A Wisconsin oncologist has found that in his profession, life and faith intersect on a daily basis in the cancer patients he treats at St. Vincent Hospital. He notes that many people facing cancer often turn to their faith to help them through.
"It's sometimes good to feel good about your faith and where you are, but cancer is just gross reality," oncologist Dr. Greg Cooley said. "It brings your faith down to this dirty, meaty, tough, tough position where you grasp reality.
"I suspect," he continued "in times before hospitalization and antibiotics and significant prolongation of life through things as simple as antibiotics, people paid more attention to things like that because death wasn't hidden away in rooms like it is now. Maybe that's some of what cancer does is bring together some of that harsh reality. It's certainly more of an opportunity for growth when you have to put your faith together with what's happening. It's not separating Sunday from the rest of the week."
"Sometimes people bring things like that up, or they don't understand why ‘God did this to me.' Sometimes those opportunities for sharing or for prayer are greatly rewarding. It's what we're called to do," Dr. Cooley said. "I find a great sense of peace in it."
Dr. Cooley was born in Milwaukee and graduated from Marquette High School. He attended UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee and the Medical College of Milwaukee, where he did his residency.
He became interested in radiation oncology during his second year of medical school.
At the time, the Medical College had a stronger radiation oncology program than UW-Madison, he said. "It had a very international flavor. They really trained us to be independent thinkers, to back up what we did based on research, no matter where it came from. We didn't learn cookbook type oncology. They had a lot of connections with some of the grandfathers of radiation, with some folks from France and other places."
At the start of a class, which he almost skipped that day, he learned that the American Cancer Society was sponsoring a summer externship in a radiation oncology clinic.
He applied and "fell in love with it. I loved the fact that you're taking care of a whole human. You weren't just dealing with a person's problems in just one part of the body," he said. "They're typically pretty acute ones, not longstanding ones. For my personality, I like that type of thing."
Dr. Cooley, who is a member of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish, Green Bay, and the diocesan Board of Education, also liked the spiritual connection.
"When you think about why we're here and the opportunity to be involved in people's lives in such a dramatic fashion, where you're literally facing life and death issues, that just had a much deeper dimension for me and I felt really honored to have that," Dr. Cooley said.
"One of the things I like in working with cancer patients is that they come to you with a different perspective," Dr. Cooley said. "You can work in an emergency room where the guy is in for his fifth drug abuse problem or other traumatic illnesses. People that come in with cancer - because they are facing life and death issues - a lot of the stuff that we think is important is stripped away, things we find out that it are really pretty silly," he said.
"From a physician's perspective it allows you to interact with people in a much more personal and close way where they have to have a sense of trust in you and you have to give them everything you've got. That's very rewarding too. There aren't any pretenses," he said. "You're there to help them and they're there trusting you."
Such involvement can take an emotional toll, Dr. Cooley said. That's why it's important to be compassionate and empathize, but not sympathize, with patients. That also allows him to do the best job possible in much the way a pilot does, he said.
Beyond the sorrows are the joys, including relationships with patients, giving a patient a clean bill of health at a five-year check-up and the interactions with staff and patients, he said.
He said he finds it gratifying that while about half his patients can be cured, he can improve the quality of life for the others by lessening their pain or solving an immediate problem.
Beyond that, he likes working with surgeons and medical oncologists in a field teeming with new discoveries, such as non-chemo drugs and various technologies, and learning the best ways to make it all work together.
For example, he said, they have learned that chemotherapy makes inoperable head-neck tumors more susceptible to radiation. Recent technological developments provide both pin-point delivery of higher doses of radiation to affected regions and scans that show how well the treatment is working.
"One of the biggest satisfactions in a doctor's life is when he has the bells and whistles to do the job that he knows is possible," he said. "I've seen over the last years dramatic drops in both the side-effects that people get under treatment and then the long-term effects that come with the potential of problems down the road."
"There's also a great sense of reward when the occasional patient, who has a tremendous faith, sets me in awe of them in how they handled their terminal illness down to their very last days," he said. "If we all had that kind of faith I think that life would be so much different."
Printed with permission from The Compass, newspaper for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin.