My Story: Faith and Spirituality
Faith and spirituality often help people with cancer find meaning in illness and provide comfort in the face of fear and uncertainty. Connection to a caring network of support can be another benefit. Faith-based communities may also assist with the practical challenges that come with a breast cancer diagnosis: help around the house, with meals, with rides to medical appointments, and with other types of hands-on care.
Here, three women write about the role faith has played in coping with breast cancer.
Judy Zainfeld, 67
Religion: Reform JudaismDiagnosed with stage I HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010
Breast cancer diagnosis and treatment was quite shocking and unsettling. But I was completely surrounded by an amazing support system: my family, my friends and my faith. I could see my synagogue from the windows each time I went in for infusions. My faith has been guiding me for years, through the worst of times and the best of times. While in treatment I celebrated my 60th birthday and was blessed at my temple. I was able to attend Kol Nidre services, the opening prayer of Yom Kippur, my favorite services, if I promised not to hug or kiss people and sit near the back, to protect my weakened immune system. Just being able to sit in the house of worship and participate in prayers and songs was so important. My legs didn’t have the strength to stand, but I was there.
I remember calling my rabbi and asking him for extra prayers. He said he would put my name on the Mi Shebeirach list, for people in need of healing. He knew I always said prayers and said to me “Judy, don’t forget to include yourself in your prayers.” That took my breath away as I never thought about praying for myself. My rabbi told me years ago, after my father’s funeral, that God never takes away without giving back. Six months later I met my future husband. Chemo took away my hair and strength, but God gave me plenty of fight. I in turn have helped others with their journey.
God blessed me with the greatest parents, sister, husband, daughter and friends. God held my hand through this long journey. I’m a very blessed woman!
Veronica Johnson, 58
Religion: Nondenominational ChristianityDiagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) in 2017
It all started with the flu. On January 20, 2017, while coughing up what felt like a lung, I noticed an explosion of blood on my shirt. Within days, I went through the usual tests. While being prepped for the biopsy, the tech offered to play music. I requested Third Day, my favorite Christian rock band. I became teary-eyed as I pondered the likely diagnosis. Then, I heard the Third Day song, “I’ve Always Loved You.” Some might see this as a coincidence, but I know better. The chorus goes:
Don’t you know I’ve always loved you
Even before there was time
Though you turn away
I’ll tell you still
Don’t you know I’ve always loved you
And I always will
And then I cried a little more! What should have been a very painful biopsy was filled with chatting and laughter with the Christian tech. There were many moments like this when I felt God’s reassurance.
On February 7, I learned I had breast cancer. Many might see this as a death sentence, but thank God it was ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a non-invasive, stage 0 cancer, localized in one breast. If you’re gonna have breast cancer, this was the most favorable kind. My husband and I met with the oncology team and were joking during much of the meetings. The team psychologist couldn’t quite understand why I didn’t blame anyone, including God. I just smiled and said, “He loves me!” She asked about stress relief. Before I could tell her, my husband blurted out, “She goes into her prayer room and prays!”
And that’s what has made the difference. I had a mastectomy on March 2, 2017. It took the two surgeons 9 hours to remove and reconstruct the breast. The reconstruction used tissue from my tummy. I thought, cool, a tummy tuck and boob job all in one! Since then, I’ve had two additional surgeries. Though I’m still recovering from the surgeries, the important thing is this: I am cancer-free. I do not require radiation or chemo or any other cancer drugs.
I’m a member of Lifesong Church in Sutton, Massachusetts, a nondenominational Bible-based church that believes in the power of prayer. I feel blessed that God has given me a strong connection to a praying church family, especially a strong bond with a wonderful sisterhood of praying women. When this adventure began, I contacted my chat group of prayer warrior women, known as “the 12.” All of these women began to cover me in prayer. With the prayers of so many and my trust in the faithfulness of God, I could only have peace.
Now, I am not saying that there have not been difficult times: uncomfortable drainage tubes, no showers for three weeks, falling off an air mattress the second day out of the hospital, pain, swelling, [and] boredom. I have watched more British TV series than I can count!
I have no bitterness nor do I blame God. I don’t feel the need to ask “why me?” I am grateful for the love, support and especially the prayers of friends, family, church family and colleagues. It’s been humbling and sustaining. I must also give special props to Cliff, my husband of 16 years. He has shown such strength, love, devotion and care for me that, again, I am deeply humbled and blessed. Sometimes, I feel a little guilty that I am included with those who’ve had a worse experience with cancer. Still, I am grateful for my outcome and pray for those who have not been as fortunate.
Harini Ganesan, 37
Santa Clara, California
Religion: HinduismDiagnosed with stage IIIA, hormone receptor-positive breast cancer in 2015, diagnosed with metastatic disease in 2017
I am Hindu but [I see it as] more than [a] religion. I look at it as a way of life. It allows me to follow good practices and kriyas, exercises that strengthen the body, mind and soul. My journey with Hinduism has led me from ritualistic to spiritual.
Before any of my treatments, to take my mind off of it, not only would I pray, but also chant a few shlokas: prayers or hymns that require my full attention. The words are very soothing and due to the immense concentration it requires, I do not have any other thoughts troubling me. It works well as I get to pray to my Ishta Deveta — favorite god (we do have plenty of them) — and in turn I feel more calm and relaxed before a big scan, procedure or treatment.
A lot of my practices that I learned growing up came in handy when I was initially diagnosed. I took comfort in going back to practicing some of the rituals I used to practice as a kid. I chant “Om” and it reverberates through the mind and body and sets my mind in a pleasant frequency. I do breathing exercises, called pranayama, to help keep my focus and also improve oxygen intake. For the community aspect of it, I go to a temple and attend the worship, called aarti, every week and the hymns calm me down. I also volunteer at the temple and the emotional, physical and spiritual support I get from the other more experienced volunteers has been very comforting. It reassures me that I will be taken care of by the universe.