Destination: Unknown

by Donna McDonnall

“Mom, my shoulder hurts again,” Danny, our ten-year-old son, announced.

Our packed suitcases waited by the door. Crossing things off my “to do” list, I nudged my family closer to the door to leave for our summer vacation in Canada.

“Now I can feel a bump there,” Danny added.

Concerned by Danny’s words, I paused and probed his shoulder with my fingertips. I hadn’t detected anything before, but now I felt a three- or four-inch lump growing on the upper portion of his right shoulder blade.

My chest tightened; my fingers trembled. Nineteen years of nursing had taught me “Pain plus a lump equals cancer.

Oh, God, surely our tree-climbing, sandy-haired son can’t have cancer? He’s only a little boy. Please, God, don’t let it be.

We immediately postponed our vacation and prepared to take a trip with an unknown destination.

Finding a doctor

Danny had complained of shoulder discomfort several times during the previous two months. I had taken him to our pediatrician, who prescribed a mild analgesic and heat. Now that Danny had discovered the lump, I quickly made an appointment with an orthopedist at a nearby hospital.

Two days later, our son was examined and x-rayed. “Danny definitely has a growth,” the doctor informed us. “I can’t be sure what type it is without additional testing. I would like Danny to see my colleague who is better qualified to make the diagnosis.”

“What is your colleague’s specialty?” I asked, hoping to get an insight into the probable diagnosis.

“He’s an orthopedic oncologist.”

My heart raced: a cancer specialist.

Fear and pain

The next morning, Danny, my husband, Bruce, and I waited in Dr. Wilkins’ office, two hundred miles away in Denver. He ordered a full day of CAT scans, blood tests, and biopsies. The day was pain-filled and frightening for Danny. With each test, our anxiety deepened.

By the end of the day, we felt completely drained and frightened.


The next morning I met the doctor in the exam room. “Mrs. McDonnall, Danny has Ewing’s sarcoma — a highly malignant, highly fatal form of bone cancer.”

Every fiber of my body wanted to scream, “No!” Struggling to maintain my composure, I looked out at the waiting room where Bruce and Danny sat reading a book. They looked so peaceful. I felt as though I was moving in slow motion through some type of surreal vacuum, about to be sucked into a dark, deep pit.

Then I learned Dr. Wilkins had done extensive research on Ewing’s sarcoma in Rochester, Minnesota. He was an internationally recognized expert on Danny’s type of cancer. Furthermore, Dr. Wilkins had established a limb preservation institute that was developing new, more successful treatment methods, resulting in fewer amputations.

Somehow I found the words to pray: God, You directed us to the very doctor who is best qualified to diagnose and treat Danny’s illness. You began supplying my needs even before I knew there was a problem.

Facing the diagnosis

But as I awakened the following morning, the reality of Danny’s cancer pressed heavily on my mind. Searching for some kind of answer in the Bible, I turned to the Psalms. They had frequently been a source of strength to me. This time I found the perfect one:

But you, O LORD, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. Turn to me and have mercy on me; grant your strength to your servant and save the son of your maidservant . . . for you, O LORD, have helped me and comforted me (Psalm 86:15-17).

Collecting our thoughts, Bruce and I decided to wait until the next morning to tell our son.

A family prays

“Danny,” I began, “the doctor found out what kind of tumor you have. It has a name: Ewing’s sarcoma. It’s a form of cancer. That means it is made up of bad cells that can spread to other parts of your body.”

Seeing the question in Danny’s eyes, Bruce further explained, “But the doctors can give you special medicine called chemotherapy and take out the tumor. Let’s ask Jesus right now to help us go through all this and to help the medicine get rid of all the bad cells.”

Encircled in each others’ arms, we prayed for strength, wisdom, and healing.

Struggle of faith

Facing our Bible class friends with the news was difficult. As I heard my own voice forming the words “Danny has cancer,” I began to realize the dreadful significance of it all.

That day our teacher began a series on faith, based on John 15:7, 8: “If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory. . . .”

Talk about timing. God, You know I need this.

Knowing what I wanted to ask God came easy; having the faith to believe God would accomplish it became far more difficult.

Questions and soul-searching

Later that afternoon, Danny looked at me with his shining, trusting, intuitive eyes. “Mom, what if the medicine doesn’t work?”

The pain stabbed the depths of my soul. What honest answer can I give without scaring him?

“Danny, there’s always a chance it may not. But we are going to believe it will. God will work through the medicine, surgery, and doctors to heal you.”

Please let it be so, dear God.

Later that night, unable to sleep, I began to search my soul. “Why has this happened? What have I done? What have I not done?”

I prayed until my words turned to anguished sobs. I cried until no tears came. I knew I had no defense mechanisms enabling me to face this thing. I felt empty — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I had to trust the sovereignty of God. I had no other answers.

Surrendering a son

Empty-handed and broken-hearted, I surrendered Danny to God. Our heavenly Father had entrusted us with this beautiful little boy. We were responsible for his care, but we didn’t own him; he belonged to God.

Not knowing what to pray for, I simply asked, God, be with us. The sense of God’s presence offered me hope.

Surgery and chemo

The doctors prescribed a combination of surgery and a two-year course of chemotherapy to remove all the cancerous cells near the malignant tumor.

If successful, the somewhat experimental, newly developed surgery would preserve Danny’s arm. It entailed removing portions of Danny’s collarbone and upper arm bone, the entire right shoulder blade, and all the muscles attached to it. The Achilles tendon would fasten Danny’s arm to the remaining portion of his collarbone.

The doctors would not predict how much arm movement or shoulder function Danny would regain. They were careful to explain, however, that there would be some movements, like raising his arm, that Danny would not be able to recover.

A word from an angel

A few days after his surgery, Danny asked when he could go home. Since the hospital was hundreds of miles from our home, a friend offered the use of her parents’ house in Denver while they were away.

Once Danny was released and we took him to the house, he began to wonder how much he would be able to move his arm once the surgery healed. “Mom, will I ever be able to shoot my bow and arrow again?”

Unable to answer his question, I sensed depression threaten me. How can I reassure him when the doctors can offer no guarantees?

“Let’s go into the kitchen and have some ice cream,” I suggested. “We’ll talk about how you can exercise your arm so you can do more things.” Hanging his head and scuffing his feet across the worn carpet, Danny slowly followed me into the kitchen.

Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of movement in the backyard. Looking out the window, I saw an older man dressed in overalls and blue flannel shirt peering back at me.

As our eyes met, fear rippled down my spine. Should I talk to him or call the police?

As if sensing my hesitation, the old man smiled, waved, and headed for the back door.

“I was just taking care of the folks’ garden while they were away and noticed you inside,” he explained. “I didn’t know anyone would be coming. You a relative?”

Assured he meant no harm, I invited him in and began to explain Danny’s surgery. When I finished, the man shook his head.

“Twenty-four years ago I had a similar operation,” he told us. “Here, feel my back.”

As my hand detected a depression in his shoulder area, the old man quickly continued.

“After my operation, the doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to do much with my arm. Well, I fooled them. Just look.” He swung his arms. “I can do just about anything I want.”

Reaching down to pat Danny on his healthy shoulder, he added, “Don’t worry, sonny. You’ll soon be good as new. Just keep working and you’ll be moving that arm good as ever.”

Stunned, I whispered a prayer of thanksgiving. To me, this old man was an angel sent from God to cheer both Danny and me.


God did heal Danny. He is a long-term cancer survivor, having lived more than five years past diagnosis. Today Danny is in college studying to be a doctor. He has regained approximately 70 percent range of motion in his right arm — far more than the doctors expected.

I’m thankful our family did get that vacation to Canada. However, I’m even more thankful for the journey through my son’s life-threatening illness and that the final destination was healing.

Directed to a knowledgeable doctor, accepting Danny’s diagnosis, and helped by a mysterious visitor, I discovered a God who would go with me through one of life’s most difficult journeys. Meeting my ever-changing needs, He has sustained me with His precious promises.

“Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation” (Psalm 91:1416).

Scripture quotations were taken from the New International Version.