Cancer scare changed her life

By Jean Peerenboom | For The Compass | December 17, 2014

Sarah Elmer says experience inspires her to do more for others

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]APPLETON — Fifteen minutes changed Sarah and Jonathan Elmer’s lives forever this year.

Sarah Elmer had a cancer scare that brought a new awareness to their personal and spiritual lives. She begins her story with her discovery of a “very tiny” lump in her thigh that wasn’t really noticeable, but she thought it should be checked out just to reassure herself it wasn’t anything to worry about. Her doctor had checked it a few times and wasn’t concerned — at first.

Your Catholic Neighbor: Sarah Elmer (Kathy Weigman | For The Compass)
Your Catholic Neighbor: Sarah Elmer (Kathy Weigman | For The Compass)

Elmer’s concern didn’t go away. “My husband is a hospice grief counselor and I’m in parish ministry work. I feel surrounded by people who deal with this kind of thing. So, I pushed it with my doctor,” she said.

“I had an X-ray in fall, then an MRI to be sure,” Elmer explained. “A couple hours later, I got a call to come in and see the doctor for the results. I knew that couldn’t be good. I found a babysitter and we went in. I didn’t expect to hear, ‘It’s cancer.’

“When I heard soft-tissue sarcoma, I felt like I was in another world,” she said. There were so many emotions, yet she didn’t really feel much. “It was so overwhelming.”

That was on a Wednesday and, as youth minister at Holy Spirit Parish, she had an event scheduled that evening. “There were 70 kids coming for a youth event. Rather than sit at home and think about this, I went to the event and shared a good time with the kids,” Elmer said. “Fortunately, I have a wonderful husband who knows me well. He understood I needed to be with my ‘big kids,’” as she calls her youth group participants.

The Elmers have two small children of their own: Jonah, 5, and Evelyn, 11 months. It would be her family — especially her husband, mother and sister — and her parish ministry that would get her through her ordeal. She didn’t share her diagnosis with a wide group of people, so she limited her support network.

About a week and a half later, the Elmers had gotten insurance clearance and found a specialist in Milwaukee. “My husband did a lot of research, but I just kept wondering what stage it was. That’s what I wanted to know. Then, what was the treatment path. If I knew that, I’d have a goal,” she said. “I didn’t need to know all the other options. I hoped it was stage one.”

She had a biopsy on a Wednesday and had to wait until Friday for results. “Those were the worst days of my life,” she said. “All I could think of was ‘stage one.’ Anything else couldn’t be cured.”

Finally, she said, the call came. It was 4:30 p.m. on Friday. “They said, ‘It’s not cancer.’

“I said, ‘Could you repeat that?’ I couldn’t believe it.”

It was the best news they could get, but there was no way they were going back to life as it was before the diagnosis.

“Now, I have much better empathy for others when they talk about this,” she said. “When someone hears ‘it’s cancer,’ there are no other words you can hear. It’s their actions that show their love and support.”

“My prayer had never been to be healed. I wanted to dance like St. Thérèse danced,” she said. Citing a movie about the saint’s life — “Story of a Soul” — she said the saint was known for celebrating the small things. She remembered a part where St. Thérèse took a grouchy sister and waltzed her down the hallway. “It’s about finding joy in what you do,” she said.

“I wanted to bring peace and hope and smiles for everyone else, even when I didn’t feel it for myself,” she said. “The hardest part was I wanted to live for my family, for my job. For me, these two mesh together. My primary vocation is my family; my secondary vocation is my ministry.”

In the end, it was a positive experience, she said. “It showed me the dualism. I see Jesus in the manger, but it also was about the cross.”

Jonathan Elmer said he found strength in his family and the hospice team he works with. “People think those of us who work with the dying all the time get desensitized to death. That’s not true. When it happens to one of your own, it’s different.”

The experience also had an impact on his prayer life. “We kept up a dialogue with God,” he said. “My petition changed from asking God to fix it to asking to feel God’s presence.”

“You know, this experience was only 10 or 14 days, but it felt a lot longer,” he said. “It gave me a greater appreciation for Advent waiting. I was always waiting for the next step, but I’ve learned that waiting is part of the experience.”

The experience also inspired the couple to do more. Jonathan Elmer said he has been hearing other people’s stories about their experiences with cancer or other life-changing events. “Sarah and I came up with an idea,” he said. “We decided to stock our freezer with individually-packaged meals. When someone is in need, we can pull something out and give it as a sign of hospitality, as a way of being present for them.”

“Being present, that’s important. In fact, tonight we’re going home to have something that someone gave us during our experience. We’ll be thinking of them,” he said.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_message color=”alert-info” style=”rounded”]Your Catholic Neighbor

Name: Sarah Elmer

Parish: Holy Spirit, Kimberly/Darboy

Age: 32

Favorite saint: Thérèse of Lisieux

Words to live by: “Do all things with passion, for nothing in the world exists without it.”[/vc_message][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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