Facing Down Cancer

with Michael and Gina Spehn | June 9, 2014

Michael and Gina Spehn both suffered the loss of a spouse to cancer, but their stories turned from grief to hope. Today, hear Gina's story. Gina and her first husband, Matt, looked forward to celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary. But Matt's diagnosis of cancer at age 33 turned their lives upside down. Gina recalls Matt's slowly declining health and his steadfast faith that God would take care of his family when he no longer could.

Michael and Gina Spehn both suffered the loss of a spouse to cancer, but their stories turned from grief to hope. Today, hear Gina's story. Gina and her first husband, Matt, looked forward to celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary. But Matt's diagnosis of cancer at age 33 turned their lives upside down. Gina recalls Matt's slowly declining health and his steadfast faith that God would take care of his family when he no longer could.

Facing Down Cancer

With Michael and Gina Spehn
|
June 09, 2014
| Download Transcript PDF

Bob: Matt Kell was in his thirties when his doctor told him, “You don’t have long to live.” Knowing he would not be there to raise his two young sons, Matt decided to leave a video diary.

Here’s Matt’s wife, Gina.

Gina: He opened the video diary with: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Those were the two foundations of his teaching for the boys.

I mean, watching him—the man who was facing death trust God that way—it so strengthened my faith, and my ability to be a mom to them after he was gone, and to know that I was going to have to be on my own with them—but not really because I knew that he was leaving the boys in the care of his Father in heaven and that I, too, would be able to rely on Him.

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Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, June 9th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Gina Spehn joins us today to tell us about how God was with her as she said goodbye to her husband and how He was with her boys as they said goodbye to their daddy. Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Monday edition. I don’t know how many of our listeners had a chance to see the Hallmark® Channel movie that was on just last week, called The Color of Rain that tells Michael and Gina Spehn’s story; but I have to tell you, as I watched it, I kept thinking over and over again about the verse in Isaiah that points to the ministry of the coming Messiah and says, when He comes, one of the things He’ll do is He will make beauty from ashes.

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Maybe I think about that verse more often these days because I just see a lot of ash in our world, and I’m longing for some beauty. The story we’re going to reflect on today is a story of God’s redeeming work in the lives of two families and how He brought beauty out of ashes. I think there’s something in stories like that that resonates.

Dennis: There really is Bob. Michael and Gina Spehn join us on FamilyLife Today. Welcome to the broadcast.

Michael: Thank you.

Dennis: Together, you guys have five children. You’ve written a book called The Color of Rain. It’s a compelling story of how two marriages ended; and out of the ashes, God did something really spectacular.

I want to begin with you, Gina. It was a few months after 9/11 that you’d obviously celebrated your 32nd birthday. You and your husband, Matt, were in the process of celebrating your tenth anniversary.

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What happened during that time?

Gina: Well, actually, our ten-year wedding anniversary was in October. He and I decided, earlier in the year, that we needed to celebrate it in advance because we had conflicts—scheduling conflicts—in October. So, we celebrated our ten-year wedding anniversary. Then, as our anniversary approached, we kind of thought: “Alright, we’re just going to lay low / stay home with the kids. We’ve already sort of celebrated that, and maybe we’ll go out to dinner.”

But instead, that week, he was diagnosed with cancer. He felt a lump in his leg. He said, “I think I need to go see my dad’s oncologist.” My first thought was, “You feel a lump in your leg; and your first thought is, ‘I have to go see an oncologist.’” I said, “Well, who really says that right off the bat? Maybe it’s just something else—it’s your muscle or whatever.” He said, “No, given my family history, I need to go to the oncologist because this doesn’t feel right.”

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So, we did. The week of our ten-year wedding anniversary, he was diagnosed with cancer.

Bob: What kind of cancer?

Gina: It’s called leiomyosarcoma. It’s a rare form of cancer. It’s a soft tissue sarcoma. It often will start in a muscle somewhere—anywhere in the body—legs, arms, anywhere it can be. You’ll feel a little marble tumor.

Bob: Well, and of course, you hear the word “cancer,” and everybody’s alarm bells go off. Some cancers are very treatable; some cancers are much more dangerous. Did you have any idea, from the diagnosis, what kind of cancer Matt was dealing with?

Gina: Unfortunately, we did because we had some experience with this. Matt’s family, on his father’s side, had a history of cancer—and of this particular type of cancer as well. His father passed away, at age 49, from leiomyosarcoma. Other family members had as well. So, we knew, upon the diagnosis, really, that this would be a terminal form of cancer—that this was not going to be something that would likely be beatable.

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Bob: Emotionally, as you’re watching your husband go through this—I mean, it has to be interesting because he knows he has a terminal form of cancer—and so many other family members gone. What took place in him—between you and him and your relationship—as you were staring in the face of death?

Gina: What happened was he received a second diagnosis. The first diagnosis was, “You have leiomyosarcoma.” About a year-and-a-half later, it was: “That cancer’s now spread. You now have cancer on your lungs / in your liver. You’re officially diagnosed as terminal,”—even though we kind of knew that, early on, without them ever telling us that.

Upon that second diagnosis, there was a big shift in him, and in his way of thinking about cancer, in his relationship with God. He had just come out of a lung biopsy, and was laying there.

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There was a chaplain that came into the room. She wanted to pray for him, and for healing, and for his family. He said, “I’d like to say a prayer.” We all grabbed hands. The thinking was he was going to pray for himself and for his own healing, and his own family; but instead, he prayed for the chaplain who had come into the room.

He prayed for her ministry and for the other people that she would be speaking with. It was this moment of clarity for me. I knew, for him, that it was: “Okay, this isn’t going to be all about Matt, and dying, and this is the end, and this is going to be depressing. We’re going to turn this thing outward. We’re going to use the faith we’ve been given. We’re going to talk to other people about how to live and how to really be strong in our faith in the midst of a circumstance like this.” He did that.

Dennis: Of course, you had two sons at the time.

Gina: Yes.

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Dennis: That—for a father—I mean, I remember, early, when we started this ministry, FamilyLife. I was having a quiet time one morning. My hand dropped from my forehead to my neck. I thought I felt a lump at the base of my neck. I was never diagnosed with cancer—didn’t have anything like what you’re talking about—but I was astounded at how that began to define my life in the days, weeks, and months of uncertainty that followed.

For him, as a man, there was a certainty about this. How did he process it as he related to your two young sons?

Gina: Well, it was—it evolved. In the beginning, we didn’t talk too much about our children; but it was—he lamented, heavily, with regard to, “Why is God going to give me little boys to raise—two sons—and not leave me here to take care of them and to raise them?”

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He wrote in a journal. He wrote a lot in there about letting go of his children. He wrestled out how he could trust God to take care of them if he’s not here to do it and how they’re not his children—that they’re God’s children. He did a lot of that in writing and through his private journals.

Dennis: Yes; in fact, I have this quote from his journal. He said: “I must trust that the Author of the universe is capable of raising Andrew and Samuel without my help. It’s His will, not mine. They are His boys, not mine.”

Gina: Yes. And he believed that completely. Yet, it was so difficult to know that you wouldn’t be here for your children. It was painful, and it was so difficult. There were many, many tears.

Outwardly, he was that strong—and he talked that way and he spoke that way—and then there were the private moments, between us, when it was just so painful—to know that you’re not going to be here for those boys.

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That kind of trust—I mean, watching him—the man who was facing death trust God that way—it so strengthened my faith, and my ability to be a mom to them after he was gone, and to know that I was going to have to be on my own with them—but not really because I knew that he was leaving the boys in the care of his Father in heaven and that, I too, would be able to rely on Him. That was where some of the strength came from.

Dennis: Well, one of the things that he did was actually do a video diary. Would you explain what that was and what happened when you found it?

Gina: Yes. Essentially, he sat down in front of a video camera. He made an outline of all the things that he would like to tell his sons. If he couldn’t be here, he wanted to have an outline of what he could do. I find it unusual that you try to boil down a lifetime of parenting into an outline, but he tried to do it.

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He sat in front of the camera and pushed “Record.” He was alone. I was not in the room when he did it. He spoke to them very specifically about the things he wanted them to know about faith in God / about respecting others.

He opened the video diary with, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Those were the two foundations of his teaching for the boys. Respect—how to treat a lady—little things like that. You know—how to have faith in God, despite the circumstances that you’re in. He talked to them about all of those things.

Bob: Gina, as you look back on that three-year period—from the first diagnosis until—it was Christmas Day when Matt went home.

Gina: Yes.

Bob: That’s a long goodbye. As you look back, would you wish for that length of time? I mean, it’s kind of like this is a long, painful goodbye; but at the same time, you treasure the time you have—that conflict—how do you process that conflict?

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Gina: Well, what happens is—what happened for us—we learned to really live in the moment. Every single day was a gift. It was a very pure and simple way to live. We put aside so much—all the minutia that just bogs you down in your life. I wouldn’t do anything other than make it a longer goodbye if I could.

Bob: Sure.

Gina: That’s the only thing I would do differently, but it is incredible how the clichés of “Live one day at a time,” and all that come really true. Matt wrote in the journals that he kept. He said: “The real heroes are not the people who live with cancer and understand that life is temporary. It’s the people who just are living healthy, normal, everyday lives—who have that understanding and who can live that day-at-a-time way,”—that we’re called to, by the way.

Bob: And was Matt declining physically? Was his cancer beginning to shut down things he was able to do?

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Gina: Yes. In the last year of his life, each day became a little more difficult; but in particular, the last six months. It was a year of a lot of suffering and pain of different types. The last six months, it was incredible amounts of pain, and the shutting down of the body, and watching that process unfold. Yes.

Dennis: That year you’re talking about, ultimately, culminated in moving into “the valley of the shadow of death”—I mean, the final days. And in that period of time, he gave you another special gift. You said he gave many over those three years. Share with our listeners what that gift was and what his charge was to you, as his wife.

Gina: Yes. He had given me a necklace. It had three birthstones in it. It was his and our two sons’. It was something that he had asked his mom to help him out with because he was too sick, at that point, to go to the store and get a gift like that.

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So, he did that. That night, as he presented me with this gift, he told me that he wanted me to find a good Christian man and marry him. That’s not something that you really want to hear. That’s not something you’re ready to hear, in that moment; but he had to tell me that. I kept saying, “No; no.” He said, “No, I need to tell you this.”

Dennis: Now, wait. I want you to take us to the place where he told you. Was he in bed, at this point,—

Gina: Yes.

Dennis: —not able to get up?

Gina: Well, interestingly, he was able to still get up. We had come home that night—it was Christmas Eve. We had come home from church. He had attended church services that night. It was remarkable because, on the day he died, he was out of bed and up, and walked downstairs, and watched our children open their Christmas presents. He died later that night.

So, it was a remarkable circumstance. Most people, who are that near death, are not out of bed, and walking around, and using the bathroom, and getting themselves dressed; but he was.

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Bob: And he gave you that charge. What was your immediate response to his charge to you to get married—find another man?

Gina: I burst into tears. I said: “No. No, no, no, no, no because we’re not going to talk about this. This isn’t even something I can think about.” He kind of held my hands more tightly and he said: “No, I need to tell you this; and you need to listen. I want you to know that it’s okay to do this.”

He needed to give me permission. He not only did it that night, in person; but I later found out that, on those video diaries, he also did it there as well—only that time he addressed it to our children. He said to them, “If your mom decides to marry another man, I want you to know that, if she trusts and loves him, that I trust and love that guy too.” So, he did it a couple of different times. It was very important to him that I live.

Bob: Gina—hadn’t you—in the months leading up to his death, knowing that he’s terminal—hadn’t you had to imagine what life was going to be like once he was gone?

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Hadn’t you had to think about what singleness was going to be like and whether you would meet or marry again? I mean, it would just seem to me that those thoughts would have to, at least, come to mind.

Gina: I’ll tell you the truth—I really didn’t think about it too much. In fact, a couple people came to me—I remember, right after he died, and said to me: “You know, men are going to want to come around you now. They’re going to want to be around you.”

I don’t think I was being naïve. I wasn’t being foolish, but it wasn’t on my radar. My only thought was: “Well, how am I going to take care of these kids? How am I going to have a house and two children, and where am I going to work?” It was never, “Who’s the next man going to be in my life? Where’s he?” I wasn’t even—frankly, the thought of that—all that meant was risk. Having love again meant to risk again. I wasn’t—I had no capacity for that whatsoever.

Bob: Tell us how you said goodbye to Matt.

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Gina: Like I said—he’d gotten up, and gone downstairs, and opened gifts with our children—watched them open their gifts. He wasn’t very much involved in that process, but he was in the room. He had spent the rest of the day up in bed. I’d gone up several times to visit with him and to lay with him. He said to me, “You know, I can’t die on Christmas Day.” He caught me off guard. I said: “Yes, you can; but I don’t think you’re going today. I don’t think today’s the day; but if God’s going to call you home, it is okay if today is the day.”

I realized, as I was saying the words, that I just gave him permission to die, in a sense, which I think sometimes people need that. It kind of shook me a little bit. We just went on. I sat with him, and he drifted to sleep. It was all very nice. I walked away, and I kind of started to sweat because I thought: “Oh! Did I just give him permission to die? Did I do that?” So, I walked out. A couple of other things happened throughout the day.

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Our youngest son, Sam, who was four, had been a little afraid of his dad—you know, coughing, and all these things. Sam went and sat with him, and spent some time with his dad, in a really intimate way that he hadn’t in a long time. I noticed that; and I thought: “Well, isn’t that special? Isn’t that sweet?” Little did I know that was sort of another clue to me that maybe Sam was saying goodbye. He’s only four, but maybe he knew something I didn’t.

So then, as the day went on—it was late in the day—and Matt had asked me to give his Bible to my mother as a gift. I did. I’d passed it on to her. Just as I had done that, he called my name from upstairs. I could hear him yelling my name. He didn’t have a lot of strength—so to hear his voice yelling from upstairs startled me. I ran up the stairs. I think I skipped three steps at a time. I get to the top of the stairs, and he’s there. He’s walking around, and he’s very wobbly. He was very disoriented.

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He had been sleeping for awhile. So, I thought: “Okay, he needs medication. He needs to be lying down.” It kind of became a bit chaotic. He lay down, and he ripped off his shirt; and he said, “Take me home, Jesus.” That was the last thing that he said. The rest of the time—we spent another hour-and-a-half—and he struggled, and he slipped away. He was surrounded by myself, and his mother, and my parents. It was, all at once, very gut-wrenching and painful; and yet, it was also beautiful.

I describe it that way in the book because I’d never been in that room before—and to watch him go through that experience—and to pass through to that moment of glory. I could only imagine what he was experiencing. So, it was this beauty and pain, all at once.

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Dennis: He had said something to you some months before about it being a win/win?

Gina: He did. Yes, he told me that having cancer was a win/win situation because, if he beats cancer and lives a long and healthy life, then he’ll have an incredible testimony and we’ll have a great time raising our children and growing old together—and that if he doesn’t, that he’s going to be in heaven. There’s victory in that, and that he and I would see each other again—and that, really, this time period is very short—so: “It won’t be that long and I’ll see you again.”

Dennis: It’s a win/win.

Gina: He believed it. He said it. I knew—I’m a Christian—and I know I agree—I believe it—but, in that moment, I was kind of like: “Are you crazy?!” You know, “You have to be kidding me because this is not a win if you die. This is a bad, bad loss for me.”

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But he had a much clearer understanding of his faith, and what he believed, and I think he was shepherding me along.

Dennis: Well, you know, death is different for a Christian; isn’t it?

Gina: Yes. It is.

Dennis: It has to be different for us. First Corinthians 15 talks about the power of the resurrection and says, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

Bob: Yes.

Gina: Yes.

Dennis: That it’s just a sting—it’s not the final thing. I had a little granddaughter who lived seven days. We all refer to her gravesite as a doorway. We go visit Molly’s doorway occasionally. It’s a doorway from what we call this life into real life—

Bob: Yes.

Dennis: —the ultimate life of seeing Him, face to face.

Bob: Yes. Well, and to think of death as a win/win; you know. I think of the Apostle Paul saying, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

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That’s the win/win that Matt was reflecting as he died.

You guys share your story so poignantly in the book that you’ve written, called The Color of Rain, which, as we mentioned, was just recently on TV on the Hallmark Channel as a movie. We do have copies of Michael and Gina Spehn’s book, The Color of Rain, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on how to get a copy of the book. Again, it’s called The Color of Rain. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click where it says, “Go Deeper,” to order a copy of the book; or call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”

Now, I just have to mention because we talked about this last week, Dennis. We had a lot of listeners who got in touch with us.

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Our team is hoping that there’ll be a whole bunch of guys, this summer, who would step up and take a group of friends with them through the Stepping Up® video series that FamilyLife created for men. We’ve been hearing from guys who are doing this with fathers and teenage sons—other guys who are doing it with their small group of guys that they get together with regularly.

Our team thought, “Maybe we can provide a little incentive and partner together with a listener who would say, ‘I’ll do that.’” If you’ll get the DVDs to take guys through it, we’ll send along, at no additional cost, five workbooks so each guy has his workbook when you get together each week. We’ll cover the cost of the workbooks if you buy the DVDs. That offer is good this month. So, if you’d like to take either some fathers and sons or some guys you get together with regularly—take them through the Stepping Up material—go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link that says, “Go Deeper.” The Stepping Up special offer information is all available right there.

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We hope you’ll do that. We’d love to hear how your Stepping Up group goes this summer.

Now, we want to say a big “Thank you,” to the listeners who, over the last several weeks, have gotten in touch with us because of the matching-gift fund that was made available. We had some friends of the ministry, who came along and said, “Let’s make sure you guys can get through the summer without having to wonder if you’re going to have to make some cuts,” because, during the summer, donations to the ministry tend to drop off a little bit.

These guys said, “We’ll match every donation you receive, between now and Father’s Day, dollar for dollar, up to a total of $410,000. If you’d like to make a donation—Father’s Day, of course, is this Sunday—and the matching gift fund expires on that day. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link at the top of the page that says, “I Care.” Make an online donation, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Make a donation over the phone.

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Or you can write a check and mail it to FamilyLife Today at P O Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; and our zip code is 72223.

Now, tomorrow, we’re going to focus on Michael’s story because we heard Gina’s story today. Michael, we want to talk to you tomorrow about your wife, Cathy, and about her death. Then we’ll start to see how God brought the two of you together. That comes up tomorrow. Hope our listeners can join us.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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Fun, engaging conversations about what it takes to build stronger, healthier marriage and family relationships. Join hosts Dave and Ann Wilson with FamilyLife Today® veteran cohost Bob Lepine for new episodes every weekday.

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