Lizz and Ryan Lovett, together with their children, walk through a Portland, Ore., park.
Lizz and Ryan Lovett, together with their children, walk through a Portland, Ore., park.
Lizz Lovett’s days revolve around gratitude.

That’s both despite and because of the news, a year ago, from her doctors that she had kidney cancer, and that it had already spread to distant parts of her body. They told her she could probably expect to live two more years.

“You’re way more thankful for each day,” she says as she watches her two youngest children, Petra Magdalena, 4, and Virgil, nearly 2, as they play at an indoor fun center.
Lovett, 34, whose two older children attend St. John the Apostle School in Oregon City, converted to Catholicism in 2005. Her husband, Ryan Lovett, converted in 1997.

She says their faith has allowed them to trust that her illness has purpose.

“I’ve never understood it when people ask ‘why me?’” she says. “Why not me? God can throw a plan at you and that’s your life. I believe that God has a plan for us all. Whatever’s in our lives, it’s for a reason.”

Ryan, who was a seminarian at Mount Angel for a year, knows he’s learned a lot from his wife. “God chose Lizz to deal with this,” Ryan explains. “He chose her for a reason. And he chose me to love Lizz. It’s arresting when you see someone with such simple hope—and faith, charity and love.”

Ryan says their faith has had the practical effect of eliminating the melodrama of anguishing over “why me.”

“She’s in a role that she’s been asked to play by her Father,” says Ryan, who speaks as carefully and thoughtfully as Lizz does.

She doesn’t look sick. She’s vibrant, in fact, her dark hair glossy and her eyes clear and focused as she concentrates on interview questions. She also immediately excuses herself and has moved into the play area when little Virgil crashes the big plastic car he’s driving at a kid’s fun center. She gracefully swoops in to pull him from the wreckage before he’s even begun crying. It seems a perfect example of why children see parents as superheroes.

Although she would never describe herself this way, she’s also an illustration of how some people in devastating circumstances can become Catholic superheroes, swooping in with fresh eyes and committed love. She sees her life now as a reminder to be grateful for God’s gifts in the midst of circumstances that, without faith, could be seen as pure, meaningless disaster.

“We’ve learned to trust,” Lizz says. “Things will be OK no matter what happens. Life is worth living.”

The Lovetts have been serving the Church by using her experience as a living example of embracing suffering and sorrow as part of God’s plan. They filmed a video in which Lizz contrasts her choices with the increasing number of people who choose physician-assisted suicide via “Death with Dignity.”

“I’m going to fight until I die,” she tells the camera in that video. “That’s dignity… God has the final word on my life, not cancer.”

“She did a good job in that, didn’t she?” Ryan says.

The video is making a difference, with Catholic lobbyists in a number of dioceses across the country saying that they’re considering using some of the language Lizz used, as part of their messaging against efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide in their states.

The Lovetts also recently heard that the video, with subtitles, has made its way onto television in Eastern Europe.

It’s a public evangelizing for the Catholic faith that Lizz had never foreseen. Her parents raised her and her sister with strong values that gave her a foundation for her adopted faith, but those values arose from Buddhism and the military.

Lizz’s Taiwanese-American mother practices Buddhism and her father, a career military man, isn’t religious. But her parents insisted on good behavior, teaching Lizz and her sister the Golden Rule, for instance, and the importance of showing respect for their elders.

Lizz joined the Coast Guard and became a noncommissioned officer, a boatswain’s mate, working in law enforcement and supervisory duties.

She was in the Washington D.C. area when she converted in 2005.

Ryan attended the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and, after converting in 1997, attended seminary for a time.

The Lovetts were living in Cincinnati when, in March 2014, the couple learned that cancer would be part of her life’s story. A huge tumor had caused the blood in her urine. That tumor had basically exploded, metastasizing and spreading the cancer cells throughout her body. She was already at stage 4.

“We cried,” she says.

Their oldest child was just 7, their youngest a year old. The couple tried to discern what to do. Lizz’s mother lives in New Jersey, near Lizz’s older sister. Her father lives in Japan, with his third wife.

Ryan’s parents live in West Lynn, a place he calls home, and so the Lovetts moved here, mostly for the family support but grateful too for Oregon’s cleaner environment. They enrolled the two older children, Alethia and Ambrose at St. John the Apostle School and settled into life both at that parish and at Portland’s Maronite Rite church, St. Sharbels.

Traditional chemotherapy isn’t effective for Lizz’s type of cancer so, in addition to removing her left kidney and lymph nodes, her doctors are treating her with Sutent, a newer medication that blocks blood flow to tumors.

She’s living with the tensions between accepting God’s plan for her and also fighting to survive with whatever therapies might slow or even stop her disease. “God has a plan and I am fighting to survive,” she says. “God gives you opportunities and puts people in your path who help you. They’re not coincidences. We’re meant to pray but we’re also meant to use our intellect.”

While Ryan works as a consultant to nonprofits, Lizz has become a stay-at-home mom, caring for the children and for herself. The family had always eaten a diet influenced by healthy Asian cuisines—her mother is Taiwanese-American—and that’s even more the case now. They’ve cut back on sugar and dairy and are generally more cautious about what they eat. She exercises.

She also prays, prayer that she describes as regular conversations with God.  She prays to St. Sharbel and to St. Perpetua, her patron saint. Even before she became Catholic, Lizz admired and drew sustenance from Bishop Fulton Sheen’s life and writing, and she prays for his intercession.

The family also prays the rosary together nightly. The little ones ask God to heal their mother and to help them in their lives.  “We always ask them what they’re grateful for,” she says.

All the Lovetts are grateful that Lizz’s condition has stabilized, and at her last scan the mass in her remaining kidney was gone. The family does believe in miracles, but both Ryan and Lizz have learned how quickly expectations can be toppled.

Whatever happens, Lizz says, there’s gratitude. The staff, parishioners and fellow parents at both St. John the Apostle and St. Sharbel’s have welcomed them.

“The cancer has brought us into contact with so many amazing people. It’s enriched our lives,” she says.  “We’ve found an underlying peace that God will take care of us.”