Father Michael Coleman remained positive while beginning chemotherapy and radiation on July 20.
It’s been a month since Fr. Coleman had a tumor the size of two baseballs removed from its resting place above his heart and lungs.
The surgery was painful, and his recovery afterward has been a slow process. Fr. Coleman has stopped regularly using oxygen, although he still uses it at night to help him sleep.
He has heard horror stories from people that have gone through chemotherapy. He doesn’t let that alter his optimism. Fr. Coleman has leaned on the tales of cancer survivors that stressed the process isn’t that daunting.
Either way, Fr. Coleman’s faith has propelled him forward in tackling his cancer diagnosis, surgery, and now cancer treatment head-on.
Fr. Coleman, a lifelong St. Louis Blues and Cardinals fan, couldn’t help but think of the late-great Doug Wickenheiser when he received his official cancer diagnosis: cancer of the thymus gland.
“Wickenheiser was a fan favorite for the St. Louis Blues and a very devout Catholic,” the priest said. “He got cancer in his early 30s and he went around saying that he’d always been the best hockey player he could be for Jesus. Now, he wanted to be the best cancer patient.”
That’s the mantra that Fr. Coleman entered chemotherapy with. He’s determined to the best cancer patient possible for Jesus and the rest will take care of itself with God’s will.
But, Fr. Coleman would be lying if he didn’t have a clear goal for life after his cancer treatments are finished.
Fr. Coleman is pastor of Holy Spirit parish in Centralia and a longtime chaplain at Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia.
Tolton Catholic opens its 2020 football season against Hallsville on Aug. 28. Fr. Coleman, the Trailblazers’ chaplain and biggest fan, has his eyes on returning to the sidelines this year to cheer on his kids.
“My motivation is that I want to be on the sidelines for Friday night lights,” he said.
There wasn’t a huge decline in health that led Fr. Coleman to the doctor. He was feeling fine and thought nothing of the slight wheeze he developed at the end of April.
He didn’t develop any other symptoms of common sicknesses. Maybe, the wheeze that continued throughout early April was just a part of getting older.
Dr. Denise Freidel, a member of Fr. Coleman’s parish in Centralia, would continually ask about his health. Fr. Coleman remembers teasing Dr. Freidel about her constant requests to have his chest X-rayed.
“I’m fine,” Fr. Coleman constantly said.
However, as weeks passed, he relented and the X-ray brought back large abnormalities and cancer became a serious possibility from the scan.
“When I saw it the first time I thought ‘yikes’ this is going to kill me,” Fr. Coleman said. “Because it was so big.”
Dr. Freidel was there to calm him down at that moment. There needed to be more tests and more doctors involved to figure out exactly what this was.
What followed was more X-rays, two biopsies, and then learning that the mass accumulating in his chest was cancerous.
“I didn’t tell people for a while because I had no answers,” Fr. Coleman said. “When I got that last biopsy, that was on Wednesday (June 10), when I got home they scheduled me right away for the following Wednesday for surgery.”
That news changed Fr. Coleman’s mindset. He first told fellow priests in the Diocese of Jefferson City, followed by family and friends. He went from keeping his cancer diagnosis away from those he loved to believing others needed to know. People in his parish, at Tolton Catholic and throughout Columbia had to know that Fr. Coleman was still strong in his faith and that he would continue to fight.
“I found that as soon as I started telling people I found relief,” he said. “I never really felt scared. At first, I thought ‘this is it’ when I saw that scan, then I started thinking God’s got this.”
Sunday, June 14, Fr. Coleman’s cancer diagnosis was made public via Tolton Catholic’s social media. Almost instantly, a groundswell of community support emerged.
That support helped Fr. Coleman double down on defeating cancer, and he left his successful surgery ready to take on the next stage of his recovery with a new outlook.
“I’ve felt nothing but gratitude,” Fr. Coleman said. “I think about all the wonderful people I know that have had cancer, people I’ve buried, people that are going through it now, and I feel honored to stand with them.”
Seeing it all
Fr. Coleman has held on to the small moments since returning home from surgery.
He said he’s “feeling so blessed and happy” to offer up his sufferings for Father Christopher Aubuchon, a young priest of the diocese who is awaiting a heart transplant in Kansas City.
“That is beautiful and humbles me greatly to receive such a gift,” Fr. Aubuchon responded. “God bless his generous and thoughtful heart. Please let him know that I am praying for him as well each day and in my Mass intentions.
Fr. Coleman is active on Twitter and sees the countless messages wishing him a speedy recovery or bouts of encouragement as he continues to fight cancer.
He sees it all.
It makes Fr. Coleman think of John Wayne, the famed American actor, during the 1979 Academy Award ceremony. Mr. Wayne was battling stomach cancer at the time and Fr. Coleman could see the toll it was taking on him.
Fr. Coleman remembers knowing that Mr. Wayne was dying that night. As he entered to thunderous applause in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles that evening, Mr. Wayne said something that continues to resonate with the priest: “That’s just about the only medicine a fella would ever really need.”
Fr. Coleman thought of that during Tolton Catholic’s Baccalaureate Mass on June 26. Students created signs to show their support, and Fr. Coleman couldn’t have been happier. The community he holds so dearly has continued to be there.
Moments like that mean everything.
For Fr. Coleman, seeing his impact on his community and their unwavering support is truly the only medicine he would ever really need.
Mr. Newsome is a reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune newspaper (columbiatribune.com), which published this article July 21. This slightly revised version is published here with permission.