Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation

Updates From David Powlison

Author: Date: February 01, 2019



You may have heard about David Powlison’s recent diagnosis. This landing page will be the place where we provide updates as we receive them. Please continue to keep David, Nan, and the Powlison family in your prayers.

February 1, 2019

A lot has happened in these past two weeks. Nan’s and my retreat weekend became rich with conversation—though on Saturday we were both so tired we did more napping than pondering and discussing. But that rest day set us up for an excellent Sunday, speaking candidly about how we are each doing, discussing practicalities for the short- and mid-range future (finances, house, etc.), as well as reaffirming fundamental perspectives as we approach this whole process of dealing with serious cancer. One very important part of our discussion was focusing on how Nan can thrive in the future. She has many creative gifts, ideas for children’s books, an artist’s eye.

The second chemotherapy (January 22) was a disaster. I spiked a 103.4 fever, combined with nausea and fever chills. The fever and general discomfort did not fully dissipate for three days. This is a set of intolerable side effects. We are viewing this chemotherapy as our experiment—not a medical experiment being performed on me. If the cancer-subduing effect proves good and the side-effects prove minimal and tolerable, we’ll go forward. If it’s ineffective and the side effects are miserable, we’ll stop. So this was definitely one significant data point on the negative side.

We debated long about whether even to do a third chemotherapy. But two factors tipped us to continue our experiment. First, my doctor affirmed that those side effects are known, and they can be managed or eliminated. Second, one data point is not enough to decide. Ideally I can receive 6 infusions over two months, and then get another CT scan to measure effectiveness. Thankfully, with a few tweaks in the formula, the third infusion (January 29) went extremely well. Almost no side effects at all besides taking a short nap that afternoon. Nan and I enjoyed an early lunch at a Greek restaurant. Food tasted good. And Nan and I have continued to have long and fruitful—joyful—conversations. Our renewed and deepened closeness has been a true gift.

Now we have a week off, and our daughter Gwenyth is visiting this weekend. We are really looking forward to having time with her.

You will laugh at one story. One of our longstanding family traditions has been that when there is snow on the ground and the thermometer gets down into single digits, we put on our bathing suits and run around the house barefoot. Well, last night it went down to 3°, and a beautiful snow squall in the afternoon had powdered us with an inch of fresh snow. So…, yes, even without any children or grandchildren around to participate and chortle their delight, I did run around the house in my swim suit. It’s very invigorating! You ought to try it, though I must admit that Nan sincerely declined an invitation to join me. 😉

A word about those fundamental perspectives. One characteristic of these past months has been that the relevance of Scripture has been electrifying. The more precarious life is, the more pertinent all that Christ is, does, and says. One particular significant encouragement came from Psalm 138:3: “On the day I called you answered me, and you made me bold in my soul with strength.” That clarity, focus, purposefulness, and inner strength has been a sweet gift of God, and a reality for which I am very grateful.

Before sleep one night, Nan and I read 2 Corinthians 4–5 slowly and aloud. We are looking death in the eye, while wanting to live, and live well. This passage is utterly candid about the most profound matters of life and death, of living a purposeful life, of how to face suffering honestly and hopefully.

I’m still on short-term disability from CCEF, because of post-surgery and chemotherapy. But I’ve been able to get some writing and editing done. My energies are limited—I flag after a couple of hours. I’m particularly focusing available time and energy on the Journal of Biblical Counseling, and I ask your prayers to be wise in living fruitfully within current limitations.


January 18, 2019

During the first ten days of January we said goodbyes to our children and grandchildren after a rich two weeks here in Glenside and up in Vermont. The weather was perfect for sledding and ice-skating, a rare pleasure for the Hawaii and Florida contingents. (Our Croatia contingent experiences weather similar to Philadelphia, with the Alps only a moderate drive away.)

Here’s the health update. On Monday (1/14) I had a CT scan to establish a baseline of the cancer, and then on Tuesday I received my first chemotherapy infusion. It was straightforward and went reasonably well, though I felt a bit out of sorts Tuesday and Wednesday. I’ve started to feel better and clearer the past couple of days. As you can well imagine, this process is creating many moving pieces physically, relationally, emotionally, and spiritually. What’s next? I’ll have weekly chemotherapy three times, and then one week off, when we’ll assess how my body is responding and decide how to proceed.

Here’s where things stand with my participation at CCEF. It is a joy to begin taking small steps back into the work that I love. I’m starting to come into the office for morning prayer and for faculty andJournal of Biblical Counseling meetings. I’m looking forward to working with mentoring, with JBC, with donors, with our board, and with some writing projects. But with health and treatment uncertainties, I’ll be quite part time. Until further notice, Jayne Clark will continue to serve as CCEF’s Acting Executive Director. She and I will consult (as we have all along) about major decisions.

Psalm 139:10 has been very meaningful. No matter where we are and what we are facing (and verses 7-12 cover every circumstance), “Your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” Pray that Nan and I would know God’s personal touch. We are planning to take this weekend as a retreat to read, think, talk, pray, worship, and plan. As you’ve probably experienced, such plans and good intentions can shipwreck in a thousand ways. A major snow, ice, and rain storm is predicted, which is a big encouragement for us to sit by the fire, drink tea—and fulfill this plan!

December 13, 2018

A Conversation Between Friends

David and Ed conversation (short)

David and Ed conversation (full)

November 21, 2018

Dear friends,

Thank you for your concern for me and for Nan as we have faced a life-changing swirl of medical events. Let me briefly summarize.

What has happened medically? In early October I was diagnosed with an early stage pancreatic cancer. Various scans showed no evidence that it had spread. My doctors were hopeful that surgery would be the cure. However, during surgery on November 5, they discovered small tumors on the liver as well. In that moment, the diagnosis shifted from “stage 1 operable” to “stage 4 inoperable.” Though that is an unexpected whiplash, the front and center issue has simply been to heal from major surgery. Recovery from an 8 inch belly incision is no small thing. But I am sleeping well. Pain and tenderness are gradually lessening. I’m able to walk more each day.

How are we doing personally? As I shared before, Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:32–34 have been living and active. Each day’s particular trouble is sufficient for this day, because your Father cares for you. He knows what you need. We have been able to live in terms of what faces us today, each day. It has been a grace to focus now on healing, and let the larger questions be tomorrow’s trouble.

What is next? On December 6 I will have several appointments, first for post-op clearance, and then for discussion (and perhaps decision) regarding future treatment. We’ve met informally with the surgeon and with the oncologist for question-asking and information-gathering. We have really appreciated the attitude and ethos of all my doctors. They’ve put no pressure to opt for one treatment or another, and have presented fair-minded information, with a sense for the patient’s dignity and choice.

What is happening with my work at CCEF? Jayne Clark has stepped smoothly into the role of Acting Executive Director. It was a fine providence that Joe Novenson spoke in my place at our national conference, and that various staff members covered for me. It was another fine providence that our next issue of the Journal of Biblical Counseling was completed before I went into surgery.

Here are two prayer requests. For Nan, “It’s easy to get into a daze of practical operations, and not be in touch with the poetry of our lives together and with the Lord.” I like the way she put it. There’s no formula for facing a hard thing well and with honest feeling. For me, it’s easy to get into the haze of feeling very unpoetic queasiness and not absorbing nutrition. My innards still need to “get sorted,” as the Brits say. So amid all these medical practicalities, pray that we will never lose sight of the reality that life is not—is never—a medical drama.

May the peace of God keep you,

November 8, 2018

Dear Friends,

I am deeply thankful for your continuing prayers, expressions of support, and encouragement. I am now recuperating at home from a delicate, major surgery.

The outcome proved to be very different from what my doctors hoped and expected. We all went into this surgery thinking it was a stage 1 operable tumor; mid-way through, the surgeon discovered that it is stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Needless to say, this is hard news. We are just beginning to process it.

Nan and I have been very heartened by Jesus’ words in Matthew 6, that the day’s own trouble is sufficient for that day. So for now, we are simply focusing on managing pain and on healing from the operation. Next week’s days will bring a different focus as we meet with our oncologist to begin discussing options and scenarios going forward.

We are comforted by the liveliness of God’s words to us. He is with us, as so many wise people have reminded us. We appreciate your prayers for our entire family, and the care and concern you have expressed for the staff at CCEF, and your prayers on their behalf as they continue our work in my absence.

May God bless and keep you,

November 2, 2018

Dear friends of CCEF,

I have been deeply encouraged by the care, encouragement, and intercession that Nan and I have received from so many people.

As you may know from the video and note we sent out several weeks ago, I will be having surgery for a tumor in the pancreas, and we now have a surgery date: Monday, November 5, first thing in the morning. Because it was discovered so early, at this point the plan is for surgery to be the treatment. The anticipation is that I will be in-patient for about a week, and will be recovering at home for about a month after that. While I am out of circulation, my Chief-of-Staff, Jayne Clark, will be CCEF’s acting executive director.

As I mentioned earlier, my doctor’s words to me were: “It’s a bad diagnosis, but with a real silver lining because we found it early.” I sincerely hope that the “silver lining” is what proves true. At the same time, I desire with all my heart that Psalm 112:6-7 will be formed at the very center of who Nan and I are individually and together. The sense of weakness and need is a gift from God. It makes us realize we need Him, we need all of His mercy to us, and we need people who love us. I’m grateful for your care, for CCEF and for me.

If you would like to continue to receive updates on how I’m doing, they will be posted here with a notice sent out through our eNews.


October 17, 2018

Dear friends,

I have sobering news to share with you, our faithful friends.

After several weeks of illness in September, I went to my doctor. A series of tests led to a definitive explanation of what is going on. The diagnosis is that I have an operable tumor in the pancreas. My doctor said, “It’s a bad diagnosis, but with a real silver lining because we found it early.” This is hard news to receive. But I am encouraged that the tumor is small and contained. Again, from my doctor, “Surgery offers a real possibility of being the treatment, and of being successful.”

The surgery, of course, will be complex, and medical hopes are only possibilities, not guarantees. How fragile we are! Yet, God knows us. Psalm 121 has been a frequent voice in my heart. The Lord truly helps. He is wakeful and protective. He is watching over me and Nan and CCEF. I’ve been heartened by Psalm 112:6-7. I want to be a person who is unafraid of bad news, who responds with a firm and steady heart, who trusts in the Lord, and again, who is not afraid.

I ask for your prayers, for myself and for Nan, for all of us at CCEF. May God’s nearness be tangible to us all.

I hope that through whatever unfolds we will trust our God, and ask his help, and express our thanks, and care for each other.

Thank you for caring,