Our sermon series this fall looks at the way God uses trials to build trust in Him. As we learn about the lives of Jonah, Joseph and Job from scripture, we’ve also asked a number of Westsiders to share their stories. We can see God at work in them, redeeming the sorrows and suffering of ordinary people in our community for his glory and our good. By sharing these stories with you, we hope to encourage you to seek the Lord in the midst of the trials you may encounter in your life.
If you go to Westside, you might already know the Egler brothers. They’re originally from Elgin, Illinois, a small suburb a little under an hour outside Chicago. There are four kids in the family—There’s Matt, then Mike, Adam, and Ashley, their younger sister. Matt, Mike, and Adam have always gravitated toward each other. They share a lot of the same interests like Nintendo, board games, animation, and a love for Spikeball. After high school, all three brothers went into computer animation.
In 2014, Matt, Mike, and Adam all moved to Vancouver to work in animation. They all lived in the same two-bedroom apartment.
They’re incredibly fun, easy to talk to, and humble guys. They’re also a tight-knit family so maybe that’s why it pierced so deep when Matt, at the age of 24, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Matt had been coughing since January 2015. Doctors kept telling him that it was nothing, probably a lingering chest cold or maybe bronchitis, but it would get better.
During prayer time at community group, Matt would mention it—almost as a throw-away comment. “Oh yeah, pray for my cough. I’ve had it for a while and it’s not really going away.”
On the morning of May 8, 2015, everything changed. His cough had gotten so bad it was difficult to breathe. Adam and Matt were sharing a room and Adam had gotten so used to the cough that he didn’t wake up. Matt frantically called his Mom in Illinois.
“It was three years ago,” said Adam, “but I vividly remember waking up to a phone in my ear and mom saying, ‘Matt can’t breathe you need to take him to the hospital.’”
Mike and Adam took their brother to the emergency room for what turned into a long day of tests. At the end of the day, a doctor pulled all three of them aside. They had found a mass in Matt’s chest. The doctor couldn’t say for sure—they needed to do more tests—but it was probably cancer.
Probably cancer. For the next two weeks, that’s all they had to go on. They didn’t know the type, the severity, they only knew there was a mass in their brother’s chest that was making him cough. When their parents and sister heard the news they all immediately flew to Vancouver and stayed in the brothers’ tiny apartment.
It was the calm before the storm. Matt, Mike, and Adam all continued working. Matt would take time off here and there to go get tests done. But, other than that, things felt oddly normal. They played video games, board games, and watched movies as they braced themselves for the diagnosis.
On May 21, Mike and Adam were on their lunch break when they got a text from their mom. It was cancer and not the curable kind. It would eventually be diagnosed as a rare and aggressive form of sarcoma called Rhabdomyosarcoma, usually found in children.
The doctor told the family that Matt’s cancer was inoperable, incurable, and to think of Matt’s life in months rather than years.
The Eglers responded how any family would. “We just huddled and cried,” said Adam.
The diagnosis was awful, but the Eglers were determined for it not to become a death sentence. One of their first prayers was that Matt would get the best treatment possible.
Before leaving Vancouver, Matt’s parents contacted a friend in Chicago who had a connection at the Mayo Clinic. Given its reputation as one of the best cancer care facilities in the world, it’s not always easy to be accepted to Mayo. Matt wasn’t only admitted but the head of Sarcoma at Mayo took him on as a patient.
“The next year,” said Adam, “was constant ups and downs.”
Some weeks Matt seemed to be getting better, the treatment was working. Other times Matt couldn't get out of bed. Mike and Adam would take long weekends and vacation to visit him. They would play games, watch movies, and eat pizza. It almost seemed like everything was normal until Matt had to go throw up or got so tired he had to take a nap.
From June 2015 to March 2016, Matt was constantly in and out of treatment. He bounced back and forth between the Mayo Clinic and Northwestern Hospital in Illinois.
During this time, the Eglers would provide updates on the “Praying for Matt” Facebook group. The hundreds of people in this group surrounded Matt with prayer and support. They did everything from covering hospital bills to creating a schedule so Matt could be prayed for 24/7 to sharing verses and other words of encouragement. Throughout Matt’s entire treatment people were blown away by the generosity of the church. “People would say to me I didn’t know a church could be that way,” said Matt’s mom.
On March 27, 2016 Matt celebrated his 25th birthday. The Egler’s home church in Illinois reached out to Matt to see what he would want. He wanted to go on a trip with his family. So, a couple donated their house in Hawaii for two weeks. The entire Egler family received six first-class flights, amazing food, and funded excursions for Matt to choose from.
Then, to make all of that even better, Matt felt fine for the entire trip.
“Matt had been really sick in the past and not able to do stuff, but on this trip, it didn’t feel like Matt was sick,” said Mike. He barely coughed, he had energy, and he never got sick from any of the food. Matt even did a four-mile hike in intense heat and wasn’t affected.
As Mike and Adam look back on this time, they recognize it as something orchestrated and blessed by God.
When they got back from Hawaii, Matt hit a road block. A few tests revealed the cancer wasn’t really going away.
After a few phone calls, Matt’s mom connected with the head of Sarcoma at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City. At first, his office said he wouldn’t be able to take Matt as a patient. The family prayed there would be room in his schedule. The doctor said he would be able to do a surgery that would remove 98% of the cancer.
During the surgery, the doctors discovered that Matt’s initial diagnosis was incorrect. His cancer was actually Pleuropulmonary Blastoma, an even rarer pediatric cancer. If they knew this before, his initial treatment would have been different.
The next couple of months, Matt struggled to fully recover. He stayed in Memorial Sloan Kettering, often too weak to get treatment.
On August 16th Mike, Adam, and their sister Ashley had just gotten back into Vancouver after visiting Matt when they got the call. The doctors predicted Matt had 2–6 weeks to live. They immediately flew back. Some of Matt’s closest friends and family flew to New York City to be with him.
The next week consisted of a lot of prayer, worship songs, video games, and movies. Even in Matt’s weak state, completely exhausted and constantly coughing, he was still able to laugh, joke, and play games with his brothers. “It was this funny balance of him being really tired and…sounding barely awake but also kind of participating,” said Adam.
One day they were singing worship songs in his hospital room with a couple pastors from their home church when Mike and Adam remember Matt having just enough energy to mouth along the words.
“I think I took Matt’s faith for granted.” Mike said, “In all reality, Matt should’ve said what Job’s wife said. ‘Curse God and die.’ But he didn’t.” In those final days, Mike watched as Matt’s body wasted away, but his faith and love of Jesus were sustained until the end.
For the last moments of Matt’s life, some of his closest friends and family were all around him. They were praying, reading scripture, and watching as Matt unconsciously wheezed through every breath. They watched as Matt’s pulse grew weaker and he took fewer and fewer breaths. Matt died on August 24, 2016, just eight days after the doctors had given him 2–6 weeks to live.
Dealing with Healing
Thousands of people prayed for Matt to be healed. But, it never happened. God answered prayers to get specialized treatment, to get housing near the hospitals, for spiritual comfort, for physical comfort, for financial support, for an amazing trip to Hawaii, and hundreds of other prayers, but he never answered the prayer for complete healing.
“God answered every single one of our prayers except for healing now on earth,” Adam said, “It was hard to be mad at God about it because it was just so obvious that he was with us and answering all of these prayers.”
Mike and Adam didn’t come to this realization flippantly, but they both realize that God used everything that happened to Matt for God’s glory and to bring more people to God.
“If Matt had a really nice career as an animator and maybe had a family and life was pretty normal,” said Mike, “versus everything that did happen with him and everybody it impacted and how God was glorified through it. That is what, in [God’s] mind, is more important. I don’t think that’s necessarily an easy pill to swallow. But I think that’s the truth.”
The conclusion to this blog isn’t that if we just trust God, everything will work out in the end. Like in the story of Job, what God is doing is often a mystery. Why bring Matt through so many peaks and valleys only for him to die? We don’t know exactly. But what we do know is that God was present in Matt’s suffering and that he used Matt’s suffering for good. Matt himself recognized it in a journal entry he wrote about 8 months before his death.
"God, you have already shown up in so many ways for me during my fight with cancer. It can be easy to forget what you’ve done when I’m going through hard times so I want to write down and remember what you’ve done. The fact that I can write this out at all is a huge improvement from when I was in the middle of taking vincristine. Right at the start, you provided me with incredible support. I was with Mike and Adam when I found out. The hospital was within walking distance and we never planned for that. They were able to bring humour and keep me from being discouraged. I’m thankful that our family is so close and that we enjoy each other enough to want to live together and work together.
God, be reminding me daily that no amount of earthly suffering can compare to the future glory that will be revealed to me in Heaven. It’s all worth it. To live is Christ, to die is gain. You express this multiple times throughout the New Testament. Remind me to look for them. Help me express it to others because that could be an amazing testimony. You’ve put me in this position for a reason, help me make the most of it. May my hope be in you, and not in finding physical healing. Help me resist the temptation to pull away from others and draw into myself. Then I can’t share any of the things you are revealing to me. Putting hope in your glory should put me in a positive and encouraging attitude with others, rather than feeling like a bummer all the time. No ministry is being done if I’m depressed every time I talk to people.
Thank you for my friends who are praying not just for my health, but also for my faith."
“To live is Christ and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21
The Egler Family (from left to right):
Matt Egler, Adam Egler, Lauren Egler, Scott Egler, Mike Egler, and Ashley Egler