Part 1: Bishop Wolf has breast cancer; Episcopal prelate says her chances for full recovery are excellent
June 17, 1996
Rhode Island's new Episcopal Bishop, Geralyn Wolf, has breast cancer.
Her right breast and several lymph nodes will be removed on July 3, and she will undergo reconstructive surgery.
The cancer is in its earliest stages, the bishop said, and has not spread to other areas of her body. Her doctor, Helena Chang at Women & Infants Hospital, has told her the chances for a full recovery are excellent.
Chang could not be reached yesterday for comment.
Wolf, 49, found the lump - just six-tenths of a centimeter, smaller than a pea - in April during a self-exam. She immediately sought medical attention but confided her condition to only a few friends and associates, waiting until now to let the whole diocese know.
On Friday, she mailed a letter to the state's Episcopal churches:
"Dear friends in Christ," she wrote, "the past four months have been amongst the happiest of my ministry, which makes it all the more difficult to tell you that on Wednesday, June 5, results of a biopsy revealed that I have a malignant lump in my right breast. . . .
"I waited until now to share this with you because I needed to integrate the many emotions which I have experienced. I have found an inner peace and resolve during this time of prayer and preparation."
She promised "written updates" of her condition and closed the letter by requesting prayers "for our diocese, for my healing and for many healthy years ahead."
As for the running of the diocese, she said in an interview that she will not be entirely out of touch with things.
The letter was read from some pulpits yesterday, though one congregation - St. Michael's in Bristol - heard the news from the bishop herself.
Wolf, visiting there for the first time yesterday, led the service, during which she confirmed, baptized and renewed the marriage vows of a number of people. Then, after communion, she stepped down from the altar to share the "sad news and good news" about the malignant tumor.
"What I need from you is your prayers, your thoughts," she said. "What I don't need from you is for you to tell me every prognosis your cousin or aunt had" and how it all went. "I've already received that from members of my family," she said to chuckles.
Wolf, who has quickly gained a reputation for such straight talk, is being frank about her cancer, she said, because the church community benefits when members "trust one one another with some of the more difficult things."
"I've tried to do that in my life," she said, "and I hope you will try to do that in yours."
Then she urged the congregation to join her in "a great closing hymn" and to "leave the place rejoicing."
The hymn, "Come, Labor On," is about working hard and carrying on through the rough spots: "Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear] No arms so weak but may do service here."
At a reception afterward in the parish hall, church members said they will pray for the bishop's full recovery, and that they were impressed by her handling of a tough situation.
"It was a shock, but she has such a positive attitude that we're very encouraged," said Marie Tucker, 70, of Bristol, "and I think she's given us, with little aches and pains, something to keep quiet about."
Margaret Daniel, 16, whose father, the Rev. Canon Clifton Daniel III, is the rector, said the news is "tragic," but that "a lot of good may come from it: We will see her strength through this, and we will also come together to support her as a community."
In a long interview Saturday night, the bishop described the physical, emotional and philosophical road she has traveled since April. "Gratitude, that's what I feel," she said. "Full of gratitude - for the people of this diocese, and for my doctor. Gratitude to myself for having found" the lump.
She encouraged all women to regularly examine their breasts.
Wolf, who believes her paternal grandmother may have had breast cancer, has long performed breast self-exams, not only because she believes in them, but because her breasts are "fibrocystic," or denser than normal, which means lumps aren't as easily detected by mammography.
"I found what I thought to be something new," she said. "I thought, 'Gosh, you know, it's been a year since I had my last mammogram.' "
Typically, she gets a physical around the time of her birthday, in April, she said, but she was distracted this year by her move to Rhode Island from Kentucky.
She made an appointment with Dr. Chang, who, after obtaining previous mammogram results and X-rays going back several years, performed a mammogram. "The mammogram," said Wolf, "did not show any cause for concern."
Dr. Chang then did a sonogram. "The sonogram," said Wolf, "didn't show anything."
The doctor next aspirated the lump, a procedure in which fluid is drawn through a syringe. "Also negative," said Wolf, meaning no cancer cells were found.
Finally, said the bishop, "just to be sure," Dr. Chang performed a biopsy, surgically removing some tissue.
One week later, Wolf got the word.
"I was absolutely shocked . . . and sad," Wolf said. "I wanted to know if I was going to live]"
Chang recognized that her patient was in great emotional pain, said Wolf, and let her know she could remain in the office as long as she needed, while staff members reviewed the diagnosis with her, counseled her about her options and gave her books to consult.
When Wolf said she wanted a second opinion, the staff arranged for tests at Massachusetts General Hospital. "They put it all down on a piece of paper so I'd remember," the bishop said. "I was in pretty bad shape."
It was three hours later when Wolf finally left the doctor's office, only to immediately resume her church duties: She was scheduled to be in Westerly that night for a visit similar to yesterday's in Bristol.
"I wished I didn't have to go," Wolf recalled, though now she wonders whether it wasn't the best thing.
"I guess in the back of my mind someplace, I was imagining cells dividing," she said. "But I had dinner and I had a great time. I got home and I was tired and I slept the whole night.
"Sometimes, you have to just land on the step above yourself."
In subsequent days, she reflected on the people she'd met, how excited they were to meet her - "I was aware of how much I had to live for - like all the people in the Diocese of Rhode Island," said Wolf, choking back tears.
"And the children" of the parishioners - "that I would see them grow up. Things like that were in my mind - in my heart. That became more powerful than the reality I had experienced that afternoon."
She also has "a lot of faith" in God, she said, and in "whatever is to be."
Not that she didn't get angry at times.
"But if you say, 'why me?' then the other side of that suggests, 'so why not someone else?' and that's awful. 'Why anybody?' is the real question," she said. "It's all part of life and the division of cells and the mystery of the universe - the continual movement that we don't always understand."
God doesn't send pain, the bishop believes, but is with us in it.
To have such an accepting attitude is not incongruous, she says, with the determination required to fight cancer - "I can both accept and fight at the same time."
Wolf has been warned that her recuperation period will be long and uncomfortable, and "I'm not looking forward to that," she said, "but then, further down, there's life.
"So it's a small price to pay - for seeing those children grow up."