Then one Saturday morning, barely two months into college, everything changed. Esther was at her college dorm when her back suddenly collapsed. She was so paralyzed with pain that it took an hour for the EMT to get her into an ambulance. The next three days were a whirlwind of bad news: Scan results showed a strangely fractured T12 vertebra. Biopsy tests came back malignant. Then a team of doctors walked in with worse news: stage 4 cancer.
Ron and Teresa Suelzle stood frozen by Esther’s bed, barely able to comprehend what was happening. Here they were, a nice churchgoing family leading “a fairy-tale life,” suddenly receiving the worst possible news about their 19-year-old firstborn. “My head was swimming,” Teresa Suelzle recalled. “At that point, we felt like we had hit bottom.”
Esther, meanwhile, sat on her bed in silence for a few seconds. She looked up, looked back at the doctors, then leaned forward to shake their hands. “I want to thank you for telling me,” she said. “That must have been difficult for you.”
She was not always so composed. When radiation treatments soon caused her thick, glossy chestnut-brown hair to fall out, she fretted like any woman would. When her then-suitor decided not to pursue a relationship with her, she wept: “Will I ever get married? Will a man ever love me?” When she had to stop working out or taking classes, she got anxious and restless. She asked, “Why is this happening? Why did God allow me to get cancer?”
But Esther trusted that God had also prepared good things. The day she first returned home from the hospital, a storm rolled in and killed the power in the house. That night, after a long drive through gushing rain and howling winds, Esther and her parents returned to discover that church friends had set up generators to light the house, warmed the place with fresh firewood, and cleaned Esther’s bedroom, freshening it with crisp linens.
Kindness poured in: To help pay for Esther’s medical bills, her high school raised about $3,500. The College of Idaho heard her story and raised over $4,000. Through GoFundMe, a crowdfunding platform, the Suelzles raised $20,000 in a week. When a friend heard that Esther wanted a German shepherd, he started a fundraiser to get her one. Esther named the puppy Keoni, which means “God is gracious.”
One night, Ron Suelzle asked his daughter how she was doing. “God took away everything that was important to me,” she replied. “He took away my ability to play volleyball, work out, go to school, and my hair. All I have left is God, my family, and my friends, and I’ve never been better.”
Esther made no plans for death. She was undergoing cancer treatment when she met Jacob Ybarra, a track-and-field athlete at Corban. On their first date at Red Lobster on Valentine’s Day, Esther was as bald as The Rock, and still finding her identity without sports and school. Jacob saw through her bravado: “She was a scared girl with a really, really strong shell. She acted like she was real tough and can do everything by herself, but she really needed help.”
Jacob liked Esther. Even though she had lost her muscle definition and hair, he liked being with her. A year into their relationship, he took her to a park decorated with her favorite yellow roses, got down on one knee, and asked her to marry him. She answered an enthusiastic yes.
At the time, her cancer had gone into remission. But soon after the engagement, doctors found new tumors in her lungs. She and Jacob married anyway in October 2016. They were good for each other: At times Jacob returned home to find Esther in tears because she couldn’t finish the housework, and he taught her it was OK to rest. Other times, he came home to find his wife deep in prayer, and he sought to enjoy such intimacy with God as well. “Esther’s greatest strength was her relationship with Jesus,” Jacob said. “He was the only reason she could still sing, still fight.”
Doctors three times told Esther she had zero chance of fertility. In April 2017, Esther began to feel strange—but not cancer strange. She took a pregnancy test, then another to make sure—both said positive. They named the growing baby Thaddeus.