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Living a Full Life

Surviving cancer in childhood shapes first-year college student Tory Cortese.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of 20 PE News articles on 20 people in the Assemblies of God under the age of 20 who are making an impact in their communities. Hereafter, articles will run Tuesday of every week.

Kindergartener Tory Cortese got a bruise, which is not unusual for a 6-year-old girl. But when the bruise turned unusually dark, Tory’s parents, Rich and Nadine Cortese, took her to a doctor. Blood work came back abnormal.

The Corteses served as pastors on staff at Calvary Christian Church in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, at the time. They took their daughter to Boston Children’s Hospital for further tests.

“We had determined that whatever the diagnosis, Jesus is still Lord,” Rich recalls. “We would not allow what was ahead to make us bitter.”

Then they received the diagnosis: leukemia.

Tory received intensive chemotherapy that first month — and once a month for the next two years.

“We kept pink buckets handy for nausea,” her dad remembers. “She was on lots of medications to treat queasiness, and to fight infection.”

She went into remission; but in January 2008, at age 10, the cancer returned.

“When I was diagnosed the second time, I started questioning God,” Tory says. “I asked Him why.”

Tory sensed God’s assurance in an incident after she received a bone marrow transplant.

“We went to the emergency room, and the doctor ordered an MRI, which was my worst nightmare,” she says.  

Tory remembers crying, wanting to refuse the test because of anxiety over claustrophobia. She and her parents went back to her hospital room and prayed.

“We said, ‘God, if there is another way, please show us,’ ” Tory says. “But we also prayed for God’s will to be done. I then had peace. If I had to have the MRI, I would.”

Nurses came to Tory’s room, and told her she could have an X-ray instead of an MRI.

“God was so clearly with me in that moment,” Tory recalls. ”It was out of my control — but I trusted God.”

The transplant, while successful, resulted in Tory needing to stay in isolation for an entire year. Tory couldn’t go out in public, which proved problematic for her parents, who by then were planting Garden City Church in Beverly, Massachusetts. She went to church, but had to sit outside.

“Tory’s diagnosis was traumatic,” Rich reflects. “This was an attack to undermine our faith, to break us. We professed our faith from the beginning. We were challenged to help a child live faithfully as well, and to teach her to be patient.”

The cancer is gone now, and Tory is stronger.

“I learned what faith really means,” Tory says. “I clung to my faith even when things weren’t going my way. I dealt with depression. But God became my satisfaction through sickness and loneliness.”

In high school, Tory took her relationship with God seriously. She became a leader in her youth group, and in her high school. Angie Miller, another AG student (and third-place finisher on the 12th season of American Idol), had started the Refuge Bible Club in Beverly High School four years earlier. Tory joined the club, which held discussions on faith, her first year in high school. Her sophomore year, she became a co-leader.

“We set individual goals in the club, then encouraged each other in those goals,” Tory explains. “We prayed together for the school. We talked to other students, who invited friends.”

In her senior year, Tory started a business to support missionaries by crocheting scarves, hats, headbands, and bracelets.

“I realized I could sell those items, and make money to give to missions,” Tory says. “I want to do what I can now, and not wait to get a degree.”

The Button Business is designed to build up those who are neglected. Tory’s goal is to make $2,000 from selling the crocheted items for her church’s missions fund.

Tory also participated in the 2015 Assemblies of God Fine Arts nationals, in short sermon, spoken word, and human video categories. She placed fourth speaking about lessons learned from forgiveness.

“It’s hard to say what Tory would be like if she hadn’t had the cancer at such a young age,” Rich says. “She learned a boldness and how to live a full life.”

Tory will enter North Central University in Minneapolis in the fall. She is considering a missions or church planting major.

“Looking back, my illness was being used for His glory,” Tory says. “It tested my faith, but God has opened doors because I was sick. God might not have always come through like I wanted Him to on a certain day, but I’ve learned joy, patience, and trust.”

Darla Knoth

Darla Knoth is is senior editor of Adult and Youth Resources, Editorial Services, at the Assemblies of God National Office.