Redemptive Suffering, Breast Cancer, and TEEN Magazine

Anyone remember TEEN Magazine from the 1970s and 1980s?  In it, they had a section for Pen Pals. Even at age 16, I had an interest in writing to people from all over the world, so I asked for a Pen Pal from Australia.  At the same time, a 16 year old girl from Australia wanted a Pen Pal from the USA.  And thus my almost lifetime friendship with Helen began.

Helen and I wrote countless times through our teenage years exchanging stories about our countries, our families and our lives.  Whenever Helen’s letters arrived, I immediately ran to open them and see what new adventures she could teach me as Helen grew up in the middle of the Australian Outback!

When I was in my early 20s, Helen wrote and said she was going to visit the USA, could she come to visit me?  We were both thrilled that we would finally meet.  It was so much fun meeting this friend as it felt like we had known each other forever.  After her visit drew to a close, Helen shared the bombshell with me that she was discerning a call to be a nun – and not just any nun!  A contemplative nun in a cloistered monastery where prayer is their main ministry.  I was shocked!!  Even though I was a practicing Roman Catholic, I found it hard to believe that this young woman that often talked with me about normal teen and young woman stuff – LIKE BOYS – was going to be a cloistered nun!  Helen did discern that she had a calling.  We wrote through her transition from Postulant to Nun, and so my Pen Pal exchange has continued with now Sr. Helen for all these decades.

Sr. Helen is in a lovely monastery in Australia.  Although I’ve never been there, from her vivid descriptions and pictures she has sent, I feel I have.  The nuns in her community prayed for me all the time I was going through breast cancer treatment.  And ironically, one of their Sisters was going through Breast Cancer and chemo almost simultaneously with me.  Literally, I felt their prayers.  One of their sisters uses email and  the internet on behalf of their community, so I was able to keep them posted with my progress.

The Sisters prayed for my mom and her breast cancer diagnosis.  And then when Diann, my sister, was recently diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, one of my first emails was to Sr. Helen’s community to ask them to pray for Diann.  I knew without a doubt that my old friend, Sr. Helen, would make sure that happened and would pray faithfully for Diann and all her family!

Yet another day arrived I had been dreading for Diann:  Her post-surgery consult with her breast surgeon and first meeting with her Oncologists to discuss pathology, her chemo schedule and treatment plan.   Standing in the driveway, getting into my car, the postal truck pulled up and my familiar and friendly carrier handed me my mail.  Immediately, I spotted a letter from Sr. Helen.  Sr. Helen’s Aerogramme’s with a beautiful Australian stamp have looked much the same for these 40 years!  Eagerly, I stuck it in my purse to read LATER as I got in my car to pick up Diann for the all too familiar 120 mile round trip trek to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

LATER came while I was waiting for Diann while she was in a medical test.  My compassion for Diann, what she was going through, and my fear of the appointments that lie ahead were overwhelming.  Sitting at the Cancer Center at University of Michigan, where I have spent more time than many of its employees,  the weight of Diann’s diagnosis, my mom’s, my own, and my father’s death from pancreatic cancer seemed absolutely unbearable to me.  My heart was filled with tremendous grief, and I felt overcome with emotion and fear for Diann.  My suffering seemed more than I could bear.   In an attempt to distract myself from my emotions, I reached for the 6-month old Christmas Good Housekeeping magazine lying on the waiting room table while making a mental note to  donate current magaines on my next trip.  Then, thankfully, I remembered Sr. Helen’s letter.

Opening the letter, Sr. Helen’s words were balm for my breaking heart, and I knew God was speaking them directly to me.   I believe you will find great meaning in Sr. Helen’s words no matter what your religious beliefs:

My dear friend Denise,

…When Sister brought your email to me while I was cutting the altar bread sheets (into round hosts), I knew it held bad news with such a delivery.  While I wait for the sheets to dampen down in a large humidifier, I do my spiritual reading.  The book I was reading on that particular day was Austen Ivereigh’s book, “The Great Reformer – Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.”  Just before your email arrived, I had read about Pope Francis’ suffering when he was 21 and had part of his lung removed.  His mother and others were telling him to displace his thoughts, it will soon pass, etc., which was NO HELP AT ALL.  It was only when his old high school teacher, Sr. Dolores told him that “with your pain you are imitating Christ” was he able to find peace.  What had been pointless, was now redemptive.  The pain was no less, but bearing it became possible.  Later in the book, Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “Christ’s suffering on the cross was intensely lonely.  In any deep suffering, physical or spiritual, what a person needs is people who love them, who respect their silence, and who pray that God may enter into that space which is pure solitude.”   Ivan Ivereigh also quotes Victor Frankl (Holocaust Survivor) “…the secret to enduring great suffering is not to try to imagine its end, but to find meaning in the present.”

Denise, I KNOW you can resonate with this.  I cry with you concerning the breast cancer diagnosis of Diann.  And Diann’s anxiety must be great as she knows what you went through.  We are praying that her ordeal will be kinder.”   My love and prayers, Sr. Helen

I marveled at God’s timing, because as I read Sr. Helen’s letter, my fears literally vanished. Pondering what all it took to get to that precise moment – my email magically going across the globe to a nun’s computer at a cloistered monastery, arriving on a different date than when it was sent although only seconds apart, the perfect timing of the hand delivery of that email to Sr. Helen, Sr. Helen reading a beautiful book with just the right words to write to me with her great spiritual wisdom, and her letter arriving via snail mail at precisely the time I needed it.

And so TEEN Magazine circa 1972, thank you for matching me with my Pen Pal, Helen, from Australia.  God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

Traveling Ahead of My Sister and Her Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Many of you are writing asking updates about my sister, Diann, who was recently diagnosed with Stage 3 Breast Cancer – ER+ PR+ Her2Neg.  Diann just had a Lumpectomy with Lymph Node Dissection – margins cleared, awaiting final pathology report about how many positive nodes.  Diann will begin chemotherapy the first week of June.  It has been a rough month for Diann and those of us who love her.  She was scanned, scanned and scanned again.  Because of scans, she had to go to a kidney specialist in between all the breast stuff.  But fortunately that was “watch and wait.”

Observing someone you love cope with cancer, makes you realize what they are made of and how they handle extremely stressful situations.  Diann has amazed me with her fortitude, courage, and hope.  Raising three kids as a divorced mom, she has reservoirs of strength that amaze me.

Many women absolutely hate the word “journey” related to a breast cancer diagnosis as often they would like to save that word for more pleasant times, like a vacation.  I’m one that happens to think the word “journey” is very appropriate. Breast Cancer takes you places you never thought you would be, there are many valleys and some mountaintops, and the road is very, very long.  Sometimes it is a straight road, but other times it is winding and you cannot see around the next corner.

So in pondering “journey”, this same imagery keeps going through my head.  I feel like this is a modern-day version of two sisters going west in a Conestoga Wagon at different times and in between our mother made the trip, too.  Necessity forced me to blaze a trail west into unknown territory.  Our mom had a relatively easy trip.  But now it is Diann’s turn to head west.  ConestogaWagonThe modern-day version comes into play because in our western journey, we have cell phones.  I am able to warn her of trails to avoid and trails to take, but it is still her trip west and her wagon is equipped differently than mine.  And Diann is in charge of her wagon. She will end up on different roads than I took, some by choice and some by happenstance, and all I can do is offer advice when asked and keep quiet when not asked.  And let me tell you, that is no easy task for me!

For example, her daughter, Danelle and I are in recovery with Diann post surgery, and the nurse is going over post surgery information.  It seemed like she was reading a novel, and it was taking forever.  We were mentally and physically exhausted, and our blood sugars were running low.  The nurse told Diann that her arm may be numb because of the cutting of the nerves from the lymph node removal, but it will get better.  Rather than just shutting up, I blurt out, “Heck no it won’t get better.  My arm is still numb three years later.”   I could have chosen better timing for that truthful remark.

And so we all learn as this new journey begins…


In honor of a new journey, has a new logo: