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‘Cancer has shown me I depend on the prayers and support of others’

28 November 2022

In this address to the Sheffield diocesan synod, on Saturday, Pete Wilcox revealed that his arrival as bishop had coincided with a diagnosis of colon cancer. He explained how the experience had shaped his approach to episcopal ministry

Diocese of Sheffield

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox

MY DEAR friends, it’s the Eve of Advent, a season I love. I love the strong liturgical backdrop we will enjoy for the next four weeks; I love the Advent hymns; I love the sense of anticipation and expectation. I love the sustained and deliberate focus, in this season of Joyful Hope, on the assurance of God’s coming kingdom.

But today, I want to look back and not forward, and I want to offer you a Presidential Address with a difference. This morning, I want to speak very personally — to tell you about a particular health challenge I have had to face over the past five years. It’s basically a good news story, though I realise the new information may be a bit unsettling for some of you.

To cut to the chase: about four weeks ago, at the start of the month, I was, thank God, signed off by the colorectal department at the Northern General Hospital, because it is five years since I went through treatment for cancer of the colon, and I am no longer meaningfully at risk of a recurrence of the disease. This morning, I’d like to tell you about the diagnosis and treatment I experienced in 2017, and about the impact it has had on me as a person and as a bishop.

I realise this raises questions. Some of you may be wondering why I did not tell you about this at the time, in 2017? It’s a fair point. I do know that you would have been only too keen to pray for me and to care for me pastorally if you had known what I was going through back then.

So why didn’t I tell you? Well, partly, I was simply protecting myself. I’m an extreme introvert and in that situation I needed some privacy. But in addition, in mid 2017, this diocese had just emerged from a torrid Vacancy in See [News, 10 March 2017]. By then, though I myself was pretty confident, on medical advice, that the prognosis was good, though I was pretty confident of being Bishop of Sheffield long-term, given what many of you had recently gone through, I was concerned that news of my illness might create additional instability, and I thought that was the last thing this diocese needed. So I chose not to go public.

But let me assure you, I did not endure the experience heroically alone. I needed support and I received it. I told those who were back then members of the Bishop’s Senior Staff Team, and those who were on staff at Bishopscroft. I told the members of my theological college cell group and the members of my episcopal cell group; I told colleagues I was just in the process of leaving in Liverpool; and I told other close friends and family members. All of them duly prayed for me and cared for me. So please be assured that I did not go through the experience I am about to describe on my own; I could not have done so.

OTHERS of you may be wondering, why I am telling you now? Is it because at this point the vulnerability is over, so I can now present a conquering face to you all? No, as I will explain in a moment, it’s really not that. Quite the contrary, in fact.

But the five year anniversary does give me an opportunity to tell this story without making you worry about the risk of recurrence; and it allows me to put the story on the record in a reasonably full and careful way. And I think that might be valuable, so let me try.

And yes, as you may already have worked out, I was dealing with the diagnosis and treatment in exactly the period in which I was taking up my responsibilities as Bishop of Sheffield. In fact, that’s partly why I am choosing to tell you this story today, because my cancer was integral to my sense of calling to this role.

Every new bishop is offered a medical, and when the Archbishop of York offered me the opportunity, in early March 2017, to accept this post, I underwent one later that month. And it was basically fine. It did throw up a question about my prostate, but that’s not unusual in men of my age and is generally not life-threatening, and a preliminary scan seemed reassuring.

So, the announcement of my appointment went ahead on Friday 7 April, two days before Palm Sunday 2017 [News, 13 April 2017]. The next day, on the way home to Liverpool, with the news of my appointment now out in the open after we had kept it confidential for a month, Cathy and I had lunch at a pub in the Peak District, to celebrate that the worst was behind us.

How wrong we were! Merely as a precaution, a follow up colonoscopy had been scheduled five days later, on the Wednesday of Holy Week. That procedure was only minutes underway when the atmosphere in the operating theatre changed and I knew I was in trouble. The consultant found a tumour.

For a period of a week, I knew I had cancer, but I did not know the extent, or how treatable it might be. That week included Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day.

You can imagine, I’m sure, that it was a difficult few days for Cathy and me as we sought to surrender ourselves fully to Lord’s good will and purpose. There were lots of tears — for me, especially, when I was breaking the news to our two sons, and to my elderly parents.

But to our delight, Cathy and I found that there was also an intense sense of the presence of God with us, and of gratitude: gratitude for the gift of life; for faith and hope and love. A pivotal moment came on Good Friday, when a colleague in Liverpool stressed in a homily the role in our Lord’s passion of Simon of Cyrene. He pointed out that even the Lord needed others to help him bear his burdens and we should be prepared to seek help, too. That provoked Cathy and me to ask for support, when otherwise I at least might indeed have been tempted to go it alone.

Happily, the following week, a head-to-toe scan showed that the cancer was confined to my colon. Unfortunately, it also showed that, as well as chemo-radiotherapy, surgery would be necessary, which would almost certainly result in a permanent colostomy and a new regime for disposing of waste.

But the consultant was speaking about a cure, and when I sought the Lord, I sensed he was saying that this illness was not raising the question whether I would be the Bishop of Sheffield; it was raising the question, what sort of Bishop I would be.

THE next six months were hard, I have to confess. We moved house in mid-June 2017, and I was consecrated as a bishop on the 22nd. I kid you not, but during the actual service at York Minster, I felt the phone buzz in my pocket and as I walked from the service to a reception afterwards, I listened to a voicemail from Weston Park Hospital, informing me that a five-week course of chemo-radiotherapy had been scheduled.

So, from late June to the end of July that year, I made almost daily visits to Weston Park for radiotherapy, and I was taking chemo tablets. It was fine at first, but cumulatively tough, and by the end of July I was pretty feeble. Yet, by God’s grace, I went through that hard slog in the period between my consecration and my installation, when I could and did pace myself, when I could and did take time out to rest and recuperate.

Facebook/diocese of SheffieldDr Pete Wilcox is greeted by episcopal colleagues at his consecration in York Minster, in June 2017

August and early September were an especially timely opportunity for respite, and by the grace of God I recovered enough health and strength to mean that, in the week before I was installed, in late September, I was fit enough to walk from Rawcliffe, near Goole, to the Cathedral, on a prayer pilgrimage.

Five weeks after that memorable, wonderful Service of Installation, I was admitted to the Northern General for surgery, which was, thank God, entirely successful. As anticipated however, it did leave me with a permanent colostomy.

Very few people seemed to notice how invisible I was that November — perhaps because everyone was assuming that the new bishop was busy in some other part of the diocese. As a matter of fact, I was out of action for about a month. Thankfully, since then, every single test, scan, and investigation has issued in a positive result, and I have felt as fit and well as any man aged 60+ has any right to feel.

SO, WHY am I telling you all this now? I suppose there are four reasons.

The first is this: not every vulnerability, not every disability, is visible; and I know that I am a person of extreme privilege, who can appear to take life in his stride, as if it is all too easy. It’s important that you know that that is not the case. If I appear to some of you to be quite self-sufficient, it’s good that you know how aware I am of my dependence on others.

That was a key lesson for me in the six months between April and November 2017. I was acutely dependent on others, and that experience has had a lasting impact on me.

I depended on the skill and expertise of many other people, mostly medics. I depended on those who diagnosed the problem; on those who devised a treatment plan; on those who delivered the chemotherapy and radiotherapy; on those who operated on me; and, for the past five years, I have depended on those who have checked up on me with tests every few months to make sure all is well. And, equally, I have depended on those who have made this journey with me, loving me and praying for me. Without others, I could not have come through this experience.

So when at the time of my greatest uncertainty, in Holy Week 2017, I was urgently seeking the Lord about his good will and purpose for me, and I sensed that he was saying, this is not a question of whether you will be the Bishop of Sheffield, this is a question of the sort of Bishop you will be, this is what I took the Lord to mean: that, as a bishop, I would not be self-sufficient, but would be dependent on the expertise and skill of others, and dependent on the prayers and support of others; that I could not come through this experience, the experience of episcopacy, without others. I have embraced that calling gladly. As your bishop, I am not independent, I am not self-sufficient, I know my need of others, and that includes you.

Secondly, in a funny way, I sensed that the challenge posed by the cancer was somehow preparatory for the challenges I would face in this ministry.

I came to Sheffield after a five year period as Dean of Liverpool, which was extraordinarily fruitful. For a whole host of reasons, very few of which I had any actual control over, virtually everything my colleagues and I attempted there during that time seemed to burst at once into extravagant bloom. It was glorious — but it was not normal in Christian ministry.

Of course, I had no idea about the pandemic, nor even about the full extent of the financial challenges which lay in store here, but I did sense that in Sheffield I would have to dig deeper, and toil harder for fruit — and the cancer somehow became a symbol of that, almost the word of the Lord to me. My colostomy has become for me a bit like Jacob’s limp, if you recall that story in Genesis 32, a daily reminder to me that life with God is often a struggle, more like a wrestling match than a stroll in the park. Ministry can be hard going.

Thirdly, I am telling you because a colostomy has an unhelpful and unnecessary stigma, and I hope that being open about my situation might help and encourage others.

This, by the way, is one reason why I like to wear a waistcoat. Like this, there is no bulge. I look almost trim. Now, every person is different, and not everyone with a colostomy can say this, but, as a matter of fact, my condition has not restricted me significantly. It has required me to adopt a new routine at the start of each day, which is a bit fiddly and time-consuming, which (for someone like me who tends to live life in a hurry) can be a tad frustrating.

But if I can only jog slowly round Damflask, that’s on account of my dodgy knees, not the colostomy. If I can only hack my way comically around a golf course, that’s on account of my dodgy technique, not the colostomy. And so on. I can still swim, and kayak, and climb hills, and the physical limitations I do encounter these days when I try to exert my body are really just a reflection of my age. In my case, a colostomy has not been a serious impediment to the fulness of life, and I thought that might be worth saying.

And, finally, I am telling you because in all this I have known the Lord’s goodness. I do believe this experience has refined me, spiritually. Some of you are aware that I literally number my days. Today, for example, is the 22327th day of my life. I began this discipline, of literally noting the number of my days, in the header of my daily prayer journal, in Holy Week 2017, when I was acutely aware there might not be many days left to my life. I certainly wasn’t sure there would be 21000.

By God’s grace, there have now been over 22000 days of my life. But I am still daily aware of my mortality, daily aware that the number of my days is limited. One day, there will be death date to go with my birth date, and in between will be the number of my days.

For now, I don’t know what that number is, but because they are limited, I am determined to make the most of every one, and my illness has really helped to do that. It has helped me to savour every good thing the Lord has given me and to take nothing for granted. It has helped me to see every day more clearly in the light of eternity and to live each day unto the Lord. It has helped me to thank God for each day. My illness has been good for me.

DEAR friends, there we have it. I do hope I have pitched this address in a way which is helpful to you. I want you to know that I have in fact been sustained by your encouragement and support in this ministry right from day one, even though many of you were not aware of what I was going through at that time. It has been and it remains the greatest privilege of my life to be the Bishop of Sheffield, and, if the Lord grants me health and strength, I hope to remain so for almost another decade.

So, I am grateful for all the ways in which you sustain me. But you won’t be surprised to know that I have also been sustained in the past five years by the daily reading of scripture, and not least by Psalm 130.

As it happens, the passage has a nice Advent resonance, so as I conclude, let me read it now.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord; my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord

more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!

For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.

It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

And from the first letter of Paul to Timothy, chapter 1: Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Thank you.

Dr Pete Wilcox is the Bishop of Sheffield.

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