By Barb Arland-Fye
While undergoing cancer treatment this year, paraeducator Judith Costello suggested to her principal at All Saints Catholic School-Davenport a service project making “chemo bags” for cancer patients. The canvas bags, filled with small items for comfort and distraction, go to cancer patients making their first trip to treatment.
Costello received her chemo bag earlier this year from Gilda’s Club of the Quad Cities and appreciated the thoughtful gesture. “One day, after one of my treatments, I stopped in at Gilda’s Club and asked if they could speak to students about cancer,” Costello said. Gilda’s Club welcomed the opportunity and so did All Saints Principal Mindy Altman.
During her treatments for Her2+ breast cancer, Costello, who also is an artist and member of Sacred Heart Cathedral, packs an iPad in her chemo bag on which to create religious art. “For me, art is a form of prayer.”
Her artwork inspired her to suggest that All Saints students illustrate a Japanese Plum branch, a symbol of rebirth and hope, on blank canvas bags that become chemo bags. For people newly diagnosed with cancer, “It is a fearful time,” said Costello, who received her cancer diagnosis in March. “I thought that the bags, painted with an image of hope by the children, would be a great gift.”
Altman agreed, and decided the students could create the artwork with their school Prayer Families, composed of one student each from grades K-8. The project fit perfectly with the Advent season and honored a dedicated, faith-filled staffer who inspires the All Saints community.
“Miss Judith has just an amazing spirit. She is trusting God, she knows God has a plan for her. That plan is hard but there’s a reason for it. Maybe the reason is (to set an example) for us. … She simply is the most Christ-like person I’ve met,” Altman said. “She’s so kind and cares so much for others. She gets up for work every day.”
Talking about cancer
A morning video announcement kicked off cancer awareness day Dec. 6 at All Saints with “Miss Judith explaining the Prayer Family activity with the help of (students) Alanna and Will.” Afterwards, students divided into two assemblies — one for grades K-6 and the second for grades 7-8 to listen to guest speakers from Gilda’s Club talk about cancer. The age-adjusted rate of cancer in Iowa was 455.1 per 100,000 people in 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
Nora Bosslet, a licensed mental health professional, gave the presentations, accompanied by Kelsey Allen, program manager for Gilda’s Club of the Quad Cities. Nora tailored the presentations for each group of students, explaining the definition of and types of cancer, treatment options, debunked myths, and talked about ways to support family members, friends and others with cancer. The students asked good questions, Allen said. The most common question: how long does it take to get rid of cancer?
Costello knows that is not an easy question to answer. “I know other teachers and staff members and students who have dealt with cancer or have cancer in their families,” Costello told the Messenger. “I didn’t just want to say ‘cancer is hard.’ At Mass last week, one of the Eucharistic prayers really hit me. It says ‘It is right and just, always and everywhere, to give thanks to the Lord our God.’ It made me remember that God can make good come out of anything. It’s hard to be thankful when going through cancer.”
“This year has taught me to rely on God. I am thankful to be more aware of his presence. There’s a little girl at school who calls herself a ‘prayer warrior’ and she asks me to pray with her every day at school. What a blessing!”
Eighth-grader Vu Tran said the most important thing she learned during the cancer presentation is that cancer can spread throughout the body but it also can be treated. Eighth-grader Shon Letterman’s takeaway is that “People should not be afraid to be around them (cancer patients). People think it (cancer) is contagious and it’s not.”
Reflecting on the cancer awareness day, Costello said, “I wanted students not to be afraid of people who look different because of cancer. One boy asked me if he could get cancer because I gave him Communion. Another said I must eat sugar and that is how I got cancer. I wanted to give them better information. I wanted them to understand that we all will have crosses in our lives, but through prayer, with thanksgiving, peace will come. Philippians 4:6 says the gift of faith is a precious thing!”
Resources on cancer
You can learn more about cancer at the following websites:
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): cdc.gov/cancer/uscs; cdc.gov/cancer/uscs/index.htm
• National Cancer Institute: cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/what-is-cancer
• Iowa Cancer Registry: https://tinyurl.com/3dsyptvt
• Gilda’s Club of the Quad Cities: gildasclubqc.org