‘My cancer diagnosis: What I wish I’d known’ – Bishop J. Jon Bruno

December 23, 2013 | by

Bishop J. Jon Bruno will be one of 11 former City of Hope patients riding atop our float on New Year's Day. Read other riders' stories and learn more about the float, "Turning Hope and Dreams into Reality."

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The larger-than-life J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the six-county Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese, oversees 147 parishes and missions, 44 schools, and 20 institutions. He's the father of three and the grandfather of seven. He was a professional football player and police officer before becoming an Episcopal priest then a bishop.

Bishop J. Jon Bruno

Bishop J. Jon Bruno of the L.A. Episcopal Diocese, shown here with his family, didn't realize his true impact until his diagnosis with leukemia. Now he views life a little differently. Photo courtesy of the Bruno family.

He's also credited with making the diocese a more “human-friendly place” through programs to feed the poor, stop gangs, wash the clothes of the homeless, house AIDS patients, collaborate with all religious faiths and, most controversially, support gay, lesbian and transgender rights.

Still, he never realized his true impact on others until after he was diagnosed with, and treated for, acute monocytic leukemia at City of Hope.

Bruno recently shared his story and, during that interview, we asked him this question:

Look back at the time of your diagnosis and ask yourself, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? What wisdom, soothing words or practical tips would you give your newly diagnosed self?

Don’t be so tough.  You can trust other people. You don’t have to say, ‘I can do this by myself.’  You enter into that community and all of a sudden certain things happen. You learn to allow yourself to love you. Most of us are taught to love other people more than we love ourselves. I found out I was taking care of everybody else better than I was taking care of myself. I realized I couldn’t save everyone.

I could not allow my own ego to take me over and make a decision that I was going to die and it was OK. What I needed to do was to listen to doctors like Leslie Popplewell  and to my family and let them stand by me and tell me what they needed from me. I had to give up control, and for me that was hard to do. We need to be honest with ourselves. That’s when we grow most.

I realized I needed to take care of myself in new and different ways, that I just couldn’t be continuing my life as I’d done in the past. I don’t believe I’ve experienced anything in my life – whether working as a football player, policeman, priest or bishop – that made me think more critically about how I participated in my own downfall. I ignored symptoms and the way I felt before treatment. I felt if I ignored it long enough, it’s going to go away. I learned that’s not true. It can kill you.

I’ve pared down my work to half a day – the first 12 or the second 12 hours. Before, I worked mostly 24-hour days and slept when I could. I’ve learned to put restrictions on myself that have made me more valuable to other people who have needs. I have strength left over so I can give to them out of love of myself and help them figure out things for themselves. I need to be a “bridge person” and an asset to other people’s lives by helping them to understand who they are and what skills and talents they have.

I’m not as willing to let something go by. I refuse to accept inappropriate behavior. If I walk into a grocery store, and all of a sudden some mother or father is banging on their kid, I step in and say, 'You need to stop that.' (I’m so big they listen.) Imagine yourself being in that child’s position – and what they’re learning from you.

When I was lying in that bed and had that quilt or one of those shawls on me, I thought about how can I better live my life to have more effect on other people’s lives, and at the same time, take care of me? I’m very good at what I do, but this leukemia taught me many lessons about energy, stamina, positive thinking and not being afraid. I learned not to micromanage once I give people a job.

I spent a lot of time in isolation. I allowed myself to sit in silence and think about the ultimate concerns of life; what was most important. A lot of things I thought were important weren’t. I see what we’ve accomplished in this diocese. Our faith is not about the care and feeding of the clergy; it’s in the care and feeding of the people.

I cherish my family. I knew I was good to my kids but I’ve gone back to what my parents did – requiring us to meet for dinner at least once a week. It’s been great to watch the kids grow into beautiful adults, and then watch their kids be nurtured. They nurture each other and I’m glad I got to see that.