So strong. So brave. Wow, I kinda love that people see me this way. But let me be honest: it’s not always the case. And I sure don’t want other cancer patients or survivors to think that’s how they’re “supposed” to appear. I may be a royal-watcher but my upper lip is anything but stiff, and the last thing I would want to do is promote hiding feelings or faking it – especially when it comes to something as life-changing as cancer.
That said, I will admit I am actually quite proud of how I’ve handled my diagnosis so far. But believe me, it’s WAY easier to feel strong when there’s a plan (moving along quickly) and a very hopeful prognosis. I know myself well enough to be aware that if my chances of survival were different, my mindset would be too. And while this period of diagnosis and follow-up testing has been emotionally challenging, I know I have quite a road of physical challenges ahead of me: Will I feel okay after surgery? How will I react to radiation? Will there be chemo, and how will I handle that? (I don’t think I’m the only cancer patient to immediately worry about the possibility of losing my hair.) I know the positive mindset will ebb and flow and I’m okay with that.
My faith plays a huge role in my ability to stay optimistic. I was raised Catholic, and my lived experiences of Catholic education (from kindergarten to present day as a teacher) and the Catholic church have been positive. I am all too aware that this has not been the case for everyone and I have thoughts, but let’s save that for another time, except to say this: As Christians, if we act unlike Jesus in the name of our faith we’re doing it wrong.
Even before cancer, I prayed on a regular basis (though I’m sure not judging anyone who finds God after a diagnosis). I keep one of my late Grandma Leahy’s rosaries in my nightstand, and at bedtime still start with the prayer I was taught as a young child: “Now I lay me down to sleep…” We always ended with “God bless…” but apparently I tried to delay bedtime by naming every person I’d ever met, so mom revised it to “God bless the whole family in the world.” I have added to this routine over the years, and for me prayer is more about talking to God, always giving thanks, and then moving into anything I am praying for.
Rote prayers have their place though. There were a LOT of Hail Marys said on that ultrasound table last week, let me tell you, and even if Mary didn’t have an impact on the positive results, she sure helped to keep me calm throughout. We have a crucifix, cross and Virgin Mary statue displayed in our home, but I’ll never come close to my late mother-in-law’s appreciation for religious articles – though I was happy to pin some of her many medals to my hospital gowns when I delivered my girls. (It seemed particularly fitting to have Our Lady of Olives close by when Olivia was born.)
Here’s the thing about God: while I know He can work miracles with no explanation, what I find in my own life is that He generally works through everyone else. (You remember the story of the guy on a roof in a flood who declines all offers of help, because he’s waiting for God to save him? He gets enlightened soon after when he arrives in heaven.) When it comes to a disease like cancer, it doesn’t make sense for me to decline treatment and sit home and pray for God to save me. He has people trained for that! (One message I received sums it up perfectly: “May God through medical intercession restore you to full and complete health.”)
God working through others doesn’t just apply to the medical side of things either – the reason I appear (and mostly feel) strong is because of the overwhelming support I have. Not only do I start from a place of privilege (when you don’t have to worry about loss of income from cancer, how to pay for drugs, how to get to treatments, etc., you’re unbelievably fortunate) but the people in my life are incredible, and I am well aware that not everyone has that. I have a supportive spouse, healthy parents who only live 40 minutes away, daughters who are responsible enough to look after themselves when necessary, a classroom partner who has taken an unplanned crash course in breast cancer and become adept at working with a variety of supply teachers – or no supply teacher at all – and an almost countless number of colleagues, family members, friends, online connections and relative strangers who have reached out to offer support.
I truly feel God in every single text, DM, email, social media comment and even phone call (yes, some people still do that) I receive. You all are doing His work, even if you don’t believe in Him anymore. You know who you are.
Part of my regular prayer life has always been to pray for what I want (I’m human) but also to pray for grace to handle not getting what I want: I hope I get that job, but if not help me to take it in stride and know that a better one is coming. I hate conflict and can’t stand when people are mad at me, but I can’t control that. Sometimes I pray for the other person to come around, but I also ask for help to stop dwelling on it myself, and I do find that it works.
It’s been the same with my cancer prayers so far. In the week between biopsy and diagnosis my prayers consisted a lot of insistent, “Please God don’t let it be cancer” pleas, but I also threw in a few “Please God if it’s cancer help me be strong, bring me calm and peace”…etc., and I truly believe that contributes to the strength, calm and peace that I feel.
When you tell me that I’m in your prayers, I appreciate it more than you know. While others who are struggling with something and don’t believe in God may scoff at that sort of “platitude”, and you’re better off offering more practical words of support, that doesn’t mean you can’t keep praying for them privately!
One thing I’m still struggling with (because it’s way too soon to have the answers) is the question of what God wants me to learn from this experience. A loved one who is a breast cancer survivor wrote to me and said “this journey will change you – and at some point you will figure out how”. Some common lessons survivors cite: learning to appreciate health (I swear I already did – my husband and I remark on a regular basis how fortunate we are to have our health, and while I may make slight adjustments to my diet I don’t foresee any huge lifestyle changes), appreciating family (check – I prioritize time with my husband and daughters, I’m close with my extended family) or learning to seize the day (no one would have ever called me “Wild and Crazy Kate” pre-diagnosis but I have my own kind of fun!)
Slowing down and taking care of yourself is another lesson many talk about, and looking in from the outside you might think that I need to do so. I would argue however that while I’m a productive gal, I work smart, I’m efficient, I enjoy my side hustles, and when I relax, I relax hard. I mean between Netflix, books, baths, massages and making sleep a huge priority I invest in myself too. I am open to further reflection on this aspect though, and await guidance from above.
One thing I am sure about is that I have been called from the very beginning to write about my story and share it publicly and I can’t even tell you how much it means to me that you’ve joined me here at this very moment.
I’ll leave you with a beautiful prayer that was sent to me (an example of God working through a school board colleague):