Thank you, God for cancer

By Catherine B. Dempesy
Posted Oct 5, 2012

[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.

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.


Comments (7)

  1. The Rev Canon Nancy Platt says:

    Dear Catherine… I too had breast cancer when I had b een in my congregation in Maine for four years. Since I wrote a book on Cancer Care and was an oncology chaplain for a time, I was very proactive and insisted that the surgery be done ASAP. My Bishop said I had discovered the cure for terminal uniqueness and I quess he was right. I decided since stress plays a part in CA not to pursue my PhD even though I had been accepted at a seminary in Mass. So I am alive and well today after 25 years. I worry sometimes but at 75 I now I have been very fortunate. I was back at work two weeks later and even had the termacity to accept a call to be shortlisted for the Suffragan Bishop of Philadelpha with drains hanging from my side. Ah well Glad to hear your’ well peace and go for it Nancy Platt

    1. Sarah Mekhail says:

      Dear Catherine, First let me say how much I admire your faith. Your love of God is so strong, especially after all that you have been through. Your strength and courage speaks a multitude. I helped found a site called which allows people with chronic conditions to share their stories via video & storytelling. I think your story is extremely uplifting and motivational and we would love to have you join our community & share your story with our members. Please take a minute to visit our site & if you like what you see I would be grateful if you signed up and became a member. Everything offered on our site is 100% free, we are just trying to raise awareness for debilitating conditions. Healtheo360 was founded earlier this year by David Duplay after his 32 year old sister-in-law was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. After unsuccessful efforts with cancer support group meetings, due to the widening age gap between herself and other stage 4 breast cancer patients, the family was forced to search for other outlets of social support. This was the birth of Healtheo360. I should also mention that Dave’s mother is suffering from mid-stage Alzheimer’s and his father, who is in good health, is her caregiver for the time being until she will require supervised care in a facility. Thank you for sharing your story!

  2. Thank you for writing. I too am a priest and a stage 3 breast cancer survivor. I learned a great deal through my experience of cancer and my congregation was amazing. Your article has finally motivated me to write my as yet unwritten article about what can happen in a congregation when the rector gets seriously ill.

  3. Elizabeth Phillips says:

    Are you kidding me? My husband died from cancer and left me a widow at the age of 45. He left a grieving son, 14, and a grieving daughter, 11. I am a cradle Episcopalian who is not angry at God. I am angry at people like you who say that I am stronger because of the cancer and my loss. I watched my husband endure three operations, two rounds of chemotherapy, a month of radiation. He died a slow, painful death. I do not in a million years believe that this was God’s plan to teach me or my children grace or love or community. Cancer happens and it sucks. I do, however, believe that God loves me and mourns my loss with me without trying to reveal any cliches or platitudes.

  4. Fr.Michael Neal says:

    Glad all went well sister Catherine…….God is good…………and let us continue to prayer for those with cancer and those affected by it………………God bless…………………..

  5. gloria G FLUCKE says:

    CANCER in remission for 10 years….I have learned about gratitude and the loving caress of God…

    Thank you St Luke’s Evanston, Il for the Healing Ministers at Sunday Mass. God created… and

    saw it was good.

  6. Rev. Ruth B Paulus says:

    Catherine… thank you for sharing your wisdom and journey. I too am a Stage III infiltrative ductal carcinoma of the breast. I want to affirm your thoughts. I am a priest of 7 years and an RN of 36 years. I am a straight shooter when it comes to dealing with life and the living thereof. I am not one for platitudes or cliches`. Nor did I feel that your commentary presented them. I AM a better person for having had cancer. My husband and my daughters ARE better people because I have had cancer. We have made a tough journey together and have ended up in a place far better than we would have had I not had this, regarding dealing with the living of life and dealing with the reality of death, and preventative health care. The whole nine yards. I have been blessed by the kindness and love of strangers and a community of the faithful that have renewed my faith and my joy. May you continue to be blessed now and always. I would hope that those who have not had a healing journey through the cancer experience get cancer care counseling or grief counseling to deal with the myriad of emotions this diagnosis creates.

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