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Why It Matters

My son as a newborn with meYou never know. A seemingly innocent remark wounds a friend. Callous words from bystanders injure fragile survivors. A stranger is believed over a friend. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words DO hurt, especially when uttered by a friend.

Why does it matter? Why are words so hurtful even when intended as constructive criticism? Why do words injure that call personal judgment into question injure so much? Why aren’t those schoolyard songs meant to build confidence remembered? Question why it matters.

Perhaps hidden personal turmoil is the root. Perhaps too much of an investment is in a project. Perhaps a knee jerk reaction leads to yet another knee jerk reaction. Perhaps a wound festers under a bandage, only getting worse when the bandage is ripped away. Perhaps mindsets have changed. Perhaps pride gets in the way. Perhaps there are multiple areas of attack. You never know. Learn why it matters.

Recently, I’ve been a hot mess of reactions on various levels. I usually have a long fuse that requires flooding with gasoline to light. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve had time to take a deep breath and ponder the reasons for my reactions.

The worst of these reactions dealt with FaceBook ‘friends’ posting articles critical of Angelina Jolie’s choice to prophylactically remove her breasts and possibly ovaries due to a faulty BRCA1 genes. Usually, movie star antics have no effect on me. However, I share not only a faulty BRCA1 gene with Angelina, but also share part her prophylactic surgery choice and beyond. Comments calling her prophylactic measures crazy, unnecessary, immoral, and worse created havoc on me. At the same time, other situations existed that also stressed my already weakened psyche.

Those that know me, know that my journey has been anything but easy. Much thought, research, prayer, and consultation went into every phase of my journey. Four years after my diagnosis, I have lost both breasts, my original implants for reconstruction, my ovaries, my uterus, sensation in several areas of my body, sometimes the use of one arm, my left first rib, and even my job. Some argue that my situation differed from Angelina’s because I was actually diagnosed with cancer prior to taking prophylactic measures. However, our decisions were based on the same facts, careful consideration, and reflection. Therefore, words against her decision are words against mine.

Normally, I’d get fired up by such comments and fire back with well-documented verbose rebuttals. This time, instead, I cried for two days. On the third day, I did further research. By the fourth day, I was finally able to ponder my reaction. Pride was a factor, yet not the most important. Solidarity with another cancer victim was also a factor, but again, not the most important. Righteous indignation plays a role as well, but not the lead. Finally, I identified the cause of my pain: re-opening of freshly healed wounds and dismissing of my suffering and loss.

As I said before, my journey has been fraught with difficulties. I struggled immensely with my decisions. Intense prayer, reflection, counseling, and though prefaced each action I took against my cancer. Yet, even knowing I made the best decision possible caused turmoil in my mind. To this day, almost 4 years after my diagnosis, I suffer with body image. As I step out of the shower I see only the scars. Some survivors call them “tiger stripes” or “battle scars” that show how hard we fought. At times, I do as well. However, at other times, all I can see is what I lost. See why it matters to me.

It is then that God begs me to look at what I saved: my life, my daughter’s life, and my family unit. Then and only then can I find peace in my decisions. Then and only then can I summon up the strength to joke about my “tummy tuck and a boob job” reconstruction. Only then can I smile when I admit that I lost my fertility to reduce my risk of cancer. Money often gets tight since I no longer bring home the bacon, but I can acknowledge the benefit of staying home to homeschool my children. My termination was based on lies, exaggerations, and belittling of my suffering and competence, but I know losing my job was my gain. When I think about all the struggles as God’s plan, I can actually smile and say so. God shows me why it matters.

A hug from my miracle baby

Some say I’m strong and forget that I’m not the one that’s strong – God is; and He’s holding me up. That is often when silent tears course down my face in the dark of very early morning. Even in my weakness, I know God is holding me to His heart, but when friend’s words are like Judas’s kiss, my agony knows no bounds. Yet, worse than the wounds their words cause me is the admission of such to them or anyone. You see, although I realize God knows my inmost thoughts and comforts me, but even with His guidance, I cannot find the words to express my feelings. Often, I don’t even admit my feelings to myself until they’re out of control.

So while it’s your right to use the First Amendment to express your views, be courteous of other people’s journeys — especially if you claim to support them and be their friend. Another school-yard theme, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” comes to mind in these types of situations. Regardless of appearances, everyone suffers from something, and issues of controversy or extreme psychological distress are unpleasantly common. We all progress down different trails at different times. You never know why it matters.

For more information involving morality, medicine, and more:

National Catholic Bioethics Center on BRCA1/2 morality

A Benedictine Priest/MD on tubal ligation and it’s difference from risk-reducing oophorectomy/hysterectomy

CCC reference about moral conditions for surgical sterility or so-called ‘therapeutic mutilation’

A look through my eyes on Erika’s Miracle Journey & in brief here on Catholic Sistas

A co-survivor (and also my mother) about the BRCA1/2 journey and her feelings about critics

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Soul-Searching Valentine’s Day – Mourning Motherhood

loss of motherhood

I am in mourning. No, no one close to me has died, there has been no divorce – no loss of home or means of income. My loss relates to my vocation as a mother. The fervor – no need – for children resonates differently with the individual woman. Some seem not to feel the call at all while others experience an almost physical pull for nurturing little minds and souls and bodies. I am one of the later.

early motherhoodMotherhood came young for me. After having experienced a tragically unplanned pregnancy at almost 15 years of age, I found myself the oldest of a household of younger children. My child was adopted by my parents and he grew up as my brother. My early years revolved around pretending to teach and the reality of diapers and mashed bananas. When I married my high school sweetheart at age 17, we still periodically hijacked a sibling or two to feed this hunger. Our first child was born when I was a twenty year old senior in college. Three years later we were blessed with a daughter. I joke about how our next child was on ‘backorder’ because it took us eight years to conceive our youngest.

During all of this time, however, the need for babies in my life was fed in one way or another – whether by siblings or children of my own. The craziness of living far from the nearest Catholic school (commuting for athletic and gifted children is not for the faint of heart), gave me a distraction as my little brood grew up. When I was 30, my mother’s diagnosis with ovarian cancer, crept into my own reality when genetic counselors urgently suggested an oophorectomy for me. The resulting lack of hope for the large family I had dreamed of made for some tearful nights (and days). But I had my three children and the hope of nieces and nephews to console me.

motherhood through grandchildrenAs our children grew, we were blessed to be gifted with quite a few grandchildren (seven under the age of 9 to date). At one point, five of them lived on either side of us and were here to be nurtured, taught and loved each and every weekday. Nana’s Day School was vibrant with laughter, sloppy kisses, and tight squeezes! At another point, two of them moved in, along with their father, during a particularly contentious divorce. When they moved to their own home again, we simply moved back into regular visits. During that period this ‘empty nest’ (ha, ha) resonated with laughter, tumbling play fights, and loving.

As time went on the day to day activity settled into a more ‘normal’ routine. One family moved an hour away. Yet they continued to travel the two, 2-hour round trips – at least once per week, just to keep the connection alive. Happily fulfilled, this ‘stay-at-home’ Nana had at least two little ones four days per week, with visits and sleepovers to balance out the routine. Then came a drastic change. One of the mommies became a stay at home mom rather suddenly. This was the brood that came to Nana’s Day School three days per week (I was actually homeschooling them by then). Poof! The stay-at-home Nana had lost her bearings. Relegated down to a once per week house filled with little feet, demands for hugs, lap time and snuggles was a drastic step. For 48 years she had had her hands on children most every day. Now, as quickly as a death, that time was over.

I had been wondering at my stormy moods as of late and then, this morning – Eureka – I finally saw the cause with painful clarity!

I have raised these little ones from the beginning of their little lives – even to the point of having been present at two of their births. Foolishly, even as I fervently dreamed of the joy of being a stay-at-home mother for our daughter, I failed to realize what that would mean for me. I certainly can’t begrudge her the happiness that is in her future, yet the humanly frail side of me mourns my own loss just the same. Hopefully some equilibrium will eventually be found but, as of now, I have been set free against my will. I find myself once again yearning for a multitude of children even while I relish in the wonder of having raised so many more than the three gifted to us by God through our marriage. These little people, 7 little souls for which I am honored to be godmother, will always remain in our lives – the how of it has been changed but the reality has not. As I go through the mourning of my new-found position of an empty-nester, I must turn my heart toward the gift that they were and will continue to be. I have found a personal, deep respect for those who find themselves unwillingly childless. My pain cannot compare with theirs in intensity but yet I will pray more deeply for their loss. I also see the story of Moses in an entirely new light – I have relinquished the day to day care of these children and will have to seek out my new role. Lord help me to look to this new beginning of my life with a joy filled with You and a heart for giving what I can, when it is needed.

grand motherhood

*One of our little treasures turns 5 today – Valentine’s Day! Much love to you, Simon, from Nana and Papa.

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The Gospel of Life: Pro-life for a Reason

I’ve always been Catholic and pro-life. These two attributes are intrinsically linked not only to each other, but also to my character. My brothers and I were blessed with wonderful parents who instilled Catholicity and respect for life. We attended Mass, prayed rosaries, received a Catholic education, and lived out our Catholic faith. We were even blessed to attend World Youth Day 1994 in Denver.

While I was growing up, my mother was very involved in pro-life concerns. The passionate and spontaneous rallies she organized are some of my fondest memories. My brothers and I drew posters for the rallies, spoke to other pro-lifers, learned about politicians’ life stances, and learned to debate and investigate life issues all well before being near legal voting age. Due to my tenacious nature, I never abandoned the Church or pro-life issues–even through college. Yet my analytical nature still spurred me to seek answers on my own and not blindly follow. As a molecular option-biology major I entered into undergraduate research with a vengance. Initially, I was matched with a cell-biology/embryology project. However, I quickly requested a change of project due to the possible immoral uses of the research I was conducting.


As a young woman I had more than my share of “female issues” for which the prescription was usually a type of hormonal birth control. I never succumbed to the “expert” opinion of doctors who never fully researched the beauty of the human body and it’s mechanisms–specifically reproductive function. In fact, at one point, I gathered a binder full of research articles contraindicating the use of hormonal birth control in women with a family history of breast cancer and disproving the efficacy of hormonal birth control on endometriosis. After seeing my collection of materials, he was so inflamed by my refusal to use the Pill that he violated doctor-patient privilege and decency by vividly describing how he would have to examine me since I “did not know man” – in front of my father. This was even more disturbing since I was just hours out of emergency surgery, having my nearly ruptured appendix “delivered” by this gynecologist.

One of the first serious discussions I had on dates was my adamant stance against birth control of any kind in addition to my family history with cancer. I met my husband a little over a month after my mother’s diagnosis with BRCA1 breast cancer. She was the fourth generation of “female cancers” and we were very frightened what the diagnosis would mean for her and us. My future husband was raised very differently than I was, and so I felt it necessary to lay the ground-rules out very early. Instead of completely chasing him away (which may have been my intent since I wasn’t all-together sure I was ready for dating again), he calmly listened to my stories and reasoning and accepted me for who I am.  Prior to our marriage, he not only accepted my position on birth control and morals, but also supported me through the use of NFP, NaPro, and surgery to eliminate my endometriosis. Even though this all differed significantly from his upbringing, he stalwartly stood beside me through it and encouraged me to live my convictions. I was also able to accompany him throughout his conversion to the Catholic Church.


We married and immediately conceived a child, but shortly thereafter, my first miscarriage occurred. We again used NFP and NaPro to help us with this horrible issue. Another miscarriage occurred before our first living child was born on St. Valentine’s Day. Shortly thereafter, we again conceived twice, but both ended with miscarriages  The last miscarriage was devastating to me both physically (severe blood loss, hospitalization, and surgery) and emotionally (I’d lost 4 babies and was not sure I could stand to lose another). Yet, we again conceived a child.

It was then that I was challenged most fully to live my Catholic pro-life character. At 12 weeks pregnant, I found a lump in my left breast. Since my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis two years earlier, I was certain long before the doctors were that the lump was breast cancer. Just days before we discovered I was carrying a little girl, we got the official diagnosis. This diagnosis, handed to us less than three years into our marriage, was devastating. But as scared as I was, this life-changing disease didn’t tempt me to abort or abandon my faith. Calling upon my inner strength, instilled in me by my faithful parents, I successfully fought the cancer while pregnant with chemotherapy. I was in a fairly unique position; just one in 3000-3500 breast cancers occur in pregnant women. This prompted amazing support especially from my mother, but also from my husband, father, family, church family, friends, and even strangers. We welcomed our daughter, Rachel, into the world as a living miracle. Fittingly, she was born on Thanksgiving Day!

Since my diagnosis three years ago, I have embraced a mission to educate about the truth of “life of the mother” diagnoses like mine. I received the Life Award from Right to Life of Owensboro (Kentucky) for this and my dedication to saving Rachel’s life while working to save mine. After the most critical aspects of treatment were over, I felt called even further to support pro-life causes. I joined an ecumenical pro-life board, but was dissatisfied. Then my mother, once again, guided me to the perfect organization: our diocesan Gospel of Life. It embodies everything about me: it is unapologetically Catholic and unwaveringly pro-life. The organization supports pro-life causes that both directly and indirectly help those tempted by abortion, regardless of faith or background. We educate and evangelize, but don’t continuously beg for donations. What a perfect fit for me!

Gold is purified in fire and my faith certainly was when I struggled to protect both mine and my daughter’s life. Though few will have to face as dire a crisis as I did, we have all experienced challenges as part of being “open to life” as Catholics. So why are you pro-life? And more importantly, how can you use your own unique witness to the value of life to share the Gospel with those who most need to hear it?

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Hey Abortion Advocates, What do You Mean by Choice?

Oh, that’s right, you don’t like the word ‘choice’ anymore. So how do you plan to label your unconditional support for abortion? Is this new propaganda to relabel yourselves an attempt to muddy the waters so that we don’t know what to call you – to not ‘box you in’? Well, I’ve got news for you; you’ve never really been pro-choice anyway because the only choice you advocate is abortion. You run in alarm when a woman chooses birth and mothering or adoption. So your grand efforts to create an innocuous label for yourself has fallen flat and now, even you realize it’s just not very simple to create a favorable tag for yourselves. You’ve always advocated for one thing – killing a pre-born child in her mother’s womb. It’s really tough to put a favorable spin on that isn’t it?

Whether you call us anti-abortion, pro-life or radical right wing extremists, it’s not difficult to know what we stand for. We respect the lives of all people – born and unborn. Our love extends to the pre-born baby, mother, father, siblings, grandparents, cousins, and friends of each and every human person. The love we feel is not limited to the perfect, healthy, holy, churched, saintly, modest, young or old – it encompasses them all. Where you have unconditional support for abortion; we stand for unconditional support and love.

In case you’re still here reading this post I’ll share some examples of our brand of love with you:

We love the  woman and her baby when she has been diagnosed with cancer while pregnant.

We love the baby who endangers the mother’s life.

We love the baby who is a product of rape.

We love the baby with a serious diagnosis of ‘imperfection’.

We love the baby  mourned due to miscarriage.

We love the woman who aborted her baby.

We love the aged.

We also love you, abortion proponent. We pray for your conversion and change of heart daily and fervently. We long to embrace you and share the joy we feel in living out the admonition given to us all directly from Jesus, ‘Love others as you love yourself’. His love is the most unconditional of all. Won’t you join us in seeking that type of perfection?


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Bald, Pregnant, and Living

Click this photo, my hand-drawn logo, to see more of my story.

“You have breast cancer,” the surgeon deadpanned. I glanced at my husband & then my mom, and waited for the punch-line. It never came — the doctor was deadly serious. He had just performed a biopsy (that amounted to a lumpectomy) with me wide awake and all-too-aware of the hole dug into my left arm-pit/breast area to remove the 2.5 cm tumor. The lack of anesthetic was due to my other condition: I was 20 weeks pregnant with my 6th, but only 2nd live, child (the other 4 pregnancies ended at various stages as miscarriages). I was only 28 years old — 20 years younger than my mother at her diagnosis (coincidentally around this time in October of 2005).

The surgeon who performed my biopsy/lumpectomy looked so bleak. He did not have any real options to give me. His lack of options was only repeated by the local oncologist, my ob/gyn, and my internist. The options shown to me and implied by these members of the medical profession were twofold: try to live myself by aborting my child OR risk dying from the cancer by allowing my child to live. My ob/gyn and internist knew me well enough to know that the first option wasn’t really an option at all. So we set out to find an alternative.

I was shocked and dismayed (that’s an ENORMOUS understatement) at my local doctors options, so I turned to the WWW. I searched the Susan G. Komen site*. I searched the American Cancer Society site*. I did meta-searches.

Almost all gave me the same options: abort my little girl then seek treatment or let my little girl live and possibly die myself. That was UNACCEPTABLE and ABHORENT to me.

Luckily, my mother had been to MD Anderson in Houston, TX for her breast cancer a short 3.5 years (at the time) ago. She had my doctor send a referral request down there. Less than 10 days after my diagnosis (6 days after ultrasound confirmed that my unborn child was a girl), I was in Houston meeting Dr. L, a breast oncologist at MD Anderson. I was a trifecta for her — her specialities are 1) Young women with breast cancer (check), 2) BRCA1 mutations (check), and (most importantly) 3) Breast cancer treatment of pregnant women (check). I had tests performed during that week in TX that would have taken MONTHS to schedule locally.

I had more expert opinions than I knew were possible! Most of all I had HOPE!!

As I returned home, I was still frightened, but at least I had a plan. What a plan it was! It began with chemotherapy while maintaining my pregnancy. It’s climax was the delivery of Rachel Eleonore on Thanksgiving Day (her daddy’s birthday as well as her exact due date). It persisted with further chemotherapy. It ended with several surgeries that included a modified radical mastectomy, immediate expander implant reconstruction, implant exchange surgery, and later this month DIEP reconstruction surgery. I have made it thus far carried by the prayers of family, friends, and even complete strangers around the world. This has been my chance to shoulder my cross and lead the way through a trial. To date, both my children have been in the local Walk for Life every year of their lives, including in the womb. I was a spectacle in September of 2009 when I walked bald & very pregnant (I was due in November) to the half-way point. In a way, I thank God for the opportunity, although at other times I ask God why He thinks I’m strong enough. Yet, through His grace, I am here and I stand strong with my wonderful daughter (and her older brother and their father) to be a vivid example of respecting life.

There have been many bumps in the road, but I have NEVER once regretted the decision to keep my precious baby girl who will be turning 2 this November. Her survival was not a surprise, but a blessing.

Sadly, I am no longer capable of bringing more children into this world. As a precautionary action, I had my ovaries and uterus removed since BRCA1 increases the risk of ovarian cancer by approximately 40-60%. In my mind, given my young age at breast cancer diagnosis, a young age of ovarian cancer was probably in my future. In addition, my maternal grandmother suffered alternating bouts with breast, then ovarian, then breast again for the last 5 years of her life. However, my inability to carry children in my womb has strengthened my resolve to help other women know that they can. I am a vocal advocate of the pro-life movement. I am also very vocal about the details of my story. Statistics tell us that 1 in 3000 – 3500 women diagnosed with breast cancer will be pregnant. To me, that means that the more I spread the word that women and their baby can live through the cancer, the more lives will be saved. I have recently personally heard about a woman who had brain tumors that received chemo and radiation while pregnant, again with no effect on the child.

To me, the moral of my story is that being pro-life is not a death sentence for a pregnant woman or her unborn child with a horrible disease like cancer. It is entirely possible to overcome numerous diseases and have a happy healthy baby in the process. Many cite “life of the mother” as a reason for abortion. Well, I’m here to say that many of the times “life of the mother” is cited, abortion is not in the woman’s best interest. As a matter of fact research has shown that pregnant women with cancer who keep their baby have a BETTER survival rate than their counterparts who abort. That is scientific fact that should be proclaimed from the housetops. Regardless, abortion is definitely not EVER in the baby’s best interest!

Pro-Life Lady Ribbon

To read more of my story, you can read my blog Erika’s Miracle Journey.

You can also read about the development of the Lady Ribbon, a pro-life, pro-woman, breast cancer awareness symbol.

::This story first posted on October 22, 2011 – it was *so* good, we just had to repost it!::