got plenty of sleep. Her friends often teased that she lived like an old person! So, in January, when she discovered a small protrusion on her right clavicle, she was not expecting it to be a serious problem. Just to be sure, she went to the orthopedics department of West China Hospital for consultation. The doctor suggested a color ultrasound, and no tumor was found.
By April, the small protrusion had grown into a bigger bump, and she returned to the hospital. This time the doctor looked at it more seriously and contacted the dean of the department, who oversaw a second color ultrasound.
Speaking to Esther’s husband (not directly to Esther, as is the custom in China), the doctor suggested that they give up their unborn child and give time to treating Esther’s cancer. “This is a typical sarcoma, the king of cancers,” the doctor said, pointing to the ultrasound film.
“It was the darkest time in our lives,” Esther recalled. “Everyone, except one doctor from Taiwan, strongly suggested that we give up our child. We had lots of concerns and fears, and we agonized over our decision. We considered whether it was fair to our son, who would be three when his sister was born. If she were born with mental or physical problems, after my husband’s and my deaths, he would be the one to take care of her. However, we finally made the decision to do the c-section first because we realized the baby was from God, who loved her much more than we did. We believed that He would take care of her, as well as our first child, all the way. It was not an easy decision, but we chose the best answer with His grace.”
I wanted to know what led her to keep her child at all costs, and her answer didn’t surprise me: “We are Christians and know the meaning of life. God gives life, and it is not for us to kill. My husband and I always wanted to have this baby. We always wanted to have a second child. After praying, we were assured that our daughter was a gift from God. I was four months pregnant, and I could feel her alive in me. Her heart was pulsating in my body. When we made the decision to keep her, I felt peace immediately.”
I told Esther that I understood her deep connection with the baby and her great respect for life. I explained that in the United States, abortion has been argued for decades—whether it should be considered as a woman’s right to her body and whether it should be legal or illegal. But China, known for its previous one-child policy, promotes abortions. So, I knew Esther’s decision took great courage! Printed ads publicizing the so-called painless, induced abortions are glued to roadside telephone poles, and seen on big screens on buses and subways, showing a woman with a big smile, singing cheerfully, “The trouble is gone easily after a nap.” Aborting an unborn baby is never considered as something inappropriate by the broad masses of people in China.
At this point, things were dark for Esther and her husband. They cherished the life of their unborn daughter, but they were alone in their wishes. The oncologist told them that chemotherapy treatment for the cancer would be hard on her body and the baby. So, Esther made the decision to give birth to the baby first—to allow the baby to be born prematurely and cared for in an incubator.
“The decision was easier for me than for my husband,” Esther explained. “I wouldn’t mind giving up my life for my child, but my husband had to think of us all. He was very good to me. Though he was struggling, afraid that keeping the child would do harm to my body, he kept his worries to himself and supported my decision.”
When the baby was 29 weeks old and had a definite survival rate, they made an appointment with the obstetrician. The doctor shared his concerns that even if the child survived birth, it was uncertain if she would be healthy physically and mentally. And he said it would take a lot of effort and a lot of money to raise a child like that! However, at Esther’s insistence, a c-section was performed.
The c-section took almost three hours, with Esther under general anesthesia. The baby weighed only 1.4 kg, around 3 pounds—very tiny—and was immediately taken to the incubator without her mother even getting to hold her.
After giving birth, Esther took two weeks to collect two-month’s milk for the baby. No transfer of the cancer was detected at that time, which the doctor called a miracle. After 35 days, the baby was discharged and able to go home to be with her parents.
Esther shared some of the insights she gained through her experience: “A lot of people say I gave my life for my daughter, but in fact, she saved me. Because of the progesterone stimulation caused by pregnancy, the tumor grew quickly, prompting me to get it checked out. So, the cancer was found early before it had time to advance. It was all God’s timing.”
After giving birth, the tumor continued to grow to the size of 10 cm, and Esther took the doctor’s advice to have an operation to remove the tumor. He explained the procedure clearly. The excision area needed to be enlarged. Her scapula (shoulder blade), the clavicle (bone connecting the sternum to the shoulder), the acromion (top outer edge of the shoulder blade), and the supraspinatus (a small muscle in the upper back) had to be removed, which could cause damage to the surrounding nerves and ligaments. If the body didn’t repair itself, artificial ligaments would need to be placed. The wound would be too large to be sutured directly, and a machine called a VAC (vacuum-assisted closure) would absorb and pull drainage from the wound continuously for 7-10 days to allow the front and back skin to expand upward. After 10 days, another operation would need to be done, and the condition of the skin would determine if it was possible to be sutured, in which case much less flap would need to bbe transferred.
After the operation, there was no need to transfer the flap and suture at all. “It was another miracle,” Esther said. "God’s favor was on me.” Doctors said that after the operation, she might not be able to lift her right arm, and they tried to console her by saying that she should put her life before her limbs. After the surgery, however, the doctor said that the arm function could slowly be restored by exercises, and she would be able to comb her hair and wash her face again. Again, Esther commented, “God took care of me. His favor was on me.” As of this writing, Esther’s wound has not healed completely, but she continues to pray for a miracle of healing that would spare her from having to undergo two more surgeries.
While I understood Esther’s appreciation of the Source of our greatest strength, I was curious about her perception of it. “My illness has transformed me in many ways,” she elaborated. “I now have much more empathy for others. While in the medical ward, I stood out as the mother of a newborn who was being treated for cancer while on the same day pumping her milk for her baby in the incubator. In my sickness, I experienced pain on a completely different level. As I went through many chemo treatments, my roommates in the ward were feeling their own pain and vomiting. We were all struggling on a mental level as well, with depression and self-pity. My symptoms were not as bad as others, but it was not because I am better than anyone else. God’s favor toward me was unmerited, a gift of kindness that gave me the ability to get through the difficult path God had for me in this life. I experienced His favor through the goodness of those who cared for me in the hospital.”
“I’ll admit, there's a sadness in me,” she continued, “and sometimes I struggle with my thoughts. The fatality rate of this cancer is high. I feel very reluctant to say goodbye to this world so soon. It would be so heartbreaking if my husband and children were left in this world without a wife and mother!” As Esther talked, tears streamed down my cheeks. Her words broke my heart: “But knowing that my days are numbered, I appreciate more the moment that is here. I'm more fortunate than a lot of people who die in accidents and don’t have the chance to say goodbye.”
Wanting to end our conversation on an optimistic note, I offered: “There’s a possibility you might pass young, but you also might be able to live into your 80s. God knows!” “That’s true,” she said. “My husband looked online and found out that there was a man with this kind of cancer who lived 50 years after he finished all the treatments. Fifty more years of life is very encouraging to me! Nevertheless, even if I can't be here for my family, my husband and I have known God, my children will know God, and God will be there for them till the end.”
As I said goodbye to Esther, I prayed she would continue to experience the peace God has promised: “And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). And I thanked God that the “the favor of the Lord our God” was on her (Psalm 90:17).