Within 24 hours, I was visited by the surgical oncology team headed by Dr. Kathleen Christians. I had much blood drawn for testing, another CT Scan, a MRI, and an endoscopy. I also saw many personnel from hospice, palliative care, dietary, medical social work to ascertain that my advanced directives were completed and in the medical chart, pastoral care, among others. Many family members visited me. I received numerous phone calls, and my parish pastor, Fr. James Arthur, came to anoint me with the Sacrament of the Sick. Although it was impossible to know how much longer I had to live on earth, I was discharged home from Froedtert to enjoy Thanksgiving. I returned several days later to have a medical port surgically inserted for chemotherapy. At this point, my cancer diagnosis was confirmed. Indeed, I had Stage IV Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer with a large tumor on the tail of the pancreas and four pancreatic tumors that spread to the liver through
the lymphatic system.
Mindful of the extremely high cost of chemotherapy and while fully realizing I had already undergone seven years of chemotherapy infusions for Crohn’s Disease, I felt anxiety trying to rush in. I got still, took a deep breath, called on God, and calmed down. The chemotherapy regimen for Crohn’s stopped, and immediately I had to start the regiment to address the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
So far, I am tolerating the 30 plus cycles of the chemotherapy regimen well over 17 months. I have complete hair loss on my head and other aspects of my body and neuropathy, primarily in the balls of my feet and toes. At times, I experience some temporary chemo-brain fog. I am cold most of the time, and I continue to experience slow weight loss, including muscle wasting. Moreover, given that so many with my particular cancer diagnosis typically have a poor prognosis, I am extremely grateful to God that I am alive and well and continue to live my life holistically. I have taught two online undergraduate courses over the past three semesters at Mount Mary University, participated on the Promotion and Tenure Committee, delivered multiple public lectures online on Zoom, driven myself to and from many medical appointments, remained active in my three scholarly academic organizations, served as the Chaplain and chair of the scholarship committee for my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., engaged in regular power walks in the shopping malls, shopped for groceries and clothing, participated on social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter), navigated well COVID 19 pandemic without getting infected (yes, I am fully vaccinated!), lived a fruitful life with my 85 year old mother and my younger sister, etc.
I count my ability to flourish amidst this cancer diagnosis to having spent twenty-two years (22) with the School Sisters of Notre Dame as a vowed woman religious (aka, “a nun), in a life of prayer, faith-sharing, as a contemplative in action, a change in diet to more fruits, vegetables, and fish, drinking liters of alkaline water, and taking daily dietary supplements. Most significantly and importantly to me, I belong to three different prayer groups—one through my membership with my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sorority, Inc., another through my home parish: The Rosary Plus Group, and another called Sisters Walking in Faith Together.
Sisters Walking in Faith Together ( SWIFT) came into existence about one year ago with writing this reflective essay, when I shared with one of my Spelman Sisters, a life –long friend Dr. Eyerce L. Armstrong-Poston, about my precarious stage IV pancreas cancer diagnosis. A faithful woman of God and steeped in the exegesis and teaching of Sacred Scripture, Eyerce expressed that, “No one should have to walk in the valley of the shadow of death alone.” Compassionate about supporting me on my faith journey of healing, Eyerce invited another Spelman alumna, Eloise Abernathy Alexis (c/o, 1986) to join us in creating this prayer circle. I have known Eloise since my time at Spelman, too. She shares these words of inspiration as part of the prayer group, “together, we attack cancer while we bind the worst and the best of humanity in our ever faithful, biweekly virtual prayer time.” I appreciate that the initial kernel of this prayer group consisted of Spelman women. Eyerce also desired that there be some structure to the prayer circle, suggesting that the three of us began to reflect on the autobiographical testimonies of Dottie Osteen in her book called, Healed of Cancer. Her testimony inspired me so much as we read and reflected on how God healed her and the resourceful Biblical passages she provided.
Eyerce learned that another good friend from her church, Nany Guy, desired to get involved with this prayer group, as she needed support in her healing process too. For Nancy, “the sisters in the circle of prayer have become my angels on earth. The Christ in each one of you have encouraged, comforted, built me up, instructed me, and challenged me to grow in my faith.” At a Bible Study at church, Nancy shared about the wonderful SWIFT prayer group that she joined facilitated by Eyerce Armstrong-Poston. Barbara Shepherd-Taylor listened attentively to Nancy’s sharing and inquired about joining the group too. Now an integral part of the group, Barbara expresses that “I felt so honored when I was asked to join SWIFT in July 2020. I was trying to comprehend my diagnosis and was struggling to understand the path forward. I found the sisters in the group warm, accepting supportive, and well suited to be prayer warriors.”
Word continued to spread about the beauty of SWIFT. Angela Lane learned about SWIFT. Her dear friend Lisa Jenifer-Robinson had been diagnosed with cancer. By way of Eyerce and the other SWIFT members, they both joined the group completing the circle at seven. Angela reflects on I Thessalonians 5:11 NLT with respect to SWIFT: So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. For Angela, “I’ve found strength through our opportunity to pray together and encouraged as we ministered to each other.”
Lisa captures her experiences of SWIFT, noting, “as a relatively new member of the prayer circle, I have found this diverse group of ladies to be warm, welcoming and spiritually grounded. I found this group to be a safe place for sharing, knowing that your thought and words will be met with love and understanding.”
These six SWIFT prayer warriors allow me to feel completely relaxed, freeing me/us to ask God for any kind of help that is needed. For example, I have named my tumors Marian (the pancreatic tumor), Monique, Monica, Marianique, and Mauranique —the four tumors on my liver. I say their names, asking God for them to behave and disappear. Good news! My April 19, 2021, CT Scan revealed a modest reduction in all of the tumors. For that, I am grateful to God. God gives us what we need, leading and guiding us along the way. As SWIFT, we continue to pray with and for each other.
It is important to note that I am used to experiencing abdominal pain, struggling with lower right quadrant pain resulting from decades of Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory bowel disease. With this nagging pain on the left side, including much weight loss, I tried to make sense of what was occurring. Prompted by expressed concerns by my younger brother, who said, “You are losing all of that weight. If you have cancer, what are you going to do about it?” Immediately, I called Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital to see if I could come in to be examined by a health care provider. Unfortunately, the busy Emergency Department had a seven-hour wait time; it was highly recommended that I go to the Community Memorial Hospital Emergency Department, given that it was not that busy.
I had the emergency room physician call my surgical gastroenterologist, Dr. Mary Francis Otterson, and her Advanced Practice Nurse, Sarah Callen Lundeen. Since it was rather late in the night, I was thrilled that Dr. Otterson answered her telephone; she reassured the ER physician that she knew me personally. Then Dr. Otterson proceeded to admit me to Froedtert, Center for Advanced Care. Her surgical resident and the nursing staff warmly welcomed me and got me settled for my hospital stay.