When the Rev. Daniel Nicewonger’s doctor told him he had stage four colon cancer and to go home and get his affairs in order, life got very real — quickly.
“I gained a clarity about life that I did not have before,” he said. “It had a way of helping me focus on what was truly valuable.”
For him, that would be spending time with people and doing projects that would yield results.
“I had a guy in my office. We were talking about time to get together. ‘Pastor, you are so busy. I don’t want to take more of your time.’”
Nicewonger told him: “I will get up out of this office and have lunch or coffee with you. No matter what I do, there’s always more to do. I learn from you. You learn from me. We are blessed. That’s what’s important.”
Nicewonger, 50, is the former youth pastor at the Memorial Baptist Church on Tompkins Street, Cortland, now the Church of the Redeemer.
He worked there from 1995 to 1999 and still has ties to the area. He just published a book, “The Journey Continues,” based on a blog he started after his 2016 diagnosis.
Published in December by WestBow Press, the book is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It details his cancer struggle, how it affected his caregiver wife, Nancy, and how joy is possible, no matter the problem.
Nicewonger is being treated in his hometown of Kennett Square, Pa., at Abramson Cancer Center. “It’s wonderful for me,” he said.
He’s the pastor at First Baptist Church of Kennett Square. He and his wife have two adult children, Joseph and Rayann. Nancy writes several chapters in the book from the perspective of the caregiver.
“Nancy’s life changed just as much, if not more, than mine the day I was diagnosed,” Nicewonger said.
A writer by nature, he turned to a blog to process his experience. And to communicate to people.
“I didn’t want to come to church and answer 50 questions: ‘How are you doing?’ If I put out the blog, it can answer that,” he said.
Nicewonger has had two rounds of chemotherapy, every two weeks, each lasting about eight months.
Now, he is in break mode, and has been there for six months.
“The way my oncologist and I talk about things, we talk about quality and quantity of life. We do treatment to prolong quantity of life, until treatments are such that they are taking away quality of life.”
He gets blood checks and scans every three months, watching what the cancer is doing.
“If it comes to a point of it getting aggressive again, we go back into treatments.”
The doctor told him in 2016 that two more years of life would be very optimistic.
“He and I talk about that day every now and then. I have been blessed my body’s responded amazingly well to treatment,” Nicewonger said.
One of his friends taught him to ask, “Where do you see God at work in your life?”
When first diagnosed, he was angry: “How could God be in the midst of my cancer diagnosis! This was far from anything I had planned,” he said.
Then he began to search.
“God was in Carol (my nurse), who cared for me as she wheeled me to surgery as they put in my port. God was in the deepening relationship with Nancy, my wife,” he said. “God was present in those moments when I awoke and was simply not ready to take on another day of chemotherapy.”
Robert O’Gorman of Cortlandville, president of Automotive Lift Institute on Luker Road, befriended Nicewonger when Nicewonger was a youth pastor at the Cortland church.
“Daniel is a giant of a man. He’s a big guy and he’s very humble in heart,” O’Gorman said. “Ever since his initial diagnosis, he has been led to, I think, touch others who are on this walk of cancer and illness. And he’s done it through social media, some amazing blogs. They are very moving.”
Charles “Bud” Jermy Jr. of Homer, a dean at Cornell University, said Nicewonger had a maturity during his Cortland days most pastors didn’t have.
“He wasn’t just a minister. He worked at a filter company. He had real world experience outside of church. People trusted him,” Jermy said.
“My son had him as a youth pastor … Chip was a teen. I was an old guy. We didn’t always agree. Dan was a bridge between the both of us.”
Nicewonger said he’s eating more fruits and vegetables than ever and is trying to limit white sugar.
“I don’t know if that makes a difference at all. It’s making me feel like I have more control.” he said.
“I try to exercise. I have a hard time doing that. I have neuropathy — pain in my feet and arms. It makes it difficult.”
Now he sees life as pre-cancer diagnosis and post-cancer diagnosis.
“The further I go into break, the more energy I have, the more able I am to move like my precancer self,” Nicewonger said. “I have to … be more intentional, not get caught up on the calendar with appointments — trying to be all things to all people.”
“I want to be doing something where we are working to do what’s good for somebody, sharing the gospel. Deep calls to deep,” he said, quoting his favorite scripture, Psalm 42.
Life is going to get rough, as the psalm details.
“It is OK, even expected, to call out from the depths of who we are, to the deepest part of God.”
“One of the worst things religion has ever done, we have told people here, if you are saved, life will be easy. That is not true. Jesus said in this world, you will have trouble. In this world, you will lose your job. In this world, you will have cancer.”
“But at the same time, Jesus says, ‘I have overcome the world,’” Nicewonger said. “It’s this relationship we can have through God.”