My Cancer Battle Has Made Me a Better Preacher and Leader
By Chris Philbeck
It began in December 2011 when I awoke one morning unable to clear my throat. A nurse practitioner in the Minute Clinic at our local CVS said my right tonsil was swollen and gave me a 10-day prescription for an antibiotic.
About a week into taking the antibiotic, I spoke informally with a general practitioner (and church member) during a funeral. I told him about my situation and asked if he would look at my throat. We borrowed a music stand light from the worship center, he looked at my throat, and immediately said, “We need to get you to an ear, nose, and throat doctor as soon as possible.” The next day, with his help, I was in the office of an ENT who looked at my throat and said, “We’ll need to do a biopsy to be sure, but I’m 90 percent certain you have tonsil cancer.” Biopsies of my right tonsil and a lymph node both came back positive.
My wife and I were stunned. We had spent a lot of time praying the biopsies would be negative, that God would intervene, that there was another explanation. But that was not the case. At the time of my diagnosis, I was 53 years old, had been in full-time ministry for 31 years, and was in my 10th year of serving as senior pastor at Mount Pleasant Christian Church.
SURVIVING THE TREATMENT
The day after the biopsies came back, my wife and I were at home when our doorbell rang. It was after 9 p.m., so we were both surprised. At the door was a man I recognized, but I didn’t know his name. He said he was a member of MPCC and asked if he could talk to us. It turns out he was a retired firefighter who had battled tonsil cancer a few years earlier. For the next couple of hours, he shared his story and told us step-by-step what the treatment plan would be like. He said it would be difficult, “but you can do it, and you can survive.” His kindness, concern, and friendship were overwhelming.
The next day, my wife and I had an appointment at St. Francis Cancer Treatment Center where we met the radiation oncologist who had treated our new friend from church.
“What you have is treatable and curable,” he said. “I can’t make any promises, but I believe you can be cured.”
My wife and I both felt genuine peace, and the next week I began weekly chemotherapy treatments and daily (Monday through Friday) radiation treatments. The radiation had a devastating effect on the soft tissue of my mouth and throat, so a feeding tube was implanted. My neck was covered with radiation burns and I had to take a mild sedative just to get through the radiation treatment. I limped across the finish line on February 21, 2012.
The experience changed my physical life. I lost weight and strength, my salivary glands were destroyed, and it was seven years before I was able to taste food again. Even now, my sense of taste hasn’t completely returned. My thyroid was damaged, leaving me to take medication the rest of my life.
But greater than all of that is what happened in my spiritual life. I clung to the Scriptures during all of this—sometimes literally pressing my Bible against my chest just to get through difficult moments. Psalm 20 became what I called my “hold on” passage.
The start of the psalm—“May the Lord answer you when you are in distress” (v. 1)— reminded me to hold onto my hope because I wasn’t alone in my time of suffering. “May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed” (v. 4) helped me to look forward to the day I returned to the pulpit as a better preacher and leader than ever before. That was the desire of my heart, after all. When I read Psalm 20:5—“We will shout for joy over your victory; we will rejoice in the name of our God. May the Lord grant all your requests” (New English Translation)—I thought about the joyful celebration to come when I was healed from my cancer.
I don’t have enough space to share about the love and support of my church family, my wife, Sandy, and my two children. My adult children would come over and lay in the bed with me so we could talk or watch a movie. There was healing in their presence. I don’t think Sandy slept more than two hours a night during my treatment because she was praying for me and taking care of me.
LEADING WITH A LIMP
Since my experience, I have been able to meet and minister to several people who have been diagnosed with tonsil cancer or some other kind of head and neck cancer. I would have never chosen to walk this path, but because I did, my love for God and personal relationship with Christ is deeper and stronger. My cancer battle has left me leading and preaching with a “limp,” but like Jacob in Genesis 32, I will never forget the deep encounter my suffering allowed me to have with God.