The Guardian has learned that Cardinal Francis George underwent a procedure last Wednesday at Loyola University Medical Center and reviewed results with his doctors today. The results show there were cancerous cells in the Cardinals kidney and in a nodule, which were removed from the liver.
His doctors will work with the Cardinal to plan a course of treatment. The Cardinal will be resting at home this weekend and will be on retreat next week.
George underwent surgery for bladder cancer six years ago. The form of cancer that struck George was relatively unusual, accounting for about 10 percent of bladder-cancer cases. The Chicago-born cardinal spent 19 days at Loyola University Medical Center following surgery.
During his nearly three-week-long hospitalization, George suffered what his doctors described as several “setbacks.” A day after his July 27 surgery, the cardinal was rushed back into the operating room to repair a nicked artery that was bleeding internally. A week later, George was moved back to an intensive-care unit, and last week doctors treated him for a mild infection. But he left the hospital cancer free.
In a 2003 speech at a suburban luncheon, he confessed that he still occasionally battles feelings of resentment because of what he calls his disability. “But a life of resentment is a crippled life,” he said
In 1950, George, who had been suffering from symptoms that doctors at first mistook for rheumatic fever and the flu, was diagnosed with polio . He spent three months in St. Francis Hospital in Evanston.
It left him with a permanent limp and requires him to wear a leg brace and special shoes.
“Your body becomes a burden to you because you can’t control it,” George said. “It’s necessary, then, to try to do two things. One is to try to overcome the effects of the spasms. That is very painful. It is a stretching, a kind of contortion in a hot water pool.”
With carcinoma in situ (an early form of cancer that is defined by the absence of invasion of tumor cells into the surrounding tissue), the tumor was considered superficial—a flat growth limited to the wall of the bladder. But the cancer cells were of an aggressive type and could spread rapidly to other parts of the body. At the time, doctors did not believe the cancer was metastatic (spreadable).
During 5:15 p.m. mass on Friday, an announcement was made to churchgoers about George’s illness, saying he would return home on Saturday and then leave for a retreat.
During the petitions portion of the mass, a solemn crowd prayed for the cardinal’s “health of mind and healing of his body.”
Father Matt Compton, who resides at Holy Name Cathedral, said a parishoner told him of the news around 5 p.m. and they decided to pray for him.
He said it’s hard to say what happens next since little information has been released.
Any kind of leadership change likely would be decided by George and the archdiocese’s administrative staff, he said.
“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.”
As she made her way into Holy Name Cathedral Friday afternoon, Andrea Quinn, 67, said she was “shocked and saddened” to hear the news.
The Glen Ellyn resident called the cardinal “a strong, strong man with a good outlook.”
Barry Blake, 71, was sad to hear cancer had stricken the cardinal again.
Blake, 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.”
Medical experts said George’s cancer most likely is a transitional cell, or urothelial, carcinoma that spread from his bladder to his liver.
“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.
Dr. Walter Stadler, a medical oncologist and professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Medicine, said tissue lining the inside of the kidney is similar to that inside the bladder and ureter. It is not uncommon for patients with bladder cancer to get these other urothelial cancers of the upper tract, he said.
Both doctors spoke only in general terms, using the information that was released about George’s condition by the archdiocese, because neither have treated him.
Another possibility is a primary tumor of the kidney or renal cancer, both doctors said.
“Those two possibilities are so different that the treatments would be vastly different,” Stadler said. “If it’s a renal cancer, which is less likely, than 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.”
A biopsy determines if the cancer metastasized from the original tumor or from another organ.
Stadler said a renal cancer would have a much better prognosis.
“Urothelial cancer, unfortunately, has the worse prognosis,” he said.
“If there’s a metastasis of the cancer to the liver, the patient will require chemotherapy,” he said. “Sometimes there is a good response, but if it is a progression from the original cancer, obviously the prognosis is very guarded.”
George’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, died in November 1996 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 68