January 25, 2013

CANCER X 4: the Facts, Faith, & Feelings [1/2]

About twelve years ago, I (Judy, Co-Founder of MHYH) had the privilege of being seated right next to Sue Tracy at an American Cancer Society Fundraising dinner. As we chatted about how we came to be invited to this event, we soon discovered that we both shared a remarkably similar cancer journey. We each had been diagnosed and successfully treated for 3 major cancers! “Wow,” I thought–“I have never met anyone else like myself!” Though our cancers came at differing ages and order, she and I have lived this journey for a lifetime. Interestingly, we both later developed multiple ski n cancers as well, undoubtedly, a direct result of the radiation that saved our lives.

As I hugged Sister Sue and said goodbye that evening, I prayed that somehow we would be able to stay connected; and we have!

Sister Sue has graciously written her story for us to read and to gain encouragement. She is a remarkable woman of faith, humble in spirit, with a deep capacity to understand cancer, its joys, and its sorrows.





by Sister Sue Tracy, OP

Part 1

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 reactions 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 beat 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 my 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. Following this 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, 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 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 is cancer started with CAN and not CAN’T.

We look forward to more of Sister Sue’s story tomorrow when Part Two is posted.

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