Claudia Bretzing has been a wonderful friend of mine for many years. Not only is she in my church congregation, but eight years ago, while she was going through cancer treatment, she was my son’s second grade teacher. Claudia is a petite, pretty woman who lights up when surrounded with children. I’d watched her for years in her role as teacher and thought, “I hope my son has her for a teacher some day.” It was heart-wrenching the day I learned Claudia had cancer. For a year, she fought to heal, all the while working at the school with her little students championing her on.
Claudia’s road to remission was frightening and exhausting, but she did finally arrive there. She called me one day and said she was working on writing a memoir about her journey through cancer. “Would you be willing to read it?” she asked. I was honored. The night she handed me that 100-plus page manuscript, I couldn’t put it down. Her book, The Cancer Effect, isn’t just doctor’s notes and prescription charts, but a chronicle of the emotional toll cancer took on her family, the spiritual growth she experienced and how she learned to make every day count.
I had the chance to ask Claudia some questions about her experience and I know her answers will help many people. Each of us knows someone who is struggling with this horrible disease. Through sharing her story, Claudia has embraced a special mission to help others know what to expect. In a sense, she is a friend who’s been through it, so those facing cancer know they are not alone.
How did you feel when you found out you had cancer?
Cancer sneaks in unexpectedly. It was the last thing I ever expected and it took a long time to sink in. I felt my world was spinning out of control and I was scared. I had a tough time facing the reality of the situation and for a long time was in denial to the severity of the diagnosis: Stage 3, bilateral mastectomy, chemo, the possibility of it spreading. I would bury my emotions, striving to appear positive and optimistic, especially for my family. I never felt “why me” or sorry for myself, just surprised and taken off guard. I was also worried about not being able to fulfill my obligations to my family or as a second-grade teacher. I never like to let people down.
How did the Lord help you?
I have a close relationship with my Heavenly Father and I would pray daily for guidance and help to get through this trial. He never failed me. I received comfort when I was feeling low, guidance in finding my medical team, and peace in the outcome. He calmed my troubled heart. Yes, there were times I felt confused, but prayer would always clarify the direction I should take. I would say the best way He helped was to fill my soul with peace, sometimes through the comforting influence of the Holy Spirit, and sometimes through other people. I never felt alone, even when there were few that really understood what I was going through. The Savior always understands because He suffered all things for us.
What was the role of others who supported you?
My husband, Randy, was my greatest support. Even when he had to go to work, I felt his love and presence. He not only took care of my physical needs such as bringing me food, but he listened, counseled, and held my hand. My youngest daughter, Brittany, would brighten my day. She would arrive home from school and immediately come into my room and visit, sharing highlights of her day and her feelings. Even though my other children had families of their own, they would check in often, sometimes traveling to be by my side during crucial moments. I had two special friends who took me to my appointments, dedicating much time and service. Monica sat with me during some of my chemo sessions, and Lauri sat through my surgery when my port was placed. Both drove me to get my shots and blood work when I was unable to drive. Many church friends and neighbors brought meals, flowers, sent cards to cheer, visited, and provided a listening ear. My colleagues at the school where I taught would fill in when I couldn’t perform my duties and were constantly leaving me gifts and notes. People smiled, hugged, and made me feel loved.
How did you trust in the Lord?
That wasn’t always easy. I like to be in control and I had to learn to let go and let Him lead the way. Sometimes we think we know what is best but we must ask ourselves in times of trouble, “Do I have the faith NOT to be healed?” The Lord is in charge and He knows what’s best for us. We have to accept His will with all our heart and “lean not unto our own understanding.”
What would you say to someone who just found out they have cancer?
There are really no words that are adequate. I would just hug them tight and love them. Having gone through a cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, I would listen with empathy to their fears, concerns, and answer any questions they may have. In the beginning, a cancer patient often doesn’t know what to ask, how to express what they feel, or even know what they need. If you ask, “What can I do to help?” you will likely get no answer. I would just be there.
How can we as other women help those who are suffering with cancer?
Each cancer patient will have different needs and it is up to us to prayerfully determine what we can do to help. One might need a listening ear, a companion to distract them during a chemo treatment, help with children at home. One thing a cancer patient feels is guilt for not being able to take on their responsibilities. Knowing their children are being cared for is a burden others can lift. Helping them with homework, getting to baseball practice or lessons, attending these events, picking them up from school. Helping with household chores is also appreciated and will usually not be requested so you have to show up and do it. Each person will have unique needs, but the Lord knows what they are and will help each of us know what to do. In one situation, I took over a woman’s favorite ice cream and we sat and sipped ice cream floats together, laughing and passing the time while she waited to hear about her PET scan results.
Has your perspective on life, relationships, religion changed since cancer? How?
One cannot go through a life-threatening diagnosis and not be changed. My perspective on life has been impacted by my journey in three significant ways. First, I value every single day. I consider each day as a gift from my Heavenly Father to be used to serve others. I seek His direction in what He would want me to do with my time, being very careful not to waste it. My cancer is capable of going any direction at any moment and so I value the time I’ve been given and take it seriously. I want my life to reflect His will. Secondly, I feel closer to each member of my family and have increased in my ability to see them as the Savior does. I value every moment with my husband, my mom, my children, and grandchildren, realizing that time with them is also a gift and must be embraced. They are more important than a checklist of tasks for the day. I take time to listen, to play, to make memories. Third, my testimony of my Savior and Heavenly Father’s love for me has grown immensely. I literally felt Them hold me in Their arms during very dark moments, giving me confidence and courage in my own abilities and strength. I learned to trust Them and let Their will be done. As I turned my life over to my Savior, I was finally able to let go of the worry and fear of cancer returning, knowing that my life is in His hands. Letting go of this worry enables me to move forward with faith and hope. I am grateful for His plan of happiness and His plan for me.
I’m very interested in the spiritual side of your journey. I think you used to be a bit shy, but know you are so willing to speak out. You are very brave. Can you also share how has cancer changed you? For the better?
I’m not really shy about sharing my faith, but I am selective in what I wish to share with everyone. There are some spiritual experiences that are so sacred they are meant for the individual and their family. However, I will always be willing to be a light and an example of the power of prayer and faith in our Savior Jesus Christ. Without Him and His healing power, my cancer journey would have been different. I notice that most cancer patients that I meet have turned to a higher authority, their God, even if they didn’t believe before their diagnosis. When faced with their own mortality, they realize the importance of having a relationship with their Savior and they also feel of His comfort and presence in their battle. My journey has opened my eyes to the amount of suffering there is all around us and I desire to reach out and help ease the journey of other cancer patients. By sharing my experiences, thoughts, discoveries, deepest feelings, I can give something of value to those called upon to travel the cancer road. My heart has been touched deeply by those who hear the dreaded words, “You have cancer,” and I am devoting my time to take their hand and help them travel that road. My book details my cancer journey, not just the physical aspects but the truest, deepest thoughts and emotions that occur during treatment, recovery, and emotional survival. As I work with individuals as well as groups, I find great joy in being an advocate in their behalf and a friend who truly understands.
In my book, I discuss this in several places. I write about the nights where I couldn’t sleep and would have conversations with my Heavenly Father which resulted in me growing closer to Him and feeling of His love and support in my trial. I talk about the Week of Miracles, where angels, in the form of people, got me through parent/teacher conference week, one day at a time. In another chapter, I write about my cousin emailing me pictures of our grandparents and great grandparents. When I saw the picture of my grandfather, who passed away when I was 6, I knew he was one of the unseen angels that had been attending to me. I had felt the presence of angels during dark times and I knew they were family members who had gone on, and it was a sweet experience to know he was one of them. In my last chapter, I speak of God being a God of miracles. I was in the hospital last year for eleven days and had a section of my small intestine removed that appeared to be cancer. My doctors were sure my breast cancer had metastasized and were shocked when the pathology report came back benign. They had no other explanation for it and I attribute it to being a miracle. My time had not yet come. I had more work to do. This last experience is why I am so driven to use this extra gift of time in accordance to the Lord’s will.
Claudia Bretzing’s book The Cancer Effect is available on Amazon.
Written by Laura Lofgreen