Interview by Raluca Tanaseanu, originally published in “Familia Ortodoxă” magazine, issue #30
English version: Valahia. Orthodox Words
Photo: Mrs. Daniela Popa and her son, Ioan Antonie
People who win the fight with diseases such as cancer are impressive for two reasons: firstly, they manage to avoid being overwhelmed by pain and despair; secondly, God works the healing of body and soul in themselves and through those around them. The case of Daniela Popa, from Bucharest, is even more special. In addition to her cancer condition, she also had tuberculosis. And at this very awkward moment God blessed her with her third child. Daniela and her husband Richard Popa understood the meaning of their trials, received them with open hearts, and through faith and much prayer they managed to overcome them.
How did this story about the triumph of life begin?
Daniela: I found out about my illness in May 2005, when my husband Richard was away in Mount Athos. It started with high fever, which was getting higher by the day. When Richard came back from Mount Athos, I had a biopsy and the result was lymphocyte depleted Hodgkin’s lymphoma [Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of cancer of the lymphatic system, where the lymph cells divide abnormally and spread outside the lymphatic system (editor’s note)].
How did the disease manifest itself?
Daniela: 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 2005 I was in stage 4 of the disease. The fever was higher, my ganglions had grown bigger and my body was itching all over.
At that point, what did you know about your healing chances?
Daniela: I knew 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. Even though I tried to think about death, I couldn’t. At 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. While I was sick, a lot of people prayed for me, hundreds of believers and tens of priests in monasteries throughout the country and on 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 couldn’t fall asleep because of the pain and 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 was twice as big as usual! 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 my treatment. My husband was there, next to me, all the time and said: “Don’t worry; we will get over this.” My children and my family supported me very much. I would sometimes wonder why some people fall ill and others don’t…
Were you upset with God for having sent you the disease?
Daniela: No; it was more like a general observation about the fact that some people are healthy, and others aren’t. I could not judge God’s decision. It was very clear to me that God had His plan with me.
How did you put up with the treatment?
Daniela: 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 chemotherapy sessions they prescribed me. I was a difficult patient, I would not accept any of the other drugs recommended by the doctors in addition to chemotherapy. I knew for sure that those drugs would have hurt me.
The fact is that, for ten years before this, I had gone through mild anemia treatments in a private clinic in Bucharest. At that clinic, every spring they would prescribe me iron supplements, but I returned to them every spring with the same problem. I suspect that, as a result of my taking synthetic iron supplements, my system was turned upside down.
Now at the hospital, during chemotherapy, doctors also prescribed me iron and other drugs, but I refused to take them. However, I did take some natural supplements by Dr. Pavel Chirila and his late and deeply regretted wife, Dr. Maria Chirila. The twelve chemo sessions were supposed to be the first stage of my cure. 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 do some more chemo…
Richard: Yes, we came back home. Daniela started a new session, but she stopped midway, because her body broke down. A new set of tests followed, to see why she could not take the treatment anymore. The tests showed she had tuberculosis.
Daniela: So I interrupted 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. The plan was to heal my TB and get back to radiotherapy. After the TB treatment, before going to Germany for radio, I needed some more tests, which included a CT-scan to show the status of my lungs and ganglions. So I went to get it done.
During the CT-scan, I realized something was wrong: the machine stopped, then a pause followed, and then it restarted – basically, I was irradiated twice. During the first scanning passage, the doctor had noticed I was pregnant and she stopped to ask my husband what to do. He told her to continue the scan, because we had to go to Germany for my radiotherapy with the results of this test. That was how I found out I was pregnant.
At the time, I used to wear the Theotokos’ girdle from Vatopaidi Monastery [a ribbon touched against the Theotokos girdle, which is preserved at Vatopaidi Monastery and given to pilgrims as a small blessing and souvenir – (editor’s note)]. I had forgotten to take it with me that day. I got scared because I did not have it so I felt I needed to pray more. So, throughout the CT-scan, 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 had an appointment with Dr. Pavel Chirila right after the test. He said: „Miracles have happened before!” and told us a few miraculous stories about pregnant patients whom the doctors had not given any chance. Then I spoke with Dr. Maria Chirila, 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?
Richard: Yes, my confessor, Fr. Ion Popescu from Icoanei Church in Bucharest. The first thing we did when we found out the news was call him; and, after a long reflection pause, he told us: “You have no right over that child’s life”. It 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”.
Daniela: 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 him. He was full of love. He held uour hand all the time and he kept saying: “I will help you (with my prayer), but you should help me [do that], too!” We are convinced that Fr. Arsenie’s prayers were well received by 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 our path and made our Cross lighter.
What did the doctors say?
Richard: Most of them called us crazy. To them, it was inconceivable to keep the child. Daniela had TB and cancer, and the child was conceived right after her 13th chemo session, having been exposed to TB treatment for six weeks and a (double) CT-scan!
Daniela: I interrupted cancer 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 to help me deliver the child. 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, she insisted that I should have had one. 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 free of malformation…
The pregnancy went well, but the lady doctor 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 prayers said by many of our brothers – monks, priests and laymen. We have no merit for it whatsoever.
We have no doubt that Theotokos interceded for us before God; but we also prayed to many Saints: Saint Ghenadie of Putna, Saint Stephen the Great, Saint Daniil the Hermit, Saint 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 really work.
What was Antonie’s health condition after his birth?
Daniela: After his birth, Antonie was given a lot of tests by the doctors 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 B. Right after birth, doctors wanted to give him this shot, but we stood our ground very firmly and so they didn’t do it in the end.
Why didn’t you want it?
Daniela: We believe that vaccines don’t help. We thought that to inject a one-day old child with any form of hepatitis virus is extremely serious. Our two other children, who are almost coming out of teenage now reiceived an anti-hepatitis shot when they were 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 — you do it again? So we did not go for this vaccine; but we did accept later some of the mandatory ones.
How did your tests come out after you gave birth?
Daniela: Right after my delivery, I had to take a TB test, or else 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 (thorax region – editor’s note).
The doctor held up both X-rays – the one before and the one after the birth – and couldn’t believe they belonged to the same person, who had been so sick and had to treatment in the past months!
Even my anemia had improved. All of a sudden, my iron levels were fantastic, although I had quite a serious hemorrhage after birth. And yet, iron levels were suddenly excellent. I don’t think I had ever had my iron levels so high (over 12) in my whole life.
Why do you think God allowed you to go through this?
Daniela: I believe that we went through this by divine economy, so that God’s power manifest itself. God wanted us to change. We were just “Sunday Christians” – we would go to church only on Sunday, we would confess and take the Eucharist only during the four fasting periods of the year. Neither did we have an Orthodox order in our life, nor a fire in our hearts, for God. Through the miracle 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 God Who does that for us. 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?
Richard: 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 let ourselves into His hands. One can clearly see that there is Divine 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 access the Holy Mysteries more often, now?
Richard: We go to confession more often now, whenever we feel a need for it, not just four or five times a year as 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?
Richard: The confessor father is one’s path to salvation. Without a confessor father and without your obedience to him, you cannot be saved. Obedience exercise starts in the family and continues with the confessor Father. If you follow your Father’s advice even when he makes mistakes, God’s help will come for sure, because you obeyed. In our case, not only that our Father was not wrong, but his advice was the beginning of a miracle!
Daniela: Our spiritual Father and his family supported us very much, especially through their love. We knew that there was much love there – unconditional love for us – and much prayer.
You have three children. How do you try to protect them from the evils that are promoted everywhere these days: pornography, sex and violence?
Richard: It is very hard to prevent children from seeing such things. If they are older, they go to school and meet their peers, who have all sorts of habits and “modern” views. Everywhere in the street, they can see images of most questionable quality. Basically, there is no way to protect them from that. Which is why children should first of all keep close contact with the Church life. Also, one should “drop in” a bit of Christian teaching into their conscience every day. When their God-given conscience starts working properly, they will be able to reject evil with more determination.
Daniela: We have received a blessing to try and form the habit to read to our children examples from the lives of the Holy Fathers, because those are the sort of accounts that will capture their interest. 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 also watch religious films together, which then we discuss.
Richard: We have been taught not to expect sudden changes in our lives. I remember I asked my spiritual 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 he 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 with it”.
I think we should think in the same way when we look at our children. We should not expect a sudden change from them: 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 a particular result. Our calendar is full of Saints who made mistakes and repented afterwards. What is important is salvation. We should plant faith like seeds into their souls. There was this piece of advice from our Father, which we like 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.”
Daniela: …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.