Browsing The Northern Cross

Betsy Kneepkens: Ten years cancer free brings a new perspective

May 2023 marks my tenth anniversary of being cancer free. For you regular readers, you have followed my cancer journey for a decade, and I am grateful. I am blessed to make this milestone. 

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

When you receive a cancer diagnosis, as many have, your perspective of time, priority, and relationship all change. You know that if you had a relationship with Christ before your diagnosis, it was likely more substantial after. Everyone handles cancer differently, but life does get transformed in some way for everyone told they have a life-threatening illness. 

Although you can say you are cancer free, you never are free from Cancer. At least for me, a day doesn’t go by that at least once I have a cancer moment. As a survivor, my experience includes the “what if” that can sometimes tear you apart. Or my preferred choice is to use those “cancer moments” to enlighten a daily appreciation for the here and now. 

One of the great cancer gifts I received was grasping the meaning of gratitude. Before the illness event, I could define gratitude, but not until I was deeply vulnerable did I combine the definition in my head with an overwhelming sensation in my heart. I learned that gratefulness is incredibly satisfying. Even in our wounded world, there are great reasons to be thankful. My tears of appreciation after cancer are a frequent affair. Simply put, I have had more joy since cancer. 

By nature, I am a passionate person, and post-cancer, that passion has been magnified to a degree where that energy can make others uncomfortable. If earthly, I believe God has us here, and his gift of time is intended for all of us. God’s creation, the apparent order he put in place, and giving us the reason and logic to work through daily issues make me more frustrated at complacency since my illness. 

Mainly, being Catholic, I struggle when some treat our religion like a club membership. We were given so much in the fullest sense, including the Eucharist. Yet, there are those individuals, leaders, and institutions that minimize the obligation to engage, witness, and hand on the Good News to those we are entrusted to. The world needs every baptized Catholic to go beyond membership, embrace all she has to offer, and go out there healing the brokenhearted and making for a better world. 

No one must do everything. All of us Catholics must do something, and I see that more now than I did 10 years ago. 

Cancer provided an additional perspective on “everything” family. With each sacrament my children received, I wanted to bottle up the graces my children were receiving so they could somehow see and appreciate what a profound gift it was. Although we prepped our children for the sacraments, post-diagnosis I found it hard to properly convey how those graces are essential. The magnitude of what these spiritual gifts offer to them now is enormous, but more importantly, as they travel on their eventual journey to life after. 

I vividly recall sobbing at adoration before my son and now daughter-in-law’s wedding rehearsal because I knew God allowed me to be with my son and his wife-to-be as they embarked on the most sacred earthly ministry. I knew their decision to marry in the church would flood them with the graces, which equip them to reflect what Christ did for us on the cross. Had my touch with earthly death not been experienced, I can easily see myself thinking this wedding was just one of many lifelong activities and another special day for my children. But I know now, the sacrament of marriage is so much more. 

My fifth son graduates from college this May, and I feel healthy and strong. All my sons’ graduations have been post-cancer. I went from bald, poofy, and exhausted at my eldest son’s graduation to sturdy, slightly more hair, hopeful, and excited for my fifth son’s commencement ceremony next month. 

Because I am still here, I have celebrated with tremendous joy four of my children choosing to live responsibly and engage in meaningful work. I was able to be at my son’s medical school graduation and watch my daughter fulfill her dream of playing collegiately the sport she loves. I have experienced 10 more Christmases, Easters, vacations, and wedding anniversaries with my family. 

I am far from getting all priorities straight, but since diagnosis, I do so much less that is unnecessary and embrace with delightful anticipation all things necessary and family. My heart is so full I can barely sleep when the whole family is under one roof. My husband and I have fun strategizing how we can get all the kids together again. Cancer was a gift to our family because we deeply appreciate any time we get to spend together. 

I want science to cure cancer. I support all ethical means to end this terrible disease. I don’t want one more person to hear what I heard 10 years ago, “You have cancer.” It was and has been a challenging journey that charged my husband, family, and friends to make extreme sacrifices for me. I am grateful for everything everyone has done for me then and even up to today. 

Cancer and the treatments did a number on my body, and I would never want to go through that experience again. With that said, in God’s providence, my bout with cancer was the most significant life-changing experience. I fall short in so many ways, and there are many things I need to get better at. But looking back at the last 10 years, I wouldn’t want to change one thing about it. I am grateful beyond words for all prayers, the intercessor saints, Mary, Mother of God, and the love and mercy God continues to shed over me every day. I know I have been blessed, and I’m more grateful that I know it. 

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.