Well, it is eleven months since I was diagnosed with level 4 A bowel cancer, it all happened very quickly and in truth I did not really have time to dwell upon it, which looking back was a good thing. The journey has been life changing as it for anyone who has endured a major life threatening illness. In a strange way it makes you re-evaluate what you do, and what is important. What I have learned from all this is that the most precious commodity that anyone of us haves is time.
The other strange side effect of receiving cancer treatment has been insomnia, it started when I was in hospital recovering from major surgery when a very large tumour was removed from my abdomen. The surgeon said that it was the size of her fist, what she also told me was that it had also grown so large that it had burst through the wall into the bowel. Usually this is very bad news as nine times out of ten,the cancer cells then hitch a lift on the lympgh glands and go travelling to other parts of the body. In most cases the lungs and liver, which is sadly usually a death sentence. Miraculously in my case this did not happen, so after 15 treatments of chemotherapy I was formally told by my excellent cancer consultant Doctor Peter Correa that the CT scan that I had had two weeks ago revealed that the cancer had not spread. In essence that means that the chemo prescribed by Dr Peter had done its job.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer I had no idea just what chemotherapy entailed, ignorance as they say is bliss, so while I can still remember I will share what happens when you have this illness. First there are the numerous blood tests, with the immortal line from the nurses, “small scratch” which it usually is and no big deal. The pre operation chats are interesting as you get advised what the risks of death are from both the surgeon and the nice lady who dishes out the anathestic. To be fair they are rightly pointing out the risks of major surgery, but it is best not to dwell too long on the what if’s. Then comes the surgery itself when the porter conveys you to the operating theatre, where a small army of people are waiting to give you injections to put you asleep. Again the last long lasting words that you hear are just count backwards from 1 to 10, by the way you never make it to ten.
Then I woke up in a special ward called the critical care unit, I-was there as I was at high risk of getting sepsis, here I realised that I was hooked up to a bag that basically was a wee bag, I also realised that I was now the proud owner of a stoma bag. This is basically your new bum, as they pull your bowel out of your stomach so that it can dispose waste matter into a disposable bag. This requires managing from day 1 and a lovely stoma nurse called Karen would come in every morning and make me change it myself. Truth is there is no time nor point in stressing about it, you just have to get on with it. After 3 days in the CCU, where I was mostly high as a kite on morphine, and consequently very happy. I did not at any point consider how ill I actually was and how close to death I was, although my immediate family were all there to visit me, which I thought was a lot of trouble having travelled long distances. The fact that I had a nurse watching me 24 hours a day did not register at all, I just assumed that was normal, and after 3 days I was deemed no longer at high risk and put onto a ward.
This is a whole new ballgame it reminded me what it must be like to go to boarding school, you are the new boy in a ward of 8 fellow cancer patients. You slowly settle in and get to know the neighbours as it were. This is also where you start physiotherapy on a daily basis, my attitude from day 1 was that I was going to double very day what I did before. Day 1 they make you get out of bed, sounds easy enough but you now have 24 metal stitches in your stomach, so movement is very painful, but again just crack on, I made myself walk as far as I could in my PJ’s carrying my wee bag etc, i could not care a less about the attachments, I just wanted to get back to normal as quickly as possible. After 5 days I was given a good old telling off as I was practising the Karate Kate Gojushiho Dai, in the day room, while being watched by miss Busby my surgeon. The next day she called me into an office where she was accompanied by 2 nurses dressed in dark blue uniforms, they were Macmillan nurses. Miss Busby told me that she was happy with the surgery the tumour was massive but removed. However, it had burst through the bowel walls and spread into the colon, as a result they could not say how much it had spread but I needed to have chemotherapy, what ever the hell that was.
So, 15 days after entering hospital I was allowed to go home, I had not been out of the ward and when I left Yvi picked me up, the sun was shining, it was a lovely day, and as we drove away U2 ‘s “Beautiful Day” started to play and for the first time I realised how lucky I was. Yvonne was amazing and looked after me superbly as I adjusted to life recovering from surgery. Unfortunately I got an infection after the stitches were removed by a trainee nurse who had never done this before, she was nervous and as she pulled the last few stitches out she also managed to pull the surrounding skin which bled profusely. As a result I had to go to hospital or my local GPs surgery for dressing to be changed every day.
I then had to wait until the stitches had healed before I was deemed strong enough for chemotherapy. This is basically a cocktail of strong toxic chemicals that are designed to attack and kill the cancer cells. When you start chemo you get a booklet it detailed 22 side effects that you might get, including severe nausea, bowel problems, insomnia, tingling in your finger tips and toes, stabbing pains in your mouth when you try to eat, the list is long and in fairness i got away little compared to many other cancer patients. Without doubt the inability to sleep was the most challenging thing, as it leaves feeling completely exhausted, physically, mentally and emotionally. The tingling in the fingers and feet is more of a nuisance than anything and is permanent with a possibility it might go away, but time will tell.
Funny thing is that I never allowed myself once to think that I was going to lose the battle with cancer, a positive mental attitude combined with a fanatical desire to get fit as quickly as possible, were instrumental in keeping ahead of the game. Of course I realise that there is only so much that you can do yourself, the cells inside you will do what they do, however, the chemotherapy treatments prescribed were critical in killing the cancer cells. And that was down to the medical team who indeed changed my treatment after 3 sessions as my bone marrow was not initially producing enough white blood cells, which delayed the treatments as my immune system was too weak. So, my thoughts after everything that I have been through are as follows, firstly, people are overall great, and the care, support, and love that I have been shown has been like a well of well being, that you can draw on as you need it. Second, life is a gift, and you need to appreciate it and live it to the full, so be brave do things that you never thought that you could (stand up comedy in front of 500 people at an iconic comedy club for example). Thirdly, never give up and never give in, the mantra taught by my dear friend and Karate Sensei Shihan Cyril Cummins, over the 30 plus years that I trained with him he always emphasised that no matter what obstacles were put before you, you never give in and you never give up. This mantra he passed to me and thousands of others. His spirit and ethos live on not just in my own Karate dojo of Enso Shotokan Karate Club, but in many others like Sensei’s Sue Hessian, Sensei Steve O’Reilly, Sensei Dave Prosser, Sensei Kathy Dearden. So, I live to fight another day, my next challenge is to monitor the cancer very carefully to see if returns, if it does I will deal with it in exactly the same way as I just have, in other words Never Give In, Never Give Up!