In January, when Sister Nancy Westmeyer woke up from a medical procedure, the 69-year-old Catholic nun received devastating news.
"The first thing I heard … was my sister telling me that I had a really rare form of cancer and I had six months to live," she recalled. "It was startling. I took a deep breath and said, 'If that's what it is, then we'll make the most of it.' "
In the five months since that dire diagnosis, Sister Nancy has learned she has more time than that initial diagnosis, but she does have a rare form of cancer of the liver bile ducts for which the only medical option is a transplant.
"That was kind of scary, and it's been kind of a roller-coaster experience," Sister Nancy said. "Every time I took a step forward, there were two steps back."
Now her path is clear, she said. She is to undergo laparoscopic surgery on her lymph nodes this month to see if the cancer has spread. If not, she will be put on a waiting list for a transplant.
"If for some reason I don't get a liver, then I would be waiting to die," she said.
Sister Nancy, a member of the Tiffin Franciscans religious order, has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy and has been unable to work at two local charities for which she cares deeply: the Servant Leadership Center, which she co-founded with her longtime friend 96-year-old Bishop Albert Ottenweller, and TUSA, or Toledoans United for Social Action, with which she has been active for 10 years.
Her longtime friend the Rev. John Blaser said Sister Nancy's vision is "to help people find their skills and their talents so that they can use them for the welfare and the betterment of the community."
Sister Nancy, who said she is "very proud" to have grown up in East Toledo, is a graduate of Central Catholic High School and has a doctorate of ministry from United Theological Seminary in Dayton.
She attends daily Mass when she is feeling well enough and has been involved at St. Martin de Porres Parish because she enjoys its multicultural, central-city outreach.
She said her faith in Christ and the support of friends, family, and the community have given her strength and hope while facing a potentially terminal illness and adjusting to being unable to carry on with ministries at her usual pace.
"The overwhelming outpouring of prayer and caring from people has been phenomenal. That and my own faith are the two things that really have enabled me to stay positive and to know that this is going to turn out all right," she said.
Shortly after her diagnosis, for example, a group of 70 people prayed for her at the Ursuline Center.
"It was just so affirming, and they were just so loving and caring," Sister Nancy said.
"And that support hasn't dwindled. I get cards daily, and calls from people, and visits. … The support has been so powerful, I don't even know how to express it. People are good, and caring, and they want to be there for others who are suffering. It's certainly made my journey easier and it's given me courage to do my part to do everything I have to do to stay as healthy and strong as I can."
Her blood sisters and her Catholic sisters have been bringing dinners every night, she said, knowing she has no interest in food yet needs to eat.
Sister Nancy focuses on each day's tasks, determining what must be done and how she can go about doing it.
"It's just been a wonderful journey of people reaching out and people caring and people being sensitive and taking initiative and doing things. It's been great, the whole thing has been great," she said. "All of that has enriched my faith journey."
A spaghetti fund-raising dinner to help with Sister Nancy's medical expenses is to be held Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 4256 Secor Rd. The cost is $8 for adults, $5 for children under 12 and seniors 65 and over, and free for children under 4. For information, call Joyce Elmore at 419-410-3600. Contributions also may be made to the Sister Nancy Transplant Fund at area KeyBanks.