WEEK OF PRAYER: Cancer becomes one of God's 'greatest gifts' to IMB missionary

EDITOR'S NOTE: This year's Week of Prayer for International Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention is Dec. 2-9 with the theme of "BE His heart, His hands, His voice" from Matthew 16:24-25. Each year's Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions supplements Cooperative Program giving to support Southern Baptists' 5,000 international missionaries' initiatives in sharing the Gospel. This year's offering goal is $175 million. To find resources about the offering, go to imb.org/offering.

DURBAN, South Africa (BP) -- Roger Hesch should be dead.

After stage 4 bone marrow cancer decimated his body, his recovery encountered several life-threatening setbacks, each of which should have overpowered his ravaged immune system. Doctor after doctor told him the chances of survival were next to nothing.

But God had more for Roger to do.

Saying 'yes'

Years earlier, after graduating from high school in his hometown of Little Falls, Minn., Roger spent a year in South Africa as part of an international exchange program in Johannesburg that exposed him "to the bigger world," he said.

He and his wife Meg met while attending college in Minneapolis and were married in 1980. Early on, the couple made a commitment to say "yes" to God's leading, regardless of what that meant. They said "yes" to Roger attending seminary and pastoring two Southern Baptist churches.

"In January 1986, I was speaking on the Great Commission and while I was preaching, God said, 'You can't encourage other people to do what you are not willing to do,'" Roger recalled.

It was then the couple said "yes" to serving overseas as missionaries with the International Mission Board.

"We said we'll go where other people can't or won't go," Roger said.

That led them to live in a dangerous country in sub-Saharan Africa with few missionaries -- Roger was even wrongfully imprisoned for a week. But he and Meg remained obedient, seeing 70 churches multiply to 500 in about six years.

It was after a move to North Africa to pastor an international church that Roger and his family -- which now included three children -- would face their biggest challenge.

The cancer

Roger was coaching his daughter's school basketball team in 1999 when he began to lose movement -- first in his right arm, then his left. North African doctors couldn't diagnose the problem so they sent him to London.

Doctors there diagnosed him with stage 4 cancer, meaning it had spread to other organs and was considered incurable. Another concern was a vertebra pinching his spinal cord. Doctors worried the weakened and brittle bones in Roger's neck may collapse, snapping his spinal cord.

Within a week the Hesches were back in Minneapolis for Roger to begin chemotherapy. He also had a metal "halo" screwed into his head to keep his neck upright.

"He was in [the halo] for four months," Meg said. "His head could never touch the pillow because it was propped up on bars; he couldn't turn his neck, and he endured it -- just day by day by day -- endured such hardship and such suffering."

After four months of chemo the treatment began to kill his body. His only chance of survival was a bone marrow transplant.

God speaks

As he lay in the hospital bed following the transplant, Roger told God, "I hurt -- I mean, I really hurt."

But God reminded Roger of the pain He had endured.

"His response to me was, 'I hung on a cross; you're lying in a hospital bed.... I had nails in my hands. You get ice chips when your mouth is dry; they gave Me sour vinegar.... You have doctors and nurses to care for you; I had Roman soldiers to stick spears in Me.... You've got Me to cry out to and you know I love you; and I cried out, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?'

"[God told me] 'You have a chance now to know just a small measure of the pain that I went through for you -- just a small measure of what I suffered,'" Roger said.

And for the first time Roger truly understood God's grace.

"We always look at cancer and we say, 'Oh, what a terrible thing,'" Roger said. "I think it's one of the greatest gifts God has ever given me, because I learned so much about God through the experience."

Roger began to recover after the bone marrow transplant, but not without complications.

"It was a long road back, physically," he said.

Soon after his release from the hospital, with a weak immune system, Roger contracted a septic infection, which doctors told him kills 50 percent of healthy people. His blood pressure bottomed out and he had to be airlifted to the hospital -- but walked out two days later.

"One of the doctors on the team shook his head and said, '[Roger is] the luckiest man I've ever heard of,' and one of the other attending doctors said, 'No, he's not lucky, he's blessed,' [because] the first thing I said to the doctor when I went there was, 'I know you can't cure me.... There are things neither you can control nor I can control, [things] we have to leave in the hands of God.'"

As Roger continued to recover, he faced one obstacle after another: graft-vs.-host disease, shingles, the fusing of vertebra in his neck and thickening of the skin on his legs.

"[The doctors] saw over and over and over again God's hand in the way that He did things in my body," Roger said. "Just the fact that I sit here without steel rods up and down my spine ... but I can move, I don't have neck pain, I can play basketball....

"God did that. The doctors never explained it, there was no medicine that did that -- God did that, and I give Him thanks for it."

Following two years of treatment and recovery -- and despite physical limitations and setbacks -- Roger and his family said "yes" to God once again and headed back overseas in 2001 to Durban, South Africa.

A new chapter

In the summer of 2012, the Hesches left South Africa to begin a three-year IMB role in California to counsel those interested in serving as overseas missionaries.

As they were preparing for the move, the family received upsetting news yet again -- this time, it was Meg who was diagnosed with cancer.

Meg's heart ached as she watched her husband and children struggle with the news. In addition to facing chemotherapy treatments, she also had to deal with a transatlantic move and settling into a different culture.

"Through God's great grace and fantastic support of family and friends, I have weathered well the necessary six rounds of chemo, even in the midst of moving and adapting to our new home and ministry," Meg said. "As a Christian battling a potentially life-threatening illness, the truth is that I am absolutely in a win-win situation, though naturally my heartstrings anchor me to my precious family, friends and ministry I love."

Meg's illness is a reality with which her husband is all too familiar. But despite changes, moves, sickness and new jobs, Roger said the bottom line is knowing God.

"God is faithful and He wants us to know Him, no matter what it takes in our lives ...," he said. "Our life is not about doing stuff for God but knowing God, loving God and living with Him in a relationship."


Laura Fielding is a writer for IMB. Southern Baptists' gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and through the Cooperative Program help Southern Baptist missionaries around the world share the Gospel. Gifts for the offering are received at Southern Baptist churches across the country or can be made online at imb.org/offering where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering. View the Hesches' missionary testimony: Stage 4 cancer did not deter Roger Hesch from God's call. Download related videos at imb.org/lmcovideo.