Originally published in Gritty Faith: Anchored. Written by Megan Miller with Hannah Havlik.
Hannah Havlik is a 20-year-old small town South Dakota girl who is currently a sophomore at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. She continues to discover how God is inviting her to thrive in this season of her life. She is pursuing a nursing degree and relying on God to continue to be her firm anchor to steady her in the storms of life.
The First Big Battle
On December 12, 2002, at just four months old, I was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma — a rare form of cancer in both of my eyes. Doctors shared with my parents that I had 12 tumors in my right eye and eight in my left eye, and that, unfortunately, I was already blind in my right eye. Less than two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, our family traveled to Minnesota to the M Health Fairview Masonic Children’s Hospital for my first chemo treatment. In two and a half years of battling cancer, I would undergo multiple surgeries and radiation as my little body fought against the tumors threatening my life and wellbeing. One year after completing my first round of treatments, I relapsed when my treatments weren’t working, so they decided to try a different type of radiation that was typically used to treat brain cancer. As I was wrapping up these treatments, I also got bit by a mosquito and became the first confirmed pediatric case of West Nile in South Dakota.
I can’t really imagine how my parents coped with one monumental challenge after the next as they desperately did their best to care for their first born as I faced all these challenges. Something that really stood out to me even at this young age was that I had the most amazing nurses! In scary situations, I was comforted by their presence. I recall a specific circumstance when I had to get an IV. My nurse took the time to explain in detail each step she was taking. I wasn’t fearful of needles or the process, but I was instead drawn to her explanations and fascinated by the process. This is just one reason why I lie awake at night giddy about pursuing my nursing degree to be a light for other oncology kids.
Since 2009, I get an annual scan and I continue to be grateful for a cancer free diagnosis. I am still forced to navigate the world with the aftermath of my early fight with cancer, being legally blind in one eye and dealing with a depth perception disability. I also carry the awareness that if I choose to have children, I have a 50/50 chance of passing this type of cancer onto them. Even though I’m still young, I wrestle with what it may be like to make a conscious decision to risk introducing biological children to everything I’ve had to go through. I also struggle with when to be open and honest in relationships I’m in about this reality. I spend time in prayer about opening my heart to adoption if that’s the Lord’s will as well.
Family and God
When I look back on my faith journey, I recognize that so much is rooted in the stability I’ve received from my parents, Rebecka and Brian. As the oldest of seven living children in my family, I have seen my parents lean into the Lord when they lost my infant sibling and many of the other challenges that come along with raising a large family. My parents have lived out their core belief that, “it’s okay to have hard moments, and we can choose to cling to our faith during those difficult times.” They have prioritized going to mass weekly and praying together as a family, which has been a central part of our lives since I can remember. I know that has created a very strong foundation for me.
It has also been a blessing to have other family members tell me stories from some of those challenging years. Recently I was visiting with my grandparents and aunt. My aunt shared that as I battled cancer my mom had walked into my room when she heard me carrying on a conversation. She asked who I was talking to and I responded confidently that I was talking with Jesus. She asked, “Is He here?” With a confused look on my face that seemed to communicate, “You can’t see him?!” I shared that He was right here.
Even at such a young age I was having a pure interaction with my Savior. Just hearing my aunt’s account of that moment offered a new sense of awe in respect to the ways the Lord has been so present in my life — even before I could comprehend what a relationship with Him meant. I realized God is not a God who tells me, “I got you through this and now you’re on your own.” He doesn’t take a back seat to watch how things play out. For me, that moment was just the beginning of Him being omnipresent in my life.
As early as third grade, I began struggling with peer relationships. I have vivid memories of feeling like I didn’t belong and that no one liked me. I recall that it had escalated to the point that I was coming home every day with tears streaming down my cheeks. I remember my parents having a loving, but confronting conversation saying, “Hannah, you have to put on the armor of God and not let this affect you so much.” My mom has always been honest that we will have moments in our lives where we will be alone. She has shared that it is okay to go through these lonely seasons, and we have to discover ways of being okay with those times. I also cling to the good news that we are never going to be truly alone when we have a relationship with Jesus.I continued to go to school and take on tough days in my elementary years and beyond, but I also drew on the awareness that I could call on the God of the Universe to protect me and walk with me in the good and the hard times.
In my freshman year of high school, I tore my ACL while playing basketball. While these injuries are always challenging, I ended up with a two-and-a-half-year fight as I endured three different surgeries, ongoing physical therapy, and injections. I started losing the hope of joining my team on the court as each day, and then an entire season, passed. I felt as though I was in total darkness and in my junior year I felt a heavy weight of anxiety and depression. I began asking myself questions like, “How long do I do this? Is the only way out to give up? What’s the point? Everyone else gets to play basketball, why can’t I? Lord, I’ve been through so much already, why can’t I just have this now??” I was hit hard internally and this toxic cycle of questioning impacted my relationships. I have always relied on my family throughout my challenges, but in this time of intense darkness it was hard to accept their love and support and I often found myself pushing them away instead.
If I revisit my journal pages from those days, I wouldn’t even be able to read my writing because of how intensely the tears were pouring out with each word that escaped my hand. I was struggling so hard to understand why living my day to day had to be such an absolute battle.
I heard the quote, “Your current season is not your forever season.” I’ve learned that when I struggle to see the light at the end of the tunnel, this offers hope for a future breakthrough.
Growing in Wisdom and Hope
As I look back now, I acknowledge how terrible this time was, but I can also recognize it was this journey that brought me to Lincoln. As I ventured out of state for college, I met some of the most amazing women and I have continued to grow in my trust in God and the good He has for me.
I can see the Lord doesn’t just say yes, and He doesn’t just say no, but there is always an “and then” or an “and also.” He doesn’t abandon His children without a new way forward. I continue to learn there are moments when the only thing I can do is trust. In my high school years, I had to trust that if I wasn’t going to play basketball there HAD to be something that came from that time. So often the greatest lessons aren’t ones we learn right away. It takes time. I can confidently say I wouldn’t change anything about my journey now, but I also wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.
I have often felt lonely as I have faced intense challenges, wondering, “Is there anyone that can understand or resonate with this feeling?” Because so much of my lived experience stems from trauma and heartache, it can be hard to find people who can relate to that unless they too have experienced intense challenges in their own life.
While my story varies completely from most people my age, I continue to cling to God’s purpose in each of our stories. I’ve recently realized that if there wasn’t a purpose in my story, and if the Lord couldn’t move people with it, then I wouldn’t have it. I truly believe there is a reason I’ve been through all I have. While most people may not relate to the details of my story, perhaps God can use my story to encourage someone else not to give up or lose hope through their own challenges.
Sharing Christ’s Hope and Love
As I’ve stepped into a new season of life in college, I’ve had the opportunity to travel with the Catholic Focus Mission trip to Mexico City. While there, we served two groups with the Hope of the Poor Foundation: women who were prostitutes and those who lived in the city’s largest dump. We helped the organization further its commitment to provide food, shelter, and, most importantly, love to all we met.
Our first experience was a day in the park with women who had been prostitutes. As a sheltered, small town South Dakota girl, I didn’t know what to expect. I wondered what the people we would serve would say or look like. I was surprised that these women and their families looked just like normal people. Looking back, I feel that was shortsighted of me, but it also honors how God encouraged me to grow through this experience.
The women and families were aware that we, as American students who had been prepped for the space, knew where they had been and what they had done. I was surprised to experience no hostility or fear from them as we carried this knowledge into our interactions. They trusted us with their children. I could sense how protective and watchful the dads in the group were of their spouses, but they also emitted a kindness and acceptance as we loved them all.
Almost instantly I forgot who they were and what they’d done. I am still struck by how beautiful it was to be able to play soccer with their kids and help the women cook and prepare food for the gathering that day.
The man leading our mission experience that day recapped after the event about the impact our group had on these people. He highlighted the special gift that especially the men in our group gave to the women. They had offered a Christ-like love to these women without any connection to the appearance of their bodies.
I still get chills just thinking about the love we could demonstrate in such a short amount of time. I also believe many people may have gone to bed that night with a new sense of their belovedness. It was such a beautiful example of how Jesus loves his children, and how Jesus can be seen through each of these people.
I experienced another layer of appreciation for Christ’s love as we served those who lived in the city’s dump. The dump was a 15-minute drive from the city and stretched for miles. We couldn’t see the end of it. We had a translator who helped us communicate with a 42-year-old man who shared that he had been born in the dump and lived there all his life. He had a daughter, but had been estranged from her and just recently found where she was and hoped to reconnect. He spent his days sorting garbage from sun-up to sun-down which allowed him to earn $7 each week.
Our group questioned why they wouldn’t choose a different life, but we were told how permanent the smell is and that a person who attempted to be transported into town would be removed from public buses which left them stranded. What fascinated me was this man’s level of faith. He was one of many who would pray every day.
As I looked at his surroundings, I saw no real beauty around him and felt he had absolutely no reason to believe in a God. Yet, not only did he believe, he was genuinely happy and full of joy!
As someone who lives in a first world country, it is common to see Jesus through a sunrise or sunset, or even in the midst of our heartache and trials; but to see how this man embraced Jesus’ love for him was phenomenal! I was deeply touched in my faith journey to experience God in each of His children and their stories — not just the cleaned up church people.
Trusting in God for my future
When I look at my life, I am so grateful for the relationship I have with the Lord. I spend time reflecting on how far He has brought me. I don’t focus on the things that He has taken from my life, but instead on the areas where He has brought restoration and new life! He has reworked my story in a way that I pray can help me touch other lives along my journey.
I have recently had the opportunity to share my testimony at a high school youth group in Lincoln. I was also invited to be a guest speaker at the Ty Eschenbaum Foundation’s banquet as a scholarship recipient this year (I qualified because I was a cancer survivor like Ty). I am excited to see how the Lord will continue to honor the desires in my heart to serve others and to share my story!
In my twenty years of life, I have survived intense storms that have given me a deeper understanding of my purpose and the meaning of life. My journey has anchored me in His love and with sights on an eternal focus.