Six Lessons from a Cannonball Diagnosis

hospital bed - photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash
It was 1:17 a.m. when I finally gave up trying to sleep. How is it possible I can’t get comfortable in a hospital bed that has 47 different positions? I opened my e-mail, grasping for some connection to normal life that I hadn’t experienced in a week as a hospital patient, to find a request to write about a “cannonball moment” in my life. Rather than just an invitation, it felt like a call to recognize Something much greater at hand than my anxiety. Four days later my cannonball got a name: Stage 4 T-cell Lymphoma. My identity suddenly added a new aspect: cancer patient. I know there are so many others who have experienced similar cannonball moments. Still at the very beginning of mine, here is what I am learning.

No one gets to pick a cannonball, and no one is immune.

Cannonballs are those life-changers that come without warning: An illness or injury. A loss of job. A loss of a loved one. A natural disaster. There is simply no preparing for or ensuring life beyond such experiences. Rather than blame them on God or question, “Why me?” or, “Why now?” I learned from Pat Malone, SJ, that such cannonballs are invitations to discern with God, “OK, now what do we do with this?”

Discernment is not prophecy.

My diagnosis hit 15 days before we were closing on our house of 19 years to move to Spain to start the “second half” of life as empty nesters. We had taken two years to discern the move. Each step of the process was full of consolation: cleaning out and selling the house, getting the visa paperwork, finding a place to live in a foreign city, and continually working on language skills. Just when we were so confident and filled with consolation that we had discerned God’s call, our cannonball reaffirmed quite clearly that discernment is not prophecy. St. Ignatius once said if he were called to leave the Society, he hoped it would take him 15 minutes in prayer to be in line with God’s new invitation. Discernment is finding God’s call in the moment without being attached to the future. God is in the now.

The cannonball is only the beginning.

My cannonball moment is the catalyst for a new journey with God. The end of the journey is unknown. Ignatius didn’t instantly turn his life over to God when his leg was shattered, but a new journey began. Faith is about letting that journey unfold over time with the only desired outcome to be union with God. My treatment plan is 18 weeks, but I expect the journey and implications of this cannonball to take the rest of my life.

Rather than expect a miracle now, I am learning that the miracle already is and was every day I have lived.

Cannonballs bring unexpected graces.

My lymphoma diagnosis has reprioritized everything in my life. Tasks I thought I alone had to do because no one else could do them are now being graced by the talents of others. The world and all its daily pressures did not fall apart without me. I find relief and joy in the most ordinary of human living: taking a hot shower and caring for my body, a frozen yogurt, fresh breezes, breathing freely, and being with family. The miracle of how my body with a million little parts managed to work silently fighting random infection and injury went on every single day without me giving it a second thought. Rather than expect a miracle now, I am learning that the miracle already is and was every day I have lived.

Cannonballs call for surrender.

So many people send me encouragement to fight and be strong, but the reality is my body is no longer my own. I have to surrender any sense of control of my body to the medicines to fight the disease for me. Beyond my body, however, I have found the surrender of the Suscipe—giving my whole memory, will, and understanding over to God—to be the greatest relief. I don’t have to muster my own will to get through this. I can surrender that façade of ego and then trust that the grace to walk the road ahead is already carrying me.

No one survives a cannonball alone.

Without the soldiers who carried Ignatius so many miles from Pamplona back to Loyola, and without a sister-in-law and family and medical care as it was to recuperate, Ignatius wouldn’t have survived, converted, or changed the world. The grace of so many friends and family supporting us through this has been a living witness to the presence of God every single day. It has truly been overwhelming. But the reality of human existence is that people are all too often alone or marginalized in this world when their cannonballs hit, and without the compassion of strangers they will not survive. We must carry each other through our cannonball moments.

Tonight, I will sleep far easier than before my cannonball got a name. I am not grateful for this diagnosis. I would give it back if I could. But I am finding that even in the worst cannonballs of life, there are invitations to see Something greater at hand.

Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash.

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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. Lisa, your blog immediately brought to mind my younger brother, Bobby, who was diagnosed as having pancreatic cancer. Cannonball moment. So sending him link to your blog before I call him at 10am manila time today. Pray for this call. That Jesus use me to encourage Bobby.

  2. Wow! I am celebrating the final days of the Ignatian Year with more readings and reflections on St. Ignatius’ cannonball moment and I chanced upon your reflection. And again, wow! Your words are truly helpful as I face my own struggles with my NSCLC – stage 4 diagnosis. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Your words have somehow articulated my own experiences. I struggle on many days, but I always try to live in gratitude. I am fortunate to have carers (nurses, doctors, etc.) around me and, together with my family, friends, and community, I have the support that makes the love of God a tangible reality.

    May God bless us!

  3. Lisa, I have thought of you so often since this was first published and have you in my heart and my prayers. I don’t know how to reach you other than here so I wanted you to know someone is out there wishing you all the graces and healing you can hold. It is a funny thing about this site. After awhile the authors feel like friends. We can be well no matter how ill we might be. This piece of writing shows how true that is.

    • Thank you so much Mary Ann. I am doing well and have been able to offer a few more posts about my journey that will be forthcoming. For now I am able to walk in so much gratitude for people like you whose compassion seems endless.

      • I’m so glad to hear this…and I look forward to reading more about this unexpected journey. You are in my prayers.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am completely stunned by your courage and faith. You are an inspiration, a bright light, to many I’m sure. May you be blessed over and over again.

  5. God has a way of using cancer to draw us close/r to Him. Please count me in to journey with you in prayer, Lisa Kelly. Thank you for inspiring us with your surrender.

  6. Thank you Lisa for sharing this. It is and will continue to be an inspiration to us all. Sending prayers your way.

  7. Lisa,
    Your extra-ordinary words so filled with Grace and Ignatian insight-a gift to each of us. Thank you.
    After considerable reflection and prayers for you, two thoughts: The first borrowed spiritual from your companion blogger Loretta and the second a bit more pragmatic – from me.
    Loretta; “My God, you will give me all that I need. I need not hoard or fear. A handful of genuine treasure will see me through this day. And I know where to go to access the deep wealth of Your love again. Wherever I am, I find you.’
    Rob: I am always reminded that my thoughts about science and medicine lag far behind the remarkable advances in science and medicine. It usually takes a few days after being hit by the cannonball to absorb this hope-filled fact. It helps me to re-balance mind-body-Spirit when I have encountered such a moment. For example today, my 96 year old mother-in-law is receiving a pacemaker!
    May the gifts which surround you and the Spiritual gifts you possess in abundance sustain you throughout this ‘cannonball moment.’
    Peace and prayers for your health!

  8. It’s been said that when someone takes the time to write a written comment, there are countless others who hold the same sentiments but haven’t expressed them in writing. May you feel the support of the infinity of people who hold you in the heart of our prayers and hope God’s Healing soon and sooner…

  9. I’m speechless.
    Thank you for an incredible sharing. I know it is helping many, many people who have not commented. God works in mysterious and strange ways.

  10. Lisa, you are abundantly graced as is apparent from your profound acceptance of your diagnosis and the way in which you are open to God’s work in your life…..May you continue faith filled on your journey. God Bless

  11. Thank you Lisa for sharing your testimony. It has been a great help in slowly but surely overcoming fear of what can assail our body. Acceptance, surrender and trust come forth strongly in your journey and I am edified. May graces continue to flow abundantly upon you and upon all who persevere in trying moments.

  12. God Bless you Lisa and may you recover . There is a saying I was once told long ago: How do you make God Smile or laugh?? Tell Him your plans!. I will add you to my long prayer list . May God keep you strong and treatment save you. A>M>D>G> Also thinking of your family. xxx

  13. Thank you for sharing your voice of courage, your heart of compassion, and your soul of commitment to find God in all things. Prayers offered for you and your family – love provides, love sustains, love heals. Take care.

  14. This was so beautiful Lisa! I will be sharing it with others from The Retreat who have been praying for you. And I am so glad that you get the concept of surrender that is really needed in your process of healing. I feel so blessed to have been your silent housemate at the retreat and to really get to know you now. Keep on writing girl… this is an Incredible Gift of yours to many!

  15. All of us come to know that this Enterprise is only guided by the Spirit of the One who knows the destination. Most of us have road maps that lead to journeys far beyond our understanding and expectations.
    Let us travel together my friend. Companions on the road help us to see that the destination is closer than we believe. Blessings on your day!!

  16. Blessings, Lisa. The opening pages of my prayer book contain the picture of ‘Jesus Christ Blessing’ In the Icon Chapel at Glenstal Abbey and, underneath, the words from Matthew 11:28.

  17. This is quite a cannonball ! Will keep you in my prayers for your healing and help through your treatments. Good bless you and your family.

  18. Thanks, Lisa! You are a gift to me today. I’ve just received a similar diagnosis and am coming to terms with the fact that I can’t manage this one with my usual bag of tricks – Wow! Let’s keep each other in prayer.

    • Done!! Walking with others even virtually is better than ever walking alone. You have my support and prayers and belief in the power of infinite love to carry both of us.

  19. This absolutely was a God sent message I am sure not only to myself but to so many others. My son recently overcame Non Hodgkin Lymphoma.

    You spoke so eloquently ” I don’t have to muster my own will to get through this. I can surrender that façade of ego and then trust that the grace to walk the road ahead is already carrying me.”

    Will share this with others. Praying for you and yours.


  20. Lisa, thank you very much for sharing! There are so much on which to reflect in your post. Blessings as you walk this path with God.

  21. Thank you, Lisa, for your inspirational share. May God continue to bless you so that you may continue to be a blessing to others.


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