‘This is my second chance …’


Angie kids at sunsest
“We go near sunset, when it rains, when it snows… We try to take in God’s amazing canvas. We can leave behind all of the life challenges, stressors, any illness/cancer, and just slow down for a moment to reconnect with one another.”  —  Angie Hartley
angie & co @ concert
Summer concerts and festivals are high priority for, from left, Abbie, Cade and Angie Hartley, here in 2017.

The new Angie Hartley doesn’t wait to do things.
Cancer has taught her she can’t: Tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us

“The cancer does’t have the hold on me it used to, but it’s still part of my life in terms of influence.”

* When the magic of the beach calls, she and her kids go;

* She celebrates their “half-birthdays” at the 6-month mark;

“There are times when I feel guilty that my son doesn’t have the old me who could run and lift; but he’s getting the better parts of me that were hidden by the business of life.”

8 years and a lifetime ago

When Angie and I met eight years ago, the then 37-year-old single mother was dealing with a rare form of invasive breast cancer that accounts for less than 1 percent of breast cancers.

She had endured multiple surgeries, including a double mastectomy and hysterectomy. She faced more surgery and treatment. She was thinking about making a will.

Angie & kids B&W
Strength to the power of 3

“If I’m going to have cancer, I’m blessed to have this type I do,” she said when I wrote about her then.  “My cancer is not affecting a body part I can’t have removed and don’t need.” For the full interview visit:


Those treatments over, she is being treated for osteoporosis and was diagnosed with skin cancer last year, for which she did topical chemo.

“There was so much fear of the unknown in the past … and there still is,” she says reflectively.

She focuses on the present, but when the sense of loss or fear is overwhelming, she’s learned to go  directly at it, then get on with living.

Hit rough times head-on but avoid The Pit

“Back when I was sick, and I still do, you need your moments to mourn the old you in a burst, then get back to business.

“Any longer, and it’s like a pit: I don’t want to play there,” she says, referencing lyrics from “Pit of Despair. ”

A woman of strong faith who sees the divine in her second chance, Angie wants to help  others through what she calls a ministry focused on food: for mind and body.

Diet is hugely important in her life, and she has just finished a certificate program in plant-based nutrition though eCornell University. She talks of using it  “to help encourage those battling cancer and chronic illness with a healthier diet to support further healing.

“My goal is to speak hope and life to others.”

She and her two children have been on the giving and receiving ends of the support that is Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids.

“I was at Gilda’s grand opening (Feb. 15, 2001), and I ended up teaching a class there.”

When she was diagnosed with cancer, she gravitated back.

Gilda’s garden magic

“When I did not feel well, I would go to Gilda’s and walk the gardens, my kids would play outside and walk or run the labyrinth. We’d meet in the middle and lay down on the grass and look at the sky.”

Both children forged long-term connections with Gilda’s Camp Sparkle. The Club’s summer program invites kids to connect with other kids affected by cancer or grief. http://www.gildasclubgr.org/camp-sparkle/

“My kids love it. This camp is a safe place.”

Son Cade, 9, is a five-time camper; daughter Abbie, 14, was first a camper then worked as a volunteer for two years.

As someone who struggled with the aftermath of a parent’s cancer, Abbie was able to connect with kids and help them in a way an adult couldn’t, Angie said.

Make memories: Take pictures

Angie still takes tons of photos, even though she no longer works as a photographer.

“My kids say I take too many pictures, but I can take a picture and it’s like I’m filing that moment in my brain. Otherwise I don’t remember it.”

Making memories starts with a decision on how to spent a precious resource.

Angie is very intentional with how she spends her time.

“We all need to slow down and cherish the time we do have. Make the time you have count.”




Speak up, LaughFest-style

Bradley Leukemia Journey
In it together. Colin Bradley was the one with the leukemia, but mom Martie, dad Dave and brothers Aidan and Keegan were on the front lines with him.

After Colin Bradley, was diagnosed with leukemia in fifth grade, his mom, Martie, would get a crash course in taking the lead in game-changing medical conversations and decisions.

On Friday, March 9, Martie is part of panel of us who will share what we’ve learned about how to have those conversations and make the tough choices.

Live at LaughFest

In the spirit of Gilda Radner and Sister Sue Tracy, two women who knew a thing or two about cancer and the magic bullet of laughter in personal crisis management, Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids and LaughFest Rx presents Courageous Conversations.

Details on our Friday, March 9 event at Laughfestgr.org

Open to all; extra credit, literally (in the form of Continuing Education credits) for nurses and social workers.

Panelists also include Dr. Dave Sharp, Martie’s dad and a Hospice physician; Carol Robinson, Making Choices Michigan; Molly Keating, spiritual director of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids; Jon Beckett and me.

In the middle of that life-changing week for the Bradleys in 2012, Martie took Colin to the doctor to see what was up with his headaches and tiredness. He had played in a lacrosse game and in a band concert in the days just before.

The next day at 7:30 a.m., in the middle of the morning rush to get all three of her sons ready for school, the doctor called. “I’m sorry to tell you this,” she said. “Colin has leukemia.”

Martie says today that was the first courageous conversation along the way: “It was her courage to call and tell me, ‘This is what it is, and this is what we need to do.’ “

The second one came that same day — with Colin.

Following more blood tests, staff members at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital took Martie and her husband, Dave, aside to confirm the diagnosis: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a super-fast moving cancer. A port would be implanted and chemotherapy would have to begin the next day.

When they returned to tell Colin, his immediate response: Don’t do things that way again. I want to hear things first-hand from the doctors and be involved in all decisions. He was 11. Brothers Aidan and Keegan were in preschool and second grade. Upheaval would rock their lives, big time.

Martie would have many more tough talks during Colin’s years of treatment:

— Diagnosis May 2012, chemo begins
— Pancreatitis with complications July-August 2012
— Relapse of leukemia found October 2012, 6th grade
— 12 rounds of intensive inpatient chemo January 2013-October 2013
— End of intensive “frontline” treatment in October 2013, 7th grade
— End of treatment January 2016, 9th grade
— Port removal April 2016, 9th grade

Colin Bradley in treatment
Colin’s first year in treatment was a blur of tubes, tubes and more tubes.
Bradleys at Disney
Some dog days are way better than others, as the Bradleys were reminded in this 2014 visit to Disney World. Colin’s Make A Wish visit came the week of his 13th birthday.
Martie Bradley’s Go-To Guide to the Swamp

Here’s what Martie tells people who are thrown into a crisis:

  • It’s guaranteed that something will not go as planned. You don’t know which rocks you’ll trip on during the journey, but you will definitely encounter obstacles along the way. Your rock might be a drug allergy, unexpected side effect, or complicating condition.
  • Assess the situation and move on. Like a baseball catcher, you need to have the flexibility to stretch and adapt to whatever is thrown your way.
  • Trust your intuition and your body’s messages. Medical professionals need the patient and their advocate to provide accurate updates.
  • Don’t minimize pain or symptoms. Catching problems early and proactively is incredibly important, so pay attention to changes.
  • Sometimes it’s absolutely appropriate to yell for help.
  • Find your people. Use your team.You will not like every medical professional you meet. But there will be some you adore, and you can learn to appreciate the strengths of others. Some staff are excellent clinicians, but have terrible bedside manner. Go to them when you need trustworthy information.
  • Some staff are palpably empathetic and understand the emotional and mental demands of treatment. Tell them about your worries and needs for spiritual, social, or financial support.
  • If you encounter a staff member who truly is incompetent, disrespectful, or hurtful, they shouldn’t be on your team.

Colin celebrated the end of treatment with a party at Gilda’s Club in January 2016.

Even though chemo treatment was done, from 2016-2017 Colin went to the oncology clinic every month or quarter and saw three different specialists every six months. Now he goes to oncology clinic and one specialist every six months.

Colin pays it forward

Even before he finished treatment, Colin was paying it forward: He is featured in a slide show of photos shot by his mom as part of Blackout Pediatric Cancer, a fundraising effort between his school district and the children’s hospital which benefited the Pediatric Oncology Resource Team. Colin was the Blackout representative in September 2012, just one day after his feeding tube was removed and the same day as a major outpatient chemo treatment.

Many of the funds raised by the school district went to creating “Dream Rooms” for cancer patients with extended inpatient stays, Martie said. The rooms were customized to their personal preferences so they would feel more comfortable while in isolation.

Now a junior in high school who turns 17 this week, Colin plays trombone in marching band; bass trombone in jazz band, is the webmaster for his school newspaper and is on the robotics team.

Sometimes darkness can show you the light

That line from a song reflects the Bradleys family’s life today:

“Our lives are forever changed by the phone call from our doctor,” Martie said.

“My kids are able to be in hospitals and even ICU rooms without fear, and we’ve visited several adults who were dying, undergoing cancer treatment, or recovering from surgery.

“They accept other people’s physical differences and limitations without judgment.

“They handle adversity with confidence and tenacity.

“Our connection to our school district and community is so much deeper, and I’m so grateful to live in West Michigan with such incredible support for cancer patients.”


Grief batters but love remains

Chris & Chris Ingram
Chris Ingram and his late wife, Christine, at Angels Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., April 2016. Tickled by their matching first names, they would introduce themselves as Chris Squared.

“I tell people that if I knew then what the outcome would be, I’d choose her and our life together all over again.” — Chris Ingram on his wife’s suicide

Chris Ingram’s future wife was a pretty pain for the Fifth Third Ballpark usher when they met: She was seated in his section, and she kept climbing up on the back of the seat to see. He’d tell her to get down; she would watch until he was gone and do it again.

“She was just like a little kid, and she was so dog-gone pretty,” he recalled.

He would find out she was a breast cancer survivor who had had a single mastectomy, and on their first date, she told him she had young onset Parkinson’s disease.

“It didn’t phase me. I think God had a hand in that,” he said. “She was the best thing that ever happened to me.” They married in 2007.

A cost too high to pay

Christine would learn that for her, trying to control the Parkinson’s came at a physical and emotional cost she ultimately would decide she could no longer pay.

Aug. 15, 2016 when her husband, came home from work, he found she had taken her life using his insulin, prescribed for his diabetes. Taken to the hospital, she was removed from life support the next day.

Three weeks after her death, following the advice of The Rev. Michael C. Fedewa, Rector of St. Andrews Episcopal church, Chris went to Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids for help dealing with his grief.

“I was a basket case who thought Gilda’s Club was only for people dealing with cancer. I thought I’d be here for six months, get a tuneup, and be gone, but I’m still here.

“Beginning the very first time I came here, I met people who gave me hope.”

“It’s going to get better,” a Gilda’s member told him Day 1.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel: It’s sunlight, not the light of a train. You’ve already been hit by the train.” — Fellow Gilda’s Club member

At Gilda’s, Ingram found what many others find: “You can show your true feelings and trust people and not be judged,” he said.

“For your needs to be met, they have to be known.”

He’s learned to follow the lead of a friend who “gives a pass” to those who haven’t been through it and can’t understand.

“You’re the one who’s hurting and others should be worried about you, not about them, but it doesn’t work that way.”

Suicide can spark all sorts of judgments and speculation.

For some people, the fact that Christine Ingram had uncontrollable Parkinson’s somehow makes her suicide OK, Chris said.

Understanding born of pain

He has grown to understand that “some people feel there’s no way out,” which is why, he said, he supports legally sanctioned assisted suicide.

That, and the fact that having a prescription to end one’s life does not mean taking it.

Deathwithdignity.org reports that only a small number of people use the law to die; and about one third of those who do obtain the medication prescribed under the law never take it.

Physician-assisted suicide is legal in five US states (Oregon, Vermont, Washington and California, Montana) and the District of Columbia.

In states where it is not, such as Michigan, suicide can bring the police.

An hour before Christine was to be removed from life support, a detective came to the hospital to question Chris, he recalled.

“The fact that it was my insulin … “ his voice trailed off. “If I’d been present, I would have been in trouble.”

Although he is open about their experience, “I don’t want her to be remembered for that.

“When she died, the best part of me died, too.”

Chris has had his own physical problems: The same year he and Christine married, Chris was diagnosed with peripheral artery disease, and in 2009, he lost a leg to it. Swimming in the East Grand Rapids pool after that, he got to know head coach Butch Briggs, and hired on to help coach.

Find joy in what you love

Coaching continues to bring him joy.

“The best thing I’ve done since she died is I bought a hand cycle.” He competed in the Metro Health Grand Rapids Marathon in October.

“It’s important to find new things you like to do because everything I did reminded me of her in some way.

“It gives you your own identity,” he said.

“You have to take life a day at a time, and do the best you can do. There will be days you have to force yourself to do things, and it’s important to surround yourself with things you like to do.”

He’s also determined to visit all the Major League Baseball parks “before I die.” He figures he still has about 10 out of 30 to go. He also wants to return to Europe to visit Dunkirk, France. His dad was 19 when he was wounded there during WWII.

People compare grief with “getting hit by 100-foot waves,” Chris Ingram said. “And as time goes by, the waves get smaller and farther apart.

“I’ve learned to appreciate friends and loved ones more.
“Tell somebody you love them today – because tomorrow they could be gone.”

As time goes on, “you realize you’ll miss her every day – you miss the good times.  I’ll always remember her smile, and she was just so kind.

“I was one lucky guy.”

Back from the abyss: A family’s story

Member Mondays Murphy family
Happy days are here again. From left, Cohen, 12; Gavin, 14; Evan, 6, Erin and Brian Murray. Hudson is in the foreground.

Erin and Brian Murray’s current family photo is a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting: Happy family, happy life.

Member Monday Evan Murray
Evan  and Erin have come a long way after a rough start. Erin had to schedule his delivery between chemo dates.

It is light years away from March 11, 2011 when life took a nightmarish turn: Erin, 29 and 6 months pregnant, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.

“I didn’t want to talk to anyone, or go to Gilda’s, or be in a support group, because no one understood ME.  People at the cancer center were not my age.  People stared at me when I was nine months pregnant and bald.  I got questions about breastfeeding, and sleepless nights were from my nausea, not my infant.”  Member Monday Erin and Evin Murray

But then she connected with the Young Survivors of West Michigan — a group of young women with breast cancer who come together to encourage and support each other. The group formed in 2012 and has met at both Lacks Cancer Center and Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids.

“It changed my life,” Erin said.

While Erin and the other women were meeting at Gilda’s, Brian and the other spouses started going out for burgers and beers. The children went to Noogieland, the special kids’ place in the clubhouse.

Rough going for everyone.

Erin “endured a year of chemo, a double mastectomy, 33 radiation treatments and multiple reconstructive surgeries,” Brian told the 2017 crowd at Gilda’s Night of Gratitude.

“She even had to plan the birth of our son at a perfect interval between chemo treatments, so she had enough strength to make it through labor,” said Brian, now chairman of Gilda’s board.

“I, my friends, would put her up against the toughest of Marines any day.”

A burger, a beer and a bond

Being with others in the same sea, if not the same boat, was a huge help.

“For me, it was being in the fraternity nobody wants to be in,” Brian said.

“We were all trying to process what was happening. All of our stories were similar — all being young, having kids and dealing with it. When we would go through stuff, we would reach out to each other… you don’t want to burden your spouse.”

Sometimes the men didn’t even talk about the heavy stuff: It was enough to have someplace to go and hang out with others who really understood.

“It was life-changing to meet those guys,” Brian said. “Things could have gotten a lot darker a lot faster for me if I hadn’t.”

Paying it forward

Today, Erin is considered cured, and she and Brian feel the need to help those struggling now.

“One of the scariest parts was when we “graduated” from Young Survivors,” Brian recalled. “It was almost like jumping off a cliff.”

They knew they wanted to give back, so Brian joined the board of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids.

Erin’s focus is on helping grieving children and teens heal.

“I know how easily we could have been on the other side,” Erin said. “Brian could have been the grieving spouse, but we did not end up there.”

What helped them that might help others?

“Seeing either a counselor or a therapist as a couple if very important. We learned a lot about how to be there for one another,” Erin said.

“Don’t be too stubborn, too proud or too embarrassed,” said Brian, who had always thought he could get through anything on his own.

“Just reach out.”

He is an unabashed Go-To-Guida’s guy:

“People think going to Gilda’s will be super-depressing — then you end up laughing and going out for a beer.

“I tell people, ‘Just go once. If you don’t like it, don’t go back’ — That doesn’t happen.”

“After you’ve done it, you’ll wonder why you waited.

Life through the prism of Cancer

Cancer “definitely puts things into perspective,” Brian said. “You have to remind yourself ‘why am I worrying about this (whatever)? Nobody has cancer.’ ”

Joy comes for Erin in “our family, planning Christmas, being able to celebrate small milestones and watching our sons play basketball, football, soccer and baseball and seeing them enjoy it.

“This guy brings me all the joy in the world,” Eric said, smiling at Brian.

For Brian, it’s time with Erin and his family, savoring a new bond with nature and simple pleasures.

Hope is an elusive butterfly he doesn’t pursue.

“I’m very careful. It’s almost as if I hope, I will set myself up.”

He focuses on life now.

“I don’t take much for granted.”

“You have to remind yourself,  ‘Why am I worrying about this (whatever)? Nobody has cancer.’ ” — Brian Murray






Joy rises from grief’s ashes

joyce steenbergen - edited jpg
A friend in need … Rhonda Talsma, left, recognized Joyce Steenbergen needed more help with her grief than a forever-friend could give … then she took Joyce to Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, and everything changed.

“I am just now at the top of the mountain, ready to look over into joy,” Joyce Steenbergen says with a poignancy born of pain.

Joy is an unfamiliar place, but thanks to an insightful, insistent forever-friend, and Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, it’s in sight.

Joyce’s descent into devastating loss began in 2001. In the space of six years, death took 2 of her 5 children and her husband.

The day before the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists, her oldest daughter, Kelly, who was 27 and lived in Memphis, called to say she had been admitted to a hospital with masses all over her body.

Diagnosed with extremely rare Adrenocortical Carcinoma, the married mother of 2 died within a month.

Joyce relied on family and faith to get through:

“I thought i should just rely on God.”

“I don’t think I had friends who had lost children. I felt like I had no one to talk to. People didn’t want to hear my story. It made them uneasy, made them feel like it might happen to them. It was just very uncomfortable.”

She kept it all to herself until 2007, when her husband, Larry, was diagnosed with colon cancer — stage 4.

“Even when I lost him, I still had very few friends who had lost a spouse already. I was 57 at the time.”

She had four remaining children, then about 18 months after Larry’s death,
“one afternoon, I was home alone and 2 police officers came to my front door. They said they wanted to talk to me about my son, Jeffrey. He had taken his life. He was 34. He had also lost a sister and lost a father.

“Now this time, I was losing a child without the support of a spouse, and that was crushing. I still thought I could do it on my own. Very few friends had been through anything like it… The closest to understanding was my other daughter, but it was hard for us to share because we were both in so much pain.”

The overwhelming grief began to take an emotional and physical toll Joyce couldn’t control.

Enter friend Rhonda Talsma. They two women had been friends since they were 3.

“She could see inside me,” Joyce said, and Rhonda recognized that Joyce was in trouble. Rhonda also realized she couldn’t fix it … then she had an idea

Turns out that when we think there’s nothing more we can do, sometimes there is something more we can do.

A recently widowed friend had been “super-pleased” with the grief support she had found at Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, and Rhonda suggested she and Joyce go see what was available.

Joyce remembers saying she was not feeling well on the date of their first scheduled visit, but Rhonda said let’s go anyway.

“I stood at the bottom of the stairs– wanting to flee but knowing this was something that I needed,” Joyce wrote in memory of her late children and husband. “My friend literally delivered me to the building where I took the first step to enter a grief support group…

“… I wondered how listening to others’ stories of loss could be uplifting instead of depressing.  Then the miracle of sharing with others took place.”

“There were widows and widowers who poured out their hearts while speaking of the loss of each spouse… They asked, ‘What is next for me?’ Yet they also spoke of new friends in their lives, closer family relations, of hope and even of new love.

“Some members had lost a close friend…They were able to move on — making new friendships while honoring the old.

“ There were parents who had lost adult children. They spoke of such emptiness in their lives…  But they also spoke of precious memories, ‘heavenly connections” and love — love that will last forever.’ ”

Amazingly, there was a woman who had lost a daughter to the rare cancer that had taken Joyce’s daughter, Kelly.

“It was like a miracle to me to know it happened to other people. It was almost like God placed her there so we could be there for each other for that week.

“No one understands like someone who’s been through what we have. Our values are completely different because what we’ve been through: The value of life, a smile, cookies on counters at Gilda’s…”

She’s learned to respond differently to those who haven’t been down a similar path:

“Just give them a pass, they don’t understand.”

“There’s a phrase we use from group: Just give them a pass, they don’t understand. You can see in someone’s eyes whether they get it. Everyone (at Gilda’s) gets it. It’s such a safe place.”

Out of it all has come hard-won wisdom:

“Not only have I found a wealth of new friends in this grief support group, I have learned so much about life:

— “I realize now that we grieve because we love and were loved;
— “I now understand the strength and support of human compassion;
— “I understand that there is a path to take in grieving, but never a time limit;
— “My smile now appears only when I am truly happy;
— “The crumbling feeling is gone and I now stand stronger — stronger with the support of my dear friends.”

She put her thoughts in writing, “in memory and with love for Kelly, Larry and Jeff.”

For the same reason, she agreed to share to help others.
“Until my last breath (with God’s help) I will try to make something good come from these losses.”




Sister Sue Tracy: The last interviews

Wisdom, one-liners, and staying real in the midst of the muck

Sister Sue TJ profile
Sister Sue Tracy was the picture of peace in this last portrait. Photo by TJ Hamilton/Sabo PR.

In the weeks before Sister Sue Tracy died June 29, 2016, she was at ease, at times energized, and yes, still delivering her trademark one-liners, as she talked about her decision to end cancer treatment, enter Hospice, and face the end of one life and the beginning of another — for her, a certainty shrouded in mystery.

As always, Sister Sue, 6-time cancer veteran, former oncology chaplain, half-century+ member of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids and cancer iconoclast extraordinaire, never shied away from talking about the tough stuff.

“ ‘Shy’ isn’t in my vocabulary,” she said with a muted hoot as she sat in a chair in her sun-drenched room at Marywood, leaves dancing in the sun, shortly before her 76 birthday and her death soon after.

This time she was sharing her thoughts on death and dying, fear and faith, the role of humor in it all, and what I call “extra innings” – aka the legacy of arguably the biggest Detroit Tigers/Harvey Kuenn fan on the planet.

Our series of three conversations was aided and abetted by Jean MacDonald, Sue’s long-time BFF.

The Legacy: Last Lessons

* Faced with cancer #6 metastasizing in her brain beyond medicine’s reach, she chose to end life on her terms.

When it was clear the treatment arsenal was out of magic bullets, she was faced with a choice:

Last-ditch radiation with its possibility of a little extra time paid for at a debilitating physical cost vs. entering Hospice with its emphasis on keeping the pain at bay and the physical and mental descent as comfortable as possible.

From what I saw during Sister Sue’s last weeks, for her, Hospice was the ultimate choice between quality and iffy quantity.

As one of many privileged to spend time with her after she made that choice, I was struck again and again by:

* Her joy despite the inevitable fading of mind and body.

Her delight in all of us who were able to be with her for even a few minutes — to share in flashes of vintage Sue-ness, which she’d lost and we had mourned during some of her darkest times.

Her steadfast faith, a triumph over fear.

“It’s a grace or a strength from God to believe deep, deep down that life is precious, and it has its vulnerable moments, and it has a beginning a middle and an end … and the end is a phenomenal beginning forever.

“I am trying to enter into the truth of the reality I have been invited to embrace.”

How did her decision not to prolong life artificially as long as possible, fit with her faith?

“Our faith supports us when the evidence scientifically indicates that there is a limited time, it’s OK to do what I’m doing … go into Hospice, prepare for letting go. … God knows the moment and the hour.”

* Her ability to still crack wise and crack us up at the same time.

“I’m not eager, eager, eager to die, but I’m willing when the time is right…”

She chuckled at the memory of a visiting friend who said she couldn’t wait to hear the music chosen for Sue’s funeral.

“ ‘Please wait!’ I said.” Laughs around.

“Thank God I’ve rounded out here (at her beloved Marywood.) What a privilege it’s been. I was hoping I wouldn’t drop dead on the sidewalk!”

* Her dedication to staying true to who she was and what was important to her: “Staying real in the midst of the muck.” 

“ This is what God has invited me to embrace, as best I can… I don’t have to prove anything to anybody… ”

* Her candor that, “I may not be able to laugh my way out of this one.”

* Her honesty in answering whether she truly was at peace with dying, or whether she was “wearing a mask” to make us feel better:

“It’s a combination, of course it is. Of course it is. I want you to be comfortable with the reality that I am dying. We’re not destined to live forever.”

* Her conviction that humor “is as significant a part of life as anything serious or sad or hard… Not everything’s funny, but it’s a part of it and not to be excluded.

“Humor has a rich gift to stretch us out of the current moment that’s one of sadness or difficulty. Humor has a divine gift to broaden our perspective. to help us cope with hope. To look at the bright and the difficult sides, to know it’s all one.“

“To be a complete life, it has to have sadness, hope, happiness,  pain and letting go…”

* Her staunch defense of anyone who doesn’t see it that way:

“ I don’t think people should be criticized if they can’t see humor in illness or deprivation of what they want life to be. It can be very tough stuff.

“I am trying to enter into the reality of the truth I have been invited to embrace… I just want to be receptive and not stand in the way of this.”

* The gift of what she called gentle listening, which she brought to the thousands of us dealing with cancer she met with or counseled over more than half a century.

“ I wasn’t there to talk anybody into anything in particular.

“Each of us has the right to forge out what is real for us, and it varies, person to person. And in so doing, bless each other. Be a blessing to each other.

* Her wisdom on dealing with grief after the death of someone we love.

“Stay real. There’s no right or wrong in grieving. Don’t do anything artificial.

“The legacy is to live your life so it’s meaningful.”




Weathering the storm

Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids becomes life-raft for family struggling with  5-year-old’s eye cancer

Veenstra mug
A vivacious, happy girl since she was born, chemo which followed surgery to remove a cancerous eye took Meredith Veenstra down for awhile, but she’s back big time.

At 6, Meredith Veenstra has got it all going on: the wide grin, the missing two front teeth, the “bring it on” confident pose on the first day of school.

Veenstra fam 4
Brian, Ethan, Meredith and Elsie Veenstra pose for the traditional “first day of school” shot.

Life is good.

She and her family are due: They have been through hell and back in the last year.

Just a week after her fifth birthday, Meredith developed what look like pink eye.

Visits to  her pediatrician and an eye doctor revealed she wasn’t seeing anything out of her left eye, and in an immediate followup, an ophthalmologist diagnosed a cancerous tumor.

She was referred to Dr. Thomas Aaberg, an ophthalmologist with a subspecialty in eye tumors and cancers.

Fate set the appointment the same day mom Bernadette was scheduled to have surgery to repair a torn knee ligament. Left untreated too long, it would become permanently debilitating, but putting her surgery on hold was a no-brainer.

“Even before this, we’d been thinking of our priorities: God, our marriage, our kids,” Bernadette said. “When you are in survival mode, it’s pretty easy to see your priorities.”

Aaberg diagnosed retinoblastoma in Meredith — cancer of the eye. The aggressive cancer had taken over the left eyeball and was moving fast up the optic nerve.

A new eye for Meredith

Meredith’s left eyeball and portions of the optic nerve were removed on July 11, 2016.

Her parents simply told her the doctor would give her a new eye.
“We thought it was too much to handle at 5 to be told your eye was being removed.”

An MRI after surgery showed Meredith was “essentially cancer-free,” but chemo was recommended to help ensure against any renegade cells moving to the other eye and brain. She did 6 rounds of out-patient chemo at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

“From the day she was born, she has been a vivacious, happy kid,” her mom said. “But the chemo messed with her emotions.” It made her sad and it made her cry, despite the best efforts of the Child Life Specialists at the hospital.

While the term “cancer” doesn’t mean anything to a 5-year-old and fear has no context in experience, uncertainty gets to the youngest among us.

The staff at Helen DeVos would explain what was happening in Meredith’s language – showing her what to expect using a chest port on dolls, explaining, for example, that saline would be part of the routine to “give your port a drink.”

With time spent hydrating Meredith’s tiny body, chemo days could be 9 or 10 hours long — exhausting everyone. Between doctors’ appointments, home schooling and trying to “spend quality time not related to cancer, there was a lot of stress and strain on every member of the Veenstra family.

Giving when you have no more to give

“It was very challenging, and at times I would feel ‘I don’t have any more to give to anybody else,’ but you have to.”

Bernadette and Brian Veenstra “knew we needed support — because of our other kids” — Brian, now 15; Ethan, 13 and Elsie, 10.

The Veenstra family. Photo/Josh Rexford

Meredith’s surgeon’s office recommended Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids  – a family life raft of age-based support groups Bernadette would come to realize was a national rarity.

“The fact that they had different groups for all of our kids was huge,” Bernadette said.

Two days before Meredith’s surgery, they all visited Gilda’s: the boys went to the Teens and Tweens group, Elsie to the Kids, and Meredith to Noogieland.

“All of them were excited to go, and we went the second and fourth Thursdays at least twice  month from August 2016 through the beginning of June of this year.”

She talked enthusiastically about the emotional coping skills the kids learned.

Finding understanding in shared experience

“Their friends couldn’t really understand. The groups gave the kids an opportunity to talk with people who all understood what they were going through; it helped them feel normal — that they are not alone.

“I think kids generally act out when they don’t understand something, and this gave them a place to be heard. There’s a tenseness that you feel, and we all could let it out there.

“It gave Elsie a place she could be herself and Meredith loved having a place to just play.”

Bernadette and Brian  joined the Family and Friends group.

“We would share what was going on with our cancer person, and how it was affecting us. Gilda’s gave us a safe place— to “share what we were feeling and nobody felt they had to fix us or provide solutions.

“We all need a place to be heard, and to know it’s OK to be hurt, angry or stressed. The thing is, Gilda’s doesn’t leave you there. You talk about how are you going to take control of your emotional health.

“Gilda’s lets you spew the garbage and leave it there.”

“I learned that just listening to someone and not to try to offer your experience — Just to say ‘I hear you,” is really important.”
Offering “solutions” doesn’t help.

“I believe God brought cancer into our lives for a reason- but I haven’t a clue why,” Bernadette said. “. “There’s a tension, but I am trusting in His goodness.”

Veenstra - mom & meredith
Meredith and mom Bernadette

To date, Meredith’s follow-up screens are clear.

And Bernadette’s knee surgery?
Necessity moved it up the priorities list, and two days after Meredith’s surgery, Bernadette had hers.

“They told me I couldn’t care for Meredith if I didn’t get my knee fixed.”

Lessons from the last year
  • Going back to basics to deal with the tough stuff: “I bring life back down to the bare minimum basics: I focus on God, my husband and kids, and relationships. I invest in relationships rather than just activities.”
  • Complaining is a dead-end street: “Now it feels that if you don’t like something and have the power to change it, change it.
    “Shut up or put up.”
  • Giving back is part of healing: Although the Veenstras no longer attend group meetings, “we’re all on Gilda’s meal team. It’s another step in the healing process. Now it’s time to give back.”


‘You only have 1 day and that’s today’

“Today I’m alive, and if I live in fear, and it never comes back, then what kind of a life did I live???” — Judy Johnson

Judy Johnson edited photo
A riot of yellow lifted Judy Johnson out of an emotionally dark moment when she was “looking for something to cheer me up after a rough day.  God’s creation is a great source for that!  The look on my face says it all!” 

Judy Johnson has dealt with two different lung cancers; blood clots which nearly killed her, and a devastating divorce.

She was first diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007; the second time, it was 2011 going into 2012. The good news: the second was not an extension of the first.

She had both upper lobes removed (“1 for each cancer,” she says, and hoots with laughter.”) Both cancers were enclosed in the lobe and removed with it each time. Chemo followed.

The prognosis was not good, and in 2012, doctors told her to get her life in order: Survival would not be a longterm thing.

Now, 10 years after her first diagnosis and having just celebrated the fifth anniversary of the end of her last treatment, Judy is proving them wrong.

“I’ve seen tons of people at Gilda’s still alive who ‘should have’ died 10 years ago… and I’m one of ‘em.

“Lung cancer is not a death sentence any more.”

She has developed inner strength amid the weakness, learned bad stuff happens to everyone, and that each of us can make choices that make the bad stuff better or worse:

“I’ve learned that difficulties are as difficult as I make them out to be.

“If I wanted to be fearful or angry or worried that cancer’s coming back again, I can choose that, but if I choose that, it’s not going to change the outcome of today.

“Today I’m alive, and if I live in fear, and it never comes back, then what kind of a life did I live??? “

The storm before the calm

Not that arriving in that calm place or staying there is easy…

“I spent a lot of time asking God ‘Who am I?’ I was so sad and grieved so deeply.”

She “didn’t want to be sad anymore, but it takes a ton of effort to change our thoughts … you have to figure out what’s going on in yourself.

Judy’s Christian faith is a keystone of her life, and she has translated biblical writings on gratitude into a life practice.

“I actually started keeping a gratitude journal in 2012; I’m on journal #12. It is awesome to go back and read those during those difficult times … even if it’s someone giving me half a smile in the grocery store.

“Negativity and negative thinking drag you down and wear you out.”

Gratitude brings joy and hope.

Cancer can erode the spirit if we let it.

The shocker, to me anyway, is we have the power to choose otherwise.

Judy has seen the gamut of reactions: those with cancer who turn bitter and angry, obsessing about how and why did this happen to me, “and they died bitter and angry.

“I saw others who wanted to deny anything was wrong, but you’ll make yourself nuts if you try to deny.

“Just look at it, be with it, take it for what it is and make your choices…

‘You only have 1 day …’

“One thing that is very key for me: you only have 1 day and that’s today; Yesterday ended last night when i went to sleep and it’s over and done; and tomorrow can’t ever be today.”

“Being in the moment is key to me having joy.”

Also key: a sense of humor, laughter … “seek it out.”

What would she advise others dealing with cancer?

“Draw on the strength of individuals who know and understand what you’re going through,” Judy said. “That can only come from those who’ve either been there, or are going through the same kinds of things you are now.”

“… the BEST place to get this is Gilda’s Club!”

“While we have the gift of life, it seems to me the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die – whether it is our spirit, our creativity or our glorious uniqueness.”
— Gilda Radner

A butterfly garden grows at Art Prize


AP 2017 Illustration

“People will come and see that a part of them is there. Patients can feel part of something bigger – instead of just going in for chemo.” — Zahrah Resh

Now I know how a caterpillar feels: I went for a visit with my oncologist and emerged a butterfly.

In Art Prize. Really.

Unexpected defines everything about cancer. This was one of the uppers.

With luck, it will be for some 6,500 of us, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Having resumed normal breathing after a regular 6-month visit with my oncologist at Cancer and Hematology Centers of Western Michigan in Spectrum Health’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, I stopped at scheduling to set up my next appointment.

The luck of the draw took me to Chris Ackerman. 

butterflies Chris Ackerman
Chris Ackerman and my butterfly.

Scheduling business done, she pushed two green squares of paper toward me, and told me to write a message of hope to another cancer patient on one of them.  She would use the other to fashion a butterfly.

Say what? 

Never one to do as told without the “why,” I went after that first.

My message would be turned into one of hopefully 6,500 butterflies, Chris explained.

A scheduler for two years at CHCWM, Chris was roaming Art Prize, Grand Rapids’s gia-normous  yearly art show, and got to thinking about the patients she saw daily.

Many of us are too sick to make the trek to the almost 200 venues in Art Prize, and Chris said she suddenly thought, “It’s just another grief — something they’re excluded from.”

She resolved to do something about it.

About the same time, Michigan artist and gallery owner Zahrah Resh, a thyroid cancer survivor treated in Grand Rapids, was looking for an Art Prize venue. 

She talked about it with Dr. Steven J. Dupuis, who specializes in hospice and palliative medicine. He introduced her to Chris.

Hope, Heal, Soar takes off

Resh sent a proposal for her Hope, Heal, Soar project to Chris and Dr. Mark Campbell, a member of the Physician Executive Team at CHCWM, and with support and funding from Cancer and Hematology Centers and approval from Spectrum, the project took off, she said.

Come Art Prize 2017,  September 20-October 8, she will convert the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion’s lobby into a garden filled with 6,500 butterflies of painted and handmade paper personalized by patients, staff, volunteers, families  and friends of CHCWM and Spectrum Health.

There will be butterfly-making stations during Art Prize, and visitors will be able to make memorial butterflies, Chris said.

“I wanted 6,500 butterflies,” Resh told me. “We have at least 2,500 to go.”

The garden will feature “trees” of dried bamboo about 18 feet high in planters and  “flowers” in the form of parasols she found in San Diego. 

The project is very personal for Resh.

“People will come and see that a part of them is there,” she said. “Patients can feel part of something bigger – instead of just going in for chemo.” 

Through this project, cancer patients will be included in Art Prize, Chris said.

Support takes flight

“I hope when they see the butterflies, they will feel and sense the faith and support around them.”

Mine will be somewhere among the flutter bugs. 

Butterflies - Sue Schroder's
Sister Sue Tracy’s message takes wing on my butterfly.

Its message, “Tears are the safety valve of the heart,” came to me originally through Sister Sue Tracy, my late friend, cancer veteran and long-time oncology chaplain at Spectrum Health.

As I waited for my most recent appointment, I half expected to see her flying through the waiting room at CHCWM as usual, leaving smiles and strength in her wake.

Now I’m thinking she was there after all. I just didn’t see her.

Peace comes in miracle moments


Pat Gavin & Vanessa
Pat Gavin can “see Sister Sue with her fake (clown) nose on smiling at us and telling me to ‘enjoy that baby!’ ” Easy-to-follow directions with granddaughter Vanessa Ruster.

“Don’t miss the beauty of watching the miracles that are happening around you today.” — Sister Sue Tracy

When Pat Gavin and his family “(our gang of 18)” gathered for a summer get-away at their cottage, Sister Sue Tracy was there, too.

In spirit. In memory. In a legacy of peace.

Diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in his neck and given two months to live 10 years ago, Pat was thinking of Sister Sue as he anticipated a moment he never thought he would see.

“In a few minutes, I will get to hold my youngest granddaughter,” Pat told me on June 29, the one-year anniversary of Sue’s death.

A member of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids who knew too much about cancer from her own 6+ bouts with it, Sister Sue was an oncology chaplain at Spectrum Health. Like Pat, she also was a Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids stalwart and inspiration.

Life after ‘Expiration date’

“Vanessa was born after the expiration date I was given 10 years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer,” Pat continued. 

“My granddaughter and I will look out over the lake and she will be in awe as if she had never seen it before, even though she did last year when she was 1.

“That lake will put my granddaughter at peace even though she has been riding in a car for 12 hours since leaving her home in Virginia.”

Pat recalls that Sister Sue had a way of imparting that same gift.

“Sister Sue had the wonderful way of putting people at ‘peace’ with what was going on. Her calm, not-so-quiet demeanor, made all of us feel OK about our direction in dealing with our disease.

Divine timing

“It didn’t matter if we were people of faith or not. If we were people of faith, it was that much better as everything happens on ‘God’s time’ not ours.

“I will always remember her for this ability to put people at peace.

“ ‘Don’t miss the beauty of watching the miracles that are happening around you today’ she would say.”

Anticipating that moment of peace on the dock with Vanessa, “she will feel Papa holding her and she will know she is OK,” Pat said.

“She will be at peace and so will I.

“When this happens, I will look into the sky and see Sister Sue with her fake (clown) nose on smiling at us and telling me to ‘enjoy that baby!'”