Due to their roles as a pastor and his wife, Rev. Ronny and Darlene Brennan have a lot of experience in comforting parishioners facing the life and death struggle that is cancer.
However, they didn’t expect to find themselves experiencing the same struggle.
Then Darlene went in for her annual mammogram in August of 2013, and the couple’s assumption was challenged.
Even after the clinic asked her to come back for another mammogram, they didn’t think anything of it. Nor did they worry much when she got called back in for a sonogram, and a subsequent biopsy.
It wasn’t until the doctor called and said, “It’s cancer,” that everything changed.
“Part of not being worried was there hadn’t been a history of it in my family,” Darlene said, “If you look at the list of predicators for breast cancer, I passed with A-plus-plus-plus. They say cancer is not painful, but the spot they were looking at was painful.
“And all I could think was, ‘Oh, no, I have to see my grandbabies grow up,” she said.
“She’s a strong woman,” said Ronny, pastor at Prospect United Methodist Church in Covington. “I wasn’t really worried until the doctor called and said the test came back, ‘cancer.’ That’s when it hit me.
“You can’t imagine the horror of the emotion,” he said. “I’ve had a brain aneurism and have had part of my colon removed, but I was unconscious for those. This is a very conscious thing. You begin to relive the horror you’ve gone through with families in the congregation.
“We never asked, ‘Why?’ though,” he said. “The rain falls on the just and the unjust, so we didn’t ask why it had happened. We asked why we were healed so completely, what does God have in store for us?”
Darlene was diagnosed with triple negative cancer, a form that is not supported by hormones, so it doesn’t respond to hormonal therapy such as tamoxifen. The form of cancer, also doesn’t indicate a greater or lesser survival rate, or that the it is more or less aggressive than other kinds.
But, it did mean she had to have both chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Chemo started first. Darlene describes the cycle that continued throughout the treatment as, getting the cocktail of drugs, feeling okay for the first day, a little worse the second, and then feeling like “sinking into the couch” on the third. By the end of the third week cycle, she would clean the house, fix meals and get ready for the next treatment.
Then, the cycle started over — only there was a problem. Immediately after the second treatment, Darlene began to break out in splotches — huge, red welts covering her arms, back and head. The couple raced to the doctor.
The negative reaction to the chemo meant the doctor would have to treat her with an older, more devastating form of chemotherapy.
They then learned that Darlene’s white blood cell count had fallen to zero.
The couple had been planning to go to their daughter’s home to see their new grandbaby via an ultrasound, when the doctor told then she was to stay inside the house and away from everyone. Ronny had to keep his distance from people, could no longer greet congregation members at the church door on Sunday mornings, for fear he’d bring home something that would make her sick.
“I felt fine,” she said. “You don’t know you don’t have white blood cells.”
Once chemo was over, radiation treatments started—33 of them, five days a week, from February to the first of March.
Throughout it all, Darlene said, they kept their faith and their senses of humor. Ronny refers to it as the joy of the Lord. He tells the story of Darlene’s hair.
They’d been prepared for her to lose it, but she really didn’t lose much after chemo started. One day, she walked into the living room from the back of the house and asked him, “Do you ever feel like pulling your hair out?”
“And she reached up and pulled two hunks of hair from her head,” he said. “She laughed, turned around and walked back to the bedroom.”
So, following one of his daughter’s instructions, Ronny shaved off the rest of Darlene’s hair. Though she had gotten a wig before chemo started, Darlene said she didn’t actually mind being bald.
“Someone said I looked like Sinead O’Connor,” she laughs.
When she lost her hair it had been long and brown. When it grew back it was iron gray and curly. “I looked like a poodle,” she said.
Eventually her hair straightened out and the chemo and radiation treatments came to an end.
The congregation of Prospect United Methodist Church was very supportive of the couple.
“They even asked me if I needed to take time off,” Ronny said.
Darlene, he said, has been an inspiration to many in the congregation. “They really rallied around her. And in her honor, they paid for a mammogram for a woman who hadn’t been able to have one for years.
“She was a reminder to have annual mammograms.”
Ronny had always felt for the person going through cancer, “but now, having been through it, I am more aware of what the family experiences,” he added. In fact, when a pastor in the area was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ronny’s supervisor, a district superintendent, called and asked him to go talk to the pastor’s husband.
Throughout everything, the couple never lost their faith.
“God was the rock,” Darlene said. “What do you have if you don’t have God? I just knew God would hold us together.”
She took comfort from Mark 17:20: “...if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (NRSV)
“That’s where I was at,” she said. “I had to hold on to the mustard seed in the midst of all this.”
“I think people misunderstand some things,” Ronny said. “Courage is not about the lack of fear. It’s moving through the fear.
“Faith is not the absence of doubt. It’s having faith in the face of doubt,” he said.
Though she can’t say she’s cancer free for another three years, and admits to getting tired more quickly then she used to, Darlene says one of the most helpful pieces of advice she received came from a member of the congregation who had been going through cancer treatments for seven years.
“He told me, ‘Don’t be afraid’,” she said, and his comments helped carry her through. “It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity.
“I chose not to wallow,” she said.