For a time, the Gerbers could’ve introduced themselves like this: “Hi, we are the Gerbers — the people with two sons who have different kinds of cancers.”
Now, they are known as the family who has exerted great joy and perseverance despite pain and suffering.
Zepha (pronounced “ZEE-fuh”), a mom of five and worship leader at Princeton Wesleyan Church in Princeton, Illinois, attributes that joy and ability to persevere to one thing: the family’s faith in Jesus.
Gerber’s six-year-old son, Age, was diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor, a rare kidney cancer, just before his fourth birthday in 2017. Months of chemotherapy and then dialysis followed. Transplant became the next step in 2019, for which Age’s dad, Shawn, was determined to be a perfect kidney donor match.
Days before leaving to travel to Boston Children’s Hospital for Age’s transplant surgery, Gerber’s other son, Wyatt (now age 13), became ill. Tests in a local emergency room resulted in a leukemia diagnosis. Normal white blood cell counts range from 5,000 – 10,000. Wyatt’s amount numbered 750,000. He was so sick doctors couldn’t explain how he was even conscious.
Zepha remembers feeling so angry with God in those initial moments.
“The first time with Age, it was more of a shock, and I took it for what it was — that God would help us through this,” said Zepha. “But the second time [Wyatt’s diagnosis], I really started to question everything.”
After a few days of initial treatment for Wyatt in Illinois, the Gerbers headed to Boston, where Shawn and Age successfully made it through transplant surgery. Wyatt continued his leukemia treatment there. The Gerbers spent about two months in Boston — while family and friends helped care for their three daughters back home.
Those were trying family days — being separated, mounting expenses, varying emotions. But they made it through. By this time, Zepha’s anger at God had subsided. Instead, she saw her faith begin to grow.
“I realized that with Age there were so many ups and downs as there can be with a solid tumor — lots of unknowns with him,” said Zepha. “Solid tumors are handled differently than blood cancers like leukemia. I learned how to submit everything to God and had no control over anything.”
Zepha said that if there was any good news about leukemia, they received it. Wyatt’s type of leukemia happened to be T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia or “ALL,” the most treatable and survivable form of leukemia because of the amount of research devoted to it.
She noted that God connected them with doctors in Boston who knew their doctors in Illinois and that “he had everybody there for a purpose. Every doctor, every nurse, every nurse practitioner was there because God put them there.” Besides leading them to Boston, God also provided three specialized hospitals within 2½ hours of their home — facilities in Peoria and Chicago, and Iowa City, Iowa. Teams of healthcare providers would ask Zepha how the family was even functioning under the stress and unknowns.
“I used to not outwardly show my faith,” said Zepha. “But now I just can’t hold back what God has done for us. I’ve seen miracles and healing. I’ve seen how my path crosses with people, and I’m able to share more about my love for Jesus.”
That happened with a doctor in Iowa City during one of Age’s inpatient stays after the transplant.
“A doctor asked, ‘The whole floor knows about the Gerber family, and they’re wondering how you can still function as a person. How can you still smile and walk around?’” said Zepha. “Do you want my blunt answer? It’s because I have a crazy faith in God.”
These opportunities to share have been very present in the last four years.
“People have been more receptive [to hearing about Jesus], because they know I’ve gone through some horrific things.”
Princeton Wesleyan Church (PWC) and the local community have surrounded the Gerbers with endless love and support. One such story involves two PWC members who organized a fundraiser to help offset the family’s expenses while in Boston and raised over $13,000. Friends, family and strangers continued to give in the following months.
PWC and the community continue to encourage the family. Zepha has especially seen her mind shift in how she views the role of the general church.
“God cannot be contained within a wall,” said Zepha. “PWC is a building and God wants to break outside of church walls and affect the lives of others in the community. Nobody should stay in their own little walls. God has so much love for people. All he wants is for people to love him.”
Now that the boys are cancer-free and living relatively normal lives, Zepha and Shawn are dreaming up ways to give back to so many who gave to them. Zepha is known as one who loves weddings and everything surrounding them. As she and Shawn prayed about how to say thanks, they felt led to purchase and renovate a building to be a bridal store. A portion of their eventual profit will be donated to kidney and cancer research. The couple is also in the process of establishing a foundation that will the raising of funds for those two causes.
The Gerber family is excited to continue communicating God’s love through the store and foundation.
“We’re set apart because of what we’ve experienced,” said Zepha. She notes that all five of her kids have been shaped in spiritual depth because of this journey. “Our kids are grounded in their faith and have a strong love and relationship with Jesus. I believe God is going to use them some day to make his kingdom even more whole.”
To read more about the family’s journey click here.