Michelle Cascio is celebrating the birth of her fifth child this Mother’s Day. She and husband, Tim, members of St. Stanislaus Oratory, Milwaukee, welcomed Ciara Marie into their family on Palm Sunday, and because of their deep faith in God, they are rejoicing in her arrival in spite of the fact Michelle is waging her own battle against pancreatic cancer.
For more than a trimester of her pregnancy, Michelle lived with the knowledge she had pancreatic cancer. She went to the hospital in October with severe abdominal pain, anticipating she had kidney stones. Doctors performed tests and saw what they thought was a cyst on her pancreas. In November, she had surgery to remove the cyst, which was cancerous.
According to Michelle, who homeschools her two oldest children, the surgeon removed half her pancreas and all of her spleen. She was encouraged to undergo chemotherapy during her pregnancy, but she and her husband chose to forgo that decision until after their baby was born.
“I had a doctor tell me that it would be safe to go through a couple rounds of radiation while pregnant,” said Michelle. “He really had our best interest at heart – you could see it in his face. Some thought I was not informed, but I feel as if we have been guided and given so much information that has been incredibly helpful. When Tim and I decided we wouldn’t put (Ciara) at risk, a whole world opened up to us. Looking back, it makes total sense. God loves families.”
Treatment options vary
Tim was unaware of the options available to those with cancer. He was referring to
“It wasn’t until we went through this experience that we realized how polarizing the topic of cancer treatments can be,” he admitted. “It’s beyond disheartening that there isn’t more open dialogue, support for and interest in ‘non-conventional’ means that not only have higher success rates, but are available at a fraction of the cost without damaging effects.”
He said it was the pregnancy that forced them to investigate options.
“Interestingly, if we had not been pregnant with our daughter, it’s likely that we’d have followed suit with conventional chemo and radiation. Her arrival is what gave us reason to pause, and in that pause we benefited from prayers and discernment,” he said.
Doctors suggested Michelle have her baby early, but she waited until full term, believing the baby had been through so much. She experienced early contractions and was nervous to deliver due to hemorrhaging with her previous baby, Culen, who has Down syndrome.
“I was not sure what obstacles the incision would make on my ability to give birth because you need all those muscles,” she said. “The cross is in not knowing. Just like every mom, once you see your baby you forget everything it took to get you there and I looked forward to that moment, where I would look at her cry with a fat smile and be amazed at how beautiful she is.”
On Palm Sunday, Michelle gazed into her daughter’s eyes as she and Tim welcomed 8 pound, 6 ounce Ciara Marie to their family. Ciara joins their daughters, Capri, 7, Chloe, 5, Clare, 3, and son, Culen, 12 months.
“We named her Ciara after the Irish saint whose faith was so strong she snuffed out a fire with her prayer,” said Michelle.
Help from Our Lady of Good Success
Michelle, 42, suffered with pain related to the incision’s scar tissues that had formed internally throughout her pregnancy, as well as pain in the area where her pancreas was removed.
“In the month or two following the surgery, the pain was so great that pain meds were required,” Michelle said. “I was worried while on the pain meds that I was going to become addicted. I had withdrawal symptoms during the phase of getting off of the meds, but I am happy to say that I am not experiencing them anymore.”
After Michelle’s diagnosis, the couple worked with Dr. Kevin Connors of the Connors Clinic in Minnesota.
“He has turned us on to TrueRife technology, along with supplements, diet changes and detoxification methods. All were completely safe for the baby and non-toxic,” said Michelle, explaining they learned of Connors “through prayer and the prayer of others. Our friend, Kathy Heckenkamp is well versed in healthy approaches to healing. She called around and got his information for us. Our Lady of Good Success has been guiding every detail of this process.”
While Michelle was recovering from surgery, Heckenkamp gave Michelle’s friend a picture of Our Lady of Good Success to bring up to the hospital. The picture sat on her desk in the hospital and Michelle was comforted gazing at the photo of Our Lady with the Christ Child.
“She was smiling at me and I wanted to know more about her, so I asked if Kathy would come visit with me and tell me the story,” explained Michelle. “Turns out, Kathy runs the apostolate of Our Lady of Good Success, dedicated to the promotion of the historical truths and related devotion. Of all the saints in the world, we feel pretty flattered that Our Lady came to intercede for us.”
Nationwide outpouring of support
Tim, 51, group director at Bader Rutter, a marketing and advertising agency, was born and raised in Kenosha, one of nine children, and most of his family remains in Kenosha. His sister, Kamela Gleason, a member of St. James Parish, began an online GoFundMe campaign which in four months has raised more than $52,000 of its $60,000 goal, to help offset medical costs, hired help for the children and future needs for the family.
It’s been shared around the country and many have reached out with prayers and financial support. The site includes a novena to Our Lady of Good Success to encourage others to pray with the family for Michelle’s cancer.
Tim said Gleason’s idea to start the campaign was unexpected.
“She offered to take on a lot of responsibility and we were humbled by her offer and generosity. Uncertain as to whether it would make sense for us in our situation, we gave it a lot of thought before proceeding,” he said. “Kam shared our interest in using the opportunity to express our trust and gratitude to the Blessed Mother while providing an outlet for folks to help when they didn’t know how best to help.”
Donations are humbling
The donations have been humbling for the couple.
“We wondered how could such a large number of people we don’t know and may never know, be so generous toward us. Receiving on such a large scale was uncomfortable, yet comforting at the same time,” Tim said. “The heartfelt messages that accompanied the donations brought tears to our eyes. While I’ve learned many things through this experience, I’m grateful to have been a witness to the generosity and kindness of others. It has inspired me to think differently about giving, receiving and how we’re all part of God’s plan.”
After hearing from friends and family wanting to help, Gleason set up the GoFundMe page.
“Financial struggles are a reality with any growing family, but having major surgery at 21 weeks pregnant and facing an uncertain future with cancer made the need more apparent,” she said.
Michelle and Tim have a strong faith life and nourishing their faith is a priority. Gleason explained the two are generous with their time and talent. Michelle served as the photographer at St. Stanislaus for a time and Tim helped to launch the St. Stanislaus Facebook page.
“The Cascio family is actively involved in parish life. Over the years, they have been part of the Altar and Rosary Society, Holy Name Society, student choir, Little Flower for girls and catechism classes,” said Gleason. “These activities promote eucharistic adoration and various corporal works of mercy, such as visiting the sick and homebound. The spiritual life is continually cultivated in their home.”
Guided by God’s plan
Gleason described a picture of the Sacred Heart that graces the entrance of the couple’s home and noted they held an enthronement ceremony with the understanding that Christ will bless every home where an image of his heart is exposed and honored.
“They both also have a great devotion to Our Lady and the rosary,” she added.
Before Michelle learned she was pregnant, she prayed a rosary in front of the Blessed Sacrament. She had just finished when she says she heard God’s voice telling her, “I know what you need.”
“I didn’t know what that meant at the time and I still don’t fully understand what he means, because every day has its challenges,” said Michelle. “It is very comforting though, because I know that he knows what I need. It helps me to let go and give it to him. Yes, there is an abundant amount of reassurance from what he said that day.”
Tim said Michelle had several unexplainable experiences leading up to the cancer diagnosis.
“One of those was a dream she experienced in great detail. It had to do with a conveyor of people who hold on to a rope that leads them through the most miserable experiences, yet they were unaware of their free choice to let go of the rope,” he explained. “What it means to us is that God’s got his own plan for us, regardless of what the world may present to us. If we’re open to his plan, we might feel like we’re making an unpopular choice, but the peace that it brings is beyond reason.”
Grateful for life she has
Of her faith, Michelle simply remarked they are Catholic and her faith is as amazing as any other Catholic.
“I heard someone say that you never have to defend the Catholic Church; it is a lion; you
only have to release it. I love that statement,” she said. “I’ve been blessed with an incredible husband. Our union is proof of God’s humor. We couldn’t be more different. I have little examples of God’s gifts in my husband and my babies. All different and all perfect for our family. I get to go to an incredible church and witness a reverence that I haven’t seen before in all of my life. I have friends and family that support me. I have been blessed with so much. I can’t be more grateful or proud of the life I’ve been given.”
For Canon Benoît Jayr, rector of St. Stanislaus Oratory, the Cascios are an open, well-liked, outgoing family.
“This diagnosis was such a shock, but the shock provokes a lot of mobilization and people are attentive to them. I am amazed by so many good hearts offering help and kindness,” he said. “I have never heard them complaining or having pity for themselves. They stay positive and do not convey sadness and the only way to explain their behavior is that they have a special Divine Grace to be able to be that way. It is a strong lesson for all of us — the faithful and priests.”
Calling Tim and Michelle “a divine treat,” he said “they lift up the souls of people and we need this kind of witness because this is very tangible – we see people like this who do not lose hope, or are not self-centered with their problems. It is a tragedy, but a breath of fresh air because they are amazing.”
While Michelle’s overall prognosis is uncertain, Tim explained they continue to use integrative therapies to promote healing.
“We continue to be encouraged as we learn more,” he said. “We’ll closely monitor Michelle’s progress and calibrate based on how things are going. Pancreatic cancer has a terrible reputation; advances using conventional treatment methods are minimal.”
When Michelle asked about the five-year survival rate, she was told that 15 percent make it with chemotherapy and radiation.
“That’s not much to throw confetti at,” she said. “I’ve seen family members go and go fast after they start cancer treatments. The suffering they experience, as well as those around them, is tremendous.”
While the journey has been extraordinarily difficult, Michelle said she and Tim are privileged to be experiencing this path.
“We see God’s hand and it is almighty – he is with us,” she said. “The encouragement is mutual. The people say they are encouraged by us, but we are equally as encouraged by them. Kam sends us pictures and stories that people have been sending her directly. There was an envelope with a donation in it that had written on the front, ‘a person’s a person, no matter how small.’ People are amazing. Nuns from convents, priests from churches, telling us they are praying for us. Telling us they are offering Mass for us. There is nothing more powerful than the consecration of the host. We are going to be fine. Feeling very confident in that.”