The eldest daughter of Papa Pilgrim shared her story of survival. Now, she faces a new battle: Brain cancer

Apr. 30—Note to readers: This story contains references to physical and sexual abuse.

Elishaba Doerksen is again fighting for her life.

It has been nearly two decades since the day she escaped her family's isolated homestead in Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, gunning a snowmachine away from a life of tyrannical abuse at the hands of her father, Robert Hale, known as Papa Pilgrim.

She survived that, and what came after — facing life as a 29-year-old who'd received almost no formal education; the criminal case against her father, who forced her to call him "Lord" and sexually abused her for years; and having her family's story told publicly in the media.

In the intervening decades, so much has happened, including two books chronicling the story.

But now she faces a different battle.

In February, Doerksen, 48, was diagnosed with a grade 4 glioblastoma, the most common and deadly of adult brain cancers. The average length of survival for glioblastoma patients is only about eight months, according to the Brain Tumor Society, a national medical nonprofit for patients. The five-year survival rate for people diagnosed with glioblastoma is 6.9%.

On a recent Thursday morning, Doerksen lay back on a cot deep in the Providence hospital's Cancer Center in Anchorage. A therapist positioned a radiation machine over her head. Images of cherry blossoms covered the ceiling in the dim room, meant to soothe patients, and Johnny Cash played on the stereo.

The therapist closed the heavy door and left her to her thoughts while a precise beam of radiation blasted the roots of the tumor in her frontal lobe. Ten minutes later, she rose from the table.

Though she has been told she has an incurable cancer, she doesn't look sick. Her hair is still thick and full, her face heart-shaped and rosy.

"I take pain and put a square box around it," she said. "I've done it before."

A family in the wilderness

Doerksen was the oldest of 15 children of Papa Pilgrim and his wife, Country Rose, two hippies turned fundamentalist Christians who moved deep into the Alaska wilderness to raise their family according to what they saw as biblical tenets.

They first became known for their old-timey clothing and family band, and then for a standoff with the federal government that came to a head after Papa Pilgrim carved a 14-mile road out of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park land without permission.

Behind the scenes, Doerksen was being sexually and physically abused by her father, and the whole family lived in terror of his violent abuse.

In 2005, at age 29, Doerksen escaped, moving in with a family near Palmer that the Pilgrim clan had become friendly with. She told about the abuse, and prosecutors eventually mounted a criminal case against Pilgrim. He pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, including incest and sexual abuse, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

At his sentencing, Doerksen — with her new husband at her side — told the court how Pilgrim warped her world and distorted the Bible's teachings. He died in jail "unrepentant and alone," the Daily News wrote at the time of his death in 2008. In 2013, the family's story became the basis of former Daily News reporter Tom Kizzia's book "Pilgrim's Wilderness."

After the book

Doerksen and her husband settled on Lazy Mountain, near Palmer, and had two children, one of whom has Down syndrome and who suffered a severe stroke that paralyzed part of his body four years ago. Doerksen lived the life of a stay-at-home mother and home-schooler, tending to her children.

Two years ago, she self-published her no-holds-barred memoir "Out of the Wilderness: Escaping My Father's Prison and My Journey to Forgiveness." She says that to her, the book was about sharing a story of hope and overcoming trauma with more people. But having the book published also solidified a painful estrangement from her 14 siblings, who didn't want the family's past in the public eye again.

One of her brothers spoke out about the book, telling the Daily News that having it published was an invasion of privacy that had brought family members to tears.

"It's nobody's business how my father beat me," Joseph Hale said at the time.

After the book, Doerksen went on tour. She told her story time and time again, and hundreds of messages poured in from people who'd experienced similar horrors, she said. She says she felt a sense of purpose.

But her life was changing in devastating and liberating ways.

In 2023, Doerksen's husband of 16 years filed for divorce. An attorney for Matthew Doerksen did not respond to a request for comment.

It was a time that was both wrenching and the first true taste of freedom for Doerksen, said her friend Hannah St. George, a Fairbanks doula and mother of 10.

Doerksen says that when she divorced, she'd never had her own credit card or her own bank account, having gone almost straight from the wilderness compound to marriage. She'd never really held a formal job or lived alone. Many in the church community that had been her main support seemed to side with her husband, St. George said. There were whispers about her behavior, her choices.

To make money, Doerksen started driving for Uber and delivering for DoorDash. She became a personal care attendant. Having only a fifth-grade education, she studied for the GED. It was a dark time, but also one in which she felt new horizons opening in her life, she said.

When she drove her car on Uber trips down the endless asphalt miles of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, it felt sometimes like God was sending riders straight to her because she needed to meet them and talk to them. Some she told her story to.

"I loved it," she said.

In December, St. George visited her friend and noticed that Doerksen seemed unwell.

"She was not very coherent," St. George said. "She could barely hold a conversation."

St. George urged Doerksen to go to the hospital, where she was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia that had bloomed into a life-threatening blood infection. But there was something else: A scan revealed a mass in her brain.

The size and placement of the scan didn't alarm doctors at first, Doerksen said. They scheduled a surgery to remove it nearly two months out.

But after the surgery in February, the doctor came in with the diagnosis. It was glioblastoma.

"I just remember thinking, why? Why Eba, of all people, who's been through so much in her life? Why this? Why right now?" St. George said.

'I appreciate every strand of hair on my head'

After a radiation session last week, Doerksen sat in an exam room waiting for one of the several doctors responsible for her care.

Doerksen has a "very serious diagnosis," said Dr. Stephen Settle, a radiation oncologist at the Anchorage Radiation Oncology Center. Doctors were able to remove most of the mass during the surgery, but glioblastomas are known for aggressively growing back. And "roots" of the tumor have penetrated into her brain.

Sitting in the exam room, Doerksen asked about the origin of her brain tumor.

"Could it have been from when my dad was beating me in the head so many times?" she said.

It's not possible to know with certainty, the doctor said.

For now, the course of treatment includes radiation five times a week along with chemotherapy in pill form. After a period of weeks, Doerksen will get a break and doctors will reevaluate. In May, she'll also begin wearing an Optune device, which research has shown works to slow tumor growth, Settle said. She'll need to keep her hair shaved to use it.

"Right now, I appreciate every strand of hair on my head," Doerksen said.

There's also the possibility of pursuing a clinical trial outside Alaska.

People from her church on Lazy Mountain have been driving her to and from appointments. Some have donated funds. The family rift continues, though a few siblings visited her at the hospital after Doerksen underwent brain surgery. The news they shared was distant: who'd had a baby, gotten married.

But she feels "the doors opening," she said.

Doerksen says she knows her time on Earth may not be long but is willing to do anything she can to extend her life. She worries about her son, who doesn't fully understand death and who clings to his mother any time he's with her. She worries about her teenage daughter, and missing her children's future lives.

"I want to hold my grandchildren someday," she said.

She told the story of Job from the Bible — a man who loses everything and still refuses to curse God. Sometimes, she said, she feels like Job. Her full name is Elishaba Trust Doerksen. She says she cherishes the middle name. Though her father gave it to her, it's what she needs right now.