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231 || Redeeming Cancer: How A Pastor’s Diagnosis Became An Opportunity

Talking about faith is not foreign to Pastor Phil Olson.

After he returned from Vietnam in 1972, Pastor Olson began working as a chaplain’s assistant at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, and the time spent in Vietnam prepared him to personally connect and minister to his peers on base. He then went to Princeton Theological Seminary and ministered in Spokane, Washington. He eventually landed in the greater Philadelphia area, where he has led congregations for the past 28 years.

In October 2005, things changed for Pastor Olson when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “As a Christian and spiritual leader, prayer was not new to me,” said Pastor Olson. “But, I admit, my prayers ramped up in intensity after my diagnosis and during my treatment.”

Before and after Pastor Olson’s official cancer diagnosis, he sent out emails to friends and church families he has pastored throughout his career. He humbly asked, “Please pray for me as I prayed for you.” As a result, Pastor Olson’s plea for prayers ended up on an international prayer chain.

Cancer Treatment Leads to Sharing the Good News

According to Pastor Olson, it is the prayers offered up on his behalf that led him to Cancer Treatment Centers of America. On his initial email prayer chain was a professor from Princeton Seminary. That same professor happened to be having dinner with another former student, who would be leading the pastoral care team at the new Cancer Treatment Centers of America medical center in Philadelphia, when he learned of Phil’s diagnosis. The professor connected the two. To this Pastor Olson said, “Is that a God thing or what?”

Before Cancer Treatment Centers of America even opened, Pastor Olson donned a hard hat as he was taken on a tour of the facility and met the CEO and some of the physicians one month before its opening. “I say I am the first patient ever at CTCA in Philly, since I had a consultation in a hard hat and the naturopath had to find chairs and dust them off for us to sit down and talk.”

Pastor Olson knew he was in the right place because the people at Cancer Treatment Centers of America were there to help him spiritually and offered integrative support that would help in his cancer journey.

“I was in a unique position as the hospital’s first patient to give my testimony, which is a story of faith and hope in the Lord, with all the media present at Philadelphia’s Cancer Treatment Centers of America grand opening celebration,” said Pastor Olson. “The media was there to cover the innovative clinical therapies and state-of the art equipment now available to area cancer patients, but, on top of it all, I saw this as an opportunity to spread the Good News.”

At Phil’s five year cancer survivor celebration at the hospital, a brass leaf was placed on the survivor tree with his name on it. Again, Phil was able share his story. And when Phil retired from pastoring his local congregation in July 2013, he was able to stand witness to the hope that God has given him through his ministry and the path he has traveled through cancer treatment.

“I feel like I have been given a unique voice as a cancer survivor and I have been blessed by these opportunities to speak so openly about my faith to the general public,” said Pastor Olson. “How often do you get to share your testimony on a broad scale?”

Cancer Survival Leads to a New Mission Field

Pastor Olson’s story does not end with him speaking out as a cancer survivor and sharing the hope he receives through Jesus. After his treatments, Phil began working at Cancer Treatment Centers of America one day a week. The following year, he worked two days a week. After his July 2013 retirement from his church role, Phil began working as a full-time chaplain at the hospital.

“CTCA is unlike any other hospital,” said Pastor Olson. “As chaplains at CTCA, we are not just putting an arm around someone, saying a prayer and sharing a verse; we are creating a relationship. Cancer patients are in the hospital for a few days at a time so we can develop a bond. Then when they have to come back for checkups, it is like old homecoming week. There is a relationship and love that is shared throughout this journey.”

As a cancer survivor, Pastor Olson has the same checkups as every patient that comes through the doors of Cancer Treatment Centers of America. “I like to call my patient ID bracelet my designer bracelet that allows me to connect on a deeper level,” said Pastor Olson. “I know a bit of what patients are going through, and I know that hope and strength can be found in Christ.”

Pastor Olson said connecting on the patient level does not make him a better pastor, but it does add uniqueness to his ministry. For example, he was asked by a prostate cancer patient’s wife to meet her husband, who had been newly diagnosed. The usual meeting spots were full, so Pastor Olson met them in a little room off the lobby, near the survivor tree full of brass plates— including Pastor Olson’s own.

“I really felt God’s spirit moving me to take the man who was having a hard time accepting his diagnosis over to the tree, to take his hand and physically place his finger on my name on the tree. I had never done anything like this before,” said Pastor Olson. “I told him there is hope that one day he might be a part of this tree as well. I had the opportunity to share, but that physical action gave him a small measure of hope. Just saying the right words as a chaplain does not always work, and I thank God I was present in that moment.”

Pastor Olson said his ministry is more individually focused since he no longer pastors an organized congregation. “Working in a cancer hospital creates a sense of immediacy. As a minister, I could go months without seeing eyes light up after a Bible story, but here, it is different. There are people who have never heard of God’s love and then at this point in their journey, they connect.”

He continued, “I am not the only one that gets to spread the love of God. Patients see my designer bracelet on days I have tests, and they will stop and ask to pray with me. We get in a holy huddle and pray over each other. It is amazing how there is never a day where someone does not lift me up.”

Our Journey of Hope – A Cancer Care Ministry

As part of the Pastoral Care Team at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Pastor Olson is able to impact those battling cancer, and their families, across the country with a Cancer Care Ministry Leadership Training called Our Journey of Hope. The ministry empowers pastors to start their own cancer care ministries in their congregations.

“We provide them with the tools, training and curriculum they need to minister to those in the midst of the cancer battle,” said Pastor Olson. “Every church is impacted by cancer, but so few in ministry have training specific to the needs of cancer patients and their caregivers. I am proud to be part of an organization that supports the whole person—mind, body and spirit—and supports local churches interested in developing their ministry this way.”

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