The impact of illness on the Soul
This article is the third in a series from Ivan and his wife Virginia, reflecting on the impact cancer has had on their lives and faith. You can read the first article here and the second article here.
After his epic first operation in 2015, Lee was at home, exhausted and incapacitated, and found himself depressed for the first time in his life.
“That was huge,” he recalls. “Not only can you not do much because you’re in so much pain, but I found that there were moments of depression, this terrible sinking feeling – ‘What’s the point of doing anything?’
"What's the point?"
“I’m a very outgoing, extrovert person but I’ve learned that when I’m suffering and I’m sick and in pain I don’t like people around, whereas the rest of the time I have people around all the time. I didn’t want visitors… but I wanted my family.
“Yet me being by myself in the house were my most dangerous moments. I started to get very down, and that’s when I started to pull myself out into the garden.”
Finding hope in the garden
This might sound like the perfect balm for any soul, except that Lee has always hated gardening – particularly weeding. He jokes that God’s sense of humour was well in action here, as he had virtually no energy and couldn’t work, but he had to do a small amount of physical exercise. So, weeding it was.
"I hate gardening and here I am"
“I thought, ‘I hate gardening and here I am: Virginia’s gone to work, I’m home by myself and I’m on my knees pulling out weeds!” he says. “But strangely there was some level of satisfaction. I’m outside, the wind’s on my back and I’ve got out in the fresh air instead of lying on my bed. And now, I still do it. I’ve learned to appreciate it.”
"I've learnt to appreciate it"
After Lee’s second operation he not only became diabetic but, with no spleen, also had to take tremendous care to avoid sickness because of a compromised immune system. So, he’s supposed to stay out of shopping centres – “Too many germs” – and any temperature over 38C means going straight to the emergency department.
He has learned not to ignore the latter after a sudden temperature spike saw him in hospital for four days, but he’s relaxed the ban on shopping centres. “I was a good boy for about three or four months, but now I’m back in the Westfields,” he says with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Too bad!’”
The hurting and the lost
Having experienced the gamut of health, emotional and spiritual challenges associated with his cancer, Lee believes his ability to care for others has increased.
“I hope I was compassionate towards the suffering previously,” he says. “I believe I was. But you are changed by getting cancer.” He takes a deep breath and thinks for a moment.
"You are changed by getting cancer"
“I would say I have more empathy for those who are suffering. When you’re regularly in a room with 20-40 cancer patients, you meet a lot of people who are suffering… the thing that happens, you look across the beds at each other, your eyes meet, and you think, ‘Yeh, I know’. There is this fellowship, this empathy and understanding that’s very powerful.
When you go through it, it takes your understanding to another level.”
The urgency to tell people about Jesus
Yet that doesn’t mean Lee was “preaching” the gospel to those in the beds next to him.
“It’s often not the place for it,” he says. “People are really down. It is obviously not the place for being preachy and what might be perceived as “Bible bashing”. It’s just not appropriate… yet I feel a greater urgency to tell people about Jesus. So I do it by personal testimony, telling people why I have peace, why I’m not afraid of death, although I did say to one person Jesus died and rose for you, so put your trust in him, it just felt right.
Everyone has limited time
“Of course, everyone’s got limited time – but I’ve got less time to tell them! I’ve renewed my efforts with unbelievers that I meet. I catch cabs to all my treatments, so I talk about Jesus with pretty much every cab driver!”
The first issue he had to hand over to God once he became ill was worrying about who would look after his immediate family once he was gone. But, even more than that, he says, is the concern he has for family and friends who aren’t Christian.
“That was my biggest worry,” he says. “So, there’s a grief of missing my own family, and worry about those that don’t know Christ. Honestly, that was what was depressing me rather than ‘Poor me, I’m sick’.”
"That was my biggest worry"
He looks out his office window thoughtfully. “I’ve communicated that to them as well. Non-Christian brothers and sisters, the biggest thing I’m worried about is that I’m not going to be around to talk to you about God! That’s the biggest thing in my head, I think. And for me that’s not a sign that I’m religious or a strong Christian or anything, to me that is proof that God’s at work in my life – that’s the Holy Spirit.”
To live is Christ and to die is gain
Lee is aware that, as the Apostle Paul says in Philippians, “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. If he dies, he knows he will go to be with Christ, “so that’s gain… but if I live, I have more time to do fruitful ministry for Christ and I must admit, I love the ministry of the gospel that I do. I love what I do. So, that’s gain as well.
“My passion is for local churches and helping local churches grow and I’d love to keep doing that, but that’s up to God. My times are in his hands, as the psalm says.
“You see each day as a bonus. And I do, but I’ve also said to people, ‘Although you’re really well and you don’t have cancer, every day’s a bonus for you as well. Every day God gives you. Each day’s a gift.”