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Journey through cancer – Jean Lavelle

24 July, 2012


This book 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. There is scarcely a family today that has not been touched by cancer in some way. We all know or have heard of someone who has had cancer, but when you are told you have cancer, what do you do? You can try to 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 will resonate with you, then it may help you along your way.

When you have overcome cancer you are indebted to a multitude of people. 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. Without him it would not have seen the light of day.

I want to thank the doctors, the nurses and the hospital staff. I want to thank all those people who helped me (some of whom will recognise themselves here, despite 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 Abbey, Roscrea, for his enthusiasm for the project of writing it all down and for his help in doing so.

Jean Lavelle


Day to Remember — A Day to Forget
Providential Meeting
Light in the Night
A Child’s Gift of Discernment
The Impossible is Possible
The Power of Our Thoughts
The Wounded Child
Walking in a New Direction
A Friend Dies
A Retreat
More Surgery
Talk About It
Telling Dad
To Live is to be Slowly Born
Sr Bernadette
The Otherness of the Other
Some Years Later
Conclusion: January 2010

64 pp. Veritas Publications. to purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie


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: have a new hair-do – a body-wave! – bring the children to the seaside for a day, and buy them their school uniforms. Then, like a bird shot down in mid-flight, my life changed.

For four years I had had a black spot in my left thumbnail. I always thought that I must have caught it in something, like 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! When bringing the children to various doctors for minor ailments over the years, I showed the nail. 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 in a loud whisper, ‘I’m having a nightmare – I’ll 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 of the whole thumb, which he would perform the 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. The day you are told you have cancer is a day to remember in order to forget.

Inwardly I felt as if I was a babe again, back in my mother’s 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 aright.’

It was obvious from the child’s 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, but said that amputation of the thumb from the first joint would be sufficient to deal with the condition. I felt relieved on hearing this news. Then I asked the surgeon if the rest of the thumb might have to be amputated later should the cancer return. He said, `No! The form of cancer you have is only interested in nail tissue.’ I was not offered chemotherapy or radium treatment, ‘as research shows that the cancer you have would not respond to such treatment’. The surgeon went on to give me some statistics about the likelihood of my being alive in one year, two years and so on. By the time the surgeon mentioned the fifth year there were no statistics left. I got the message. My term of office on this earth would be up within five years. 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.

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 one’s way. The day after I was diagnosed with 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 a 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 the article said each letter of the word ‘cancer’ stood for: C = Christ; A = Approaching; N = Now. Then I got stuck! I could not recall what the last three letters stood for. The old man knew what they stood for. He pointed his forefinger deliberately and said, ‘C = Christ; E = Everlastingly; R = Rewarding.’ Astonished, I asked him how on earth he knew this — 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 short time. We shared our inner world and feelings as if in some mysterious way we had known each other all our lives. Fr Nash 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. Fr Nash laughed and said, ‘Sure, come to think of it, I’m 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 mother’s 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’. I would reflect on the goodness of my husband and the holy innocence of our children, and my heart would feel heavy as lead, about to break. Then when I was almost overwhelmed with grief at the thought of dying, my mother’s 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.

We have a double swing in our garden on which I love to swing along with the children. There is a sense of timelessness on a swing, which the child in me enjoys to this day. Our youngest child, Paul, then seven years old, got great pleasure from swinging alongside his mum. I was home from hospital only a few days when one morning Paul smiled up into my face and said, ‘Mum, come on the swing with me!’ I was still in a daze with shock and heartbreak, and here was our youngest asking me to go swinging with him. His innocence was so pure and he so obviously could have no idea of what I was going through that I had not the heart to refuse him. As we swung he was beside himself with joy, while I was beside myself with a grief bordering on despair. We were alongside each other, but we were worlds apart. The child was conscious only of life. I was conscious only of death. I felt so alone and yet so much at one with all those people who were suffering from cancer or any other disease. I knew the child was unable to be with me in my distraught state.

After some time I was touched by an unexpected grace. The child’s very innocence revealed that spirit of life — life which transcends death. As the scales began to fall from my eyes, I could see that while the child was unable to be with me in my broken reality, I was being called upon to be with him in his holy reality. I recognised that the road I was travelling on was the Road to Emmaus. Like the two disciples, I had been so preoccupied and heavy with the thoughts of what had happened in the recent past that I was unaware of the ‘stranger’ in the form of an innocent child. I had gone out to the swing full of fear; I returned to the kitchen to prepare a meal — full of hope.

For about four years before I was diagnosed as having cancer I felt more comfortable in bed at night if there was a dim light in the hallway. I felt that if I woke during the night, the light would reassure me that I still had my sight, that I could still see. I had always enjoyed perfect sight, so I often wondered why I had this instinctive fear. Without the light I knew that I could wake up during the night with the dreadful sensation of having gone blind.

From the time I was operated on for cancer I never felt the need for this light. Again I wondered why. Then, one day, a doctor said to me: ‘You know, Jean, you are really lucky!’ In dismay I asked him how he could come to that conclusion as I was still trying to come to terms with the terrifying fact that I had cancer. He explained that the tissue under the nail is a very rare type of tissue in the body, but it is also to be found at the back of the eye. So the malignant melanoma could have struck the tissue behind my eyes just as easily as it had struck that under my thumbnail. ‘In other words,’ he said, ‘you could have suddenly gone blind!’ Now I knew why I had felt the need for that light in the night before I had surgery for cancer.


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