By Sheila Nonato
Tammy Peterson is a truth-teller and a truth-seeker.
Peterson, 62, is a cancer survivor and host of The Tammy Peterson Podcast that delves into issues such as faith through a counter-cultural lens. Her podcast’s subtle artwork borrows from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, which famously illustrates the fingers of God and man almost touching. It’s very apropos, given how the hand of God has been at work in Peterson’s life during the past four years, the catalyst being her health battles.
She’s also begun the journey to become a member of the Catholic Church.
“I am in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) … I started yesterday,” Peterson told The Catholic Register during a recent sit-down interview in downtown Toronto.
“I will go through that and at Easter, I will become Catholic.”
Her journey toward the Catholic Church has, in a way, come full circle. Originally from the small town of Fairview, Alta., where she met her husband, Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson, she grew up in a Protestant family and would be without formal religious ties when her parents stopped going to church. Yet she has lasting memories of her 104-year-old Polish Catholic great-grandmother, who kept a rosary with her every day.
It was also in her early days as a 17-year-old community pool supervisor when her commitment to truth was first tested. Some local politicians called her in for a meeting, and when they ignored the safety concerns Peterson raised with them, she quit on the spot. That experience led to an enduring cynicism that transformed decades later into a search for truth, meaning, and God, in the midst of her cancer scare and debilitating illness.
Peterson’s health issues began around 2015, when she recalls severe arthritic pain starting. Two years later, around the time that her husband, Jordan Peterson, shot to media fame as a best-selling author and media commentator, the arthritis was so severe that she could no longer walk up and down the stairs. A scan discovered a shadow on her left kidney. The first biopsy revealed renal cell carcinoma, while results of a second biopsy brought more distressing news.
“When (my doctor) took me into the office, his hands were shaking and he handed me these papers to sign over to have another surgery, and he said, ‘I’m sorry but we did another biopsy and what you have is much more aggressive than what we thought. You have what we think is 10 months to live.’ And my husband and I were quite shocked,” she recalled.
Peterson immediately went to see her son, Julian, who lived nearby.
“I think at that moment, when my son looked at me with such grief and a love that was deeper than I had for myself, what I felt lift off of me was my own cynicism and my own self-doubt because I think I had given that up to God,” she said.
After two successful surgeries to remove the tumours, complications later arose, leading to a health crisis that baffled doctors and landed Peterson back in the hospital. She went through countless tests without conclusive findings. Unable to eat, her health condition worsened. Her weight was down to 90 pounds and her hair had fallen out. Doctors couldn’t find the source of the lymphatic leakage wreaking havoc on her body.
“Luckily, I had Queenie there because I tell you, the prayers, they sustained me,” Peterson said.
Her friend, Queenie Yu, came to visit as soon as she heard Peterson was sick.
“I brought a rosary blessed by Pope Francis, a little pamphlet on how to pray the Rosary and an image of Our Lady and Baby Jesus Chinese (sic),” said Yu, who is also an adult Catholic convert and now a numerary member of Opus Dei, a personal prelature of Catholic laity and clergy whose spirituality is rooted in finding God and seeking holiness in ordinary work and everyday life. (Peterson has no formal ties to the prelature.)
“Jordan and Tammy were together at the hospital and they both thought the image was beautiful. And when she saw the rosary, she said, ‘Oh it’s a rosary.’ I said, ‘Oh you know what it is.’ She said, ‘Yes, but I don’t know how to use it,’ “ Yu recalled.
During Peterson’s five-week hospitalization, their friendship deepened as they sat in Toronto General Hospital’s glass-walled atrium, talked about faith and family, and prayed the Rosary together every morning.
Years later, Yu said she is amazed at the growth and depth of Peterson’s spiritual maturity, most evident after Peterson spoke to an audience about her trials.
“I asked her, ‘Why did you say that your illness is a gift when you were going through so much pain …. your family was suffering?’ She said, ‘Because through my illness, I found God and what could possibly be better than knowing your own Creator?’ ” Yu recalled. “How do you get these comments? It’s (God’s) grace.”
Remembering that challenging period, Tammy said prayer would alleviate some of her pain. “I’d wake up at night and I’d pray the Lord’s Prayer until I went back to sleep. I didn’t allow myself to worry,” she said. “I pretty much prayed all night unless I was sleeping.”
Peterson went to a hospital in Philadelphia for further tests. Before leaving Toronto, another friend and YouTuber, Opus Dei priest Father Eric Nicolai, blessed her and shared a novena to St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. On the fifth day of Peterson praying the novena, and the same day she was scheduled for another surgery, doctors discovered that the medical issue had resolved itself on its own. The surgery was cancelled and she was discharged.
Peterson attributes her miraculous recovery to God as well as to a radical change in her diet where she cut out everything but meat and water.
“(Doctors) didn’t even offer me chemotherapy or radiation or genetic therapy or anything because they said this type of cancer has killed everyone and there is no treatment for it,” she said. “My family was quite amazed because I didn’t feel hopeless.”
Before they were married, Jordan asked Tammy if she would commit to telling the truth. She spent a year reflecting on it before telling him she was committed to a marriage anchored in truth.
Her husband made a connection between their marital vow and Peterson’s search for truth in the Catholic Church.
“This is an extension – what’s happened to her in recent years – of that vow she took when she first decided we were going to get married, he said during a phone interview. “It’s a crucial thing to commit to the truth.”
On whether he supports his wife’s decision to become Catholic, Jordan said, “It’s more than that. She’s trying to aim up. If you love someone and they’re trying to aim up, you’re damn happy about that.”
The Catholic Register, Canadian Catholic News