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00000178-5fb1-d100-a9fb-7fb9d77f0000Stories of Cancer. Scroll down to read our collection of personal essays about cancer. Watch: Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies is a six-hour TV series directed by filmmaker Barak Goodman, aired March 30-April 1.Watch: Find videos of our live events in Indianapolis with medical researchers, caregivers, physicians, patients and clergy, here.

Cancer Turned Her Life Upside Down - And Then Gave It New Purpose

Lisa Hayes, center, with her husband, pastor Eric Hayes, and the couple's three children

In 2007 I spent a lot of time pondering the question, “Why me?” 

For many years, I had enjoyed a wonderful legal career and a good life with my husband and our three children. Then financial turmoil hit: Both my husband and I lost our jobs, right after building our dream home. That’s when I first asked, “Why me?”

In January 2007, I had obtained another job, but at a much lower income and with no health insurance.  So, when I felt a knot under my arm, I thought again, why me?  All of my adult life I’d had good insurance and rarely needed to go to the doctor, except for when I was pregnant.  Now when I found something questionable, I didn’t have any insurance and I wasn’t going to spend our limited funds on going to the doctor. I convinced myself the knot under my arm was nothing. But the knot didn’t go away.

After two months I became worried enough to tell my sister-in-law about it. She suggested to me that I call the Little Red Door, a cancer resource center in Indianapolis to see if they could help me. The Little Red Door arranged for me to have a free breast exam and a free mammogram. After the mammogram, the radiologist suggested I have a biopsy immediately. On May 1, 2007, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The knot I had felt under my arm was a lymph node.  A small tumor in my breast that had not even been felt during my clinical breast exam was cancerous and cancer cells from it had traveled to my lymph nodes.

So, I was sitting in the doctor’s office, again wondering, why me?  I’m not supposed to get cancer. I listed the reasons:

  • I have no family history of cancer.
  • I don’t smoke.
  • I’m not overweight.
  • I eat a fairly healthy diet.
  • I’m active.
  • But most of all, I don’t have any health insurance and no money to pay for breast cancer treatment.

My anxious thoughts were interrupted when the nurse practitioner said to me, “The good news is that you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to pay for treatment.”  I then learned that when I had contacted the Little Red Door they had also enrolled me in the state’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Program, which provides cancer screenings and treatments for underinsured and underserved women. Through that program, most of my treatment costs would be covered. I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My thoughts quickly turned to the lessons I had learned through my upbringing in the Baptist church—no matter how dire things may seem, God always “has a ram in the bush,” meaning He provides unexpected help for you, right at the time you most need it. 

That’s when my constant questioning shifted from “Why me?” to “Why not me?” I realized God had already shown me the ram in the bush. Other than the breast cancer, I was healthy and ready to fight this battle. I had a large extended family and my church family who I knew would be there for me. I wasn’t afraid. I could do this. I believed whatever happened, I could handle it, with God.

I had surgery, eight rounds of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation and my extended family, church family, friends and a wonderful treatment team were a great support system through it all. Yep, God handled it.

In January 2008, I was ready to get back to work. I think it’s pretty common with people who go through a serious illness that you become reflective about what plan God has for the rest of your life. I started doing some legal work with a temporary agency while I was undergoing radiation treatment, but I felt the urge to seek a position where I could help people that are burdened with health, financial or other life challenges.  I felt a need to serve people in vulnerable situations because without the support and assistance I had received, my fight against breast cancer would have been so much more difficult.

Before my diagnosis I had connected with a networking group that periodically shared job postings. Through one of those, in January 2008 I heard of Gennesaret Free Clinic for the first time, and learned how this organization serves the Indianapolis community, helping the homeless and those with low income get the medical and dental care they need.  I submitted my resume and a cover letter in which I shared my breast cancer journey and expressed my desire to help women who, like me, had, faced barriers to accessing health services.  The executive director of Gennesaret quickly responded, saying she believed I was overqualified for the position, but was moved by my letter. Nonetheless, by March 2008, I was working with  Gennesaret as the director of their Women’s Health Initiative. I soon came to see working at Gennesaret as part of God’s purpose for my life. 

So now when I ask, “Why me?” I have some answers:

  • Because every day my own breast cancer experience helps me to talk knowingly and passionately to women about taking care of their health needs.
  • Because now I can help women overcome their fear about a mammogram or breast biopsy.
  • Because now I can hold a hand, pat a back, offer a hug, say a prayer or share a helpful tip when a woman is going through a tough treatment.  
  • Because my family, friends, friends of friends, church members, even random callers, can now count on me to quickly answer a question or connect them to a needed resource.
  • Because it was in the plan.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 NIV

Lisa R. Hayes is the director of the Women’s Health Initiative at the Gennesaret Free Clinic.