Cancer in the Field Hospital


Our Church, the field hospital of sinners, has cancer.

In case there’s anyone who I haven’t told yet, I know a little something about cancer. In 2017, I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive soft tissue cancer called synovial sarcoma. I endured four cycles of very strong chemotherapy, twenty-five days of radiation, five days in the hospital, a couple blood transfusions and a major surgery to remove an egg-sized tumor from my right hip.  I have been NED (no evidence of disease) since August 25, 2017.

Our Church has a neoplasm not dissimilar to the one that laid me low. A mutated, malicious overgrowth of the very parts and processes that make us tick. It’s slow-growing and sneaky and insidious but also aggressive, threatening to disease entire limbs of the Body of Christ. But what’s worse is that our malignancy is made up of the clergy, the very men who were supposed to be engaged in the healing ministries of Christ. As they run amok, we laypeople, the patients, are left to attempt to heal ourselves.

How do you fight cancer in a field hospital? And how do you do it without the help of a team of trustworthy doctors?

As a Catholic and a cancer patient, I would like to share my own experience:

Unlike the Church, I had the benefit of consulting with a skilled and trustworthy multidisciplinary team of experts: a surgeon, an oncologist, a radiation therapist, and a nurse practitioner. Together, we drew up a plan of treatment that was both targeted and systemic, short-term and long-term. It was solid, decisive and based on the latest scientific knowledge, but it left wiggle room to meet challenges that arose.  In the case of the Church, as an uneducated layperson I don’t presume to know the specific components and details of the therapy that will bring us back from the brink. But I can guess what the big pieces look like:

  1. Radiation and Surgery: targeted, focused neutralization of the mass of threats of which we are currently aware. This is the most straightforward part of cancer treatment. It is not without danger, however, especially if the tumor has wound itself around healthy and vital structures. Delicate planning, discernment and execution are needed to ensure that healthy tissues are not affected, and time and patience are necessary to make sure that we have cut and burned out all the visible rot. What this might look like is the careful identification and decisive removal of all clerics who have participated in egregious abuses of power, whether they are sexual in nature or part of the ensuing cover-up. It might also include punishments, exorcisms and re-dedications of the people and places involved.
  2. Chemotherapy: Systemic treatment is frequently required to ­­go after malignant cells that are not yet visible but might be lurking in a different part of the body. This is a much messier, more painful, sickening process that does mean collateral damage for a lot of healthy cells. But the strong drugs given to the patient will hopefully have the effect of arresting or even stopping the growth of any further cancer. In the Church, this might be akin to an overhaul of the existing power structures which provided cover for abusers. It might also involve a sustained campaign of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, reparation and education.
  3. Palliative care: While we are cutting and dosing and radiating, we cannot forget to give comfort and manage the patient’s pain. It is easy to forget this in our haste to solve the problem, but in truth, the importance of palliative care cannot be overstated. Without it, the patient would not be able to bear the horrific side effects of treatment. I am confident means supporting and believing victims and innocent bystanders, listening to their cries, doing what we can to improve their lives and covering them with our love.
  4. Monitoring: After a patient has no evidence of disease left in his body, ongoing checkups, blood tests and scans continue to be necessary to confirm the cancer has not returned. In my case, these will be lifelong, because synovial sarcoma has a habit of returning with a vengeance even many years later. I suggest the same plan of monitoring for the Church.

What my doctors and I did not do was waste precious time debating what caused the cancer. That’s a valuable pursuit, but it could take decades before researchers agree what causes sarcoma and by what mechanisms. By that time, I would be long gone.  My doctors did not need that knowledge to get started—the evidence is already available through years of trial and error that chemo, radiation and surgery can be life-saving. So they gave me a short period of time to pack up some bags and get my spiritual and family affairs in order, and then we began.

Church, I am begging you. We have had enough time to get our spiritual and family affairs in order. It is past time to begin the hard and painful work. We cannot delay any longer in heated banter and finger-pointing over what caused this crisis. Cancer does not care. While you are looking for the answers, it will kill you all the same. That doesn’t mean that finding the cause is unimportant. God knows how badly we want to know what caused this, how badly I want to know what caused this. Knowing how the abuse crisis started and flourished could give us the key we need to prevent it in the future. But this work cannot be pursued at the exclusion of the parallel work of healing. We cannot let the patient die while promising we can make sure this will never happen again.

How do you fight cancer in a field hospital, when the doctors are suspect and the patient is gravely ill and the bombs just keep falling all around you?

It’s a grim situation. But you gather your best people, you look for the latest reliable information, you ask the patient what she needs, you say a prayer and then you begin the hard and dangerous and painful work. Doing nothing is not an option.

“The physician gave us precepts when we were whole, that we might not need a physician. They that are whole, he says, need not a physician, but they that are sick. When whole we despised these precepts, and by experience have felt how to our own destruction we despised his precepts. Now we are sick, we are in distress, we are on the bed of weakness, yet let us not despair. For because we could not come to the Physician, he has vouchsafed to come to us himself.”-St. Augustine of Hippo


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