I survived cancer and I know what saved me
A hardcore gambler turned chaplain found the ‘secret ingredient’
By the time Jeff Godwell hit 30, he thought he had everything you could want in life. “I owned my own home, had my own car, carpet, colour TV, wife and two children – and God let me get there,” says the 66-year-old Queenslander, who is now a hospital chaplain in Townsville.
“I was gambling for a living off the horses and I was successful at it – I had no other job. I put all this time into it on a Friday and then I’d go to the track on Saturday, and I had money to burn – we were eating out at restaurants three nights a week.”
But despite his good fortune, Jeff had a gnawing feeling that there was something more to life that was keeping him from being content.
Brought up as a Catholic, he had abandoned any interest in religion while still at school, believing that only weak people who were unable to cope with society went to church. But there was something different about his sister and brother-in-law, who would talk to him about Christianity.
“You’re not really interested in anything I’ve got to say to you about God or God’s word, are you?”
“They’d come to my place with a Bible under their arm, and I’d think ‘oh no, here we go, the Bible basher,’” remembers Jeff. “One day, my brother-in-law said to me he was fed up with my hardened attitude and he said ‘you’re not really interested in anything I’ve got to say to you about God or God’s word, are you?’ I said, ‘you got that right.'”
But Jeff’s brother-in-law didn’t stop at that strong point of disagreement. Instead, he made an observation about Jeff’s behaviour which stopped him in his tracks. He said that he knew exactly why Jeff was doing what he was doing: “You want to do what your father’s doing.”
“Now, I had always aspired to doing the opposite of what my father did because I didn’t want to grow up like him,” explains Jeff. “But his brother-in-law then said: ‘I’m not talking about your biological father; I’m talking about Satan.’”
His brother-in-law was referring to John 8, where Jesus says some of his followers are unable to hear what he says because “you belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.” It was exactly the right thing to say to Jeff and at just the right time.
“I was a tough hard-nosed boilermaker, and what he said just cut me. I had a brave exterior but I thought ‘no way do I want Satan for a father, if he even exists.’”
“Lord, if you exist, I want to know.”
That night Jeff knew he had to turn to God and repent, but he was afraid of the consequences. “I thought ‘I’ll have to get a legitimate job and give away the horses, and I’ll see everyone turn against me because I’ve become a Bible basher.’”
“So I went to God in privacy and said, ‘Lord, if you exist, I want to know; if there is heaven and hell, I’d rather go to heaven. I feel really crazy sitting here in the dark talking like this, so if you exist, please show me.
“He was looking at my heart; he knew I was ready.”
Next morning Jeff recalls feeling that the devil was getting into his ear, saying “nobody knows what you did last night and you can just carry on as if nothing happened.”
“I was at a crossroads and I said ‘no, I’ve tried your way for 30 years and I want to try God’s way.’ At that instant he left me – I went in a 180-degree turnaround and became a Christian.
“I walked on ‘Cloud 9’ for about three months. I just couldn’t put the Bible down; day and night, I just read and read and read. I became involved in church, hit some brick walls, turned my back on God twice, but he didn’t turn his back on me.”
“We’ve seen so many people’s lives change.”
Seven years ago, after retiring from the construction industry, Jeff discovered he enjoyed hospital visiting, so he spent several years as a pastoral care visitor then qualified as a Baptist chaplain and rose to become coordinator of the chaplaincy service at Townsville Hospital.
“I’ve never seen God work with people the way he does when you get involved in ministry; he takes you to a new depth altogether,” he says.
“I’ve realised you cannot be trained to deal with what’s around the next curtain, you have to walk by faith, if you commit your time to him. And we’ve seen so many people’s lives change.”
Jeff has a particular focus on ministering to indigenous patients from the outback, who often feel scared when they come to hospital. “They sleep on mattresses on a cement floor so when they’re put in a hospital bed they’re scared they’re going to fall out and break an arm. They also believe spirits get under the bed, so they are afraid spiritually. So I want to try and target these people on the lists at the hospital,” he says
“At the moment I’ve got an Aboriginal girl from Lockhart River. This girl made me laugh; they’re so lost for company. I took a children’s colouring-in book and some pencils and she dived into it – she’s 27 years old.
“When you see them like that and they start laughing, you can talk and pray with them, and you can see them improving. The hospital has seen what was happening when I visit people in rehab and often the head doctor would ask me if I would say hello to this one or that one because they can see the change in their attitude when someone had visited them.”
“The bad news is even if chemo works, you might last only nine months.”
About 18 months ago, Jeff experienced some unusual symptoms and after a protracted series of tests and X-rays was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer.
“Last July the doctors sat me down like in the movies and gave me the bad news – they said I have this rare cancer in my chest near my collarbone and it had gone right into my collarbone, and the bad news is even if chemo works, you might last only nine months,” he recalls. “So I think the first thing to come flooding back to me were verses I’d given to other people over the years, and I thought ‘it’s time for me to take this on board.’”
Jeff took the doctors at their word and felt calm at the prospect of “going home” sooner than expected. But because his diagnosis had been delayed, by the time he got to the oncology department for treatment, he was eligible for a trial of a new drug – offered to only 1200 patients around the world.
About three months into the treatment, the elders of his church, Fairfield Baptist, got together to pray over him and anoint him with oil. “We wanted to see what God can do, because my senior pastor said ‘I don’t think you’re going anywhere; I think God’s got too much for you to do.’”
“I hope you realise that the missing ingredient is faith.”
Now, having outlived his prognosis by nine months already, doctors can see only scar tissue in his lungs – there is no more cancer present.
Jeff quotes 2 Chronicles 16:12 in which King Asa had a severe disease of the feet, but did not seek help from God but only from the physicians. “I’ve always seen the clarity in that – God wants us to not only consult doctors but also God, so he blessed me, and my senior pastor is right – I’m not going anywhere.
“It also opens up other doors, so I’m able to witness to doctors and I keep telling them ‘this drug is missing a secret ingredient – I hope you realise that; the missing ingredient is faith.’
“Unless we walk by faith we would never find the answer to people’s problems, that’s what it’s about – opportunities and possibilities in Christ.”