Another cancer battle for George
6 years after bladder cancer surgery, cardinal told disease found in liver, kidney
By Dahleen Glanton, Deborah L. Shelton and Jennifer Delgado, Chicago Tribune reporters
August 18, 2012
Cardinal Francis George, who battled bladder cancer six years ago, learned Friday that the disease has returned to his kidney and liver, according to the Archdiocese of Chicago.
George, 75, underwent a procedure Wednesday during which a nodule was removed from his liver, according to a statement from the archdiocese. He met with doctors Friday and was told there were cancerous cells in his kidney and liver.
The news of George's latest bout with cancer rattled Chicago's 2.3 million-strong Catholic community, some of whom learned of the cardinal's illness during evening Mass at Holy Name Cathedral.
"If you hear something like that, what you do is pray a lot," said Josie Follet, 66. "A prayer is a powerful thing."
George was installed as head of the archdiocese in May 1997, six months after his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, died of pancreatic cancer.
According to the archdiocese statement, George's doctors will work with him to plan a course of treatment. After resting at home this weekend, the statement said, he will be on retreat next week. Beyond that, the statement offered sparse details on George's condition and prognosis, and archdiocese officials declined further comment.
After George was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, doctors removed his bladder, prostate and a portion of his right ureter. The cardinal, now in his 15th year as the leader of the nation's third-largest archdiocese, resumed normal duties and in the years since doctors have continually given him a clean bill of health.
The form of cancer that struck George in 2006, called carcinoma in situ, was relatively unusual, accounting for about 10 percent of bladder cancer cases. The tumor was considered superficial — a flat growth limited to the wall of the bladder. But the cancer cells were of an aggressive type that could have spread rapidly to other parts of the body. At the time, doctors did not believe the cancer had spread.
Two doctors on Friday said the cancer is most likely a transitional cell, or urothelial, carcinoma that spread from his bladder. Patients who have had bladder cancer are at increased risk for developing that cancer in their kidney or liver, the doctors said.
Neither doctor has treated George, and both spoke only in general terms about his condition based on the information provided by the archdiocese.
"Knowing that the cardinal had bladder cancer and full removal of his bladder, this is probably tumor progression from his previous cancer," said Dr. Dennis Pessis, professor of urology at Rush University Medical Center and president of the American Urological Association.
Another possibility is a primary tumor of the kidney or renal cancer, the doctors said.
"Those two possibilities are so different that the treatments would be vastly different," said Dr. Walter Stadler, a medical oncologist and professor of medicine at University of Chicago Medicine. "If it's a renal cancer, which is less likely, then there would be a discussion of removal of the kidney, or of the tumor on the kidney. If its urothelial, the discussion would be about chemotherapy."
Stadler said a renal cancer would have a much better prognosis.
"If there is a metastasis of the cancer to the liver, the patient will require chemotherapy," Pessis said. "Sometimes there is a good response, but if it is a progression from the original cancer, obviously the prognosis is very guarded."
The archdiocese gave no indication of how George's illness would affect daily operations.
The Rev. Matt Compton, who resides at Holy Name Cathedral, said any kind of leadership change likely would be decided by George and the archdiocese's administrative staff.
"There's been a little bit of conversation before the Mass this evening and it was a little bit of a surprise, even for the some of the priests," Compton said.
"Speaking only for myself, it certainly was a surprise to hear that because it seems as though in recent years, since he was treated for cancer several years ago, that the health reports have been good," Compton said. "And saddening, too. We do not want to see him or anyone go through treatments for cancer."
During the petitions portion of the 5:15 p.m. Mass at Holy Name, a solemn crowd prayed for the cardinal's "health of mind and healing of his body."
Andrea Quinn, 67, said she was "shocked and saddened" to hear the news. She called the cardinal "a strong, strong man with a good outlook."
"He's gotten me through some tough times," the Glen Ellyn resident said. "He's an inspiration."
Barry Blake, 71, who is battling prostate cancer, said he believes the cardinal will find a way to fight through.
"It's just a part of life," said Blake, of Chicago. "I'm sure he understands that."