Bishop Lee: Health, paradox and gift

First published 2nd September 2013

On return from his holiday Bishop Lee received the news that he has Hodgkin Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. He used this months message to share the news more widely.

I asked God for strength that I might achieve;

I was made weak that I might learn to obey.

I asked for health that I might do great things;

I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;

I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I suspect these lines from Pete Scazzeros Daily Office are going to be ones I shall return to often in the coming months. As someone touted as one of the fittest bishops in the Church of England it has been something of a paradox to be spending so much time in the care of the NHS.

I received news of my latest health challenge after two wonderful weeks holiday in the Canary Islands - but it did not come completely out of the blue.

In the summer of 2012 I had an enlarged lymph node removed from behind my ear. The pathology report revealed nothing sinister and it was counted as a reactive lymph node. At the time of that investigation ultrasound scanning showed that I had another enlarged node deeper in the neck but that, too, appeared reactive rather than malignant.

By June of this year it had increased in size to be noticeable on the skin and this time clinical investigation revealed it to be cancerous: Hodgkin Lymphoma, also known as Hodgkins Disease, is a solid tumour that begins in the lymphatic system and if untreated will spread to other organs.

When my lymph nodes were first being studied last year I remember sitting in an unnervingly empty waiting room before an ultrasound scan of my neck. It was a moment when I became acutely aware of my mortality. The thought this could be the beginning of the end went though my mind and with it a definite cold shiver, a feeling of frailty, and a sense of the implications for those I love. I acknowledged those feelings to myself and to God, recognising that experiencing the reality of the situation was healthy and probably a gift.

A year later, sitting outside the Consultants Office and waiting to hear the results of my biopsy, I had a copy of Cycling Plus in my lap. I opened it to find a piece by Geoff Thomas, the former professional footballer who overcame leukaemia and became a prolific cyclist and fundraiser. This felt very much like God preparing me for what I was about to hear.

In the event, it is good news that I have Hodgkin Lymphoma rather than another tumour since Hodgkins is a better understood malignancy with an effective treatment regimen and good prognosis. That both of the enlarged nodes have been visible has also been a blessing - I had no other symptoms and have been in extremely good health of late so there was no indication of any underlying disease.

The not so good news is that the first line of treatment involves four cycles* of chemotherapy in the Great Western Hospital in Swindon followed by a short course of radiotherapy in Oxford. Although this is highly effective the drugs used have a number of side effects, with weakening of the immune system holding the most potential danger.

Having three months of Extended Study Leave scheduled to begin in mid-September is mostly another gift but I am naturally very disappointed (gutted would be more accurate!) to have to cancel all the arrangements I had put in place.

I had planned to start my ESL by riding from John OGroats to Lands End, raising as much money as possible for Leadership Development in Uganda in the process. I also had planned visits to a number of bishops and their dioceses to learn lessons for growth from their experiences. By God's grace I pray these are now on hold rather than history.

The chemotherapy has been set to begin on Wednesday 4 September and I have no idea how it will leave me feeling as people respond differently. Fatigue is an obvious side effect and the risk of infection makes it necessary to absent myself from public ministry. The plan is to engage as much as I can from home and the office, following medical advice and ensuring I have plenty of rest and appropriate levels of exercise. As the treatment and its impact unfold I will be better placed to know what is wise, desirable and sustainable.

I am very conscious of the impact on Liz, my family, and others who love and care for us and know you will be very concerned for them as well as for me. Bishop Mike and his senior team have been hugely supportive already. We shall be grateful for your prayers over the coming weeks and months. Perhaps as you pray for us you would remember in prayer those unnamed and unknown people of our diocese who do not have the care and support around them that we do.


September 2013

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