When I first set out to follow my calling in pastoral ministry, I never dreamed the path would lead to where I am today — director of pastoral care at a cancer hospital. Back then, when society was still using “the C word,” I like most people considered cancer care as something that fell solely in the hands of doctors, nurses and scientists. I understood that faith was important to people facing a cancer diagnosis, but I certainly didn’t picture myself playing any type of role in “cancer survival.”
But today I am doing just that at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia (CTCA) and helping lead its Our Journey of Hope initiative.
When I started with CTCA it took no time for me to see that cancer goes far beyond the realm of medicine and science. The goal of treating a patient wasn’t only stopping the cancer, but healing the person.
CTCA taught me that “survival” was for the body, mind and soul. It meant not just being alive but returning to life, allowing a person to embrace God’s gifts and pay it forward by letting his light shine through us.
Every day at CTCA I have the privilege of providing patients and loved ones with spiritual guidance and support that is integral to their journey to “whole person” healing.
CTCA’s Our Journey of Hope (OJOH) program in Philadelphia supports leaders of congregations in making cancer ministry a part of their faith communities, just as cancer is an inherent part of our world today.
The program teaches leaders about cancer and trains them on how to speak with a church member about coping with his or her cancer. During this empowering two-day retreat we also provide the knowledge, insights and tools that leaders need to provide greater support for cancer patients and their caregivers.
We also help the rest of their congregation to interact lovingly and supportively with cancer patients, caregivers, survivors and those who have lost a loved one to the disease. Lastly, we equip program participants with the tools and confidence to train others to be stewards in this mission at home.
Some 58 spiritual leaders — traveling from 10 states plus Malaysia and Nigeria, and from 41 faith communities spanning 10 different denominations — attended our spring 2019 session. Clearly, there’s a desire for what OJOH offers.
There is no way to adequately describe the humbling experience of doing good work when participants eagerly embrace the opportunity to bring cancer ministry to their congregations, and when they return to share how it is enriching their communities.
Our Catholic brothers and sisters who have received this training and gone on to start cancer care ministries have reported excellent results. We believe this is because OJOH represents a tangible outworking of Scripture’s urging to do justice and love mercy (Micah 6:8) — goals that undergird the church’s mission work. OJOH, like cancer, knows no boundaries of denomination, creed, race or any other factor.
One blanket statement about cancer is that it is a very isolating disease compounded by fear, vulnerability and loss of control. But there is also one factor often shared in the journey of every cancer patient and caregiver: faith.
Regardless of how it is practiced, organized or honored, faith must be present to achieve cancer survival and healing of the mind, body and spirit. People often look for help in channeling their faith in times of challenge, holding them up when faith falters and leading them back to light even when a challenge as dark as cancer tests their convictions. OJOH exists to give leaders the strength and support they need to meet these expectations every time cancer strikes.
CTCA understands the vast responsibilities put on Catholic parishes today, which is why OJOH provides professional and complete training and tools at no cost. We understand cancer is complex and frightening, which is why our experts educate participants on the disease and the experiences of cancer patients.
We also understand the mission that lies in Matthew 25:40-45, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
This is why I hope to see larger representation from the Catholic community at our free OJOH sessions this fall in October, this winter in late February or at our subsequent trainings. (The next Cancer Care Leadership Training is scheduled for Oct. 17-18 at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Philadelphia, located in the city at 1331 East Wyoming Avenue. Learn more about the program here.)
Whether it’s financial hardship, physical debilitation, emotional isolation, or any other impact that makes a patient or caregiver less equipped to maintain their faith, hope and strength during their journey, cancer brings to your parish door “the least of these” in need of compassion and care.
Wendell Scanterbury is director of pastoral care for Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia.
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