“A moving and hopeful book” says one reviewer, and yet the subject of this slim publication is living with incurable cancer, and facing the inevitable prospect of death. How can this be “hopeful”, and why might it be appropriate for the shared time of optimism that is New Year?
Jeremy Marshall is an able and successful financier, married with three children, who at the age of 49 was diagnosed with a rare type of sarcoma in 2012, apparently recovered, and then in 2015 rapidly developed tumours related to a different form of cancer. He was told he has less than 18 months to live, but is still very much alive; sometimes looking tired and pale, but full of enthusiasm and determination to do what he can (as those who know him can testify, in a variety of ways) to help others in the time he has left.
Jeremy tells his story in Beyond the Big C. The first few pages narrate the lead–up to the first and second diagnosis, the emotional response including shock and fear, and the tedious rounds of treatment. The account is brief, clear and unadorned, regularly lightening the mood with humour, capturing but not dwelling on the awful inner turmoil – because, as Jeremy says more than once: “It’s not about me”.
While not minimising his own suffering, he refers to others whose pain in physical illness, associated psychological trauma and treatment is much worse. Whenever a bad diagnosis is delivered, the mind is inevitably focussed on the prospect of death, which is very frightening even for Christians, but for the majority who are not, something we are not equipped to deal with. As (former General Synod House of Laity Chair) Philip Giddings says in the book he co–wrote on the same subject: “We expect that governments and the medical professions will be able to extend life expectancy… in consequence we do not think or talk about dying.” *
For Jeremy Marshall, the purpose of telling his story and about cancer is not to reflect on suffering for its own sake, but to use his experience to bring the reader to the point of asking: “What have I found to be the answer to my fear? I don’t see any answer … if I look at the world around me. Nor do I find one if I look within”.
From his own experience and drawing on other writers, Jeremy concludes that fear emanates from a feeling of loss of control of one’s own circumstances, the prospect of life ending — and then, existentially, the possibility that no one is in control. As he introduces the Christian teaching that God is sovereign, that Jesus understands our suffering and reconciles us to our creator, he emphasises that this is not theological theory for the religious, but a necessary– for–all relationship of trust which extends beyond the grave.
So a personal account of living with cancer becomes a door into reflecting on the meaning of life and pointing to the gospel. I found it inspiring, and hope the book will be widely used in evangelism, which is what Jeremy would hope for. But also I found this perspective refreshing, reading it at a time before Christmas when everything, especially health care and even death has been politicised. When a nation has forgotten God but still its inhabitants have to face the realities of mortality, the fear leads quickly to anger that “more should be done”, the blaming of the ‘other’ group, the hubristic assumption that given the technology and resources we can fix the problem.
Jeremy’s account shows real appreciation for medical science and the care shown by doctors. He is open to the possibility of healing, either miraculously, or via some new treatment. But ultimately he says, because we all die in the end, our main need is for hope in the face of death in the form of a restored relationship with God, and certainty of life beyond death.
Short reflections on Bible passages, simply and elegantly presented from the perspective of a layman and “fellow–sufferer” rather than a theologian, are interspersed with reflections on the gospel message illustrated by vignettes from his own life. Aware of the danger of offering glib answers to the philosophical and practical problem of suffering, Jeremy is not afraid to own feelings of loneliness, terror and “why me”. He nevertheless gently and persistently points out the dead ends of pagan and secular approaches, and shows Jesus as the great physician, even “oncologist of death”.
This is an excellent little book to give family and friends — not just in response to cancer or other tragedy. It deserves to be widely read and acted upon.
* TALKING ABOUT DYING, Wilberforce, 2017, p65
The Rev Andrew Symes is Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream.
This review was originally published in The Church of England Newspaper, 03/01/20