Front Cover Story

Local Bishop Fighting Cancer Focuses on Service, Little Miracles

Bishop Amos Abplanalp fights a stage 4 cancer diagnosis with the help of his children, who offer comfort in the form of cuddles, company and music. Photo by Jen Garbett.

Bishop Amos Abplanalp fights a stage 4 cancer diagnosis with the help of his children, who offer comfort in the form of cuddles, company and music. Photo by Jen Garbett.

On a Saturday afternoon, the Abplanalp kids are sprawled all over the couches in an East Valley hospital waiting room. Their faces are stoic, even a little guarded. Like every Saturday, they’ve come equipped—with books to pass the time, earbuds to drown out the beeping and paging, snacks to stave off the hunger of delayed meals—and, most importantly, with a steadfast faith that their father will win the fight of his life against colon cancer.

As a bishop of only three months, Amos Abplanalp had barely enough time to adjust to his new calling when the diagnosis came: a CT scan for stomach pains in April 2016 revealed stage 4 colon cancer.

Leanne Kocemba, FNP, reviews test results with Amos Abplanalp during his cancer treatment. Photo courtesy of Hillary Abplanalp.

Leanne Kocemba, FNP, reviews test results with Amos Abplanalp during his cancer treatment. Photo courtesy of Hillary Abplanalp.

He immediately called his stake president. “Don’t release me,” he begged San Tan Stake President Larry Michael Ray. “God knew I had cancer when he called me,” Bishop Abplanalp said.

President Ray’s response was immediate: “You’re going to have to do better than that to get released,” he joked.

And so, in spite of a demanding full-time job as a psychologist in Arizona’s prison system, in spite of rounds of chemo, surgeries and countless hospital visits, Amos Abplanalp continues to do the work he loves by serving as the bishop of the Magma Ranch Ward.

Somehow, in ways that they don’t even truly have the words to verbalize yet, his children understand that kind of commitment. 10-year-old Kirra says, “What I love about Daddy is that he’s always putting other people before him.”

Her younger sister Ruth chimes in: “There’s a reason he’s been put through this. We have faith,” the 9-year-old says, looking around at her siblings.

Evie Clair, singer, songwriter and eldest Abplanalp daughter, records a tribute cover of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" with Spencer Jones of Cinematic Pop. Photo courtesy of Hillary Abplanalp.

Evie Clair, singer, songwriter and eldest Abplanalp daughter, records a tribute cover of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” with Spencer Jones of Cinematic Pop. Photo courtesy of Hillary Abplanalp.

Even with faith, it’s a heavy load for the children, but they are growing stronger through sacrifice. 15-year-old Porter picked up cooking when his father had to switch to a vegan diet after a surgery that resulted in an ostomy. (“Everyone should have to be vegan for a week,” he grumbles, “so they really understand what flavor is.”) 12-year-old Evie Clair, a musician and songwriter, is putting her burgeoning career on hold after just breaking into the business. Kirra and Ruth have to leave early from stake activity days. 7-year-old Blakely’s eyes fill with tears. In a quavering voice, she voices what everyone’s been feeling: “I just miss my Daddy. He’s not home a lot.”

Hillary Abplanalp, his wife of 19 years, nods. “They’re home alone a lot.”

Dealing with a major illness is a constant juggling act for the busy family. Putting her music lessons aside and cutting back her freelance web designing a bit, Sister Abplanalp has learned to reprioritize in the wake of her husband’s illness.

“I had to put things in the right order. I don’t give anyone else my time,” she says. “I’m learning how to not work—how to say no.” All of her energy now goes toward taking care of her family and fulfilling her callings and visiting teaching assignments. “I never say ‘no’ to the sister missionaries,” she jokes. “That’s my secret. Helping teach lessons grounds me back to what’s important and gives me perspective.”

Above all, she finds comfort in serving. A cancer diagnosis in the family might be enough to shake anyone’s faith, but Sister Abplanalp finds she has renewed focus: “The more we serve, the more we help, the more things end up the way they’re supposed to be.”

And the more they serve, the more the Abplanalps find themselves on the receiving end of service. Endless rounds of meals, childcare, gas cards, seminary carpools, even care packages from families they’ve never even met—the Abplanalps are continuously humbled and hallowed by the amount of service they receive from friends and strangers alike.

“People have stepped up,” Bishop Abplanalp says. “I am certainly blessed.”

Music is another source of joy to the family. The children often sing to Amos, who tires easily after rounds of chemo. “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” and Billy Joel’s “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” are among his favorites.

While all the Abplanalps are musical, oldest Abplanalp daughter Evie Clair in particular is using those gifts to help support her father. Evie is no stranger to the music business; she has recorded with Rob Gardner for the Cokeville Miracle sound track, participated in the 2015 #ASaviorIsBorn campaign sponsored by Mormon.org, and opened for the celebrated Dutton family. She now has a popular YouTube channel and has earned some degree of fame through regional talent competitions and performances as well as songs on the Once I Was a Beehive soundtrack. She recently teamed up with fellow LDS singer and classical crossover phenom Spencer Jones of Cinematic Pop. The pair created a tribute video this past July, recording Survivor’s 80s hit “Eye of the Tiger” in honor of her father’s cancer fight.

“He was a wrestler in high school,” Evie explains. “He listened to that song to get pumped up for matches.”

In the touching tribute, her emotions are palpable as she describes her father Amos’s fight and the survival rate given to her father by his doctors earlier this year. “We know that he’s going to be okay. He’s going to win this fight,” she affirms through her tears.

Evie is joined at the end of the video by the Piano Gal, Sara Arkell, violinist Rob Landes, Hailey and Mila Smith, actors in Once I Was a Beehive, and Bored Shorts’ Richard Sharrah to celebrate and support Bishop Abplanalp. The YouTube video links to the family’s GoFundMe campaign, which has raised over half of its $25,000 goal.

The Abplanalps choose to dwell on that, on the giving and the prayers and the love they’ve received from others, instead of asking the obvious questions: “Why me? Why us?”

“Amos is amazing,” smiles Sister Abplanalp. “It’s like normal life wasn’t enough of a challenge. I think this is what he needs. He’s an Idaho farm boy. He’s tough.”

Bishop Abplanalp just deflects the question altogether. “All of this,” he says, gesturing around him, “it’s not about me. We focus on the little miracles.” Through their trials, the Abplanalps have found themselves growing ever closer to their Savior.

“Just before I found out [about the cancer],” he says, “I gave a talk about the Atonement.” The knowledge he gained preparing for that talk helps keep him going. “We can learn from the Savior,” Bishop Abplanalp says. “Even when we suffer, we can still fulfill our role.”

This, Bishop Abplanalp insists, is what the Atonement is about—and he sees his cancer fight as part of that personal connection with Christ. “He knows me. There is nothing that He doesn’t understand. Not just spiritual, but very much our physical needs. He never forgets, and He knows us individually, forever and ever.”

You can follow the Abplanalp family’s journey on their Team Amos blog at www.teamamos.com. Donations to the family can be made on the family’s GoFundMe website: https://www.gofundme.com/teamamos.

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