September 1, 2017

A reason to believe: Teacher finds an angel and God’s purpose for her life as she faces cancer challenges

The shared experience of facing a diagnosis of cancer has brought Kristen Battiato, left, and Cindy Wallander close during the past year. Here, they share a hug in a classroom at St. Joan of Arc School in Indianapolis, where Wallander teaches. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

The shared experience of facing a diagnosis of cancer has brought Kristen Battiato, left, and Cindy Wallander close during the past year. Here, they share a hug in a classroom at St. Joan of Arc School in Indianapolis, where Wallander teaches. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Cindy Wallander believes in her guardian angel.

She’s also convinced that an image of her angel has routinely appeared in a section of her MRI scans, the tests her neurosurgeon does to make sure the brain cancer that first threatened Wallander’s life 12 years ago hasn’t returned.

Most tellingly perhaps, the mother of four—who was also diagnosed with thyroid cancer a year ago—reveals the depth of her faith through this Bible verse that guides her life:

“We all know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).

In the dozen years since her first diagnosis, Wallander has kept her focus on her faith, her four daughters and her husband, Gregg. And on this August day at St. Joan of Arc School in Indianapolis, she’s also rejoicing in two other realities that have helped to form what she believes is God’s purpose for her.

During this school day, she’s back in the classroom, helping to teach seventh- and eighth-grade students.

And after the school day ends, she gets a visit, a smile and a hug from 19-year-old Kristen Battiato, a young woman who was also diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the past year. Wallander has helped Battiato and her family through this ordeal.

“Not everybody has a happy ending. Not everybody gets survival,” Wallander says about her 12 years—and counting—of life after the initial diagnosis. “I’m lucky to be sitting here. Blessed.”

She lets that feeling sink in again before she adds, “I think God has a purpose for me. I think he has a purpose for everyone.”

Then Wallander begins the story of her path to her purpose. It’s a story about all the angels in her life, a story about the angel she strives to be in the lives of others.

‘A heck of a mountain to climb’

In the summer of 2005, Wallander was repeatedly “getting into small accidents,” leading her to her doctor and eventually to an MRI that revealed she had a tumor on the top right portion of her brain.

Surgery was scheduled immediately, the tumor was removed, and the initial diagnosis was that it was benign. Two months later, the surgeon called her again and informed her that other tests had revealed the tumor was malignant.

“I started with radiation the day after Thanksgiving and all through December when I turned 40,” recalls Wallander who is now 52. “In January of 2006, I started six months of chemotherapy.”

The treatments worked, and the routine, follow-up MRIs showed no signs of concern. But that changed in 2008 when her neurosurgeon, Dr. Carl Sartorius, looked at her latest scan.

“He said, ‘I don’t want you to worry, but we found something on your MRI, but we don’t think it’s a tumor,’ ” Wallander recalls.

“Six weeks later, it’s still there. At that point, I said, ‘I want to see it.’ When I saw it, I told him, ‘Are you kidding me?! It’s my angel! How can you not see it?!’ He said, ‘Well, OK.’ But he knows my faith, and I’m not imagining it. Now when he sees my scans, the first thing he always says to me is, ‘Your scans are stable, and she’s still there.’ ”

Sartorius laughs softly when he is told of Wallander’s recollection of his initial reaction to her first perceived sighting of an angel on the MRI. He turns serious when he talks about her belief.

“I’m a person of faith,” says Sartorius, a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese.

“I believe in the concept of angels. I kind of see the angel. If she does, it’s the very definition of faith. Faith is something for which you have no proof. She has a belief that it’s there. I can see where she’s coming from. I wouldn’t mind seeing my angel, and knowing she’s protecting me. Clearly she has a faith in something greater than us.”

He also noted her focus and her love of family.

“She has been willing to deal with these bumps in her life, manage them and move forward. That’s a heck of a mountain to climb,” he says. “Her love and her strength are really the things that impress me.”

‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do’

Wallander has had conversations with God all through her initial diagnosis of brain cancer, her radiation, her chemotherapy and her recovery.

“So many times, I felt God was telling me, ‘Don’t worry. I got this.’ But it was hard on my little girls,” she says. “I always try to see the purpose in things. I told God, ‘I have four daughters. I’ll be your hands and feet on Earth. I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’ ”

Those conversations eventually led her to the doorstep of St. Joan of Arc School. Their family had moved to the parish in 2014 to be closer to Bishop Chatard High School, which their children have attended. Previously, they were members of St. Simon the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis, a community that Wallander credits with giving her and her family tremendous support since she was first diagnosed.

Stopping by St. Joan of Arc School one day, Wallander offered her services as a teacher. She began as a substitute before sharing a teaching position.

“God brought me to St. Joan of Arc,” Wallander says. “I love the kids here so much. It’s such a loving environment. I feel every day is a prayer for me because I work in a place where every single day we are the face of Jesus, and we talk about who we can love today. I thought, ‘OK, God, this is where you want me to be.’ ”

Wallander takes a deep breath and adds, “Then I had a physical last summer.”

The physical revealed a problem with her thyroid. Wallander was soon diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She had surgery in September of 2016, and radiation treatments followed in November. She also had more conversations with God.

“I said, ‘I need these kids, and they need me. Please let me go back to them.’ In January, I went back.”

Once again, she tried to make sense of her cancer diagnosis. Once again, she wondered what purpose God had for her.

She found God’s purpose in Kristen Battiato.

‘That was a sign of hope for me’

The Wallander and Battiato families have had a long connection through the years. Cindy and Gregg are friends with Linda and Joe. Their children have attended St. Simon School and Bishop Chatard High School together. Kristen Battiato has also played lacrosse with two of the Wallander girls. Suddenly, the two families also shared the challenge and the heartbreak of cancer.

When Wallander was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last year, Linda Battiato reached out to her, sharing her support. Wallander returned the comfort in October when Kristen was diagnosed.

“It was scary, especially being so young,” recalls Kristen, now 19, who was a freshman at Purdue University when she was diagnosed. “Cindy was a constant source of comfort for my mom, and she was always so positive. That was a big help for me. I knew she had come out of it even stronger, and that was a sign of hope for me.

“All her daughters texted me and told me they were praying for me. Cindy texted me. She was constantly giving me affirmation and letting me know everything would be OK.”

That care and concern from the Wallanders reflected the outpouring that Battiato also received from the “family” of Bishop Chatard High School, from which she had graduated in 2016. Her best friends, Kenzie Thompson and Cecelia Stonner, came with her when her biopsy was taken. Teachers and friends sent her letters of support.

“I felt a constant shower of love from the whole community,” Battiato says. “That was super cool to know they were rooting for me even months after my surgery. As of my last CT scan in January, everything looked good.”

Battiato also found a purpose in everything she has endured. She switched her major to nursing, hoping to make a difference in the lives of others. She has also found a deeper faith.

“After everything I went through, it made me look at my faith,” Battiato says. “It showed me how important faith is—and how God has a plan.”

‘The prayer has been answered’

The closeness between Battiato and Wallander shows in the way they hug, and even in the way they laughingly compare their scars.

“Because I wasn’t teaching at the time, I was able to research the cancer for myself, and then it could also benefit Kristen,” says Wallander, who is also doing well. “I gave her lemon drops for the nausea during radiation. When I found out what you could eat, I’d buy two, knowing she was going through this.

“Kristen was so strong. She came over one night and I said, ‘In a year, we’ll look back on this, and we’ll get through it.’ And we did. The prayer has been answered. I know she’ll be a blessing to other people.”

The blessing for Wallander is that she is back in the classroom, teaching vocabulary to seventh- and eighth-grade students. The blessing is she’s still savoring life with her husband and their daughters, Jena, Mary Margaret, Erin and Sara. They’re all parts of the great gift of 12 years and counting.

“It goes beyond surviving and fighting,” she says. “It goes to your faith. If we truly believe what we say we believe, there’s so much happiness awaiting us. But I really don’t want God to be finished with me. If it’s something scary, I’ll take it. I mean, everyone has suffering, everyone has problems. God has really taken care of me. I’ve had two big cancer scares, and I never felt he wasn’t with me.”

As she talks, Wallander is just a few feet from a work of art that her daughter Sara made for her. It spells the word, “BELIEVE,” and ends with an image of the MRI scan in which Wallander sees her angel.

“There are so many things that God puts in your path that were meant just for you,” she says. “I feel that way about my husband. I feel that way about my daughters. I feel that way about my Bible study group and my friends. And I feel that way about Kristen.

“I sort of feel blessed that this has happened to me. I want to do for others. I want my purpose to be serving in whatever capacity God wants me to serve.” †

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