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My experience of having cancer

Since this issue of FAITH Magazine focuses on Life and Death, the editors suggested that I write to you about my experience of cancer from its beginning in 1994 to remission later that year and from its return in 1999 to the present. The people of the diocese have had a big role in this story, and I am glad to oblige.

Thus far, for me cancer has been in itself painless. Passing blood in Lent of 1994 and losing 14 pounds in a few weeks in Advent of 1999 were signs of cancer, but there was no pain. The suffering was in the cure – radiation therapy and chemotherapy are accompanied by nausea, diarrhea, and perpetual fatigue.

From the beginning there was no questioning, “Why me?” I know that cancer afflicts people everywhere at any time, so the question can also be, “Why not me?” Moreover, as a priest for going on 50 years when I was stricken, I had to be honest and practice what I preached. I can’t tell you how many times in parish ministry I counseled or tried to comfort people and families with words like these: “You say the Lord’s Prayer every day. You say ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Most of the time those words are easy to say, but sometimes you really have to mean it. This is one of those times.”

So that has been the addendum I put on all my prayers for healing before saying Amen – “Father, Thy will be done.” I put that same addendum on your prayers, when I was getting literally bushels of mail telling me you were praying for me at home and also publicly on Sundays at Mass. I prayed every day along these lines: “Father, bless all those who are praying for my recovery. Listen to their petitions, but may your will be done.”

Your cards and letters kept my spirits up, and I was especially encouraged by some thirty cancer survivors who wrote to me. “Hang in there, Bishop,” they typically wrote. “I had what you got eight (or 10, or 12) years ago, and I’m still around. Don’t give up. We’re pulling for you.” A positive attitude, the doctors kept telling me, is all-important in fighting cancer; and in the Communion of Saints you all helped me have it.

It is amazing how a deadly disease raises the intensity level of one’s prayer life. I could write a couple pages on that alone, but I will give just two examples from the liturgy of the Mass. In the altar book there is a prayer for the celebrant to say privately before he takes Holy Communion and another to say quietly while the chalice is being cleansed afterwards. For 50 years I have recited these prayers almost without thinking. They mean much more to me now.

Before Communion: “Lord Jesus Christ, with faith in your love and mercy I eat your Body and drink your Blood. Let it not bring me condemnation, but rather health in mind and body.” After Communion: “Lord may I receive these gifts in purity of heart. May they bring me healing and strength, now and forever.” These two short prayers seem ready-made for my condition, and they sustain me daily.

These are the ways I have been fighting cancer with faith. Maybe, by reading this, others may be able to fight sickness with FAITH (magazine).