I never fathomed getting cancer as a “younger” person. I’m 44, active and healthy, and I didn’t have any strong family history of cancer that would have made me consider it a likelihood. But on July 8, 2022, the unlikely became a reality when I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of invasive breast cancer.
Suddenly, my world, which revolves around meeting the daily needs of my husband and six children and running an education department at a faithful Catholic university, changed drastically. My usual concerns of “What am I making for dinner?” and “Who is taking Joey to practice?” switched to “How far has this cancer spread?” and “Is this curable?” and “Will I be able to continue to work while I’m going through treatment?” Of course, someone still needed to worry about dinner and taking Joey to practice! But the weight of these new questions and concerns hung heavily on my shoulders as I slowly embraced this new cross the Lord was asking me to carry.
In the early stages of this trial, God began to reveal to me that this wasn’t just my cross. This cross was a cross fashioned for our entire family. This cross was and continues to be a “school” through which we, as a domestic church, are learning how to suffer and how to suffer well.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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If you think about it, we really don’t have any formal training on how to suffer. It’s primarily a learn-by-experience type of thing. Or, if you are fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who bear their sufferings virtuously, you learn how to suffer by example. But wouldn’t we all be better off if we actually had a primer on “how to suffer”—a guidebook with suggestions for how to bear trials patiently, how to see the good amidst pain, and how to allow our sufferings to be truly redemptive?
My trial with cancer has become that primer for our family. Through it, we are learning how to suffer and are growing in a deeper understanding and appreciation of the beauty of the cross. What we have learned so far about suffering is that it is not meant to be endured alone, that intercessory prayer is food needed for the journey, and that sharing with each other the good we see amidst hardship changes our view of suffering into something beautiful and redemptive.
When you share with your spouse and children that you have cancer, and tears instantly well up in their eyes, you immediately realize that this cross does not belong to you alone. Every member of the family carries a piece of this load. From my fear of leaving my husband a widower, to my husband’s fear of watching me suffer, to my children’s fear of losing their mom, we all share this cross. It’s important to recognize this and discuss these fears and feelings as a family. There is great solace in knowing your siblings and parents share the same sentiments. It’s also important to experience the hardships together.
I knew from conversations with my children that several of them feared me losing my hair. So, when my hair began to fall out, my husband led us in a hair-cutting ceremony. Every member of the family took turns cutting my hair. We all cried, talked through our feelings, laughed at how much I looked like each of the five boys as my hair became shorter and shorter, and drank some sparkling cider to toast making it through another hurdle: the hair loss. This not only bonded us as a family, it also allowed us to know that feeling pain and being sad is ok. We feel these feelings because of our great love for one another. So, in a mysterious way, even the pain and suffering that came with the cross of losing my hair allowed beauty and goodness to pour forth.
I think we are sometimes tempted to believe that our sufferings are meant to be endured on our own. But crosses are never meant to be borne alone. Contemplate our very Lord’s Passion. Even He did not carry His cross alone. Simon physically carried the cross for a period of time, and Veronica sought to enter into and ease the Lord’s pain as she wiped His beaten and bloodied face. While I’m sure the God of the universe didn’t need these interventions to make it to Calvary on His own, I’m certain these beautiful manifestations of others participating in the Lord’s suffering are part of the Passion for a reason. We needed to witness them. They remind us that we are called to help others carry their crosses and, likewise, to allow others to help us carry ours. And, there is no better place than the family for these critical, life-giving lessons to be nurtured.
The Rosary. It has become our anchor. Meditating on specific mysteries, such as Mary’s fiat in the Annunciation or her and Joseph’s obedience when presenting Jesus in the Temple, has helped us accept with trust and humility the circumstances the Lord has asked us to endure. The Rosary is powerful because it’s not only an incredible testimony through which we can draw strength, but, through the mysteries, it’s the ultimate prayer that we can lean into and cast our cares, anxieties, and burdens upon.
For our family, the Rosary is where we bring our intercessions. We lift up our personal intentions, and we lift up the intentions of those praying for us. When you’re suffering, it’s very easy to become stuck in a vacuum and absorbed by your own trials and circumstances. It’s very easy to have a “woe is me mentality.” But, when you make an effort to lift up the intentions of those who are praying for you and helping you carry your cross in various ways, your perspective completely changes. Instead of being inwardly consumed by your own hardships, you become outwardly moved by the compassion and generosity extended by others. Remembering these beautiful acts of goodness and mercy brings a sense of joy, providing strength for the journey ahead (Nehemiah 8:10).
Saint Teresa of Calcutta once said, “Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus—a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.” How many times I have had to repeat this to myself. How many times I have had to tell myself that God allowed those He loved most dearly, including His most precious Son, to suffer terribly. But God does not allow suffering to have the final word. God has promised that in all things He works for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).
In Colossians 1:24, Paul eloquently shares how he rejoices in his sufferings because God allows more redemptive graces to be poured forth when we unite our afflictions with Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. God is just that good! He will not let our suffering be in vain. He will use the offering of our afflictions to cultivate virtue in our hearts and our families and work miracles seen and unseen all around us.
We live in a world where despair is often resorted to and even condoned or lauded in the face of great suffering. I’ve often said to myself, “If only people knew how to suffer and the great good it can bear, we would see so much less tragedy through suicide and loss of faith.” And the family—the domestic church—serves as a wellspring where the graces of learning to suffer can be fostered and nourished.
While I would never have wished to have breast cancer in a million years, I am grateful that the Lord is using this trial to teach my family how to suffer and carry this cross…together. As we attend this “school of suffering” as a family, may we continue to bear our cross in a way that glorifies God and draws us closer to His Sacred Heart, and may we embrace each day and circumstance on the journey ahead with great trust in the Lord’s abounding mercy and providence.
St. Padre Pio, pray for us! St. Zelie, pray for us! St. Agatha, pray for us!
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