Homeschooling mom of seven goes from grim diagnosis to ‘joyful bliss’

| March 14, 2016 | 0 Comments
Kristen Soley of St. Mary in Waverly says she experienced a “medical miracle.” She was diagnosed with advanced cancer in November 2015, but now is cancer free. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Kristen Soley of St. Mary in Waverly says she experienced a “medical miracle.” She was diagnosed with advanced cancer in November 2015, but now is cancer free. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Kristen Soley calls her experience a “medical miracle.”

Four months ago, she stared down a diagnosis of advanced cancer. And, that came only months after a bone marrow transplant to treat another serious health condition.

Saddled with cancer growing throughout her body and seven young children to mother, she did the only thing that made sense.

She turned to God.

Today, as she nears Holy Week, she gratefully has her own resurrection story to also celebrate Easter Sunday: The cancer is gone.

Gratitude, however, was not on her mind in the days before Thanksgiving 2015. That’s when she received the dreaded diagnosis.

Just five months after a bone marrow transplant successfully cured her of Aplastic anemia — a rare condition in which the body stops producing enough new blood cells — a follow-up visit revealed something worse: Post-Transplant Lymphoproliferative Disorder, a form of cancer that strikes transplant patients.

“Weeks before, they had found a spot on my lungs, and they thought it might be cancer, so they did some investigating,” said Soley, 44, a member of St. Mary in Waverly. “The spots they had seen on my lungs had moved to my lymph nodes, to my neck, to my gut, and the ones on my lungs had grown. . . . Our hearts sank because it [cancer] was everywhere. In my family history, lung cancer was terminal. The five [relatives] who had lung cancer died.”

With children ranging in age from 3 to 13, Soley was in the thick of parenting, especially with her daily home-schooling routine. But, thoughts quickly turned from planning the next lesson to figuring out how to survive.

Enter hope.

Soley admits that she and Nathan, her husband of nearly 16 years, “wept, and hugged and prayed” the night they received the grim diagnosis. Then, they quickly got on to the business of trusting God, clinging to hope and beginning treatment.

Though the cancer had spread and grown, Soley was informed that this particular type responds well to treatment. The very night of her diagnosis, she was put on a drug called Rituxan, which her doctor said had worked for others.

Consolation in God’s plan

She was hopeful, but not simply because of the drug’s effectiveness. She had received encouraging words of the Lord’s care from others, including complete strangers. She also had the consolation that God could use her in a powerful way even if she ended up dying.

Kristen and Nathan “both agreed that God’s will is better, and oftentimes it takes tragic loss to draw souls to God and hit their knees,” she said. “So many great saints’ parents died when they were young, and the Lord uses that kind of suffering to make them strong and draw them closer to him. So, I knew that if that was God’s will, it was going to be fine, it was going to be perfect because that was his plan.”

They felt a sense of peace that night that melted the anguish away, even though Nathan confessed that he did not want to become a widower.

Just days before Christmas 2015, the Soleys got the news they hoped for but didn’t expect: The follow-up PET scan came back negative for cancer. Her doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester sat down and read the test results to her.

“He reviewed it and he said, ‘It’s clear. All of it is gone,’” she recalled. “And, we just sat there. I know my face turned red. Our eyes welled up and we just praised God: ‘Thank you, Lord.’ It was quite honestly what we would call a miracle because in my family history, that’s not the way things go.

“We were just in joyful bliss and humble gratitude to God’s generosity through a lot of people who were praying for us,” she added.

Now, more than two months later, Soley is in a position to reflect on the tumultuous period in their lives and how God worked in the midst of uncertainty, fear and suffering.

“So many times, I’ve been knocking on death’s door,” Soley said. Her first trip to the emergency room in January 2015 came when her blood platelet levels dropped so low that doctors said she risked internal bleeding and death. Then, at one point not long after that, her platelets dropped to zero.

After getting her hair cut by family members, Kristen Soley cuts her husband Nathan’s hair. Courtesy Tina Fisher Photography

After getting her hair cut by family members, Kristen Soley cuts her husband Nathan’s hair. Courtesy Tina Fisher Photography

Beauty in midst of fear

Through it all, Kristen and Nathan never wavered in their simple call to put their lives in God’s hands.

“Trust in God is all you need,” she said. “It may not be easy, but it’s simple. It’s so simple.”

What made it simple for Kristen were the many examples of love she experienced from those who helped her, starting with her husband and including family, friends and even strangers. She calls these folks “representations of the hands and feet of Christ.”

“When Nathan and I were in the hospital, we had friends coming here staying overnight with our children, changing diapers, restocking our refrigerator, helping clean the house, educating our children while we were gone,” she said. “We had some friends set up a Go Fund Me account. People just sent money to help pay for our doctor bills — some people we didn’t even know from other states.”

But, one of the more touching examples of love was Nathan’s. When her hair started to fall out in March 2015, she realized she might lose it all.

“I was really sad,” she said. “Then, I just prayed about it. And, God . . . allowed me to just give that fear to him and say, ‘It’s not what people see that makes you beautiful. It’s him dwelling in us that makes us beautiful.’”

When she talked to a staff member at the Mayo Clinic about her fears, she was encouraged to be proactive about the hair loss and “make it a family affair.” Meaning, have the kids cut her hair before she loses it, so they can feel a part of it.

Nathan took it one step further. After scheduling the day and inviting a friend and photographer to document the event, Nathan made a bold move that touched Kristen deeply.

The Soley family includes, from left, Andrew, Elizabeth, Mary Frances, Kristen, Thomas, William, Nathan, Patrick and Charlie. Courtesy Tina Fisher Photography BELOW

The Soley family includes, from left, Andrew, Elizabeth, Mary Frances, Kristen, Thomas, William, Nathan, Patrick and Charlie. Courtesy Tina Fisher Photography

“My amazing husband volunteered to go bald with me that day,” she said. “I got to shave his head after he shaved mine. We did it with the kids. And so, God took something that was a fear of mine and he made it beautiful, and he took all the fear away.”

Nathan’s kind act, plus his support and comfort, strengthened their bond.

“I’m so madly in love with my husband as it is, but the level of trust and hope and faith and courage he showed the night [of the diagnosis] was overwhelming,” she said. “I fell more madly in love with him than I could have imagined [was] possible.”

Through these experiences, she also learned about suffering and the place it has in the life of a Catholic.

“Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says, ‘Suffering unleashes a tidal wave of compassion,’” she said. “And, we saw it. We felt so much compassion and we felt so much peace and grace through the prayers that held our family through this time of uncertainty. It was unbelievable.

“I always look at suffering as an opportunity because I believe that it helps strengthen you. One of the things the Lord has said to me in prayer is [that] trials strengthen your spiritual muscles. You have to break down the muscle fiber in order to build it up. Trials do that for our spirit, for our soul.”

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