Speaking from behind the mask of radiotherapy
Pastor Tom Chapman of Surrey Chapel in Norwich
gives a very personal account of his recent battle with a large brain tumour and says that faith in Christ has given him help, hope and perspective.
I had become the pastor of a fairly large church at the age of 30; the first year was going well, but it was hard work. I was the father of two young sons with another on the way. Our house was being extended. All in all, I had plenty of reason to feel tired and pressurised.
So when, while working late at night, I found that for a few minutes the words would swim in front of my eyes, there was no serious cause for concern: just another stressed-out pastor! The locum GP agreed and gave me sleeping pills.
Even when it happened mid-sermon, and I had to take a breather while members of the congregation sang, prayed and speculated – well, we were not too worried. Some sort of panic attack, no doubt; not pleasant, but not a big problem. A different locum GP agreed and gave me beta-blockers.
Even when mid-sermon breathers became the norm and folk were running sweepstakes on how long I’d last that Sunday – well, I won’t say we were not concerned, but more about my psychological state than physical! Even when it happened during conversation and phone calls and when reading books to the kids. After all, I didn’t get headaches and it was very intermittent – I’d go for months without symptoms. And another doctor agreed (BUPA this time, thanks to the deacons) and recommended breathing exercises.
But when I collapsed in the shower on Christmas Eve 2006, then we really did worry, and so did my proper GP. But six months later, when I had the MRI scan, I was feeling much better and fully expected to be sent home as the pathetic malingerer I considered myself to be.
And so, when the surgeon said that I had a large brain tumour, it came, shall we say, as rather a blow. It was inoperable and growing at an unknown rate like a furry biological pom-pom in the part of the brain I use for reading, speaking and thinking (Does your work entail much of those things, Mr Chapman?). We can help you! We can give you radiotherapy! You might even last three years! Oh, and you can’t drive home.
Well, perhaps it wasn’t exactly like that, but it’s a fair enough summary. And I can report that yes, being told at the age of 35 with three young children that your time is numbered on the fingers of one hand is as unpleasant as you imagine. The effect is visceral, a physical kick in the guts. I am not inclined to remember much of the next few months. They included all the tears that you might expect (I recommend at least 20 minutes every two hours for the first two weeks, more if required), not to mention prayers – thank you all.
However I won’t forget every aspect of last summer; for example, the chicken - farm reared, corn-fed and cooked by my mother with love in a sunny moment between the emotional thunderstorms. With my steroid-enhanced appetite and intensified sensitivities, it was the most delicious thing I have ever tasted; I gnawed every shred from the carcase. And my point is that, even in times of the most miserable desolation, the Lord can provide wonderful and unexpected oases. At the time, that chicken was perhaps the best spiritual encouragement I could have had received!
But now, with a better diagnosis than expected, six weeks of radiotherapy and the best part of a year’s recovery behind me - and somewhat better odds in front of me than first thought - I probably ought to reflect more deeply than the quality of Norfolk poultry. So here I offer three thoughts, behind the mask, that have helped me when faced with a personal crisis of this scale.
We do not face these things alone
Radiotherapy is not usually particularly unpleasant, even on the brain. It makes you dozy, dopey, deaf and gives you a weird hairstyle that attracts ridicule from kids in the street (so what’s new?), Perhaps the most poignant moment is when, once you are strapped in to your radiotherapy mask – a perfect made-to-measure Perspex mould - the radiotherapists leave the room and it’s just you and the gamma rays. Other people watch on the screen, but they can’t come in; you’re on your own.
Except you are not alone, of course. God does not watch events in our lives from a lead-lined cloud in the sky. He is here, with us in our struggles in a way no mere human being can ever be, and yet also in a way that only a mere human being can be. That is the point of the incarnation, and the cross, and the resurrection; God with us then and God with us now. That’s how he can say, “when you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you.” (Isaiah 43:2)
This is not, I think, a guarantee that we will always be aware of him holding our hand. That was not my experience, and don’t think it is the Bible’s promise. The point is not that we will never feel alone, but that we will never be alone. Cue “Footsteps in the sand.” Of course, if this promise never touched our emotions in any detectable way, we might reasonably start to doubt its reality – experience matters. But we must never reduce what is true to what feels true. And so I got wet, but didn’t drown.
We do not face these things for nothing
After my biopsy, and feeling decidedly shaky I was delivered to my parent’s house for a bit of child-free R&R by a colleague and friend. “Why?” my mother mouthed to him silently, behind my quivering back, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”
It’s not a surprising question – especially from mother in her situation. She has suffered a lot more than me through this. But interestingly, for all our anguish, Suzanne and I have never found a need to ask it. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible is actually full of reasons for suffering, even if it doesn’t tell us why an individual suffers in a particular way.
Without a doubt, some suffering in this world is a direct consequence of that individual’s sin. But we don’t believe this tumour has been given to me as punishment for my sins. If it were then surely it would be much worse! Any more than 35 years of good health was given as a reward for my saintliness. The point of my experiences has been, I am sure, to test and refine faith and perseverance (e.g.1 Peter 1:6-7, James 1:2-4).
OK, I admit I’m still working on “considering it pure joy”! But I am already convinced that it has been a valuable experience, forcing me to depend more on God, to value spiritual priorities and appreciate God’s gifts – especially, the people he has placed around me. It’s even made me more adventurous. And if that makes me more useful as a servant to him, that would be great – but I must let others be the judge of that.
We do not face these things for ever
Now some people might imagine that I mean by that I expect to be healed of it. And of course, I do believe that sort of thing can happen. We’ve had encouraging answers to prayer already. Of course God can heal things like this, through natural or medical means or supernatural means. If that’s what he wants to do, I’m not going to refuse! But that’s not the hope that keeps me going. And to be honest it makes me sad when Christians give the impression that hope is all about being healed.
Jesus never said his disciples would be excused pain – in fact, he promised it. This tumour might disappear tomorrow – but sure enough, something else will get me in the end! And as Jesus said, what good is it to gain the whole world, but lose your soul? But through him we are promised something much better than the temporary palliatives we crave. “The resurrection is for ever and for us whenthe dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
Put it another way; to be diagnosed with a brain tumour was pretty bad. But it is not the worse thing that could happen to me. And to be cured of this tumour would be wonderful. But that is not the best thing that could happen to me. I have already encountered the worse and the best things in life! The worst thing is to be excluded from the love of God; to face the horrible prospect of forever without him and every good thing he provides. And the best thing is to know the love of God, knowing that Jesus died for my sins, share my sorrows and secure my future.
This year has been hard, but I’m very aware I have barely touched the hem of suffering compared to the experiences of most cancer patients and many others whole never go near an oncology ward. Of course, suffering is not a league table, but if it was, I wouldn’t be a premiership player!
And I don’t do those go-for-it motivational lectures; be positive, fight back, you can beat this thing – some people can do that perhaps, but I can’t, I don’t feel that way. How do you fight cancer anyway? Someone explain! My fight is with things within myself. Others (Christian or not) are far more heroic than me; I am by nature stoic, if not melancholic. I still often feel gloomy about my present state of enhanced mortality. To pretend otherwise would be to put on a new mask.
Would I have been able to say these things honestly if my diagnosis has been as bad as first feared? I don’t know! Will I still be saying these things if my condition gets worse sooner rather than later? I can promise nothing! But whatever happens next, those things are true, and the best I can do now I’m out from behind the mask is commend Jesus Christ to you, knowing what a help he has been to me. I’m convinced it can be so for all of us, when our time of testing comes – as it surely will. You need not face it alone; you do not face it for nothing and you will not face it for ever.
Tom Chapman will be a guest columnist in Network Norwich over the next couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk
Pictured above are Tom and Suzanne Chapman.