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    When Sickness Strikes

    Almost nothing can strengthen or stretch the bonds of a family like a serious illness. Percy McCray knows that well from having counseled thousands of patients and their loved ones over the past near-30 years as a pastoral caregiver with City of Hope, one of the country’s leading cancer research and treatment organizations.

    A life-threatening diagnosis can start a chain reaction of effects beyond the physical issue, he notes—depression, financial fears and relationship strains. If a father who is the main breadwinner falls sick, there are concerns about money. If it’s the mom, who may be the center of the family, who is unwell, the sense of security in the home may be threatened. Such pressures only worsen the situation, because they can compromise a patient’s ability “to stay engaged and focused on the fight that is in front of them,” McCray notes.

    Faced with a major health battle, families may go into “a state of chaos,” says the ordained minister, and “in some cases a complete collapse.” However, families that rally together have a major role to play in helping someone fight sickness in a way that takes into account their whole life—their emotional and spiritual well-being, in addition to their physical issues.

    And, without minimizing the difficulty of facing severe illness, he says, some people come through grateful for what they experienced because of the way it impacted them and others. “I’ve seen men become more committed husbands and fathers as a result of a cancer diagnosis,” McCray says. “There are potentially good things that can come…. that people value later on and say, ‘Had it not been for my cancer experience, I would not have gotten to this point.’”

    Driving the bus

    Sickness can present some unique challenges in the Black community, McCray observes, because “hardship and difficulty and tough times are part of the mantra… of being Black in America.” There is “a type of PTSD, of negative dynamics of struggle, that is just generational for Black people.

    Oftentimes, then, they can be quick to dismiss tough situations as just something to be accepted. Or they may be silent about illness (“Many people in Black families don’t even know their family history with regard to sickness and disease because it was just kind of shoved off to the side”) or deal with it by self-medicating in some way.

    Open communication is an essential first step, McCray says, but that requires some wisdom. Not everyone in a family is equipped to handle all the details of a diagnosis, he notes, and people can react strongly to bad news (he recalls being punched out cold by a grieving relative, one time). He recommends different circles and levels of disclosure and discussion.

    Anyone dealing with severe sickness or disease first of all needs someone simply to listen to them.

    PERCY MCCRAY

    “Anyone dealing with severe sickness or disease first of all needs someone simply to listen to them,” he says. “They need to be heard. Give them room to unpack what they are thinking and feeling.”

    Supportive families have an important role to play in providing the grounded care and support that can see patients beat serious sickness. For some, the word “cancer” seems like a death sentence, McCray acknowledges, but it does not need to be, especially with the medical and technological advances that are being made.

    Research points to what he calls complementary and integrative holistic support resulting in better health outcomes. Part of the reason for that is patients are more hopeful and more inclined to follow through on their medical treatment plan. Being encouraged to have an active part in their care through, for example, changing their diet or focusing on their emotional well-being offers “agency,” McCray says—treatment is not just something that is done to them but something they have a role in. “They need to believe they can be part of the process, like they are driving their bus.”

    Now national director of specialized outreach for City of Hope—one of only 50 or so National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the U.S.—McCray (who hosts the podcast Health, Hope & Inspiration) has helped several thousand churches here and abroad establish cancer care programs in response to a clear need. Because while faith communities can be a great source of support, he says, the opposite can be true also: sometimes people who are sick may be made to feel that they just don’t have enough faith to get well or that they must have done something wrong to be stricken.

    Beating the bully

    As a young man, McCray spent a few years selling cars before following a call into the ministry that first introduced him to the work of nonprofit Cancer Treatment Centers of America, as City of Hope was formerly known. He pastored a church for a while before going full-time into cancer care.

    Raised as a church-going kid on Chicago’s South Side, McCray endured some bullying until “I simply got tired of being pushed around… and when I said, ‘I’m not tolerating this,’ by and large they moved on to someone else.” That experience inspires his pastoral care, he says: “Cancer is no longer the death sentence that it was 20 or 30 years ago, and if people are empowered and equipped and supported, they have a very good opportunity to win and push back against the dreaded bully of cancer and live to tell their story.”

    McCray swapped roles from pastor to patient in 2019 when he was diagnosed with early-stage colon cancer. All that prior time working at City of Hope provided him with “a dress rehearsal” for his own cancer journey, he says. “Instead of asking, ‘Why me?’ what bubbled up was, ‘Why not me? Who’s more prepared than a guy that’s been doing this for 20-plus years?’”

    McCray underwent surgery to remove a third of his colon and a golf ball-sized tumor but did not need chemotherapy or radiation. He also made some lifestyle adjustments—losing some weight and changing his diet—and today reports no evidence of cancer.

    Even when a family comes through a major illness successfully, they need to be aware that serious sickness changes someone, he notes. “You cannot be a cancer patient and walk away thinking the way that you thought previously,” he says. “It changes your priorities… People who do not have cancer think that they’re going to live forever. They never think about death or dying. There’s no reason. Cancer patients think about it every day… they are always living with the reality of their mortality.”

    PERCY MCCRAY: MY WAYMAKERS

    The two people, I call them impact players, are my mom and my dad. My mom is the godliest woman I’ve ever known, who was committed to the idea that “I will not allow you to fail as a human being; I will do everything within my power to make sure that you will have the tools and the resources to be all that God has called you to be.” She was a pretty tough taskmaster…

    My dad was a bit of a quiet partner to my mom. He had a strong personality; he was a man’s man… in lockstep with my mom’s commitment to creating a standard and saying it would be upheld and kept. I was able to see modeled before me what it meant to be someone who came home every day, someone who took care of his family, and someone who loved and cared for his wife and who was basically a protector and a provider to the best of his ability. My dad established some key standards from a male role model perspective that I don’t think that I could have gotten from anyone else, that still establish who I am to this very day.

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