This Week's Story

What if I had cancer in the 1840's and knew Rose Hawthorne?

This Week’s Story relives American history and the Bible through brief inspiring stories presented on mp3 audio recordings and text for reading.

I’m contagious!

”You may have CANCER,” the doctor tells me cautiously.

”Oh, no, no! What if I have CANCER? Will I have to endure pills, radium, chemotherapy, bone marrow transplant, or alternative medicine? Will I die? Didn’t I read last week that cancer is the number two killer in the United States? Yes, I did!”

“Doctor, you asked me who else has had cancer in my family. My mother, Papa, Aunt Clara, Grandma, and my sister Dianne have had it. Two survived. Not good odds.”

As I step out of the doctor’s office, I wonder, “What if I received the diagnosis of cancer in the 1840’s?”

Conversations then about cancer were black with fear. Cancer was believed to be contagious! Effective cures were almost unknown. Especially horrible was to be poor and to have cancer.

Where would you go? In New York City no person diagnosed with cancer was allowed to be a patient in a hospital. Would you, as a poor person, go to a public poorhouse? There you would be with people

dying with cancer, or confined with mental illnesses or disabilities. Conditions would be pathetic with filth, poor food, untended patients, untrained staff, and often cruelty. If you had a trickle of money and someone to help you, you might live in a broken-down apartment building as an outcast.

Rose Hawthorne became aware of this tragedy when she was in her forties. She became a pioneer in caring for unwanted cancer victims. No one could have guessed that she would ask for money and become a servant in order to help society’s helpless.

Rose was the daughter of the famous author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, writer of The Scarlet Letter. Though of a privileged background, cultured and refined, she experienced great loss. Her father died when she was thirteen and her mother a few years later. Her first and only child, a son, died at age five. Rose’s husband became emotionally unstable and an alcoholic. Both Rose and her husband at age forty became Catholics. Her husband’s problems continued and she was given formal permission by the church to live alone.

She became aware that poor people with incurable cancer usually had no one to care for them. She wrote, “A fire was then lighted in my heart, where it still burns.” At age forty-five she took a three month nursing course at New York’s Cancer Hospital and moved into a three room apartment in the ghetto of the poor.

Initially she visited people sick with cancer. Then she began inviting them into her apartment to have her care, friendship, and dignity until they died. She took no money from them. Her friends made contributions. She, who had known no financial need, asked for funds for her patients. Her days were spent washing cancerous sores, bedding, clothing; and for preparing food. Another woman, Alice Huber, came to serve with Rose.

When Rose’s husband died, she became a member of the Dominican order of the Catholic Church. Six years later she was leading the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer. The servants were Catholic sisters. They were to do the nursing. Care expanded until today there are homes of her congregation around the United States, though Rose died in 1926. The same basic rules exist. No money is taken from patients, their families, or the state.

Rose believed that life has value no matter how weak, vulnerable, and even repulsive it appears. Her desire was to see Jesus in the eyes of the helpless.

This is Barbara Steiner reminded that appearance is not an accurate measurement of value. Please check out

<< previous story] [next story >>

We invite your comments!  [click here to comment]

Let's Talk

Facebook Join the conversation.

This Week's Story is a non-profit supported by listeners. [click here to make a donation with ]