TIFTON -- "When I woke up, I was not one iota surprised that the tumor was dead. I knew the results would be what they were," Jack Gibbs said. After an 11-hour operation to remove a tumor from his liver, which just eight days before the Aug. 20 surgery showed live cancer cells, Gibbs awoke to hear that his tumor was 100 percent necrotic -- there was no cancer to be found in his body.
Jack, the principal of Matt Wilson Elementary, and Iris, his wife of 25 years, give all glory to God for their miraculous journey which began in January when he turned 45. Although he'd never been to the doctor since living in Tifton, Jack went for a physical after his birthday and learned that he had a large mass in his liver. He was told it was probably nothing to worry about, but a biopsy at Emory University in Atlanta revealed a rare form of liver cancer.
The bad news became worse when doctors confirmed Jack to have Stage Four, inoperable liver cancer. "I thought, out of how many stages? Ten or 12?" he said. "But it was Stage Four out of four stages."
The doctors told Jack that the cancer was terminal and he had only one or two years to live.
"We started praying," he said. "We'd always been close to God and served God, but we were about to take that to a different level. I knew He was the only hope."
"I told the doctor that one to two years was not an option."
Doctors suggested going to a research institute to find treatment to prolong his life, but the family felt that God wanted them to go to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. rather than someplace further away. The doctor they met with gave them a little hope.
"I told that doctor, 'we're going to be your miracle'," Jack said.
The doctor referred him to a surgeon, Dr. Justin Nguyen, who told them that neither he, nor any surgeon in the world, would operate on him and gave Jack a ten percent survival rate if he were to attempt surgery.
During the summer, Jack underwent nine weeks of chemotherapy, simultaneously taking two of the highest powered chemo drugs available. "I was never sick, I didn't miss one meal and He even let me keep what little hair I have, so I know God has a sense of humor," Jack said while Iris twirled tufts of his hair around her fingers. Jack said Dr. Nguyen was surprised that he had kept his hair and said that if the chemo shrank the tumor, he would try the surgery.
Growing in faith and conquering doubt
Iris holds a Bible, one of two on the family's couch. She flips through it, showing the multi-colored tabs marking all of the healing Scriptures in the Bible. The Gibbs family marked these passages to read daily in the process of Jack's healing.
"We knew that we needed to be faithful and grow in our faith," Iris said. "God confirmed that for us through unassociated friends who would send us the same Bible verses about being faithful."
There was one special verse of scripture they kept above their mantel at all times, except for the time Jack spent in the hospital, when they took the piece of paper with them. That passage, Hebrews 10:23, says "Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful."
Jack described Psalm 91 as "our rock that we have stood on since day one. These verses have truly come to life and God truly has kept us 'under the shadow of his wings'."
The same time the family was growing in and depending on their faith in God, they were battling evil and doubt as well. "We learned that the devil is as real as God is real," Jack said. "He knew he couldn't get my heart, but he came after my mind."
Two high school friends of Jack and Iris died of cancer while Jack was fighting his battle.
The Gibbs recall the month of March as having "three black Wednesdays" in which they got all of their bad news. But that bad news did not tear down their faith.
"Only for about five minutes each time did I have a pity party for myself, but then my family was so strong and straightened me out," Jack said. "From then on I had not one doubt or sad moment and the only tears I cried were tears of joy."
Even the Gibbs' three children, Duke, a senior at Georgia College and State University; Aaron, a freshman at GCSU; and Ashtyn, a sophomore at Tift County High School refrained from feelings of doubt about their father's condition.
"It's so weird. I thought, dad's got cancer, I should feel sad," Ashtyn said. "One day I was sad, but then I had an amazing peace." Jack said the boys never had a doubt.
"It's important to maintain a relationship with the Lord so that when something like this happens, you're prepared. Look to God and He'll give you what you need," Jack said.
Support from the masses
People who knew the Gibbs family also started praying. Word spread from churches to the school system to the entire community of Tifton. Iris's mother Mary Rose, who lives with the Gibbs family, said thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people were praying for Jack.
Jack received e-mails from as far away as Africa, Korea, China, Germany, Bolivia, Poland and Belgium. A plastic box packed to overflowing contains cards, letters, and devotions that have been sent during the past six months. Jack said one day, he will sit down and count them all.
Once a week, usually on Fridays, Jack has received an anonymous letter that includes a devotion. One Friday they did not receive their devotion. "The next week, the lady wrote and apologized for missing the week before. She said she had had surgery," Jack said. "I would love to know who it is that has been sending these."
Posters still hang in the Gibbs' home saying "Welcome home" and "We've missed you." In the front yard are three signs staked in the ground, made for Jack's homecoming by Mary Nell Greer. The signs have messages such as "Give God the glory" and "Saved by God's grace."
"The day we got home I knew Jack couldn't get out there, but the next day, I made him take his balloon bouquet and go out to those signs and take a picture," Iris said.
Jack said he can't say enough about the people of Tifton. The community held numerous fundraisers, from barbecues, car washes and pizza nights to a golf tournament, a "Tar and Feathering" and T-shirt sales. "It was very humbling. God's people are so loving," Jack said. Working as a principal at four different schools in Tifton over the past 15 years, he was amazed how his ordeal touched the school children.
People pulled together and the Gibbs did not have one financial worry. Jack described Tifton as "the best of small town America -- sweet and sacrificing." The Gibbs' extended family also provided them with tremendous support. "My four brothers and one sister as well as Iris's two sisters and all the spouses and kids have been with us since day one of the diagnosis and have given us so much support, it's unbelievable," Jack said of his family.
Revival and testimony at St. Luke's
Jack rolled into surgery at 6:30 the morning of August 20. Twenty-nine friends and family members gathered in a waiting room of St. Luke's Hospital in Jacksonville to pray for Jack and wait on news of his condition. Iris describes the atmosphere of the waiting room as a revival and a reunion.
"We enjoyed it. It was like an 11-hour church service," she said. Throughout the entire operation, God gave the crowd what Iris described as an incredible peace.
When nurses would come to Iris and give her an update, Iris would shout out the good news to the crowd. "It was a testimony to others in the waiting room," Iris said.
One man approached someone in the group to ask how Jack was doing. He said he didn't know Jack, but that he felt like he did after the day spent in the waiting room.
"The doctors came out and told us that the tumor was necrotic, and then everybody in the waiting room got to a phone and started calling everyone they knew," Ashtyn said. "All you could hear was, 'Tumor's out, they're closing him up! Tumor's out, they're closing him up!'"
The doctors removed sixty percent of Jack's liver along with two lymph nodes. "The doctors told us they were in awe," Iris said. "It was a miracle."
"Someone asked if I thought I might wake up in heaven after the surgery, but that thought never entered my mind," Jack said.
Iris asked to pray with Dr. Nguyen after the surgery and he obliged. Jack later asked him if he thought God had anything to do with the death of his tumor, that only eight days before was alive, and Dr. Nguyen said he thought there was a higher power at work.
"God sent us the best doctors. He can use them whether they're saved or not," Jack said. "God worked in their lives, too."
During the five days Jack stayed at St. Luke's, room 403 became "Prayer Central." The family taped all of their Bible verses to the walls. "It was a way to minister to people who came in," Iris said.
Jack left the hospital on the 25th anniversary of his marriage to Iris.
Jack says the hardest thing for him now is the mandatory four to six weeks of sitting and healing that he must endure. He is walking daily to build his strength before he can return to Matt Wilson and undergo another round of chemotherapy.
"Since God gave me a second chance, I'm gonna do exactly what He says," Jack said.
Jack and Iris take no credit for his miraculous victory over cancer. They give God all the credit and say they're just His vessels.
"We've read the Bible all our lives, but a lot of things you don't put to the test. Not everybody has cancer, but everybody's got problems. If you read and believe, He'll be faithful," Iris said.
One question many people may wonder about, Jack has wondered about himself. "Sometimes I ask, why did He choose me? But I know that God chose to find favor in me because He knew I'd stand firm for Him in the public school system and in the community. God's got something He wants me to do -- helping others and sharing my testimony."
To contact Paula Stuhr, call 382-4321, ext. 214.
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