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'Cancer has not made me lose my faith' says curate-to-be

A cancer sufferer who will become a curate in Portsmouth’s Anglican diocese is featured in a BBC documentary on Wednesday (June 22) ...

A cancer sufferer who will become a curate in Portsmouth’s Anglican diocese is featured in a BBC documentary on Wednesday (June 22) ...
Katy Garner (right), who will become curate for the villages of West Meon, Warnford, East Meon and Langrish, near Petersfield, is one of those appearing in The Big C and Me on BBC1.
The TV cameras followed her for seven months as she tried a new treatment which is still on trial in the UK. She had been diagnosed with cancer for a second time, and thought she might not make it to the end of her theological training.
So when the Bishop of Portsmouth ordains her as a new clergy person in Portsmouth Cathedral on July 2, she will be excited, relieved – and thankful that God is allowing her to fulfil this calling.
Not only that, but she believes she will be able to minister more effectively as curate to those living in West Meon, Warnford, East Meon and Langrish because of her experiences of living with cancer.
“I couldn’t believe that God would call me to ordination if I wasn’t going to live long enough to see it,” she said. “He wouldn’t have called me to this unless he was going to give me the resources to see it through.
“And when you have been to the brink and back, and you have experience of what living with cancer is like, it does help you to minister to others.
“I haven’t got the answer about why God allows suffering, but cancer has not made me lose my faith. You have to work through these questions, and I believe that a journey through difficult times can actually strengthen your faith.”
In hindsight, Katy can see that her journey towards ordination started as a 13-year-old, when she became the first female server during services at Exeter Cathedral. Her family worshipped there and her brother became head chorister.
As a girl, she wasn’t allowed to sing in the choir, but was keen for a role during worship. She questioned why a girl wasn’t allowed to be a server and the then dean and bishop eventually agreed she could.
She worked as a research scientist at Bristol University for 12 years, and then more recently as children and families co-ordinator at Bath Abbey. She and her husband Peter had three children, Beth, William and Harriet. Katy had the first inklings of feeling called to ordination before 2009, but that was blown off course when cancer struck.
“I found a lump on my groin, and everyone said it would be nothing, but it was still there a month later,” she said. “I had some tests and it was a melanoma, which I then had removed in a Bath clinic, and scans confirmed it had been cancerous.  
“A good friend then put me in touch with the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, who looked after me very well. Because my melanoma was a secondary cancer and they couldn’t find the primary source, they removed all my leg lymph nodes in 2009.
“They told me that if the cancer came back, it would be life-limiting. But if it hadn’t returned in three years I could have a small party, and if it hadn’t come back in five years, I could have a big party.
“In fact we chose to have a party after six years because that was our 25th wedding anniversary, and Peter and I renewed our vows. But just before that, I found a second lump in the same place, and I knew that was likely to be the same problem.”
By that time, Katy was at Ripon College Cuddesdon, near Oxford, training for ordination. In 2011, she had been on a trip to the Holy Land with worshippers from Bath Abbey and found herself telling one of the clergy, the Rev Claire Robson, that she felt called to be a priest.
“It felt like it wasn’t me talking – it was little like an out-of-body experience, as if God was directing me,” said Katy. “But Claire did a little jig and said she had also thought so. My mother also said she had known for a long time, and wondered why it had taken me so long!
“As it happened, I went through the process very quickly – I saw the director of ordinands in the September and by March 2012 I had been approved by a bishop’s advisory panel.
“So when I heard the cancer had returned halfway through my course, I lost confidence in my own body,” she said. “I didn’t want people to spend money putting me through theological training only for my body to let me and them down.
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to carry on, but the principal, Bishop Humphrey Southern, said ‘Why would we not want you back?’ To have someone else believing in you is great.”
After an operation to remove the second melanoma, the BBC documentary showed Katy being given a novel therapy that aims to prevent the cancer returning. The immune-boosting therapy, which stimulates her immune system to kill off any cancerous cells, had worked for patients in the USA.
The programme also showed the side-effects of this treatment – the fact that good cells are sometimes also killed off, making her feel ill. She came off this treatment after seven months, and she remains cancer-free.  
“I’ll only really know if it has worked if the cancer hasn’t come back for 10 years,” she said. “Melanoma is totally unpredictable, and in the past has often meant a death sentence. But the consultants say that, from their experience, those who react strongest to these drugs, in terms of the side effects, do have the best chance.
“Faith is a journey and does involve doubts. But that does make you revisit the Bible. I’ve found that it has made me ask questions, and that has meant a more permanent and beautiful relationship with God. I see God in this situation and I couldn’t have walked this journey without him.”
Katy Garner is featured in the third episode of The Big C and Me, at 9pm on BBC1 on Wednesday 22 June 2016.

Photo: BBC Pictures

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