Carrying the Cancer Cross

cross on yellow background - image by kelin from Pixabay

During a Mass for the Anointing of the Sick, the priest referred to the famous Caravaggio painting The Calling of St. Matthew. In it, Matthew sits at a table, surrounded by others, with a surprised look that Jesus is pointing directly at him. I imagined myself in the scene and completely empathized with Matthew’s surprise at being called. But in my imaginative prayer with that scene, Jesus was calling me to carry my cancer with him.

We all have crosses to carry in this life, from disease, injury, and heartbreak to challenging the structural sin in the world around us. None of them are crosses anyone desires or requests. They are given to us not by God but by the reality of limited human bodies and broken human societies. The question becomes how do we carry those crosses that are a part of every human life? Do we carry them with anger, resentment, fear, self-loathing, or regret that ripples out into the world through unhealthy actions towards others? Or do we carry our all-too-human crosses with patience, self-worth, gratitude for the goodness that remains, and a trust that even in this unwanted cross God is at work? In the First Principle and Foundation, St. Ignatius Loyola implores that all is for the greater glory of God and thus we should not seek sickness or health, long life or short. It seems a ridiculous standard of faith to reach. In that moment of imagining Jesus calling me to carry cancer, I tearfully said yes, with tears of consolation that even this cross could somehow be used for good. I just had no idea how.

Two weeks later, I walked into the cancer center for my last scheduled chemo treatment with no idea if the chemo was winning and a very long transplant road still lying ahead. Just after I checked in and took a seat waiting to be called for the requisite pre-chemo labs, a middle-aged woman with glassy eyes walked over and gently asked, “Do you mind if I ask you about your experience? My mom just got her diagnosis a few days ago, and we don’t know if the chemo and radiation will be worth what it will do to her quality of life. This is our first visit, and we don’t know what to do.”

I knew that deer-in-headlights feeling all too well, quickly remembering my first treatment day and all my fears about fitting in or standing out. How was it possible in just 15 weeks I was now someone others were looking to for guidance?

I shared with the woman all about my experience, what questions to ask, and what had been hard for me, but noted that everyone’s experience is different—different cancers, different treatment plans, different prognoses. I would need a transplant. Her mom would need radiation. But I could share one thing we might have in common. I told her one of the good parts of my experience was that my diagnosis had given me time to prepare for the end of life on my terms. I have been able to say everything that needed to be said to those I love, plan for my final arrangements, savor all the gifts of my life, and know that I will die with a sense of peace of being loved, whenever it happens. It was only in articulating it that even I realized how much I had been transformed over the last few months. The woman’s eyes welled up with tears, and in less than ten minutes we had become companions on the road. And then my name was called to go back to the lab. I had no idea what she and her mom decided about treatment, but when I returned, she had left me a note scribbled on a piece of paper torn out of her notebook full of questions. It read, “Thank you so very much! You have a great light inside of you, and your smile lights up a room! Thank you for allowing me to speak with you.”

Instantly I remembered that image of being called to carry my cancer with God, not completely sure if he was using me or her more at that moment.

Whatever crosses we carry in this life, others will follow behind us, carrying similar crosses. Facing any experience of suffering or human challenge with a sense of calling to use it for the greater glory of God doesn’t mean God gave us the cross. Rather, God invites us to find him in it and be transformed by it in ways that only experience can teach. It took weeks of carrying cancer for me to recognize that how I carried it could be a calling to make a difference in the life of another carrying it as well.

With the grace of God, we carry on.

Image by Kelin from Pixabay.

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Lisa Kelly
Lisa Kelly is a wife, mother, and Ignatian Associate living in Omaha, Nebraska. She works to help organizations integrate spirituality into their planning and systems. She and her husband, Tom, completed the 19th Annotation in 2005, just prior to spending two years living in the Dominican Republic with their three young children, supporting the work of the Jesuit Institute for Latin American Concern. Additionally they have lived in El Salvador and Bolivia for extended periods.


  1. As a cancer survivor, I found and still find great solace in the final phrases of the Creed which encapsulates our Catholic Christian faith. We recite it out of rote every Sunday but do we really believe in “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting”?

  2. Dear Lisa,

    When this first showed up in my email on 12/1, I didn’t get a chance to read it. And if I had, I wouldn’t have thought of it pertaining to me.

    In the meantime, I received a diagnosis of serious lung cancer.

    So imagine my surprise and gratitude when I encountered this again yesterday. I experienced both the grace of your Cross carrying and the invitation to how to carry my own.

    Thanks and Buen Camino, fellow pilgrim

  3. Carrying cancer with a positive mindset and preparing yourself and family for crossing over, is something one would be scared to talk about. When you talk about the cancer it’s because you know that God is with you on this journey, when you walk with Him the yoke becomes light and manageable. You are an inspiration. I pray for a successful transplant and a delightful journey. Thank you for sharing your Cancer Cross with us.

  4. Thankyou so much for this reflection.I am receiving weekly chemo which will last for several months for a relapsed cancer . Two of the advent reflections I have read in the last week have spoken about a cancer. This has so helped me to see these months as a positive time admist the difficulty .God speaks to us through others .Thankyou xxxx.

  5. Lisa, every time I read one of your reflections I feel so inspired as I did so many years ago the first time I found one of your articles. May God bless you and walk with you on your journey. I’m experiencing a similar situation as yours as my second has spread to my bones. I also have taken steps to prepare my loved ones for our final goodbyes and for my crossing to our Eternal Home.
    I also feel that the cancer is really an opportunity to carry the cross of Jesus and experience redemptive suffering for my sins and the sins of my loved ones. Through Ignatian spirituality I have been able to accept my reality and know that God will walk with me.

    • Elia,
      Thank you so much for sharing your journey with me and all of us. We are in this pilgrimage together. That is the only thing that makes it bearable. I don’t know about redemptive suffering or suffering for sins, but I do know none of us gets out of this life alive and this breaking down of the human body offers graces to recognize our limitedness, receive love in new ways, and finally come to that peace that Jesus wanted us to have again and again. Rest in that Infinite Love.

  6. Thank you for this reflection..We travel the road together….in the path and footsteps of Jesus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Your encounter reminded me of that gospel.

    • Betsy,
      By far one of my favorite Gospel passages. Yes, they ran back to Jerusalem to carry the cross of building the Church. Thank you!

  7. Lisa,
    Thank you for writing this truth & life-giving article. What resonates well with me was “how I carried(the cancer)could be a calling to make a difference in the life of another..”
    Once in active ministry of healing, I helped patients reframe their sufferings & prayed be transformed by them by God’s Grace.
    Now, I find myself on the receiving end,”yes I’ll carry this cancer”. It’s a calling, a vocation.
    To your beautiful ending of the article: “With the Grace of God, we carry on.”

    Let’s walk on, together, with others along the way.
    God bless !

    • Isabelita,
      You found the lesson among the story. Honored to share this pilgrim journey with you. Trust none of us carry it alone.

  8. Oh, Lisa…thank you for sharing your journey…I hope and pray for you and all who care for you…in every way caring is expressed. MA

    • Thank you, Mary Ann! I am grateful for your prayers and support. I know they are passing through you from the same God of Love that Ignatius experienced himself.

    • Thank you, Carolyn. It is a gift to be able to write and share this journey but also for you to take the time to read and be open to it. Thank you so much!

  9. I hope you are doing well and that your transplant successful. What a blessing God put you together with the woman who needed consolation. You are in my prayers. Thank you for sharing your journey.

    • Thank you, Carmen. What a blessing for you to take the time to read and respond! We all need some consolation directing from each other, especially me!

  10. Thank you for the beautiful gift of this article Lisa. It so clearly affirms that we are all connected in some way, and that we can all be Christ’s presence for one another. May God continue to console you with peace.


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