The fear of not being able to preach again gripped an Ohio author and pastor when his oncologists told him he had been diagnosed with tongue cancer.
Dr. Edward Wishart, 75, had been diagnosed in 2008 with the aggressive form of cancer of the tongue known as squamous cell carcinoma. The cancer was successfully removed after he underwent tongue surgery.
However, Wishart later developed a cancerous tumor on the right side of his tongue. As a result, he underwent five surgeries to remove a part of his tongue. He was not permitted to utter a word, including preaching. As part of his healing process, he had to go for 30 cancer treatments.
Speaking in an interview, Wishart, who is expected to preach at a conference in South Africa this fall and a retired pastor and the president of Grace Beyond Borders International, shared that when the doctor informed him about the consequences of the surgery, the first thought that dropped in his mind was, “Would I ever preach again?”
“Three times I interrupted [the doctor], ‘Would I ever preach again?’ He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘We are here to save your life!’ That quieted me down,” Wishart recalled.
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He added that fear engulfed him from that day on.
“My mind was wandering all over the place. ‘All I can do is preach. … Why God? In the tongue? I am a spokesman for you.’ Thoughts just went crazy. I could not control them. That was the initial opening door to the fear that lay ahead of me — and that would swallow up my life, especially in the radiation phase of the journey.”
Wishart had no choice but heed to doctor’s orders not to preach for weeks after surgery and radiation therapies. This was to keep the stitches in the tongue in place after the reconstructive surgery.
But when an opportunity arose for him to finally speak, he used those first words to tell his wife Dorothea “that I loved her.”
Those were the only words he could utter at the time. For the most part, his communication with people was through listening and responding to conversations in writing.
After weeks of not speaking, he was able to preach — but “slowly and easily,” he recalled.
He would stop when experiencing discomfort.
“So I preached until the radiation made me emotionally and physically sick and my mouth too sore,” he added.
His first sermon after his surgery was preaching on his wife’s birthday. It was titled, “The Maker’s Mark” and derived from Psalm 95:6, “the Lord is our maker” and Galatians 6:17, “for me, I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus.”
“I built the sermon around the new marks that my body now contained — the throat scar from trach [tracheostomy]; my tongue with one-sixth of it gone; my blood vessels that were very exposed on both sides of the lower cheek [and] jaws,” he said.
Wishart said he did not only go through the pain of fighting cancer, but rejection from people around him.
“Many folks in and outside of the church were not for me,” he said. “Some just distanced themselves because they did not know how to minister to [me], but others actually left my life because they thought that I was faking all the issues that had happened to me.”
Asked whether there was a time during that period where he felt like giving up on God, he said, “It was strange. Fear was eating me alive, but I had nowhere else to turn. [My wife] Dort would come in every evening, read the Word to me and prayed. She did that for over eight to 10 weeks. But the fear once again was eating me alive. I just wanted God to do something with the fear.”
Heeding advice from his wife, he went to counseling sessions “from a formational prayer professor, who had also become a dear friend.”
“I went through three … sessions with him,” Wishart said. “In the first session, we dealt with my tremendous fear issue. I experienced deep gut-wrenching crying as never before. I left his office just weeping from the experience. While driving back home, as I continued to weep, I had to stop for a red light at the traffic lights. While I stopped, I noticed something — the fear was gone. I wept the rest of the way home thankful that the fear left. To this day, I have experienced very little fear at all.”
As part of his healing process, he would only eat “milkshakes, scrambled eggs with Velveeta cheese, drank a lot of water, which I still do to this day. I would eventually begin to eat soft food like mash potatoes.”
His first real meal was during one of the church’s anniversaries.
“Some meat. Ham loaf [and] salad, which turned out to be hard to eat,” he said.
These days, Wishart runs a ministry called The Ancient Pathways based on Jeremiah 6:16. In 2012, he wrote a book about fear called “The Crucifixion of the Mask: A Personal Journey of Traumatic Encounters.” Wishart has traveled across the globe. He has frequently visited the Philippines and South Africa, countries where he preached extensively as part of his mission.
Fifteen years after overcoming cancer, Wishart said he remains thankful to God. These days, he encourages others with similar experiences.
“In any difficult journey, even though you wonder about God, hang in there,” he said. “Go ahead and cry; experience your emotions.”
He added: “Remember, God is in the midst of it all with you. You are not alone, even though it seems that way. The old church fathers and mothers said, ‘Experience the pain; walk in the pain; make pain your friend.’ Yes, we walk through valleys, but God is with us with His rod and staff. Hang in there. Learn about the presence of the Lord. Grow deeper in His presence and in prayer, deeply with your mind, spirit, emotions and especially silence. Listen, listen, listen.”
This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.
Vicky Abraham is an investigative journalist based in South Africa and has reported for the Mail & Guardian, City Press, Assist News, the Nation newspaper in Nigeria and Nation Media Group in Kenya.