[Episcopal News Service] Editor’s note: This piece first appeared online in The Huffington Post‘s Religion Section.
I am an Episcopal priest serving two congregations in Buffalo, N.Y. Two years ago this Thursday, on Oct. 4, 2010, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
My prayer, as I was listening to the doctor say the words, “invasive, lobular carcinoma,” came suddenly and clearly: “Gracious God be with me through this journey, allow me to walk it with dignity and grace. And help me to be grateful, whatever may be.”
Thanks be to God, that prayer was answered — and then some.
As I awoke in the recovery room at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, I was so overwhelmed, so overcome with gratitude that the only prayer I could utter through the tears was “thank you.”
Thank you for the presence of a world class cancer institute in my backyard.
Thank you for the newly arrived surgeon, who full of smarts and compassion, full of determination and grace, removed the cancer from me and painstakingly poked and prodded until she was sure — absolutely, positively sure — that all of the cancer was gone. That anything that looked or felt suspicious was removed. That the margins were checked, double checked and triple checked. That lymph nodes were felt and if not absolutely normal in texture and appearance, were also removed.
Thank you, God, for the community of family and friends huddled in that waiting room who sat for hours, praying, laughing, crying and worrying. Hoping for the best, fearing the worst and believing. Believing that whatever the outcome, they, through the grace of God, would help me get through it all.
Thank you God for the two communities of faith I serve — people who prayed me through that day, who prayed in the days leading up to it and all the days that followed. A community of love that walked with me in good times and in bad, who rejoiced with every victory and lamented every set back. A community whose trust in the peace of God, truly surpasses all understanding.
Thank you God for faith. For the indescribable, ever present belief that whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure comes from the love of God, poured out for us through Jesus Christ. (Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians).
Thank you, God, for cancer.
Yes, thank you for cancer.
Because of cancer I learned lessons I didn’t know I needed to learn. Because of cancer I discovered a depth of love, faith and gratitude I never knew existed. Because of cancer, I learned that bad news is best handled when infused with the Good News. The Good News of Faith, the Good News of Love, the Good News of Gratitude.
There are thousands upon thousands of people who are diagnosed with breast cancer each and every year. Not all the outcomes are as good as mine. People die, people suffer, people mourn. Children grow up without mothers, spouses grow old alone, friends are left with holes in their hearts.
Cancer is not for sissies. Cancer is not fun. Cancer stinks. But through the grace of God and the power of prayer and the faith of a community, cancer made me a better priest, a better pastor, a better person.
On Oct. 18, I, along with two sister priests and a deacon, all of us breast cancer survivors, will lead an open service of Healing, Hope, Gratitude and Remembrance for all those affected by Breast Cancer. The service will take place at the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York Ministry Center. People of all faiths or no faith are invited. We will sing, we will shout “hallelujah,” we will lament. For Breast Cancer, though it has personally given me much, has taken way too much from far too many.
Breast Cancer is treatable, and early detection is the key. In my family alone five have been diagnosed early enough to be treated quickly and in some cases, aggressively. It has worked. So ladies, get those mammograms, do self-exam and, if you hear the news I heard two years ago, may you, through the power of pray and the fellowship of community, be filled with gratitude and health, all the days of your life.
— The Rev. Catherine B. Dempesy has been an Episcopal priest for four years. Currently she serves as the rector of two historic parishes in the city of Buffalo, NY: The Church of the Good Shepherd in the Parkside neighborhood and the Church of the Ascension in the Allentown neighborhood.