A Stern Test of Faith

updated 07/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Reclining in the shade of an old oak, Ruth Carter Stapleton gazed out over the glassy lake at her North Carolina home. Behind her, carpenters were adding a new wing to the cottage she shares with her husband, Bobby. The work would take another week or two. "It's awfully hard to live in a world of normal people and not think in terms of time," Stapleton said, as the racket of power tools bore down from the cottage. "Something's going to be happening in August and something's going to be happening in September, and people are asking, 'Do you think you'll be able to come?' This keeps me thinking in terms of time, and I don't want to think in terms of time right now."

What Stapleton, the 53-year-old younger sister of former President Jimmy Carter, chooses to think about these days is the possibility that "God is not through with me yet." That notion was severely tested on April 22 when she learned that she is suffering from cancer of the pancreas, an incurable and extremely painful form of the disease. And though resignation is not in the nature of this small, bright-eyed evangelist who has traveled the globe preaching the power of what she calls "inner healing," Stapleton quietly quotes Jesus' words from the Mount of Olives when she says, "If it is God's will that I do not recover, then I will say, 'Not my will, but thine, be done.' "

Doctors at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. who diagnosed her condition recommended radiation and chemotherapy treatments to combat the pain caused by the advanced state of the cancer. Stapleton has declined, clinging instead to her conviction that the power of faith she has preached, combined with a rigorous program of exercise, meditation and diet, can turn back the ravages of the disease. All the members of the Carter family were at first alarmed by Staple-ton's decision and attempted to dissuade her. Brother Jimmy, who had exhaustively investigated the field when their mother, Lillian Carter, contracted breast cancer in 1981, offered Ruth his network of elite medical contacts. Stapleton's son Scott, 31, an ophthalmologist at Duke Medical Center, was equally concerned. Yet when it became clear that she was determined to make what Scott calls an "all or none" effort at recovery, based on "my prayer life, which is the nucleus of everything to me," they rallied around her. "Not taking treatment was courageous," Scott says. "She is doing it with a lot of grace."

Nonetheless, Stapleton admits her chosen route "is not a breeze," and she has coupled her belief in the power of healing by faith with a strict macrobiotic diet theory developed by Boston-based diet expert Michio Kushi. Since early May she has been rising at about 6 a.m. to "do my imagery"—a form of meditation in which she imagines the cancer as a snake being carried out of her body by snowy white birds, a symbol for the blood's disease-fighting white corpuscles. Next, "to stimulate circulation," Bobby, 57, a retired veterinarian, brews strong ginger tea and rubs her down with it. Afterward he fixes Ruth a breakfast including brown rice, unsweetened apple butter and grain cereal coffee, conforming to Kushi's theories.

The rest of the day is given over to supervised exercise, deep breathing, half-mile walks and strictly prepared meals, eschewing meat, fish, raw fruit and dairy products. The bulky whole grains and seaweed the diet calls for might be hard for even a healthy person to swallow, but Stapleton, whose weight has dropped 33 pounds to 95 and whose diseased pancreas is not secreting a normal amount of digestive enzymes, has found the going especially slow. "I have to chew every bite about a hundred times," she says. "Sometimes I don't chew long enough. When I don't, I know it." Undaunted, she carries on. "I don't have much digestion at this point," she maintains, "but I never lost it completely and I'm getting it back."

All these trials were unknown to Stapleton until March, when "all of a sudden one day I had pain, like a terribly upset stomach." The initial diagnosis from her doctor was of a stomach ulcer. "That made sense to me," Ruth says. "My schedule for the last 15 years has been very intense"—constant travel and lecturing, plus regular stopovers at Holovita (meaning "whole life"), the evangelical retreat she established near Denton, Texas in 1978. Deciding to take a vacation, Stapleton joined a group of friends at a Mexican resort. But her condition soon worsened until the pains were so intense "I couldn't lie down at night."

While still in Mexico, Stapleton met a young hitchhiker who was a macrobiotic food buff and a disciple of Kushi's. He volunteered to teach her how to cook the vegetarian dishes prescribed by Kushi's diet.

Her condition, however, appeared to be getting worse, and when she returned to North Carolina, Stapleton entered Duke Medical Center for further tests. In 1953 Ruth had been at her father's side when he died of pancreatic cancer at 58, and by this time she had begun to develop an intuition about her problem. "The minute I entered Duke," she recalls, "I kept saying, 'Look at my pancreas.' It was like my body was sending out that signal."

Meanwhile Ruth had telephoned her "spiritual mentor," the Reverend Tommy Tyson, in Durham. "He came to the hospital each day and prayed for me and built me up." On her fourth day at Duke, Stapleton awoke pain-free for the first time in six weeks. "We just claimed that that was God's sign I was going to be healed," she explains. Within 24 hours, however, the doctors had confirmed the pancreatic cancer. On hearing the news, Stapleton reports, her husband and sons, Scott and Mike, 24, "were terribly broken up, and I really wasn't. I was just riding on that faith." Similarly, when breaking the news to the family at large that weekend (Stapleton also has two daughters, Lynn, 33, and Patti, 29, and four grandchildren), the contrast was "between my faith trying to lift them up and their tears, facing reality."

Within days of leaving the hospital Stapleton flew to Boston to meet Kushi personally. He counseled her and later sent a member of his staff to North Carolina to teach the preparation of macrobiotic meals. "I think this approach can cure her if it's properly done," Kushi says cautiously. "It's up to the patient." He claims that 20 percent of the terminal cancer patients he's worked with have experienced some remission. He is the founder of a monthly health journal and two macrobiotic institutions where he also teaches.

Medical experts are skeptical. "For someone without hope, Kushi's methods offer a chance to participate actively in their own care, and that is often necessary and commendable," comments Dr. Robert J. Mayer of Harvard Medical School. "But is there any data showing that people will actually benefit from macrobiotic treatment? Beyond emotional support, none of the Kushi-like organizations have provided any scientifically documented results."

Stapleton says she has been sleeping better and taking fewer painkillers than when first diagnosed. But her diet, she believes, has played only a secondary role. "There is just no way I would be able to maintain any degree of positive thinking," she insists, "if it were not for my belief that it is the will of God that I be healed."

To wean her from the enjoyable but draining telephone conversations with friends and family that punctuate her day, Kushi has invited Stapleton to relax in the seclusion of a former Catholic retreat he owns in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Stapleton accepted, saying she would go "until I feel strong." There was no telling how long that might be. But last week, gazing across the lake, her blue eyes were clear. "Since I was diagnosed as having terminal cancer," she said, "I have felt more alive than I have ever felt in my life. I am setting my priorities and focusing on the things that are important. I am at peace with God."

From Our Partners