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Survival Is Only the Beginning

Updated: Jul 2, 2020


| This is the 268th story of Our Life Logs |


There are some days that stay in our memory longer than others. They are often the turning points in our journey: when something or someone comes into our lives, when we meet an incredible or terrible situation, or when we lose or gain something valuable. Whatever happens on that day, it changes the course of life forever. For me, that day was my eighth birthday. At the time, my family and I were living in Yamashina, Japan. We had a great time celebrating my birthday. My friends all came. Over a huge bonfire in the yard, we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows, and we played with water guns.

That was the last time I played as a child.

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I was born in Tampa, Florida, in 1991, the second of five children. My dad had lived in Japan many years ago, and he always remembered it as the place where he was the happiest. So, when he and my mom decided to become missionaries, they chose to serve in Japan. I was two years old when we moved across the world to begin our new lives. I had a carefree childhood in Japan that showed no signs of what would happen after I turned eight.

My family (I’m on the far right).
My family (I’m on the far right).

In July 1999, on the night of my eighth birthday, I couldn’t sleep for some reason. I felt hot and uncomfortable, and I kept waking up from nightmares, sweaty and disoriented. Over the next few days, I felt so ill that I stayed home from school. My parents, who initially thought it was just a fever, began to realize that something else was wrong after the symptoms persisted. Eventually, they had had enough and drove me to the nearest hospital. We arrived around midnight and the glass doors were locked since the small hospital rarely received emergency patients. We could see the night watchman asleep at his station. My dad banged on the glass doors until the staff finally heard him and let us in.

The next morning the doctors told me that I was sick, and they weren’t sure what it was but I would be alright. I later found out that, outside of my earshot, they told my parents the truth of their initial diagnosis. A cancerous tumor the size of a grapefruit had been found in my upper thigh, and it was wrapping around into my hip joint.

My parents insisted I would be alright when they finally told me it was cancer. They said they’d find a doctor to fix it, and while I knew that “cancer” was something serious, their confidence that I would get better refused to waver, encouraging me to trust their faith in my recovery. Friends and family came by to visit, bringing gifts and sympathies. I asked for color pencils and paper so I could draw. I drew Japan, all the places I had been and all the places that I knew were nearby.

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I was officially diagnosed with a type of hemangioma cancerous tumor made of blood vessels. The more blood that got sent to the leg, the more blood vessels would be on the tumor, until it got so big that one jolt would begin the bleeding, and once it started, it would not stop. The doctors said that there was nothing they could do. It was too close to the organs to operate, too intertwined to completely remove, and one cut would trigger the bleeding. They also couldn’t amputate, since the tumor had grown upwards towards my organs. Removing the leg would do nothing. As an eight-year-old, I didn’t know what many of those words meant, but I understood the severity behind them, and I was scared.

We were told that I had maybe five years left to live. I couldn’t run or ride my bike ever again. I had always been able to run faster than all my friends. I loved the wind on my back and the feeling of freedom. I remember the terror of thinking that if I died, all my dreams would be gone. I wanted to see the world, mountains, forests. I had dreamed of following my father’s footsteps and going to Alaska. I cried for that memory that I longed to have but never would.

After a second, third, and fourth opinion and numerous tests and scans, my father did something that I will never forget. He took me straight from the specialist in the city to the movie theater to see Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. And he told me that I wasn’t going to die in a hospital, or at home. “If a doctor can’t fix you, then I will go to find another until one does,” he told me. My father might have been terrified himself but he held firm to his hope, and his refusal to give up strengthened me with courage to face whatever happened next.

My parents and our church prayed and begged God for a miracle, and finally a ray of light appeared when my dad, after weeks of searching online, found a surgeon in a hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. The surgeon warned that the operation would be dangerous, and possibly ineffective depending on how far the tumor had since spread, but we jumped at the lifeline and held on tight for dear life. Although I was thrilled at the idea of getting rid of my tumor, I also worried what would happen if it didn’t work. Was this my only chance of survival? And if it failed, would my fate be sealed?

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Together with my family, we flew to the hospital in Ohio in October that year. The first surgery was nine hours long. The surgeon worked to cut off the blood flow from my leg to my heart. I was born with an enlarged heart which pumped more blood than a normal person could. It’s miraculous that I was born with exactly the defects I needed to survive this surgery.

The next day’s surgery was 19 hours. They tied up the veins, cutting all circulation to the tumor which took hours because they had trouble locating some of the veins. Three times another doctor came in to relieve the surgeon, because it was a change in shift, and each time she turned the shift away and would not stop until every vein had been tied. Afterwards, exhausted, she lay down on her desk and closed her eyes, telling my parents that she had tied all the veins and cut the tumor out. My parents were elated, and I was asleep, unaware that my life had just been saved.

When I woke up and was told the good news, I wanted to jump for joy, but of course, I couldn’t do much of anything yet but rest. After a week, I was allowed to start using a walker to get around. I was so relieved to be on my feet again that the moment I was out of sight, I would ditch the walker and learn to walk on my own. Another week later, I was released from the hospital. It took me months before I could ride a bike, a year before I could jog. I wasn’t the fastest runner anymore, I couldn’t outrun all my friends like I used to, but I was alive. And that was the greatest joy I’d ever felt.

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We returned to Japan, and the next year, as our six-year Japanese visa was expiring, we decided to move to China. We arrived in Beijing in March 2000, and over the next five years, our family moved around the country before settling in Shanghai. For a long time, I had to get used to not feeling much around my leg and hip because of the nerve damage from the operation. It was hard to go back to a normal life at first, but in time, I adjusted to life post-cancer, and slowly, I put the trauma and the incident behind me.

This was until 2010 when I learned that a family relative in the US was dying. Hearing that news triggered the familiar feelings to resurface, the fear and anxiety that I thought I’d overcome. Ever since my victory over cancer, I had nursed a sense that I was running on stolen time, and that someday I would have to pay for it. As the nights went on, the nightmares and restlessness returned with an aching in the same spot as before. For the first time in years, I was terrified. I was 19 years old, 11 years after overcoming the tumor. One night, having been struggling with sleeplessness for several hours, I went to my father’s room and woke him up.

After hearing my worries and praying with me, he told me a story from the Bible. It was the story of a man who wrestled with an angel, and when the angel left, the man asked for a blessing. The angel touched his hip, partially paralyzing him. Hearing my father telling the story, I felt as if I too had been blessed by God and that my imperfection was my strength, a reminder of how far I’d come and the battle I’d fought and won.

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Instead of focusing on my suffering or success I now choose to follow a life that serves a greater purpose, to focus on the beautiful world I’m in and the gift of life. I have been blessed by those who have helped me along the way, those who offered me a hand when I was falling, those who never gave up on me in my darkest nights.

When those feelings of doubt creep back into my life, I look to John Clare’s poem “I Am” because it expresses my feelings more eloquently than I can. It tells of someone who went through suffering and abandonment, but at the end he only wanted to find peace. This mirrors my journey through affliction and that in the end survival is only the beginning. I’ve found that at the end of every day, being at peace with God is greater than being at peace with the best or the worst this world has to offer. The last stanza of “I Am” is how I would like my story to end.

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This is the story of John Wallace

John was born in Tampa, Florida, but has lived most of his life in Japan and China. When he was eight years old, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that baffled doctors. They said he would never live to see his teenage years, but against all odds and strengthened by the faith of his parents and the goodwill of a surgeon in Ohio, he not only survived but can now run, bike, and do all the things he thought he would never be able to do again.  John studied business at a local university in China and met a wonderful German woman named Vivi. They got married in the spring of 2018 and now live in Germany. John’s dreams are to be able to record his music, build guitars, write, and live in nature. His two favorite books are Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence. His go-to cocktail is gin and whiskey. He loves integrity and people who do what’s right no matter the cost.

John and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Vivi.
John and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Vivi.


This story first touched our hearts on February 12, 2019.

| Writer: Elena Sichrovsky| Editor: Kristen Petronio |

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