WHEN Kate Nicholas was diagnosed with cancer, she was busy living “at a hundred miles an hour”. After a stellar career as a journalist, she had spent a decade working for the international development charity World Vision, initially as UK head of communications, and later running their global operation, with responsibility for 100 countries. She was the sort of person who loved high-octane activities such as horse-riding and paragliding.
With a demanding job, not to mention a husband and family, Kate’s life was full. And the prognosis was grim. In August 2014, she was told that she had Stage 3 breast cancer. There was worse to come. “It had spread locally, and they said it was inoperable,” she says. “A few weeks later, they found the pericardial sac around my heart, which was stage 4 and advanced.”
LIKE any 21st-century patient, she went online. “I found a report in a respected medical journal that said 85 per cent of people diagnosed with cancer around their hearts die within 12 months.” At that point, she gave up on Google and started to focus on the Bible. “I began to study, and found that God’s perfect will is to heal. There are all these accounts of healing in the Bible. ‘I am the God who heals,’ it says in Exodus.”
Like many journalists, she started to write about her experiences. “From the outset, when I was first told the diagnosis, one of the things I found most challenging was how to communicate to other people. You almost have to have a strategy, because how you communicate affects their response.
“I didn’t want sympathy; I wanted prayerful hopefulness. I realised that how I talked about the cancer would affect how people responded to me, but I didn’t realise it would affect others, too. I wanted to talk about hope; so I started writing a blog. I could see that hope was infectious, and also that my faith was becoming infectious.”
ALONGSIDE the blog, she began thinking about what legacy she could leave her daughters, aged ten and 16 at the time. “The view of the doctors was that I would not last. I thought: if you leave photos, you don’t show how a person thought, and I wanted my legacy to be the depth of my faith.”
She started looking back over the journals that she had kept since she was a teenager. “I realised they contained a lifetime of seeking, and I could see God at work,” she says. “But my handwriting is so terrible that no one would ever read them; so I started to write out what was in those journals, and it took on a life of its own.”
She never imagined it becoming a book. “I thought it was something I’d photocopy, and put in a ring binder. That’s the power of it, I think: it’s not written for the public, and that allowed me to be very vulnerable. [The book] talks authentically about the challenges I was facing.”
Friends suggest that she was open because she did not really expect to survive. “I was certainly not in denial. The doctors were very stark about the prognosis. Part of me had to accept that I might not be here [for my children]. I had to prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best at the same time.”
MEANWHILE, she experienced the most remarkable healing. Kate found her way to a healing group near Milton Keynes, not far from her home. She went without any great hope: “I felt the scepticism rising up in me.”
Then she discovered that the woman who had greeted her at the door came from the village where Kate grew up. “I said, ‘OK, Lord, I’m listening now.’” She says that the experience of healing was extraordinary. “It was like electricity passing through my body. I saw this incredible face [of Jesus] in front of me, coming towards me. I felt the cancer leaving my body almost like dust motes in the air.”
Her next hospital appointment confirmed this. “The consultant radiologist asked me if I’d started treatment. When I said no, she said: ‘It’s very odd, but the cancer’s shrunk.’ That gave me such hope.”
Kate was filled with a profound sense of peace. She felt that she should pray for a miracle. She underwent chemotherapy, and made such good progress that the doctors reversed their earlier decision, and operated. Surgery removed most, but not all, of the cancer. Radiotherapy followed. The next scan concluded that there was no evidence of cancer in her body.
“I believe I have been healed,” she says. “I went into treatment with the scripture, Psalm 118, verse 17, ‘I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.’ God uses all circumstances, and he has used these.”
LATER, friends read her manuscript, and said ‘You’ve got to publish it.’ Kate herself kept clear of “cancer diaries” while undergoing treatment, on the grounds that every patient’s journey was unique. Now that she was about to produce her own, she wondered if she should rewrite parts of it. “I could have thought about my professional reputation, but I had the sense that I should let it go, and I’m so grateful for that. The hand of Christ held me back.”
Not that Sea Changed is all about cancer. Rather, it is about her faith journey. “I wanted to reassure people that the surest path to God isn’t necessarily a straight line,” she says.
It tells the story of her upbringing in rural north Buckinghamshire, where she and her family still live. She was raised a Baptist, but struggled with faith, partly because her father was bipolar and waged war on God. “I couldn’t understand how God could love my father but let him suffer so much,” she says.
None the less, even as a young child she had a strong sense of the numinous. As an adult, her faith grew: at first, it made sense only at an intellectual level. Then, there was a crucial moment when everything changed, and “God turned my life upside down.”
With that came a calling to leave her job as editor of PR Week for World Vision. “World Vision is one of the great blessings of my life,” she says. “It’s been a fundamental part of my faith journey. I’ve been to some of the toughest places on the planet, and met some extraordinary, grace-filled individuals, who have made me realise Christ is alive and working in the world today.”
After a decade, Kate recently left the agency to go freelance. “When I was ill, in the darkest time of my illness, God gave me that verse, Psalm 118.17,” she says. “That was a life-raft for me. When I was ill, I said, ‘Lord, if I live, I give my life to you.’ I had a profound sense of serving God, and I knew I couldn’t go back to ‘business as usual’. Then I recovered, and went back to ‘business as usual’.”
A YEAR ago, Kate knew it was time for a change. “I had an inkling that I had done what God had called me to do at World Vision. It was a very senior role: chief of communications for the world’s largest Christian aid agency. At Christmas , I knew the time had come.
“In January, I went back and heard there was going to be management restructure and the chance for redundancy. First, I was shocked. Second, I felt immediate relief. And, third: ‘Oh, the Lord’s taken away my last excuse.’ In 30 seconds, I knew. Did I have a plan on 3 January? No, but I stepped out in faith. I prayed, and thought God would show me the way.”
That way has become clearer. In the past year, she has launched a management and communications consultancy, working mainly with Christian organisations. Sea Changed is doing well, and was shortlisted for an award. “It’s brought me contact with some amazing people, all over the country,” she says. “I have talked to church groups, cancer groups, and, at Christian events about my faith journey, my experience of God’s healing, and how to make the most of every God-given day.
“With [secular] groups I always start off by saying, ‘I can’t talk about facing death without talking about my faith, and I know that’s not something everyone shares.’ I’m open about my faith experience, and, at the end of each session, the questions people ask are not about cancer, but about my faith. There’s an extraordinary hunger out there.”
WHILE promoting the book, she featured as a guest on the Christian TV station TBN. “At the end of the interview, [the interviewer] Leon Schoeman said to me, ‘God is doing something amazing through you, and we’re going to help you.’ And they gave me my own TV show. It’s incredible.” Kate is currently writing a 12-part series examining the idea that God is a God of transformation, due to air in June.
She is also writing a new book, Soul Scribe: Your story and God’s narrative, which will be out in the spring of 2019. And, finally, she continues to serve as a lay preacher at St Peter and St Paul, Olney, in Buckinghamshire. “I’ve spent much of the year understanding how God wants to develop my ministry in the church,” she says.
Her health, meanwhile, is good, although she has regular check-ups. “Could I have planned any of this? No. I’m amazed. It’s been about following the breadcrumbs. I’m looking forward to 2018 with incredible excitement.”
Kate Nicholas is speaking at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. See www.bloxhamfaithandliterature.co.uk for more details.
Sea Changed by Kate Nicholas is published by Authentic Media at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).