Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy seemed to defeat the disease. But just when she thought she had conquered death, she absorbed another blow — doctors diagnosed her friend Carol Lydecker with cancer, too. After three decades of shared memories, this was one experience that Brown wished they didn't have in common.
- Photos: Rising above the pain
- Way of the Cross
- Easter rituals provide comfort for grief-stricken
- Diseases and Illnesses
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St. James Roman Catholic Church; 820 N Arlington Heights Rd, Arlington Heights, IL 60004, USA
St. Mary of the Woods Roman Catholic Church; 7033 N Moselle Ave, Chicago, IL 60646, USA
Just as Christians believe Christ's story didn't conclude on the cross, Brown realized her journey and Lydecker's didn't end with a diagnosis. There is always the prospect of the 15th Station — the grand finale of Easter, when Christians celebrate the miracle of Christ's resurrection.
And so began Brown's latest production: a modern adaptation of the Stations for those whose lives have been touched by cancer. She enlisted Lydecker and others to help. The show was performed at churches in the Chicago area during the days of Lent.
"On Easter, we celebrate moving from darkness to light," said Brown, 55, of Arlington Heights. "We celebrate moving from despair and hopelessness to hope and new birth. That's what the message of the Stations is. There is hope for you."
Within the Stations of the Cross, a typically somber series of meditations marking each phase of Christ's journey to the cross, Brown discovered a road map for rising above pain. She found consolation that she did not suffer in solitude and grasped that she had not been forsaken after all.
"Every day, whether it's Easter, whether it's tomorrow, whether it's today, there are people to help you through this," she said.
With closely cropped silver hair and a slender frame that never stops moving, Alice Brown is such a bundle of contagious energy that it's hard to believe she was ever sick. In fact, it was difficult for her to accept the diagnosis when she first heard the word "cancer" on June 15, 2009.
Before the end of the month, she had undergone surgery to remove the lump in her breast and a half-dozen other lymph nodes. She got a second opinion and a third opinion and a fourth on what to do next, and decided to go after the cancer with vehemence.
By the following February, chemotherapy had taken her hair. Combined with 30 radiation treatments, it also had eradicated the disease. Every three months, the doctors check to make sure.
"It's OK to be on a tight leash because I know there are a lot of people looking out for me," she said.
One of those people has been her parish priest, the Rev. Bill Zavaski, a cancer survivor himself, who knew Brown had a gift. A couple of years before, she had adapted and staged a Stations of the Cross for survivors of the 1958 fire that killed 92 children and three nuns at Our Lady of the Angels School on Chicago's West Side.
Brown's two older sisters had escaped the fire. Brown, only 2 at the time, had no recollection. But when she accompanied her sister to a memorial Mass 50 years later, she witnessed the unbreakable bond that united the survivors. She also realized the overwhelming grief that haunts them still.
"I can remember sitting in the church thinking: 'This is as close as you can get to Jesus walking to his death on the cross,'" she said.
Zavaski had seen how her modern twist on the ancient devotion had soothed audiences. He encouraged her to do it again, this time drawing from her own experience with cancer.
"One advantage cancer survivors have is we never take another day for granted," he said. "That's a great gift of having to take up that cross."
"As a person going through it, I didn't think about it that way," Zavaski added. "It's so beautiful to be able to step back and reflect on it now, to approach it from a very positive standpoint."