Fighting fear with faith

By RaeAnn Slaybaugh

To understand the effectiveness of “Our Journey of Hope” — a new cancer care ministry program and curriculum offered by Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) — you first need to understand the one-of-a-kind culture inside a CTCA facility.

It’s an “immersion experience” in positive, peaceful vibes. Starting in the lobby, you encounter smiling faces, heartfelt hellos and, most notably, an air of undeniable tranquility.

That’s not at all what you’d expect, considering the majority of CTCA patients have late-stage or difficult-to-treat forms of cancer.

Most have been given no hope of survival by the doctors who diagnosed them.

However, the peaceful paradigm of a CTCA facility is fueled by a priceless commodity: hope. That hope is driven by CTCA’s distinct, triage-style model of patient care.

CTCA-facilityAs soon as a patient arrives at a CTCA facility, a three- to five day process of meetings begins — not just with oncologists, but with nutritionists, acupuncturists, naturopathic physicians, patient advocates and chaplains. Tests are redone, and a comprehensive care plan is formulated by day 3 or 4. At that point, the patient has the option of being treated at CTCA, or opting out.

This “all hands on deck” approach — which cares for the body and the spirit — lays the foundation for the trademark peacefulness that permeates CTCA facilities. Visiting one, it’s clear: Patients know they’re receiving the utmost level of care.

In turn, patients are hopeful — and they have reason to be. Survival rates for CTCA-treated patients are markedly higher, across the board, than other treatment options.

Equipping pastors with information
Now, CTCA is taking key elements of its cancer care model and building a training program and curriculum for equip church leaders across the nation: Our Journey of Hope, or OJOH. The goal is to equip these pastors to minister effectively to their members with cancer.

By participating in all-day seminars at one of five CTCA facilities across the U.S. (Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix and Tulsa), pastors gain proven and practical ministry takeaways that reflect the best elements of several programs — not only from CTCA’s care model, but also from Stephen’s Ministries, “Celebrate Recovery,” and even Financial Peace University. The program is underwritten by CTCA, so the cost to participants is minimal.

Every CTCA facility has a dedicated pastoral care team leading OJOH’s implementation. At the CTCA facility in Phoenix, this honor belongs to Manager of Pastoral Care Suzanne Leahy. Beginning this month, she’ll have the support of two full-time CTCA chaplains in getting OJOH off the ground.

By design, OJOH training is practical, but intense. “Often, pastors don’t know what to say to members battling cancer,” Leahy asserts. “So, they say nothing.”

Rev. Michael Barry has been instrumental in crafting the OJOH curriculum and cancer ministry model. He joined the CTCA staff eight years ago, having spent 18 years in parish ministry. Although he says OJOH is still in the “mapping out” phase, Barry has spent several years developing cancer-care ministries in churches around the nation. To date, he’s implemented such programs in about 70 different churches, on CTCA’s behalf.

When the Church Executive team visited the Phoenix location recently, it received four hours of the eight-hour OJOH curriculum. A key component of the ministry model’s success is fostering hope where hope is due. To this end, pastors are made privy to several critical premises.

1) Statistics aren’t Gospel. Conveying the reality of cancer statistics is critical, according to Barry. To illustrate this point, he uses the “science of evil” paradigm — developed by Simon Baron Cohen, a noted UK-based professor of psychiatry and psychology — as a jumping-off point.

“The premise is that evil is the opposite of empathy,” Barry explains, citing Nazi Germany as an example. “The German people were reduced, over a period of time, to having no empathy at all. Essentially, they were ‘demonized.’”

“CTCA’s success rate is based on decency and love for their patients,” he says. “In this place, we push back from the negatives of the world all the time. Empathy is both listening and responding; that second part is critical, because patients are already getting the ‘Poor you!’ — the listening part — from the rest of the world.”

Barry contends that late-stage cancer patients are often reduced to a number. “From a Christian standpoint, that’s essentially the same as being demonized.”

Although most CTCA patients have been told there’s no hope, Barry says that’s often not the case at all. For instance, one patient — a school teacher in Minneapolis — had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer when he came to CTCA. This form of cancer is notoriously difficult to treat. His diagnosing doctor gave him a three-month prognosis.

“That was seven years ago, and he was still coming to CTCA for treatment as of two and a half years ago,” Barry says. “The last time I talked to him, he’d just returned from traveling. The difference in care models — if it’s your life — is huge. It’s important that that life is lived well.”

Circling back to statistics, Barry emphasizes that information isn’t condemnation. “Statistics are numbers with no context, and they’re designed to identify the median average,” he points out. Noting that very situation is unique, Barry adds that modern medicine has also advanced in the fight against the disease. “Every form of cancer, even at the latest stage, has been survived to the point of 100-percent cure,” he says.

Clarity — not confusion — is the goal, Barry continues. “Statistics are based on huge groups of people and should never be applied to an individual.”

Additionally, Barry points out that cancer statistics change based on new treatment options. SEER cancer statistics, for example (which are updated annually by the National Cancer Institute), don’t factor this in. That’s a big hurdle for a cancer patient to overcome, because SEER is an extremely well-regarded data pool among health professionals.

Equally problematic, SEER data is often encountered by cancer patients conducting their own Internet research following a diagnosis. Naturally, its conclusions have the potential to be hugely (and, often, unnecessarily) discouraging.

“The problem with [SEER statistics] is that they don’t factor in whether or not a patient even opted to get treatment,” Barry explains. “They also don’t factor in age, and so on. All that SEER gauges is date of diagnosis and date of death.”

To offer a more balanced — and hopeful — perspective, offers CTA-specific cancer data. In simple charts and diagrams, these statistics paralleled with SEER statistics.

Above all, nurture the will to live. According to Barry, fostering the will to live involves three critical components.

The first is healing old wounds. “For example, a statement like, ‘I should’ve gotten that colonoscopy’ doesn’t help nurture the will to live,” he explains. “Fixing a broken leg isn’t the same as asking, ‘Why did you jump off that roof?’”

The second component is peace and calm. CTCA uses Heart Math, a process that takes patients from a state of anxiety to a state of peace through meditation and prayer. “It helps to develop a sanguine personality,” Barry says. “It takes effort to be happy and joyful. It takes no effort to be unhappy.”

Third, Barry endorses the ministry power of a forgiveness program. “It increases patients’ levels of hopefulness, but without instilling false hope,” he points out. “God is the source of hope — not doctors or technology.”

“CTCA is at the spear tip of integrating science and faith,” he adds. “The challenge is to identify and remove the barriers to having hope in God — namely, fear and what the doctors have told cancer patients.”

Barry also emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between irrational fears and those that warrant OJOH ministry. “We can’t help a patient if they’re afraid of losing their hair, because they likely will,” he explains. “But, if irrational fears are present, then those need to be tackled. Hope is introduced, and they begin fighting fear with faith.”

The value of kindred spirits
Even if church members with cancer receive the best ministry available, CTCA’s Leahy and Barry agree that hope can only grow when they know they aren’t alone in their struggles. At CTCA facilities, breakfasts which introduce current patients to new ones are instrumental in building fellowship. “Definite ministry moments happen there,” Leahy shares.

Of course, pastors and caregivers are another major source of support for cancer patients. Barry likens CTCA’s treatment of — and OJOH’s ministry to — cancer patients to a Sherpa Buddhism.

“In the Buddhist religion, God is in the mountaintop. So, a Sherpa is willing to carry up to 100 pounds of his follower’s stuff to get there,” he explains. “Cancer patients are challenged, but the air they breathe in is hope. They have to get above the tree line to find it. Ultimately, success depends on their willingness to put one foot in front of the other, because avalanches do happen. Caregiving is very important in this respect.

“The giving-up chapter isn’t part of this program,” he adds. “Our goal continues to be making it up the mountain.”


In the trenches

So, what’s the “Our Journey of Hope” cancer care ministry experience like for a church leader? To find out, CE interviewed two graduates of the program: Sheila Coverson of First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Woodbridge, VA, and Cate Brewster of Bethel Lutheran Church LCMC in Colorado Springs, CO.

Coverson is chairperson of her church’s community-based spiritual cancer support ministry. “It started within the church, as we had quite a few members with cancer, and expanded locally — even regionally — as some of our ministry members shared their experiences with outside people,” she recalls.

Brewster joined her church 13 years ago and has been a Stephen Ministry leader ever since. Today, the church’s cancer care ministry encompasses seven churches from differing denominations. She attended OJOH training in 2009, along with about 100 other people
within her community and lay ministry.

Brewster has a long history of working with cancer patients in a Catholic hospital, so she was very aware of the importance of spirituality in the efficacy of treatment even before receiving OJOH training. At her church, members with cancer receive a Stephen Ministry lay ministry program. They meet one-on-one in church and in the community once a week.

“Our job is to listen, not to counsel,” she says.

How did the opportunity to attend CTCA’s lay ministry training present itself?

Coverson: I had an interest in cancer care already; I wrote a research paper on it when pursuing my bachelor’s degree. I came across the CTCA model of whole-person care, liked it, and talked about it when we started the [cancer care] ministry. Obviously, we needed training, so it seemed like a great fit.

Brewster: Our church got a letter asking us to host the [OJOH] training. Most of the Stephen Ministry members got involved. We believed we should learn this. We also opened up the training to other churches, and about 100 people showed up.

Before attending the lay ministry training program at CTCA, was pastoral counsel available at First Mount Zion Baptist Church to members with cancer?

Coverson: It didn’t exist before. Our pastor, Luke E. Torian, wanted to do cancer care ministry the right way, which began with getting the appropriate training. From there, we developed the mission and vision statement for the ministry, incorporating a lot of what we learned through OJOH training.

Brewster: [Our cancer care ministry] began through a Stephen Ministry program. But, we realized we needed to look more into caring for the families. We appreciated the resources the seminar provided to that effect — plus, the constantly changing information
on treatment.

What were the key takeaways you gained?

Coverson: We wanted to launch a good, organized ministry. Using CTCA’s tools, we’re able to minimize some of the pastor’s stress, in addition to helping members and their families.

Our members hate to miss a meeting. We’re a very close-knit group, but with respect for confidentiality.
We have doctors and nurses involved to lend a medical expertise to the ministry, as well — a medical oncologist and an oncology nurse.

Another important element of the ministry is the “buddy program.” New members are paired up with existing ministry members based on their personalities and the type of cancer they have. This is a great model because it enables ministry members to keep me in the loop.

But, we do emphasize the “buddy” aspect among our ministry members. We don’t want them giving advice
about treatments that worked for them, since cancer treatment is such a personalized process.

More than anything, though, the “buddy program” is critical because it’s confidential. So often, our members with cancer don’t tell their families everything.

A few of our ministry members have been treated at CTCA. They really liked the element of being involved in the decision-making surrounding their care. They say they felt like the only patient being treated. Now, the majority of our members end up going to CTCA for treatment.

It’s important to convey the sense that cancer is curable, and it can be treated. It’s critical to catch it in time.

How does the implementation process work, post-training?

Coverson: Rev. Michael Barry and Pastor Torian worked very closely on the ministry’s development. Part of it — a key part — is forgiving and letting go of past challenges. In fact, in September, our church and CTCA will be hosting the Forgiveness Tour and Concert.

We drafted what we learned through CTCA training into the ministry’s mission and vision statement. We aren’t interested in throwing a pity party, so we line up speakers through CTCA; we’ve had a nutritionist come in to talk about the importance of food, for example. So, an informational approach is critical. And, Rev. Barry has spoken about four times — on everything from the role of the caregiver, to the importance of hope, to the power of forgiveness. We try to empower our members with cancer.

Additionally, as a group, we focus on outreach. For their own benefit, it’s critical that our members with cancer think about others, not always about their illness. “Kid Flicks” is one example; our members collect and donate used and new DVDs for pediatric wards in hospitals. Oddly, DVDs are the one thing lots of hospitals don’t have. It’s a good fit, since so many of our members aren’t really ready to go out and, say, build a house.

— RaeAnn Slaybaugh


Leave a Reply

HTML Snippets Powered By :