When you are told you have cancer what do you do? This is the moving and inspiring story of how Jean Lavelle responded to the news - not by making a frantic search for a cure outside herself, not by waiting for the dreaded disease to recur, but by journeying towards healing inside herself. She gradually became aware that there was more to cancer than its physical aspect, that the physical can be a symptom of the psychological.
Jeans story will be an encouragement and a solace to the many people whose lives have been affected, either directly or indirectly, by cancer.
Jean Lavelle is married and the mother of three grown-up children. She lives in Co. Laois.
This booklet is about a healing process. It is about the painful business of maturing.
There are umpteen different forms of cancer and the causes of most of them are unknown. But there is scarcely a family today which has not been touched by cancer. We all know or have heard of someone who has had cancer. When you are told you have cancer, what do you do? You can try and hold on until the researchers discover the cause and the cure for it. But maybe there are as many causes as there are patients! What then? This is the story of what I did. That is all. I make no claims and I hope I make no generalisations. But maybe what I have to say will help someone else in their struggle with the disease.
I chose to see the cancer I had as something very personal to me. Having had surgery for it twice, I realised that I must assume responsibility for my own life and everything in it. That is, I decided that I must respond to the cancer - not by making a frantic search for a cure outside myself, not by waiting for the dreaded disease to recur, but by journeying towards healing inside myself. My journey has not been easy but it has been worthwhile.
No two people are the same. No two people will respond to cancer in the same way. I am sharing my journey with you so that if there is something in it that you can resonate with, then it may help you along your way.
I want to thank my husband for the enormous support he gave me throughout the illness. Without him I would have gone under. I thank him too for his support in the writing of this account, which he has read at all its stages, for without him it would not have seen the light of day.
When you have overcome cancer you are indebted to a attitude of people. I want to thank the doctors, the nurses and the hospital staffs. I want to thank all those people who helped me (some of whom will recognise themselves here, spite name changes), and the many, known and unknown, who prayed for me.
Names have been altered to preserve anonymity and privacy, but everything is told as it happened.
Finally, I thank Fr Nivard, monk of Mount St Joseph, Abby. Roscrea, for his enthusiasm for the project of writing down and for his help in doing so.
A day to remember - A day to forget
It was the end of August and I was flying around in the whole of my health (as I thought) with only three things on my mind:
1. Have a new hair-do - a body-wave!
2. Bring the children to the seaside for a day, and
3. Buy them their school uniforms.
Then like a bird shot down in mid-flight it came.
For some years I had had a black spot in my left thumbnail. I always thought I must have caught it in something, say a door, to have caused the injury. But I had no memory of injuring it. Having a very young family to care for I knew that there were days when I could have caught my head in a door and not noticed it! When bringing the children to various doctors for minor ailments over the years, I showed the nail, which I assumed I must have injured, but mentioned having no memory of having done so. The doctors invariably made nothing of it. Indeed one of them cheerfully told me to put nail varnish on it!
Eventually a doctor said to me: `If I were you, Jean, I would show that nail to a surgeon. I think maybe he might take it off and it would grow clean again. I had wondered myself how the black spot had not grown out of the nail. No blame to the doctors - most doctors would never in a lifetime come across malignant melanoma of the nail tissue. So I finally went to a surgeon who did a biopsy. My husband Jim was with me in the waiting room when I went to get the result. The surgeon came in, and standing in front of me, said in a grave voice: `The news is not good. It is cancer.
My immediate reaction was to sway to and fro in the chair and repeat: `Im having a nightmare - Ill come out of it. My husband managed to remain calm and, placing his hand on my left shoulder, communicated some of that calm to me. I felt as if an earthquake was taking place in the very pit of my being. If only I could wake up and discover that I was having one hell of a nightmare, but my sanity would not allow me to escape this cruel reality. I had cancer. Or rather it had me! The surgeon went on to suggest amputation, which he would perform next morning. My husband thanked him and told him we needed a few hours to think about it. As we stood up to leave, my legs felt like jelly, while the rest of my body was numb. My husband linked me out to the car where our children were waiting to be brought shopping for their school uniforms. We explained that we could not go shopping that day. They did not protest. They were silent, and were not fooled by our efforts to hide our shock. Silent tears flowed.
Inwardly I felt as if I was a babe again, back in my mothers womb. From a distance I could overhear that I was to die before the time was ripe for me to be born, before the time was ripe for me to make conscious contact with my own creative centre, get a sense of my real self. I felt engulfed by a feeling of quiet desperation.
When we got home we phoned an old schoolfriend of mine who is a nun and also a theatre nurse. Sr Mary said she would phone me back within an hour or so when, hopefully, she would have made arrangements for me to see another surgeon.
Then I flopped down into a two-seater in our kitchen feeling as if my heart was breaking.
Our nine-year-old son, Anthony, disappeared into his bedroom to cry. Always a sensitive child, he could not look at anyone in pain. After a while he returned to the kitchen looking so calm and peaceful that I was astonished. I know him and I wondered what had happened. He had run away from me in fear to cry and be alone. Now he appeared to have lost all fear and wanted to draw close to me. He moved slowly and, sitting down beside me, he hugged me, opened his hand and showed me a Green Scapular of Our Lady. He then explained with the disarming simplicity and faith of a child that when he was lying on his bed crying he had remembered the Green Scapular under his pillow. He reached in for it, and at the very moment he held it in his hand, a little shock went right through him, which conveyed to him `Your Mammy is going to be all right.
It was obvious from the childs whole countenance and demeanour that he was grounded in a truth too great for me to comprehend in my present state of bewilderment. It was wonderful to be hugged by a child whose overwhelming fear had been transformed into a peace beyond all understanding.
Then the phone rang. It was Mary to say that she had made arrangements for me to see another surgeon next morning. My husband and I felt somewhat easier now that we were going to have a second opinion.
Next morning the second surgeon confirmed the diagnosis, and said that amputation of the thumb from the first joint would deal with the condition. I felt relieved on hearing this news as I had feared that the whole thumb would have to go. I was also relieved to hear that I would not have to have chemotherapy or radium treatment. I was given some statistics about the likelihood of my being alive in one year, in two years, and so on.
It sounded very like a death sentence, but I was so relieved at losing only half my thumb that I let the statistics in one ear and out the other. A few days later I was on the operating table.
The day you are told you have cancer is a day to remember in order to forget.
A newspaper article
Several years before I knew I had cancer, I came across an article written by Fr Robert Nash SJ, entitled `Is it Cancer? I decided to keep it as I thought one could get great consolation from reading the article if the dreaded disease ever came ones way. The day after I was diagnosed as having cancer I tried to read the article again, this time through tears. In my disturbed state I was unable to concentrate, so I brought the article with me to the hospital, to read when (as I hoped) I would have recovered some calm.
A day or two after the operation I crawled out of bed and made my way to the oratory in the hospital. I was feeling weak so I just sat inside the door. There was an old man, obviously a patient also, as he was wearing pyjamas and dressing gown, sitting in a wheelchair in front of the tabernacle. There was no one else in the chapel. The old man looked back not saying anything, but I got the impression he was calling me. On the second or third occasion when he turned slightly to look back at me I trusted my intuition and went up to him. I got into the seat beside him. We started to talk. He asked me how I came to be there. I told him - cancer. I told him how scared I was, really scared. Then I told him about the article written by Fr Nash, and the consolation I got from what each letter of the word c-a-n-c-e-r stood for in the article. C = Christ; A = Approaching; N = Now. Then I got stuck! I could not recall what the last three letters stood for. The old man pointed his forefinger deliberately and said: `C = Christ; E = Everlastingly; R = Rewarding. He knew what the last three letters stood for in the article.
Astonished, I asked him how on earth did he know what the letters stood for or had he read the article too? He smiled and whispered to me `Sure, I am Fr Nash. I was stunned.
We sat together in silence. When two people feel that death is imminent, I suppose it is natural that they can become very close in a very short time. We shared our inner world and feelings as if in some mysterious way we had known each other all our lives. The priest shared with me a confidence I shall always treasure.
I told him about my fear of what the future might hold for me - secondaries. He calmed me by pointing out that that was a bridge I could not cross until I came to it. I sensed in the silence that followed that if and when I did come to that bridge, I would be given to know then, and only then, how to cross it safely. For the time being I must simply trust.
Now it was time for us to part and he asked me if I would come to the oratory at the same time tomorrow. I said I could not promise to be there at the exact same time, and then the priest laughed and said: `Sure, come to think of it, Im not sure where I will be this time tomorrow either. Next day, when I did get the opportunity to look for him, I was told that he had been taken to a nursing home. I never saw him again. Our encounter lasted only a few minutes, but it will stand the test of time, for it was full of truth and compassion.
As I write, Fr Nash is gone to God, but he will always occupy a special place in my heart.
When I was in my late teens I was making my mothers bed one day when I found a note written by her and placed under the mattress. The words touched me deeply and I remember them clearly:
To hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless; otherwise it is not a virtue at all.
I sat down quietly for a while to give those words time to become engraved on my heart. Then I carefully placed the note back under the mattress and forgot that I had ever seen it. One can sense when one is treading on holy ground. Little did I know then that twenty-five years later those words would become my lifeline.
When I came home from hospital after the surgery, I would wake up at night and the only thing written on the blackboard of my mind was `CANCER. It had arrived on my doorstep. I had IT. Then I would reflect on the goodness of my husband and the holy innocence of our children. My heart would feel heavy as lead, about to break. Then when I was almost overwhelmed with grief at the thought of dying, my mothers words would come back to me from the distant past: `To hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless; otherwise it is not a virtue at all. I felt hopeless, so this was surely a golden opportunity to practise the virtue of hope. It seemed an insurmountable challenge, a challenge to transcend myself with all my fear. It was as if my mother, now gone to heaven, was reaching me through the medium of those words, and empowering me to `hold on. And so eventually I would fall asleep again, feeling hopelessly hopeful.