I Never Saw That Coming

I got my diagnosis of prostate cancer in July 2019. CT scans and biopsies showed that it was metastatic and had already moved to the lymph nodes in my abdomen and pelvis, one node the size of a cricket ball, others the size of golf balls. Ironically, in the early days, life carried on as normal. That changed in October 2019 when I found myself talking to Dr Capaldi and agreeing to undergo chemotherapy.

No book ever written prepares you for chemo. The reactions are spread across the spectrum, from no side-effects to being laid up in bed for months. The first cycle saw me suffer with terrible acid reflux. The answer to the acid reflux left me with a problem best not discussed in this genteel publication, but it involved the toilet and running speeds that would merit inclusion in the Olympic track team.

The low point of each cycle saw me fatigued and with a total loss of energy, yet, bizarrely, after 4 or 5 days everything returned to normal, and life resumed. There was a week of recovery and, yes, you have guessed, a return to the Rowan Suite, and it all started again with the next infusion.

Towards the end of 2019 I realised I needed something to do, a goal to take my mind off my medical problems. After some thought I decided to visit all of the Anglican Cathedrals in England. It does not sound like much of a challenge, but there are 42, ranging from Canterbury in the South-East, Truro in the South-West, Carlisle in the North-West and Newcastle in the North-East.

The quest started on January 6th 2020 when I visited Worcester Cathedral. I had a pleasant day, took some photos and visited the café for coffee and cake; but something was missing in those early trips. Later I would sit, surrounded by history, in the nave, thinking about my place in life – a small, but important part in life’s great jigsaw puzzle.

Mark Howard at Canterbury Cathedral

I started to say a prayer on each visit, asking for fortitude in my coming battles, thinking about the thousands of people who had entered the church, seeking answers or help. The quest resumed on 10th July 2021. I left home extremely apprehensive about the trip to Bristol. Using public transport was something I had avoided since the pandemic hit us, but I hadn’t gone through everything just to watch my life fade away. I had things to do!

One of my favourite visits was to St Alban’s Cathedral. Here I met my brother Jim and Shelley, his wife. We joined an organised tour, learning about the cathedral and some of its characters. My favourite feature in the cathedral was the shrine of St Amphibalus. Throughout history stone masons have often left some observation on current affairs or a local personality. On his shrine, currently undergoing restoration, we see a carved stone figure wearing a surgical mask!

Another favourite was Winchester Cathedral, partly because of a tenuous connection (the cathedral is linked to St Swithin, and St. Swithin’s Day is also my birthday!). An event occurred during my visit that prompted a philosophical moment. A wedding was taking place, the bride being escorted through the west door and down to the service in the quire and tourists gawping from the side-lines as the organ played.

This made me aware that the cathedral is also a functioning church, looking after the needs of its parishioners. I was soon deep in thought, contrasting the young couple just starting out on one of life’s great adventures with me on one of my own last great adventures with my own personal battles to be fought.

At the time of writing, I have ticked off 37 cathedrals from my list, each a history lesson in its own right. There are just 5 remaining, including Bradford, Ripon, Portsmouth and Truro. The Covid Omicron variant has slowed progress once again. I am still undergoing treatment and trying to be sensible about unnecessary exposure on public transport, but I hope to finish after Easter at a special location, joining my three brothers for a potentially emotional family event at Southwell Cathedral.

– By Mark Howard