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Cancer: best thing for me

19 April 2013

Remission from cancer meant that Richard Evans re-evaluated who he was, and his relationship with God

Healthy: Richard Evans on the Brecon Beacons

Healthy: Richard Evans on the Brecon Beacons

I HAD always wanted to be a teacher. I felt that it was what God wanted me to do. And I found it stimulating, and, at times, fun.

But, due to my tendency for anxiety and perfectionism, the demands of the job gradually began to grind me down. Medics might find other causes for the lymphoma with which I was diagnosed in 1989, but, to me, it felt as if my body simply gave up, refusing to go on with my punishing lifestyle.

When I was diagnosed, I was told that the type of lymphoma I had could be treated, but that it would keep coming back until, eventually, it would resist treatment. At best, it looked as if I had about six years.

Strangely, I felt a sense of excitement and relief: at last, I could escape from teaching. And, if that meant dying, my faith told me that the next world would offer more rewarding activities than endless piles of marking.

But it also raised big questions about God's plans for me. If I had been doing the right thing, why had it worked out to be so destructive? If I had got it so wrong, why hadn't God given me some clearer directions?

MY SECOND outbreak of cancer involved six months off work. As I sat in coffee shops and watched the world go by, I realised that there was life outside the classroom, and the will to live returned.

By this point, I had given up on trying to understand God's plan for my life; I felt that I had to sort things out for myself. I decided to get out of the classroom, take early retirement, and start working as a private tutor. Now, I could take on as much or as little as I wanted; teaching became rewarding again.

As expected, the cancer came back a third time. And when the cancer came back, again, for the fourth time, in 1995, I suspected that this was the end of the road. At that point, however, I was offered a stem-cell transplant.

Three years later - sustained by the love of my family, friends, and church community, whose support, I felt, contributed greatly to my well-being - the cancer had not returned, and it started to looked as though I might have more years than I had expected.

FOR me, remission was a strange experience; it was almost like starting all over again. I had to "unpack my bags" and plug back into life again. I began to think afresh about who I was, and what I wanted to do with my life.

As part of that, I found myself asking questions about my sexuality, specifically: why can't I accept that I am gay? Why have I been running away from it all these years? The answer was simple: because of the hostility of the world I had grown up in towards homosexuality, and because of my understanding of the Christian faith.

I also knew that if I refused to accept the truth about myself, I could make no more progress on my spiritual journey. But I struggled with this for several years on my own; my faith fell to pieces and I became very depressed.

I experienced enormous anger with a religion I felt had screwed up my life. And I felt there was no point in talking to a member of the clergy, as I felt could predict what answer they would probably give. At the age of 55, the umbilical cord snapped. I had to grow up on my own.

I realised I did need help, however, and went to the doctor for anti-depressants. I also found a Christian counsellor. We worked together for seven years, exploring my attitudes to work, God, sex and more.

During that time I completely dismantled my faith as it had been, which had simply reinforced all my hang-ups: my anxiety, perfectionism, workaholism, and my lack of love and acceptance for my body, and so on.

I AM now a follower of a human, non-divine Jesus, and, as I try to make space for "the kingdom" - that community of love and acceptance which is his constant theme - an energy flows into my life which others notice, but which I cannot explain. And that's it. That's my creed.

I still go to church, although I find the services difficult because there is too much insistent explanation of God. But I go because my church is a loving and accepting community, which supported me through illness, and continues to support me as a gay, and somewhat maverick, Christian.

Alongside my faith and my sexuality, another area of my life which was re-examined was my attitude to work and achievement. I had always felt driven to achieve academically, but slowly this has lost most of its power over me.

The hospital gives me a check-up every year and, in 18 years since my stem-cell transplant there had been no recurrence. In fact, at 67 I feel fitter and healthier than ever; so much so that last summer I even spent five days climbing mountains in the Lake District.

For me, cancer has turned out to have been the best thing that ever happened to me: it allowed people to express their love for me more freely (or perhaps I was just noticing it for the first time), and as my life juddered to a standstill I had the space to think about things from scratch.

While remission brought to the surface issues in my life which took 12 difficult years to work through, I have become much happier and more together in the process.

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