A five-time cancer survivor, who has beaten long odds twice, attributes her survival to her faith, and especially to the intercessory prayers of Blessed Stanley Rother.
Rother, an Okarche native and Oklahoma priest who was martyred in Guatemala in 1981, was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 2017.
Martha Lou Potts, 81, of Enid, said she doubts she’d be alive today without the special prayers she’s been praying since Rother was beatified in Oklahoma City.
Potts’ story is as deeply rooted in Oklahoma as Rother’s.
Her grandfather made the 1893 Land Run and settled in Enid, and her father worked here as an attorney. Potts went to school at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, then returned to Enid to teach music in the public schools.
Raised a Protestant, Potts said she was drawn to Catholicism after watching lay women volunteers from the Legion of Mary, at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, care for her mother as she was dying.
“I saw how they helped take care of my parents when they were ill,” Potts said, “how they practiced humility and love, and I just fell in love with the Catholic Church.”
‘A casualty of World War II’
Potts’ passion for travel eventually took her from Enid, to accept a job with the Department of Defense school system, teaching music to children of U.S. service members at a Marine Corps base near Hiroshima, Japan — the site of the first of two atomic bombings of Japan by U.S. forces, on Aug. 6, 1945.
Potts arrived there in the early 1970s, and quickly assimilated into Japanese culture, even playing as the first American musician in the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra since the beginning of World War II.
She lived in Japan for seven years, and then for several years settled in Charleston, S.C., near some of the Marine Corps friends she’d made in Japan.
But, more than 30 years after the bombing of Hiroshima, Potts said she learned the bombing had caught up with her. Not long after settling in South Carolina, she was diagnosed with fallopian and ovarian cancer.
“I was kind of stunned, but my oncologist, when he found I had been in Hiroshima, he said, ‘Miss Potts, I think you are a casualty of World War II,’” Potts said. “He believed the cancer was there because I had lived in their economy, ate their food, drank their water and drank milk from their cows.”
Potts was given only a 5% chance of survival. But she dug into chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries. Between treatments and surgeries, Potts said she kept herself motivated by traveling to new places — a lifetime passion that has, thus far, taken her to 33 foreign countries and all 50 U.S. states.
In spite of the odds, Potts went into remission. But in 1988, she was again diagnosed with cancer — that time it was black mole, or skin cancer.
Radiation and removal of affected areas of her skin led again to being cancer-free, and by 2006 Potts was ready to settle down and come back to Enid. But, cancer was not done with her.
“As soon as I landed here, I developed breast cancer,” Potts said. “So, here we go again with more surgeries, more chemotherapy and radiation — all of that.”
Again, she beat the cancer. And, from then until 2018, Potts remained cancer free. But in 2018 she got her worst diagnosis yet — she had esophageal cancer, with just a 3% chance of living through 2019.
But again, she was determined to beat the odds. “I told them, ‘I am not a statistic,’” Potts said.
She signed up for proton therapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, while also receiving care at Integris Cancer Institute in Enid, in between her trips to Houston.
Shortly after starting her treatments, which she described as “brutal,” Potts gave new significance to a small prayer she’d had in her kitchen for more than a year.
“When Blessed Stanley went through that (beatification) ceremony in Oklahoma City, for some reason I cut out a prayer of intercession for Blessed Stanley Rother, and put it on my refrigerator door,” Potts said.
After her cancer diagnosis, she said she began to lean frequently on that prayer.
“Every time I would pass my refrigerator, I would pray that prayer,” she said, “because I needed all the help I could get.”
Drawn to Rother
Potts said she was drawn to Rother because of his ties to Oklahoma, and his humility and love for the people he served in Guatemala.
Rother was born in 1935 in Okarche and was ordained a priest on May 25, 1963. He served as an associate pastor in Oklahoma for five years before volunteering to serve at the Oklahoma mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.
While at the mission, Rother learned Spanish and the Tz’utujil language and helped translate the New Testament into the native dialect. He assisted in the opening of a school, a hospital and a radio station, and used his farming expertise from Oklahoma to help impoverished farmers harvest different crops, build an irrigation system and create a co-op.
Guatemala was embroiled in a civil war during Rother’s time there, and the Catholic Church “was caught in the middle due to its insistence on catechizing and educating the indigenous people,” according to an Archdiocese of Oklahoma City press release.
Due to his role in serving and teaching indigenous people, Rother’s name eventually was placed on a death list. Despite the danger, he chose to stay with his people, and on the morning of July 28, 1981, three masked gunmen shot and killed him. No one was ever held responsible for his murder.
In 2016, Pope Francis officially recognized him as a martyr for the faith, and on Sept. 23, 2017, his beatification was celebrated in Oklahoma City.
Potts said she had long been in the habit of making intercessory prayers to St. Adele, and other saints.
She acknowledged a common misconception that Catholics “worship” saints, and explained intercessory prayer is when a person of faith asks a saint to pray for them, as a person may ask a friend or trusted clergy person to pray for them.
“I am not worshiping any saint,” Potts said. “I am just talking to them as I would to talk to you.”
When she undertook the practice of intercessory prayer with Blessed Stanley Rother, Potts said she immediately noticed a difference.
“I instantly felt a peace, I really did,” she said. “Every time I’d come back from a treatment, I’d go over to the refrigerator and have a little talk with Blessed Stanley.”
Six months ago, Potts said her prayers were answered. Her oncologist, Dr. Sumbal Nabi, gave her the good news: She was cancer-free.
“I almost had a revival meeting right there in the office, when she told me that,” Potts said with a laugh.
Nabi said it’s not uncommon for faith to play an important role in patients “staying focused and positive, which is so helpful for good results.”
“Cancer diagnosis confronts patients with the fact that they are vulnerable to disease and suffering, that they are mortal and that their time may be limited,” Nabi said. “When we are in good health, all these questions are in the back of our head. However, with a cancer diagnosis, they take a central and compelling spot, which is why cancer is commonly referred to as a wake-up call also. Religion or faith at this point helps with coping and healing, with the quest for meaning and the question of ‘why me?’”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 69% of cancer patients say they pray for their health. And, Nabi said, a recent study published in Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, suggests a link between religious or spiritual beliefs and better physical health reported among patients with cancer.
“And that is what I see in my practice as well,” Nabi said.
Potts has been cancer-free for six months. She is back to eating regular food, her tumor is gone and there are no cancer cells detectable in her body.
Good medicine, good doctors and nurses all were necessary, and played a crucial role in her recovery, Potts said. But, ultimately, her recovery, to her, is nothing short of a miracle.
“The good Lord is doing it,” she said. “I am here by the grace of God, and Blessed Stanley and St. Adele and all the saints.”
Potts has been interviewed, along with other Oklahomans, by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City on the effects of intercessory prayer in her recovery.
Diane Clay, director of communications for the archdiocese, said those accounts are being reviewed, to see which will be sent to the Vatican for “review and possible validation as a miracle” in Rother’s case for sainthood.
To learn more about Blessed Stanley Rother, or for updates on the Blessed Stanley Rother Shrine, go online to archokc.org/stanleyrother.