The materials available on this website have been developed by Barbara Milligan and/or Juanita Ryan.
Barbara Milligan lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband, John. She is a spiritual director and an editor and is the author of Desperate Hope: Experiencing God in the Midst of Breast Cancer. Here, in brief, is Barbara’s story”:
At age 41, I was so shocked by the news that I had breast cancer that I couldn’t pray. When I did turn to God, I was surprised at the questions I was asking–Are you still there? Did you perhaps turn your back for a moment and forget about me? Why are you suddenly springing this on me?–questions that didn’t make sense in my theological framework.
Those questions (and many others) and the adventures I had with God because of my cancer experience prompted me a few years later to interview a number of Christian women who had (or had had) breast cancer and who also had asked God some tough questions. The result was Desperate Hope: Experiencing God in the Midst of Breast Cancer, published by InterVarsity Press (1999).
What I found within each of the women I interviewed was a deep desire to share her story. Although at that time I didn’t even know what spiritual direction was, it was happening in spite of me. Many of the women responded with comments like, “Wow, I wasn’t aware that I had all these feelings,” and, “Your questions are helping to heal parts of me that I didn’t know needed healing.” A 51-year-old woman who was dying told me that, following our first session together, she and her husband had had “the best conversation we’ve ever had.”
All I wanted to do was to sit with those women and keep helping them explore their feelings, especially their feelings about God in the context of their cancer experience. That realization in part led me later to seek training as a spiritual director. Currently, I provide individual spiritual direction and spiritual retreats. I also lead a grief support group at Mills Health Center in San Mateo, California.
Juanita Ryan is a therapist in private practice at Brea Family Counseling Center in Brea, California. Her home page is juanitaryan.com. She is the author of numerous Bible study guides published by InterVarsity Press, as well as several books, including Soul Repair, which she coauthored with Jeff VanVonderen and her husband, Dale Ryan. Keep Breathing is a series of meditations that she wrote after being diagnosed with breast cancer. The Together Living with Cancer material formed the basis for a long-standing support group for cancer survivors that she co-led for many years. Here, in brief, is Juanita’s story:
Four days before Christmas of 2006 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The news came in a phone call from my doctor. She had already set up an appointment for the day after Christmas with a surgeon.
I was surprised at the impact this news had on me physically. The sense of threat left me both numb and spinning. But what I found over the next few weeks was that when I stayed grounded in this new and strange reality, by reminding myself “I have breast cancer and I need surgery,” the spinning stopped and an wide variety of feelings came flooding in. Feelings of fear, of sadness, of peace and of gratitude all began to emerge. The journey of staying grounded in this diagnosis and of making room for all these emotions opened my heart and mind in life changing ways.
I had been a medical-surgical nurse for many years and a mental health specialist for many more years, so I had witnessed in others much of what I was now experiencing. I had also co-led a cancer support group (Together Living with Cancer) at my church for several years and had been moved by hearing others talk about the kind of strong feelings and changing perspectives I was now immersed in. What was underscored for me in my own journey with cancer was that our need for each other and for God comes into greater focus when we are facing challenges of this magnitude.
It is our prayer that what we have to share from our personal stories will speak hope and grace to you, whatever you are going through. It is also our hope that these resources will become the basis for deeper conversation for you with others and that some of you who join us here will be able to use these resources to begin a support group in your church or community. However you use these resources, may you experience the grace and strength that can come when together we live with cancer.