What kind of God Do I Believe In?

A young adult perspective on cancer

Mary Donovan-Kansora was thirty-four years old when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Shortly before the chemotherapy treatments began, she approached a friend from her church and asked him to pray that she be completely healed. He hesitated before responding. “I’m not sure I can pray for healing,” he finally said, “but I’ll pray that God’s will be done.”

Mary Donovan-Kansora during her treatment for cancer. “I just didn’t know how to connect with God in a way that comforted me.”

“I was so shocked when he said that to me,” recalls Donovan-Kansora. “That hurt me a lot.” All the same, his suggestion that God might have willed her cancer had hit a nerve. What kind of God did she believe in? Faced with only a twenty percent chance of survival, she honestly didn’t know what she believed about God anymore.

It was in April of 1998 that Donovan-Kansora was given the initial diagnosis. She had sensed something was wrong when her menstrual periods became abnormally heavy and frequent. When medication failed to address the problem, a uterine biopsy was performed, and later a DNC hysteroscopy. The hysteroscopy results showed a pocket of very advanced cancer cells in the uterus. The doctor told her she’d need a total hysterectomy.

At first, Donovan-Kansora and the two friends who had accompanied her to the appointment couldn’t comprehend the seriousness of the diagnosis. “The first thing I thought of was, ‘I can’t have kids,'” said Donovan-Kansora. “I wasn’t really thinking I’d die.” She and her friends were throwing a party that weekend, and she laughs now when she recalls that her friend Trish asked the doctor, “Can she drink alcohol?” The doctor looked at them with exasperation. “You don’t understand,” he told them. “This is a life and death situation.” When they asked for a long-term prognosis, his response was grim. “I figure you’ll be around in a year,” he told Donovan-Kansora, “but I don’t know exactly what state.”

That’s when it sank in.

Within a week, Donovan-Kansora had to wrap things up with the class of second graders she’s been teaching and prepare herself for a hysterectomy. She also had to learn what it means to be a young adult with cancer.

Though the hysterectomy itself was successful, Donovan-Kansora had to undergo months of grueling chemotherapy and radiation. There were emotional struggles too, particularly around the loss of her ability to have children. “It made me question who am I as a woman? What’s a woman if she can’t have kids?” recalls Donovan-Kansora. She found her devotion to Mary growing and–needing something tangible to hang onto–became drawn to praying the rosary. Because uterine cancer is “such a female cancer,” the Blessed Mother’s feminine nature was an immense comfort. “I had a new freedom to cry,” Donovan-Kansora explains. “I would say to her, ‘ I know you understand how sad I am that I can’t have any kids.'”

Throughout it all, she also struggled with her image of God. Her church friend’s comment had stuck with her, and Donovan-Kansora found herself wondering whether God had willed her to have cancer. Had she somehow brought the illness on herself? Was it a lesson God was trying to teach her? “I just didn’t know how to connect with God in a way that comforted me,” she explains.

After much struggle and discussion she gradually found a new perspective. “Things happen in the world, and I don’t know why they happen,” Donovan-Kansora explains. “But when I saw Jesus as somebody who was my best friend, with me through the whole walk, always there for me to lean on — that was the only thing that made sense, and I knew that was the truth.”

“What was so amazing to me was that she didn’t blame God,” recalls her friend Trish Plunkett Hurley. “Instead, she viewed God as “the easy chair she could sink into…She was really resting in God’s love.”

In a life-and-death situation like cancer, Donovan-Kansora explains, you suddenly realize what your biggest fears are. “I realized that I was absolutely terrified of being abandoned.” A cousin who had had cancer ended up losing many of her friends in the process, and as she went in for surgery, Donovan-Kansora had no idea whether people in her life would stick around. She feared being a burden on her friends, taking advantage of their good nature, and wearing them out.

What helped was remembering her old friend Marty, who, years earlier, had had a five-year struggle with cancer. The memories of his astonishing optimism and hope gave her a model for how to live with her own illness. Gradually she realized that she would be for her friends what Marty had been to her. “You’re teaching those around you how to act and how to react when they go through something like this. They’re going to look back on you.”

The experience of cancer did
significantly change Donovan-Kansora’s relationship with her family and friends, but not in the way she had feared. As her sister Colleen told her early in the illness, “It’s your turn to learn how to receive, and you’re going to help the rest of us learn how to give.” Rather than being frightened away, her friends gathered to support her. Her second-graders gave her notes and stuffed animals. Work colleagues brought food to her house and left it in a cooler outside so they wouldn’t disturb her. When she expressed fear that she’d never be able to go camping again, her friend Scott organized a trip in the middle of the week, the only time that the local campground had an opening. Thirteen of her friends took time off of work to attend. It was christened the Cancer-Free Camping Trip.

“Everywhere I looked, I was surrounded,” says Donovan-Kansora. “It was the exact opposite of my fear. That was the greatest spiritual joy I’ve ever had, seeing the body of Christ in action.” Her friend Carolyn Kiernat recalls being inspired by Donovan-Kansora’s willingness to welcome people into the experience, even people she didn’t know very well. “I think many of us would have a tendency to shut people out when we’re not looking our best, feeling our best, etc. That’s when she opened the door,” Kiernat recalls. “Through her, I learned that if I were in a similar situation, that’s the healthy way to handle it. All the dinners, hanging out at her house, everything — it was a very strange but real celebration of life and the healing power of friendship.”

Donovan-Kansora also credits prayer with helping her to make it through the cancer. In the moments when she felt most terrified about her future, she developed the ability to focus on the people she knew and the fact that they were praying for her. “I was so aware of people’s prayer it was almost physical,” she recalls. She likens it to the image of ripples on a lake, the prayer radiating out in all directions. It was an immense comfort. “The luckiest place you can be is in the center of all that prayer,” she says. “I don’t know exactly if it changed my body chemistry or not, but it changed me.”

In 2003, Donovan-Kansora passed the magic five-year cancer-free mark, which she celebrated with a large party. In May of 2004, she married her husband Tom, and her life is now busy with settling into their new house, teaching her second grade class, pursuing her passion for photography, and constantly finding ways to celebrate life.

There are countless lessons that Donovan-Kansora learned from her experiences, but one of the biggest is about connecting with others. “Cancer speaks to the importance of having a spiritual community,” she explains, adding that her journey wasn’t just about receiving. Much like her own master teacher Marty, she has given those around her a priceless lesson in living. “If you’re young and you get cancer, you’re just going through it before other people are going to. If you think about it that way, it’s not so bad,” she reflects. “By surviving your experience, you are going to be able to help them.” And though it was impossible to do six years ago, she can now see her cancer in a positive light: “It was a journey of companionship, of my companions surrounding me with more love than I possibly could have imagined, and me learning about God as my companion.”