Amid pandemic, Spiritus missioner copes with cancer

Desiree Barron says prayers are helping her through treatments

ALLOUEZ — Desiree Barron took a leap of faith in 2019 during her senior year of high school. The Ranchester, Wyo., native decided to forego college and become a Spiritus missionary at Mount Tabor Center in Menasha.

Desiree Barron, a member of the Spiritus missionary team based at Mount Tabor Center in Menasha, is pictured with students during a retreat at All Saints School in Berlin Oct. 30, 2019. Barron was diagnosed with classic Hodgkin lymphoma on Feb. 25 and, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is now living with her grandparents in Montana. (Submitted Photo | For The Compass)

Founded in 2009, Spiritus trains young adults as missionary disciples. They go out in teams to evangelize Catholic youth and young adults around Wisconsin through retreats, parish youth ministry and college campus ministry.

Barron learned about Spiritus while attending the SEEK2019 retreat in Indianapolis. “I found their booth at SEEK2019 … and it took them 10 minutes to convince me to give up my college plans and become a missionary,” she told The Compass. “Their mission had everything I was looking for.”

The decision was an instant success, recalled Barron. “I took to the mission and the other missionaries pretty quickly and I helped lead over 40 retreats,” she said. “I was the youngest on the team this year, but I really enjoyed being team leader on retreats. I love public speaking, so giving sessions and witnesses came pretty naturally to me.”

What seemed a dream come true turned nightmarish in late January.

“The mission was going well and we were in the middle of a busy season for retreats,” said Barron. “It was late on the night of Jan. 23 when I found a lump above my collar bone.”

Barron visited ThedaCare Regional Medical Center in Neenah Jan. 28 for X-rays and returned a few days later for ultrasound tests, but nothing was discovered.

A CT scan Feb. 3 uncovered a cluster of inflamed lymph nodes, she said, and on Feb. 14 a biopsy discovered cancer. “It was a tough day, not so much because I was sad, but I had to miss formation with Bishop (David) Ricken and I was pretty disappointed,” Barron said.

She was officially diagnosed with classic Hodgkin lymphoma Stage I on Feb. 25. “I don’t remember being devastated, but I was concerned how it would affect my mission and my team,” she said. “I wanted what was best for them, and leadership wanted what was best for me. Our team had become a family and I didn’t want to leave them.”

The next few weeks were like a whirlwind for Barron. “My mom (Monique) flew out to Wisconsin from Wyoming on March 8 to help me get started,” she said. “I knew she wanted to take me home, but she was moved by the support she saw at Spiritus and changed her mind.”

Eden and Katherine Foord, founders and directors of Spiritus, helped coordinate Barron’s care.

“Even in the midst of receiving her diagnosis, Desiree remained peaceful,” said Katherine. “She knows that God is with her and in some sense, this situation is a gift.”

“I couldn’t do retreats anymore, and if someone on the team was sick I couldn’t be touched with a 10-foot pole,” said Barron. “I felt very loved and cared about knowing they weren’t giving up on me.”

On March 4, eight days before her first chemotherapy treatment, Barron learned that her disease had progressed to Stage II, which meant additional chemotherapy. Then her life was thrown another curveball when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Desiree Barron is pictured with her grandmother, Arlette Randash, April 25. Barron, who began serving as a Spiritus missionary team member last August, is living with her grandparents in Helena, Mont., while she undergoes chemotherapy.  (Photo courtesy of Desiree Barron)

“The pandemic was announced and the mission year had to come to an early close,” said Barron. “Spiritual leadership was forced to make the tough decision of sending some missionaries home and I was one of them. I was devastated to be leaving my team and it happened way too fast.”

Due to chemotherapy, her immune system was suppressed, so she was not able to give her fellow Spiritus mission team members goodbye hugs. “I was barely able to see my team in our last few days together, let alone hug them goodbye,” she said.

Instead of returning home to Wyoming and risk catching an infection or worse from her five younger siblings or parents, Barron drove to Helena, Mont., on March 22 to continue chemotherapy and live with her grandparents, Dean and Arlette Randash. “I’m receiving chemo every other Thursday now,” she said.

Knowing that she probably could have finished her mission year in Menasha if the pandemic had never hit is a scenario Barron often ponders. Now, she said, in the middle of chemotherapy sessions and a pandemic, “I can’t go out much.”

“Other than walks, I stay at the house and have seen a grand total of five people in person since I got to Montana,” Barron added. “I keep myself busy though. We watch daily Mass, pray a daily rosary and I’ve been painting, teaching myself the ukulele and reading.”

Barron said she has between three to five chemotherapy treatments remaining. “I’ve basically lost all my hair now, but I totally rock this buzz cut so that’s not all terrible,” she said. “If all goes well, God willing, I will then hopefully be declared cancer free.”

Barron, who turns 20 in August, practices the same message she preached to youth during retreats in the Diocese of Green Bay: trust in God.

“My faith has been the most important part of this,” she said. “Suffering sucks, don’t get me wrong. But suffering unites us to Christ more intimately than anything else. I’m honestly so grateful for this cross. To be trusted with suffering, especially during such a dangerous and trying time, is such a beautiful opportunity to unleash grace.”

Thanks to the internet, Barron is able to stay in touch with friends from Spiritus. “I’ve been video chatting and I’m still doing book discussions and formations with the team,” she said. “I’ve been getting so much support from them and honestly a lot of my strength comes from them and what they have given me this year.”

She is also buoyed by prayers from Spiritus friends, family and others. “The prayers give me every breath I take and I totally believe that,” Barron said.

Uncertainty still fills Barron’s life, but she approaches it with hope, faith and joy.

“My family is handling this so well,” she said. “Their peace and strength give me a lot of comfort, and all my siblings are always smiling and laughing when I call them. They are very hopeful for my recovery as am I.

“God has all of this (covered),” she said. “He saw it coming and he planned ahead for it. He has our good in mind and suffering only draws us closer to his heart. Joy always follows. Always. And that’s something I will bet my life on.”