Breast cancer forces a reckoning with faith.
For some, it's a simple question: What kind of God gives such suffering to his servants?
For others, it's another kind of quandary: How can I come to terms with the beauty and generosity of others in this awful experience?
The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, below, interim director of interreligious life at Transylvania University, described it as a coming to terms with "the tenuousness of life, and how beautiful it is and how much we want to hold onto it" — while knowing that you can let it go.
After all, said Kemper, an 18-year breast cancer survivor, the prophet Isaiah said God will be with you when you walk through the waters and the fire. He didn't qualify it by saying "if" hard times come, because they assuredly will, whether by cancer or the loss of a loved one or economic hard times.
"In the midst of it, there's a power that can sustain you, if you just open yourself to it," said Kemper, the former head of the Kentucky Council of Churches.
Kemper has a favorite quotation from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: "Prayer is arrival at the border. The dominion is thine."
It speaks to arriving at a place in a faith journey where the intellectual precepts of faith vanish, and the belief from the heart takes over.
"If I had never had breast cancer, I never would have experienced all the great things I have experienced," said Lisa Letton, one of the coordinators of Southland Christian Church's Pink Touch breast cancer support group.
Those decisions are not just about whether you survive. They are about how you will spend your remaining days, however many those are, and how you will cope with a body that is forever scarred and a spirit forever changed.
"I don't put off anything anymore," said Joan Oliver, who plays piano at Centenary United Methodist Church and was diagnosed in 2008. "If I want to say something to someone, I say it. I don't want to have regrets."
She created an email prayer list of 200 people and prayed that one of the chemotherapy drugs would not rob her of feeling in her hands and feet that she would need to play piano.
Oliver said the cancer gave her a deeper understanding of how faith applies to situations in which good people suffer.
"Bad things happen to good people all the time, but you don't realize that until it happens to you, that we're not just going around randomly," Oliver said.
She said her prayers to God were about converting her experience into something greater, a testament to faith: "I'm asking questions like, 'What do you want to use this for? What do you want me to do with this?'"
At the Pink Touch ministry at Southland Christian in Jessamine County, Letton and her co-leader, Beth Burnett, knew each other casually from church. Then they crossed paths in a doctor's office when both were in the midst of treatment.
The two became friends and decided to encourage each other in their journey through cancer. Eventually, a Southland Christian outreach group called First Touch was extended to a Pink Touch spinoff for those facing cancer.
Letton said she prayed and cried with a church elder. "In the process of that crying I was able to release it," she said. "There was peace. There was just a calmness and a peace."
She had a bilateral mastectomy and has not regretted it. After all, she said, they're just breasts.
Burnett had multiple rounds of chemotherapy — including "red devil," which is what patients call the particularly potent, scarlet-colored drug Adriamycin — and considers herceptin, the drug that ended her chemo regimen, a life-saver.
"I don't take a lot of things for granted anymore," said Burnett, as leaves from a honey locust tree fell around her on a warm Tuesday outside Southland Christian. "This sitting right here is gorgeous."
She recalled one day at work when a casual friend planted an unexpected kiss the top of her hand, an experience that she considered both encouraging and transcendent. Working in the floral department of a Kroger in Nicholasville, she said, meant that her cancer struggle was played out publicly among employees and customers.
Letton said that she was amazed "how God kept lining up the people, pushing me down the right path." For her, that was a more aggressive course than she had initially planned.
Her plastic surgeon said to her: "God's way is not always the easiest, but it's the best."
Recently, two friends of hers have developed breast cancer. Because of her experience, Letton has been there to support them.
Michelle Frank, who facilitates the Pink Touch group for Southland, said the care groups are for shared suffering as well as shared joy: "It immediately gives you a place of belonging."
Said Burnett: "There is light at the end of that tunnel. There is not a flashlight. There is a floodlight."