“People do survive this and with humor”

VIPs on ice
Sheila Stenquist and son, Jason, stand at center ice in 2015 for what she calls “a really important moment during my treatment” — one she thought she would never have.

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” — Sister Sue Tracy

Sheila Stenquist was the mother of four — ages 16, 10, 4 and 3 — when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.

Having had a mastectomy and chemo, she was 39 when Sister Sue Tracy happened into Sheila’s life in the waiting room at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion  of Spectrum Health before her first radiation treatment.

“I wasn’t feeling well, it was such a stressful time. She just sat down and we got talking. She shared some of her story and asked if could pray with with me .

The gift of a laugh

“She told me a few jokes, and she just made me feel at ease — I got to laugh before my appointment!”

After radiation, Sheila saw Sister Sue again at a Blue Bird Cancer Retreat.
“I still have her “holey “card” – a card with holes in it. She just had a presence that made everyone feel comfortable.”

Later, Sheila and her oldest son, Jason, plagued with worry and under incredible stress, sat together at another retreat as Sister Sue recounted her bouts with cancer – which would number no fewer than six when she died.

She was in fine form the day Sheila and Jason were in the audience. 

“He sat with me during her speech,” Sheila recalled, and “hearing Sister Sue brought a little comfort to him. It really helped him feel better listening to someone who had gone through it  numerous times.”

“Knowing she had had cancer gave strength and comfort to me and my son. We were in awe, thinking about what she’d been through

The proof stands alone

“It  helped him realize it’s OK – people do survive this and with humor.”

Early in treatment “I was, ‘How can anyone be joking about this?’

“(Now I know) it’s OK:  Instead of dwelling on the issue, the humor helps — any feeling that is normal helps – It’s OK to have good days, and it’s OK to have bad days.”

One of the good days came in 2015 and produced the photo she shares here.

“The hockey team (the Kenowa Hills Knights) raised the money for him to play and this was Senior Night. I never thought I’d be able to make it.”

She’s had 2 other diagnosis since the breast cancer, endometrial and melanoma, and “I’ve had a lot of surgeries.”

Through it all “My kids want to know what’s going on, and they want me to be truthful — so we are.”

I admire them.

Being up front with my kids about cancer was tough for me in the beginning – even though they were adults. We want to protect them — apparently no matter how old they — or we — are.  I soon found that leveling about what’s going on can be a great relief for everyone. We’re too good at making up scary stories if we don’t know.

Surprisingly some of the best things come out of the worst.

Because of her cancer experience, Sheila says, Jason went into biomedical research. Today he is an intern at Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids.

After lung cancer: 5Ks and counting

Sister Sue Charlie Vandebyl photo DSC_2296 2
Man on the run

“She treated cancer like a speed bump: You slow down for awhile, do what you have to do, then move on.” — Charlie Vandebyl

Charlie Vandebyl met Sister Sue Tracy the first time he visited Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids after brain surgery.

Diagnosed in 2012 with lung cancer which metastasized into the brain, he underwent brain surgery and radiation, and later, surgery for the lung cancer.

“I walked in (to Gilda’s Club  about 5 o’clock one evening, and first person I met was Sister Sue … I don’t think I even had the staples out of my head.

“ ‘That’s a pretty fancy zipper you’ve got going on up there,’ she says and gives me a big hug.”

No lock on that zipper

He told her she was the second person to tell him that:

He’d stayed at his son’s house after surgery, and the morning after he got there, his 7-year-old grandson wandered into the bathroom.

“I was trying to get cleaned up, I had matted hair with blood on it.
‘He looks at me with the most sincere look on his face and says, ‘Grandpa, did those doctors put in a zipper???’ ”

Sue hooted and told him he needed to get up on stage that evening and tell that story — it would make people laugh.

Drafted on first

“My first foray to Gilda’s, my first meeting with Sister Sue, my first experience with public speaking … I thought it very bold of her, but it turned out it just part of the norm of her.

“It’s such a loss to lose someone like that, but the memories you have of her just pick you up and move you along.

“If someone like that can do all she’s done, the people she’s touched and given hope… “That’s what I look back on and draw from whenever I’m having a bad day.

“Every time I saw her, it was such a blessing to me. Knowing what she’s been through and all the cancers, she just exudes hopes. She has no idea the effect she had on people.”

Present tense even though the Dominican Sister Grand Rapids died a year ago?

“She’s still here with us and she watches us all the time. I know she does.
“I wonder if, when we start to slow down or falter or lose hope, if she might give us one of the kickstarts we need and we don’t even know it.”

He continues to pay the lessons forward regularly as a Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids volunteer, and as an example of possibilities.

“She showed you that you could be living with cancer, not dying with cancer.
I think she treated cancer like a speed bump: You slow down for awhile, do what you have to do, then move on.”

His cancer status now

He is running 5 Ks, does spin class twice a week, lift weights 3 days a week; and swims a mile 3 days a week.

After surgery to remove the entire upper lobe of his right lung, “They told me, ‘There are a lot of things you won’t be able to do because of limited lung capacity.’

“But a therapist told me, ‘if you get into heavy exercise you can hyperextend the middle and lower lobe to take over. ‘

“I still have some breathing issues — especially when I start exercising, but pulmonary function tests show I’m almost average for a person my age not missing any lobes.”

Scratch that age thing: “I don’t use my age: Just say I’m a Level 63.

“ A lot of my life involves forced effort to breathe.

“ Sister Sue would say, ‘Be thankful for every breath’ — and I am.”

Sister Sue Tracy: Hope on Steroids

Sister Sue Tracy and jumpy friend
Sister Sue Tracy, with Kermit-esque pal, received the first Spirit of Gilda’s Award presented by Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids on Nov. 12, 2015.

“If you can find humor in anything, you can survive it.” — Sister Sue

Sister Sue Tracy faced life with cancer as she faced death with it: armed with naked honesty, faith and a fully functioning funny bone.

She carried her favorite secret weapons and she wasn’t afraid to use them until her earthly end — June 29, 2016 — a year ago this week.

An unexpected blast from her ever-present magic squirt gun of humor could blow holes of relief in the tensest situation and make even the most frightened of us relax and even laugh.

I was among the hundreds, maybe thousands, who learned from Sister Sue how to live with cancer — joyously and fully through the bad times and good.

A  perpetual-motion machine with a laugh that hit the ceiling, she was one of us.

Having dealt with cancer no fewer than six times in her life, she “got” what having cancer means.  On one side: the uncertainty, the fear, the masks we and those we love wear to protect each other, the weakness, the physical and mental toll.

On the flip side: the healing power of those who show us how to cope with hope, as she used to say, who share the angst-relieving gift of a laugh.

She used it all to help us get through — in her work at Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, as a chaplain at Spectrum Health, with anyone who asked.

Cancer Schmantzer Queens

Like the late comedian Gilda Radner, who  founded what would become a national network of Gilda’s Clubs support centers for cancer patients and families, Sister Sue, a Dominican Sister Grand Rapids, was a Cancer Schmantzer Queen: Life, laughter and hope trumped cancer to the end.

As the recipient of the Spirit of Gilda Award from Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids  in 2015,  Sister Sue personified support and advocacy for the organization and its members and by “doing so with the light-heartedness and laughter that embodied our namesake Gilda Radner.”

Sister Sue Graduation

I can still picture Sister Sue in her white mortar board and gown, sailing grandly down hospital halls, doing the royal wave, leaving after finishing what she called her “Sweet Sixteen” — her 16th and final in-patient chemo … me following behind playing “Pomp and Circumstance” on a kazoo. Really.

Paying forward her legacy of hope

Her legacy of hope  lives on in those of us she strengthened and inspired.

This is the first of a week of posts in which fellow Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids members and I will share that legacy along with some of her insight, angst-relieving one-liners, comfort and grace to help others. Paying it forward, if you will.

Bonus points for laughs along the way.