Pregnancy, Cancer and Miracles with Our Lady of Częstochowa
My husband was invited to speak at a business conference which would be held in Stockholm, Sweden, in the spring of 2015. We got out a map and looked at the neighboring countries to determine where we could also take in a pilgrimage while in Europe. We realized that we could be in Krakow, Poland at the Divine Mercy Shrine on Divine Mercy Sunday. We also decided to head up to Częstochowa, two hours north of Krakow, for an overnight stay at the Jasna Góra Monastery, where the icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa is housed. Millions of pilgrims visit this place every year. Our Lady of Częstochowa also has a pro-life reputation, so we wanted to find out more.
There was no thought in my mind of praying to her to become pregnant, even though we had three previous miscarriages. At 48, I wasn't sure I wanted to be an older mom, and so I was content going into the future with just the two of us and no children.
We landed in Krakow from Stockholm, rented a car and headed up to Częstochowa, hoping to participate in the evening Mass at the Monastery.
Baggage about Mary
Eight years earlier, I had converted to the Catholic faith. Up to that point as an Evangelical, I had accumulated quite a bit of "baggage" around Mary. I had been taught that Catholics worship Mary and gave her too much adulation; she was, after all, 'just another ordinary woman' I had been told. Evangelicals don't give her much thought except at Christmas time.
I began discovering what the Catholic Church taught about Mary, and started to appreciate what Mary said about herself in Luke 1:46: "My soul magnifies the Lord..." and that her whole 'raison d'être' is to magnify Jesus.
So when I walked into the shrine that evening and saw the enormous, ornately-embellished icon there before me, I realized that I still had a lot of baggage around Mary. My thoughts went something like, "oh my, we Catholics really over-do Mary" and "this is over the top" and "I really wonder if Mary appreciates this…?"
Mary cuts through the baggage
After the Mass I was drawn to the icon of Mary. I found myself saying interiorly, "help me". I was unable to vocalize out loud as there were many pilgrims around. It got more intense, "Help Me!" The tears began to fall, and the intensity increased until it got to the point that, if Mary had been there in person, I would have held her shoulders in my hands, while shaking her and desperately crying, "HELP ME!"
During this time, in my natural mind, I was thinking two things:
'What's wrong with me?' and 'Jesus, are you okay with me praying to Your mother like this?' I didn't understand at that time about Mary's powerful intercessory role.
Twenty minutes later, it was all done. I mopped myself up and looked around for my husband. He asked what happened.
"I was asking Mary for help for something!" I stammered, still at a loss of how to explain what had just happened.
"That's great!" my husband replied. He had no Mary issues, he already knew how powerful her prayers were.
Our pilgrimage continued, it was an amazing experience at the Divine Mercy Shrine, but nothing compared to that first evening in Częstochowa.
Miracle pregnancy and then ... cancer!
Upon our return to Canada: as soon as we entered our house, I had an urge to go upstairs to our bedroom where I lay prostrate on the floor, crying out repeatedly, "Thank you Father! Thank you Jesus!" Again, more tears, and as before, I was clueless as to what I was thanking Him for.
Four weeks after we returned from Europe, we discovered we were two weeks pregnant (completely natural, with no medical intervention). We were elated! But deep down, I wondered if this would be another false start.
Three days later, we were both in my doctor's office, getting results of a biopsy I had done about a week earlier. A year prior we found a lump under my left arm, the doctor said it was "too small" to get a biopsy done, and to come back if it grew. It never grew.
When we came back from the pilgrimage my husband said that I should request a biopsy.
So there in the doctor's office, three days after we discovered we were pregnant, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, or breast cancer.
Thus began colliding emotions of fear, elation and unbelief, as well as a lot of pressure from the medical community. There was a community of 25 oncologists, surgeons and doctors who consulted with my surgeon on my situation. I was strongly encouraged to get chemotherapy and radiation in the second trimester. I was told that the anthracycline-based chemo was "safe" and other pregnant moms with cancer had taken the treatment. We looked into it, but as a relatively new treatment, there were no long-term studies, and small sample sizes at that. We learned that 80% of women in early pregnancy with cancer opt for abortion before cancer treatment. I was told that, "Diane, you need to put your health first". I didn't feel supported by many of the doctors, but my surgeon was cautiously supportive of my desire to protect my baby.
I declined both the chemo and radiation. I didn't want to expose the baby to that treatment, and deep down, I knew that Mary was "on it"..... I believed She was the reason we were pregnant, and so this news wasn't too much for her to handle.
However, I did want the lump removed, so in the first trimester, my surgeon made the courageous decision to perform a lumpectomy under local anesthesia in her office because they couldn't get an operating room in time. It was a first for her. Although the surgery was fairly superficial, or near the surface, I still found it uncomfortable to sleep that night.
After a few days, we received the pathology: it was an aggressive and hormone sensitive cancer (ER+ PR+ HER2-). During pregnancy, hormones are higher than usual, so I was told that there was a high risk of mestatization or fourth stage cancer if i didn't receive chemotherapy.
What does the Book of Esther have to do with a cancer and baby?
During this time, my husband was inspired by the Book of Esther from the daily readings. He saw a parallel: the wicked Haman who wanted to eradicate the Jews, and the righteous Jewish hero, Mordecai. Haman had built gallows on which to hang Mordecai.
My husband equated evil Haman to the cancer and innocent Mordecai to the baby. He began praying over me morning and night that Haman would be hung on his own gallows and Mordecai would live, that the cancer would die and the baby would live; that death would die and life would live.
Both my husband and I would wake up around 3 a.m. It seemed to alternate, one night he'd wake up, another night I would wake up and go downstairs to pray before the Divine Mercy image, placing the doctors, surgeons, nurses - the whole situation - into His Ocean of Mercy. For my husband, sometimes it would go on until morning.
During this time, missionaries from the John Paul II Centre for Divine Mercy brought over relics of Polish saints: Pope Saint John Paul II, St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Fautina Kowalska. It was a powerful experience. I felt like these Polish saints were supporting a miracle that happened in Poland.
Medical intervention, and miracles
When I refused chemo and radiation, my surgeon told me that at the very least, I should have a sentinel lymph node removal to determine if any cancer cells were travelling in my lymphatic system. So in the second trimester, there was another first for my surgeon: invasive surgery under local - not general - anesthesia. Fully awake during the surgery, I smelt my burning flesh as they cauterized blood vessels and dug around to remove three lymph nodes.
That morning after the surgery, I was told that the local anesthesia would be gradually wearing off, and within four hours I would have to start taking pain meds.
That morning my husband was re-arranging his office, and the icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa was lying on his desk. I picked it up, and prayed a silent prayer:
"Mary, you did that thing in Częstochowa. Would you keep me pain free, feeling just as good as I do now?"
I had thoughts like, "of course I'm going to feel pain, this is just a wish".
Four hours later I had no pain. That night I slept like a baby. Twenty-four hours later it was as if I hadn't had surgery, I had full mobility in my arm, completely pain-free. It was Mary's prayers! My husband said it was the closest thing he'd ever seen to a miracle, and with that kind of intervention from Our Lady, the results would be negative.
A few days later we got the results: the lymph nodes were all clear! From thereon in, the pregnancy was textbook: I felt great, there were no complications at all. Her due date was Feb. 29th - leap year! - so we were looking forward to it.
I worked with a number of alternative health professionals to build back my immunity and correct the underlying causes of the cancer.
My husband reads the Bible daily for fifteen minutes, systematically, from Genesis to Revelation. In January he said, “you know I could be reading the Book of Esther during the month of February, but it looks like I'll be there a week early." Our daughter was born a week early: on the morning of her birth, February 23rd, my husband was reading from Esther 7 when Haman was hung on his own gallows. We named her Adessa, taken from Hadassah from Esther 2:7, Esther’s Jewish name before she became the Persian queen. In the midst of death, there was life, thanks to the saving power of God and Our Lady's intercessions. We pray that Haman truly has been hung on his own gallows and we will not see cancer's horrid face again.
What's it like now?
It's been 5 years (as of this writing of Dec. 2020), I'm healthy, we're all healthy. Thanks be to God. We remain humbled by the experience and we are (cautiously) optimistic about the future, one day at a time with Mary. Here's Adessa at four and a half years old.