Josh Cragg: ‘My journey has made me seek eternal value for my life’
Just after Josh Cragg’s twelfth birthday, he was diagnosed with an aggressive childhood cancer that presented a huge challenge for him and his family. What was the journey like, what perspectives has it given him, and how can we support children in similar situations? KAT FARQUHARSON found out
The youngest of three Zimbabwean brothers, Josh, now 24, recently qualified for a degree in wildlife management and as a commercial helicopter pilot. He hopes to start working shortly in Zimbabwean wildlife conservation
‘I GREW UP SURROUNDED by the beautiful wilderness of rivers, green mountains and roaring waterfalls as far as the eye can see. We were an hour away from the nearest town without neighbours, and electricity could fail for up to three weeks after a thunderstorm. But a wonderful childhood of rafting down rivers, fishing, hiking and camping were par for the course for me and my brothers.
My parents were both teachers, passionate about nature and children. In 1991 they had relocated to start an outdoor education centre for schools and corporates called Far and Wide Zimbabwe. It was here that their love for adventure, the outdoors, helping others grow, and their love for God was deposited deep in my soul, fanning into a flame that still burns within me to this day. I remember clearly the motivational talks my father gave, coaching the kids to see obstacles as challenges to be overcome. Little did I realise that while I was helping him teach others these lessons, his words would prove invaluable to me too.
The youngest son of two teachers, Josh grew up with his brothers surrounded by nature like this
Above and below: Josh’s parents left formal teaching to start an outdoor education centre
In September 2007, after I’d just turned 12, I was sent home from boarding school for the week with what we thought was flu. By the weekend I was no better and the pain became so bad that I doubled over when I walked. My mother discovered a lump next to my belly button. After visiting two doctors, I was referred for an emergency scan in Harare.
When we got there, the CT scanner wasn’t working so they gave me an ultrasound and saw what looked like a 10cm cyst in my abdomen wall. I was booked in for an op that afternoon. I was to spend a week recovering in hospital, then two weeks at home, and take a term off sport. My parents reminded me of what we had been teaching at our campsite over the years. We resolved to see this as a challenge, embrace it, and take it a step at a time. It helped give me perspective and courage for what was to prove one of our most challenging days as a family.
My mom and her friend Liz waited for me while I was in surgery. The op was supposed to take an hour. After three hours, a doctor came to my mom and told her it wasn’t what they thought it was. They had removed a 10cm tumour and 15 cm of intestine, and could see enflamed lymph nodes. He believed it was cancer, but it would need further testing.
At some stage between being wheeled from theatre to ICU and post-op recovery, I had a very unclear yet very distinct experience. I can only describe it as being encased in bright light with a deep and real reassurance that it was not over, but that it was going to be okay. My very first question in my haze to my mom was: ‘Did they get it all out? Do I have cancer?’ She said that they had got it but there might be something else they would have to look into. I didn’t get an optimistic feeling.
When Josh developed stomach pains, an exploratory operation discovered a 10cm tumour which doctors removed, along with 15 cm of his intestine
My uncle Mark flew to Harare when he heard the news. He wanted me to come to the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital near his house in Cape Town. The oncology ward had just been upgraded and had state-of-the-art equipment and skill sets.
My diagnosis came back a week later from the biopsy. It was stage four non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt’s lymphoma, one of the most aggressive childhood cancers. What scared us was that Zimbabwe wasn’t set up well to deal with this medically, so the doctors were fairly pessimistic about my prognosis.
My family approached this new situation as we try to teach others to approach setbacks. It was a challenge, and the only difference now was that the challenge was larger than we had thought.
‘My family approached the situation as a challenge,’ says Josh
Mom and I flew to Cape Town for my treatment at Red Cross. I remember thinking how immaculate the ward was, and how big the hospital seemed. Another memory that sticks out is that I hadn’t been allowed treats for weeks because we’d been told that sugar feeds cancer. Professor Paddy Hartley was overseeing my case, and the first thing she did when we met was give me a chocolate! It was like a lifeline in this ocean of uncertainty that I had walked into.
Prof. Hartley said that cancer in kids was different to adults, and children should eat what they like. While she didn’t shield us from how aggressive this type of cancer was, she also said she didn’t like talking about cancer stages. She believed we’d caught it early enough to have a fighting chance.
I appreciated the way she spoke to me directly rather than just to my mom, making me feel that I was in charge of this process. As my mom said, I was the driver of this bus. This helped more than you might imagine.
Because his home country of Zimbabwe did not have adequate facilities to treat Josh, he flew with mom Julie to Cape Town for treatment at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital. ‘I appreciated the way the doctor spoke to me directly, making me feel I was in charge of my treatment process,’ says Josh | Photo: Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital (Facebook)
I was admitted for my first week of chemo. It was going to be one week of chemo and three weeks recovery. To be repeated four more times. I was the driver of the bus, but it was a bus I couldn’t jump off! Nothing brought this home to me more than six days of watching luminous orange and yellow medicine going into my chest. But despite this, I felt God there.
After that week, I went home to my uncle and aunt’s place to rest for three weeks but within two days my blood count dropped and I was vomiting, with a fever. I was immediately back in hospital. I started losing my hair and was so sick for the next three weeks that I lost 10kg. I couldn’t eat and had ulcers in my mouth and throat which meant I couldn’t even talk. I had to be fed through the nose and have morphine for the pain. It would be weeks before I could talk and eat again.
Josh with parents Julie and Bernie: ‘I had treatment for more than six months in Cape Town and my mom never left my side,’ he says. ‘Dad visited but needed to run our outdoor education centre back home in Zimbabwe. This must have been hard for him because we live in such a remote place with no neighbours around’
Through all this, my mom never left my side. The nursing staff were amazing and kind, even giving her a bed so she could sleep close to me. On my side, I just had to ride out the pain and sickness. Slowly, I was able to build my strength back up and was eventually allowed to return to my uncle’s house for the three-week recovery. This set back the treatment timing, but I never got this sick again.
Once my blood count normalised, I was able to go in for round two. I was very nervous that I would get very sick again. And once more, the despair of knowing I was on a bus that I couldn’t get off was made real to me. But this time, the recovery went more smoothly.
My mom and aunt were amazing in helping navigate these trying weeks. They always ensured I had something to look forward to before, during and after the treatment. We made some amazing memories exploring Cape Town. Coming from Zimbabwe and seeing Cape Town city life was a huge treat, whether it was going up the cable car, walking along Muizenberg Beach or visiting Clifton. We also often visited Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens at the foot of Table Mountain, which I loved.
Josh was able to spend Christmas out of the hospital, and on Christmas Day he and his family visited his ward with gifts for children who weren’t so fortunate. ‘It was a very special time, one of my best Christmases ever,’ he says
In December 2007, after round two of chemo, my whole family came down to Cape Town, which created one of my best Christmases ever. On Christmas Day, we visited the hospital together with gifts for the kids who were there over the holidays. It was a very special time.
In the new year, my family headed home and I had my last two treatments. I got even less sick after these ones. By March, I was done. Then it was time for the final CT scan. This was the saddest time for me in the whole process. The scan showed that while I was mostly good, I still had some ‘areas of concern’.
Saddest moment: Josh longed to go home to favourite family hangouts like this one, but a final scan showed some ‘areas of concern’
We had two options; either we surgically explore or we wait another month to scan again. We decided to wait. I still had faith for complete healing. It was over another school holiday time so we went back to Zimbabwe for the month, where I got to go camping, see my friends and be with my family in our beautiful home. It was a good time of restoration and fun. Just as the new school term started for my friends, we came back to Cape Town for the scan. What a great day it was when they told me: everything is clear!
Just like that, we were headed home after a life-altering cancer journey. I went back to boarding school and my mom went back to Far and Wide. All I needed to do was have blood tests and check-ups every three months, which eased off over the following five years.
Above and below; ‘Just like that’, Josh (front centre of team photo) was able to return to Zimbabwe. His fitness came back quickly and he was made captain of his provincial hockey team and able to take part in other life-giving activities
Starting a term after everyone else, I had to integrate into high school and make new friends while building up my strength as the chemo slowly worked its way out of my body. But I was young and the fitness came back. I played a lot of sport and made the under-16 provincial hockey team and was even elected captain. I was able to run cross country and play tennis, cricket and rugby!
We didn’t live in fear of the cancer coming back. In our minds, we had climbed Everest and overcome it. My mom took on the challenge of climbing to Mount Everest’s base camp later that same year and says that was the easier of the two Everests she climbed that year!
(Above and below) Since becoming well again, Josh has felt called to wildlife conservation. He recently graduated with a South African degree in wildlife management and qualified for a commercial helicopter pilot’s licence, which should help him conserve nature more effectively
Thrilling moment: Josh is awarded his pilot’s wings
It’s never too late to be silly. Josh’s fellow pilots congratulate him on his first solo flight with this watery initiation
I think the greatest thing my cancer taught me was to never give up, but to persevere and fight for what you want to achieve, and for what you believe in. It gave me a greater perspective on what’s important in life, and taught me to look at life daily through a lens of faith.
After school, I felt a calling to go into wildlife conservation and get my helicopter licence to do it more effectively. My research pinpointed one of the best wildlife management degrees at Nelson Mandela University in George, South Africa, with the bonus opportunity of learning to fly a helicopter at Starlight Aviation, just one hour away. After four years I’m the proud holder of a Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management and have my commercial helicopter pilot’s licence! I’m finishing off the year in South Africa before heading back to Zimbabwe to start my Masters in science in 2020, and hope to use my skills and passion to help protect my country’s beauty.
Josh with friend Sian Grindlay. When he was ill with cancer, his school community held a race called ‘Run for Josh’ to raise funds for his treatment. Today this race still exists under a different name to raise money in support of other Zimbabwean children with cancer. Josh has run some of these races. ‘I’m so grateful for the support my community showed me which I can now offer others, and for my ongoing health that allows me to run, which I love to do’ he says. Josh also meets up with children who are fighting cancer to encourage them with his story
When I became sick, my school community held a 5 and 10km race to raise money, originally called Run for Josh. This race has continued under different names, raising money for Kidzkan Zimbabwe, an NGO supporting children with cancer in Zimbabwe. I’ve run some of these races too, and am so grateful for both my ongoing health that allows me to run, which I love to do, and for the support my community showed for me that I can now offer others. I’ve also had the opportunity to encourage other kids with my journey and story as I have met them over the years.
I’ve lost friends to cancer, and know how fortunate I am to have overcome such a serious cancer when others didn’t win their battles. It’s not an easy thing to consider, but I think it comes down to each of us having our own journey. My own journey has, I believe, given me a purpose and work to do. I need to take this second opportunity and make it have eternal value by building into people’s lives.
Josh at Hope Church in George, South Africa, where he lived for three years to study wildlife conservation: ‘I don’t think we can understand God’s ways with our finite brains. I think God doesn’t generally remove the storms from our lives but He joins us in the storm’
I don’t think God gave me cancer. I don’t think we can understand God’s ways with our finite brains. My perspective now is that God doesn’t generally remove the storms from our lives, but He joins us in the storm. I believe that He stepped in and weathered the greatest storm of all on my behalf when He died for me and I now realise that I want to live a life of service to Him.’
More family members: Josh up close with brothers, human and canine. From left: Josh, Chris, Oakley the dog and JJ
Josh: ‘I want my life to be of service’
DOUBLY SWEET MOMENT IN TIME: AN ADULT JOSH FINISHES THE MOUNTAIN ULTRA TRAIL 60KM MARATHON IN GEORGE, SOUTH AFRICA
TIPS FOR TACKLING ILLNESS : WHAT HELPED JOSH
• Always have something to look forward to. It doesn’t have to be big, sometimes knowing I was going to be walking along a beach was enough
• Have a very comfy bed – you’ll spend a lot of time in it. Make sure you have music, computer games, series, movies, puzzles, lots of stuff to keep busy and positive
• Foot massages/rubs are the best things ever!
• If a child has cancer, let them eat whatever they want. It’s better that they eat, and eat a lot!
• Take lots of pictures of everything for memories
• Accept the new information and move forward with the resolve and hope to fight and overcome. Hope is massive!
• You’ll have times of doubt and fear and trembling and confusion: you are in the storm and you can’t step out of the storm. Community was important for me: friends and family can carry you when you feel that you can’t carry yourself. For me, this included community prayer
• Ultimately, I believe that God walked me through the storm and that whatever the outcome might have been, His love was present. Even now I praise Him for the journey. In the moments of helplessness and brokenness, He was there. He is not afraid of my doubts or emotions, He is the one I can cry to and praise, and I believe He will always be there