In Prior Lake, cancer ministry arms ‘warriors’ with prayer, cards and care packages

| Jessica Weinberger | July 19, 2016 | 0 Comments

The good fight

Rhonda Zweber of St. Michael in Prior Lake uses a rosary and prayer shawl in her own battle with cancer and to deepen the faith that inspires her to serve others with the disease. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Rhonda Zweber of St. Michael in Prior Lake uses a rosary and prayer shawl in her own battle with cancer and to deepen the faith that inspires her to serve others with the disease. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Part nine in a 14-part series highlighting local Catholics who live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

It was Rhonda Zweber’s lowest day.

She had just returned home after undergoing a double mastectomy in August 2007. Nauseous from the anesthesia and faced with a lengthy treatment plan to fight her breast cancer, she was unsure of what the future would hold for her and her husband, Val, and their three young daughters.

But when a breast cancer survivor from a nearby Lutheran church delivered a hat box filled with small mementos and words of encouragement, she felt a sense of peace, comfort and hope.

“That hat box lifted me out of a dark place,” said Zweber, 51, a parishioner of St. Michael in Prior Lake. “I thought, we need to provide this for somebody else.”

With fellow parishioner and breast cancer survivor Jan Vaughan, Zweber formed her own breast cancer ministry, Pink Prayer Warriors, at St. Michael in 2010. With a team of nearly 15 volunteers — many of whom are breast cancer survivors — the Pink Prayer Warriors send personal cards of encouragement to those in treatment; manage prayer requests; and deliver care packages in their local community, across the country and even overseas.

This circle doesn’t use the label “cancer patient.” Men and women in treatment are “warriors,” and Zweber estimates that more than 300 warriors have received support since the group’s inception. While the group is focused on breast cancer because of the volunteers’ personal experiences, they’ll never turn down a prayer request, she said.

“As a ministry, it’s an opportunity to go out of our comfort zone and evangelize and pray for somebody else, or reach out to somebody we don’t know at all,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say that ‘I don’t want you to pray for me.’”

The support from an organization like Pink Prayer Warriors wasn’t available when Vaughan, 56, was diagnosed at age 49. Her husband had died in a car accident five years prior, and she and her three children had just moved from Kansas to be near family in Prior Lake.

She leaned on her faith as she underwent a lumpectomy, four rounds of chemotherapy and 36 rounds of radiation. Like Zweber, she felt God tug on her heart to begin a ministry that would encourage others through relationships and prayer.

“The biggest thing is knowing that there is someone out there praying for you that has been through this,” Vaughan said.

The Pink Prayer Warriors’ shared scars and stories serve as powerful bonds that unite each ministry member and warrior.

“We’re that group that can be somebody to fall back on,” she said. “We’re ordinary women, moms, sisters and brothers that have gone through something that they’re going through.”

Hat boxes containing carefully selected items are delivered by Pink Prayer Warriors to people with cancer.

Hat boxes containing carefully selected items are delivered by Pink Prayer Warriors to people with cancer.

Not your average box

Like each warrior’s cancer journey, every care package is unique. Within each hat box or photo box, warriors discover an assortment of carefully selected items, including prayer cards, rosaries, handmade bracelets, crosses, coffee and journals for taking notes at doctor appointments. Oftentimes they also contain donated lotions, aloes and sunscreen that are fragrance-free and hypoallergenic for those undergoing radiation.

Zweber personally delivers many of the local packages, often giving them to patients at the cancer center where she continues to receive chemotherapy treatments every other week.

The Pink Prayer Warriors also partnered with St. Michael’s prayer shawl ministry to include a prayer shawl in each box. It has been one of the most meaningful items for many recipients, including Kristin Casanova.

Casanova, 49, a St. Michael parishioner and a registered nurse at St. Francis Regional Medical Center in Shakopee, was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma in January. She was familiar with the Pink Prayer Warriors through her parish and the hospital, and before her diagnosis she had recently started making tie blankets for patients.

She keeps the purple prayer shawl in her car at all times to combat the bone-chilling cold she’s felt since her diagnosis.

“I feel so wrapped up in love when I wear it,” said Casanova, a mother of two.

In addition to the prayer shawls, Zweber hopes to one day receive a grant to include copies of the book she published in 2009, “Mommy’s Hats.” She wrote the book to document her cancer journey for her youngest daughter, Sally, then 5. Available on Amazon, the book explains cancer and cancer treatment to young children in relatable terms.

“If you don’t know anything about cancer, how would you know what a port is? How would you know what tissue expanders are?” Zweber said.

“For the tissue expanders, I called them ‘water balloons.’ She understood that concept.”

Now Zweber is finalizing a second book about her journey of faith through cancer, weaving in Bible verses and messages she hopes will connect with readers facing their own struggles.

“I want people to find Jesus along the journey of whatever cross they’re carrying,” she said.

Expressing mercy

For caregivers, friends or family who want to support the sick and suffering in their community, Zweber suggests asking if the individual would like a particular prayer prayed for them. She also urges people to respect each patient’s time in the hospital and rely on emails, text messages and voicemails whenever possible.

A heartfelt message in a card can leave a lasting impression, she added, recalling cards she’s kept from nine years ago.

Simple acts of kindness such as delivering a homemade meal, offering to clean the house, or stepping in to shuttle younger children to school or activities can also show support for caregivers.

“Don’t forget the rest of the family,” Zweber said. “It affects every single one of them, and it’s really important to them to feel like they’re being prayed for and thought of as well.”

While cancer patients may not be able to enjoy the meals due to their varying appetites, food still meets a key need for families living with a chronic illness, she said.

“What these people are doing is they’re feeding the rest of the family, so I don’t have to worry about making a meal, and Val doesn’t have to worry about making the meal,” she explained. “That’s where those amazing, merciful acts are really appreciated.”

Different chapter

Just before Easter, Zweber was told the breast cancer that had spread to her bones and stomach lining in 2013 was no longer identifiable, but the good news didn’t last. In July, doctors found cancer again. Meanwhile, her mother, Audrey Kaiser, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Now Kaiser, 77, is receiving support from the Pink Prayer Warriors as well as her daughter, whom she considers her guardian angel.

“All of the prayers and well wishes from Pink Prayer Warriors is unbelievable,” said Kaiser, who is also a St. Michael parishioner. She recalled the care package Rhonda delivered with a prayer shawl in teal — the color for ovarian cancer awareness.

As the number of warriors continues to grow, Zweber hopes that the Pink Prayer Warriors ministry becomes the go-to resource for those newly diagnosed. She also hopes to plan more events for warriors to meet the ministry members.

Most important, she and each of the volunteers aspire to give back what they’ve received through their own journeys — unconditional love, support and prayer.

“We’re all in the body of Christ. We’re all one Church,” Zweber said. “We love you no matter whether you’re a boy or girl, [have] ovarian or breast cancer, [or are] Catholic or Lutheran. Everybody has a cross to bear, and prayers can help and give you hope.”

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Category: Featured, Year of Mercy