CANCER TIMES FOUR: THE FACTS, FAITH AND FEELINGS
If anyone had dared to tell me on May 1, 1986, that cancer would be more life-giving than life-threatening, I likely would have hung up the phone or walked away BUT the truth of the matter is it has been one of the most valued stretchings I have experienced.
As I anxiously awaited Dr. Ernest Carpenter’s frozen section report in his Petoskey, MI, office, I noted a plaque on the wall which read “The doctor does the surgery; God does the healing.” I knew right then and there that if the biopsy verified cancer that I could work with someone who publicly proclaimed his place next to God.
My reaction to hearing “you have cancer” has typically been instant numbness until I regain my bearings and acknowledge that God has the big picture and I only get to earn it one event at a time.
May 15, 1986, I officially plunged into Cancer 101 with a modified radical mastectomy. I chose this because my mother had opted for this procedure six years earlier and she would say, “Sue, I still have my arms and legs. Nothing is going to stop me.” She was my mentor model whose positive attitude evoked a similar “I’m going to deal with this even though it’s a nuisance and then move on with life.”
Gradually normalcy returned (meaning significant less preoccupation with the fact of coping with cancer) but I also knew I was changed for life, that I could never return to a pre-cancerous state and would always have to be conscientious with check-ups and alert to any perceived symptoms.
In August 1989 I put my big toe over the border and became pastoral care director at Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio. I chose a special focus on cancer patients. My stance, however, was that I had HAD cancer. I felt empathy but didn’t feel I was in the same boat. I had been there done that. Amen.
However, in January 1993 I noticed a lump on the operated side of my chest wall. When I saw my primary physician, Dr. Lipsky quickly said, “Sister, you don’t have to go home and make your peace with God but I really think that should be taken care of.” Two days after the biopsy, my surgeon, Dr. Butler, came to the pastoral care office with the recurrence news. I stumbled to a managers’ meeting and sat numb. My heart was heavy and my stomach was knotted. Everything seemed trite on the agenda with life on the line.
Once I regained equilibrium, I decided three things: (1) I wanted God to be glorified come what may. That was my desire even though I had no idea how to measure it. (2) I wanted to learn life lessons inherent in this recurrence. (3) I wanted to remain in charge by networking with the doctors, not as a victim but a partner in the healing process. I still believe this 20 years later.
My medical oncologist, Dr. Burton, recommended a program of 30 radiation treatments, 12 chemotherapy infusions and 5 years on tamoxifen. Then he said, “Sister, I hope you can see all of this as a temporary reality for the long haul.” Following this protocol plan, I took a month off for a professional and personal trip to Texas and New Mexico. Yes, I believed, “Life is uncertain; eat dessert first!”
Upon return to Toledo I did plunge into radiation and became a marked women bearing tattoos in appropriate places. Five days a week for six weeks I presented my body to the hovering machines and the hum of the motor as I prayed silently, “God of light and life, permeate me through and through.” I yearned for God’s healing power along with the human-made machinery.
Early May 1993 I found myself almost embarrassed to admit how paralyzed I felt about the next step – chemotherapy. My spiritual director, Father Jim Bacik, asked me, “Sue, is there some way you can look at the chemo as an ally working with you rather than an enemy invading you?” After some meditation and some deep breathing as I begged for trust, I did say yes and entered into the chemo world with peaceful acceptance.
For each of the infusions, I toted a silk-dressed angel I named Ama (meaning love in Latin) to companion me. A fellow colleague made it for me with a written message, “I am your very own guardian angel. You have been an angel of strength and love to everyone you have made contact with. Now I will watch you, be happy with you, be sad in trying times. I will give you strength and tell you not to give up. I will love you and tell you it only gets better.” Denise, “Ama’s Mama” had survived two bouts of Hodgkin’s disease when she made Ama and wrote me that tender, supportive message.
After the final chemo episode in October, I migrated 25 miles north from Toledo for a month-long sabbatical at the Weber Center in Adrian, MI. I saw this as a time for release and relief but was surprised at the sadness and downness that engulfed my spirit. There had been security while in treatment and now I was confused about my identity: “Was I still a cancer patient or a regular person again?” Melancholy pervaded with a heavy heart. I had saved all the notes, cards and letters from the previous year and spent over 11 hours re-reading them and crying. I wrote in my journal, “Maybe this is the normal follow up of major events which have elicited hours and days of dogged determination.”
By January 1994 normalcy returned anew but awarenesses were definitely deepening. I knew I wouldn’t have chosen cancer two times if I had the choice but I also had to admit I wouldn’t trade all that I lived through, learned, laughed and loved. I started seeing cancer as a gift — strange as that sounds. One marvelous side effect was connecting with incredible folks. I did not see myself as a victim or a mere survivor. I felt I was becoming a thriver – that the lemon of this disease was turning into lemonade. I also noted one day that the word cancer starts with CAN and not CAN’T.
Fast forward ahead to July 1998 – I was in good health, finished my final tamoxifen after daily double doses for five full years and had returned to Grand Rapids to be director of holistic health at Dominican Center. I began to put my fingers in many pies of the cancer healing world such as the American Cancer Society, church cancer support groups, Gilda’s Club fledgling beginnings (it didn’t officially open until 2-15-01), Casting for Recovery and Chrysalis Community retreats to mention a few.
During my July 1999 oncology check-up, Dr. Kathleen Yost discovered two lumps in my neck that wouldn’t give her peace until they were removed. Boom – a new primary site determined to be Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Again numbness prevailed. I drove back to Dominican Center and blurted to Mary Jane, one of our massage therapists, “I don’t like being director of holistic health and having cancer a third time!” Her gentle response, “Sue, remember that we’re all human beings first.”
The next two weeks were inundated with a muga scan, CT scans, ultrasound and a bone marrow test when I left the office with two gauze “bumper stickers” on my behind. Diagnosis: Stage 1 (localized in the neck), large diffuse B cell, intermediate grade NHL… the flavor of cancer #3.
So there I was back into active cancer treatments. Only this regimen would be much harder than the Toledo protocol. Again I felt like a sponge as people poured in support and wisdom nuggets. One card read, “Courage is faith that has said its prayers.” An e-mail arrived with “When you come to the end of all that is light and all that lies ahead is the darkness of the unknown, faith tells you that one of two things will happen: either you will stand on solid ground or you will be taught how to fly!”
The most impacting message came from my namesake niece Susanne Tracy who is a general surgeon in Canada but was in medical school when she wrote, “Aunt Sue, I want the BIG C (Christ, that is) to conquer the little c (cancer).” The story of this is published in Praying Through Cancer: Set Your Heart Free from Fear. It is a 90 day Christian devotional for women on the cancer journey. My anecdotal story is Day #7.
Yes, I lost all my hair and enjoyed asking people to avoid bad hair days in honor of those of us who had no hair at all. I purchased three wigs from Paula Young’s mail order. They even had names: Genie, Jackie and Sweet Nothing (which did NOT whisper sweet nothings in my ear!) My energy would get depleted. 3-5 days after the treatment I would feel like a wind-up toy that could function but when unwound would stop. I simply had to flop and plop to honor this rare state of affairs for me. It wasn’t easy to learn how to befriend a more mild and mellow Sue but I also knew deep down that this too would pass and I wouldn’t be fixated in fatigue forever.
In the midst of all the above, I also semi-vowed I was NOT going to let cancer take my humor away. I’m pretty much known as the Funny Nun around western Michigan and even had a gig during the 2012 Laugh Fest when 150+ folks let themselves come to experience “Laff Jest for the Health of It.” I look for it in any shape and form. After my final prednisone that caused mood swings from hope to despair, from trust to doubt, to wondering if I should be planning my own funeral, I called my oncology nurse, Carol Yost, and shared, “Carol, I’m reporting into my parole officer. I’ve ingested my final drug, promise never to take one again and I want to be untethered.” We laugh together about this now 14 years later and I still call her my beloved “parole officer.”
Post-treatment plunged into regular check-up time every few weeks and months. In August, 2000, the CT scan showed an inch-long mass on thyroid. The ultrasound showed it to be solid which increased suspicion of a possible malignancy. At this point I really wondered if my lot in life is to see how many different cancers I can meet and beat, God willing. So I consented to a recommended right thyroid lobectomy. Once more I was knee-deep in anxiety, preoccupation, fragileness and shaky trust.
Dr. Jay LaBine’s report indicated “a multi-nodular hyperplasia within a normal variant range.” Actually the word I heard the loudest and clung to was NORMAL. Jay and I have become valued friends and have breakfast about three times a year. I still occasionally tell him, “Jay, I love to tell people that you’re the only man I’ve ever allowed to put a knife to my neck!” We’ve had good laughs over this and many other aspects of life at large.
Since then I’ve had numerous basal cell skin cancers excised, frozen off, burned off – eliminated. None of them has manifested squamous cell or melanoma, the most invasive of skin cancers. For this I’m grateful though I wouldn’t skip a dermatologist appointment with Dr. Richard Ashack – ever.
All of the above gives a glimpse into what I affirm is God’s graciousness in keeping me alive on planet Earth – though I’ve heard and believe that the retirement plan is Out Of This World. I pray I will welcome that moment of release when the time is right for me in God’s overall plan.
I fully believe that heaven and earth are mysteriously intertwined. We are privileged to enter this life with its ups, downs and in betweens. We’re invited by the heart of our life circumstances to embrace the grace inherent in our own life journeys. Everything that comes our way in terms of illness, dis-ease or setbacks are, to me, invitations to enter into them wholeheartedly in our own unique ways. There is no exact right or wrong way.
This cancer life journey has opened so many avenues of blessings. Presently I am an oncology chaplain at Spectrum Health’s in-patient units and the out-patient Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion. February 12, 2013, marks thirteen years there and I cherish the privilege of walking with folks who are newly diagnosed, in for surgery or treatments, back for setbacks or side-effects and yes, those dying. This is the mission that God has spared me to be immersed in and I’m heart warmed and humbled by the opportunities that present themselves day by day at the hospital and/or during the 50-60 speaking engagements I’m also invited to take part in throughout Michigan and elsewhere.
Two quotes have become exceedingly special to me. I entrust them to you here: (1) Live remembering life is a mystery to be lived and not a problem to be solved. (2) Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that You and I together can’t handle.” I bid you God’s grace-embrace one blink-swallow-breath-heart beat at a time.
Sister Sue Tracy, OP