Cancer seems to be the 'in' disease to have at the moment. It's in the news on a daily basis and the rich and famous are being diagnosed or dying from it every other day. No one is deserving of such a nasty infliction, and it attacks indiscriminately, as many would have seen recently in the press and media with the sad passing of the legendary David Bowie and the formidable Alan Rickman, a double-blow to the British entertainment establishment. It just goes to show, no one is totally immune from developing it, no matter how healthy you eat or drink, or how much you do to protect yourselves. I've had cancer, not once, but twice. Both different forms, and both unrelated. People say that I've been unlucky. I just think I'm lucky to still be alive to tell the tale.
This is about me. I'm a cancer survivor.
To say that I was very busy is an understatement. So, when I'm going home at the end of the day exhausted, falling asleep in front of the television, and easily forgetting things, it's not really surprising. And alarm bells didn't start ringing when I developed a nasty cold in the September which I seemingly couldn't shake. So, after nearly a month of feeling run-down, full of cold and a cough that sounded like it belonged to a Doberman, I decided to go to the doctor (only because the cough was keeping me awake). I thought I'd been over-doing it. The last thing on my mind was cancer. During the check-up, the doctor listened to my chest, did the usual checks and seemed content with sending me away with something to help with my throat, until that was, I mentioned (as an afterthought) that the glands in my neck seemed to be a little swollen. "Really?" he asked, before asking me to remove my shirt. A moment of probing and a chin scratch later he had called in another GP for a second opinion. After conferring for a bit, it was decided that I should go to hospital for some blood tests and an X-Ray. "Just to be safe." Not even they seemed overly concerned.
And my life hasn't been the same since.
The following day I went for said blood tests and an X-Ray, and the day after that I was called in by my GP and told the news that I was being referred to a consultant at the hospital. An oncologist. Nothing else was explained, except that my 'white blood cells' were low, and that the lymph node in my neck was a bit 'up'. A few days later and the consultant, a Dr Dodd (a nice, genteel sort of man), at Ipswich's hospital, arranged for me to attend an appointment with him via his secretary, where more blood tests were required and where he, eventually, examined me.
On the 3rd December (I remember the day well - it was also the day I was made redundant from my insurance job, but that's another story!) I went to the hospital for the first of what would be many, many visits. At the end of all the prodding and probing, Dr Dodd asked me what I thought about what was happening to my body. I said, matter-of-factly: "Well, it's either an infection," which it could've been, "or, it's cancer."
"Yes," he said kindly, adding: "They are the options. On the plus side, if it IS cancer, it's one of the good ones."
What he meant was: it was one of the more 'treatable' forms. It turned out that what I had was Hodgkins Lymphoma, a form of cancer that affected the lymphatic system. At the time, there was a 90% cure rate for this form of cancer. To confirm diagnosis I was booked in for an operation to take a biopsy from the swollen lymph node in my neck, and a CT scan.
I was sedated for the biopsy, and although I couldn't see anything, I could hear every single thing the surgeon said ("It's like delivering a baby's head" she said at one point) and could feel all the pulls and tugs made as she made an incision into my neck, and then carefully cut a piece of flesh from beneath the skin... even with anaesthetic, it was an utterly abhorrent experience I can tell you. The CT scan carried out a few days later, was less evasive, but equally unpleasant. At first I had to drink what felt like a gallon of foul-tasting liquid with a slight blackcurrant flavouring that did nothing to mask its nastiness. Then, after sitting for an hour (for the liquid to go through my body), I was invited into the room where the CT scanner was. I was told to lay down, then had a needle injected into my arm, on which a long, thin intravenous flexi-tube was attached that, I was informed, would inject a dye into me. Then I was told to raise my arms above my head and to not move. After thirty seconds of lying very still and holding my breath (intermittently) whilst three or four scans were completed, I was allowed to go home.
Christmas was a sombre affair. I drunk far too much alcohol and did a lot of worrying. I didn't hear anything regarding the biopsy or the scan results and was thinking positive. No news is good news, right? An appointment with Dr Dodd had been arranged for the day before New Year's Eve. I remember going into the hospital that afternoon - the appointment was 2pm, and I was told straight away to go for a blood test. Half an hour later I was called into a small room, within which Dr Dodd sat at his desk and close by a young nurse stood holding a pile of documents (which turned out to be a lot of reading material regarding my form of cancer).
"There's no easy way to tell you this," Dr Dodd said. "I'm afraid it is Hodgkin's Lymphoma, as we first thought. But, it is very treatable." The meeting lasted ten or so minutes where he explained that I had Stage Two Hodgkin's Lymphoma - the cancer had spread to a node in my chest. I honestly can't remember much else that was said after that. I do remember asking, how long would I have left if I chose not to go ahead with the treatment. "Five years... but, it wouldn't be a good, quality life," he replied. Sobering thought that, one which still haunts me today. Had I decided to walk out that hospital room and never turned back, I would be dead now. At some point it was decided that I was being referred to a fertility clinic in Cambridge, to see if I could freeze some sperm, as my treatment would likely result in me becoming infertile. That 'joy' took place a few days later at Bourne Hall, the place where the science behind test-tube babies was first pioneered. I handed in my 'sample' and was informed by telephone later that day that there was 'no live sperm' in the sample that could be used for fertility freezing. They suggested I go back and try again another day. Which I did.
Sadly, the second sample I provided was even worse than the first. I was resigned to the fact that I was never going to be a father. I remember turning into the Hulk shortly after and did some serious damage to a Celebrations tin (and my knuckles) to vent my anger... and that was that. I made myself better by eating the chocolates... had to as had nowhere to keep them!
Literally the following day (Tuesday 7th January 2004), the treatment for my cancer began. It started off with a blood test (a routine that would continue long into the future with every single appointment I have at the hospital). And then a meeting with Dr Dodd, where he explained the course of treatment he was prescribing me: Four cycles of chemotherapy followed by a course of radiotherapy. Each cycle of chemotherapy would be administered over two sessions - with a break between. He also outlined what the side-effects I would likely encounter (all the usual you associate with someone battling cancer). Chemotherapy, he explained, not only killed the bad cells attacking my body; it also killed the good ones.
Despite the talk, nothing prepared me for having chemotherapy. I was ushered into a small cubical where a nurse stuck a needle in the back of my hand ("It will feel like a bee-sting," she said - it stung worse than that!) and then she attached a cannula, which she taped into place. Then an intravenous drip tube was attached in preparation for the chemo drugs. The nurse injected the first three drugs into me via a syringe (one was an anti-sickness drug), and then hooked up the forth, which was in a bag and regulated by an electronic pump. I was moved from the cubical into a treatment room where about a dozen people in varying stages of treatment sat about, all connected to IV drips similarly to me. It was totally surreal. It would take over three hours for the drugs to be administered to me, by the end of which I felt drained of energy and looking like an extra off The Walking Dead. Before I could leave, a nurse handed me a big brown bag full of medicines. There were loads. Antibiotics, various anti-sickness pills, mouthwash. And others... The only good thing with having cancer is, your prescriptions are free.
Within a day of treatment I felt like I was dying, which in truth, I was, on a cellular level. I felt very, very sick. When that subsided, I found that I was ravenously hungry, and my weight, which I wasn't over anyway owing to being a gym-nut, quickly plummeted. Not only did I feel ill, I was looking terrible.
Every other week I would go through the same, though after my second treatment the pain in my arm caused by one of the four chemotherapy drugs, became too much to bear; one of the drugs can aggravate veins as they pass through, so I reluctantly agreed for an alternative method. Anything, I reasoned, would be better than feeling in constant, throbbing agony, an agony that seemed to swell more at night, it almost made me cry. As a result, a PICC line was surgically placed in the crook of my arm, which is a flexible tube surgically inserted into a large vein, and guided within it in much the same way you see telecommunications engineers feeding cables down manholes; she continued to a point within my chest, the object of which was to bypass the more vulnerable veins in my arm, doing away with all the pain. Another benefit was, I would no longer have to have a needle stuck in the back of my hand (YES! Finding a vein was sometimes a problem and the nurse would use my hand like a pin cushion), plus all blood tests could be taken from the small 'tap' at the end of the flexible tube which dangled from the centre of my arm. But with every positive thing, there's a negative. Mainly, the risk of infection as its a permanently open point into my body. To counter this, the 'tap' required daily cleaning, and a nurse was provided to carry out the task. Every day.
Immediately following treatment I would have three days recovering in bed feeling sick as a dog, a slightly numb tongue and a mouth devoid of any taste receptors. For my entire treatment, food had very little taste and I hardly enjoyed eating a single thing. Other side-effects I had to endure: tingly fingers and toes, frequent bruising, extreme fatigue, night-sweats, sickness (nausea more often though), and hair loss (but not much on my head which surprised everybody - just a bit of thinning there which almost made me feel a bit of a fake. My hair loss was all over my body, especially in the nether regions!
For the most part, things went to plan, and treatment became part of life. There was three occasions when I turned up at the hospital, had my bloods tested, only to be told that my immune system was too low to have treatment. That's a little frustrating I can tell you. Another appointment would then have to be arranged for a few days, or a week later. There were times when I came out in a rash or I'd exhibit flu' type symptoms, and I'd be given extra antibiotics to fight possible infection. I think one such occasion I spent a night in hospital for closer observation. Infections were the thing to fear during treatment, not the cancer. Of those 10% who do not survive Hodgkin's Lymphoma, the majority die from complications or infections that turn into septicaemia, not the cancer itself.
At the end of April 2003, my course of chemotherapy ended and a CT scan was carried out which showed the cancer had shrunk in both my neck and my chest, and was 'neutralised'. To keep it 'neutralised', and effectively 'curing me' Dr Dodd prescribed an intense course of radiotherapy. My PICC line was removed, and then I had a week gap between treatment. I had an appointment with a radiologist to prepare me for radiotherapy the following Monday. This involved lying on a narrow bed-like table and being sized up for the radiotherapy machine. It was a slow, meticulous process, and for all of nearly an hour, I was told I had to stay very still as they calibrated the machine for my treatment. So that the radiation therapy was precisely the same every time, the radiographer (or his assistant) gave me a number of tattoos (a series of dots around my torso, that will be with me as a permanent reminder for the rest of my life). Once complete, I was sent away with an appointment to begin radiotherapy the following Monday.
Initially, radiotherapy is not as nasty as chemo. There's no needles or drugs, and all you need to do is lie on your back and, as the saying goes, think of England. The radiographer would set a number of protective plates around my neck and lower body, to ensure only the parts of my body that need it, were exposed to the radiation. Once that was done, and my body was manipulated into position (identical to how the machine was calibrated to), I was told to keep still. The machine zapping my body made a bit of a noise as it worked, but it wasn't too loud; you could hear yourself think, and that's really all you could do whilst undergoing radiotherapy. For twenty minutes I would lay, and for much of it I would be okay, but then I'd feel the beginnings of an itch. That's the worst part; there's nothing worse than an itch you cannot scratch. I remember that line in Bladerunner. I always imagined it to being an itch up the bum, but lying there, unable to scratch an itch anywhere, I had a better appreciation for that quote. When it was over, I'd go back to work or go home... then we'd do it again the next day. For three weeks, with just two days off at the weekend, I'd go through this same routine. Gradually, the side-effects of having radiotherapy began to show themselves. At first, I felt nothing, but then what little hair I had left on my chest, neck and face, all came off... I was smoother than Christiano Ronaldo or a waxed model! Then the absolute worst sore-throat materialised, plus some agonising mouth ulcers. I was referred to a dietician who gave me a number of milkshakes and some advice to try and help with eating. She was very helpful, but nothing I was given really solved the problem, and for a while my mouth was so sore I just couldn't eat. By the beginning of my third week of radiotherapy I'd lost my voice - completely! By and large, this was the worst side-effect I'd experienced in all the courses of my treatment, made worse by the fact that my throat, when eating or drinking, felt like I was swallowing broken glass, and I'm not exaggerating!
My final course of radiotherapy was administered on 28th May 2003.
Having cancer changes you for ever. Not only are you always on your toes, always checking for lumps and bumps and extra cautious when suffering with everyday common ailments, your entire outlook on life alters. I can't speak for everyone, but personally, surviving cancer made me 'wake up' to reality and made me a better person. I feel lucky to be alive. Thirty years ago, the treatment I underwent hadn't been invented yet... therefore, had I been diagnosed in the 1980s, I would have died within five years from my illness. To put it into context, if it hadn't been discovered, I would be dead now. I feel like I'm in extra-time in an all-important football game. Makes you realise what is important and what really matters.
Three months after my final treatment, I was given the 'all clear', and life gradually returned to normal. Two years later my wife and I had our first child. Dr Dodd, my oncologist, excitedly proclaimed that chemotherapy had cured the infertility as well as my cancer, trying to take credit for our little miracle. In some respects, he deserved to take some of the credit... and yes, I am the father! We were told we could never have children, but somehow, nature found a way. Just goes to show, don't always believe what you are told. We never gave up hope, and we gave our daughter 'hope' as a middle name.
I wish I could leave it here on a happy note... because that's a good, satisfying ending. But life isn't like that, and cancer reared its ugly head again. A day before my 35th birthday in 2009, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer (totally unrelated to Hodgkin's lymphoma, so I was dealt a second bum hand), and the whole process of chemotherapy treatment, kicked off with the surgical removal of a tumour the size of a gala melon from my groin, started again.
It would take me more than a year to recover from the cancer and the treatment this time. Maybe I'll write about this experience some other time. All that I will say is, my life has not been the same since.