The cases in which people win against difficult diseases such as cancer impress both by the way in which the afflicted ones manage not to be brought down by pain and despair, and by the way in which God works in their life and of those around them, for the healing of their body and soul. The case of Daniela Popa, from Bucharest, is a special one, since added to her cancer problem was tuberculosis; and in addition to all that, God blessed her with being a mother for the third time. Daniela and Richard Popa understood the meaning of these trials, received them with open hearts, and through faith and much prayer they managed to defeat them.
Left: Mrs. Daniela Popa and her son, Antonie
Daniela: I found out about my illness in May, 2005, when my husband Richard was away in Mount Athos. I started having high fever, which was growing higher by the day. When Richard came back from Mount Athos, I had a biopsy taken and the result was lymphocyte depleted Hodgkin lymphoma [Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer of the lymphatic system, where the lymphatic cells come to divide abnormally and spread outside the lymphatic system (editor’s note)].
How does the disease manifest itself?
D.: By fever, fatigue, sweat – I felt I lacked strength completely and my neck glands started to swell. At that point, the disease was in stage 2 and I decided to follow a naturist treatment. However, the treatment had no effect and the disease developed very fast; and in September, I got to stage 4. The fever was higher, my ganglions had grown bigger and I was itching all over my body.
At that point, what did you know about your chances of healing?
D.: I knew that it was the most aggressive subtype of the disease but I wasn’t thinking that I wouldn’t get healed eventually. I am optimistic by nature, so I simply did not accept the idea that I wouldn’t get well in the end. I even tried to think about death and couldn’t. During that time, there was this verse from the Holy Scripture that gave me strength and confidence: „In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).
A nun who is very dear to both of us gave us a book called “The life of Righteous Paisius the Hagiorite”, which helped me very much in my struggle against disease: I thus saw that with God, everything is possible. If you have God by your side, even the inherent nature of things can change. I did not know whether God would listen to my prayer, but I did not lose hope. All throughout my disease, a lot of people prayed for me, hundreds of believers and tens of priests in the monasteries around the country and at the Holy Mountain. At Putna Monastery, Fr. Teofan, my brother, would tell everyone: “She is my sister; she has cancer, please pray for her!” I spent a lot of time in Putna. In September, I stayed in a room that was right next to the church, because I wasn’t able to walk about any more. In the evening, I could go to sleep because of the pain and the abundant sweating; I would change my clothes a dozen times a night, and my fever would not go below 38 °C (100.4 °F). My ganglions had grown very much – so much so that my neck had doubled in girth! At that point, with my Spiritual Father’s blessing, I started chemotherapy. After my second chemo session, my hair started to fall off. I then had a breakdown; I told myself that I would not be able to carry through with my treatment. My husband was there, next to me, all the time and said: “Don’t worry; we will get over this one, too.” My children and my entire family also supported me very much. I would sometimes wonder why some people fall ill and others don’t…
Did you comment against God for having sent you the disease?
D.: No; it was more like a general observation about the fact that some people are healthy, and others aren’t. I could have not judged God’s decision. It was very clear to me that God had His plan with me.
How did you put up with all the treatment?
D.: Towards the end, it was very difficult. I felt like my heart and my lungs were coming to a halt and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to go through all the twelve cytostatic sessions that I was to do. We were all difficult patients, because we didn’t want to accept any of the drugs that the hospital doctors recommended me besides the chemotherapy. I knew for sure that those drugs were doing me bad.
The reason was that for ten years, I had gone through a treatment in a private Bucharest clinic, for moderate anemia. At that clinic, every spring, they would give me iron and I would return to them next spring with the same problem. As a result of my taking iron, my system was turned upside down.
Now at the hospital, besides chemotherapy, doctors prescribed iron and other drugs, but I refused to take them. However, I did take some naturist medicines recommended by Dr. Pavel Chirilă and his late and deeply regretted wife, Dr. Maria Chirilă. The twelve cytostatic sessions were supposed to be the first step towards healing my disease. Then radiotherapy would follow. To do that, I went to a clinic in Germany. The doctor who took on my case thought that the stage of my disease was very advanced so he told me I needed four more chemotherapy sessions before starting radiotherapy.
So you had to continue doing the cytostatics…
Richard: Yes, we came back home. Daniela started a new session, but she stopped midway, because her body broke down during the treatment. A new set of tests followed afterwards, to see why she could not take another session of cytostatics. The analysis showed that she also had tuberculosis.
Daniela: So I interrupted my chemo and started TB treatment – which was very difficult to bear, because my immunity was shattered. For six weeks, I took nine antibiotics a day. We were thinking that the TB would be healed that way and then we would get back to radiotherapy. After the TB treatment, before going to Germany for my radiotherapy, I still needed some tests, which included a tomography that would indicate the status of my lungs and ganglions. So I went to have that done, too.
During the tomography I realized that something was not exactly right: the machine stopped, then a pause followed, and then it restarted – basically, I was irradiated twice. Then I found out that I was pregnant. During the first tomographer passage, the doctor had noticed that I was pregnant and she had stopped it to ask my husband what to do. He told her to continue the tomography, because we had to go to Germany for my X-ray, with the tomography result.
Now, I would usually wear the Theotokos’ girdle from Vatopedi Monastery [this is a ribbon that is touched against the Theotokos girdle, which is preserved at Vatopedi Monastery and which the Fathers there share with the pilgrims as a blessing – (editor’s note)]. I had forgotten to take it with me that day. I got scared that I did not have the girdle piece with me so I felt the need to pray more. So all throughout the tomography, I prayed ceaselessly and very ardently to the Mother of our Lord and to all the Saints, to protect me.
Through God’s care, I also had an appointment with Dr. Pavel Chirilă, right after the tomography. He said: „Miracles have been seen before!” and he told us a few miraculous accounts of pregnant patients whom the doctors had not given any more chances to. Then I spoke with Dr. Maria Chirilă, who asked me: “Do you think God has sent you this baby in order to let you perish?”
Were there any other people who supported you through this?
R.: Yes, my confessor, Fr. Ion Popescu with Icoanei Church in Bucharest. The first thing we did when we found out the news was to call him; and after a long reflection, he told us: “You have no right of life whatsoever over that child”. I was a hard thing to say, because he looked upon us as his own children, but faith was stronger. After he said those words, I felt like a big burden was lifted off our shoulders and moved onto God’s shoulders. We then went to the Wonder-making Theotokos icon at Icoanei Church and prayed thus: “Holy Mother of God, please take care of this child. We give it to you; it is yours. May your will be done”.
D.: Then we went to take a word of strength from Fr. Arsenie Papacioc, too. Although he was very ill, he received us and we talked a lot with His Holiness. He was full of love. All throughout our talk, he held us both by the hand and he kept telling us: “I will help you (with my prayer), but you should help me [do that], too!” We are convinced that Fr. Arsenie’s prayers had much weight before God.
We also found help at Putna Monastery, with the Abbot and a large part of the monastery’s community. Their prayers and strength-giving words also cleared up our path and made our Cross lighter.
What did the doctors say?
R.: Most of them called us crazy. To the doctors, it was inconceivable how we had decided to keep the child, when Daniela had been diagnosed with TB, cancer, and in addition to that, the child had been conceived right after her 13th session of cytostatics, having been exposed to TB treatment for six weeks and a (double) tomography!
D.: I interrupted all allopathic treatment and followed only the recommendations of the doctors at the “Naturalia” Medical Center. I gave no more thoughts to my disease and only focused on my pregnancy. I looked for a gynecologist, for my delivery. I found an experienced doctor, a lady of a very strong spirit, but who had not had any similar cases before me. Although she would not do abortions, in my case, she insisted that I abort the child. I would leave her cabinet in tears, every time. She kept saying that I couldn’t have it all: get healed, see the child live and also see it free of any malformation…
The pregnancy went well, but the lady doctor who assisted me was fearful until the end! The delivery went smoothly and Antonie, the youngest in our family, came into the world. We regard this miracle as the fruit of the prayers of many of our brethren – monks, priests, and laymen. We have no merit for it whatsoever.
We have no doubt that the Theotokos interceded for us before God; but we also prayed to many Saints, such as Holy Ghenadie of Putna, Holy Stephen the Great, Holy Daniil the Hermit, Holy John the New of Suceava, St. Nicholas, St. John the Forerunner, St. Anthony the Great, St. Calinic of Cernica, St. George of Cernica, and St. Nektarios of Aegina. In addition to that, we attended many Holy Oil services, both in church and at home. This is living proof that the Holy Mysteries of the Church are at work.
What was Antonie’s health state after his birth?
D.: After his birth, Antonie had a lot of tests done and they all came out well: the child was in perfect health! We had a problem with his vaccines, because we insisted that he would not be vaccinated against hepatitis. Barely a day after his birth, doctors wanted to give him this shot, but we stood our ground very firmly and so they didn’t do it any more.
Why didn’t you want it?
D.: We believe that vaccines don’t help. We thought that to inject a day-old child against hepatitis is extremely serious. Our other two children are in high school now and we knew that they had been injected against hepatitis only in their 3rd grade. So we saw how it works: you do the vaccine and it has an effect that lasts for 3-4-5 years. Then what do you do — do it again? So we did not go for this anti-hepatitis vaccine; but we did accept a part of the obligatory ones.
How did your tests come out after you gave birth?
D.: Right after my delivery, I had to take my TB test, because they wouldn’t let me breastfeed. I had an X-ray done. It was 100% clean! My lung was healed and my ganglions had also withdrawn from the mediastinum.
The doctor held up my both X-rays – the one before and the one after the birth – and she couldn’t believe that they belonged to the same person, who had been so sick and had not taken any allopathic treatment over the past previous months!
Even my anemia got better. All of a sudden, my iron level was fantastic, although I had a hemorrhage after the birth, which had been quite high; but the iron got suddenly excellent. I don’t know if I have ever had my iron level over 12 in my whole life, like I did after my childbirth.
Why do you think God allowed you to go through this trial?
D.: I believe that we went through this by divine economy, so that God’s power would be shown. God wanted a change from us. We were more like “Sunday Christians” – we would go to church only on Sunday, we would confess and take the Eucharist only during the four Lents, and we did not have any Orthodox order in our life, or a fire in our hearts, for God. Through the miracle that we lived, God’s power was shown once again. Also, we know that all Saints suffered in order to reach perfection. A Christian’s life is a path of suffering, the way of the Cross. But it is not us who bear the Cross; it is still God Who does that. We thank Him for this trial. Now that everything has passed, we understand how much He loved us to give us that challenge.
How did this life experience change you spiritually?
R.: I don’t think it changed us as much as it should have… I believe that our trust in God has grown and we have been trying, at our own level and with our own strength to leave ourselves into His hands. One can clearly see that there is a Will in everything and that all that happens is only for our salvation. We should have that “grain of will” that the Holy Fathers talk about and take nothing but a small and timid step towards Him, and He will take a thousand steps towards us. And we have truly lived that.
Do you take the Holy Mysteries more often, now?
R.: We go to confession more often now, whenever we feel a need for it, as against four or five times a year, as we used to do, before. We have been advised by many Fathers not to allow more than 40 days pass without confession followed by taking the Eucharist.
What does the spiritual Father mean to you?
R.: The confessor father is one’s path to salvation. Without a confessor father and without your obedience to him, you cannot be saved. The obedience starts within one’s family and continues with the confessor Father. If you listen to your Father even when he makes mistakes, God’s help will come for sure, because you listened. In our case, not only that our Father was not wrong, but his advice was the beginning of a miracle!
D.: Our confessor Father and his family supported us very much, especially through their love. We knew that there was much love there, an unconditional love for us – and much prayer.
You have three children. How do you try to protect them from the evils that are promoted by all means these days: pornography, debauchery, violence?
R.: It is very hard to divert children from seeing such things. If they are older, they go to school and meet youngsters of their age who have all sorts of habits; so-called “modern” views and if you’re out in the street, they see imagery of the most questionable quality everywhere you go – basically, there is no way you can protect them from that. Which is why children should first of all be kept in permanent touch with the Church; secondly, one should “drop in” a bit of Christian teaching into their conscience, every day – for when the conscience that God has given everyone works by itself, they will try to counter evil more determinedly.
D.: We are trying to form a habit – and we have received a blessing for that – to read them examples from the lives of the Holy Fathers, because those are the sort of accounts that will capture their interest; and this is especially true with our two elder children, who want things to be explained to them. They want us to approach the topic of faith in an intellectual way, so we have been reading to them from the lives of the Saints. We have also watched religious films together, that we then discuss among us.
R.: We have been taught not to expect sudden changes in our lives. I remember I asked my confessor Father’s advice once: “Father, I keep falling into this particular sin. I have this sin, which in fact is a passion and I cannot bring myself to control it.” And His Holiness told me: “And you may well have it for a long time to come. God may allow you to have that passion throughout your whole life and not be able to get rid of it, in order to humble you and have you fight against it”.
I think we should think in the same way when looking at our children. We should not expect from them a sudden change, from one day to another, from one month to another, or from one year to another. The change may come even later, when we are no longer near them. As Elder Cleopa used to say: “They will never forget what they have learned at home. And when things become difficult, they will remember and they will straighten themselves up”. These things should be done often and without waiting for any particular result. Our calendar is full of Saints who made mistakes and repented afterwards. What is important is salvation. We should plant faith into their souls like we do with seeds. There was this piece of advice that our confessor Father gave us and that we liked very much: “Seed should not be pushed hard; it should only be planted, scattered gently on the ground. It should be scattered on the ground – and the Lord knows when it bears fruit.”
D.: …But above all, we need to pray a lot, both for us and for them. Our Lord and God, the Doctor of our souls and of every living body, for Your Holy Mother’s prayers and those of all Your Saints, please grant us mercy and salvation. Amen.
Interview taken by Raluca Tănăseanu
Article first published in the “Familia Ortodoxă” magazine, issue # 30