Deacon Pam Odam is part of a ministry area called Bro Ardudwy in the Diocese of Bangor. There are 7 churches, but the one she is most involved with is the fifth century church of St Tanwg Llandanwg (known as the Church on the Sands).
Pam has sent this powerful, honest, courageous and moving reflection. I am sure we will undergird and surround her with our prayers.
By Deacon Pam Odam
While the rest of the Newly Licensed Ministers who had been ordained in 2020 were concentrating their thoughts on the ‘Transforming Conflict’ training, I was experiencing a conflict of my own. It was important for me to work through how to transform a cause for lament and wailing, into something which would be positive, and have a resolution which enabled blessing rather than curse.
I was ordained as a Distinctive Deacon in August 2020 in the middle of lockdown. I had been a Reader for almost twenty years and knew that life would change, but little did I realise then that my role would alter so drastically.
With my training Incumbent, I started to think about what the role of Deacon was during a time when we were not having church services, and unable to meet people face to face. We had developed links with community help groups to exchange information on practical and other needs, and developed a network of people who looked after others by regular phone calls etc.
For me Evangelism means being able to meet with people where they are in their faith journey. It may seem that this is difficult when we cannot meet together, and especially so when one is undergoing treatment for cancer, which requires maintaining distance from people because of the immune-suppressed effects of chemo and radiotherapy. This meant that in various ways my perceptions of church were being challenged.
By the end of December 2020 I knew all was not right. I had suffered a bout of cellulitis and as a result was off my feet. As the year ended and progressed into 2021, I was finally forced to seek medical help, little knowing what would lie ahead. I was sent for MRI and CAT scans, and on the 28th January received an urgent phone call to tell me that they had discovered clots on my lungs. I needed immediate treatment.
It seemed as if everything was conspiring against me to do me harm.
Like the Psalmist I was in distress, and not afraid to let God know exactly how I felt about things. My enemy was my own body, and it was at war with itself. It seemed to be fighting against those who were trying to achieve a balance between the need for blood thinning agents to combat the clots they had discovered, and the bleeding caused by the medication. It resulted in total breathlessness caused by severe anaemia. For someone who does not like using medication, the first battle was to accept that I needed twice-daily injections.
For my inspiration I turned to the Psalms. Yes, of course it was possible to rail against what was happening, to feel, as in Psalm 51, that everything was conspiring my downfall. But so often in the Psalms we find the Psalmist handing over the problem, and leaving the solution in God’s hands.
Yes, lament is acceptable, but trust in God is vital. My prayerful question was ‘God, show me how can I use this experience to be a positive one?’
Lurking below the surface, as yet undiagnosed, was cancer of the lining of the womb.
The clot-busting drugs aggravated this, and caused massive bleeding, severe anaemia and breathlessness to such a degree that I could not move far from my chair. Finding God in the common round and daily task was very difficult, there was so little I could do. But as I sat on the stool in the kitchen, washing up from the ready meal my son had prepared for me, I thought of Brother Lawrence: ” Lord of all the pots and pans, make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.” It came to me that, more than ever before, I was going to need to “practise the presence of God ” and in doing so, find and use the blessing rather than the curse in the situation.
And so to the appointment to discover the test results. Of course, it was positive. I had Cancer. O WOE IS ME.
How does one find the blessing in that? Well, if one in three people have cancer, at least my diagnosis meant that two others would not have it.
All I really heard that afternoon was ‘stage 3 and operation not possible at this time’, but as I reflected on what I had written, it became clearer how blest in fact I was. Although advanced, it was contained, and thus the possibility of eradicating it was high.
More conflict though. I had hoped an operation would solve the problem, but that was not an option. The oncologist outlined the treatment preferences: more toxins to accept and bless into my body. She also prescribed blood transfusions to help combat the anaemia and thus reduce the breathlessness.
The day arrived for the first Chemo, and an early start to travel 76 miles to arrive for 9 o clock. It felt like a first day at school! Yes, I was apprehensive, but knew I was supported by prayer; God was with me in this. The skill and dedication of so many people lay behind my experience. There had been hours of research and determination to combat this cancer, which had led to the development of the medication that was to be dripped into me. Everything was explained: how they would work to overcome the side effects; the process of delivering the drugs; and the precautions they would take to ensure my safety and comfort. Over the four hours it took to deliver, I meditated on God’s grace and the fact that Jesus came to bring healing, because God desires us to be blessed through the love God bears for each of us.
The first Chemo over, the next part of the journey was a roller coaster. Balancing the clot-busting drug dose working in my lungs, against the effect it was having elsewhere in my body, depended on the skill of the pharmacist. One particularly bad day I ended up being rushed to A and E because the bleeding was so severe. I was met by an angel of a nurse, who whisked me into a safe area. Because my immune system was compromised, I ended up being admitted to the cancer ward.
Two and half weeks and ten transfusions later, it seems at last as if the balance has been achieved. It would have been easy to curse and lament, but I determined to welcome the early morning blood tests, which often tried the skill of the phlebotomist as my veins refused to cooperate, because the results from them heralded the success or otherwise of the treatment.
What came easily was the acceptance of the prayer support which surrounded me. It was like being cradled in God’s arms.
The journey continued. The treatment plan was changed, and I was looking to spend seven weeks receiving daily radiotherapy, which it was hoped would help stop the residual bleeding. This would go along with a reduced dose of chemotherapy. Because of my compromised immune system, I was not allowed to leave hospital, but I made peace with that. God found me a ministry in the four-bedded bay I was on, and the conflict within me was being transformed.
Most of the people there were travelling towards the end of life. I found it possible to be part of their journey for however short or long they were on the ward. Some returned home after being stabilised, to be cared for by family, and I never heard of them again. Others returned for a second or third time. One particular lady was moved to a side ward to die. The four of us had previously spoken about her journey, and she had shared her fears of what was to come. It prompted a deep discussion on death, and I was able to offer my thoughts from a Christian perspective. I felt very privileged to receive a message from her asking me to pray as she died, and a later message from her family to say what comfort it had given her and them.
What this period in particular taught me, was that when there is a Deacon in the community, whatever that community is, he or she is given opportunities for people to speak of their hopes, fears, concerns and ask their questions. It enables them to start to find God, who is already there in their lives, which may or may not lead them to develop a relationship with God. Speaking and writing of my own experience has encouraged others into a dialogue, in which there are no right or wrong answers, but in which seeds can be planted which may bear fruit.
The other patients in my ward were each at different stages of receiving palliative care, but as a very wise person reminded me, we continue to have life despite our diagnosis.
Having learned to use the word ‘No’, I had to learn to use the word ‘Yes’ in accepting help and support, which has been offered to me from so many different angles. I am an independent person by nature, but I have learned, and adapted to new limitations of my body, as the treatments took a physical toll on my strength and staying power. However, I have not experienced the lows of isolation or depression which were predicted as possibilities. This, I believe, is largely due to the immense amount of prayer support I received when I asked people to pray ‘for whatever was necessary for my true wellbeing’. So I was given patience to cope, strength to live through the tiredness and weakness, and the care and nurture of those who gave me a place to just be, until I grew strong enough to return home and manage day to day living for myself.
Although we had mapped out an initial Working Agreement, the relationship between me and Fr Tony has developed in ways we may not have imagined. As we have worked in a small group to discern a vision and way forward for God’s church in Bro Ardudwy, we have learned from each other the things that ‘make us tick’, and what is important to us in the way we live out our faith.
I feel that my relationship with members of both our church and wider community has developed during this period. After discussion I adopted the title Deacon Pam, which offers me occasions to speak of my vocation, and opportunities for the church and community to work more closely together.
Stop press: an email yesterday from Pam says ‘Last week I received news that the cancer has spread into the hip lymph, and after prayer and discussion with my family have decided not to accept further treatment (only a 30% chance of it shrinking the tumour). I have decided to live with the cancer and continue to support out Ministry Area as we enter a Vacancy.’