My Cancer Diagnosis and What I’m Learning

I’ve been thinking long and hard about writing this blog while the memories are still fresh. Because it is focused on what I, along with Val and our family, have been experiencing in recent weeks, I don’t want it to end up as a me-centred piece but rather as one that leads you (and me) to turn our eyes upon Jesus (as the song puts it). I hope and pray that this will be so.

Here are the things I’ve been learning or that I’ve long known but have been coming to appreciate more deeply and fully:

  1. There are unknown unknowns in life;
  2. Relationships matter most;
  3. Nurses are wonderful human beings;
  4. Peace is a gift from without, not an accomplishment from within; and
  5. Songs and music lie deep within us

What has been happening

First, a brief account of what has been happening in recent months. During the summer, I was at last persuaded to consult my doctor by Val and other family members who had been noticing some signs of ill-health of which I was not really aware.

A blood test revealed that I was quite anaemic and I was referred to hospital for a gastroscopy and colonoscopy. I clutched at the straw that I was merely suffering from pernicious anaemia but, although the gastroscopy was clear, the colonoscopy revealed two tumours of significant size in my large intestine. Biopsies confirmed that they were cancerous.

We were given this diagnosis on Friday 14th August. This was the Friday before a week in which I was co-teaching online with Antony Billington for the Irish Bible Institute. In spite of the news we had just received, it was a great week. It was for an MA module on the theology of work with a lovely group of fifteen students in their homes all over Ireland. One was originally from Brazil and another from Ethiopia so they were both what is referred to as “new Irish” – don’t you love that phrase?!  We were mostly relative strangers to one another at the beginning of the week but, by the end, we were all relating together like old friends. Interaction in both plenary sessions and in that wonderful Zoom provision of break-out rooms really helped us to get to know one another – even though it is not the same as being together in a seminar room.

CT and MRI scans revealed no evidence of the cancer having spread to lungs, liver or lymph nodes but, because the tumours were of significant size and quite a way from each other in my intestine, radical surgery was recommended. This took place on 22nd September and involved the removal of my large intestine and has left me with a permanent ileostomy. I was under anaesthetic for nine hours – a very anxious wait for Val and the rest of the family who because of pandemic restrictions on hospital visiting had to wait for word by telephone. I was in hospital for a week and we were so thankful for communication facilities via phone calls, text messages and WhatsApp.

Although the surgeon assured us that the cancer had been completely removed, the oncologist recommended chemotherapy to lessen the chances of recurrence. This is taking the form of a three-month course of four three-week cycles. It is taking place through a combination of an intravenous drip on the first day of each cycle through a line from my upper arm to a large vein just above my heart followed by two weeks of daily tablets and then a week free from treatment.

The first cycle started last Tuesday and I am pleased to report that, of the many possible side-effects listed in the literature, the ones I have experienced so far have been few and relatively mild. We are hoping that this will continue to be the case.

So what have I been learning in all this?

There are unknown unknowns in life!

Our Christmas 2019 Friends and Family letter opened with these words: “Another year is about to slip into history and a new one is just over the horizon with all its unknowns”. This was written in early December before the news of the pandemic began to break.

Back in 2002, Donald Rumsfeld famously said “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Surely the pandemic has been for all of us an unknown unknown. For me, the diagnosis of cancer was definitely also an unknown unknown. Even though my mother had major surgery for bowel cancer when she was eighty, cancer was something that happened to other people and not to me after 76 years of relatively good health and never more than two or three days in hospital and those few occasions for minor conditions. (My mother lived for another six happy years.)

We think of ourselves as facing the future but, in a real sense, we are all backing into the future. We can see where we have come from but we can’t see where we’re going. We are rowing facing back and only the Cox can see where we are going. (I blogged about that earlier in the year in a piece entitled “It’s about Time!” and that was before the cancer diagnosis!)

My first reaction to the diagnosis was to forget that cancer is not always terminal and to pray along the lines of “Lord, this isn’t fair!  I have so many plans, so many things I want to do!”  I want to be with my family and friends for much longer. I want to see my grandsons moving into adulthood. I want to go on teaching. I want to write more – especially that academic article on “Knowing of the Third Kind” (see another blog of mine with some thoughts on this). I want to put my family history research into a short online booklet with stories of several people from the teenage John Shortt who moved from Tring, Hertfordshire, England to North Tipperary, Ireland in the sixteen forties through the formidable MaryAnne Fitzgerald Shortt who held her family together in the Irish Famine years and my great-aunt Victoria Shortt whom I cannot trace beyond her admission with a baby boy to a London workhouse in 1909. These and so many more plans!

Then I began to see a bigger picture.

Relationships matter most!

All these plans, all these things I want to do but they suddenly began to matter less and less and the realisation began to dawn that it is not what I do but how I relate that really matters – how I relate to others, to God, and to the wonderful world in which we find ourselves. This is about being and loving rather than merely doing things!

One of the books I read on Kindle during that week in hospital was David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” and it moved me deeply with all it had to say about The Big Me culture and about love for others. How I wish I could have had that book when I was starting out in my working life almost sixty years ago!

And talking about relationships …

Nurses are wonderful human beings!

Although I’ve been married to a wonderful and lovely nurse for more than 52 years, that week in hospital gave me fresh insight into what nurses are made of. I think I’m quite good at saying the right things to people who are suffering but I’m not good at thinking of and doing the practical things for them that make a difference. Val is always able to combine care and compassion with leaping into doing the right thing for the suffering person.

I found this to be true also of many of the nurses who cared for me through that week. They could relate to me as if I was the only person who mattered in those minutes and deal matter-of-factedly with very intimate and potentially embarrassing matters affecting this old man in that hospital bed. I realised more deeply that this is what nursing is all about and that these are truly wonderful human beings. One of them shared what it was like to work in a Covid ward earlier in the year and that was very moving.

I am so proud of and so thankful for the British National Health Service. Many of the nurses who cared for me were from mainland Europe and Africa – how they enrich us here in the UK!

The hospital ward proved to be a peaceful place for me.

Peace is a gift from without, not an accomplishment from within!

In recent years, I have written, lectured and preached a lot about shalom as what we should be seeking to promote in our lives and work … and especially in teaching and learning. (If you’re interested you can see, for example, a book chapter I wrote entitled “Education for Shalom: dimensions of a relational pedagogy”.)

However, in that week in hospital after my surgery, it came home to me that shalom/peace is not simply something to be sought and worked up from below but that it is a gift from above. It is not something simply achieved by being still and mindful although that has its place. There is a peace that transcends human understanding of which Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) or as Eugene Peterson renders it, “I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.”

In an email we sent out to friends and family, I wrote “The experience is like that of being a little child questioning its Dad and perhaps complaining and wanting to be told everything and having him simply say ‘Shush now, little one’.”  One friend wrote back with a quotation from Zephaniah 3:17: “He will quiet you with his love”.

During that week, I think I must have uttered within more Hallelujahs than I had for years!  Mind you, some were of the Handel’s Messiah type and some were Leonard Cohen’s “broken hallelujahs”. (see  Carey Landry’s lovely adaptation of “Peace is Flowing like a River” also came floating by me.

Don’t you find that songs often come “floating by”?!

Songs and music lie deep within us!

Thanks to a schooling in Ireland in the fifties that made much of memorising poems and songs, I’ve done quite a bit of memorising of Bible passages in recent decades and performing them in lectures, seminars and sermons. However, strangely enough in that week in hospital, I found it easier in the night to recall hymns and songs from childhood and youth than these more recently memorised passages.

There were those I had learned in childhood in that little country church like “Saviour, send a blessing to us”, “Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us” and “Immortal, invisible, God only wise”. There were also those which I came to love around the time that I came to trust the Lord as a seventeen-year-old in Dublin like “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace”. There were those I learned in Bible College in Glasgow (where Val and I first met) and in a summer conference centre by the River Clyde like “I want my life to be all filled with praise to thee”. (I’ve googled the words but I can’t find it online.)  “Christ is risen, hallelujah!” also became a favourite at that time.

I found that I could remember from childhood all the verses of John Newton’s “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds”. One of them runs, “Jesus! my Saviour, Shepherd, Friend, / My Prophet, Priest, and King; / My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End, / Accept the praise I bring.”  There are ten sermon titles there!  I’ve preached on one of them under the title “Our Forever Friend”. (If you are interested, you can go text and slides). Maybe I’ll get to speak on others sometime.

Music and songs lie deep within us. Alzheimer’s Disease sufferers come alive with music and song.

Time to wrap up!

But first let’s sing with Abba, “Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing / Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing / Who can live without it? I ask in all honesty / What would life be?”

Thank you too, Lord, that you know the unknown unknowns. Thank you too for the relationships. Thank you for the wonderful human beings who are nurses and especially for one of them whom I’ve known for all these years and love with all my heart. And thank you for the gift of peace, the gift of shalom.

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