Bishop Ivan Lee comes into his office, chatting non-stop, a mug of tea in one hand and a cream biscuit in the other. He’s cheery, engaged and looks as healthy as a horse – which seems ironic given the conversation we’re about to have will focus on the cancer he knows is shortening his life.
He’s been working three to four days a week, taking Tuesdays off to sit in a hospital ward while medical staff “pump in fancy drugs that help your immune system”.
It’s an immunotherapy trial, Lee explains, so although “it’s unpleasant to have needles stuck in your arm and the drugs going in and out, no one in the ward is crying out in pain. It’s not like chemotherapy, where you have poison running around in your system and the feeling sucks. Immunotherapy is much more pleasant for most people.”
Ivan Lee was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October 2015
Since 2015, he has had two lengthy operations and two rounds of chemotherapy. Lee doesn’t know how big the original tumour was, but he’s clear about the pieces of him that are missing as a result. The first operation, known as the Whipple procedure, took out sections of his pancreas, stomach, small bowel and bile duct, as well as removing his gall bladder. Then some “replumbing” was done to enable ongoing digestion.
After the chemotherapy finished he was in remission, until July last year saw the first signs of cancer returning.
“That’s a pretty good run,” he says, adding that people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer “typically last months, not years… so it’s quite a blessing to still be alive”.
"It's quite a blessing to still be alive"
Another operation saw the removal of the remainder of Lee’s pancreas, as well as his spleen. He began a second round of chemotherapy, which was halted last November after doctors found the cancer had spread to his liver. Then he was linked up with the “cutting edge” immunotherapy trial.
Ivan isn't afraid. But he is sad.
Lee talks about all this in a matter-of-fact way, saying he has felt grief rather than fear about what lies before him and his family.
“My very first response was shock, I guess, but the next thing was… this is my personal test of faith,” he says. “I didn’t have any doubts that I was going to trust God, but it’s one thing to preach and teach to trust God in all things… now it’s actually a personal test.
“The next thought was, ‘I’m gonna die soon’. Because it’s pancreatic cancer, I know that means you’re not going to last long.
“I wasn’t afraid. There wasn’t any fear and I still don’t have any fear. It was the sadness of not seeing my kids have their first kids, and that I’m not going to retire and enjoy some down time with my wife, which she so much deserves after 40 years of ministry to others and moving around.”
"There wasn't any fear and I still don't have any fear"
Despite his faith, Ivan does not find this situation easy
However, it’s important that no one labour under the mistaken belief that, despite his faith, Lee finds his situation easy. He says he cries “about once every fortnight”, and always because of overwhelming sadness.
“It just hits me again afresh. I might meet someone and I think, ‘This is the last time I’m going to see whoever it is’… and so, it’s tears and some depression and grief. It’s a mix, but it never goes past one day – so the next day I’m back like this again.” He grins cheerfully. “I bounce back at work and people wouldn’t know that I was sick. And also, when I’m tired I don’t come in, so you’re not going to see me in my pyjamas looking horrible! Although, as I get sicker, I won’t be as bouncy.”
"When I'm tired I don't come in"
He believes one of the most valuable things he can do during this time is to encourage those who are going through the valley of cancer themselves or with a loved one. He has been sending out regular email updates across the Diocese and, as Bishop of the Western Region, tends to be in a different church pretty much every week. When there, instead of being interviewed about his role or what is happening in the Diocese, he is asked about his cancer.
Every week, he is asked about his cancer
“One of the phrases I use is that I know a lot of us are afraid of death – even as a Christian it’s not something we look forward to – but let me encourage you that I really believe that if I can get through this, you can too,” he says. “And it’s not because I’m such a strong Christian, it’s that I put my trust in a strong God and we can all do that.
"It's not because I'm such a strong Christian. It's that I put my trust in a strong God"
“It’s a hard time. Very challenging. And what I have said to people is the time to get to know God and really learn is when you’re well, ’cause when you’re sick you can almost be unable to pray. For months after the operation there was so much pain.
What the future holds
Some weeks after our chat, Lee is back on chemo. The immunotherapy trial hasn’t worked for him and the cancer is spreading, so his oncologist is having another crack with a different, much stronger type of chemotherapy, which unfortunately is resulting in painful side effects.
He’s had a port put into his chest so the drugs can be pumped straight into a major blood vessel near his heart, rather than through a cannula inserted each time into his hand (“which can be very painful – it’s the bit I really hate”).
Lee doesn’t know how long the chemo will run. It depends on whether it works. If it doesn’t – there may be further options or there may not. The family will cross that bridge when they come to it. For now, there’s still time to be together, and time to laugh.