When his father was dying of cancer nine years ago, A. Wayland Seaton-Johnson went along with his mother and never talked to him about his disease.
"Finally, when he was close to death, we talked very frankly about his death and his fears," recalled Seaton-Johnson, now a director of the Washington Hospital Center's chaplain program. "I think it really comforted him to talk about it."
Since then, Seaton-Johnson has become convinced that his father, a Baptist minister, might have lived the eight to 10 years his doctor had predicted if he had better counseling. So he developed a cancer education seminar at the hospital to help ministers understand the disease better.
In the year since the cancer program was started, it has taught 50 local ministers about the disease, which will strike an estimated 10,920 more area residents this year. The program, funded by District of Columbia division of the American Cancer Society, was patterned by Seaton-Johnson on a similar program in Wisconsin.
During a four-day training session last week, eight clergymen got a glimpse of what cancer patients experience by observing operations ranging from throat surgery to open heart surgery. They also spent more than 30 hours touring the hospital, listening to a score of medical professionals, talking with cancer patients and learning about community groups that are available to help cancer victims.
The ministers, all of whom said they are trying to counsel cancer patients in their churches, came filled with questions.
"Someone in my congregation is dying of cancer and I've offered my help, but the family turns me away," one paster said. "I'm not sure whether I should accept that or press them to talk about it." Seaton-Johnson advised giving that family the privacy it needs.
Another clergyman told of a parishioner who has only months to live, "but keeps talking about the future . . . Is it my place to talk to his doctor to make sure he understands he's dying?" Another pastor complained that one doctor brushes off a patient's questions on the prognosis of his illness and wondered if he should confront the doctor.
Dr John Lynch, head of oncology, or the treatment of cancer, at the hospital center, said patients responed to treatment better once they are able to communicate freely about their disease and fears with family and friends. Doctors and nurses are usually too busy to spend time with individual patients, he said, and this is where clergymen can help the medical staff.
"I think clergy should be more hardnosed," he said, in demanding information from doctors and nurses.
The Rev. Marian Windel, assistant at St. John's Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase who took the training in February, said it has radically changed the way she relates to the many people with cancer in her parish.
"I had some opinions about cancer that were really off base," Windel said. Now, the word" no longer scares me and I no longer equate cancer with death.
The Rev. Stephen Klingelhofer of the Church of the Epiphany and the Rev. Nell Carlson of the United Church, said it would help them to know how the X-ray equipment is used. "Now I understand what (a woman) is going through when she's placed under that terrifying machine," Carlson said.
I'll feel more confident when my lungcancer patient asks me 'What did you learn, can you help me any?" said Rev. Dr. Edward Briggs, paster of Luther Rice Memorial Baptist Church in Silver Spring, who attended last week's seminar.
Seaton-Johnson kept his students panting most of the time as they sprinted from radiology to the shock-trauma unit to the intensive care section.
As the only full-time chaplain at the hospital, Seaton-Johnson spends his time making regular pastoral calls on some of the 870 patients, waits with some of them while the lab is diagnosing tumors -- a very traumatic time, he said -- trains hospital chaplains and seminarians, runs stress seminars for nurses and counsels them for individual problems.
Seaton-Johnson's goal is to educate all area clergy about cancer. He has mailed out 1,100 invitations so far, but has received only 50 responses.
He will offer more cancer workshops next year and is now planning similar seminars on heart and kidney disease.