The Rev. Alison Martin was diagnosed 25 years ago, Deacon Penny Foster nine years ago, and the Revs. Cathy Dempesy and Judy Breny two years ago.
All four Episcopal clergywomen have survived breast cancer, and together they will take to the altar in a special service this evening aimed at providing hope and comfort to other survivors, cancer patients currently battling the disease, and families of loved ones who lost the fight.
The service, the first of its kind in Western New York, will be held in the Diocesan Center of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York, 1064 Brighton Road, Town of Tonawanda. It is free and open to the public, and organizers hope to reach those affected by breast cancer far beyond Episcopal church members.
“They may never enter an Episcopal church again,” but if this service helps them, “then we’re doing something that God calls us to do,” said diocesan spokeswoman Laurie Wozniak, who proposed the service.
Anyone who attends can be assured that the women on the altar know firsthand the kind of physical, emotional and mental pain that accompanies a breast cancer diagnosis, Wozniak said.
“I thought, ‘What a powerful thing,’ ” she said.
Cancer has been a life-altering experience for the women.
For Foster, it was “the kick that I needed” to pursue ordination to the Episcopal diaconate in 2008. Foster felt a calling to be a deacon before her diagnosis in 2003, and she decided to pursue ordination as a way of giving back to the community that supported her so strongly with prayers during her recovery.
“Every day is a gift, and believe me, after you have had cancer, you wake up in the morning and you thank God you have another day,” she said.
Breny was diagnosed after a routine mammogram in 2010, and she said her faith “grounded” her in handling the challenges of the illness.
Breny, who also is a clinical social worker, focused on Psalm 91, in which the Lord declares that he will be with those who are in trouble, as a touchstone for healing – similar to the way many of her clients suffering from post-traumatic stress trusted in the Old Testament passage, she said.
“I experienced many manifestations of healing,” she said, including through her family, congregation and even the car mechanic who offered to drive her around as she was still recovering from her surgery.
Dempesy, rector at Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd and Ascension Church in Buffalo, said she learned valuable lessons and has become a better priest since a mammogram located a tumor in 2010.
Dempesy had surgery, followed by 44 radiation treatments, and she is now in her second year of taking the drug tamoxifen to keep the disease at bay.
“It’s taught me in a way that I never could have learned through books the power of the community of prayer,” she said. “I can’t explain it, but I felt that.”
In the past, Dempesy prayed for people who requested it.
“Now,” she said, “I know what that does.”
Breast cancer nudged Martin toward the priesthood.
“It gave me a clearer sense of call that had been there, but it came to the forefront when I was diagnosed,” said Martin, who was an operating room nurse and was 34 years old when a mammogram revealed stage one cancer in 1987.
Martin had a mastectomy but did not need chemotherapy or radiation; she has been cancer-free since.
She enrolled in seminary in 1991 and was ordained in 1994.
“The breast cancer caused me to do a lot of reflection, a lot of searching, and really encouraged my faith,” said Martin, who now serves as priest in charge at St. Patrick’s Church in Cheektowaga. “It was like, ‘OK, I survived this, now I can go on and get through the ordination process.’ ”