“I’m sorry,” said the doctor, “you have large tumours in numerous places. We can’t operate or cure you. You have 18 months to live”. With those words, I burst into tears. In that mundane hospital room, my life changed. The job I love – I worked as boss of a private bank – was gone. My priorities shifted immediately. Nobody on their death bed wishes they had spent more time in the office. When my time comes, I was determined I would not have that regret. I wanted to make the most of however long I had left.
Nearly four years on, I am still alive thanks to my wonderful oncologist and staff at the Royal Marsden hospital. My fight with cancer has not been easy. Problems with my eyes nearly left me blind. I’ve been through nine operations, radiotherapy and four complete rounds of chemotherapy.
But the hardest part of living with terminal cancer isn’t the treatment; it’s the grief I have caused to the people I love. I could hardly bear to tell my wife and children about my diagnosis. My mother, who is in her eighties, said: “I wish it was me”.
Living with cancer can be terrifying: the sword of Damocles dangles over my head. I have been fortunate in getting longer than my initial diagnosis suggested. Still, I know that my days are numbered. I have scans every couple of months. Each test brings with it an anxious wait for results.
Yet cancer also brings with it the unexpected; a simple joy at being alive. Each day that comes is a blessing. I have been fortunate enough to walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding last month. This weekend I will watch my football team play in an FA Cup final.
Less remarkable days are wonderful too; going to the shops, walking the dog. Philip Larkin was right when he spoke of the ‘million-petalled flower/ of being here’. It took cancer to make me realise what he meant.
My faith has been important too. As a Christian, I ask myself: ‘Where is God in my suffering?’. I assure myself that I am not alone in confronting this dilemma.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who stood up for Jews under the Nazis. Shortly before he was executed in April 1945, he smuggled out of his cell this message ‘only a suffering God can help us’. Jesus knows what it is like to suffer and he knows it first hand. In my fight with cancer, I find that immensely comforting.
There’s more: he also knows what it’s like to die. I recently gave a speech about cancer in Parliament and was struck by the consensus of the discussion: society doesn’t want to talk about death. Few subjects are off the table nowadays, but dying is surely one of them; it is one of our last taboos. In facing death, I know that it is a frightening thing. So why don’t we talk about it? After all, it’s cold comfort to be told by Richard Dawkins that ‘DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’
I recently attended a funeral where the celebrant said mournfully: ‘There is no answer to death’.
But I believe there is – and it brings me great hope. In the short time left for me in this world, I can think of nothing more important than sharing that hope with others.
This yearning to find such hope is powerful. Eddie Izzard, who tragically lost his mother to cancer when he was six, says ‘everything I do in life is trying to get her back.’
He continued: ‘I have a very strong sense that we are only on this planet for a short length of time…it would be nice if just one person came back and let us know it was all fine… of all the billions of people who have died, if just one of them could come through the clouds and say ‘It’s me, Jeanine, it’s brilliant, there’s a really good spa’, that would be great.’
My heart goes out to him when I read those words. But I am convinced, because of my Christian faith, that someone – Jesus – did indeed come back. As I’m wheeled in for another operation – or when I have days of facing up to my imminent mortality – the words from Psalm 23 are on my lips: “Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me”.
Perhaps it’s all just wishful thinking? It’s a fair point to make. It’s true that hope with no factual basis is nothing more than a delusion. Yet I am convinced that the Christian story is real – and it brings me hope, even in the depths of my despair.
Jeremy Marshall is former CEO of the UK’s oldest private bank, C. Hoare & Co. His book, Beyond the Big C, was published by 10Publishing in 2019