my story - REV DR JENNY MCKAY

I’ve told my story many times, but this extract from a recent interview with Woman and Home Magazine sums it up really nicely:

‘A CANCER DIAGNOSIS BROUGHT MY FAITH TO THE FORE’

The moment I knew my life had to change for the sake of my health – for my continued existence – came in February 2008 when I finally learnt the truth about the lump I’d found months earlier in my breast. This diagnosis of a grade 2 malignant breast carcinoma was shattering. I had wanted to be a vet since childhood, and had spent years studying and working night and day to reach the top echelons of my profession. The first vet in the UK to acquire the Diploma of the European College of Veterinary Pathologists, I had numerous scientific publications under my belt – my work was my life. 

Aged 40, I found myself signed off work indefinitely and plunged into rounds of gruelling treatment. I underwent surgery, then six months of chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy.  The moment of my diagnosis stopped me in my tracks. I’d thought that nothing like that could ever happen to me- I was wrong. When your career is all consuming, it defines you, leaving little time for much else. When that is stripped away, you are left with a million questions about who you are, what you are doing here, and what really matters in life. 

"you are left with a million questions about who you are, what you are doing here, and what really matters in life."

During my treatment, there was a lot of time to reflect. I felt that I’d been given a second chance and that I was being called to do something else with my life, but what exactly? I had only ever wanted to be a vet and had thrown myself into that career.  I had never even considered another path, certainly not the church. I grew up in Northern Ireland, where my father was a church organist, but, after going to university, I became an infrequent churchgoer.  However, faced with a life-threatening disease, my faith came to the fore and the idea of doing something with it began to percolate.

It took years for this to come to fruition. I went back to work at the end of 2008. Four years later, I signed up to an evening course at the university of Chester called The Foundation of Ministry. I enjoyed it, but I loved my job, and I couldn’t imagine swapping a life of microscopes and laboratories for sermons and coffee mornings in the church hall. 

"The transition was difficult. The Bishops’ Advisory Panel didn’t recommend I go forward for training and couldn’t understand there could be someone doing scientific work but also the work of God."

Then, a guest speaker arrived – a minister in secular employment. Hearing him explain his role as a priest continuing with his work, but also attached to a parish church, I had another light-bulb moment. I realised I could be a vet and a priest – an unpaid curate attached to a parish church but walking alongside people in real life, speaking to people of no faith or those perhaps questioning their beliefs.

The transition was difficult. The Bishops’ Advisory Panel didn’t recommend I go forward for training and couldn’t understand there could be someone doing scientific work but also the work of God. In fact, looking in microscopic detail at the perfection of organisms, makes me more certain of a higher power. Luckily, the Bishop of Chester was supportive, and it was a great day when I was accepted into the church. 

I have now been cancer-free for twelve years. I work as a veterinary pathologist  I wear my dog collar in the lab and I’m recognised as a priest – plus I devote spare time to the community. I try to make faith more accessible to people and I’m particularly enjoying harnessing the power of social media as a way to connect to people as @TheReverendVet. Although difficult, my journey through cancer is really helpful to understanding those in a similar situation. It’s really important as a priest to be rooted in the real world.

Reverend Dr Jenny McKay, 53, is a veterinary pathologist and in 2019 became a Church of England minister.
She lives in Cheshire with her husband Dave.

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