Katherine Hedlund and Robin Nichols have much in common. Each knows the agony of cancer, firsthand. Each turned to Jesus for help in the battle for their lives. Yet neither of them received any spiritual support at the medical facilities where they were treated.
Nichols said that if the medical community had encouraged her faith, it would have made "all the difference in the world!" Though she was already rooted in Jesus, she was scared. "I'd never been in this situation before and they [the medical community] were very matter of fact to get things moving!"
Hedlund agreed: "There would have been something tangibly comforting about such spiritual support—even to have someone ask to pray with you." An engulfing sense of God's presence in the process would have made her feel less alone.
According to Rev. Percy McCray, Jr., their experience is typical of the 1.5 million people in the United States who receive a cancer diagnosis each year. But Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) decided to change that. Because so many Christians were coming into their facilities, chaplains began meeting with them from the moment they walk in the door.
"No one had put anything formal in place from a faith-based perspective and that's why we did it," said McCray, now the Director of Pastoral Care and Social Services in Zion, Illinois. "We are here in the pastoral care department to nurture the idea that one's relationship with God is personal, precious, and powerful." They make sure that encouragement continues on "while patients are disconnected from their faith-based community."
Discovering a better way
When McCray was offered a job at CTCA more than 19 years ago, he was concerned that being a hospital chaplain might be boring. "I thought all they do is deal with people who are dying, and I wanted to be a pastor." However with encouragement to develop his own job description, McCray started helping people with cancer believe they could live.
McCray said CTCA gives him the opportunity to interact with a cross-section of people from all over the country, and they become like family. Throughout the network of hospitals, the entire staff practices the "Mother Standard.® The way a person wants his mother (or other loved one) treated is at the heart of CTCA's model of cancer care. This holistic approach incorporates chemotherapy, surgery, immunotherapy, nutrition, mind-body medicine, naturopathy and more including spiritual support.
God's healing power was one family's only hope when doctors realized there was nothing more they could do. McCray said he'd never forget the day Gloria Bailey fell into a coma. Deeply concerned about this beloved grandmother's mental, emotional, and physical challenges—McCray joined her husband and sister at Bailey's bedside.
They laid hands on her and prayed, asking God to touch her body. "Three minutes later Gloria popped her eyes open!" exclaimed McCray. "As of today, Gloria Bailey is a 13-year survivor."
Beyond the hospital walls
About a decade ago, another memorable patient asked McCray to come speak with their local ministerial alliance. From there he began holding informal town meetings supplying pastors with information about cancer and educating them on how to talk to cancer patients. Recognizing the need for a more structured approach, McCray said he went to the administrators at CTCA and asked them to sponsor a biblically-based, comprehensive cancer care ministry-training program. Our Journey of Hope (OJOH) received approval. Through this educational outreach CTCA began equipping pastors and church leaders to effectively minister to those impacted by the disease. Resources were developed including a comprehensive small group curriculum designed to help believers learn how to extend God's hope through prayer, visits, counsel, and assistance.
This past year OJOH became even more strategic about supporting the local church in its efforts to minister to cancer patients and their loved ones. In November 2013, they held their first leadership training at the CTCA Southwestern Regional Medical Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Since then additional trainings in various locations have brought together pastors and church leaders from around the country. Rev. Michael Langham, Pastoral Care Director at the Tulsa facility said that each individual attending "this Cancer Care Leadership Training represents the potential to minister to thousands who have been impacted by cancer."
Because CTCA sponsors this nationwide ministry, pastors and other Christian leaders only need to make their way to a location where the two half-day sessions are being held, said McCray. Every other expense is covered including all of the resources. "We put those into their hands, then send them home commissioning them to go back to their churches to start their ministries." An online forum and ongoing access to CTCA chaplains willing to answer questions provide additional support.
The local church can make a tremendous difference for those impacted by cancer. Hedlund said that anyone who has been touched by the disease would jump at the chance for the kind of training offered by OJOH. People want to help but they don't necessarily know how. "No one can do cancer for you. You're the only one who can do it, but people can do it with you." Through OJOH, they can learn to do it effectively. And then, when former patients like Nichols and Hedlund finish treatment and are pronounced cancer-free, everyone involved can rejoice.