In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, BJUtoday highlights BJU staff member Emily Arcuri, breast cancer survivor.
“I have cancer.” BJU alumna and staff member Emily Arcuri never expected to give voice to that sentence at the age of 27. She was active, healthy. There was no history of breast cancer in her family. Yet, as she faced this fight as a young single woman, she was keenly aware of God’s presence and leading through her cancer journey.
When Emily first found the lump in July 2016, she had been living in Slovakia and teaching English to first through third grade students. Because she didn’t have U.S. health insurance at the time, she self-diagnosed. “I googled it,” she said. “I was like, it’s probably a cyst. I’ll keep an eye on it.”
Emily moved back to the States in October 2016 and joined the staff at BJU as an admission counselor in February 2017. The 26-year-old sister of a friend of hers passed away from breast cancer shortly afterward. “That was really one of the main things that I think God used to give me that nudge to actually go to the doctor and get a physical,” she said.
The doctor scheduled a mammogram and an ultrasound for June. The ultrasound revealed an enlarged lymph node in addition to the tumor in her breast, leading doctors to schedule biopsies the next day. “I think when I heard that, I knew it wasn’t going to be good,” she said. While the nurse had said it could be several days before she received her results, Emily got the call the next morning. It was cancer—stage IIA invasive ductal carcinoma, to be exact.
Alone Yet Not Alone
Emily hadn’t told anyone other than her mom about undergoing the tests. And she only told her once she had scheduled the biopsies. “I didn’t want to tell my parents until I knew something. I think I told my mom that I was getting the biopsies done because I didn’t want the first call to be, I have cancer. But it was hard because no one at work knew,” she said.
Loneliness was one battle in Emily’s war on cancer. Not only did her parents live in Pennsylvania, but she also didn’t know anyone else her age fighting the same battle. She said, “There’s a kind of isolation in that.” Because her parents live so far away, they couldn’t be with her for every appointment and scan, though her mom did travel to Greenville for a few key appointments and both of her parents came for her surgery and her last day of radiation. Yet, through it all, Emily remembered God’s presence. “I knew in each of those things, the MRI, the PET scan—all the procedures all the way through (six rounds of chemo, a lumpectomy and removal of the cancerous node, six weeks of) radiation … God is with me. I am alone, but I’m not alone. (What a) comfort that was just knowing His presence,” she said.
Reminders of God’s Leading
Throughout Emily’s fight with breast cancer, she had several reminders of God’s care and provision. One of the first was Dr. John Rinkliff, a BJU graduate and Greenville surgeon. “What stuck out is at the end of that (first meeting) with him, (we’re) in this clinical, sterile room, and (I’ve) just been diagnosed with cancer. (My) mind’s reeling. And he said, ‘Well, there’s one more thing we need to do.’ And I’m just like, ‘What?’ He puts his hands out, and he said, ‘We need to pray.’ And my mom and I just lost it. … But that was such a beautiful moment. … And that day, starting out that meeting that way, knowing I had a believer on my team, and him praying with us like that—it just put peace within my heart and Mom’s heart and just a sense of, God is with (me),” she said.
Another way Emily saw God lead through her journey with cancer was in refunding a plane ticket to Slovakia. “I was actually planning to go out of the country to Slovakia. I was going to go back, visit friends, (joining) a group from my church in Pennsylvania on a mission trip,” she said. “I was excited. That was supposed to be in early July. The doctors said that I could go, but I just had a sense of, No, I’ve delayed. It’s been almost a year since I found this lump. I think I just need to get started. And I made that decision not to go.” Emily called the airline to see if she could get her ticket refunded. The customer service representative she talked to was also battling cancer and was able to help Emily get a full refund on her ticket. “That was just the start of how I saw the hand of God in (my journey with cancer),” she added.
Other little things along the way have also encouraged Emily’s heart. The day she went in for surgery, Bob Jones Academy choirs were at the hospital to sing in the hospital atrium. On the day she started radiation, “that church across the street (from campus) with that lovely out-of-tune bell tower … was playing ‘All the Way My Savior Leads Me’ ” as she walked to her car to go to her appointment. She has seen God’s presence throughout her battle, and “that’s what I want to emphasize is His presence, His provision in a very lonely thing.”
The strongest evidence of God’s leading came a little over a year after Emily had finished treatment. Her mom was diagnosed with the same cancer. Though her mom followed a different treatment plan, Emily was able to walk that path with her mom. “God was preparing our family through my cancer, strange though it is for the daughter to get it first,” Emily said.
As with every trial God allows us to go through, Emily’s has come with lessons to learn. The first? “My God will supply all of my needs. I don’t always feel that because there are things that I want that He hasn’t given. But when it comes down to it, when you feel neediness the most, He never leaves or forsakes. And we can cast our burdens on Him because He does care for us, and only He is sufficient to carry those. I don’t have to be strong enough. I wasn’t. I wasn’t strong enough to deal with cancer. But He was a faithful provider,” she said.
The second lesson can only be learned by walking a hard road. “This suffering doesn’t have to be wasted. Suffering has purpose when you’re a believer, if you let God work,” she said. “You do have to choose (to let Him work). And that’s hard. And I didn’t always. There were aspects of my cancer journey, elements I think I probably wasted. … (But) God does bring beauty out of ashes.”
Emily also learned the beauty of the body of Christ. “How amazing the body of Christ is. I didn’t know that kind of love. People from all over the world—just people praying and encouraging our family and sending cards. How beautiful it was to see the body care for one of its members,” she said.
How to Help
Maybe you know someone who has cancer. It’s more prevalent than we’d like. How can you help them? Emily has some advice, as well. First, remember, “We’re just people.” Emily had to learn this herself. Just because she lost her hair during chemo didn’t mean her personality changed. She also isn’t a victim to cancer. Her cancer didn’t steal her identity, though it is now a part of her story.
Don’t be afraid to ask about the cancer, but don’t dwell on it, either. With something as serious as cancer, people tend to talk to the cancer patient only about their illness. “Don’t be afraid of talking about the cancer, bringing it up. But don’t make every conversation about it. That’s one reason why I wanted to start the Caring Bridge journal. I didn’t want to have to give an (individual) update to 500 people per week,” Emily said. She understood people cared and wanted to pray for her, but at times she grew weary of talking about cancer.
Yet Emily is passionate about raising awareness for the prevention of breast cancer. She has had the opportunity to speak in local schools on behalf of the Greenville Cancer Society and to participate in awareness events in the community. In April 2018, she was asked to share her story at the Society’s Hope Ball. She was able to testify of God’s presence in her journey to prominent members of the community with whom she wouldn’t normally interact. Now, Emily is a member of a young adult advisory board within Prisma Health which she said has “given me the opportunity to meet some other young people who have survived different types of cancer.”
Emily admonishes, “It’s really important to mention that (Mom) had a clean mammogram one year ago, but something showed up on her routine mammo this year. Women must get their mammograms done regularly. If a woman has an immediate family member with the disease, she is at a higher risk. If she’s below 40 and has a family history, she needs to find a way to get checked out.”
No Evidence of Disease
Emily’s battle with cancer lasted about nine months from diagnosis to her last day of radiation, though she still has medication she takes and must deal with the effects—both physical and emotional—of the disease and its treatment. Today, Emily has no evidence of cancer in her body. But she doesn’t want to be viewed as a hero. “I’m not a hero because I survived cancer. People die from cancer. What does that make them?” Rather, this is the path God has chosen for her and for which He has specifically fashioned her. For example, Emily claimed being a theatre program graduate and a “dramatic” person helped when she lost her hair. God designs our individual personalities to handle what He asks us to face.
“It’s been a wild ride the past three years,” she said. “But I’m hopeful. I’m trying to live with a healthy mindset, as in: Cancer may come back, but it might not. It might not. And today I don’t have it. … So today I can live. I can exercise, and I can do my job, and I can connect with people. And I can live.”
Emily would love to hear from you! You can reach out to her at [email protected].