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.

nun-clipart-nunSr. 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.



  1. How wonderful that you received a letter from Sr. Helen just at the perfect time. I am so sorry your sister has to endure this dreadful disease, but with HOPE only good awaits us! God is glorious!

  2. What a wonderful writer you are, Denise. I’m so glad the letter from your dear old friend arrived when it did and that it brought you peace and comfort. I am so sorry for what your sister has to go through…and for you, since being the strength and support of someone you love can be as hard as going through it yourself. Wishing you both comfort and strength.

    • Oh Jeanie, how nice to hear from you and see your face and LOVELY hair!
      We never have a bad hair day now, do we?! Thanks for your kind and supportive
      words. They are MUCH appreciated. Denise

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