You might say it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
It was December, 2013, the week before Christmas, when Darlene Zschech received the news that stopped her world: “You have breast cancer”.
She was out Christmas shopping in the Sydney CBD, and had popped into the Sydney Breast Clinic on Bathurst Street, to check out a troubling little lump that had already been examined a few times before.
“Everyone said “it’s nothing, just fatty tissue”,” Darlene told Hope Media’s Emma Mullings in an interview on the NSW Central Coast. But I was having a lot more discomfort than normal. So I went back in. I was with my girlfriend and we thought we’d just drop in, then keep shopping.”
First came a simple test, then a biopsy, then some results: “inconclusive”. Feeling prompted by God, Darlene stayed for more tests, and a core biopsy confirmed it: cancer.
“It was a shock,” she said. “We never got our Christmas shopping done, as you can imagine. My husband [Mark] was on his way to preaching in Orange and he just turned around and came home. There were a lot of question marks over the future. A lot of fear. I was good, but I wasn’t good at the same time.”
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Surgery At Christmas Time
But despite the awful timing – let’s face it, nobody wants bad news at Christmas – perhaps it was for the best.
“It was our Christmas services weekend, and that was actually such a blessing,” Darlene said, “because the whole weekend, I was surrounded by craziness, and songs of joy, and community, and gift-giving. It really kept me very buoyant.”
Just days after her diagnosis, Darlene, the globally renowned and loved worship artist, was on a hospital bed, undergoing life-preserving surgery. It was Friday, December 20.
“I got home Christmas Eve,” she said. “It was fast.”
Chemotherapy: A Brutal Medicine
Ask Darlene about her first day of chemotherapy, and she dissolves a little at the thought.
“I still get quite teary,” she said. “It’s just so confronting on every level. They suit up, they look like they’re going to the moon they’re so well covered, and yet they’re putting that stuff straight inside of you.”
But despite her fears, it was (appropriately) a worship song that reassured her.
“The first bag of stuff they put into me is a very intense drug. It’s red, and I’m looking at it, and [I remembered] that song, No Longer Slaves. It says, “His blood runs through my veins”.
“I had this revelation, “His blood runs through my veins – and this chemo is not going to destroy my body.”
“So before they even started putting it in me, I had this revelation, “His blood runs through my veins – and this chemo is only going to harm the things it is meant to harm, and it is not going to destroy my body”.
“Every time they put it into me, six times over 20 weeks, I was just like, “the blood of Jesus, thankyou God, you’re doing what only you can do. Let’s go”.”
To Chemo, Or Not To Chemo?
With chemotherapy being such an aggressive option, many people try to avoid it; others don’t believe in it at all; and some even told Darlene she “lacked faith” in having the treatment. But for the woman who has sung about faith most of her life, there were no alarm bells.
“You’ve got to go where your peace is for your journey,” she said.
He said to me, “You’re going to get through this. It’s going to be really hard. We’re going to take you to the brink, and bring you back.
“I had a very great a surgeon who is a Christian, and he said to me, “you’re going to get through this. You need to give yourself a year, and it’s going to be really hard. We’re going to take you to the brink, and we’re going to bring you back. And I just breathed, and cried, and straight away, I had that peace.”
That’s not to say it wasn’t incredibly hard.
“It makes you feel like you want to die,” she said. “There’s a few days every time that you think, “am I going to pull through?” It’s very intense. But then there’s a grace that is so amazing.”
When Looks No Longer Matter
While Darlene didn’t need a mastectomy, she did lose her trademark blonde hair. It’s a change that can make women feel a loss of femininity, and at times Darlene said she “felt like a skinned rabbit”.
But she learnt to put those concerns aside.
“You’ve got to let go of those external things, to concentrate on the internal things”.
“I keep going back to what my surgeon said to me: “You’ve got to be ok with it all for a good year. You’ve got to let go of those external things, to concentrate on the internal things”.
“I had a girlfriend come over and shave my head – because it hurts! Who would’ve thought that losing your hair hurts?
“My kids sat at my feet while she shaved my head and they just said “you’re beautiful” and I’m thinking, “no I really am not” – but they just spoke life over me while that was happening.”
While her hair is now back (with the help of extensions), the experience has changed her focus. She’s now more concerned about her heart than her appearance.
“I’m always thinking, “Ok, how’s my heart today before God? Is there anyone I need to forgive?”
How Darlene Rediscovered God’s Love
When asked if she questioned God, Darlene admits there were moments she struggled to trust.
“I did a couple of times say, “God, I don’t understand”,” she said. “I told this to our church. I had to really get a new revelation of God’s love.
“He said to me right from the beginning, “Do you trust me?” and I was really quick to answer, “Of course”. I gave all the right answers. Then He said, “Do you know that I love you?” And I couldn’t answer. Because I said, “It doesn’t feel like love”.
“I was just being honest.”
That’s when she started to focus on what the Bible says about God’s love.
“I’ve been learning about this love of God that is so whole, that comes charging at us no matter what,” she said. “Whether we’re in doubt or fear, or whether we’re trying to run, the love of God is bigger than all of it.”
Facing Up To Her Mortality
Talking to her husband and children about the possibility of death was something Darlene found “very very difficult”.
“I definitely had to confront my mortality,” she said. “We had to talk about the things that no-one wants to talk about. Mark and I both lost our dads to cancer; one of my best friends is very sick with cancer; I’m a pastor, I’m around people passing away due to cancer. So you have to go, “Ok, whether I live or die, I’m still victorious”.
“I didn’t plan for death, but I planned just to be good, whatever.”
But she also felt certain she would make it.
“I just have never had a peace that it’s my time,” she said. “I got this [fight] in my belly [that said], “Cancer is not telling me when my time is up”.
All The Little Miracles
In the midst of her dark times, Darlene was constantly comforted by the way God seemed to look after the details – from the speed of her diagnosis, to the strangers who would pray.
“I can’t even explain it all,” she said. “Even when I was preparing for surgery, this beautiful nurse just walks in and shuts the blind, and she goes, “I know who you are – can we pray? I’ve never seen her again, I don’t know who she is, but I was so grateful.
“It’s been the hardest two years of my life – by a long way – but in many ways very glorious.”
“Later I had to have some scans that are very intense. I’m in this machine and you’re by yourself and you’re strapped so tight, and I’m crying.
“Later this nurse comes in and says, “I was in your scan, and I prayed in the spirit for you the whole time”. And [I thought], “God, you are so kind, you don’t miss a thing”. That was probably the time I felt most alone on this journey, and the whole time there was someone two metres away, behind a glass wall, praying.
“That’s why I can say it’s been the hardest two years of my life – by a long way – but in many ways very glorious. Because [I’ve been] finding out more things about Jesus that are so real, and rich, and personal, and intensely magnificent.”
The Power Of Words And Worship
Building her faith: A journal of encouraging words given to Darlene by a friend.
One of Darlene’s greatest sources of strength during her breast cancer treatment, has been God’s word. A book filled with handwritten Bible verses, given to her by a friend from her church, became her constant companion.
“Right from my first day, [my friend] started writing me this book of promises,” Darlene said, leafing through the journal. “Every page is filled with promises, scriptures, words of encouragement, prophetic words. When I was having chemo, I started to take it everywhere with me.”
A book by Joseph Prince titled Healing Promises was another go-to; in fact Darlene clutched it to her chest as she lay waiting for surgery, and refused to let go when doctors asked.
“You can take it when I’m asleep, but up until that point it is staying,” she told them, not caring if they thought she was a religious nutter.
“The word of God – I declare it over my life, over my body, every day.”
“The word of God, his promises, I don’t just read it, I speak it out,” she told Hope 103.2. “I declare it over my life, over my body. I still am doing that, every day.”
Her favourite Bible passages have been Psalm 139, with its reference to being “fearfully and wonderfully made”, and Psalm 91, which talks about “long life”, and God being a “refuge and stronghold”.
“I just hold onto those things,” she said. “They’re more important to me than water; they’re literally keeping me alive. So I cling to them.”
Worship was another great anchor.
“I loved to be in worship, in church, just surrounded by faith, and God’s presence,” she said.
What Happens When God’s Family Prays
The Zschechs have been pastoring Hope Unlimited Church on the NSW Central Coast since 2011, and according to Darlene the church family have been “simply incredible” in their support.
“They’re just beautiful,” she said. “I’m eternally grateful for the family of God. Not one day went past in that whole eight months that there wasn’t a meal, flowers, books, things for the kids, gifts. It let me know that people were praying for us.”
There were times when she felt the prayers in very tangible ways.
“Sometimes the prayers felt like a tidal wave,” she said. “Like, I literally was doing something and all of a sudden I felt this surge of life, and I’m like, “oh, people are praying!”.
Her Health Situation Now
In late 2014, Darlene announced on her blog that she was now cancer free.
She continues to talk about the cancer in the past tense, and while she is still undergoing treatment – as many cancer patients do for years after surgery – the reports from her three oncologist professors are very positive.
“I’ve had another little surgery just a few weeks ago, and I’m on new medication, and it’s very intense,” she said. “But I have such a peace in it.”
How Cancer Has Changed Darlene’s Daily Life
These days, Darlene has a new way of approaching life – from the way she eats and rests, to her unhurried spiritual practices.
“I never in the past would’ve spent so much time in a day just making sure my emotional, spiritual and physical world were good,” she said.
“I’ve always have been fit and pretty healthy, and loved the Word, but now it’s very different, very intentional. I’m learning to stop the world for those moments. Everything can wait.”
“I’m leaving a lot more space in my day.”
She now refuses to have a busy schedule, and has friends who keep her accountable in that area.
“I’m just not going to live like that,” she said. “Time with Jesus, time with your family, seeing people saved, having time for conversations, I want to live there. I want to write songs that have been birthed out of that; I want to lead worship that is not in a rush.”
Her reformed way of living is one Darlene describes as “a new normal”.
“I’m leaving a lot more space in my day,” she said. “I want to be able to be interrupted by good things. You’ve got to have space for it.”