The everlasting God has, in his wisdom, foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost heart. This cross he now sends you, He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His loving mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with His loving arms, and weighed with His own hands, to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. – Saint Francis de Sales
My husband and I were married in September 2016 less than a year after we had met on a Catholic dating website. He was living in Spain at the time, and three days after the wedding we were on a plane together, heading towards the home we were going to make together in Granada. Long periods of visa trouble and uncertainty were to follow; at times my husband and I were separated, at times staying together in the USA for months while our apartment (and my husband’s office) sat empty. During this period a close friend of ours remarked that God must want us to be saints.
We had no idea what was coming next.
Our infertility journey started at some point in my past, with endometriosis that had taken over my body unbeknownst to me and, it would seem, to every doctor and gynecologist I’d seen in the years leading up to the summer of 2018. I was having really strange bloating; my stomach stuck out so far it looked like I was pregnant, and gravity had little effect on it when I laid down. It was my husband’s idea to go to the doctor. After the appointment and two pregnancy tests I was sent for an ultrasound, where we found out that it was a massive ovarian cyst.
I had to wait about 10 days for my gynecology appointment. During this time the thought had crept in—that I didn’t want to lose even one of my ovaries, much less my uterus (as can sometimes happen because of ovarian cysts). We’d been open to life, I’d charted for a short time after we got married only to give it up and leave the whole thing in God’s hands. I’d assumed I would have kids my whole life. My husband had discerned out of the religious order he was in for seven years because he felt called to fatherhood. I did not want to lose my uterus.
Finally, I had my gynecology appointment. While looking at my imaging on her computer, the doctor told us that it was probably cancer and the surgeons would probably want to take everything out. I remember knowing that it was the worst moment of my life. While we were sitting there, the nurse unwrapped a lollipop. It was like finding out you had cancer at the DMV.
It was at this time that God began to manifest Himself in different ways, and that is the reason for writing this blog post. I hope that sharing and bearing witness to them can be a source of consolation and hope for others.
On the way home from the hospital I had already broken down sobbing on the sidewalk at least once. Cancer? I was 29 years old! I had a fabulous life! I lived in Spain, my Instagram looked great, I had a beautiful niece and nephew, no family history of something like this. We noticed that the church by our apartment was open and went inside. I had never seen the priest before; he had come in from Italy to help cover summer vacations. The Liturgy of the Eucharist was just beginning as we sat in the back row. The familiar words: “Este es mi cuerpo, que será entregado por vosotros.” And the priest held up the Host. But the strange thing was that he didn’t put it down. I sat crying in the back row as he held it up for at least 30 seconds. This was something I had never seen any priest do. He held it up and waited for what seemed like forever, and the same with the chalice. Looking at the broken Host during the elevation, we can see: Christ’s body was broken too.
This was a Tuesday. While praying the Rosary and thinking about the Way of the Cross, I was imagining Jesus carrying His Cross with all the saints behind him carrying theirs, and I imagined myself with them, walking next to Mother Teresa. Normally I would have gotten upset at something like this, because I usually operate in a state of spiritual dryness, and the temptation to think that these saints weren’t my family and that I wasn’t part of them would have taken hold. But in that moment, I felt clearly that that was one of the devil’s lies and that I belonged with them in Heaven. I had to pick up this cross, with the help of God’s grace, and carry it.
We flew home, not wanting to wait to hear what the Spanish surgeons were going to say. That Monday I had an appointment at the cancer center. My gynecologic oncologist was a friendly, funny surgeon and professor at the medical school who had already seen my imaging and made us feel at ease. “80% chance it’s not cancer.” I told him that we wanted to have children. Jokingly, he said, “You could always get a surrogate.” I laughed it off. The surgery to remove the cyst was supposed to take 2.5 hours; it took 6 instead. The first question I asked when my anesthesia wore off was whether I still had my uterus. The next day, my doctor stood at the side of my hospital bed and suggested I talk to my pastor about freezing my eggs.
My testing came back and I was officially diagnosed with stage 2C endometrioid ovarian cancer and, to everyone’s surprise, stage 1A uterine cancer. We were given a choice: I could take the regular course of treatment, which would include removing my uterus and remaining ovary, followed by chemotherapy, or they could put me into a forced menopause to starve the cancer of the estrogen it needed to grow and see if my fertility could somehow be saved. I started to mourn my fertility at this time although my husband was still holding out hope, feeling in my heart that it was all over. My husband naturally wanted time—time to try, time to go to Lourdes, time for a miracle. I remember falling to my knees at some point, sobbing, praying the Our Father, realizing that it’s really the most difficult prayer to pray if you really mean it— “Thy will be done.”
The second opinion I received after weeks of praying to God for clarity in this decision made it clear that this second course was not really an option. The disease was too advanced. My uterus had to come out.
After scheduling the hysterectomy, we stood on the sidewalk outside of the hospital as I started to break down, feeling like I had made the choice to lose my fertility forever, feeling the temptation to think that I was choosing to “sterilize” myself, looking down into an anxiety spiral so deep that I don’t know if I could have pulled myself out. I sobbed into my husband’s shoulder, hanging on to him. At this point I heard the voice of a man. “Hello, hello.” I couldn’t really believe that this was happening—who would come up to us in a moment like this? I don’t know what I thought he was doing, but the truth came out as he started to talk. He was a chaplain at the other hospital in town (his daughter was at the hospital for some kind of training), and he was so struck by the comfort he saw my husband giving me that he wanted to come over. He was a deacon! I told him everything, everything that had happened, my devastation over losing my fertility, my worries about the teachings of the Church. He reassured me in everything, in the fact that I have the responsibility to safeguard my own life, and handed me a prayer card with Mary on it. I walked away from the hospital smiling, feeling like God had sent me an angel.
We went to see my family in New Jersey and stopped at the National Shrine of St. Gerard to leave everything in God’s hands. Two days later I had my second surgery, then chemo. Two weeks after my first session my scalp started to itch and a big chunk of hair came off into my hand as I was combing it in the shower. That night, alone in the bathroom, I cut it off with the kitchen scissors. I had lost my fertility, my hair (eventually up to the last eyelash), I was in menopause, and even though I spent most of my time devastated over not being able to have children I had to come to face my own death as well, remembering at times that, although my cancer was grade 1 and therefore “lazy” and not aggressive, it could very well kill me. During this whole period, seven of my friends had children.
St. Teresa of Avila said, “If this is how You treat your friends, it is no wonder You have so few!” God’s love is so mysterious, that this would happen to us who were trying to live a good life, to do everything “right,” to practice our faith in a real way. But she also said, “Christ has no body now but yours.” Why shouldn’t I have to suffer? Looking at the broken Host in that Mass on the first day of my real suffering, I saw His broken body. He would not ask me to do anything He had not done Himself.
During the Springs of Hope Virtual Retreat, Allie rightly reminded us that “this is the life.” Father Michele takes this a step further: “There are only the present moment and the moment of our death. Only these two matter.” Now back in Spain, on the other side of all the cancer treatments, I find myself daydreaming about the future, wanting to know now how everything is going to work out. I’m impatient to understand the meaning of our suffering, but that is a blessing that will only be fully given to us in the next life. And so, my calling is to pick up my cross today, in this moment, in this life that God has given me, doing the best I can, knowing that it is meaningful even though I don’t fully understand it. It is the last cross I would have chosen for myself, but as Saint John of Avila tells us: “When God wills you to begin truly to suffer and sends you what you would most avoid suffering, then you may be confident that you are loved by Him and may hope to see the face of the Lord with joy.”
In July of 2019, we finally made it to Lourdes, seemingly one year too late. But in the freezing water, reminded of my Baptism, I made the only prayer that matters to the God Who is outside of time: “Please heal everything that is bad in me, and please give me all the graces I need to get to Heaven.” I don’t know what it all means or if we’ve come to terms with the infertility, but we are moving forward, looking forward to whatever comes next, but most of all, looking forward to the life that is to come.
Cassandra lives in Spain with her husband Michael, where she works for the Instituto de Filosofía Edith Stein. She enjoys knitting and photography in her spare time.