Trees, Doves and Cancer

A five-year survival celebration

A Japanese cherry tree has been planted in my name.

My tree is near the Ferko Recreation Center on East Cayuga Street, a neighborhood facility in northeastern Philadelphia, part of the rejuvenated Juniata Golf Course (a city-owned course that is one of 63 parks in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System). A grove of trees has been planted in honor of those who in 2008 reached a five-year anniversary of surviving after cancer treatment.

I am among those survivors, having been treated for prostate cancer in 2003 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at Southwestern Regional Medical Center, one of five hospitals and clinics operated nationally by the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA). CTCA hospitals operate in Philadelphia, Pa.; Tulsa, Okla.; Zion, Ill.; Seattle, Wash.; and a new medical center set to open in 2009 in Goodyear, Ariz., just outside Phoenix.

When CTCA opened a new Eastern Regional Medical Center in 2005 in Philadelphia—across the street from the backside of the Juniata Golf Club—I decided driving to the city of brotherly love was much easier than flying to Tulsa for my annual checkups. Thus, I became a patient at the Philly facility.

All of the CTCA facilities celebrate life by planting trees for five-year survivors; it is a hopeful tradition. “We want to plant a forest,” the CTCA literature proclaims. CTCA’s original facility in Illinois planted 105 trees in 2008. The two-year old Philadelphia hospital planted six.

Last month, the CTCA in Philadelphia invited the five-year survivors back for a two-day “Celebration of Life.” The hospital’s main parking lot was transformed by two huge tents into a dining hall and an assembly hall. Movie star Richard Roundtree, the original “Shaft” of the silver screen, himself a survivor of breast cancer, was the keynote speaker, but the real “stars” of the festival were the five-year survivors.

We were treated as celebrities. Although not all of us attended the full-blown program, we were interviewed and video-taped, feted by every speechmaker, seated for meals with the “suits” who administer and run CTCA’s multimillion dollar operations, and congratulated by every hospital staff member from the chiefs of surgery and radiology to the porters of maintenance and the drivers of CTCA’s characteristic white buses and limos.

I frequently found myself responding to a congratulatory greeting by thinking, “What did I do?” It was as if the entire enterprise of CTCA was celebrating my birthday; and, in a way, I suppose that’s true.

My cancer treatment turned out to be a case of bombarding my prostate gland with external radiation beams, a non-invasive and almost pedestrian procedure—if any treatment for cancer can be considered pedestrian (think of trying to steadily hold a laser pointer on a postage stamp from about ten-feet away). In 2003, I spent a month at the facility in Tulsa receiving daily radiation. The treatment itself took about one hour each weekday. The rest of my time there was like being on vacation, or perhaps more like being on a cruise ship. My then 11-year-old youngest son spent a week in Tulsa with me, watching me undergo treatment via closed-circuit TV and learning to play BINGO at night with the other patients. He won an umbrella and a pair of kitchen scissors that we still use.

When I was undergoing treatment, the Southwestern Medical Center in Tulsa occupied several floors of the 20-, 30-, and 60-storey CityPlex towers that were built as the “City of Faith” by the television evangelist and faith-healer Oral Roberts. Financial considerations forced Roberts to lease the tower complex, but there remained an aura of holiness Christianity hovering over the place (as there is in much of southeastern Tulsa around Oral Roberts University).

Because of its innovative treatment approaches to cancer and its temporary location (Southwestern four years ago moved into a new facility of its own several miles to the east), I think CTCA in Tulsa had to deal with a wrong-headed image of “religious quirkiness” that some attached to its locale and its practice. The only truth in that image is that faith is not discounted or discouraged at CTCA, and chaplains are incorporated as professionals in the total comprehensive treatment plan. The only active association I learned of between CTCA and Oral Roberts University was that two of its chaplains held degrees from that school.

One woman who shared the celebratory spotlight in Philadelphia with me has become something of a willing and enthusiastic spokesperson for CTCA and a force for the medical and psychological fight against cancer.

Jan Pedersen is a survivor of ovarian cancer. She had been through surgery and had been advised that chemotherapy was her only hope or she would be dead in six months. Her oncologist, in Jan’s words, “scoffed” at her questions about diet, nutrition and supplements as a treatment program. That’s when Jan discovered CTCA and learned about what she calls “a team of professionals who cover every aspect of body, mind and spirit. They treat the whole person, and this was what I was looking for . . . a team of doctors who would work with me to decide the best course of action to fight this disease.”

Treating the body, mind, and spirit is a hallmark of CTCA, and among the many options for treatment that my wife and I investigated when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, it was by far the only option that integrated holistic medicine, psychological hope, state-of-the-art technology and the mystery of the healing spirit.

In Tulsa, I learned a great deal about nutrition and naturopathic medicine; one naturopathic physician planted a watchword in my brain: “take daily probiotics and drink lots of water!” I was ministered to daily by chaplains who understood that my spirit had cancer too. I ate meals with patients from all over the United States—and some from beyond. Many of them had been dismissed or rejected by other cancer treatment facilities, having been told in effect to “go home and prepare to die.” Not all of them, of course, lived to have a tree planted in their names, but I believe most found a modicum of hope and peace being among professionals who wholeheartedly joined their struggle to live.

When it comes to surgery, I rank among the top of the world’s wusses, and when my urologist, who biopsied my prostate, was ready to put me on the operating table the next day, I balked. Several discussions later, that urologist asked me as I spoke of pondering radiation treatment if I were willing to put “an atom bomb” in my body.

I have a close friend who is a top-notch radiology researcher, and I’d been talking to him about radiation therapy and the advances in that field in the 21st century. The urologist’s attempt at drama became for me a sign of misinformation. After a visit to Tulsa and consultations with the specialists there, the treatment choice for me was clear.

Five years later, I am celebrating that decision, which is not to say that surgery wouldn’t have kept me alive, but I’m quite certain the quality of my life would not have been what it has been for the past five years.

Jan Pedersen and I got to stand near the cherry trees planted in our names and then we opened a small cage and released seven white doves into the sky. The woman who had delivered the birds for the ceremony came from Bethlehem, Pa.–about a 90-minute drive away. She said the white messengers would be home before she. “They can fly about 80 miles an hour with the right wind conditions,” she told us.

The cherry tree and the white dove have become for me symbols of hope and freedom and my celebration of life as a cancer survivor.

My faith in God has been strengthened in my five-year odyssey, not because I’m convinced that God has something to do with my survival (which I am), but because I made the trip with fellow sufferers and cancer treatment experts who in their pursuit of knowledge and tools to combat this killer disease humbly acknowledge that medicine alone does not heal, no more than it causes a tree to grow or a dove to wing its way home.


Thanks to Natalie Bounds-Adams, the alumni director at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, for correcting my error in suggesting that the CitiPlex Towers had ever been sold. The towers are still owned by the university. My editing of the essay reflects her correction. (ARA–July 25, 2008)

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