By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s a bit hard to imagine. When you meet Janelle Stamm, you see a vibrant, smiling woman glowing with health and happiness. In September 2013 however, she found a mass that a few months later was confirmed to be cancerous. Instead of wailing and weeping, she put herself in God’s hands, thanking Him for his blessings; an attitude of gratitude and compassion. It changed her life and the life of an elderly Guatemalan woman.
Janelle, a self-proclaimed cardio-junkie and yoga-loving avid runner, took her health for granted. Why not? She was rarely sick, happily married with five adult and nearly adult children in her blended family. After years as a stay-at-home mom, she had re-entered the work force in 2012 at Unbound.
When she first started work, the Unbound staff encouraged her to watch videos produced by the organization’s founder, Bob Hentzen.
One video, “Eight Million Steps,” reflecting on Hentzen’s walk from Kansas City to Guatemala, made a big impact. She spoke of “The Journey from Power to Love,” a song written by Hentzen in which he says,
“I came to teach the Poor
To teach of Heaven and Earth
To give of my youth for a time, oh Lord
I came to teach the poor
But then it happened, Oh Lord
Me enamore de tu pueblo (I fell in love with your people)
And then it happened, oh Lord
Y yo ya no puedo salir (And I, I just can’t turn back, I can’t leave.)”
Did those words or words like them stay in the back of her mind while she tried not to worry about the mass? Maybe. She kept watch on the mass for the next two months hoping it would go away, but in November, she made an appointment with her doctor.
The morning of her appointment, Janelle went for a 6-mile run and “cried the whole time. I just knew I had cancer. Using running as my therapy … I let God know how scared I was and prayed that he’d be with me throughout whatever was ahead.” She later said she truly appreciates that aspect of running —being able to freely express whatever she’s feeling at the time and “talking to God as if he’s right there running with me.”
When a biopsy confirmed her fears, she came to the realization that she needed to focus on how she was going to handle the road ahead of her, not on the road itself. Janelle said, “In other words, it didn’t really matter if I won or lost, it was how I played the game.” She decided to take one day at a time, for the first time in her life allowing God to take over.
She also involved herself in doing things to cope with the rounds of doctor’s appointments, treatments and tests — the Stamm family picture was taken and a long-awaited kitchen remodeling undertaken. She felt better, but also felt the need to do more.
She had many “Ah ha” moments in the ensuing months, but several stand out. One of Janelle’s cousins wrote in a blog post about breast cancer that, “being ungrateful is the most offensive thing that we can do to those who would love to have what we have.”
And, words in a work community-wide email emphasized compassion for those served by Unbound’s mission of sponsorship to help families build better lives. “An important part of … compassion is to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there.”
The twin sparks of gratitude and compassion grew brighter and brighter the more she thought about them. Gradually, she said, her thoughts expanded from gratitude to an awareness of others who might be ill and not have access to the great health care that she depended on to help her battle cancer. She wrapped her mind and emotions in gratitude and compassion as she dealt with more doctor’s appointments and tests, another biopsy and ultimately, a mastectomy. Through it all, she felt at peace. It was in God’s hands. That gave her confidence.
She wanted to do more. For more than a year, Janelle had been thinking about sponsorship. She and her husband Jeff had been sponsors since 1999. Now she realized she wanted to sponsor someone aging. She prayed to find the right person and found Lucinda.
Lucinda, 84, lives in Guatemala. Janelle was drawn to her when she read in Lucinda’s profile that “she is so religious even though she is so sick,” according to the local staff. “I thought when I read that, we’re in similar situations.” Then she learned that Lucinda visits the sick,” a living example of someone who implements compassion in her everyday life,” Janelle said. That cemented her desire to sponsor Lucinda.
The past year has been a busy year for Janelle. The cancer was contained, so the physical part of the cancer journey was, for the most part, over. She returned to work, and as a member of the Unbound Trailblazers running team, she has trained for and ran in two triathlons and is now training for this June’s Hospital Hill Run. “But I am forever changed, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” she wrote in a blog post for Unbound.
Changed: “… I have a choice in how I embrace this change each and every day. I desire to remain grateful and compassionate. And when I do, I feel at peace,” she wrote in that post.
And Lucinda is a big part of that peace. “Just knowing that we are praying for each other makes me smile,” Janelle wrote. “No matter what is going on in my daily life or hers, we’ll have this connection. This shared connection helps ground me in the knowledge that God is with us all.”
Earlier this year, Janelle and Jeff received a letter written by an Unbound social worker in the project area where Lucinda lives. The social worker, who wrote for Lucinda “because of her advanced age,” said, “We are greeting you with so much Love hoping this letter finds you enjoying good health alongside your beloved family.”
The letter continues, “Mrs. Lucinda thanks you for the help you give her every month since she is able to receive vegetables that are very useful so she can eat very well.” That broke Janelle’s heart. “Vegetables, we take vegetables for granted and she’s thanking me for my monthly sponsorship because now she can buy vegetables!”
Lucinda finds it difficult to walk “since she suffers from foot pain” but she has been able to access medicine and “it helps her to get better.” Janelle shook her head. “She can barely walk and still she walks to visit others who are sick. That’s real compassion, real faith in God.”
Janelle shared the letter from Guatemala. In closing, “Your sponsored friend sends you big hugs.” A photo Christmas card showed three elderly, smiling women, one of which was Lucinda.
Janelle hopes someday to share her journey through cancer and how she was, and still is inspired by her, with Lucinda. “Right now we’re just getting to know each other.”
If you happen to participate in the Hospital Hill Run or just stand and watch, you’ll see Janelle Stamm running, reflecting and rejoicing in God and saying, “Thank you!”
To learn more about Unbound, visit unbound.org.