Soul Mates: Two members of Big House worship team lean on faith, each other to pull through

The room is half empty before Josie Leeper begins to sing. Seconds after her voice fills the Orchard Hill Church gym, the people literally come running in. Individuals in the crowd of BigHouse, a high school church gathering, look at each other in amazement as they soak in her voice. The spotlight is solely on her as she sings, but she soon gives it up to her role model, Bradley Rees, who has been the BigHouse worship director for the last four years and is currently a senior at UNI.

Rees grew up in Davenport before coming to UNI where he is now studying to become a music teacher. His story revolves around a bump on his shoulder that he had noticed in high school, but he didn’t think anything of it. His then girlfriend (now wife) Alex, whom he had been dating since his freshman year in high school, made him finally see a doctor about it. There at the doctor he was told by everyone he had seen that he had a sebaceous cyst, and once he had it removed, it would not longer be a problem.

The doctors removed the cyst, but trouble ensued on Rees’s followup. He had Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare and aggressive bone cancer that attaches to a bone and spreads. It often leads to amputation and has a 10 percent survival rate. “Hearing a doctor tell you that you have cancer is the most surreal experience,” Rees said. “The world just stopped, and it felt like I got punched in the stomach.”

Rees soon found out his cancer was different from the norm. His cancer never attached to the bone and stayed beneath the surface of his skin for three years without moving or spreading. He went up to Mayo Clinic where the doctors told him that there was no cancer. The scanners were unable to see on a microbial level, meaning that the doctors couldn’t guarantee he was entirely cancer free because they couldn’t see everywhere, so they recommended he do chemotherapy just to be safe.

It was a tough decision, but Rees decided to undergo chemotherapy. This caused him to be consistently be sick, lack any energy and become dependent on narcotic drugs. People would come ask him how he was doing and say he was fortunate for getting to spend so much time with the lord with all of his newly acquired free time. He would lie and say he was doing well, and of his now available God time, he thought “Yeah it’s great. In our last conversation, I was begging him to kill me.”

Rees finally had enough and decided to take his chances and stop chemotherapy. He has since been three years cancer free and is a year past the free and clear stage given to him by his doctors.

After Rees finishes telling his story, he urges the audience to think of a burden they’re carrying and let it go as Leeper stands in the same place and sings. As Rees walks off stage and to the side, without looking at each other, the two extend their arms in worship at nearly the exact same time. But their similarities run deeper than just sharing the same stage as Leeper is also a cancer survivor.

The journey that wound up changing Leeper’s life began five years ago in seventh grade in a doctor’s office where her mother was worried she might have mono. “I had just heard how awful mono was. That’s the worst thing ever. I hope she doesn’t have mono,” Leeper’s mother Jenny remembered thinking before they went to the doctor.

The doctor felt Leeper’s stomach to be firm. A couple days later, her family drove down to Des Moines where it was determined she had a tumor on her ovary. “It was the longest car ride to Des Moines I’ve ever had. It was the longest 12 hours her dad and I have ever had,” her mom said. “You always think it’s those other people.”

The process all happened in about a week, and Leeper was forced to miss around three months of school as she recovered from her own bout of chemotherapy. “There was never really a time that I thought I’m not gonna recover from this or this is not something I can come back from,” Leeper said. “I think I just set it aside almost and just went through everything and didn’t think about it too much.”

She decided to tell her friends at a school dance and ended up having to console them more than they consoled her. “I hadn’t really comprehended it yet, so just telling people was a much bigger deal than getting told [myself],” Leeper said.

While she was still growing her hair back after the chemotherapy, she wore a wig that was very similar to her own hair but soon thought her hair was “super long” and no longer needed the wig. “I had a completely different perception of what it actually looked like. I was just thinking my hair was long enough to look normal and nobody would even notice,” Leeper said. “Looking back now, I had less hair than my dad.”

There were positives that came out of this situation, such as raising around $10,000 for the UNI Relay for Life. In seventh grade, Leeper and her team were able to raise the most money of any team that participated.

As time progressed and Leeper’s hair continued to grow back, life seemed to return to normal. “It was good to have her act like a teenager again and to have times when you are mad at her because she was driving you crazy. As much as things can drive you crazy, you’re actually kind of thankful for them,” Jenny Leeper said.

After beating cancer, Leeper was on a high note in her life, but, unfortunately, that didn’t last. In the spring of her sophomore year, she really got down on herself and struggled with body image and self harming issues. “I got to a point where really nothing mattered at all,” she said.

She started getting into drinking and smoking and would look forward to those things often in attempt to get away from things. “I really just hated my life,” Leeper said.

Things got to the point where she conceived a plan to run away from home. She bought a bus ticket to New York and was planning on just disappearing. She didn’t have a job and therefore didn’t have money. “I didn’t really have a plan other than getting away from everything,” she said. “Looking back now, it’s scary that I was in such a low place that I was going to do that.”

Two of her friends knew of her plans to go to New York and tried to stop her, but she was at such a low point that she wouldn’t listen to anyone. “That year was one of the bigger struggles that I think of, even bigger than cancer.”

School got out for the summer, but the struggles continued until she went on Caravan, a trip through her church. “I just felt a joy that I had never felt before,” Leeper said. “I was just kind of blown away with how happy I was. I got home from Caravan and just never looked back.”

Caravan inspired her to try out for the BigHouse worship band, which is how she and Rees became connected. “She walked in, and her personality was chill and it was real and it was authentic,” Rees said. “Then she opened her mouth and she sang, and it was just a pure tone, and it was exactly the kind of thing we would look for in a worship leader. Josie was the whole package, and she already had her voice. She knew who she was as a musician.”

After Rees battled back, he felt that he was extremely blessed. A final surgery that was supposed to take a few months, took a few weeks and didn’t require the use of the pain meds he had been previously addicted to. Soon after, he was accepted into a government program that wiped clean every medical bill because of his age and rarity of his condition. He was allowed to keep all of the scholarships he had previously earned despite not having enough credit hours, and he was actually was accepted into a grant program that gave him $10,000 to put towards school. Most importantly, he got married to his former girlfriend of six years.

Leeper and Rees combined to bring the audience to tears with her singing and his story one after the other. “You could just feel [the emotion] more so than see it,” said Leeper, who cried the first time she heard Rees’ story.

Now as Leeper begins a new song up on stage, her final of the night, she messes up the first line of the song, a small hiccup in the big picture. With the help of the other band members, she puts it behind her and gets back on track as her smile lights up and she laughs it off and mesmerizes her audience once again.

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