Worst Fears Confirmed
After a very long flight we finally touched down at London’s Heathrow Airport. Our South African holiday had come to an end and we were daring to be optimistic as to what God had in store for the next chapter of our lives. We felt rested and rejuvenated. Our grief was starting to be punctuated by healing and peace. The raw, open, emotional wound had started to scab over.
Shortly after we got back, I returned to the GP. There had been no change in the status of the lump in my armpit.
The doctor had another brief look and decided that as nothing had changed, he would refer me to a consultant at the nearby hospital in the town of King’s Lynn.
‘I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about,’ he explained, ‘but we don’t like to take any chances with lumps. So it is best to get it checked out.’
I was grateful that further investigation was going to happen, and I was still fairly optimistic, though some anxious thoughts did start to creep in. I remember telling a colleague at work that I had found a lump and I was a bit worried as I was having further tests. They were encouraging and supportive, which helped.
Soon after that GP visit, I was packing bags and guitars, loading up books and CDs, checking postcodes for the SatNav and putting petrol in the car for an event I had been booked to play guitar and sing at called The Pursuit. This was a sixty-hour non-stop worship festival. It was happening just outside London over the long Bank Holiday weekend in early May. I was scheduled to play an early morning slot from 3am to 5am on the Sunday.
On the morning I was due to drive to London, an appointment had been made for me to see a consultant at the nearby hospital in King’s Lynn. Verity came along to the hospital with me.
The consultant seemed tired, and her manner was quite stern and to the point. She had a look at the lump in my armpit, then asked if she could examine elsewhere.
She felt my other armpit, my groin, and prodded around my abdomen and neck a bit too. While she was doing this, she was silent. Then she asked, ‘So have you noticed all these other lumps, then?’ My stomach turned. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. More lumps? Surely not!
I told her that I had not noticed them. I asked her to point them out to me as I couldn’t quite believe it. I couldn’t really feel anything particularly different.
Anyway, she could not say what the lumps were at that stage without taking a biopsy. So that was booked for a week’s time.
Verity and I were both quite shaken by this visit. We didn’t really say much in the car on the journey home, our minds jumping to all sorts of possible conclusions, none of which was particularly pleasant.
We both decided that I would continue with my weekend plans and go to The Pursuit that afternoon. Besides, I was feeling fine (as I had done up until then).
The weekend took on a different focus for me from that point. Instead of me going to minster to others (which I still did), it proved to be a valuable time where I could just crumble and collapse in God’s presence to try to make sense of it all. There was no indication of what we were dealing with at this point, just that it could be cancer, and in my mind, this meant a very strong possibility that I could die.
The times of singing were immensely powerful and often saw me in a heap curled up on the floor of the tent, sobbing and crying out to God for healing – for life – for salvation from death! Sometimes the words would choke me, and I couldn’t speak at all. I had to take extra water bottles into the tent to keep me hydrated as I was crying so much.
During this time, I got the sense that God was giving me strength as I waited on Him. He showed me a few things: I had already given Him my life, so my body belonged to Him too; it was part of the package! So ultimately it was up to Him if He healed me or not. It was out of my control. I was, and am, in His hands, and I was safe there, no matter what happened.
I also came face to face with the idea of dying. It was in God’s presence that I discovered I was actually not that afraid of death. If He were to call me home, I would go willingly and gladly. However, this did leave a lot of other things that hurt. Such as, I was a young guy (I know that is a matter of opinion – but I was only thirty-six at the time) and I didn’t believe God had finished with me yet. There was still more for me to do for Him on this earth. There was the pain of missing seeing my child grow up; to see her lose her first tooth or to be there on her first day of school. Thoughts of missing a chance to possibly walk her down the aisle or maybe even hold a grandchild of my own one day went through my mind. I was sad about all the hopes and dreams I still had that might never be realised. I felt the pain of the possible separation from my wife and felt guilty that I might leave her to cope with everything on her own. All this really hurt.
I was also prompted to finish some of the things I had started. For example, a book I had almost finished writing but had neglected for a few years. A couple of new songs I needed to make demos of and put up on the internet. Time was precious and time was short. Procrastination was not helpful. I also got a sense during one of the sermons that God was going to use this time to accelerate things for me and my ministry, to move things along at a supernatural speed. The time had come.
On the last morning of The Pursuit I believe God told me my diagnosis.
During the last meeting, there was a spontaneous prophetic song and, in a funny twist of events, the words from a popular children’s book were sung. It tells a story of a family who are going exploring and encounter various obstacles along the way. They realise that they cannot avoid the obstacles but have to endure them by going through them as the only way of getting to the other side.
Through this, I believe God was communicating with me and was confirming my fears – that I indeed had cancer and I would just have to hold tightly on to Him to get through it. But get through it I would! I was going on my own adventure. I was certain that it was going to be full of hardship, pain and risk but hopeful that the ‘eternal glory’ would far outweigh the temporary suffering I may experience (2 Corinthians 4:17).
We so often pray that we be delivered from a situation, and God sometimes does deliver us this way. However, sometimes we are delivered through a trial. And it is as we go through it we find Jesus, our friend, companion and guide – the ‘man of sorrows’ (Isaiah 53:3, NLT) who knows what it is to suffer – walking each step of the journey with us, holding us and helping us until we get to the other side.
The Bible calls those who believe in Jesus, overcomers (1 John 5:4-5). This clearly indicates that there must be something to overcome. Life does not suddenly become free from pain or suffering when we choose to follow Jesus. If this were true and life contained no trials, there would be no reason for our faith.
I wrote on my blog, recalling what had happened at The Pursuit:
The main thing that I have come to realise is that God is with me no matter what life may bring. God is with me and God is in control. God is bigger than my fears. God is stronger than cancer. God is God and if He is for me, then who can be against me? I trust God for healing. I trust God for victory, but I do not presume to know His plan. Even if I die, God is good and God is in control. God is on the throne!
Once I had realised this, God filled me with such an inner peace that many people mistook it for bravery or courage.
Bible teacher and author Timothy Keller puts it like this:
Christian peace does not start with the ousting of negative thinking. If you do that, you may simply be refusing to face how bad things are. That is one way to calm yourself – by refusing to admit the facts. But it will be short-lived peace! Christian peace doesn’t start that way. It is not that you stop facing the facts, but you get a living power that comes into your life and enables you to face those realities, something that lifts you up over and through them.
I see it as surrender.
I was weak. I was not strong. But Jesus was. He was my strength. He was my source. He was my everything – He had to be because there was no way that I could face this on my own.
But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
(2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
There were times during my journey when things felt surreal or extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing.
My biopsy appointment had arrived. It had been booked in the brand-new Breast Care Unit of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn. As it was explained to me, the unit was the only one that had the necessary equipment to do a biopsy of the lump in my armpit.
The look on the receptionist’s face when I arrived at the Breast Care Unit was priceless. She looked at my appointment letter, clicked away on the computer for a bit, then looked at the letter again. She was obviously not used to booking a male in for a biopsy in this section of the hospital and I had taken her by surprise.
The doctor who performed the biopsy was quite the opposite. She took everything in her stride and set us immediately at ease with her friendly and encouraging manner. She was trying to reassure us that it could still be nothing, and even if it was something, the type of cancer it was likely to be was a highly survivable type.
I looked away as the enormous biopsy needle appeared. I heard a few loud clicks and felt some pressure in my armpit. Then it was all over. Not bad, really.
We were told we could expect the results within the week. I believed I knew the diagnosis and had already started to come to terms with it, but would still be happy to get it confirmed.
A few days later, Verity told me she thought she might be pregnant again. Off to the supermarket we went to buy a pregnancy test. We did not have to wait long before we learned that we were going to be welcoming another child into our family.
About a week after the biopsy, we were back at the hospital to see the original consultant – the stern one – to get the results. We sat down and she explained that they had found that I had non-Hodgkin lymphoma. We knew this was serious news but no one actually said the word ‘cancer’.
Verity bravely asked, ‘So it is cancer, then?’
‘Yes, it is,’ came the reply.
This hit Verity hard. I too was a bit taken aback, although I knew who was in control and was holding me tightly at that moment. The rest of the brief appointment went by in a bit of a blur.
I had to ask the consultant to repeat the type of cancer a few times as I tried to take it in – non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In the end, a nurse wrote it down on a piece of paper for us to take with us, warning us not to Google it as there was so much misinformation on the internet.
They explained it was what they call a ‘slow-grower’ so I had in fact had it for years without knowing it! But this also meant that treatment was unlikely to be needed for many years. For now, they were adopting a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. Owing to the way the NHS is funded, if a condition is not life-threatening, treatment is delayed until it is. They would monitor the cancer until it reached a point at which it was dangerous.
A CT scan was booked for the doctors to get a good look at my lymphatic system so that the monitoring could begin.
We both stumbled out of the hospital and Verity needed to sit down for a while on a nearby bench. We hugged and had a few tears, then took a deep breath and continued on our way home, where we broke the news to family.