Terminal cancer patient’s biggest asset is his faith
April 18, 2019
John Patrick Nicholson has faced death before.
Those trying experiences have helped forge the quiet perseverance and determination the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) student exhibits today as he confronts his biggest challenge: Doctors have given him less than six months to live.
John Patrick has cancer. He’s been battling it for nearly seven years. That includes three major surgeries, exhausting rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, about 150 hospital visits, several brushes with death, and now a terminal diagnosis.
But he and his family remain hopeful and refuse to give up while also accepting God’s will. During these difficult times his biggest asset has been his faith. It has given him hope and the peace to accept whatever comes.
“God knows what’s best for me and for everyone, and wants the good to increase,” he said. “So if I can help that by either living or dying, that’s OK.”
And yet John Patrick is not done living. The next big step in his spiritual journey will be an upcoming pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, where thousands of miraculous cures have been reported.
It’s there that in 1858, the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous and revealed a spring of water to her, offering hope of miraculous healing to pilgrims ever since.
“I believe in miracles,” said Catherine Nicholson, John Patrick’s mother. “We’re figuratively down on our knees and have exhausted just about every medical avenue available.”
In 2011, at age 15, John Patrick was first diagnosed with a brain tumor, which was surgically removed.
Although his cancer had been in remission, in 2016 a tumor was found on his spine, and this year cancer cells in his cerebral spinal fluid were discovered.
Last November, he was given one-to-two years to live; on March 29, that prognosis was downgraded to six months.
“When I first heard I had two years left, I thought there still was plenty of time to be cured,” John Patrick said. “Now I’m just accepting that we’ve tried all possible treatments, but they didn’t work.”
“I just try to keep a spiritual mindset and remember that God is always watching over me,” he said.
So, short of a miracle, John Patrick remains at peace and accepts his situation with a quiet grace. He said he embraces Jesus’ words in the Garden of Gethsemene, “Not my will but thy will be done.”
Continuing his studies, now part-time because of his medical challenges, he still carries a 3.5 grade point average – all the more remarkable given what he had to relearn.
After his 2011 surgery and follow-up treatment, he was left severely impaired physically and mentally, with difficulty speaking and swallowing, and needing to relearn how to read, spell and do math. Nine months later his math skills tested at a fourth grade level.
FAITH AND PERSISTENCE
But faith, persistence and hard work paid off and, home schooled by his mother, John Patrick finished high school. He entered UNO in the fall of 2016 with a full-tuition Regents Scholarship to study information technology innovation and moved into the St. John Paul II Newman Center near campus.
Living at the Newman Center gave him good friends and support during his struggles.
“I’ve been really happy to live in that dorm where everyone is friendly all the time,” he said. “It’s made life easier.”
Although he recently moved home due to his condition, John Patrick still sometimes attends Mass at the center.
“He just wants to be a normal college student, so he’s not looking for any extra attention,” said Father Joseph Taphorn, pastor and director of the center. “He has handled his situation with grace in his own quiet way.”
“Although he has faced death multiple times, he continues to live and contribute, and the fact that he is at peace with what the future may hold is inspiring.”
That’s why fellow students felt called to honor him by organizing an American Red Cross blood drive at the Newman Center May 2, during which 28 students, staff, parents and others donated.
Another tribute to his courage was his selection by the UNO College of Information Science and Technology to be its marshal, carrying its banner and leading graduates into the commencement ceremony May 4.
Always humble, John Patrick said he didn’t feel worthy of the honor since he was not graduating and doesn’t carry a 4.0 grade point average.
“I was excited about the opportunity to be marshal, but it really should have gone to a senior,” he said.
SOURCE OF STRENGTH
Throughout their challenges, the Nicholson family has drawn strength from their community of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. Father John Broheimer, pastor, has encouraged the congregation to offer prayers for John Patrick and his family.
Since John Patrick’s father was in the military, Father Broheimer recommended they pray for the intercession of Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun. Father Kapaun served as an Army chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, and died in a North Korean prison camp.
“There are people in heaven who have done heroic things and whose virtue is being looked at by the church, and they are just waiting to be named saints.” he said. “So, we need to pray to them for miracles.
“I encouraged them to be very specific in their prayers, and to keep doing it every day,” Father Broheimer said. “Miracles do happen.”
The family’s faith has been their strength, Father Broheimer said. “John Patrick’s faith is remarkable – his fidelity to the church, his striving for holiness at every moment is profound.”
And the support of fellow parishioners during these years has been incredible, Catherine said, as they provided meals, helped with errands and shared time just to talk and be present.
This support has been a lifesaver as she has spent herself caring for John Patrick throughout his ordeal.
“Sometimes I feel like I have nothing left – I’ve done everything I can do,” she said. “So I just have to rely on God and stay present in the moment.
“Sometimes it comes down to, ‘for this hour, everything is OK – or this minute, or even this breath,’” Catherine said. “Although I’m fine most of the time, I still don’t like it.”
A convert at age 35, she says her Catholic faith, including Mass, the Eucharist and Benedictine spirituality such as the Lectio Divina, sustains her.
“I had to accept a long time ago that my son may die – of course, everyone is going to die,” Catherine said. “But I believe God takes each person at exactly the right time for their salvation.”