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Lay Franciscan discusses concerns about injustices cancer patients face

For Cliff Evans, the image of one person embracing another in the Cancer Patient Care logo connects with his call to ministry as one of 40 active secular Franciscans in Spokane and millions of men and women worldwide.

Cliff Evans
Cliff Evans

He likens the embrace Cancer Patient Care’s eight staff and many volunteers offer cancer patients and families in services and resources to the embrace St. Francis of Assisi gave to a leper in 1209.  Lepers were hated and outcast then.  By embracing the leper, Francis overcame his embedded repugnance for people afflicted with that illness. 

In the embrace, Francis learned to embrace all people as Jesus did.  That began the Franciscan tradition of care for the poor and outcast.

As executive director, Cliff uses his skills in public relations and administration to ask for “stones” to build Cancer Patient Care, which is at 1507 E. Sprague.

Cancer Patient Care (CPC) started in Spokane 50 years ago, when the American Cancer Society was striving to find cures.  CPC began to provide a safety net for cancer patients of all ages, and their families.

“I help the staff team and board deliver services to cancer patients, especially those with limited resources,” said Cliff, who professed as a secular Franciscan in February 2007. 

Unlike lay companions who support people in other religious orders, Secular Franciscans are members of the only Vatican-recognized religious order for laity living “in the world,” pledging to evangelize through lives of service and simplicity.

 “Many people want to make a difference for cancer patients but don’t know how,” he said.  “I seek to do it by helping cancer patients embrace hope and life.”

CPC provides services for people in 10 counties of Eastern Washington and five counties of North Idaho, including emergency assistance for prescriptions, transportation, groceries and utilities for clients earning less than 80 percent of median income in Spokane.

Cancer Patient Care also coordinates assistance as it provides hospital supplies and home-health-care equipment such as walkers, wheel chairs, shower chairs, bedpans and other resources for cancer patients, often coordinating with end-of-life home care provided by Horizon Hospice or Hospice of Spokane. 

The program also offers nutritional supplements for end-of-life and during treatment.  It’s sometimes the only nutrition a person can take in to provide energy and keep on weight.  CPC can buy it at a third of the cost through Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest.

Cliff’s office is down the hall from the Reimer Room, which  offers prostheses and wigs. 

“I see women come looking despondent as they pass my office.  Soon I hear laughter and crying as they try on wigs,” he said.  “Most leave looking more confident, feeling more like themselves.”

Funding comes from county block grants, United Way, fund-raising events and donations by individuals, congregations and regional churches.

Cancer Patient Care’s 2008 “Dinner Among Friends” benefit is planned for 6 p.m., Friday, Oct. 17, at Northern Quest Casino.

“People will call to give donations of equipment after someone they loved has died.  These items help caregivers care for family members while they are undergoing treatment or during end-of-life care,” said Cliff.

A Catholic Campaign for Human Development grant funds rural outreach and advocacy.

While some funds come from the faith community, Cancer Patient Care is not  faith-based, and serves people of many faiths.

Many clients come on referral from their faith groups, and many people in congregations assist their members.

“My faith helps me be in this work,” said Cliff, who converted to Catholicism when he was 45 and completed a master’s degree in religious studies at Gonzaga University. “For me, the justice component, which is strong in Catholic and Protestant traditions, is important.

“We are blessed, forgiven and saved, but we often forget why.  We are blessed to serve the least of these,” he said.

We let cancer patients and their families know they are not alone,” said Cliff, a member of St. Augustine Catholic parish.  “With one in three people in Washington diagnosed with cancer, we are there to say that the community cares.  People can call us when they are down.

“We help them keep up their sense of dignity and self respect,” said Cliff, whose father died of lung cancer 11 years ago when he lived in Maui, Hawaii.

After moving from California in the 1980s, Cliff and his wife lived nearly 20 years in Hawaii, where he worked in tourism.

During college years studying Japanese history, culture and language, he set aside his Presbyterian upbringing and explored Buddhism and other oriental traditions.  He and his wife moved to Spokane in 2001 so he could begin religious studies at Gonzaga. 

After graduating, he served as development director at St. Joseph Family Center from 2003 to 2004 before joining Cancer Patient Care as executive director.

“I use my background in sales and marketing to make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

At St. Joseph’s Family Center, which is run by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, he learned about secular Franciscans and the gospel from a Franciscan point of view, based on the stewardship of and kinship with all creation.

From the perspective that all creation is holy, he is also concerned about injustices cancer patients face.   In many ways, they are outcasts today, Cliff said.

For example, often after they take time off from work for treatment, companies will not let them return to their work or will cut them off if they are over 55 years old, because their employment means health insurance costs go up for everyone.

“It’s illegal, but it’s happening,” he said.  “While it’s sometimes hard to find supportive companies, some businesses do rally around their employees with cancer.

“Secular Franciscans are called to follow Christ in the manner of St. Francis and St. Clare,” Cliff continued  “We seek to live the gospel in our everyday lives.

“It’s not about what we do, but about the spirit with which we do it,” he said.  “Few of us live in as radical a state of poverty as St. Francis and St. Clare, but we can make life choices to have less and to give more, to seek our call over valuing money and ‘what’s in it for me.’ 

“St Francis did theology with his body and heart,” he said.

Because Cancer Patient Care is not a faith-based ministry, he does not wear the Tau or “T” cross of Franciscans at work, but has “SFO” after his name on his business card and name tag.

Local Franciscans—which Cliff said celebrate their eighth centennial in 2009—include friars at St. Francis of Assisi parish, Poor Clare Sisters, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

For information, call 456-0446 or email cliffe@cancerpatientcare.org