The vicar who beat cancer three times
HE could have died at least three times – but the Rev Paul Ginever believes God has kept him alive for a reason.
The 65-year-old will retire this month after 15 years as vicar of St Mary’s Church, Hayling Island and 42 years as a clergyman.
In the past 18 years, he has been diagnosed with cancer three times. He’s had treatment for a melon-sized tumour in his chest, for stomach cancer and for bowel cancer.
Each time he has managed to fight back and rid his body of cancer through a combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and prayer.
He’s grateful for the support of his family, friends and congregation. So it’s appropriate that his farewell service at St Mary’s on May 25 will involve him baptising his latest grandchild, Drew. And after a lifetime of serving God, Paul is grateful for the chance to make another contribution to society in retirement.
“It’s a cliché, but you do realise what matters in life – not what you’ve got, but the people around you,” he said. “I’ve been prayed for around the world, by people of virtually every denomination. I wouldn’t be here without the combination of modern medicine, the love of God and the support of others.
“Each time I’ve had the treatment and recovered, I think I’ve become a different person. I’ll be continuing to explore my discipleship in retirement, and I hope I can be useful in this new era of my life.”
Paul felt called to ordination as a teenager and studied in London. His first curacy was in inner-city Manchester, where he also worked as a hospital chaplain. Having met and married his Australian wife Robin, he then worked at a church in Perth, Western Australia.
He returned to the UK in 1977 as part of a team ministry serving a council estate in Wolverhampton. In 1980, he moved to be team vicar as part of another team ministry in Halesowen, near Birmingham. Between 1986 and 1998 he was priest-in-charge of Christ Church, Malvern, where he helped the parish to build a new church hall, which became well used. It was in Malvern that he first became ill.
“I had been struggling for breath and was being treated for stress,” he said. “They even suggested I should swim to help de-stress. But when a scan showed I had a tumour the size of a melon in the middle of my chest, they told me I shouldn’t even walk upstairs.
“I felt anger and disbelief. I thought I was too young to die at 45. It was lymphoma, and one doctor told me it was a type of cancer they could defeat, and I’ve always remembered that.
“But the tumour was rubbing against my heart and so my chest was filling up with gunk. The first thing they had to do was put a tube in to drain the liquid. When they tried, the tube blocked up and I had a terrible night with real difficulty breathing. I needed emergency surgery, which turned out to be life-saving.
“Then I was treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy in a hospice. It was a place where you knew every day was precious. I started to embrace my creative side and make jewellery. Eventually the tumour started to shrink. After 12 months I was cancer-free, and I remember prancing about on Bournemouth beach, thanking my lucky stars that I could run again.”
He moved to Hayling Island, where – among other things – he helped the parish celebrate its 750th anniversary in 2003 and launched a project to create a new interior for the building.
“The church was set up as it had been in the Victorian era, with a high altar and pews,” he said. “It suggested the Victorian model of God being on high, whereas we’re now more used to God being in the midst of us. We listened carefully to the needs of the community and developed plans with the altar central on a platform, and the flexibility to host all sorts of events.
“But my old enemy struck. I felt ill and lacking energy and could hardly stand on occasions. I was diagnosed with stomach cancer and they decided to give me stem cell therapy. They harvested some of my stem cells, gave me a large blast of chemotherapy, kept me in isolation and then built me up again with my own stem cells. After six months, I was clear of cancer again.”
Paul came back to work with renewed vigour to see the building project through. But only a couple of years later he started to experience stomach pain again and became anaemic. He was planning his daughter Lydia’s wedding, and was only able to lead the service after a blood transfusion.
He ended up calling 999 and an ultrasound scan showed he had a leak in his bowel. He had more emergency surgery and part of his bowel was removed. When it was sent for tests, doctors discovered his cancer had returned.
“Firstly I was glad to have survived the operation as my heart had suffered over the years,” he said. “Then there was more chemotherapy. This time it was partly intravenous and partly in tablet form, which meant I could be in my own home.
“I was treated for another six months, and am now cancer-free again. But I’d always said that if I couldn’t do the job, I would step down.
“It has given me a natural understanding of how people feel when they are suffering. When parishioners have a similar diagnosis, I have an empathy that goes deeper than words. I also have an understanding of what acute hospital wards are like.
“I’m sure God has kept me alive for a reason, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve him in a new way.”
His farewell Parish Eucharist and baptism at St Mary’s on May 25 will be at 10.30am. All six of his children and four grandchildren will be there. And at 6.30pm that day, there’ll also be a farewell Taizé service followed by refreshments. All are welcome.