Patient stories: The scholar becomes the student

Author John R. Kohlenberger III shared his inspirational story at Providence Cancer Center's fundraising luncheon in May.

John R. Kohlenberger III has spent much of his life as a Biblical scholar. He has written and edited more than 50 reference books and study Bibles. He has lectured and consulted on the subject, and earned a spot in "Who's Who in Religion."

His work is cerebral. His style, as he puts it, was "aloof." But a diagnosis of stage IV prostate cancer in September 2002 changed that.

"I expected I would be strapped to a morphine drip and would never leave [the hospital]," he recalls. "I did not have any hope at all."

At the time, men with advanced prostate cancer lived on average two to four years after diagnosis. But what Kohlenberger would learn was that medicine was rapidly advancing as well — that sophisticated treatments would prolong his life by years, and that the faith he studied so rigorously would be put into practice in ways it never had before.

Kohlenberger, who is 60 and lives with his wife, Carolyn, in Battle Ground, Wash., shared his story May 11 at Providence Cancer Center's annual luncheon. The event raised about $400,000 for cancer research and for the new therapies that have helped Kohlenberger defy statistics. See photos from the luncheon on our Facebook page.

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"God is not done with me"
Kohlenberger's diagnosis revealed that his cancer had spread to his bones. Thus began a series of treatments, first in Washington and then at Providence Cancer Center, where he was referred. He endured hormone therapy, chemotherapy and radiation and was enrolled in several clinical trials that used his own immune system to slow the cancer.

Some therapies worked well, some didn't. Combined, however, they added months, then years to his life, thanks in part to Providence donors who have contributed to cancer research.

As doctors worked on his disease, Kohlenberger reexamined his life and his faith.

"I was pretty reclusive, even with my family," he says. "I was really good at doing scholarly things, but when this happened I thought it would be good to work a little more on the expressive practice of my spirituality."

He began spending more time with his now 31-year-old daughter, Sarah, a licensed mental health counselor, and his 29-year-old son, Joshua, who works in the family publishing business, Blue Heron Bookcraft.

Kohlenberger became more active in his local church, dusting off his guitar to join a praise band. He became involved in a group called Christians for Biblical Equality, which promotes women in church leadership and aims to eliminate bias against gender, race and social status. And he sought spiritual and emotional support from Providence.

"I talked with a social worker there, and I took a free course study in meditation…which helps you sleep and reduces anxiety."

He also grew close to Father Jon Buffington, a pastoral care chaplain at Providence Portland Medical Center.

"[Catholicism] is not my faith tradition," Kohlenberger says, "but we're both Christians and I think there's been a deep respect for where we're coming from. There's so much common ground."

Over the past eight-and-a-half years, Kohlenberger's cancer has retreated, returned, then retreated again. Today, the disease is stable.

Throughout his treatment Kohlenberger developed an even deeper appreciation for the people who have supported and cared for him, from the professionals at Providence to his friends and family.

"People have become extremely supportive and have prayed very hard for me," he says. "They believe that God is not done with me yet."