Doctors found a tumor on Dave Penza’s knee the week before he began high school football practice. “I knew it must be serious because my parents cried while praying with me,” 14-year-old Dave said. “Before cancer, football was my life.”
Like other parents whose children have cancer, Cheri Penza was unprepared for the difficultly of the journey. “We felt overwhelmed by the immediacy of decisions, the lack of hope offered and the uncertainty of what questions to ask.” For the Penzas, hope began with a renewed reliance on God’s Word. “Daily readings kept us focused on God’s sovereignty,” Cheri said. And they committed to moving forward in this crisis together – as a family.
“Constant research and calls to cancer survivors helped sort fact from fiction,” Dave’s father, Frank, said. One change they made concerned Dave’s diet.
“Dave had a healthy appetite, like me,” Frank said with a laugh. “I knew the changes would be tough for him, so I agreed to eat what he ate.” While most teens lose up to 50 percent of their body weight during chemo, Dave lost only a few pounds from his precancerous weight. Frank’s convinced their diet made all the difference.
People from other families with cancer patients asked why Dave looked so good given his diagnosis. The family wrote a short book, Eating With Dave, which included their source of spiritual strength, recipes, photos and research. The income generated from Dave’s book helped the Penzas pay for medical expenses because the family was without health insurance for several months during his treatment.
Being there for Dave
To encourage Dave, his father and brothers decided to shave their heads – before Dave’s hair fell out. His brother Mike videotaped the comedic drama of it and recapped each person’s journey to baldness with a guessing game about who had given up the most via each pile of hair – from Frank’s less than a teaspoon of silvery-blond tufts, to Dave’s and Dan’s bigger piles of light and dark blond hair, to his own pile of dark curls that had previously hung at chin length.
The boys’ new look inspired schoolmates to “Shave for Dave,” too. Several athletes who had not cut their hair for years shaved it off during half time at a basketball game. They wore shirts supporting Dave, took a collection to buy him golf clubs to help with his physical therapy and had a fundraiser after the game. All of their efforts helped to encourage Dave in his battle.
New plans for everyone
Dave originally thought a partial leg amputation might be his cure since he’d read about other youths who had played football with a prosthetic. But the doctor convinced him to try an artificial knee and femur instead, knowing he could do amputation later – if needed.
Dave’s plans did not unfold as he’d hoped, and following a courageous five-year battle with cancer, David Anthony Penza, 19, passed away in Gilbert, Ariz., on September 7, 2008. Since his passing, the Penza family has had plenty of time to ponder the journey they shared as a family during Dave’s illness. They realize that it pulled them together, and Frank recently commented, “We never got mad at God, but encouraged each child that He had a plan for their lives and for Dave’s life.”
Even as Frank and Cheri focused on Dave during his illness, they did not forget about their other children. Frank said, “As parents, we determined that one of us would try to attend all school events.” By doing this, they were able to let their other children know that their lives were just as important as Dave’s. Frank added, “And we hugged our kids more often.”
Dave’s brother Mike believes that one of the greatest things his parents gave him during Dave’s illness was the gift of their presence. “They were present whenever they could be. Their intentionality and sacrifice were heroic.”
When their parents could not be present at their activities, the Penza kids now realize that one of the unanticipated blessings of their brother’s illness was the added family help they received. Friends and extended family members stepped in to help the Penzas, taking turns sitting at the hospital with Dave so Frank and Cheri could be with the other kids. They decorated for holidays, made birthday cakes, offered homework help, provided rides to and from activities, and helped with family finances.
Encouraging each other
As Dave faced the reality that his time was likely short, the doctor offered him the option of ending treatment and going home, or continuing the treatment with little hope of improvement. Even though Dave’s decision would take him to Arizona, he felt that his commitment to treatment could provide research and hope for others – and the family supported him. Cheri reflects on that time and explains how she’s still amazed at how the kids were so willing to move to Arizona toward the end of Dave’s life. “I appreciated their understanding that this was part of what we needed to do as a family. Each one had to grow a bit faster because of dealing with these issues, and the truth is, the kids’ prayers and hugs were so encouraging to me as a mom.”
The children remember their parents’ faithful encouragement to grow in relationship with God. Frank and Cheri helped their kids come to an understanding that Dave’s illness, his hospitalizations and even his passing were profound chapters in their lives. As parents, they modeled a commitment to their beliefs and the courage to make difficult decisions.
“Other families tell us that Dave’s faith – and our response to his cancer – has been an encouragement to them,” Cheri said. “Our child’s cancer diagnosis turned out to be an opportunity to help others – it gave us hope and purpose.”
Several years after Dave’s passing, the Penzas are still a close family. Frank and Cheri continue to encourage families of children with cancer as they share their story and pray with families who now walk the same uncertain journey they once did.
Updated and revised from “Making the Cut,” originally published in Focus on the Family’s Teen Phases, July 2007. Copyright © 2013 Delores Liesner. Published on FocusOnTheFamily.com.