Coping With Cancer and Keeping the Faith

FILE - In this Thursday, May 6, 2010 file photo, a radiologist uses a magnifying glass to check mammograms for breast cancer
FILE - In this Thursday, May 6, 2010 file photo, a radiologist uses a magnifying glass to check mammograms for breast cancer in Los Angeles. A big U.S. study published in the Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012 New England Journal of Medicine shows that mammograms have done surprisingly little to catch deadly cancers before they spread. At the same time, they have led more than a million women to be treated for growths that never would have threatened their lives. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

Two years ago a routine mammogram led to the diagnosis that changed my life: cancer.

The 10-day wait from scheduling that biopsy to having it done felt like 10 months. If I were facing a serious disease, I wanted to treat it as soon as possible, to nip it in the bud. This waiting business was serving no purpose -- other than pinching my nerves.

Naturally, I'm an optimistic person, but in the darkness of the unknown, the mind immediately conjures the worst.

A few days after the biopsy, my husband, Dick, a tough-minded Vietnam vet, approached with tears lining his cheeks. He didn't have to say a word; I knew the phone call he had just fielded was news of a positive biopsy. But because I was babysitting the grandkids, I had to put on a brave face, discretely consoling Dick while somehow keeping it together. Legos and sippy cups and a 62-year-old grandma who was miles away.

Once my daughter picked up the kids, I caved in Dick's arms and confessed just how scared I was. Cancer. The menacing, multitentacled monster that upended so many families and seized so many lives.

And so began an even longer wait. It took one month to learn the stage of my cancer. Had I been handed an unpleasant summer or a death sentence? I couldn't reconcile the vastness between these two outcomes.

At night I stared into the bathroom mirror, haunted by my own reflection. Was there an answer hidden in my eyes? What did my body know that my mind did not?

Fear was taking hold in my bones, but by the week's end, I could feel its antidote springing up, silky and fragrant: faith.

For most of my married life I had prayed to St. Joseph for a happy death, and every time I'd prayed the rosary, in each Hail Mary, I'd asked for a blessing upon "us sinners, now and at the hour of our death."

Priestly Perspective

This was my test. Did I truly believe in heaven? Did I trust in God's will? Or over all these years had I just talked the talk?

I turned to the rosary with greater frequency. It felt like the right prayer, meditating on the joyful and sorrowful mysteries that had marked Mary's life as the mother of Christ. I began to look back on my own highs and lows -- so many luminous mysteries folded deep in my heart -- and suddenly I felt peace, aware of all that God had delivered in the past six decades. I had been given more than I ever hoped for.

If this was an advanced cancer, it had failed to cripple my child-bearing years, stealing away another young mom and snatching dreams of additional siblings. I had heard of these heartbreaks and I was fortunate to have been there to witness the proms and graduations, weddings and births. I had the laugh lines and gray hairs to prove it, stamps on my passport of life.

I had once spoken to a priest who was dying of cancer. "It's the best way to die," he told me. "I was given all this time to prepare and say proper goodbyes."

The mailman became a bright spot in my day. I couldn't believe all the cards that poured in, and I relished the handwritten messages scrolled below the Hallmark calligraphy. "No matter what happens, I'm here for you." Eight simple words, so powerful when strung together.

I was ready for whatever would come my way. My faith had not only remained intact, it was urgent and animating, lifting me out of bed, pressing into my fingertips.

The Verdict

At last the verdict came, bringing a flood of relief: my cancer was in stage 0, the earliest possible. It had not spread.

We braced for my summer of breast-cancer treatment: surgery in June, radiation in July and August.

The looming surgery inspired more prayer. I wore a silver medal of St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer, a 14th-century Italian priest who was cured of cancer. How consoling it was to know, along with so many friends and relatives, a saint in heaven was praying on my behalf, for my very cause.

The surgery took twice as long as Dick had been told to expect, but two weeks after they had removed the lymph nodes under my right arm -- the cancer carrier mechanism I did not want to worry about years later -- a lab report showed they had successfully captured all the cancer cells.


As my body healed, I hunkered down for the next step, scheduling radiation every weekday after 9 a.m. Mass. It was the perfect prelude: kneeling before Jesus, receiving the Eucharist and singing the same hymns my parents' parents had sung. "All Creatures Of Our God And King" always made me cry.

My dear friends Paula and Mary Carmen drove me to and from every treatment. The radiation burned my skin and opened my eyes. I observed the others in the waiting room -- some half my age, some receiving much longer treatments for much bigger areas -- and I prayed for them as I waited my turn.

One morning as I gathered my prayer book and zipped up my purse, it occurred to me: This may be one of the reasons for my cancer, it's making me more compassionate.

I received 36 treatments in total, and by the end my skin was beginning to look like hamburger. But I knew, without doubt, I had become a more empathetic woman.

Bouquets filled our bedroom -- orchids, lilies and tulips. There was no room for grudges. The strains that had ailed the relationship with my sisters washed away like a warm summer rain. Our shared history overshadowed current differences. They called and emailed weekly. We were sisters again.

I was no longer fazed by the usual stresses. I could see more clearly my purpose in life -- the people I was called to love, the work I was called to do, the faith I was called to share. I distilled my hard-won wisdom in a book and garnered interest from a respected publisher. "Answer Your Call: Reclaim God's Purpose For Faith, Family and Work" is being released this month.

Two years after that ominous biopsy, I see how the cancer that shook me to my core blessed me profoundly. I will never be the same.