Gleanings from a Book: “When Mama Had Cancer” by Marjorie Kunch

Marjorie Kunch has already given Orthodox Christians a wonderful resource in her first book(s), “When My Baba Died”/ “When My Yiayia Died.” These first books drew on her experiences as a mortician. Now she offers, again through her own personal experience – this time, with breast cancer – another valuable resource: “When Mama Had Cancer.”


Suffering has been part of our human experience ever since the first humans’ choice to disobey God. We all suffer, some of us much more than others, but we all suffer. What we do with that suffering either makes us or breaks us in the long run. Author Marjorie Kunch has turned her recent suffering, her battle with breast cancer, into an opportunity. She documented this painful period of her life in order to help not just her own children, but anyone who reads her new book. The book teaches its readers that God is there with us when we suffer, there are helpers at every turn, and all of us – even the youngest – can help each other in times of suffering.

“When Mama Had Cancer” follows a family through the entire cancer experience: from diagnosis to head shaving (“the chemotherapy she had to take would make her hair all fall out anyway so she wanted it to come off on her terms”) to chemo/its subsequent side effects to surgery and finally back to health. The book acknowledges that not everyone fights cancer and continues their earthly life. The book offers gentle reminders that, in that case, it is “not their fault, your fault, the doctor’s fault, the priest’s fault, or even God’s fault, even though you may feel that way… It is simply their time to join the Heavenly Kingdom.”

This book explains difficult words in simple terms that will help children of varying ages to better understand what their loved one with cancer is experiencing. It is very positive in its outlook. The book does not gloss over the difficulty of the experience, but rather is positive in that it offers suggestions of hands-on ways that even children can help their sick loved one. It is full of scripture and Orthodox Christian traditions. The book suggests saints to whom someone with cancer can pray for help. Essentially, this book takes a very difficult and frightening experience and brings peace to the children reading it by helping them to understand what is happening, framed in the context of Orthodox Christianity, while also offering concrete ways that the children can help their loved one.

“When Mama Had Cancer” will likely be of the most help to people who are experiencing cancer for themselves. However, we recommend it to all Orthodox Christians working with children, even those (currently) without any family members experiencing cancer. After all, “…if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it…” (1 Corinth. 12:26) and there are plenty of other Orthodox Christians and other neighbors suffering from this terrible disease. The book helps to clarify the cancer experience, removing some of the fear that comes with uncertainty and misunderstanding, and offering hope in the form of Orthodox Christian ways to respond and help, so it is a good one for young Orthodox Christians to take in!

The illustrations in this book are photos with a brush-stroke effect, very similar in appearance to the photos in Marjorie’s previous books. These illustrations help the reader get a better sense of what the family is experiencing during the course of the experience. Kristi Tartara (who wrote “What Do You See At Liturgy”) did the graphic design and was the layout artist for the book.

“When Mama Had Cancer” will be available in early October 2017, from Pascha Press. Visit for details. Or order the book from Amazon at or Barnes and Noble at

Here are a few gleanings from the book, as well as suggestions of ways to use the book in your Sunday Church School class:

“Cancer is a difficult topic, especially for children… Marjorie’s new book, “When Mama Had Cancer”, helps children see cancer from a Christian perspective. Her book explains what cancer is, what symptoms to expect, and what children can do to help… this book points children toward Christ. We are reminded that God has not forgotten us, and that cancer is not a reason for despair. During times of sickness, we are encouraged to trust in the love of God, the support of the Church, and the power of prayer.” ~ from Fr. Joseph Gleason’s forward to “When Mama Had Cancer”

“Papa said that if these fears do not go away, I could talk to our priest about it, and he will teach me ways to combat these thoughts. I can also read comforting verses in the Bible or say the Jesus Prayer… At church we lit candles and said a prayer for all of the people who are fighting cancer. This made us feel better since we helped out in this important way.” ~ “When Mama Had Cancer” by Marjorie Kunch


After reading the book “When Mama Had Cancer”, talk together about the children in the book. How did they help their mama? Talk as a class about anyone in your parish who is fighting cancer. How can you best help them? Brainstorm a list, and find a way to do some of the items on that list. Minimally, you can say a prayer for them. Younger students can pray the prayers for the sick (found in your service book or here If you have older students, print the “Akathist to the Theotokos the Healer of Cancer” found here: Pray parts of this akathis or all of it if you have time. You may also want to invite the students to make cards for the person fighting cancer, to cheer them up. You can send the cards all at once, or one at a time: that’s up to you. You and your students will likely also come up with other ways in which your class can help this person and their family in their time of need. Some of those ideas may require additional materials and will need to be carried out in a separate class time.

“When Mama Had Cancer” offers a list of Orthodox helpers for those fighting cancer. If you have not yet studied the lives of these saints who are known for helping cancer patients, consider sharing their lives with your students. The list includes St. John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco, St. Luke the physician, and St. Nektarios. You can find information about each of them, as well as ideas of ways to teach your students about them, here:,, and


After reading the book “When Mama Had Cancer”, hand each of your students a Bible. Practice locating scripture passages by searching for each verse mentioned in the book (Ps. 104:24; Ps. 31:24; James 5:13; Proverbs 17:22; Matthew 25:35; Philippians 1:21; and/or the list of helpful verses at the back of the book). Ask a different student to read each verse. After all of the verses have been read, invite each student to select their favorite. Talk about their favorite verses: why do they like this verse so much? How can this verse help a cancer patient? How can it help each of us in our own life? Have the students copy the verse out on a piece of paper, then decorate the copy so they can hang it up at home or give it to someone who needs the encouragement it contains.


With older Sunday Church School students, talk about St. John Chrysostom’s quote, “Sickness is a blessing for man in the sense that, if one uses it appropriately, one can draw from it considerable spiritual benefit, thereby making what was originally a sign of mortality into an instrument of salvation.” Ask students to share stories from their own experience or of people that they knew for whom illness was of benefit – or the opposite – depending on how the person used the experience. Encourage them to trust God’s support and willingness to help them grow through difficult experiences such as illness. Ask them how author Marjorie Kunch has used her experience, and whether or not they think that anyone besides her will benefit from the experience.


From “biopsy” to “JP drain” to “oncologist” to “venerate”, the glossary at the end of the book “When Mama Had Cancer” is very helpful. To help your students learn and understand these terms, create a matching game with one card containing the term, and its match containing the definition. Pair the cards together after reading the book. Then practice with them by playing a simple game like “memory” or “go fish” where the students gain points when they match each term with its definition.


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