Welcome to something of my new world. Our new world.
As I post this, it’s now nearly three weeks since I sat in the small room at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital with Sandra, the multi-disciplinary lung team nurse. I guess I knew that the news wasn’t going to be great. The first sign that something was amiss was a cough I developed in Brazil in early July. I was there ironically because of our son Ben’s health. He’d collapsed on his way home from work one night and was left unconscious for two days with convulsions. He’s made a good recovery and is now fine, albeit on medication for life.
The cough though continued once I was back in the UK, and was accompanied by temperature spikes every 7- 10 days – shivers or heavy, heavy night sweats. After some badgering from Catherine, I headed off to see my GP on Sept 1st….he then sent me for a chest x-ray.
The X-ray showed a shadow on my lung, but he felt it was nothing more than a swollen node. To be on the safe side though, and because of the possibility of some tropical illness, I was referred to the hospital Respiratory Team who ordered a CT scan. I was told, “If there’s nothing untoward, you’ll not hear about the results for a week. If there’s anything of concern, we’ll call you within 48hrs.”
The call came 24hrs later. I had just finished chairing a wonderfully encouraging meeting of the Exeter Evangelical Partnership, with many of my fellow church leaders there. It was Sandra on the phone. “So sorry, Jeremy, but something’s definitely come up on the scan and we need you in again for a broncoscopy. Could you come in tomorrow?”. I received it with a certain sense of unreality.This feels serious. I was grateful for my colleagues who hadn’t yet left the meeting and who immediately gathered around me and prayed.
The following days came so quickly. The broncoscopy – a camera down my throat – and then a biopsy went OK. A friend’s birthday party and harvest festival all provided things to be getting on with, but whether or not it was the effect of the biopsy disturbing something, I was pretty unwell for the next few days.
Then Wednesday. Wednesday 8th October. There sitting in that small room at the RD&E Hospital with Sandra as she very carefully and gently told me. “I’m sorry. It’s a tumour. It’s cancer. It’s either lymphoma or melanoma and the tumour is a secondary. It’s not clear yet where the primary is. I’m really sorry”. She explained the implications. But I knew already in my mind it was melanoma, and I knew the implications. Back in 2002 I had a large piece of skin removed from my leg because of a stage two melanoma. I knew what she was was saying and I understood melanoma at this stage was beyond cure.
It was one of those “world stands still” moments. This is someone else’s news isn’t it? This isn’t the sort of news I hear? Questions I had, so many questions. Sandra carefully and gently walked me through what had been found. It was a 6.7cm x 4cm perihilar tumour and she explained what was likely to happen from here.
My head kept whirling. Catherine….and the children. I could just see Catherine’s crumpling face – Ben, Simeon, Tom, Josh & Lydia. My mother and father – what parent should ever receive news like this? Sisters, brother. Having told Catherine that it’d be better if she just went to work as usual, with Sandra sitting next to me, I called her on my phone. “It’s not good”, I said. I handed the phone over to Sandra to explain it all to her. She was breaking on the other end of the line. I was breaking for her. It was all so unreal.
But it was at that moment, something gentle happened. It was something that both just settled and welled up from deep inside. It was a feeling of deep peace. Christ. Right from when I first came to know and trust him at the age of 19, I’ve occasionally experienced times when I’ve known his closeness and presence in a particular way. Now was one of those times. As my mind was whirring, something started to grip me. Over the years, the Bible’s descriptions of heaven and what God promises beyond the grave, have increasingly held me with a growing intensity. I’ve loved teaching and preaching on it. Pictures started to fill my mind. Words started flooding into my heart….“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who die will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. Or Paul’s “To live is Christ and to die is gain”. Peace…and joy. If Jesus Christ had risen from beyond death, I was safe with him – he’d conquered it. It’s not to be feared. And if he had conquered it, and I had repented and trusted him, I was safe with him no matter what. I was safe with him now. I was safe with him into the future, come what may. Catherine and the family were safe with him.
Arriving back with the family an hour later was a precious & painful time. It turned into an afternoon of hugging, crying, laughing and praying together. At one point as Josh and I sat arm in arm on the sofa, he having suggested we pray, through tears, burst into a beautiful prayer of faith, asking Father for strength and help for us all. But it was also an afternoon of painful phone calls to New Zealand and other places.
The following days saw the melanoma confirmation from the hospital and a visit to my GP who very quickly suggested that he would be contacting the Hospice team to be in touch with me. Having it framed like that brought back the stark reality of what we were facing – that any chemotherapy on offer was not curative, merely life extending and that the hospice would need to be involved soon. We left the surgery crumpled and in a fresh daze. But for that peace.
In the days since I let wider family and friends know, we’ve been overwhelmed with such love, encouragement and the promise of much prayer. Amongst the messages was one from an old friend whose daughter had been diagnosed with a similar melanoma and who was considered beyond cure. She had been put in touch with Professor Christian Ottensmeier at the University of Southampton, a man evidently at the cutting edge of research into treating advanced melanoma. Having emailed him early one evening regarding my situation, I was amazed when he emailed me in reply and then almost immediately phoned me to talk. He not only gave me some key questions to ask of my consultant, but in an email 15 minutes later, summarised his points but gave us encouragement by saying how fine the oncology team at Exeter were.
When on Thursday 16th October, we finally met the consultant, we were encouraged to discover that Professor Ottermeier’s approach was theirs also. Dr Goodman helpfully described how rather than chemotherapy, he was planning on using the new immunotherapy approach. Chemo targets the cancer; immunotherapy, on the other hand, acts to enhance the immune system. In my case, he was recommending a new drug called Ipilimumab (or ‘Ipi’) – the same one Ottermeier had suggested. Ipi works by attaching itself to normal immune cells and changes the way these cells work and helps the immune system destroy cancer. Up until this point, Ipi (largely due to expense @ £90,000 per session!) had only been used as a second line drug – where all else failed. Just this week – some might say it was a co-incidence – it had been licensed in the NHS for primary use. I would need 4 sessions, at 90 minutes each, spread out over 3-weekly intervals. I’m now booked for my first session on the 6th November…but with the clear understanding that there is no promise of cure, only buying time, and then, only in 20% of cases.
The Sunday after the diagnosis, as friends were praying for us, one said, “I believe God has called you to walk this path”. I immediately felt a deep resonance inside me saying, ‘Yes…he has’. He hasn’t caused it, or made it, but he wants to use it to show us more of Himself and bring us closer to Him. Our family prayer is that through it all, no matter the outcome, “Father, glorify your name”. Through the tears & laughter, through the endless hours of talk and thought, Catherine & I with the children know the score. We know we live in a tension. We know and love a saviour who can do ‘immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’, and so when Josh and his teenage friends pile into the sitting room and lovingly demand to pray for me, when friends, when the church come to pray, asking for healing, we say “yes, please….Amen….Jesus you are our healer”. But we also know his path might lead us through the “valley of the shadow”. So, we live with realities and possibilities.
Through the weeks ahead, we’re seeking to “trace the rainbow through the rain”, and know always that with Jesus, the best is yet to come.