Strength in Numbers - Stories of Courage

When doctors found cancer for a third time, senior Haley Bellows leaned on her faith and George Fox family for the courage to fight back

by Kimberly Felton

At first it all made sense. The agonizing cramps that reduced stubborn Haley Bellows to tears. The voicemail from her doctor saying they’d found something. The fibroid and lymphoma diagnosis, surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. Cutting off nine inches of gorgeous dark, naturally curly hair – before it fell out.

It all made sense because Sheraya, the girl Bellows met her first day of group chemotherapy, became a Christian. At 20, Sheraya was alone. Her mom was dead and her dad in prison. She left her foster parents at age 17, after her cancer diagnosis, because her illness made them fight. Sheraya welcomed Bellows to the group no one wanted to join and everyone wanted to leave.

Sheraya left. She died. All Bellows found in Sheraya’s spotless, uninhabited hospital room was a note: 

Haley, I lay here in my bed knowing I am probably not going to make it. . . . I asked the hospital chaplain to help me accept Jesus into my life on Sunday. If you are reading this, I am assuming you came to the hospital to see me. . . . You are the one who saved me. . . . Like I said before, you are an angel from God, sent to bring me his good news. 

“When I met Sheraya I was like, ‘I see the reason behind why I was diagnosed,’” Bellows says. “Two and a half weeks after she passed away, and I knew she had become a Christian, I went into remission.” Miracle accomplished.

And then it came back – twice 

Three months later, Bellows’ cancer returned. Undeterred, she looked at her options. “It’s not that I skip over my emotions,” she says, “but I think, ‘What do I need to do to make this go away?’” Three more months of chemo and radiation produced a clean bill of health: remission No. 2. 

In early March 2013, a year since her original diagnosis and four months since her second remission, she blogged, “I have spent most of the last year literally fighting for my life, and I realize more than ever I cannot take any moment for granted. [Yet] I cannot dispel this huge knot in my stomach that happens every time I think about being four months in remission . . . anxiety that has even brought me to tears . . .”

A week later, doctors discovered colon cancer – likely a secondary cancer caused by radiation – and the lymphoma was back. This cancer no longer made sense.

“That was the hardest for me,” Bellows says. “I thought, ‘Really, a third time?’” Her aunt held her in the hospital room as she cried. 

All-league and MVP

Bellows grew up in Kalama, Wash., a town with one public school and 70 in her graduating class. As a high school freshman she stepped onto the varsity team as starting shortstop, and her star rose to claim first team all-league and MVP the next three years. As a senior at the world regionals tournament, she made the all-worlds team.

She earned the same honors in volleyball and basketball: all-league and MVP.

Busy with school and sports, home was “often just a place to sleep, and I was pretty OK with that back then,” she says. Her dad was in prison. Her mom took care of basic needs but was largely uninvolved.

A PE teacher stood as a buffer between Bellows and her probable future. “He would ask if I thought I was making good choices. Very convicting,” she says. “He thought I could do better and go on to college.”

College was neither known nor considered in Bellows’ family, “which made it feel as if I just shouldn’t go,” she says. Yet she wanted to play softball, so she applied to schools that offered the sport and waived the application fee, assuming her family could not afford the expense.

Softball scholarships came in. But as graduation loomed nearer, softball slid into second place. She wanted a school “where I wasn’t fighting for my faith.”

Finding a home

Faith was a non-issue in Bellows’ life until freshman year of high school, when a last-minute, paid-in-full invitation to a church camp introduced her to a “heavenly father.” It grated on her; who were they kidding? She returned to friends and a lifestyle that ignored the divine, while hoping that the God who loved her was really true.

After sporadic attendance at church youth group the next three years, Bellows attended a church retreat and walked with her counselor – “it must have been three hours, in the woods” – where she decided to follow Jesus.

Her youth pastor’s wife, a George Fox alumna, spoke highly of the school, but Bellows decided upon another college until a softball tournament introduced her to a George Fox softball player.

“After praying and thinking about it more, I felt this was the right move even though I had visited George Fox only once when I was an eighth-grader,” she says. “Three days before freshman housing deposit was due, I switched to George Fox.” 

The financial aid department helped her secure federal loans and grants. Her parents contribute when they can. Babysitting and summer jobs bridge the crucial gap left in her finances. “I was one of the people that thought I could not afford college, especially going to a private school. Choosing Fox was a saving grace; this has become my home.”

Cursing at cancer

“What do you want? I’ll buy you anything.” 

Bellows huddled on the floor of Rachel Marrion-Morell’s office, stunned and depleted. The women became friends through Marrion-Morell’s husband, an area coordinator at George Fox, the previous year when Bellows served on his staff as a resident assistant.

Now the two processed, as well as they could, the news of Bellows’ third cancer diagnosis.

“I’ll make a T-shirt for you,” Marrion-Morell, a screen printer, offered. “What do you want it to say?” Bellows’ mind was blank, save for an angry epithet. 

A couple weeks later, a friend texted Bellows; she wanted a shirt, too. Puzzled, Bellows checked Facebook. Marrion-Morell was making Bellows – and the cause forced upon her – famous.

Bright pastel T-shirts now populate campus, with “EFF cancer” emblazoned across the front. Take your pick of meanings: the gently encouraging “Every Family Fights cancer” or the phonetic spelling of a curse word. 

The first run of 20 shirts sold within hours. Six months later, the shirts are a campus-wide movement and are selling to a national and international audience, with nearly 600 sold since April. 

“I understand people not liking the shirt,” blogged Amy Wolff, a George Fox alumna and close friend to Bellows. “But here’s what I know: I hate cancer. I want to throw every curse word at cancer. [If]I get the opportunity to do that AND help my friend fight it, then I will. Proudly. Boldly.”

Marrion-Morell had orchestrated a double-play. The shirts are a visible encouragement, and profits cover the cancer copay. While hospital insurance pays most of Bellows’ treatment – her step-dad’s company cut benefits, including her medical insurance – she’s responsible for the $100-$500 copays, twice a month. 

“The shirts are literally saving my life,” Bellows says. Babysitting just doesn’t cover the cost of cancer. 

Haley's tattoo reminder to be courageous

Every time Bellows looks down she sees the word “Courage” tattooed on her left wrist along with a multicolored ribbon. Green represents lymphoma, the cancer she currently battles; orange represents leukemia, which her friend Sheraya succumbed to after accepting Christ.

Decisions of courage

Softball would not, in the end, define Bellows’ college career. On the last day of fall practice freshman year, she hit a wet spot diving for a ball. Her legs flew over her back, bending it in a way it should not. She was out for the year. Sophomore year she could play again, but needed a job more.

Now Bellows is “the girl with cancer.” If students know nothing else about her, they know this. And they know those bright shirts.

George Fox students and staff sporting “EFF cancer” shirts encircled Bellows in July 2013 as her hair was cut short a second time – this time right down to her scalp. Bellows alternately smiled and bit her lip, laughing as she caught someone’s eye, then glancing at the ground when someone wiped a tear. This was her family standing around her, loving her in her courage and fragility. 

With the third cancer diagnosis, Bellows opted to attack the enemy as ferociously as it attacked her, choosing aggressive treatment. And this time she decided to chop off her locks with friends surrounding her. 

It was three hours before Bellows could look in the mirror at her shorn reflection. “I know hair isn’t my identity, but – ” she pauses – “I really liked my hair. It was hard.”

This was one of many courageous decisions. “Anytime I move on to a new treatment, I tell myself, ‘This is one step closer to healthy.’ That’s how I view losing my hair; it’s just one step closer to healthy.”

She has chosen to walk a public journey, draining in itself, especially when well-intentioned comments hurt. That courage allows others to rejoice with her in hope and struggle with her through anger and tears.

“It has made me ask questions of God I have not asked before,” says Jamie Johnson, associate pastor of Christian leadership at the university. For Johnson’s family, Bellows is the favorite babysitter who became family and joins them weekly for dinner. “Perhaps what I’ve seen the most in my interactions with her is a quiet confidence that she would make it through this, no matter the hell it wreaked on her body.”

Bellows chooses to continue school in the midst of treatment, including simultaneously taking an exam and retching in a bucket. Yet she gives credit elsewhere. “My professors are honestly what make it possible to stay in school while going through this cancer journey. They are flexible and willing to extend deadlines when I am not feeling well enough to get the work done.” 

She chooses to allow anger while at the same time trusting God’s love for her. “Many days I get frustrated that I feel so crummy, and the only logical thing to do is get those words off my chest so I can start my day, knowing God can handle every emotion I have,” she says. Thus began her “journal of lament.” 

“There have been so many times that I truly do not believe it is fair that I have cancer, and I thought about throwing in the towel because ‘obviously God wants me to have cancer since he won’t take it away from me.’” 

And yet she chooses to follow Jesus right back into the same hospital wards that contain so much of her pain, volunteering to help others face cancer. Others like a 4-year-old boy she knew from group chemotherapy, who one day adamantly refused treatment.

“I don’t want to do this anymore,” he cried to her. Swallowing her own tears, Bellows crawled onto his bed and held him gently. “I know, buddy. I know.”

Knowing his family talked about Jesus, Bellows asked, “If Jesus were here with you right now, where do you think he would want to take his medicine?” 

“In a castle!” he said. 

“The closest thing to a castle I could think of was a fort,” she recalls. So she rigged up a blanket and chairs and then asked him, “What if Jesus joined us in the castle today to take our medicine?” He immediately agreed to the treatment. 

That was the day Bellows discovered what she wants to do for the rest of her life: be a child life specialist at a hospital, working with families in trauma.

Choosing thankfulness

Bellows doesn’t try to make sense of her cancer. Instead, she thanks God that Sheraya knows Jesus. She writes lists with a friend for “why bald is better.” She shares her journey in Prodigal, an online magazine, and corresponds with a stranger in the throes of insomnia due to chemo, who doesn’t know what is ahead, who is scared.

“I’ve really clung to Romans 8:30,” Bellows says. “Jesus was a suffering servant, and if we’re predestined to be that, there shouldn’t be a question of whether we’re serving through suffering. That’s our goal, to be a suffering servant. The way we do that is by loving God and loving others, with all our heart, soul and mind.”

Bellows does not know what’s around the next corner. As far as doctors can tell, her current treatment is working. What she does know, and she will tell you with absolute conviction, are these three things: 1) God did not give her cancer; 2) no one deserves cancer – but then, no one deserves health, either; 3) no matter what, she is predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s son. 

While Bellows waits for her miracle, she focuses on the last.

Read an update from Haley with the very latest on her battle with cancer