Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 66(3) Aug 2016
Faith in Medicine
A Graceful Death: Father Dominic Rolls
By His Sister Antonia Rolls
EDITORS NOTE: Antonia Rolls has set up the “A Graceful Death Exhibition and Project.” The exhibition is about what it means to die. Portraits, paintings and words from the end of life. Powerful, moving, loving, uplifting, inspiring. The “A Graceful Death Project” includes talks, presentations, discussions and events connected to awareness issues about death and dying. Fr Rolls died on the 29th April 2016. His funeral was attended by 120 priests concelebrating with a Bishop and a Cardinal.
The finished portrait and interview with Father Dominic Rolls, a Catholic priest and my youngest brother, is here and ready to join the A Graceful Death exhibition. I am happy, relieved and grateful that it is finished, and that it has had its first showing at the Dying to Know event last month at Bournemouth. Let me introduce you to Dominic, and beneath the painting is the interview in full.
Dominic took some time to work out what he thought about the painting. He knew it was him but did not see himself. The more he looked, the more he saw it was his portrait, but it was of a person in the midst of chemotherapy, and post severe surgery. It wasn't, Dominic said, who he is now. It was when he was at his least well, and that is a difficult thing to see. Dominic is on his second bout of chemo right now, a year has passed since his first round. In that year he has given himself all the time and space he needed to accept his cancer, accept his treatment, understand and love his fears, and to enjoy his time. Now, Dominic looks more well and more rested than he has ever done, and this portrait you see is about the beginning of the journey of cancer, and it was not comfortable for Dominic to see it.
But Dominic has given the painting his blessing, and has said it is very good and very clever. Please show it, he said, and thank you.
The painting shows Dominic in his clerical outfit, as a Catholic priest. In his hands he holds his intravenous chemotherapy bag, attached to a pc line directly into his body, which took a couple of days to filter into his system after each session of chemotherapy at the hospital. Dominic is holding this bag with characteristic good humour, and pointing to it as it was impossible to pretend it wasn't there. I wanted to show Dominic's sweetness of spirit and his good humour, and his refusal to pretend that he was not ill, but having accepted his illness, to joke about it and to make of it the very best he can.
There will be no more portraits for this A Graceful Death exhibition. It has 54 paintings and interviews now, it is big, loving, challenging and enough. Father Dominic is the last Graceful Death painting I will do, and it is fitting that it started with Steve, my partner who I loved, and is finishing with Dominic, my brother who I love.
Now, I will work with whoever wants to work with me, one to one, and the resulting paintings and words will be theirs to keep.
The Interview With Father Dominic Rolls
I went to interview Dominic in early Summer of 2014. Dominic is my youngest brother, and at 51, has been diagnosed with an advanced cancer of the bowel. After an operation to remove much of his lower bowel, Dominic is undergoing chemotherapy, and is living with his cancer. The chemo is to shrink the secondaries in his liver.
Because of the severity of his illness, Dominic left his parish in Dorking where he has been a parish priest for twelve years. He stopped work completely and entirely in order to cope with the treatment and recovery from all that he was to undergo. This is important. Dominic has worked tirelessly and with dedication in his parish, which is very large. To leave his home and church that suddenly, even in the hands of a good and trusted fellow priest, was not easy for Dominic. It would be a very hard thing to do for anyone with a busy life with much responsibility. So suddenly, Dominic has cancer, his treatment, and time on his hands. We talked in the kitchen of the priest’s house in Horsham, where Dominic was staying with his good friend, Father Richard, while he has his treatment. Here is an account of our conversation; Dominic himself, his faith, his illness and how he manages the reality of living with something that is trying to kill him.
Frailty versus Robustness
It comes down to frailty versus robustness. Dominic is living with cancer and the symptoms of chemo, which has given him chemo brain. Dominic was always very robust. Strong, healthy and good at keeping fit. Now, he is feeling frail. It is a big change. He is still able to live well, in fact, is probably living better now than ever, but is weak and gets tired easily. He has, he says, a body rash, another symptom of his treatment. He has a metallic taste in his mouth and he gets very, very tired. Sleep is difficult at nights, and though he has not lost his hair, it is thinner and there is a change of colour.
On 17 January 2014 Dominic was diagnosed with colon cancer. Nothing too big, it was thought. On 28 January the cancer was upgraded to advanced following a CT scan, which showed a Dukes Staging T4 caecal carcinoma. This had spread to two lymph nodes in the small intestine and also to the liver. On 10 February Dom was operated on and given a radical right hemicolectomy (ie all the cancerous tissue was removed except for the lesions on the liver). The colorectal team at the East Surrey Hospital in Redhill was magnificent, says Dom, as were all of the nurses on Copthorne Ward. The operation was a complete success and, because Dominic is strong, he recovered well in two months instead of three. His follow up chemo started a month early on 16 April. Twelve sessions over a six month period. Once every two weeks. Amazingly enough for such a big bugger of a tumour, Dominic had no symptoms whatsoever. The cancer had grown mainly outside the bowel and passed through the omentum, the peritoneum and into the muscle wall. Two consultants operated together for three hours to make sure every trace of the disease was taken out. The lesions on the liver could be dealt with later with chemotherapy. The cancer was spreading but the surgeons met aggression with aggression. Dom had the image of a huge wave which was smashed up by bold surgeons before it could break.
The Gift of Focus
Dominic’s strength is the ability to focus and concentrate. He has a good memory, is not that well organised personally, but does have the gift of analysing information and remembering what people say to him. Every cancer is different, though, and is difficult to predict. The consultant interprets the data and gives an expert opinion, but can’t tell you exactly what is going to happen. The whole treatment is cancer led, not dictated by the consultant. Thus Dominic is realistic about information from his medical team. The nature of cancer is to spread. If cancer is static it can begin to shrink and so it has to keep moving. It’s very good at moving. It uses body energy to feed and attach itself to healthy cells, making them cancerous. Cancer always seeks to be dynamic.
Dom just hopes it is not too dynamic!
How do you feel Dominic?
Partly in denial. I don’t have cancer! But mostly I am accepting. Mostly I am at peace. If God wants me he can have me. I have no fear of death as my faith is strong, and as I get weaker it is more powerful and important to me. I like to keep control, though, and what is dying but a cessation of control? Therefore I am frightened of dying. So basically, I am at peace. My daily prayer offering includes offering up the cancer, that is, I try to make a prayer out of it: “Take Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, will and understanding. Give me only your love and your grace, that’s enough for me” ( St Ignatius). Grace. Grace is the God given power to make right decisions in your life.
Secular society doesn’t have the vocabulary for this kind of thing. Denial of God is just as much a faith as affirmation that He does exist, and is no less fervent in its zeal to get across its message. My Catholic faith has given me a language of hope. I make a prayer of my cancer, there is peace in my cancer. One Catholic doctrine that really helps is the communion of saints. This refers not just to the Church here on earth, but also to the holy souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven. We look out for each other. I feel great comfort from the thought of so many invisible friends rooting for me. A communion of supernatural and natural; the Church is both natural and supernatural.
And death is a gateway rather than the end. This is very real to me, and cancer makes it more real. I pray to the saints to give me strength and I pray for those in purgatory out of love and compassion. Those who die having stains on their souls are helped through prayer to be purified of all that keeps them from the joyful vision of God in heaven. They are assured of blessed happiness but need a little help on the way. A bit like me. Through prayer we become ready to face God. To me this is a living reality. It is a consolation to believe in the Church, both natural and supernatural. All are praying for you and with you. It reminds me that death is not the end.
Working at Acceptance
I work at acceptance. I don’t allow my life to be defined by chemotherapy and I set myself short term goals to help me cope with this whole process. I work at accepting by concentrating on three different levels: the nutritional level, exercise and my spiritual discipline.
So in any two week period, the chemo and all that goes with it take about three days. That leaves twelve days free. I try and do positive things, like visiting friends and family, by stretching and challenging myself but always most importantly by listening to my body. I rest, eat well and healthily (lots of fruit and veg), take food supplements to maintain the integrity of my digestive system during the onslaught of chemo, and try to pray with my whole body and not just my head. I exercise by walking for an hour a day, if I can.
Because I maintain a positive outlook on death, it doesn’t mean I am not afraid of dying. I try to embrace the fear. I treat it like any other symptom. I lie down and think it through, I let emotion express itself, I don’t fight it. For me fear can be manifested in anger and anxiety. Fear of dying is an active part of the process of this cancer. If you have an attitude about death, you can also have an attitude to life and living. I try to live my understanding of what is happening and accept it, but I know this is not enough to cure the cancer. I have to let go, but the anxiety about this illness sometimes makes me grab back whatever I am letting go. I had to let go of being a parish priest. It is like I have been driving a train for twenty years. Suddenly the points change, and I lose control and the train goes wherever it wants. I can’t control the train any more, every now and then I try and grab the controls but it doesn’t work, and I have to let go.
My personal prayer is for the grace to love and accept myself enough to engage with this whole process. Both spiritually and physically. The key thing behind my cancer experience is to love myself. To allow myself to be depressed, accept myself in it and to let it pass. The depressions that I have encountered are a result of a life shock. It is not a chemical trigger. The low spiritual morale that the depression brings shows itself in self-hate and anger with the world and those around me. I try to rest and let it pass and it always does. I pray into it as a form of acceptance. Humour helps too. Helps me not to be a pain in the ass to too many people. At a barbeque recently I was amused by how people over worry about what I should eat. They didn’t want to give me garlic bread because it was burnt on the outside and was carcinogenic. “Too late!” I said and ate it anyway.
In parish life there is a big and constant battle with the spiritual forces of darkness. A priest is very aware of doing good but can be uniquely susceptible to temptations and pressures. When a priest does good it effects so many people well. When a priest falls into temptation and is overcome by difficulties, it effects the same people badly. I have had to deal with anger. Coming away from the parish has released the pressure – I can’t talk about personal pressures so much in the parish, why would I? I am just engaged with getting on with the work. It would be like talking about shopping when one is shopping. I tell the truth and I do not pretend. Coming out of the parish to deal with this cancer has given me the freedom to talk about myself honestly.
The key is to love yourself enough. I find loving myself is a struggle, and I often fail. But I need to recognise this daily struggle as beautiful and for the greater glory of God. We do our best but sometimes we fail: “Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to strive and to seek for no reward save that of knowing we do your holy will”.
Talking about cancer
At first, when I thought the tumour was small, I was slightly blasé about it. After the 28 January, with the advanced diagnosis, it was shocking. I had a priest friend with me at the consultation to report back to me what was really said. Tony was excellent and totally with me. I would have forgotten what the consultant was saying to me, I would not have been able to take it all in. I was in shock. It makes me aware that some people have to go home alone after such a diagnosis. They would not be able to take in what had been said and what was happening. I am so grateful that I had someone good with me, and someone at home too so that I did not have to be alone.
As a public figure I went public with the cancer. It is a good thing to share it, and moving away from the parish has given me the freedom to do that. Sharing the news of the cancer allows people to love and support you if they want. A difficult side of telling people is in having to manage their expectations as well as yours. You have to let them into your own uncertainty. “Will I live or will I die?” I can’t say. It is difficult to cope with “I don’t know”. I tend to live in my head. Exercise and meeting people help me get things into perspective. After a bad meeting with the oncologist when I heard that I have six liver metastases, I was very shocked and afraid. But I had already booked a session in the gym for after the consultation, and within a couple of hours I felt brilliant. I talked to my spiritual director about it, and then went on to have lunch with my brother so I felt a million dollars by the end of the day. Two days later when the shock wore off I became depressed and angry. That is when I had to try and accept it and love myself enough to engage with the whole process.
Here Dominic had to stop and go and rest. I will finish here with his prayer from St Ignatius
“Take Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, will and understanding. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.”
For more on Antonia’s work visit: