Kevina Santucci learnt she had a rare form of cancer in 2014. The diagnosis came as a shock. She was 28 and her type of cancer, spindle cell rhabdomyosarcoma, usually affected children.
The disease came at a time when she was struggling with her faith, finding it hard to reconcile some of her experiences with religion and her personal relationship with God.
Then on October 31, she lost her left eye as a result of the cancerous tumour behind it.
She remembers being at Massachusetts General Hospital with her father, Chaplain Kevin Santucci, as the ophthalmologist explained it was because the tumour had intertwined with the optic nerve.
“I lost all my breath and looked at my daddy,” said Kevina, whose eyelid is now permanently shut.
“The way that he reacted was so surprising. He didn’t react with anger. He didn’t react with fear. He reacted with acceptance. He had faith from the beginning that I would make it. He had faith before I did. He told me that we could fight this and his belief became my example.”
The experience renewed her faith in God and taught her that He would never leave or forsake her.
“I was already struggling when I found out that I was sick — illness is a serious test of faith. Blind faith is not as easy as what people say, but I would often think about the story of Lot in the Bible and how he did not curse God, no matter how bad it was. I wanted to be like Lot. So, I had to work on having faith even when I couldn’t see the end.
“A lot of the journey of faith is about trust. So yes, I asked God ‘why?’ a lot. But I never cursed him.”
Three near-death experiences further challenged her faith. Today, however, she remembers them as testimonies of God’s goodness and grace.
“During my illness, I was sceptic three times. The final time put me in a coma for several days; something like 9 or 14 — I really have no recollection of it. But when I woke up from this final coma, I had so much clarity. I knew that I wanted to be used by God.”
Five years ago, having completed six rounds of chemotherapy and 72 radiation treatments, Kevina started her journey to recovery. Eventually, she decided to share her testimony.
“I’ve always been shy so public speaking isn’t my thing. And when I returned to Bermuda, people started asking me to share my story. I declined. I wasn’t ready.
“Then my Dad asked me to share and I agreed. That first time was nerve-racking, but I remembered waking up from my last coma and that feeling of purpose and clarity God had given me. I knew I had to be used as vessel for God and I could not do it in hiding.”
Today, she shares her story at every opportunity she is given. She has spoken at various churches around the island and actively shares her journey on social media.
“I’m not afraid to share my faith any more,” said Kevina, who works in the X-ray Department at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.
“Sometimes, if a patient is reluctant about a procedure, I just share my experience with it to help them, to ease their mind. I do whatever I can do to assure others that they are not alone in this journey.”
Although the worst may be over, she struggles on a daily basis.
“I fight depression. Some days I just go home and cry. And I’m not crying because of weakness. It’s actually another notch of strength for me — I made it through another day. I survived the stares or the whispers. It hurts sometimes. But I allow myself to release it.
“I’m not afraid to say, ‘Hey God, I’m struggling with something. Can you come and take care of it for me?’ And God always does. Even if it is just giving me the strength to get through the day.
“I struggle every day. But when I wake up, I seek God first. That makes all the difference.”
Her love for her eight-year-old daughter, Karis, helped get her through the ordeal.
“Karis was only 3 when I was diagnosed. She has been experiencing this with me for most of her life. She has been with me through it all and I know God sent her to me to give me strength to push through.
“It’s been hard on her. I spent a lot of time in hospitals and had to rely on my parents to help raise her. But Karis has been so amazing. She is the reason I fought so hard to beat this.
“A family friend told me to be specific in my prayers. I stopped asking for God to just let me live. I started to be specific. I asked God to heal me, but also to allow me to raise my daughter; to see her through college and into her career. I believe we have to be specific with our prayers. Our faith should be limitless and so should our prayers.”
While Kevina still struggles with related issues, she is grateful that her health has improved tremendously.
“I still have to go to Boston every six months for check-ups, but in the last couple of months I have finally been able to exhale and allow myself to get comfortable living as normal a life as possible. I’m taking back my confidence and enjoying life again.”
This year will mark her fifth in remission. To commemorate it, she will shave her head to raise funds for childhood cancer research under the St Baldrick’s banner, and is planning to walk as part of Relay for Life in May.
“I have had people walk on my behalf before when I wasn’t healthy enough to do the walk myself, but my lungs have improved so much I am hoping I will have clearance to walk for myself,” she said.
Kevina hopes that her testimony inspires others who are feeling low in their faith journey. She encourages those who feel disconnected from God to remember what Isaiah 65:24 promises: “Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear.”
She said: “When people hear the word cancer they automatically think terminal, but this sickness is not always a death sentence. So many have beat it.
“As long as you are living, keep fighting. Fight to find something positive in your day; someone that you can focus on and be thankful for. That will help you get through the day and the days to come.”
• Kevina Santucci will participate in St Baldrick’s as part of the team Eye Aim 2 Inspire. To donate visit: https://bit.ly/2R6J6k2</i>