Help Her Through: Ministering to Women with Breast Cancer
Breast cancer will strike one in eight women in your church during the coming year. Here we share stories of three district Women’s directors who have walked through being diagnosed with breast cancer-and are victors! Becky Nenstiel, West Texas District Women’s Director, was diagnosed in February 2003. She has been cancer free for seven and a half years. Bevie Jo Marquardt, Northern New England District Women’s Director, was diagnosed in September 2005, and has been cancer free for six years. Marsha Woolley, Peninsular Florida District Women’s Director, was diagnosed in July 2007, and has been cancer free for over four years. They share their stories here:
Once you were diagnosed, how long were your treatments?
Becky: My treatment with chemotherapy lasted six months followed by thirty-six radiation treatments. I then took oral medication for five years. Since being cancer free, I am living life and loving it!
Bevie Jo: After recovering from surgery, I started chemotherapy the middle of November. I had six chemo treatments, one every three weeks. Between the first and second treatment, doctors discovered I had a diseased parathyroid, and I underwent emergency surgery for that. We each have four parathyroid glands; each one is the size of a grain of wheat. Doctors had to remove one of mine because it was taking all the calcium out of my bones. I would have died from this condition, so I actually thank the Lord for the breast cancer that allowed doctors to discover the diseased parathyroid. After the six chemo treatments, I started radiation. I had thirty treatments (five a week). I was finished by the beginning of May, just in time for our District Council.
Marsha: My surgery, chemotherapy treatments, and reconstruction lasted about five months.
What three things ministered to you most during treatment?
Becky: My friends helped me cut all my hair, which was beginning to fall out, during a fellowship time at our district Ladies in Ministry retreat. They began by each cutting a lock of my hair before a pastor’s wife, who was a hairstylist, finished the hair cut. The worship leader was singing songs like, “She is so beautiful to me.”
I will never forget how that helped me have a positive attitude about the hair loss. They made it fun, and showed me such love. Because of this experience I had the courage to shave my head when my engaged daughter lost her hair from chemo a year later, so we could both wear wigs for her wedding. I could not have done this without my experience at that retreat.
Second, having someone drive me to treatments (every one of them), then take me to lunch was very helpful. Third, I received more cards than I could count. Every day our mailbox was flooded with cards. Some wrote their own messages inside while others simply signed the card. I kept every card! When I felt tired or weary I would sit and reread each of them. The cards were such an encouragement.
Bevie Jo: My husband! He was the best husband and support person around. We had tears the first day, but after that we were both troopers. We had a mission together. Dennis went with me to all my chemo. I was too weak to drive home. He would lovingly put me to bed as soon as we walked in the door. Those were hard days; my bones hurt so badly. After a good nap, I was fine. I was able to drive myself to the radiation treatments.
Prayers from our churches in the district and around the world ministered to me so greatly. We had a real peace going through this whole process. I met new people while getting treatments. They called me “little Miss Sunshine.” God gave me new opportunities and a new mission field.
Phone calls of encouragement and cards were also a big help. I even received calls from many of the national leaders. People were so sweet to me.
People brought meals, which were so helpful. Our district assistant superintendent’s wife, Angela, cooked often for us. It was a wonderful blessing. I took a nap every afternoon. I would unplug the phone and sleep.
Marsha: I was really blessed with a lot of attention and love during my illness. The other women who had been in my situation and made it through ministered to me most. I’m very visual, and needed something to fix my faith on. Without a doubt, I learned about sisterhood during this time in my life. Women who were strangers came forward in my most desperate moments before my surgery (bearing pints of ice cream!) and literally took off their shirts to calm my fears and show me the miracles of modern medicine. What amazed me was that many women I knew well, who had the same experience in the past, kept their silence. I vowed I would never keep silent.
The second thing that ministered to me was true faith. When I was weak in body, friends came forward and volunteered to take me to my treatments and pray in the Spirit during my entire treatment. It made a huge difference. The third thing that ministered to me was having sisters to laugh with and cry with.
What would you suggest doing to help a woman you know who has breast cancer?
Becky: Remind her that attitude is everything. I have watched other women walk through breast cancer who were negative and seemed sick all the time. My surgeon, who is a Christian, told me my attitude would determine how well I handled each test, surgery, and treatment. We took a “chemo bag” to every chemotherapy session. It held coloring books and colors, simple games such as Phase 10 cards, snacks I could tolerate, my Bible, and a cute stuffed animal. I used the chemo bag idea for my daughter when she went through chemo treatments. The nurses were in awe of how well she and I tolerated treatment.
“Talk to a cancer patient’s husband openly. My husband was a rock. His first words to me upon learning of my breast cancer were, “We-the two of us-will get through this together.” I shared my feelings with him and he did the same. I have seen too many couples suffer because they did not talk openly about the cancer, their feelings and how they would get through it. We spent a lot of time praying, talking and even crying together.”
Third, if a cancer patient has a career or ministry, she should be encouraged that God will give her the grace and strength she needs to continue. Of course I had to use wisdom, but I did as much as I could. I was determined to be a survivor, not a victim. I was a pastor during the time of my surgery and treatments. I did not preach on the Sundays immediately following chemotherapy. The other three Sundays I sat on a stool to preach. I continued my ministry as a Women’s Ministries sectional representative. I may have had to sit a lot during the services, but it gave me a spiritual lift just being there.
The experiences one encounters during breast cancer and the treatments are never forgotten. The strength and joy of the Lord makes one a stronger person. I have a greater appreciation for life and more compassion for those walking through any illness.
Bevie Jo: I asked my friend Becky Brumbalow what she would have done differently, because her cancer came back three times and finally spread throughout her body. (Sweet Becky is now with the Lord.) She told me she would have taken chemotherapy the very first time she had cancer. She only did radiation the first time she was diagnosed. I thought about her answer a lot, so I never hesitated about taking chemo when they told me I had cancer. I wanted to do everything possible to live as long as possible.
I told my oncologist that I was a women’s director and often spoke publically to hundreds of women throughout our district. I was going to tell them to not be afraid of having chemo; it isn’t that hard to go through. My wonderful oncologist said I could save women’s lives by encouraging them that if they ever get breast cancer to take chemo.
Being bald isn’t that bad either. I actually found benefits to being bald! I could go to try on clothes at a store, take my wig off, and then put it back on again when finished. Putting the clothes over my head did no damage to my hairstyle! Another benefit is that it saved time in the morning getting a shower or bath. I didn’t have to dry my hair or shave my legs or underarms anymore. My hair could look the same every day because I wore a wig and took it off at night. Many of the insurance companies will pay for the wig as well.
One out of every seven or eight women will get breast cancer, so my advice is to think about it ahead of time. Since chemotherapy treatments increase the odds of survival, I highly recommend accepting chemo treatments. Let’s live for Jesus as long as possible. We can serve God with or without a breast, but only if we are still alive can we serve and share the love of God with others.
Marsha: Don’t let a woman go through this alone. The greatest need of the human heart is to know we are not alone. Be present for a cancer patient with hugs, and with smiles of courage, not looks of pity. Muster every positive word you’ve ever heard, along with every scarf, headband, and crazy wig you’ve ever owned, and take them to her. Take a gallon of really good ice cream! Make her laugh a lot. Dry her tears when she cries, and keep cruel comments like, “Oh, my sister had breast cancer,and she died!” away from her. Believe God for her present, and against all odds, help her plan her future. Only He knows the plans He has for us all (Jeremiah 29:11).
Darla Knoth is the Managing Editor for the National Women’s Department.
This article “Helping Her Through: Ministering to Women with Breast Cancer” by Darla Knoth was excerpted from: www.agwomensministry.org November 2009. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”