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My Spiritual Journey with Breast Cancer

“You have inflammatory breast cancer.” On November 5, 1999, the day I heard these words, I realized I was in a battle for my life. A force I could not control was locked inside my body destroying it. The prognosis was dismal; at best I might live three years. No one of us knows the number of days or years we will live, but just hearing a number beyond which I likely would not live was frighteningly awesome. What began as a whirlwind of activity to fight the demon settled into a pattern of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, followed by years of weekly chemo and Herceptin infusions, punctuated by metastasis to my lungs, sarcoidosis, as well as numerous side effects from the drugs. Ten and one half years later I am very much alive, receiving only Herceptin infusions every three weeks. In the course of this journey, what I originally named a curse I now appreciate as a blessing. Living with inflammatory breast cancer has renewed my sense of awe and wonder at the amazing gift and beauty of each day. Anxiety and pain brought me to a spiritual rebirth of joy and peace for which I am most grateful.

During that first year with breast cancer, I prayed for strength and courage to endure the sickness and exhaustion, as well as the indignities of hair loss and the loss of both breasts. My family and friends, colleagues and students prayed for a miracle of healing, and my sister, Gail, and I made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, a place in France Catholics hold sacred. Every night at Lourdes there is a procession around the shrine of Mary, a woman familiar with suffering, asking her intercession with God for healing of body and mind, families and nations. Each person carries a candle and voices are raised in song in a multitude of languages. Sparks of light are so clear, so alive, the darker the night! The light is pregnant with hope and joy; gratitude is the only response. Yes, I was blessed with a miracle of healing at Lourdes. My miracle was not physical healing; it was intense gratitude for the sacredness of suffering, and a realization that I needed to let go, hold life gently and live in the present moment.

Over these many years I have kept vigil with cancer, I have learned to give up my violent feeling toward it and to forgive it for intruding in my life. I have learned to honor cancer as my teacher, and to thank God for its gifts. Cancer has taught me to love the present with an abiding realization that I am dying to live as well as living to die. Cancer has helped me touch the God who dwells within me, so to love with greater passion the people and beauty that surround me. I greet each day with the words of the poet e. e. cummings, “I thank you God for most this amazing day.” In the evening I bring to mind all the sights, sounds, feelings and people who were amazing gifts of that day. I am even learning to recognize the grace in the bad and ugly parts of some days – to name the hurt or pain and to let it go. There is too much love I want to share and too much good I want to do to allow myself to be buried by the weight of anger or fear about the cancer or anything else.

Each one of us, sisters and brothers with breast cancer, no matter our faith tradition, is invited into the divine wellspring of our lives to tend to that spark of life and light deep within us, flowing through us. Each moment matters; each moment is the moment to be celebrated. This is our joy and our reason for hope.

Sister Nancy Bonshock, SND, high school teacher and breast cancer survivor—At the age of 18, Sister Nancy entered the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and has committed her life to the education of young Catholic women. For the past 35 years, she has taught in the Social Studies Department at the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur in Villanova, PA. Her own struggle with cancer began in October of 1999 and she was declared cancer free in November of 2007. According to colleagues and former students, “Sister Nancy has been a voice for the voiceless, has a passion for justice, a love for the poor and a heart as wide as the world.”

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