This blog, “Because She Chose” showcases women and their inspirational stories. You'll hear about tragedy, courage, joy & heartbreak. The stories show change is a choice and success is the result. Inspiring women is my goal and this next story does not disappoint. The choice Anna made to "be still and trust" inspires us to never give up. Her choice to remain steadfast in her faith is an example to us all. Allowing the peace that surpasses all understanding to strengthen you, is success. The measure of a successful life isn’t your job title, the size of your house, or the beautiful things you can afford. True success is living fully and fulfilling your true purpose on earth while embracing joy. It's all a choice.
I came to know Anna through her family. Her sister, Cindy Chaluisan Sarachik and her husband, Mark have been great friends of ours for more than 20 years. Faithful and encouraging, Mark and Cindy supported us early on in our church plant, 15 years ago. To say they are just about the sweetest people you’ll ever know, is an understatement. My fondest memory of Anna and her husband, Danny, was when they would attend our Christmas Eve service. Every year they said how much they looked forward to it. It endeared them in my heart and I was blessed by their love for our church. I thought it appropriate to share their story today, their 38th wedding anniversary.
Today, September 7th would have been our 38th wedding anniversary. This all began in April, 2016 when we went to an ENT due to pain in Danny's mouth and under his tongue. He had seen several doctors by this point and none suspected anything urgent. We both thought perhaps it was an infection or something minor that would require antibiotics, at most. Instead, the doctor performed a thorough examination and as he began to speak I heard him say, “I suspect this could be cancer.” I thought, “What? Did he say cancer?” Looking into my husband’s beautiful black eyes, I sensed his fear and prayed he didn’t sense mine. I was determined to be strong no matter what. Suddenly, I heard the words, “Be still and trust Me”, clear as day. I took a deep breath and reassured Dan he was going to be fine. I determined to pray and fast. Dan would be healed. This was some kind of mistake.
The next day, we went to Mt. Sinai Hospital for a PET scan, consulting with a Head and Neck Cancer specialist. Tests confirmed cancer of the tongue. The doctor explained the necessary surgical procedure and we were still in denial. We pursued a second opinion with a specialist on Long Island. This doctor gave us the same prognosis. So, we scheduled the procedure for the end of May since our son was getting married earlier that month.
Appointments were made in preparation: Oncologist, Radiology, M.D., Cancer Plastic Surgeon, Oral Surgeons. The anatomy of his mouth would drastically change. He needed molars extracted to prevent infection after surgery. He was poked and prodded for weeks but my warrior never complained. He chose to survive and kept his focus on Jesus. Even when I had a meltdown in our kitchen one morning, he held me and reminded me to look up.
The procedure would take twelve hours where he would have half of his tongue removed and reconstruct it with skin from his forearm and then cover the forearm with skin from his thigh. He would need a Tracheotomy because the surgery would cause inflammation of his tongue that would inhibit his breathing.
As I waited, I prayed non-stop that there would be no cancer. His doctor came to update me. He said not only was it cancer, but Stage IV Squamous Cell Carcinoma. He was concerned it was already spreading through the lymph nodes. I cried like a baby thinking, “But God told me to be still and trust Him. How can this be cancer?”
The surgeon said I could see him but he would be sedated until morning. I remember feeling numb and strong all at the same time. When he woke the next morning, he couldn’t breathe through his trach. It remained so for about a week until they realized it had become dislodged since he was choking. He apparently had a blockage in the trach airway, as he tried signaling me (trach does not allow you to speak) to get help. An amazing nurse finally came and cleared his airway. He later wrote down on a pad that he saw himself leaving his body and me praying by the window.
The trach was removed and he was able to come home nine days later. He was supposed to regain his ability to eat within several months, but he never did. I had to puree everything but he was such a good sport and loved it all. He was also regaining his ability to speak, although a little muffled. It was so good to hear his voice again. I remember when he called my son’s nickname again and we all got emotional.
Dan spent 8 weeks that summer having radiation treatments every weekday. I knew something was wrong when he began losing weight and not regaining his strength or ability to eat. We decided to start chemo. A PET scan revealed the cancer had spread to his lungs. He continued with chemo from November, 2016 until April, 2017. Every PET scan revealed the cancer continued to spread to his hips and other bones. He became seriously underweight, going from 232 to 144 pounds. He was literally skin and bones and there was nothing I could do but pray. They recommended a feeding tube. We continued to pray and believe God for a miracle, all along sensing God’s direction and peace.
In May of 2017, a year after his first surgery, his tongue became swollen and the reconstructed part had become discolored. He was so calm and strong, never even panicking. His doctor recommended the feeding tube and trach again to prevent him from choking. This time, the trach would remain after he was discharged and I would have to learn to clean the tubes and clear his airway which needed to be done several times a day.
My son and I watched and joined my warrior-husband as he danced into the operating room humming an old Christian song he loved, "I went to the enemy’s camp and took back what he stole from me". His courage overwhelmed us both to tears. We knew Dan's strength came from the place where Jesus lived in his heart. He was His!
He recovered and even though I am the most squeamish person you could imagine, God was continually stretching me and I would do whatever I had to do to get my husband home. He was noticeably different from then on. He experienced nightmares and his writing was not even legible, but he continued to fight as the warrior he was.
The hospital recommended hospice but I refused. If he continued to fight, so would I. His doctor thought we could try immunotherapy, so I held on to that hope. He was fine the first couple of days and we were able to get in one treatment of immunotherapy. The boys took turns watching him while I got some rest, but he constantly wanted me near. He would have one more emergency hospital stay because he was bleeding from his mouth. He endured such pain due to the trach and cancer but he never complained.
When we returned home this time, he was not himself but I could see he was still fighting for his life. I believe it was about a week later that God called him home. We were sitting on the sofa and I fed him through his tube. We were watching the Daystar channel and that particular day they were playing Songs of Heaven. Dan kept pointing up toward heaven to tell me he was going there and so would I. I smiled and said yes.
The morning he passed, he had this look of peace on his face I had not seen in a long time. I knew he was gone, but it was too surreal so I tried waking him until I realized he was not to wake. He was still warm to the touch, but I knew God had answered my prayer that fateful morning. You see I had prayed, “God, if you’re not going to heal him, please take him home, I can’t see him suffer like this.”
I called 9-11 and they came right away. One of the police officers admired all our family pictures and I told her a little about our journey and my prayer. She told me, “God answered your prayer.” That wonderful officer was used by God to remind me of His faithfulness in the midst of this storm. I’m here to remind you that even on your darkest day, there is peace. I felt it in that room as never before.
You see, the man I built a life with for 37 years, the father of my children and the love of my life was gone. He slept beside me that night but the moment he closed his eyes on earth, he opened them in heaven. What comfort I found in knowing that I took care of him and kept him near until the end and I pray he felt our love until he took his last breath. You see, God did not heal Dan Olivo in the way we thought He would, but Dan Olivo was instantly healed that morning when he saw Jesus face-to-face. He was made whole for eternity!
The days after his death were filled with decisions and arrangements that I made without a hiccup even as I walked in a fog of disbelief over what was happening. My sons were amazing. They were with me through the days ahead along with my family, friends, church friends and Pastor. What would I have done without them?! I can’t even imagine. Together, we planned his funeral, ordered flowers, chose a burial plot, wake program and eulogy. All the arrangements went smoothly and beautifully. Dan would have been so proud of me and the boys. I know God deserved the Glory because it was He that was guiding and carrying us.
I sadly recall the first time I visited his gravesite on my own. Standing in that place, there were no family or friends to hold and comfort me, nor a Pastor to pray me through—it was just me. Here I stood alone on the ground covering the body of the love of my life and thinking he would no longer be my confidante, protector and best friend. I was no longer a wife or a couple, but a widow at age 56. My children would no longer have a dad within a phone call away and my grandchildren would vaguely remember him. All this dropped on my shoulders right then and there. I scanned the cemetery to see if someone would see my vulnerability. I wept as I walked to my car and all the way home.
When your life detours and you find yourself in unknown territory, you grasp on to all you know God to be and all you know His Word to say. You quickly learn that though you walk through the valley, His Word is true and He is ever-present. At the time, it appears you're in a dark tunnel that seems never-ending and your prayers are not being answered. Then suddenly, you catch a glimpse of His Glory and His peace. Peace in the midst of the storm. As you hear Him whisper, "Be still and trust me," you realize -- He not only heard you, but is carrying you because your strength failed a long time ago, but His never will!
Death may have stolen my children's father and my soulmate, but in the end, Dan Olivo triumphed over death!
Today, I find myself looking forward to God’s direction and guidance. Since my love’s passing, I moved out of our home of twenty-five years because of finances; currently residing between my son’s and mom’s home, but God has been so faithful even in this and I have never felt abandoned or forgotten by my Heavenly Father. He has provided every step of the way.