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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Healed through Cancer
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Littleton family sees God’s providence in father’s illness and in the many crosses of life

The Littleton family as of November 2010.
The Littleton family as of November 2010.

May 31, 2011. Frankfort, IL. “I was resigned to die,” Jim said. “I didn’t have any fight left in me….”

 “He had no immune system left after the chemotherapy,” said Kathleen. “The hospital staff didn’t seem to know how to help him.  They had the electrodes ready to resuscitate him….

Kathleen Littleton is describing the emotional night when she nearly lost her husband (and father of her fourteen children) to the disease he has been battling for two years -- leukemia. 

After getting a bone marrow transplant of adult stem cells, Jim was in intensive care.  At one point his condition worsened to the point of near death.  “I had a heart rate of 200 for 2 hours,” he said.  “Both my kidneys had failed.  I had 60 pounds of toxic fluid in me and double pneumonia.  I had very few platelets to stop bleeding.

“Basically he said goodbye to me,” said Kathleen.

Like an open book…

Regnum Christi families may be familiar with Jim and his wife after they published their book Better by the Dozen, Plus Two: Anecdotes and a Philosophy of Life from a Family of Sixteen (Lulu Publications, 2007.) Those who have read it recognize in this family a living witness to the Catholic faith.  Throughout the blessings and trials of life, the Littleton family has sustained a strong belief in God’s love and providence.

Since the book was published in 2007, much has happened in their lives, from the foreclosure of their home to Jim’s life threatening illness.  Obviously, since that fateful night in the hospital, Jim is still alive to tell the tale. These trials have led him to reflect on the meaning of redemptive suffering, and he is even writing a new book, Healed through Cancer

“The book is about what good comes from the cross,” he said. 
Jim Littleton
Jim Littleton
“Through this book, as well as with our first book, we discuss how we are all called to trust in God.  We must trust in Jesus.”

Jim remembers how, while suffering in his hospital bed, he wanted to see a priest, and one just happened to appear in his room around 10:00 pm. “He was on his way to another room,” said Jim. “So I asked for confession and an anointing.”

Jim and Kathleen both remember the consolation of the prayers of so many friends and relatives during that time. 

“We had so many people praying for him,” said Kathleen. “People told me they would set their alarm for 3:00 am and say the Divine Mercy Chaplet for Jim.”

And God listened.

“The hospital staff was shocked after I got out of ICU,” said Jim. “I was able to use a walker to go to the bathroom.  The doctor told me I did better than 99 percent of the people in my condition.  I had to relearn to walk, but it wasn’t long before I was out taking long walks in the park.  That’s the grace of God.”

Jim’s current condition is that he feels well enough to “function normally.”

“They don’t have all the tests done yet, but I’m doing great, considering.  It is still to be determined if I am in remission, but things look good.”

Difficult times

Life has been challenging for the Littletons of late, to say the least.  They lost their home in November of 2007 to foreclosure due to declining business for Jim’s insurance adjusting company.  Before this happened, they tried to sell their home for 2½ years, with no success.

Kathleen said her youngest child was age one at the time.  “We had 12 children then, and I was expecting my 13th child when all this trouble started,” said Kathleen.  They were living near White Pines Academy (now Everest Academy) in Lemont, Illinois, where the children attended school.  During that time, Kathleen suffered two miscarriages and became pregnant again. “We still were open to life despite our financial troubles,” she said.  “We were generous with God, and he was generous to us.  We knew God was going to take care of us.”

Jim said a local community of Poor Clare nuns was praying for them.  “As time went on,” he explained, “they changed their intention to ask that, if we lost our home, we would get a better home.”

This is the prayer God
Jim and Kathleen Littleton on their honeymoon cruise in August 1983.

According to Kathleen, the home they are now in is a better house for the family and is in the area where they want to be.  “The minute I walked into the house, I knew it would be perfect for us, if we could just afford it.  Another couple came in to look at it at the same time as us.  I was a little annoyed at them because they hadn’t even made an appointment, but then the man said to me as they were leaving, ‘This will make a wonderful home for you and your family.’  It was a little eerie.” 

Providentially, the Littletons were approved to rent the home despite their foreclosure history.  They had to put down more money than usual for the security deposit, but they had some surprise financial help from friends. 

“It all fell into place,” said Jim.  “God had a plan for us.  We are back in the town where we have ties to the community, friends, and a support network.

“What seemed like a disaster was actually a cross that God brought a greater good out of.  He answered the exact prayer of the Poor Clares.”

Like an olive plant in … your home

Jim’s wife Kathleen is not the stereotypical “harried” mother of a large family.  Those who meet her will see a calm (usually), slender woman who looks younger than her years.  Most find it hard to imagine she has carried 19 children in her womb, and raised 14. (Five of their children’s lives ended in miscarriage or stillbirth, and they are waiting to meet the rest of their family in “Heaven,” Jim and Kathleen said.) 

Upon entering their new home in Frankfort, Illinois, a person would never guess how many people live in the house. 

“It is out of necessity we keep our place clean and in order,” she said. “It is not as large and extravagant as our last home, but it is perfect for our family, and in a better location to our parish.”  

Kathleen, who has a degree in law, stopped practicing her profession early in her marriage to concentrate fully on raising her family.  But since Jim’s illness, she has been working as the Director of Religious Education for St. Anthony parish in Frankfort, Ill.  “I am busier than I have ever been in my life,” she says matter-of-factly.

Educating their children, and others, in the faith

The book, Better by the Dozen plus Two, details how Kathleen and Jim raised their large family in what most would consider a counter-cultural environment, educating them extensively in their Catholic faith.  Now Kathleen is helping others to bring that faith to their own children as the DRE.  “My pastor asked me if I would like the job.  And he told me he wanted something sound.”  

Kathleen acknowledges that many parents today may not have received a thorough education in Catholic catechism, as she herself experienced growing up.  Kathleen makes parent formation a mandatory part of the program. She offers six speakers on various
The Littleton twins
The twins Maura and Clare at 6 months old (in March 1998).
faith formation subjects and parents can choose the three they are interested in.  They also can choose between attending a separate retreat for mothers and fathers or a marriage retreat together. She has also offered formation meetings for parents with the promotional line: “Drop off your kids, pick up your faith.” 

Students attend Eucharistic adoration for 15 minutes before class begins, and classes have been moved to Sundays so families are encouraged to attend Mass together. “We had a slip they had to sign and put in the offertory at Mass to prove they attended, but we changed this to having them pick up the saint holy card of the week and bring it to class,” said Kathleen. “At the end of the year, those that turn in all the cards get a reward.” There is reading and homework required of students that must be signed by the parents. 

Some of the parents were not happy about the program changes, but Kathleen and her co-director persevered and the protests eventually died down.  “People are realizing there is more they need to know about their faith,” she said. 

“Now we see dozens of families with children at Mass, when before you would only see a handful,” said Jim.  “It seems that Mass attendance has tripled.”

The Cross and God’s Providence

Kathleen sees God’s providence in the opportunity to serve as DRE.  The family had COBRA insurance that was going to expire.  “Out of the blue, my pastor asked me to be our DRE, and my benefits took effect the day after the COBRA ended.”

Then Jim began to notice hoarseness in his throat and a bad cough. He had night sweats and woke from sleep out of breath.  “At first I thought it might be swine flu, which was going around at the time,” said Kathleen.  Jim feared he might have throat cancer.

On October 19, 2009 (Jim notes this is the feast day of the North American Martyrs) he was diagnosed with suffering from stage 4 chronic lymphocytic leukemia.  Kathleen said she and Jim looked up the illness on the Internet and realized he had had all the symptoms.  Two weeks after the diagnosis, he was hospitalized with double pneumonia.  So began the fight for his life.  And since then, there have been about $1 million in medical expenses. 

“We totally see God’s hand in this,” said Jim.  “God arranged for us to have the health insurance benefits we needed going forward.”

He notes that since his illness, his insurance business has been doing better. “I hired a manager, and there has been a reasonable stream of income.”

Jim said another benefit has been how he has learned to accept each day, and even each moment, as a special gift from God. “Each of us will die someday,” said Jim.  “Being sick made me more aware of this reality.  It helped me to put first things first.  Everything in life is fleeting.  Only our memories and love are what last.

“You become more detached from what you can’t
Littletons playing Mass
Shane and Colleen playing Mass. She now is a Regnum Christi consecrated woman and he is discerning a vocation to the priesthood within the Legion of Christ. Photo dates from May 1999.
take with you.  You value your family and your spouse.”

Kathleen says the experience has aided in her detachment.  “Our Lord wants us to love him fully.  He wants us to be detached from things of this earth -- even our children and spouse -- and be prepared to join Him.  They are meant to lead us to Him.

“In life the crosses keep coming,” she says with a resolute expression. “I have to accept them or else become anxious and worried. The foreclosure, the financial problems, miscarriages – even giving two of my children to a religious vocation (*click here to read “Update on the Littleton Children”) – they have shown me that my heart is meant fully to love God.” 

“Kathleen has been amazing in her support of me,” Jim said.  “During one of my six hospitalizations (after a transplant of adult stem cells into his bone marrow) I was in the hospital for 28 days.  Kathleen was with me ‘round the clock.”

She quickly adds that one of the older girls took care of the children.  Grace, now age 23, was planning to return to Florida, where she went to college, to begin her teaching career, but she put that on hold to help out at home.  “She practically ran the household for us while Jim was in the hospital,” said Kathleen.

“It has made me less selfish,” said Grace simply.

Suffering in union with Christ

When asked if he resents his latest suffering, Jim acknowledges it has been difficult. 

“It is a cross, and it is hard, like Jesus’ cross was hard,” he said.  “In my soul -- and Jesus first knew this feeling -- there is acceptance.  I am growing closer to Christ – to suffer for my purification, for my own and others’ redemption.”  Jim believes his suffering is united to Christ.  He quotes Colossians 1:24-25.  Scripture references come from his mouth quite naturally.  He also quotes Romans 8:28.

“My understanding has grown,” he said. “Many people who get to Heaven get there from the graces and merits of others. 

“We invite this help and grace by our free will.  We will know the fruit if we value the crosses.  This is a big help when you are suffering.”

Always Spreading the “Good” News

Jim believes he is able to do much more by way of evangelization because of his illness. 
These efforts are nothing new to Jim or Kathleen, who found that the very presence of their ever growing family in the world is an undeniable example of their faith.  “Whenever we go out with all our kids, it pricks people’s consciences,” said Jim.  “Sometimes they think, ‘Maybe we can have one more…’”

Jim boldly wears a large St. Benedict medal around his neck – given to him by a friend who visited Medjugorje – as well as an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe pinned to his shirt.  People often ask him about these symbols.  He says he gets lots of comments during visits and stays in the hospital, and very few, if any, are negative.

“My illness has opened this up,” he said.  Jim is reminded of the movie Soul Surfer, which he had the opportunity to see recently with his family.   “A reporter asks the girl in the movie if she would take back the day she lost her arm to a shark.  She said she would keep that day because if it hadn’t happened, then the group of reporters wouldn’t be here talking with her now, and she wouldn’t be able to reach so many people.”

Jim likes to give the people he meets in the hospital a
Kathleen Littleton with her daughter Shealagh.
Kathleen Littleton with her daughter Shealagh.
holy card of the Divine Mercy image.  “You meet so many people in the hospital, and 98 percent of the people who I offer the card to accept it.  In fact they are overjoyed to receive it.  As Catholics, we are used to getting holy cards, but most people have never seen one.  Now the Divine Mercy image is posted all over the blood-draw area at this secular teaching hospital.

“There is a false fear out there about talking about our faith -- that other people will be offended.  I don’t think this has ever happened to me.  And so what if it did?  Even then, it would be worth it.”

Jim also remembers getting the chance to give some spiritual advice to a woman who had terminal cancer. “She even asked me if I was a chaplain,” he said with a smile.  “By God’s grace, if I hadn’t been sick, I wouldn’t have had such opportunities.”

Kathleen has also found an opportunity to evangelize during Jim’s illness.   “A woman had just lost her brother to a seven-month illness -- she just clung to me. I thought, ‘This is where I would be, but for the grace of God.’

“When Jim said goodbye to me, I wasn’t panicked as I expected I would be.   It was very consoling to me to know that God would still take care of us.  My faith has given me so much.” 
Because of their obvious Catholic and pro-life beliefs, Jim and Kathleen have often been asked to give talks to Catholic audiences, and this continues even during his illness. 

“Three weeks after my diagnosis, when I was just recovering from double pneumonia, we were scheduled to be on EWTN Live with Fr. Mitch Pacwa,” said Jim. “Kathleen had a terrible chest cold.  We didn’t know until the night before if we would be well enough to go.  With no time to prepare, we prayed that the Holy Spirit would just use us for his purposes.  That’s probably what God wanted anyway.”

Jim and Kathleen were also asked to be the keynote speakers for a Diocese of Peoria, Illinois prolife event.  “I was so sick,” said Jim. “I dragged my body there.  I lay down in the coat room while everyone mingled.  I was able to get up and talk and express all I wanted to express, but it was such a struggle to speak, though it was the best talk I have given so far because of all I was able to express.”

Jim believes such situations are humbling, per God’s will.  “It allows you to know this is His work, not yours.”

Jim says his illness has also made him more aware of his own “power” to offer intercessory prayer for others.

“I pray with absolute confidence now. I offer my suffering for many intentions, because God is infinite.  I put them on my guardian angel’s prayer list.  Then I don’t worry about remembering them all.  I end every prayer saying, ‘And the mountain has been cast into the sea!’”

To find out more about Jim and Kathleen, go to their family’s website, which contains information about how to obtain their book and other resources, downloads of talks they have given and more information.  (Click here for information on an upcoming benefit for the family.)

Jim said his hope for the new book he is writing, Healed through Cancer, is that “people will be encouraged, and develop fortitude and hope, that they will get scriptural insights, and may even want to become Catholic, if they aren’t already.”



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