David Ong had been a pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church for 15 years before being diagnosed with stage 3 multiple myeloma, an incurable blood marrow cancer.
People with high-risk myeloma generally survive two to three years. For those with standard myeloma, only half would live beyond five years.
Today, it is the second most common type of blood cancer, afflicting more than 100 patients in Singapore a year. Most are in their 60s, though it can hit people in their 40s. Little was known about the disease back then.
David was 44 when he received his “death sentence” in late 2004. Today, he is 60.
The news came as a big shock to him and his family.
“I was generally quite fit and even had six-pack abs. Also, nobody in my family had cancer before,” said David, who had previously worked as a nurse.
Ironically, it was while he and his son, Joshua, were ramping up their exercise routine that David discovered something was wrong with him.
Motivated by watching sportsmen compete in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens on television, David began swimming 20 to 30 laps every day. Soon after, he developed a chest pain which he initially thought was a muscle sprain. Later, his doctor friend found three fractured ribs and referred him to a specialist who eventually gave the diagnosis.
Multiple Myeloma is a type of bone marrow cancer characterised by abnormal expansion of malignant plasma cells in the bone marrow. Among the damage they do, myeloma cells weaken the bone, causing many lytic lesions or holes in the bones.
“I became very hole-ly,” joked David with his characteristic brand of humour.
Thoughts of death haunted him constantly. His mind was filled with negative thoughts and questions: Why me? Why do I have to go through so many ordeals? How long will I live? Who is going to take care of my family?
The pain was unrelenting. He was put through chemotherapy and radiation, and was perpetually shuttling in and out the hospital.
It was during that time that the former pastor realised how hurtful some comments from well-meaning believers could be.
When he was feeling down and discouraged and shared his feelings with some visitors, one suggested that he ought to have more faith in God to be healed since he used to be a pastor.
Another visitor told him that God had a purpose for him to go through this illness. Because He had a big ministry in store for David.
“In all honesty, when he said that to me, all I was thinking of was that I would rather give him the ministry if he could take over my suffering as well,” said David.
Fortunately for David, two of his sisters were found to be compatible donors. A stem cell transplant was scheduled for him.
Those who have a stem cell transplant have a better rate of remission. But the procedure comes with high risks of mortality: Up to one in every three end up losing their lives from the procedure or its complications.
David believed that God could use medical science to bring healing and so, went ahead with the transplant.
“Unless you are ready to die, you are not really ready to live.”
Though the new stem cells grafted well into his body, David experienced acute Graft versus host disease (GvHD). In GvHD, the transplanted marrow from the donor starts to function as part of the immune system and the transplanted cells begin attacking the host cells when reading them as foreign bodies.
The skin on his face and body began darkening. His mouth, gums and throat were covered with ulcers and began bleeding.
To alleviate the pain in his ribs and spine, David was given morphine patches. But they caused further distress as he experienced withdrawal symptoms when the patches were taken away.
In 2006 when David was spending a fair amount of time in hospital, God woke him up from his sleep and spoke to him: “Unless you are ready to die, you are not really ready to live.”
God impressed this line on David’s heart.
David thought God was telling him that his time was up and he was about to die soon.
David began to weep. Embarrassed at causing a scene in the four-bedder hospital ward, he drew the curtains around his bed and started bargaining with God for his life.
He told God that he was not ready to go because he still had a five-year-old son. His parents were also old and might not have been able to withstand losing him – they had already lost another son from chronic renal failure.
As he wrestled with God, David felt a peace come upon him when he heard God reply: That it is not how long one lives but how well one lives.
David resolved to live his life well for God, even if he did not know how long more he had to live.
Two months later, David received a prophetic word from a speaker at a Christian seminar. The speaker said God had told her that David would live to see his grandchildren.
On hearing the prophecy, David recalled an exchange he had with his son two years earlier. His son had said: “Daddy, you must see me grow up, get married and have children, ok?”
It is not how long one lives but how well one lives.
Yet like the doubting Thomas in the Bible, David found it hard to believe the prophecy and did some mental calculations.
At that time, he was already 46 years old and Joshua was six. It would be at least 20 more years before Joshua reached marriageable age. Would he live to see him get married and have children?
Instantly, he was reminded that God told Sarah who did not believe that she could have a child in her old age: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14)
During the course of his illness, David’s faith was tested.
The former pastor had read and taught much about the subjects of healing and the cause of suffering. But in the light of his own illness, which was deemed incurable, he began questioning biblical theology.
In his quest for answers to his questions on supernatural healing, he read many books with different interpretations and explanations. The more he read, the more confused he became.
So he asked God for His peace.
“I do not have the answers but I know that God is sovereign.”
One day, the Holy Spirit impressed upon him these words: “I want you to put aside all the theological arguments about why some are healed and why some are not. I just want you to know My true heart. Just know My heart, for My heart’s desire is to heal and My will for man is not to give sickness.”
He continues to trust Him for the promise that he would one day see his grandchildren.
“I still believe I will see them in spite of the 40 year age difference between Joshua and myself. But even if a miracle doesn’t come, there is no shame,” he said.
“Sometimes, one may not experience complete healing physically, but I’ve seen so many people healed inside
This is because he knows that some people are not healed and some promises may not come to pass in this lifetime.
“I do not have the answers but I know that God is sovereign. We can’t command him to heal us or to take us away. As the Bible says: We do not know the secret things of God and His thoughts and ways are higher than ours.
“Healing is more than just physical. It often involves emotional healing that deals with resentment, bitterness and unforgiveness. Sometimes, one may not experience complete healing physically, but I’ve seen so many people healed inside even when they pass on. That in itself, is worth it.” he added.
In 2008, David’s doctor told him that his cancer was in complete remission. For the last 12 years, only a miniscule amount of bone marrow cells have been found to be cancerous.
“I am amazed and in awe of what God can do. Now, I am focused on using the time I have been given to serve God’s purposes,” said David. He is working on publishing his second book on how to live life with a sense of gravity, priority and purpose. His first book – Talking The Walk – was about his journey with God through the ordeal of cancer.
“Now, I am focused on using the time I have been given to serve God’s purposes.”
In his remission, David became a pastor of Petra Church along Armenian Street for four years. Then he felt God calling him out to start a healthcare and pastoral ministry in which the former nurse goes to hospitals and homes to provide medical and spiritual support to the sick, especially those stricken with cancer. He named it The Lazarus Generation.
The name was inspired by article he had read about the resurrection of the “Lazarus Generation” – men and women who know what it is like to be at death’s door, and are therefore fearless in rescuing those who have come from dark places.
Today, David’s son is 20 years old and will soon complete his National Service. David is thankful to still be alive. His wife Whee Ling has also been a huge pillar of support to him.
Years ago, David had a dream in which he fell from a hill and a man in white on a white horse picked him up. As he rode with the man, the scene zoomed in to his HDB flat where he was shown a video reel of his entire life.
“I knew I had seen Jesus and He was showing me my life story, though I couldn’t remember what I saw in the video. But I knew from then on that I had to live my life in view of eternity and His second coming,” said David, whose favourite verse is Acts 13:36: “For David served God’s purposes in his own time, and then he died, was buried with his ancestors, and his body rotted in the grave.”