Facing Terminal Illness with Mercy, Part III

March 20, 2015

By Catherine Walsh, Northeast Communications Specialist

This is the third in a series of profiles of Sisters living with serious illness

Sister Elaine (left) with her friend Sue LaVoie.

Sister Elaine (left) with her friend Sue LaVoie.

Here’s what Sister Elaine Deasy has: a fatal disease. Here’s what she doesn’t have: a bucket list.

For this woman of Mercy, who is 69 and provides spiritual direction to sisters and laypeople – including women in recovery and incarcerated women – answering the question of how she would live with terminal illness didn’t take long. She would just keep doing what she was doing, but on a reduced scale so she could tend to her medical needs.

“Although I am living each day with the knowledge that I have stage four metastatic breast cancer for which there is no cure, the operative phrase is ‘I am living each day,’” she says. “I don’t have or want a bucket list. I don’t desire to go on a big trip. I’ve done nothing dramatic in terms of changing my life.”  

Sister Elaine was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. Although stunned by the diagnosis, she also “felt one with all the women who went before me” who were diagnosed with this disease. Undergoing two mastectomies, including one that was preventive, plus chemotherapy, was “both a scary and sacred time for me,” Sister Elaine recalls.

Nearly a dozen years of good health followed. But then in the spring of 2012, Sister Elaine was plagued by stomachaches. Numerous hospitalizations and several surgeries later, she learned in the summer of 2013 that her breast cancer had metastasized to her small intestine. She endured rounds of chemotherapy and radiation throughout 2014. These days, as spring weather begins to push away memories of the long, snowy New England winter of 2015, Sister Elaine finds herself in a place of fragile well-being.

She takes medication whose only serious side effect is fatigue. “No one feels sorry for me, because everyone is tired!” she quips. “But I love my sweet afternoon naps.” She has resigned from several boards and now does part-time ministry, serving as a spiritual director for a dozen or so people, where once she saw twice that number. In the coming months, she will lead retreats for women in recovery and an enneagram workshop, and direct eight-day retreats for women at Mercy Center in Madison, Connecticut. She continues her bimonthly visits to a maximum-security women’s prison in Niantic, Connecticut, where she offers group spiritual direction, and her bond with the women—who are serving 20 years to life—has deepened.

“When I showed up in prison with no hair and asked the women, ‘How do you like it,’ they said ‘Sister Elaine, you look so cool!’” They have been wonderfully supportive.” Although she has told them only the basic facts of her condition, the women now ask Sister Elaine a question she has always asked them at the end of each visit: “How are you—really?”

Support from the Mercy Community, including Suzanne “Sue” LaVoie, a Companion in Mercy with whom Sister Elaine lives in community, and from her loving family, has made all the difference, says Sister Elaine. “Through it all, there has been nothing greater for me than the love, the prayer, and the sense of being held by the care and compassion of my community and of my family. That has been the most singularly comforting and peace-filled part of all of this trauma.”

Sue has shared Sister Elaine’s cancer journey since the beginning. She had just moved in when Sister Elaine was diagnosed with cancer the first time. “It’s been said that Mercy is the willingness to walk into the chaos of another,” Sue reflects with a rueful chuckle. “When Elaine first got cancer, it was chaos.” Yet thanks to the extended Mercy community, continues Sue, “at no point have I had to do it alone.” Mercy sisters and associates are constantly calling and stopping by. They also come up to Sister Elaine at meetings and say simply, “I love you and I’m praying for you.”

Sister Elaine says her own prayer is very simple. “I feel my God is holding me, helping me, healing me,” she says. “That is my prayer for me and for all who are in need.”

Terminal cancer—and time—have taught her many things, continues Sister Elaine. “When I was young, I was full of righteous anger over the injustices in our world and our church. But I am learning to be gentle, with myself and my own brokenness, and with the world’s brokenness.”

Learning to accept Mercy—after a lifetime of giving Mercy and being Mercy for others—has been “humbling,” adds Sister Elaine. “I’m living Mercy in a way that I had not known I would. My illness has put me in a place where I have learned how to receive Mercy and be graceful about it, and that’s a rich blessing.”

Sister Elaine composed one of the most well-known musical settings for the Suscipe of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy—listen to it here.

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  1. Barbara & Dennis Maloney

    Elaine and Sue,
    You know you are loved by so many, both near and far.
    Thanks for sharing honestly and “walking the walk” your entire lives.
    You call, we haul!
    Much love and special hugs,
    The Vermonters

  2. Amy Hoey

    Elaine and Sue, you are an inspiration to so many of us. The circle of Mercy may be getting stretched thin, but it has never been stronger! Know that you are in my prayer.

  3. Katherine Schroeder

    Sister Elaine, I’m a Mercy Associate and let me start out by thanking you for the beautiful musical setting for the “Suscipe” which we have sung many, many times. What a gift to us all.

    I’ve dealt with breast cancer twice over the past 25 years. Most recently in 2013. So I have an inkling of what you’ve been through. I have a degree of chronic pain now, but as you said about fatigue: “We all have it” don’t we?

    My prayers are with you on your journey. This is all such a great mystery, isn’t it? What can we do but place ourselves in the hands of a loving God and be grateful for the Mercy around us every day?

  4. Hope Liming

    Elaine, Although our paths haven’t crossed on a while, I will always be grateful for your kindness, words of wisdom and the challenges during my journey with Mercy. You will remain in my thoughts and prayers.
    Peace, Hope

  5. Margot Sheehan

    Dear old Friend,

    I have walked this journey of life with you for over 45 years. Now we are coming closer to the end of your journey here on this earth but your journey will continue…we do not know how but we believe that life is not ended but changed. You have brought great joy and laughter to my life. Your sense of humor has been sustained through all the pain and treatments. I wish you strength and peace for the remainder of your days and I wish to walk these days with you in whatever way I can. Peace, friend. Margot

  6. Pingback: Facing Terminal Illness with Mercy, Part IV | Connect With Mercy: The Official Blog of the Sisters of Mercy

  7. Breeda Lagan Royer

    Hi Sr Elaine … I googled you on April 20th because I thought of you as I reflected on the theme of this year’s (tomorrow May 2nd at St Anslems College) – NH Catholic YOUTHFEST “GLORY” WE ARE CALLED TO BRING GLORY TO GOD THROUGH OUR LIVES . And YOU came to mind over and over again …and NOW I know WHY you kept coming to mind …. when I googled you I found couple of videos of u at RSM website about MERCY and how you have lived your life over 46 years with RSM and with now knowing moreso of the MERCY you gave of yourself and of Christ to others over the years …
    You are in my prayers that you may continue to feel the “mercy” you speak of in your recent video clips.
    As part of the theme GLORY for NH CATHOLIC YOUTHFEST , someone wrote it is not an easy task to bring Glory to God thru our lives as we are faced with challenges, pressures and trials everyday; abiding in Christ, we find the strength to exercise our faith, to flourish and grow in good words and deeds. The joy of those that abide in Christ’s love is a continual feast !
    YOU ARE A GREAT EXAMPLE OF GLORY !! You exemplified GLORY to me when I was a teenager ( back in late 70s -early 80s at SLO’T at our youth group nights in the basement of the mercy convent , hanging out, listening, laughing , drinking DIET soda ( we hated but u loved) , singing worship songs while u played guitar, telling us stories of your trips to Guatemala and caring for the poor and children who gave great GLORY to God … May YOU continue to abide in Christ’s great love at his continual feast of GLORY !!
    Now .. I know and understand better the true meaning of GLORY – and – MERCY … Thank you Sr Elaine for all THEN and NOW !! Hugs Breeda Lagan Royer ( you will be especially in my prayers tomorrow at NH Catholic Youthfest )….

  8. Sister Mary Kneeland

    Dear Sister Peggy, I am a Sister of Mercy in the Portland, Maine Community. Right now I am stationed at our Frances Warde Convent in Portland. Previously, I was the Treasurer of our St. Joseph’s College in Standish, Maine. I am now re-tired after a bout of uterine and breast cancer but I am pretty good now. I rec’d your name as a Chapter Prayer Partner and am glad to be keeping you in prayer especially as you participate in the 6th Institute Chapter in June. God bless you, Peggy. I will keep you in prayer and thought – might even drop you a line once in a while. Keep in touch, if you like. Sincerely Sister Mary Kneeland mkneelan@sjcme.edu