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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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From pastor to patient: when your new frontline is living with cancer

‘Every person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.’

1 CORINTHIANS 7:17
When Jonathan Clark received a life-changing diagnosis, he was determined to make the most of his treatment and convalescence. Because, even if it wasn’t what he’d imagined his retirement would look like, he knew God invited him to continue in his kingdom work.
Read more of his inspiring story below…

A life-changing diagnosis  

Rewind to January 2023. I was pastoring a church in France and getting ready for retirement. But then, following a spell of anaemia, I was diagnosed with myelofibrosis – a type of blood cancer. It was immediately clear that this was going to dominate my first year of retirement, perhaps longer. As I faced this new diagnosis and processed the grief of changed plans, I knew that God was in charge, that this new frontline at the hospital had been ‘assigned’ to me by the Lord, and that with it would come a plethora of opportunities to show and share Jesus with healthcare professionals, friends, and family members.  

A life-changing perspective  

Upon my return to the UK, I came under the care of a consultant haematologist at Guy’s Hospital, London. She spoke to me about having a stem cell transplant, which is the only possible cure for myelofibrosis. If I chose that route, I would have a 50% chance of survival after five years. This focused my mind: I might die soon.  

I began to weigh up the two possibilities. If I died soon, what would my legacy be? I feared it would not be enough. If I lived, what would I do with the extra time to make my healing worthwhile? The past and the future worried me.  

But I sensed Jesus saying, ‘Don’t worry about the past or the future. Leave them to me. Live for me today and I will be with you and make you fruitful.’ This word helped me reframe my illness, and it gave me a new focus and a renewed joy.  

My wife, Mary, and I talked and prayed. We quickly made the decision to go for the stem cell transplant, at Bart’s Hospital, London. We were then greatly encouraged that my one sibling, my sister Caroline, was willing to be the donor. When tested, she was a 100% match. Praise the Lord! 

Purpose in the pain 

I’ve now undergone the stem cell transplant. As well as coping with discomfort in my body, I had to adapt to new routines during my time in hospital. There’s a different rhythm to life punctuated by temperature, pulse, and blood pressure checks at four-hour intervals, ward rounds, meals, and medications. Into this new timetable I incorporated walks around the ward and cups of tea by the nurses’ station, as well as a fresh pattern of prayer that structured my day around times with the Lord.  

I’ve learned so much over the past 12 months. Here are some of the ways I tried to show and share Jesus whilst I was staying in hospital, based on LICC’s 6M framework. And I hope that if you’re battling ill health in the future, these will open your mind to new ways in which you can work with God amidst the ups and downs of your ‘new normal’. 

Model godly character   

There are so many opportunities in hospital to reflect the beautiful character of Jesus in your attitude and actions. He was perfectly patient, respectful, kind, gentle, self-controlled, and focused on the needs of others, even when enduring the excruciating pain of the cross. So, as his followers, we should also be patient in our suffering, as well as glad to receive help, able to trust others, and to carry out their instructions – including taking the correct dose of drugs and not thinking it somehow better to take less or manage without! 

Making good work 

You may be stressed because you now can’t hold down a job at all or do your work well. But don’t feel guilty – your priority is to get better. Follow the doctor’s advice and be clear with your boss about your limitations. If you are self-employed, share your situation with friends and support network.  

However, you can still do tasks with excellence and to the glory of God as you convalesce. This will look different for everyone. For me, it was making my room on the ward look attractive and writing a blog for supporters. For some, it will be keeping up with a reduced workload for a paid job; for others it might include tasks for a voluntary role with a charity or society.  

And you can also notice and appreciate the good work of others – whether that be podcast producers who keep you entertained, the medical professionals you encounter on the ward each day, or the catering team who make a great effort to produce good food. 

Ministering grace and love  

As a patient, most of the time you are on the receiving end of love and grace. Receive it gladly and thank God for it. But you may also be able to reciprocate a little. For example, be purposefully and proactively kind and encouraging to all those caring for you – the cooks, nurses, doctors, pharmacists, phlebotomists, physios, nutritionists, counsellors, and cleaners – treating them with respect and recognising that they’re all created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). 

For me, my experiences have deepened empathy for others journeying through health struggles – and indeed, any kind of suffering. Whether that’s fellow patients, friends, family members, colleagues, or acquaintances. You can seek out ways to bless and encourage people, whether that be sending a bunch of flowers or an invitation, picking up the phone, or sharing insights you’ve gained through your treatment in a text message. 

Moulding culture 

There are many opportunities to mould culture when you’re in hospital over a long period of time. Moulding culture starts with modelling godly character and ministering grace and love. For example, noticing and thanking staff who go above and beyond – or just do the regular humdrum work faithfully. 

Here’s an anecdote from my time in hospital to encourage you. As I left the hospital, I made a point of thanking the healthcare assistant who’d regularly brought my meals. I said he was kind, patient, and humble in the way he served me during my stay. As he left, the nurse who was doing my dressing, and was normally very shy, said to me, ‘You are humble too, in the way you speak to us all.’  

If there’s a culture on the ward of patients or staff being demanding or unappreciative, your kind words will not only be a much-needed boost for the staff, but they may also encourage fellow patients and staff to see that there is another way to treat people. Why? Because kindness breeds kindness, and you can be the start of that chain!  

Being a mouthpiece for truth and justice  

Even when you’re being treated on a particular ward or convalescing in this season of life, God can still work through you to bring his truth and justice. For example, if you do see malpractice or something wrong, you can raise the issue with the appropriate person. And you can also be an earpiece for truth and justice. Show an interest in the staff caring for you and ask them about the issues they’re facing, whether that be strikes, staff shortages, or immigration policies. Then lift those issues up to God in prayer. 

Being a messenger of the gospel 

When you’re an inpatient, you have conversations with a wide range of people every day, be that in person or on the phone – healthcare professionals, friends, and family members to name just a few examples. You can put up visual clues around your bed, like photos, cards, or books. My experience was that these can be great conversation starters. 

Purpose in waiting  

Fast forward 12 months, and I am now convalescing at home in Frinton and slowly recovering my strength. I’m still taking lots of drugs and attending the clinic at Bart’s every week. In fact, the consultant was candid from the outset, saying, ‘You’ll be coming here for the rest of your life!’  

This phase is very different from the intense and exciting time in the hospital – it’s more like hiking uphill through fog. You trust your GPS, but it’s a bit dull. You don’t feel like you’re making any progress and there’s still a long way to go. 

I am told that being given the all-clear is a vulnerable time. All your medical professionals and friends are congratulating you, but you’re faced with the question ‘now what?’ Already I am returning to the questions I was asking before my retirement: what do I do with the rest of my life? Will we have enough time to move somewhere and start again?  

The last 12 months have taught me that wherever I am, I can join in God’s work to restore all things and point people to the life-giving love of Jesus.   

Jonathan Clark
Jonathan and his wife Mary have spent 30 years helping lead churches in Liverpool, Clacton, London, Leeds, Bangkok, and Paris, and now live in Essex.

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